An emerging volunteer scene on the far northern PCT

By Bill Hawley and the PCTA North 350 Blades

In 2010, volunteers formed the PCTA Chapter – North 350 Blades to maintain the northern 350 miles of the PCT, from Chinook Pass to the Canadian border. Each year the group strives to clear the mass of fallen logs and overgrown brush from the trail and to maintain drainage features that help shed water from the trail in this notoriously wet and snowy region. After six seasons of work under their belt, a subset of the North 350 Blades (Blades North) is now actively maintaining the trail as far north as Highway 20 (North Cascades Hwy). Four key elements make this possible:

  1. Five new volunteer stewards adopted and care for an additional 25 miles of the PCT.
  2. PCTA held the first North Cascades Trail Skills College last April in the Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest Darrington Ranger District – a neighbor unit to North Cascades National Park and the Methow Valley Ranger District to the east. Trail Skills College was a great opportunity for local volunteers to learn new and refine existing trail maintenance skills.
  3. Volunteers now have access to a fully equipped tool cache at the Darrington Ranger Station.
  4. In 2016, PCTA signed a long-term volunteer agreement with North Cascades National Park.

This last point set the stage for the first ever PCTA volunteer crews to work within North Cascades National Park. The volunteer agreement also allowed volunteer stewards to adopt and regularly maintain sections of trail within the park boundaries.

Volunteers hard at work north of Sheep Lake. Photo by Liz Donovan.

Volunteers hard at work north of Sheep Lake. Photo by Liz Donovan

Most of the Blades North crew is new to trail-work, but they all have a shared passion for long-distance hiking. Six Blades North volunteers are on the 2,600 miler list and sport PCT completion medals. Thanks to Trail Skills College training and the mentors they’ve found in the North 350 Blades leadership, Blades North volunteers contributed 2,152 volunteer hours this season! (Last year as this group was forming, volunteers contributed just over 100 hours.) To provide even more perspective, note that the North 350 Blades as a whole recorded a bit more than 4,800 hours in 2015. Volunteer activity in the far north increased exponentially this season thanks to the passion and dedication of the North 350 Blades and their Blades North cohorts.

The following paragraphs are their stories in their words. They talk about what happened, how diverse their group is, how much fun hard work can be, and how productive passionate volunteers can be when given training, clear direction and proper resources.

Liz Donovan, thru-hiker, starts volunteering big-time

“When I thru-hiked the Pacific Crest Trail last year, I was consistently humbled by the wonderful, selfless people who volunteered their time and energy to make the trail possible. As a long-distance hiker, I felt like the trail was my home, but a home that I hadn’t done anything to build or maintain aside from following Leave No Trace principles along my journey. I saw it as a gift, and one that I wanted to help give again to the next generations of hikers.

Setting sign posts at Yakima Pass with fresh snow in the high elevation parts of Goat Rocks Wilderness. Photo by Liz Donovan.

Setting sign posts at Yakima Pass with fresh snow in the high elevation parts of Goat Rocks Wilderness. Photo by Liz Donovan

This year, I attended Trail Skills College and did my first volunteer weekend with the North 350 Blades at Rainy Pass (mile 2,588.9). While part of our crew went up toward Cutthroat Pass to clear 50-plus trees that blew down last winter, several other volunteers and I stayed near the highway to put up new PCT trail markers. One of the other women in our group had thru-hiked in 2014, and another was from South Africa and planned to spend three vacation days doing different activities on the PCT. We dug deep holes with a post-hole digger and placed the new 6×6-inch signposts in the ground. After making sure the posts were straight, we stabilized them with rocks and mineral soil, and tamped everything down with a single-jack hammer. Those signs aren’t going anywhere!

It was so exciting to hear people pulling up in cars exclaim that we had made it so much easier to find the trail. It seemed like a relatively minor project, but it clearly makes a difference in the way people experience the trail.

Since then, I’ve been able to volunteer a full week of work on a PCTA Sasquatch Volunteer Vacation in the Goat Rocks Wilderness, in addition to several more weekends on some of my favorite sections of trail. I’ve learned about how trails are engineered, how different drainage techniques work and how to build a rock wall, and have done a lot of brush and tread work. I loved the trail as a thru-hiker, but now I see it with new eyes, and feel like I experience it with a new sense of pride and stewardship. Next year I’m looking forward to learning about crosscut sawing and giving back as a more experienced volunteer.”

Liz Donovan

Leader extraordinaire, Roberta Cobb, breaks new ground

“This year I was lucky enough to lead a crew in North Cascades National Park. I coordinated with Rosemary Seifried, Wilderness Information Center Supervisor with the North Cascades National Park. Rosemary is highly organized, making the planning even easier. We hiked in about 7 miles and set up camp at South Fork. A wonderful volunteer packer, Darryl Weidkamp, loaded our crew’s food, gear and tools on his horses and mules and hauled it to our backcountry campsite. Our seasoned and excellent camp cook, Karla Hawley, fed us like champions. What a treat to be served fresh mangos after trail work.

Camp cook, Karla, in her element. Photo by Roberta Cobb

Camp cook, Karla, in her element. Photo by Roberta Cobb

Work-wise, we accomplished our goal of installing new signs at five locations, plus we fixed a stretch of trail that had slumped. It was a treat to be on this beautiful stretch of PCT and Maple Creek provided a special cool foot soak on a very hot day!”

– Roberta Cobb

Shannon Cunningham dives deeply into a love affair

“It’s hard to believe that in my first season with the North 350 Blades I already have eight trail work weekends under my belt. The work has varied from assisting volunteer sawyers above Rainy Pass and Stevens Pass, gaining experience in the crosscut saw world of gullets and rakers above Janus Lake, replacing aging signage in the North Cascades National Park by hand-drilling and notching, brushing back ever-creeping foliage with spinning blades or handheld loppers, and repairing miles of trail weathered by water and a parade of boot prints. There have been blisters and sore muscles, laughter and comradery.

I have to admit, during my second work party in the national park, it was bittersweet to replace the signs between Stehekin and Rainy Pass. They hold a place in my memory as marking a long awaited campsite or a stopping point for a hearty snack and laughter with friends.  But the trail is an ever-evolving, living thing, and just as we must repair worn tread and cut back creeping brush, we must change to signs that better direct us on our path.

A new trail marker at Rainy Pass. Photo by Bill Hawley

A new trail marker at Rainy Pass. Photo by Bill Hawley

My trip to Hart’s Pass at the end of September was more than brushing and repairing trail creep from meadow greenery, it was watching hikers moved to tears as they thought about those last few steps on the trail and remembering that same emotion I had when I walked up to Monument 78 and touched Canada after walking 520 miles from the Oregon border.

Shannon sitting on a new sign she helped install. Photo by Roberta Cobb

Shannon sitting on a new sign she helped install. Photo by Roberta Cobb

These volunteer trips have not only solidified my desire to be a part of the PCTA North 350 Blades and their work on the PCT, but helped me to reflect even more on my own trail journey. I am becoming more than someone with a PCT story. I am now a part of the history of the PCT with every sign I help install and every tread I help reconstruct. I adopted a section of the PCT and will scout it and make sure it receives the TLC it needs to remain safe. I am looking forward to continuing a two way relationship with the trail I love.

– Shannon Cunningham

Teresa Skye steps in to help the far northern PCT

“The weekend of July 23-24 had everything: seasoned sawyers and new members working side by side, along with PCT hikers and possibly a volunteer from the furthest place ever – South Africa! This group of North 350 Blades volunteers gathered to work a stretch of trail from Rainy Pass north about five miles, plus an additional mile of connector trail south along Highway 20. The first day we cleared approximately 46 fallen trees from the trail. This was after a similar group had been up there three weeks earlier and “logged out” 45 trees. Yes, it was a hard winter in the great northwest.

On our trip, others placed posts and PCT trail signs at strategic places. There has always been a bit of confusion about where the trail crosses Highway 20 going south. The new signs we installed makes it much clearer now. The same is true about where to get on the PCT at the Bridge Creek trailhead, so we placed signs, cleared brush and improved the trail tread to alleviate a lot of confusion.

Photo by Roberta Cobb

Photo by Roberta Cobb

After a full day of trail work, the group had a great pasta dinner at Klipchuck Campground and enjoyed a visit from a surprise guest speaker, Methow Valley District Ranger Mike Liu. Mike very graciously discussed the trials and tribulations of trail maintenance in today’s world of dwindling budgets. He was very appreciative of the work our volunteer crew accomplished.

The next day we concentrated on the south side of the highway, working on logging and brushing the mile-long connector trail. Part of the crew did some preparatory work on a funky bridge over Bridge Creek that hopefully will be reinforced on a future work weekend. We had two section-hikers join us in addition to Lisa from South Africa. She checked out the PCTA volunteer program online and thought it’d be a great learning experience to join a trail crew for a weekend. We were delighted to have her, as well as all the great folks who participated!”

– Teresa Skye


Thank you to all the volunteers, partners and staff who contributed to the success of the PCTA North 350 Blades and Blades North this year. The North 350 Blades and Blades North crews will take a break for winter but will return to the PCT in full force in summer 2017. To join them next year, fill out your online volunteer application, follow the North 350 Blades on Facebook, and join their email list by contacting [email protected].

Author: Bill Hawley

Bill Hawley is our North Cascades Regional Representative. He's in charge of the PCT from Rock Creek in southern Washington to the Canadian border. His regional office is located in North Bend, Wash. Bill was out hiking the PCT “back before it was the PCT,” and has been a life-long devotee. He was an active volunteer before joining staff.