‘Being water’ in the Lassen National Forest

By Tyler Lau, PCTA Technical Advisor

Empty your mind, be formless. Shapeless, like water. If you put water into a cup, it becomes the cup. You put water into a bottle and it becomes the bottle. You put it in a teapot it becomes the teapot. Now, water can flow or it can crash. Be water, my friend.” – Bruce Lee

This quote shaped the way I think about trail maintenance and construction. Trail workers are often looking to get the trail out of the water or the water out of the trail. Given the length of the Pacific Crest Trail, you can imagine the amount of water that flows through, across, over, under and around the trail. This creates a myriad of issues in trail design and maintenance.

“Empty your mind, be formless. Shapeless, like water.”

Most of trail maintenance on the PCT is done by volunteers with the Pacific Crest Trail Association. Volunteering is a wonderful way to give back to the trail and connect with others who love it. Still,  some projects require more technical expertise and time commitment. Luckily the PCTA has several Technical Advisors who work with conservation corps such as the American Conservation Experience (ACE) who tackle the more technical high priority projects. These work projects can include building rock retaining walls, rock check steps and water bars to slow and move water off the trail.

If you are unfamiliar with trail crews please check out the blog current PCTA Technical Advisor Connor Swift wrote about what it’s like being on a trail crew.

One of the high priority projects that needed to be addressed this year was in the Lassen National Forest near PCT mile 1,295. The last two winters brought more snow to the area than in previous years. The amount of water damage to the trail was very apparent and quite the sight for even the most seasoned trail workers, us included.

“If you put water into a cup, it becomes the cup.”

A deep gullied trench at the beginning of a set of switchbacks became priority number one. The grade of the trail at this location became a safety issue as the trench itself was roughly 5 feet deep. This became an issue for many equestrians who were not able to safely guide their animals across this section safely. It also caused trouble for many hikers who had to take high steps with all their gear or take their packs off to climb the trail safely.

A trench created by moving water. Photo: Josh Wieland, Lassen National Forest.

Priority number two came in the form of a creek at the top of a set of switchbacks roughly a tenth of a mile above the cupped trench. The creek was flowing down the trail and into the trench, cutting switchbacks as it went. This contributed to heavy erosion apparent in the trench. The water was washing out sections of trail while forming pools in another spot. In this section, it became difficult for hikers to see the trail. This inevitably caused many hikers to hike around the wet spots, which in turn widened the tread surface and created larger pools of water. Another issue in this section was that the creek was a thriving riparian area that could not be altered. The crew would have to find a way divert the water from the trail while protecting the ecosystem.

“You put water into a bottle and it becomes the bottle.”

These projects are never easy but the PCTA staff had time to hike to the site to scout the area and assess the trail damage while taking stock of the resources available on site for trail maintenance. They found plenty of rock in the area and decided to build steps, water bars and retaining walls to harden the trail and handle the flowing water.

Two ACE crews and two PCTA Technical Advisors, Connor Swift and I, were assigned to lead the crews on the projects. Connor, with ACE Crew 1, was assigned to the trench project while I and ACE Crew 2 would tackle the creek and drainage repairs.

“You put it in a teapot it becomes the teapot.”

On larger trail construction projects, we spend a lot of time quarrying and excavating building materials. This step is crucial as it sets up the crew for more efficient work days. ACE Crew 1 spent most of the first few days finding rocks and then using pic mattocks and rock bars to excavate them. These rocks were then hooked up to grip hoists with webbed slings and metal shackles to pull them to the work sites. Once the rocks were collected and lined up ACE Crew 1 began to pick the rocks that would be installed for check steps first. Given the high grade on the trench, the crew had to raise the tread surface quickly while slowing down any water.

Using a grip host to pull large rocks up to the trail. Photo by Conner Swift, PCTA.

ACE Crew 2 also spent some time quarrying and excavating rock. One additional issue Ace Crew 2 had to deal with included water in the trail, meaning setting rocks would be difficult as the soil was wet. With foresight, the crew diverted water from reaching the trail above where the structures would be built by digging a temporary drain. This allowed the soil to dry a little before structures were installed.

“Now, water can flow or it can crash.”

If one is to get water off the trail then one must know that water will flow to the lowest point on a trail. Our goal on trail crew is to slow the water and then get it off the trail. One way to reduce the speed of and damage caused by water is to build rock check steps. These rock structures are built in a way that efficiently slows the water, catches sediment and allows users to efficiently gain elevation while maintaining a respectable grade on the trail. Check steps are built with rocks that have flat surfaces on the top face and the face that is perpendicular to the trail. Trail crews try to avoid building stair cases on the PCT as they can be difficult for horse and mules. Installing a series of check steps creates platforms that stock animals can safely stand on as they ascend or descend on the trail.

New check steps will make for easier walking and will shed water. Photo by Conner Swift, PCTA.

During a nine-day hitch, Connor and ACE Crew 1 installed 15 rock check steps to fix the grade in the cupped trench section of the PCT. There are no more high steps for hikers, and stock animals will have a much easier time getting up this section. ACE Crew 2 installed five rock check steps with four supporting rock retaining walls and two rock water bars in the upper section where the creek had moved onto the trail. Now the trail is defined clearly, water has a way to move off without damaging the existing tread surface and the riparian area can still thrive. Five other rock check steps and one rock water bar were built to help slow and move water off the trail between the two work sites.

Our trail crews worked hard every day, moving tons (literally) of rock. With the new installation of check steps, water bars and retaining walls, the crews have made this section of trail and sustainable. We build with rock so that structures can last forever, or the very least, a long time. Now that water will be diverted from the trail, this section can be enjoyed without any extra thought about how to get around the water.

Crews move tons of rock to make check steps that will withstand nature’s forces. Photo by Conner Swift, PCTA.

Gratitude, especially after finishing a rock project, is a feeling trail crews understand well. This work is hard. You get tired and dirty. But we are grateful for the sense of pride and accomplishment. We are thankful for the opportunity to work on the PCT and hope that everyone who walks or rides their horse over this newly repaired section enjoys it for years to come.

Every year water changes the trail, footsteps change the trail, weather changes the trail. But if trail crews remember what Bruce Lee said, we can stay open minded, maintain flexibility and be prepared to adapt. “Be water my friend.”

Photo by: Nathaniel Middleton