Volunteer Profile: Brian Wagenaar (part 2 of 2)

This blog post is part two of a two part series featuring the reflections of PCT volunteer Brian Wagenaar. Check out part one in this post from February, 2024.

ACE visits The Notch

The crew works with Thomas Calvery to clear a rock from the trail in the beautiful high alpine setting.

Our second backcountry hitch took us up to The Notch, a beautiful section of trail that is dotted with alpine lakes and, apparently, is also quite prone to high winds.

Joined by Calvery, our project manager, PCT legend Tyler Lau, and a team of AmeriCorps members selected to aid our pack-in before heading off to chainsaw training, we lugged group gear, lots of food, rock bars, and other implements of trail work up to our camp.

On this section, our mission was undoubtedly simple — clear a small section of trail that had been covered by a rockslide — loosening, pushing, rockbar-ing, rolling, kicking, hurling, and otherwise sending rocks small and large alike from above the trail (and on what used to be the trail) down the mountain.

Each day began with a hybrid of marching and scrambling in which we gained 1,200 ft. in elevation as we passed another beautiful alpine lake, stopped briefly to filter some water and catch our collective breaths, and trudged onto our worksite (I know, it was a tough life).

On the return trip, as we executed a highly technical down-scramble, complete with butt scooching and plenty of balance checks, we had the opportunity to explore a hollowing little ice cavern over a mountain stream that had formed via snow compaction.

Claire Major, the section’s volunteer adopter and a PCT thru-hiker in 2015 (as well as a documentary filmmaker in her daily, non-trail life), joined us for most of the hitch and snapped some incredible photos of us, including the one below.

Edward Toufectis, Jonathan Gutierrez, Mae Gouhin, and Brian Wagenaar chill under the melting ice cave. Photo: Clare Major

This involved scurrying up the rocks, strategic, synchronized team rockbar usage (a possible sport entry for the 2032 Olympics), and later, a couple of days’ worth of digging to bring the trail back down and create an easier, safer walking experience.

We spent four hard days clearing the trail, and on our final day, we were rewarded with balmy temperatures in the low 60s, granting us a perfect opportunity for an alpine lake swim to cleanse our hard-earned grime.

On day eight, we were out of there at the crack of dawn, rising to the sounds of “Convoy” by C.W. McCall (look it up if you’re unfamiliar) but hearing the ringing of distant bells — thoroughly motivated by the prospect of Taco Bell that was soon in store.

The crew poses triumphantly atop The Notch. Left to right: Kelly Stevens, Ed Toufectis, Mae Gouhin, Brian Wagenaar, Jonathan Gutierrez. Photo: Clare Major

Finishing strong at Granite Chief

Our final two hitches were slated for Granite Chief, a somewhat lower elevation section of trail that offered sheltered camping. We picked up a few new folks for the project, as several others had completed their AmeriCorps service on the last two hitches. 

Here, we would continue our work deferred maintenance — brushing the trail corridor and ensuring proper water drainage — but we also had a new assignment, de-mucking, digging out, and restoring two puncheons (a fancy term for a nice little trail bridge) in soggy areas of the trail.

The process involved “mining” and hauling loads of fresh dirt to create the crown that would allow water to shed off the trail while maintaining a nice walking surface. Transforming the muddy mess we first encountered into a dry, carefully sculpted walkway was a point of pride for our crew. 

Julia Bertolini puts the final touches on one of our beautiful puncheons

Throughout our last month on the PCT, the weather largely cooperated for us, save for the last day of our third hitch, when we awoke to find it 30 degrees and snowing.

That fine morning, we had the divine pleasure of furiously staging our supplies for our slated return and forcing our frozen fingers to jam our packs with the equipment that was headed for deep cleaning in Sacramento.

Once we moved, our feet warmed under the sunlight, and we were treated to an incredible snowscape. Suffice it to say that the chalupas and nacho fries hit especially hard later that morning.

Beautiful snow at Granite Chief

By the end of our second hitch in the Granite Chief Wilderness, we had maintained about five miles of trail. On our final day of work, we made our way to the top of a ridge and completed the succession of drainage work. At the top, we had a clear view of Lake Tahoe and were able to observe as smoke from a prescribed fire steadily filled the valley below.

The crew takes a celebratory selfie at Granite Chief Wilderness. Left to right: Ella Engberg, Ed Toufectis, Jesse Rabner, Brian Wagenaar, Mae Gouhin, Julia Bertolini

As we came down off the trail on that final day of our backcountry adventure, we all felt deeply accomplished — relieved at the prospect of civilization but saddened that this would be our last stint working backcountry on the PCT for some time, if not ever.

For myself, leading two months of backcountry PCT hitches was the pinnacle of my field conservation career, an experience that tested my mental and physical determination across a wide variety of circumstances.

Our collective spirits were consistently buoyed by passing section hikers and late-season, flip-flopping thru-hikers, who thanked us heartily for our efforts. 

Over two months, the trail brought us a fair share of surprises and trials, ecstatic highs, and sobering moments. As we celebrated the conclusion of our PCT season with Thomas at the luxurious Taco Bell in Truckee (seriously, give it a whirl if you’re in the neighborhood), the conclusion of our shared experience was bittersweet.

The PCT had given us the tremendous gift of relationships hardened by mutual suffering, absolutely, but also by juvenile bathroom talk, late-night stargazing, and many shared meals. 

No matter what I go on to do in life, I’ll undoubtedly look back on my time on the PCT with great fondness, the perfect fusion of Type 1 and 2 fun — and memories that will not soon fade. 

Marching up to The Notch. Photo: Clare Major