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Rockin' with the Jack Pack: My First PCT Work Crew

If you think hiking the Pacific Crest Trail is a big challenge, consider what it takes to maintain it. Not only is the PCT more than 2,650 miles long, the forces that sculpt its spectacular terrain are also relentlessly efficient at breaking the trail down.

On a recent break from my REI copywriting job, I volunteered to join a Pacific Crest Trail Association work crew for a week, grateful that the PCTA does everything from coordinating with government agencies to planning meals. All I had to do was pack my gear and be willing to get dirty. Our group, nicknamed the "Jack Pack" in honor of a nearby peak, built rock walls, but other crews also clear downed trees, cut brush or repair washouts.

PCT near Three Fingered Jack, Oregon

The Setting (above): A steep, not-so-stable stretch of the PCT near Three Fingered Jack peak in Oregon's Mt. Jefferson Wilderness.

The Jack Pack group shot

The Jack Pack (above): Standing, left to right: Ken, Fred, Mark, Mireilla and John; kneeling: Michael and Diane.

A bit about the crew:

• Mark is a classical cellist and University of Arizona professor who's thru-hiked all but this part of the PCT. To atone, he's signed on to help rebuild it.
• John is a retired school-bus driver and caretaker of a stretch of the PCT near Mt. Hood. John counts every pace and critiques trail hydrology as he hikes.
• Michael hasn't worn a pack since hitchhiking in his 20s. His wife Diane is a special-education teacher who works with children who have a variety of mental health disorders. Michael enjoyed our crew so much that he immediately signed on to another PCT work crew near Crater Lake.
• Mireilla is a human resources executive from the Netherlands. Her partner Fred recently lost his job organizing biofuel projects for villages in developing countries. Our PCT service project is a key part of their extended US trip.
• Florence is an art major at Oregon's Reed College near Portland. She also works part-time running the science department's nuclear reactor.

Fred and John heading to the PCT

The Daily Commute (above): Fred and John ascend an unmaintained trail to reach the PCT.

The Mission: Build rock walls to shore up eroding switchbacks. It's a 4-mile hike to Canyon Creek base camp and a daily 2-mile/700-foot climb to the work site. Scrambling with sharp tools in hand has a way of focusing your attention. This line from the PCT manual did, too: "Working with rock is potentially one of the most dangerous tasks in trail work."

Haley, trail crew leader

The Leaders: Haley (above) is a former REI staffer who works for the PCTA teaching crews like ours how to unearth, transport and install adequately gargantuan stones. Key points: Wear a hard hat and yell "ROCK!" when even a small one gets loose. Our addendum: Watch out for the cellist's fingers.

Jen is an aspiring hotshot firefighter and first-year US Forest Service member who helps lead us as part of the agency's partnership with the PCTA.

Brandon is a Forest Service wilderness ranger. Able to move 500-pound boulders with a single rock bar, the man is a backcountry superhero.

Flo and Brandon on PCT work crew

A Shady Spot (above): Florence and Brandon find a cool place for lunch.

Horse power: transporting tools to the PCT

Horse Power (above): Paul and Denny transport our tools and other equipment up to base camp.

Other interesting things I learned:

• Make sure you thank a horse packer if you love the PCT. Denny and Paul drove 2 fully loaded horse trailers down from Washington to haul our group gear. Denny introduced us to every one of his steeds and serenaded every hiker he met along the trail.
• Play poker with a cello player and a biofuels expert and you'll be out of pinecones in 3 hands. Show a PCTA leader a card trick and she'll figure it out every time. And never learn Dutch card games if you don't like to swear.
• Finally, follow Leave No Trace principles and pick a tent site far away from water sources. If you do it right, though, that's where the best views are.

Tent with a view

If this sounds like fun to you, keep in mind that the trail's caretakers, the PCTA, can always use a hand. No time to volunteer? Your donation can help pay for a crew's tools and food.

Photos by Mireilla van der Linde, Fred Marree, Haley Miller and Ken Knapp.

Below: Using gravity and teamwork to budge boulders.


Posted on at 5:52 PM

Tagged: Hiking, Oregon, PCT, PCTA, Pacific Crest Trail, stewardship, trail maintenance and volunteer

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Nice work. Trailwork is addictive. At least for me.

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Awesome work group! "With one rockbar you can move just about anything. With two rockbars you can move anything. With three rockbars you could create world peace and a stable government in Iraq." quote from John Krack Peterson on the utility of rockbars. It was a pleasure working with all of you and thank you for such a great blog entry.


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