A Day in the Life at Trail Skills College

The Trail Skills College program is PCTA’s premiere trail maintenance educational program. Every year, PCTA hosts a series of events along the trail where new and experienced volunteers and outdoor professionals can learn critical skills for designing, building and maintaining backcountry trails. But what does it look like to take part in a Trail Skills College event? Read more to find out!

Volunteers en route to their worksite at Donner Pass. Photo: Hazel Platt

Towards the end of June, forty people gathered near Truckee, California for the 2022 Tahoe Trail Skills College —  a mix of volunteers, PCTA staff, US Forest Service personnel and a contingent from non-profit Friends of the Inyo. Participants filtered into the campground for registration at the USFS Hobart Work Center as the evening sunbeams filtered through the Jeffrey pine forest. Some chatted and hung out around the registration booth, but most were grateful to have the evening to get set up and rest after traveling.

In the morning, volunteer chefs Debe Taylor and Mary Ann Medeiros laid out a delicious spread of quiche, baked goods, and make-your-own-pourover coffee as everyone prepared for the day, packing sandwiches and other lunch items to go. After a brief all-hands meeting, students their instructors by piles of tools laid out in preparation. While the Rockwork and Waterbars class quickly left for the worksite up at Donner Summit, the rest of the students stayed behind.

Volunteer Lisa Farr and PCTA’s Benton Wright teach students about trail work tools. Photo: Hazel Platt

The Intro to Trail Maintenance course participants introduced themselves and then were introduced to the tools of the trade by volunteer instructor Lisa Farr and PCTA Field Project Specialist Benton Wright – McLeods, Pulaskis, shovels, loppers, picks, mattocks, handsaws and more, each tool serving its own specific purpose.

Meanwhile the Crosscut Saw Initial Certification course students discussed safety and watched a training video on a creatively devised projector setup with volunteer instructor David Harrison and PCTA Field Project Specialist Thomas Calvery. They would spend most of the day learning about the physics and safety considerations for using saws in the backcountry and practicing cuts on downed trees in the campground.

Initial Saw Certification students gather around for the classroom portion of the course. Of course, the best classroom is the woods! Photo: Hazel Platt

The Intro crew carpooled to Donner Pass and spent time stretching and discussing safety at the trailhead before heading out onto the trail, tools in hand and packs on back. Along the way, Lisa and Benton stopped to point out different features or issues along the trail, introducing the concept of “trail eyes” to their students. They stopped for a trail-side lunch at a beautiful spot overlooking historic Donner Pass before continuing on to a site to do some brushing and treadwork.

Intro to Trail Maintenance students learn the ins and outs of caring for the trail’s tread. Photo: Hazel Platt

Lisa instructed part of the group on clearing the trail corridor of overgrown shrubs to create a safe passage for equestrian users while maintaining a natural appearance. Benton showed others how to level and clean up the tread of the trail using McLeods and other tools, while being careful not to disturb soil that had been compressed by thousands of feet walking over it.

Rock work students learn how to effectively use a rock bar to gain mechanical advantage over a large rock. Photo: Hazel Platt

Nearby, the Rockwork crew was learning by doing – expanding a rock retaining wall on a switchback where significant erosion was impacting the trail. PCTA’s Volunteer Training Coordinator Landon Welsh and Northern California Regional Trail Stewardship Coordinator Matt Rump called the shots while students used tools to excavate along the slope to make space for rocks to be placed, while others were busy quarrying, moving, and staging large rocks using rock bars, slings, and teamwork. Laying the large rocks for the foundation was one of the most challenging aspects of the work and required strength, skill and finesse.

PCTA’s Landon Welsh and Benton Wright work together to move a large rock into place. Photo: Hazel Platt

The end of the day included hiking swiftly to the trailhead to avoid an incoming hailstorm and returning to camp where a large pasta dinner was served and PCTA staff gave away prizes to randomly selected participants. Volunteers ate, relaxed and socialized while the sun set through the trees and the stars came out. Some played around on a slackline set up between trees, while others played cornhole. Eventually, everyone retired to their tents in preparation for the day ahead.

Volunteers gather round for a giveaway after dinner on Saturday. Photo: Hazel Platt

Another delicious breakfast thanks to the remarkable camp hosts kicked off Sunday as volunteers proceeded to their worksites. The Intro crew continued to move along the trail, repairing any issues along the way, and the Rock Wall crew got back to work on their wall. On the other side of I-80, the Saw crew made their way to a good practice area to get some hands-on instruction.

Initial Crosscut Certification students practice the skills they’ve learned throughout the weekend. Photo: Hazel Platt

Instructors Dave Harrison and Thomas Calvery and students talked through aspects of safety and strategy and planned how to go about cutting each log before going to work with saws and axes. Everyone took turns pulling on saws throughout the afternoon. At the end of the day, they returned to camp to meet the rest of the group and receive their certifications.

After a long weekend of work and play, it was time to pack up and leave. Some volunteers stuck around, asking questions and reflecting on a great weekend before heading out. Another successful Trail Skills College in the books! Learn more about Trail Skills College and PCTA’s Volunteer Program at pcta.org/volunteer.

Author: Hazel Platt

Hazel Platt is PCTA's Volunteer Engagement Associate, working to support the PCTA volunteer community and connect prospective volunteers with opportunities to get involved. Hazel is a self-proclaimed nature nerd, and loves long-distance hiking.