Mount Hood's wilderness sawyers are a cut above
2014 marks the 50th anniversary of The Wilderness Act
Though trail crews hike into the Mount Hood National Forest every spring to maintain trails before droves of hikers arrive by summer, this year they have a special reason to focus on wilderness.
Fifty years ago President Lyndon B. Johnson signed The Wilderness Act of 1964 into law.
The document, written by Howard Zahniser, created a formal mechanism to designate and protect more than 9.1 million acres of federal land.
Congress passed into law what the government now considers the definition of wilderness:
A wilderness, in contrast with those areas where man and his own works dominate the landscape, is hereby recognized as an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain, the act succinctly states.
When Congress designates each wilderness area, it includes a very specific boundary linein statutory law. Once a wilderness area has been added to the system, its protection and boundary can only be altered by another act of Congress.
Today, wilderness encompasses 109.5 million acres of national forest in 757 areas of 44 states and Puerto Rico.
In Oregon, Mount Hood has one of the largest expanses of wilderness. In 2009, President Obama signed legislation to add 2 million more acres of wilderness in nine states, including 128,000 acres near Mount Hood.
Obama called the new law among the most important in decades to protect, preserve and pass down our nations most treasured landscapes to future generations.
A Gresham Outlook reporter tagged along with a group of volunteers from the Pacific Crest Trail Association, who in some ways are the peacekeepers between savage Mother Nature and the humans who revel in her beauty.
Keeping the wilderness wild
To keep the peace and solitude, groups hiking in wilderness are limited to 12 beating hearts.
That means, for example, 12 people, or six people and six horses, or four people, four horses and four dogs, said Roberta Cobb, who has been clearing trails for the Mt. Hood Chapter of Pacific Crest Trail Association since the mid-1990s, You get the idea.
People are free to hike in wilderness, but certain activities that may disturb the forest are prohibited: no motors or mechanized equipment, and no bikes or hang gliders. Logging, oil and gas drilling are obviously a no. Scientific research and general trail maintenance are allowed. Mainly, ecosystems within wilderness must be free to change over time in their own way, free of human manipulation.
The idea is that these places are set aside to be kept in a natural condition, Cobb said. Before The Wilderness Act, there wasnt really deep protection for these areas.
Now wilderness is the highest protection.
Some may not know trails are maintained differently in wilderness than non-wilderness areas, Cobb said.
For instance, trails workers who cut logs sawyers are restricted to more primitive tools.
Everything is hand-powered, she said. The Minnesota native first learned to operate a chain saw on her familys 80-acre farm. A former Intel employee, Cobb now runs her own programming business from home.
Instead of power tools and chain saws, sawyers hike miles through the forest with long cross-cut saws on their backs to buck trees. The five-person crew I am with is made up entirely of volunteers, trained in first-aid and possessing cross-cut saw certifications.
Packed for a days hike on Thursday, May 1, (the warmest day of the year so far), we are asked to carry two liters of water and a host of other tools: axes, loppers, rakes, hatchets, shovels, clippers and the cross-cut saws.
The rule is you carry one tool in your hand, some in your pack and have your second hand free.
I am carrying the hand-saw, which is also doubling as a hard place to write on my note pad while hiking.
The work is dangerous no doubt, said Cobb, a veteran crew member who has hiked 1,500 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail. On a past work party, one man merely fell on a saw and was left in serious condition.
But she assures me everyone knows what theyre are doing.
She also baked delicious carrot muffins for the crew, all men except for us.
Today, as noted by our crew leader Robert Caldwell, known also by his trail name Pace, we will be clearing nine or so logs in and around Ramona Falls. Almost every section of trail needs a log-out, Caldwell said.
Ramona Falls Trail No. 797 is well-known to most local hikers. The crew tells me it is actually overpopulated for wilderness, and not much in the way of solitude. But an attempt to enforce permits for hikers didnt work, so everyone just accepts it, they say.
Thats the reason we want to get in and log it, Caldwell said. Otherwise people come in and do what we call resource damage they trample the brush and plants around the trails.
Because its normal for the glacial-fed Sandy River to swell in size and thrash about, the bridge the U.S. Forest Service puts in every spring for hikers to cross the river has been washed out.
Its hard to determine where mother nature wants to put the water, said Caldwell, a former engineer and accountant, who in recent years has led wilderness expeditions for Outward Bound, an outdoor leadership program for kids and adults.
We will be crossing the river on a giant fallen log.
Lucky for the crew, Caldwell hiked the route a couple of weeks ago to make sure its safe and he prepped the logs, removing their limbs.
Most of the snow on the trail has melted, but he warns us to watch out for Devils Club, a spiky-leafed plant that sticks out of the ground like a giant claw.
From the trailhead, we follow the Sandy River eastward to the log. Shrunk to its normal size, the river has left in its path a hollowed out wasteland of sand, scattered boulders and heaps of bone dry timber. Here are the remains of a volcanic debris flow from more than 200 years ago. In the distance, Mount Hood glows white, but its dark blue crags are beginning to show.
Caldwell points to an old washed out trail. A carpet of grass and trees is about to drop off its ledge.
Our detour leads us through a moss-padded forest. We are careful not to step on blooms of trilliums lurking in the shadows.
After we cross the river and meet up with the Pacific Crest Trail, I ask how Ramona Falls got its name.
From the way back, one of the crews leaders, Bill Hawley, starts telling the story loudly so we can all hear, Way back in 1888 or 89, a couple homesteaded up here and Ramona caught smallpox and perished.
As I struggle to scribble his words down, the crews starts laughing. The story is in fact no where close to true.
Hawley, a former carpenter, chuckles and says, This is what you do when you are walking in the woods and carrying tools.
Dont run with saws
Each fallen log we come to they get bigger as we hike deeper in the forest is like a puzzle.
The crew sets down their gear ahead of the log and walks back to analyze the situation.
Trying to figure out how to move it is the hardest part, said crew volunteer Tyler Marriott, a Vietnam veteran and former firefighter.
Before taking out any tools, the team discusses the hazards: where the log is bound, where they are going to cut it, and how the log will come down.
Cobb says the goal is to make as few cuts as possible, and make cuts as clean and controlled as possible. If they judge the pressure in the log wrong, the saw blade may get pinched in the wood.
These days the largest logs sawyers face are up to four-feet wide.
One hundred years ago, they cut timber 15 feet wide, said Hawley, who is also a cross-cut saw instructor, but those days have gone by.
He said crews only uses cross-cut saws if they have to because their saws are at least 80 years old and the blades are so difficult to sharpen.
All of the good cross-cut saws are antiques, he said. With the advent of chain saws, artisans quit making the cross-cut blades. He says the quality of a saw lies in the steel and design and thickness, Theres a taper to it, he said, pointing to slight bend in the long jagged-edge blade.
They just dont make them like that anymore.
The PCTA owns many of the saws the trail maintenance crew uses, but are always looking for more.
While the saws themselves are long lasting, the teeth can break out or become dull, Hawley said.
If the pitting between the blades goes bad, the saw becomes useless, he said.
In the old days, dull saws were called misery whips.
The tools artisans use to sharpen these saws also are antiques.
Very few people know how to sharpen these, Hawley said.
But when sawyers get a good-and-sharp cross-saw going on a log, they say, it sings.
The Roberta finish
Crews follow a pretty basic rule when clearing trails in wilderness: Leave no trace.
But few are more insistent than Roberta Cobb.
After a log has been sliced, Cobb will dirty the cuts, so passing hikers wont notice them.
It is as simple as grabbing a chunk of mossy dirt and smearing the end of the cut log. Often shell even drape a fern leaf over the top to make it disappear into the foliage.
Her technique, which the rest of the crew has picked up, has become known as the Roberta finish.
People come out to enjoy the beauty of the trail, said Cobb. So, theres a bit of aesthetic to trail maintenance.
She smiles and whispers to me, I think also because Im the only woman.
It becomes a part of you
Having removed several logs from the Timberline Trail, the reward for the crew is to stop and gaze at the misty Ramona Falls.
Up hill and a couple logs more, we sit and eat lunch on the trail.
Rock streams, towering trees, shelf mushrooms, huckleberries and acres of rhododendrons not yet in bloom are all a part of the luscious green scenery around us.
Conversation starts up among the crew.
I notice Mike Summers, the youngest crew volunteer and a student in Mt. Hood Community Colleges Wilderness Leadership program, also brought peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.
Marriott tells us that pinching rhododendron flowers off after they bloom, will make them grow back faster.
We talk about the impressive quiet of the wilderness, the only sound we hear is the buzzing of a grouse.
The conversation roams to who had grown their beard the longest. Caldwell wins because he has not shaved since the mid-1970s, although Summers has a pretty good one going.
I ask Caldwell, who has parked himself against a tree, about his involvement with the trail crew.
He said hes been more active in volunteering to do trail maintenance since 2012, when he solo-hiked the Pacific Crest Trail from Mexico to Canada. It took him five months to hike 2,660 miles.
After hiking the trail, Caldwell said he felt that he had more of a responsibility to maintain it.
Live on the trail for five months and it becomes part of you, he said.
While like much of the crew, Caldwell enjoys hiking with a purpose, whacking away brush and maintaining the tread of the trails, he also enjoys how beautiful it is to be out here.
I just like to enjoy it, have fun and feel like Ive contributed to other peoples enjoyment of it.
Thanks to these leather-booted sawyers who risk injury while wrestling fallen timber, we hikers get to sit back and take in all of Mother Natures wild bounty.