Originally appeared in the Bend Bulletin August 4th, 2012
Have you ever been hiking in the wilderness and wondered how the trail came to be so well maintained? Have you ever thought about how the nordic trail is ready for you, even after it snows more than a foot overnight? Have you ever run into trouble while out backpacking miles from any road?
The answers to these questions lie in the men and women who go the extra distance to ensure a happy and safe wilderness experience. These, “extreme volunteers,” trade sweat and muscle soreness for safe trips and clear paths. They work for us, along with the environment, in clearing illegal campsites, protecting wetlands, and coming to the rescue if someone is in need.
“We have the greatest volunteers anywhere,” says Lieutenant Scott Shelton of the Deschutes County Sheriff’s Department. “They respond, day or night, in all kinds of conditions, to help those in need.”
Emergency Service Volunteers
The Deschutes County Sheriff’s Search and Rescue Department logged over thirty-one thousand hours last year alone. One hundred and twenty-nine SAR members rack up those hours in trainings, missions, and public events.
DCSAR trainings and tests go well beyond the normal CPR and 1st Aid classes as they attempt to mirror real-life situations. DCSAR members must complete an extensive academy, as well as a timed “24-hour pack test” to head out for missions. In addition, to be a part of a winter team, DCSAR members must complete an overnight stay in the Three Sisters Wilderness with only the contents of their packs.
Teams such as “Mountain Rescue,” “Swift Water,” and “Medical” hold classes and trainings to raise the level of knowledge for all of the team members. While there are no typical search and rescue scenarios, a DCSAR member’s yearly resume may include a late-night Mount Bachelor search, an ATV crash response, a fire assist, helping an injured hiker, a mountain bike crash response, and a climb on Smith Rock.
A constant battle between government mandates and small budgets place the burden of supplying services on the backs of non-paid volunteers. In small towns such as Camp Sherman, volunteer firefighters round out the fire protection workforce of the Sisters-Camp Sherman fire department in case of a home or wildfire. With over a hundred thousand acres burned in the last decade, the sisters area residents are thankful for the volunteers’ commitment.
Local Trail Work
Central Oregon is known for its vast network of hiking, biking and ski trails. And, with weather that plays havoc on the ground, there is no shortage of trail work.
“Our ability to build and maintain trails is directly related to the generous donation of time and effort from our volunteers,” explains Mike Pulzone, trail coordinator for Central Oregon Trails Association.
Downed trees and erosion necessitate the use of shovels, saws and muscles on the backcountry paths. Many of the tasks are matched with the skill and physical capabilities of the volunteers.
“Our more experienced members/volunteers clear and fall trees with chainsaws,” states Pulzone. “Some dig and move dirt/rock with a variety of hand tools. A few of our lead volunteers may operate a skid steer to get the job done.”
Winter Trail Work
The wintertime excitement of fresh snow mean two different things to skiers and groomers. To nordic skiers, it adds to the anticipation of a good day on the trails of Virginia Meissner, Wanoga or Swampy Lakes Snow Parks. To the groomers, many of whom are volunteers, it signifies waking up in the middle of the cold night, driving up Century Drive in less-than-stellar conditions, digging out a grooming machine, and plowing the trails for the eager skiers.
“Last year,” explains Kreg Lindberg of DogPac, “we had 5 feet of snow in one dump. Snow was up to our waist. After shoveling it away from the storage container, we had to get the ATV through that deep snow. It took about 40 hours of volunteer work to get the trail back in shape. Most of that was work by our groomers, but we also handed out shovels to people who came out to ski. They put their skis aside and started helping. It was an awesome community effort.”
Whether grooming in a closed-cab sno-cat or an open ATV, the snow still blows sideways and the storms are still cold. All in all, roughly 600 volunteer hours are needed to make Wanoga skiable.
“Put simply, Wanoga would not exist if it weren’t for volunteers,” states Lindberg.
Projects in Our Local Wilderness Areas
Many national organizations have volunteer projects in our back yard. They use a volunteer workforce to accomplish backcountry needs ranging from trail and drainage building to vegetation and campsite restoration. Most trips last upward of a week and require good physical fitness from their volunteers.
“Our volunteers are the most dedicated and hard-working individuals out there,” says Libby Wile, Volunteer Programs Manager at American Hiking Society, who will lead a group into the Eagle Cap Wilderness in August. “Their efforts make many trails and public places safe and accessible for future generations to enjoy.”
Wilderness Volunteers, a nonprofit organization that organizes and promotes volunteer service to America’s wild lands, will lead a dozen volunteers into the Three Sisters Wilderness in August to remove illegal campsites and help the Forest Service develop better wilderness management strategies.
“We have a wide variety of people,”explains Dave Pacheco, Executive Director of Wilderness Volunteers. “We have vacationers looking to travel to new wilderness areas. We get students who are considering a field in the Forest Service. There’s a group of people who like to work in specific areas, such as wetlands habitat or invasive weeds. The common thread is that everyone wants to give something back.”
Another national organization heading into the Three Sisters Wilderness is the Pacific Crest Trail Association. “This is actually a slow year, with only three events,” states Dana Hendricks, Regional Representative for the PCTA. “Last year we had eight in Central Oregon.” The PCTA will bring a group of volunteers to repair braided and rutted tread near the heavily used Sisters Mirror Lake.
So next time your hiking the backcountry trails of the Deschutes National Forest or enjoying the world-class mountain biking trail Central Oregon has to offer, make sure and thank the unknown volunteers. The ones who trade sweat equity for a chance to give back to what they love.
Interested in getting a workout while giving back? Check out these organizations with plenty of work for the strong mind and body.
Deschutes County Sheriff’s Department Search & Rescue
Central Oregon Trails Association
Pacific Crest Trails Association
American Hiking Society