Winter snowpack, spring melts and the rampant growth of vegetation creates more work each summer on trails at Mount Rainier than workers can accomplish.
But that doesn’t stop Kevin Bacher, volunteer program manager for Mount Rainier National Park, from rolling up his sleeves and coordinating large-scale efforts to revitalize the park.
“We have a lot of trails here at Mount Rainier, to begin with, about three hundred miles of maintained trails in the park, and they get used by a lot of people and they take a pretty heavy beating by the weather, given the heavy snowfall we have in the wintertime, and all of the melt-off we have in the spring,” Bacher said.
This weekend, volunteer laborers will be heading up the South Puyallup Trail, July 30 through Aug. 1, which is a trail that goes from the West Sound Trail on the west side of Mount Rainier National Park up to the Wonderland Trail. The trail was washed out a number of years ago, so the park service and volunteer crews have been rebuilding, rerouting and piecing the trail back together over the years.
Crews did much of the work in 2018 and 2019, but with volunteers barred for the park last year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, even more work needs to be done.
“We partner with the Washington Trails Association (WTA) to work with general public volunteers through the summer,” Bacher said. “WTA starts working with us in June on National Trails Day, which is the first weekend in June, and they continue ... through the last weekend in September, which is National Public Lands Day.”
Volunteers can sign up to work every weekend until Sept. 25, the park’s busiest volunteer day.
It’s really easy to get involved, Bacher said. All a person has to do is go to wta.org and click on the link at the top that says ‘get involved.’ Each person can search for trail maintenance opportunities in any area of the state, so folks can look for opportunities near them, or simply select the ‘Mount Rainier’ area if they are interested in working in the park.
WTA leads projects for public volunteers at Mount Rainier every Friday, Saturday and Sunday at some location in the park and works closely with the park’s trail maintenance supervisor to figure out where to place people. Volunteer opportunities usually fill up a week in advance.
“We have a lot of folks who come back week after week because they kind of get addicted to it,” Bacher said. “They love seeing the (progress). People really like doing work because they can see the fruits of their labor right there and can come back two, three, four, five, 10 years later and say. ‘I worked on this trail. This trail exists because I helped reroute it, and it survived because I helped maintain it.’”
Bacher said the park has earmarked several projects that are in need of attention because of inclement weather and springtime erosion.
Later in the summer, they’ll be doing some work on the Skyline Trail, above Paradise.
The park has a wide variety of things people can do depending on their physical capability and level of experience.
“If you are brand new to trail maintenance, you might be doing some brushing — cutting back the brush in the areas that it has grown across the trail — and general trail-tread repair, which means just basically raking out the gravel, smoothing out the places that have become eroded, using dirt to fill in places that have been eroded,” Bacher said. “Going up from there, you could work on repairing or replacing water bars, the structures that channel water off of the trail so that it doesn’t cause erosion on the trail.”
The more experienced volunteers will get involved in digging out rocks or roots that have encroached on a trail, rerouting trails, building new trails and even helping to build or rebuild trail bridges.
Bacher said the process can be very educational, which people seem to enjoy.
“There is this learning opportunity, you know, people get started and do the daily simple, straight-forward things along the trail and then they learn from the more experienced people how to build a water bar, how to lift a massive boulder that’s been dug out of a trail where its causing a trip hazard — and how to use ropes and cables to do that — how to shave off a log to use as a … rail along a trail bridge or something like that,” Bacher said.
Everyone 15 years or older is welcome to volunteer.
Apart from the volunteer laborers, the park uses its own crews, but also contracts with youth corps to hire out much of the work.
Some of the crews include workers from the Student Conservation Association, Northwest Youth Corps, Washington Conservation Corps and the Youth Conservation Corps.
Bacher said the work is a great employment opportunity for young people.
“We also have groups that are targeted toward youth that don’t typically have the opportunity to do these types of things, people who are underrepresented in the public land management workforce,” Bacher said, pointing out that one of the groups is made of people who are deaf and hard of hearing, among others. “For example, here at Mount Rainier, in the Northwest Youth Corps, over the last several years, we have been working with a group of LGBTQ youth called the Rainbow Corp. … They come out and work with us throughout the summertime and they specifically recruit from that group.”