The PCTA’s Trail Skills College passes on know how, volunteer to volunteer

By Shannon Cunningham

Volunteers learned the ins and outs of crosscut saws and chainsaws at the 2017 North Cascades Trail Skills College. Photo by Nick Lenn.

Trails do not maintain themselves, nor is there enough paid staff to take care of the miles and miles of Pacific Crest Trail and all other West Coast trails. You may already know that it takes thousands of hours every year from dedicated volunteers to keep the PCT accessible to the hikers and horseback riders who use and love it. But did you know that volunteers need support just like the trails do?

PCTA’s Trail Skills College is one way to provide that support. Volunteers, PCTA staff and partners come together to teach and learn trail maintenance skills at Trail Skills College. We teach many classes, including how to design and build drainage features, cook for a trail crew in the backcountry, operate a crosscut saw, repair hand tools and build rock retaining walls, among others. Trail Skills College sessions are scheduled all along the PCT each year. Some are multi-day events with as many as 150 participants, others are capped at a group of 12 and last one day. The structure is based on the needs of the volunteers and the trail. Here’s an update on one of our newest Trail Skills College offerings up north:

Volunteers, PCTA staff and partners come together to teach and learn trail maintenance skills at Trail Skills College. PCTA photo.

The second annual North Cascades Trail Skills College was recently held in Darrington, Washington, by the local Pacific Crest Trail Association volunteer chapter, the North 350 Blades. It was an opportunity for those living in the area to kick off trail maintenance season by either learning or teaching the art of taking care of trails. Special thanks to our partners at Hydroflask and Vasque for making this year’s Trail Skills College possible!

The North 350 Blades hosted our first work party in 2010. We had six volunteers.  Now the volunteer list tops 500 members. Last year we put in more than 8,400 hours maintaining trails, and we organized our first Trail Skills College weekend. We knew that passing on trail skills knowledge was a big need for the group, and it’s thanks to a few brave souls who stepped up to organize the event. This year the planning committee increased in size to accommodate all the logistics of a larger event. With last year’s success, we doubled the number of classes offered and quickly topped 60 eager volunteers. (20 more than last year!)  The college was a way of passing on all the knowledge and experience of those who have been doing trail maintenance for years, decades even, to all those new volunteers in hopes of sending them out to give the PCT and other trails the attention they deserve.

Pacific Crest Trail volunteers often use chain and crosscut saws to maintain the trail. To operate a chain or crosscut saw, volunteers must first be certified. PCTA helps volunteers obtain these requirements by conducting trainings. Photo by Nick Lenn.

We say other trails because the North Cascades Trail Skills College was not just about the Pacific Crest Trail.  The event is put on in partnership with several other agencies and groups involved in the maintenance of Washington trails: Washington Trails Association, Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest: Darrington Ranger District, Backcountry Horsemen of Washington, Pacific Northwest Trail Association and Earth Corps. All not only sent representatives to witness the event but many participated as instructors and students. Men and women from 20 to 83 years and first-time volunteers to seasoned crew chiefs attended.

We offered a variety of classes in a local state park and on trails not buried under snow—unlike like the PCT in Washington. The Brushing & Scouting class taught new volunteers what it means to have trail eyes: knowing what a well maintained trail looks like and what is done to prevent and protect the trail from damage. (Not only for two-legged, but four-legged equestrian trail users, as well.) Instructors wanted students to keep in mind that hikers have a smaller corridor and can maneuver around most of the typical obstacles seen on trails; horses do not have the same ability. Pacific Crest Trail standards dictate maintenance that allows both users to enjoy the trail.

The crosscut and chainsaw classes also were popular and were vital for teaching trail maintainers how to safely clear logs on the trail. Students could also learn how to cook for a trail crew, design features to keep water from eroding the trail and lead trail crew volunteers who do all of this important work.

The 2017 North Cascades Trail Skills College was put on in partnership with our friends at Washington Trails Association, Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest: Darrington Ranger District, Backcountry Horsemen of Washington, Pacific Northwest Trail Association and Earth Corps. Photo by Nick Lenn.

Most folks camped for the weekend and got to know their fellow volunteers after class with the snow crested Whitehorse and Jumbo mountains in the background. Volunteer cook Sonja Rodgers and her crew kept everyone well fed Saturday night and into Sunday with delicious, homemade food. Daryn Latham from Backcountry Horsemen of Washington demonstrated what is needed to pack horses for a trail crew, an invaluable part of getting heavy equipment into the wilderness to complete projects. Everyone gathered around the campfire Saturday night to watch the sun go down on a good day’s work after acknowledging Loren Schmidt and Jim Miller as exceptional volunteers for 2016. Their dedication to maintaining the PCT, along with many other volunteers, is a big part of the North 350 Blades growth.

The North 350 Blades are excited at the wonderful turnout to our second event and we’re already making plans for improving and growing next year. We’re also looking forward to the many projects we have planned for the summer and seeing volunteers putting their new (and old) skills to work. Hopefully we saw you at Trail Skills College, but even if we didn’t, don’t forget to head over to the PCTA volunteer page and sign up to help give back to trails this summer. Maybe we’ll see you at our third annual event next spring!

Many classes are offered at Trail Skills College, including: how to design and build drainage features, cook for a trail crew in the backcountry, operate a crosscut saw, repair hand tools and build rock retaining walls. Photo by Nick Lenn.

PCTA’s next Trail Skills College is scheduled for July 21-23 near Truckee, California. New and returning volunteers in the Northern Sierra are invited to register for the following courses:

For more details, visit the Tahoe Trail Skills College page on our website. But don’t forget, you can learn new trail maintenance skills by volunteering on a PCTA trail crew any time. Most crews don’t require any previous experience. Skilled crew leaders are on site to teach you everything you need to know. Visit PCTA’s online project schedule to find trail projects near you.

The second annual North Cascades Trail Skills College was recently held in Darrington, Washington, by the local Pacific Crest Trail Association volunteer chapter, the North350 Blades. Photo by Loren Schmidt.

Photo by: Nathaniel Middleton