Public Lands Stewards: Day in the Life of a Trail Worker

by | Land Stewards

I set my alarm for around 6:15am. That’s fifteen minutes later than when I first started this job. By now I know how to time myself for the most sleep possible and be ready for work. Breakfast is microwaved leftovers since I’ve never been much for breakfast foods myself. When feeling ambitious, I cook pasta that morning and microwave last nights’ sauce, with enough to come along for lunch in my repurposed peanut butter jar. Eating takes me to 6:45am or so, leaving enough time to clean my dishes, pack my lunch, fill my three liters of water, put on my uniform, and be out the door at 6:58 to arrive at 7am. There are certainly perks to living, literally, two minutes from where you report to for work.

In the office I greet those I know and don’t know in the walk to our department at the end of one long hall and three separate doors. It’s a necessary walk, to learn what the days’ job is. I find out we’re going up Stafford Creek today to cut out trees across the trail up to the wilderness boundary. We work in two pairs, which means twice the tools and twice the fun. I leave the office and load two chainsaws, chaps for our legs, a few wedges, two single bits, two combination tools, two loppers, two canisters of gas and one of bar oil for each chainsaw into the truck. That’s in addition to our standard gear; helmet, eye protection, gloves, radio, long sleeved shirt, and hand saw.

About 8am the road is flying under us (within the speed limit of course) as we head to the trail head. There, the tools are divvied up between us, and I decide to take the chainsaw. I stretch a little to limber up before the hike after putting my boots on. None of us wear boots in the car, the more time our feet are not trapped and suffocating, the better. We have all day to sweat in them and there is no rush to start early. The person without the chainsaw in each pair carries the loppers and combinational tool (fondly called a combi, with a shovel and pick on one end) to do a little work as we go. The first log is a mile ahead so we hike straight to it and get to work leapfrogging each other. One log for you, one log for me.

The combies are the long wooden shafted tools standing up. This assemblage of tools is for our back country hitch to Lemah Meadows and are a different set. The blue wedges would be used for chainsawing if we needed them, though rare.

I love a nice hike during work; it helps me limber up where stretching cannot. However, after a mile uphill with 30 additional pounds, I slightly regret taking the chainsaw. At the first log, while I put on chaps and ear protection, my partner uses the combi to clear out drains within eyesight since it’s best to not chainsaw alone in case an accident occurs. The combi is also useful to clear away the bark and debris after the log is removed. I like operating the chainsaw most since it’s a new skill I’ve learned here at this job. Making mince meat out of a log two feet in diameter within minutes feels fantastic. If you ever have the chance to use one, I do recommend it. I also implore you to heed my words and take caution: chainsaws are LOUD. Do not forget ear plugs, and ear plugs that are put in properly. I spend five minutes to make sure they mute the entire world to my ears. I don’t like how long it takes me because I’m not working, but cutting corners with safety isn’t smart for you, or OSHA.

Once I’ve cut the log, I put the chainsaw in its sheath and take off my safety gear while my partner rolls the cut logs off the trail. We keep this up until lunch, which hopefully has an excellent view. At this time of year, shade may in fact be our enemy and we seek out the sun to stay warmer. Progress has been excellent with 20 trees removed between us. It’s only a mile to our goal: the wilderness boundary where chainsaws are prohibited. The plan post lunch is to get there, finish this log out, and as we head back, clear drains with the combi. I enjoy reading while at lunch in the woods and always have some book on me, even if I in fact decide to chat all lunch. This lunch however, I read.

After twenty more logs from a few inches to sixteen inches in diameter and 4 miles uphill with a chainsaw, I’m exhausted. But we made it to the boundary and the trail is free of logs. Getting that accomplished feels good; every drip of sweat is a testament to that victory. I also prefer to focus on that success than hiking downhill, which while less physically demanding, is absolutely horrid on my knees. We arrive at the office around 4:30/5pm with time to put away the tools and write trail reports for the front desk and our own records. The front desk reports let the public know how the trail condition is; we write how many creeks flow for water, how aggressive the bugs are, how much snow is still on the trail, and that sort of information to let you be well informed for a pleasant hike. With all that done and the clock striking 5:30, I bid my partners adieu and head back to my bunkhouse to eat and relax before another day in the great outdoors.