In the middle of a dusty section of the Tahoe Rim Trail in Desolation Wilderness, I sit hammering chunks of granite into smaller chunks of granite known as crush. There is something oddly enjoyable about crushing granite.
“You serving a sentence or volunteering?” a hiker with a stubbled face asks.
A grin cracks the crust on my dirty lips: “Not sure,” I answer.
Tahoe Rim Trail work days
Aug. 31-Sept. 3 | Echo Summit Backcountry Camp
Sept. 8 | North Canyon Workday
Sept. 18 & 22 | Spooner Summit Workdays
Sept. 25 & 27 | Echo Summit Workdays
Is volunteering to serve a self-imposed sentence a thing? I’ve hiked this section of the Tahoe Rim Trail, also part of the Pacific Crest Trail, many times. It’s one of my favorites and I’m embarrassed to admit that I never appreciated the amount of time and hard labor that goes into building miles and miles of trail. My hiking debt was long overdue.
The sentence is four days. We meet early at the Bayview Trailhead. Chris Binder, director of Trail Operations for the Tahoe Rim Trail Association, goes over the plan. We are an even dozen and will split up into three groups of four in order to repair the worst sections of trail north of Fontanillis Lake. Each group will have a leader, a volunteer who has spent hundreds of hours obtaining trail-building skills.
Horses hit the trail an hour ahead of us. I’m grateful they’re packing the heavy tools up (and I do mean up) the 6-mile trail. We cinch on our bulky backpacks and climb nearly 1,000 feet up a never-ending mile of switchbacks. At an overlook with impressive views of Emerald Bay, we take a break and catch our breath. I learn that much of the crew have volunteered before. This news reassures my apprehension — this gig may not be a suffer-fest after all.
At Middle Velma Lake we spread out like soldiers across the granite, searching the area for that perfect tent site. The high-alpine lake distracts me. A swim in that cool jade water would be invigorating, but duty calls so I avoid eye contact. In no time, my camp is set under a grove of stunted junipers, but the shade offers little relief from the swarming mass of mosquitos. I retreat to my tent, coat myself with repellant and zip pant legs onto my shorts.
We assemble after lunch and hike to the Fontinillas Lake trail junction. Hard hats are handed out and we learn about the safe use of trail tools. Desolation Wilderness, like all wilderness areas, is a specially designated place that is protected under the Wilderness Act of 1964, which bans the use of all motorized equipment. We fill our gloved hands with sledgehammers, axes, McLeods and tamping bars, before marching about a mile to the worksite. Amid the vast array of volunteers are teachers, techies and professional tourists — all willing to spend long, hard days working in the back country so hikers and horses have a better place to walk.
With heavy tamping bars, Larry Green, an instructor at Lake Tahoe Community College, and I are stockpiling boulders that outweigh the both of us. The guy is a ninja and at this pace, I doubt I’ll last three more days. Green and I free a massive boulder from its grave and push it through the forest by sitting on our rears and using our legs in unison. Our battle cry is “ki-ai,” used in martial arts to declare your fighting spirit and desire to prevail. With only another 10 feet to go, dirt builds up in front of the rock, preventing progress. We strategize.
“Get the sling,” says Green.
I not only find the sling, I find reinforcements. Michelle Edmonson, our crew leader, who “loves playing in the dirt” and has been doing it well for four years, comes to our rescue along with Kerry Koenig, a school teacher from Folsom. After situating the sling — imagine a nylon cargo net with handles — next to the rock, Green and I use our legs to flip the thing onto the contraption. As a team, we drag our captive to its new home on the trail and share high fives.
The next two days are spent digging and telling stories, pounding granite into crush, sharing leathery jerky, picking and placing boulders, bandaging each other’s grubby fingers and high-fiving hikers, who never fail to smile and say thanks.
Before dinner, we wash away the filth and sweat with a swim to a tiny island in Middle Velma. Days are strenuous but primarily spent connecting with like-minded folks who want to give something back and preserve a place they love. When you volunteer, you get more than you give. This may be cliché, but it’s true. I look forward to serving my sentence again next summer.
To volunteer to be on a trail crew with Tahoe Rim Trail Association, visit tahoerimtrail.org. Other local organizations in need of volunteers to help with trail building and maintenance include the Truckee Donner Land Trust (tdlandtrust.org), Truckee Trails Foundation (truckeetrails.org) and Tahoe Area Mountain Biking Association (tamba.org).