On the trail

MOUNT ASHLAND — Amanda Hickman was working for the State Department in Washington, D.C., earlier this year when she decided to hit the trail. Literally.

“I got tired of the office,” explained Hickman, 28, from Nashville, Tenn., as she shoveled muck out of a trench to provide runoff alongside the Pacific Crest Trail in the Grouse Creek Basin, some 6,600 feet above sea level near the Oregon-California border.

“Hiking for me has always been a hobby,” said Hickman, who has a master’s degree in international affairs from American University. “I like the office during the week but I have to get out on weekends to maintain that balance.”

She and six other members of an AmeriCorps crew from the Northwest Service Academy based at Trout Lake, Wash., began working their way northward on the trail early this spring in Southern California.

Today is the last of a 10-day project of repairing areas of water runoff on a two-mile section of the trail in the Klamath National Forest just inside the Oregon state line. The Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest has responsibility for trail work in that area, said Steve Johnson, a member of the forest’s Siskiyou Mountains Ranger District staff working with the crew.

“This trail crew is top-notch,” he said during an inspection of the work Monday as he stopped at a site where a “step-over” had been created with large boulders where the trail crossed over a spring.

“We could have put a culvert in, but culverts plug,” he explained. “This is really, really good work. This is the first time I’ve seen this step-over. It’s excellent.”

Johnson and Ian Nelson, Pacific Crest Trail Association representative for Northern California and Southern Oregon, identified the areas where the trail work was needed most.

“Having the AmeriCorps crews allows us to work with agency partners to identify projects that might be a bit more technical,” Nelson said. “A lot of trail work is working with your hands. But the work changes from one piece of trail to the next. They do whatever they need to do ... and they do quality work.”

The AmeriCorps members receive meals, a place to sleep and a small stipend. They sleep under the stars and work under the blue sky.

You name it, they’ve done it: building retaining walls, cleaning drains, clearing brush, digging out trenches, moving boulders. Their tools are picks and shovels, McClouds and Mattocks.

They’ve seen bears, raccoons, mink and other creatures of the wild. Although the bloom is off most of the wildflowers, their workplace still offers wild delphiniums, Siskiyou corn lily, fireweed and yellow sulphur flower.

“This is our office,” said Valerie Sokolowski, 28, technical adviser for the trail association, as she made a sweeping motion with her hand to the alpine meadow.

“This is the best job ever,” she added. “We were talking about this yesterday, wondering what percentage of the population has as much fun at work as we do. You can’t beat this view.”

After graduating with a master’s degree in special education, Sokolowski, who hails from Pittsburgh, Pa., has been working on maintaining trails across the nation for the past five years.

She gave high marks to the AmeriCorps crew, noting they are well-trained, motivated and ready for any challenge.

“It’s pretty competitive to get into the program, so we get the best of the best,” she said. “ AmeriCorps is a wonderful program. These people are great.”

Dan Aspnef, 28, of White Bear Lake, Minn., is on his third AmeriCorps tour. Armed with a degree in environmental studies, he has worked in Maryland, Minnesota and Wisconsin.

“I love it,” he said. “You can’t beat this, working out here every day. Beautiful places, beautiful views.

“You give up six months or a year of your life to come out and serve your country in a variety of ways,” he said.

He and Gwen Chappell, 25, of Greenwood, Ind., have what could be described as master’s in trail work, thanks to extensive training by the PCT Association. The two are the field team leaders.

She was “grubbing” with a pick, removing plants from the middle of the trail.
“It’s a workout,” said Chappell, who has a degree in physical education and environmental education. “But the scenery is incredible.”

Cyndol Claycamp, 24, of Sitka, Alaska, who has a degree in environmental science with an emphasis in ecology, was swinging a single jack hammer to pound in a Pacific yew wood post to hold a yew wood log in place. If the single jack didn’t work, a heftier double jack for two-fisted work was available.

Others working on the crew included Jordan Westrick, 21, of southeast Wisconsin, a former construction worker; Andy Smeby, 23, of Iowa, who has a degree in arts and environmental studies; and Joseph Williams, 22, from Athens, Ga., an international affairs major.

“I had one semester left in school and I don’t know what exactly I’m going to do,” Williams said. “I thought working outside for a living for the last time in my life would help me sort it out.”

Their next segment of the trail will be in the Sky Lakes Wilderness in the Rogue River-Siskiyou forest beginning Monday. The work will end for the season when the snow begins to fly in mid-October.

Reach reporter Paul Fattig at 776-4496 or e-mail him at pfattig@mailtribune.com.

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