Cold Weather Prep

Part of the selection process for choosing Backcountry workers is an oral interview with a Backcountry program staff member. Just like a regular job interview, this helps to weed out people whose ambition might outpace their ability to live and work in the Backcountry. One of the questions I was asked in my interview was “What are the harshest conditions you have ever been through?”

My Illinois upbringing gave me an edge on this one.

Not only did I grow up outside of Chicago, a Land of Ice and Snow for half of the year, but I thrived outside in those conditions. I walked everywhere I went until I was eighteen, even in the dead of winter. Drifting snow or sub-zero temperatures did not matter. If I wanted to get somewhere, I had to walk.

I lived a tenth of a mile too close to the high school to ride the bus for free. A student had to live 1.5 miles from the school to ride for free. The bus stop was on the corner just west of our house, literally three houses down. Kids right around the corner from us rode the bus for free. We protested to the school, but they showed us the bus route map. There was a circle drawn with a radius of a mile and a half from the school. Our house was just inside the line. I mean, if we had Google Earth back them, the edge of our lot would have been just on the edge of the line. My parents couldn’t believe this. They tried driving the shortest route from our house to the high school. It was definitely 1.4 miles. We didn’t have a lot of money, and the bus was going to cost us ten dollars a week. My parents were on the verge of caving in and scraping up the extra forty dollars a month when I told them that I was fine with walking. They asked me, “What about when it rains? Or winter?”

“I’ll just walk.”

So I walked. Everywhere. All the time. In all weather.

I learned how to layer. I had a letterman jacket for a winter coat. (Yes, this non-athlete earned my numbers, JV letters, and varsity letters. I played tennis. I pretty much just had to show up and give it my best. But I came by those letters honestly!) I learned how to layer thermals, flannel, and a sweatshirt under the jacket. I had an insulated camo hunting cap with ear flaps that folded down. In sub-zero temps, I learned that a scarf wrapped around my face was essential. You’ve heard of ‘brain freeze’ from eating very cold food? Without the scarf, I had ‘throat and lung freeze’ just by breathing in the Arctic air. With the scarf, my breath would warm the wool. This would preheat air that I breathed in.

One very frigid winter the temperature dropped to -20°F. Add a stiff wind to that, and the wind chill made it -60°. Nobody was moving anywhere, because cars were not starting. Then my Mom ran out of feminine hygiene product. My Dad and I buddied up and hiked about five blocks to the local White Hen Pantry. That was one cold day!

If that wasn’t enough outdoors activity for me, I also signed up for the Eskimo Unit for gym class every time it was offered. We would suit up with sweats over our gym suits and head outside for the snow. It didn’t even matter if the snow was still coming down or not…we went outside in it! Even when the temperatures dropped below freezing, we would go out for 40 minutes, anyway, and throw the ball around, run around, and make some contact. Everybody else thought we were nuts, but we reveled in our ruggedness. The harsh conditions helped to keep the class on the small side. We always had enough people to field two teams, but there were never so many people that anybody was left out of the action. And that made all the difference.

And if all of that weren’t harsh enough conditions, I lived for a Round Lake winter in a house with no heat.

I moved out of my house one summer after high school when my Mom and I were having some serious differences of opinion. I rented a room at Mark Rhodes’ house. I had a job, and paid Mark’s mom, Angie, room and board. Angie was divorced and money was tight, so the extra money was a help to the family.

There was an Illinois law that said the utility services could not shut off utilities for non-payment in the winter. I believe this is a compassionate law. However, the law also said that if utility services were cut off in the summer, they did not have to be reconnected in the winter.
Money being tight at the Rhodes household, Angie had let the natural gas bill lapse. She still had electricity, which operated the lights, stove, and water heater. (Electricity and gas came from two separate companies.) We had no gas when I moved in, and were never able to get it back on before winter set in. This turned out to be an advanced course in layering. Lotsa blankets. Thermals. Layers of clothes. We knew it was getting cold when our breath fogged inside. And then when we started getting frost on the inside of the windows. I remember Angie frying up huge skillets of potatoes and sausage with Mark, his little brother, and myself huddled around the electric stove for the heat. There were two nights that winter that got so cold, everybody in the house spent the night at other places.

So when the Backcountry program recruiter asked me about harshest conditions, I aced that answer. Thank you, Illinois!

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We Will Miss You, Erin

Starting a Causeway Near Tuolumne Meadows photo 43.jpg

It was with great sorrow that I learned recently of the passing of Erin Anders. This is the first death of which I am aware of anybody from Yosemite 2.

We met Erin on the very first day of our Backcountry season. He drove one of the NPS vehicles to pick us up from orientation in Stockton. He was the ramrod who saw that we got our first camp set up at Comfort House in Wawona. Erin was the maintenance worker on our crew in the front country. Most of the first lessons we had about the mountains and trail work came from Erin. He gave many of the morning safety meetings and taught us about first aid and living in the mountains. He taught us to identify hypothermia and how to treat it. He taught us the importance of staying hydrated. For many of us, this was only the beginning of lifelong skills we would develop, and we would build on the foundation that Erin laid. How fitting.

He also taught us about trails. We had already demonstrated a strong work ethic in order to earn a place on a Backcountry trail crew, but Erin taught us how to take our work ethic to an even higher level of commitment. He taught us all about ‘assholes and elbows’. Erin taught us how to read the lay of a trail and figure out how water flowed down and around the trail even when no water had been down the trail for months, and how to figure out the best way to get the water off the trail, which is the essence of all trail work.

Erin taught us to do all of this while at the same time having fun and enjoying life. At the beginning of the season, the thing Erin was the most excited about was the winter he had just had with the Yosemite Nordic Ski Patrol. He had been able to get in eighty days of telemark skiing that season. That was eighty days in the Backcountry in the dead of winter. That was the sort of thing Erin lived for…immersing himself in everything the outdoors had to offer.

Erin became our NPS foreman when we hit the Backcountry. He was eager to try new approaches to Backcountry camps that had not been tried before. He and Marty decided to try composting garbage. (Didn’t work. The compost pile drew in bears. But they tried!) He and Patti, our cook, decided to vary the menu from typical meat and potatoes to include other proteins and starches. (This one worked!)

Our memories of Erin would not be complete without thinking about him sitting by the campfire at night with his guitar. Many times he would strum quietly and talk to us about the mountains. Other times he would passionately pound out an amazing program of acoustic guitar songs. I don’t know how his tastes went in other seasons, but in 1987 he was particularly fond of John Prine. Erin also loved to make up his own lyrics, always funny, often a little bawdy, but always with passion.

Every Corpsmember who passed through his Backcountry trail crews was changed forever for the better by having known Erin and having him as a role model.

Thank you for everything, Erin.

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April 24, 1987: First Work Day

Today was our first real work day here. It was great! We spent the day hiking up Alder Creek Trail putting in drainage swills. I caught on pretty quick, but then I was doing something real similar on Salt Creek a couple of weeks ago (when we got a two day break from the deMartin house). Kristin gave me the low down then on the theories of drainage.

I felt pretty good about the hiking, too. When we were hiking back I kept pace real well with Erin. We all did well, for that matter. We didn’t get all strung out all over the place.

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April 23, 1987: Yosemite Orientation

Most of today was orientation. Most people complained that it was pretty boring, but I enjoyed it. I’m really going to enjoy working with Tim. Kris and Mira told me a lot about him—how much he enjoys working with Corpsmembers, how much he knows, and how much he is willing to teach about trails.

Right now I’m sitting on the bank of the South Fork of the Merced River. The sun is going down. It just dropped behind the trees, but the light is still shining on the bare cliffs of Turner Ridge, just north of here. Tim said earlier that there is a magnetism about rocks and high places that just draws people to try and scale them. He’s right. I don’t know what it is but there’s just something about them that makes me want to see what they’re like up close.

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April 22, 1987: First View

We finally made it. We were kinda doubting it this morning, though. We were supposed to be picked up at 9:00, and the vans didn’t make it ‘til almost noon.

Any irritation caused by the inconvenience was totally dispelled when the van rounded a bend and El Capitan and Half Dome came into view.

I’ve seen countless pictures of those two, from all angles, and I’ve read a bit about them (the whole valley, for that matter) including by John Muir, but it ain’t the same as being there. I’m afraid that the same thing will happen when I write the people I know back in Illinois. They might think “Oh, wow!” That’s neat!”, but they just won’t have the awesome feel of it all.

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April 21, 1987: Orientation

Tomorrow we hit the trail. Finally. I’ve been looking forward to this day since I heard about the Backcountry at the Academy. I’ve come a long way since the Academy, and I’ve still got a long way to go.

Heck, I’ve come a long way in the last nine months. This time last year I was living on the Lindstaedt’s ranch in Illinois, working in the machine shop. I was still a talker and not much of a doer. The first big step I’ve ever really taken on my own was to head out to California, and it’s turning out to be the best decision I’ve ever made. I came out here with the vague idea of working in the wilderness. Less than a month after I got here I was in the Corps planning on Backcountry.

And if my mind wasn’t settled on it then, I got sent to Del Norte Center and put on the crew with more Backcountry vets than all the others combined. Kristen, Brian, Anne, Mira, Kathy Wood, Eric, and Bob Brandreth all added to my desire to come back here. Backcountry was a typical everyday topic of discussion. It’s no wonder that more people are here from Crew 3 than any other at Del Norte.

Being here at Delta has made me really appreciate being at Del Norte a whole lot more. It’s almost like being in the Army here—or a minimum security prison.

I’m really looking forward to spending the summer with this crew. It really looks good. I’ve really been blessed with good crews in the Corps—and good crewleaders and C-1s. One of my crewleaders here, Glen, resembles my set-up man from the machine shop. I wouldn’t have been surprised if his last name had been Valenziano. Bob was a really good guy, and it looks like Glen is, too.

Almost a third of my crew is from Del Norte, myself, Anne, Gary, Robert, and Diane. Anne was wondering if that would intimidate any of the other crewmembers, but it doesn’t seem to be.

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Arrival at Delta for Orientation

My parents drove me from Antioch to Delta Center in Stockton. Delta Center had been a state mental hospital. The California Conservation Corps had moved into a section of the grounds, including what had been the main admin building. As we entered the grounds on North American Street, the perfectly manicured grounds still looked like a state hospital facility. Not only were the lawns mowed, but all of the shrubbery was perfectly groomed as well. The grass along the sidewalks was perfectly edged. Beautiful. We pulled up in front of the main building and found a parking spot.

I was wearing my civilian clothes, but I did wear my Red Wing Irish Setter hiking boots…my badge of honor as a Backcountry corpsmember. All of my gear was either inside of or strapped to the outside of my huge blue backpack in the cargo space of my parents’ Chevy Blazer. I hauled my backpack out and slung it over my shoulders. Dad shook my hand. Mom hugged me and said, “Do good.” I strode up the sidewalk through the carefully manicured lawn and through the front doors of Delta Center.

I stopped at the receptionist’s window inside the front door. The receptionist looked up and I said, “Reporting for Backcountry.”

“Welcome to Delta! Go through these doors and go right. It’s not a straight shot, you’ll have a few turns, but just keep going back as far as you can and you’ll get to the dorm where the Backcountry crews are staying.”


After I went through the door and turned right, the corridors were rather maze-like as I found my way back to the dorm. The dorm was a long cot-lined bay, similar to the dorms at the old Fricot City Training Academy. A few Corpsmembers were already there. “Just grab a cot,” I was told, so I dumped my backpack on a cot and went off to fond other Backcountry corpies.

I didn’t get very far before I was stopped by a Delta staff member.

Where are you going in those boots?!”

I was confused. Why wouldn’t I be wearing my CCC-issued boots?

“Boots are not allowed to be worn inside the facility. It takes a lot of work to keep these floors polished. Now, who told you that you could wear boots in here?”

“It never occurred to me that I couldn’t wear CCC-issued boots. At Del Norte…”

“This is not Del Norte! This is Delta! Get those boots off!”

“Yes, sir. Should I remove then now and return to the dorm in my socks?”

“Don’t be a smart ass! Just go back and wear soft soled shoes on when you are in this facility.”

“Yes, sir.”

As I retreated back to the dorm, I heard the staff member bust another Backcountry corpie.

What are you doing in those boots?!”

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A New Season


The 2015 Backcountry Trails season is almost upon us! The crews have been selected, corpsmembers are assembling their gear, and orientation is in three weeks. Let’s go!

Hopefully, I will use this as proper motivation for finishing my own Backcountry story, from Yosemite 2, 1987. I’ll get back to telling the story of the beginning of our season.

Happy trails!

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New Backcountry Season

For people who followed this blog last summer and think they might be interested in giving a Backcountry Trails season a try, the CCC is now accepting applications for the 2015 season. The application deadline is February 9. You do not have to currently be in the California Conservation Corps to take part in this program. You do not even need to be a California resident. From the CCC Backcountry Trails Program page:

In order to be eligible to join the Backcountry Trails Program individuals must meet all the below requirements:
•Be a US Citizen, Permanent Resident, US National, or have a green card.
•Be between the ages of 18 and 26 by the start of the program.
•Not on probation or parole at the start of the program.
•Be able to pass a background and drug test before being enrolled into program.
•Pass a Pre-employment physical demonstrating you are physically able to perform the essential duties of the position.
•Must be able start and finish on the established program dates and have no reason to leave the program barring personal and family emergencies, personal resignation, or disciplinary termination.
•Must have a current, working e-mail address to be considered.

You do NOT need to be a California resident.

Here is a link to the CCC Backcountry trails Program page for more information, including how to apply…

Happy trails!

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The Last Hike

We all got up at the normal work day time the next day, but the work day for us was going to be all about packing up our personal gear, hiking out, and driving to Camp Mather.

I woke up hangover free!

Dewey woke up in a pile of beer cans. He rubbed his eyes, looked around, and asked “Did I drink all that?!”

Normally camp would have been broken down the day before and everything loaded on the mules today. Since NPS was staying to finish the project, the packers were only going to be taking out our backpacks loaded with our personal gear. The hike out was going to be a good one. Seven miles downhill, and we only had to carry our day packs.

We said goodbye to the NPS workers who had taught us so much over the summer—Erin, Marty, Patti, Matt, Joe, and Kim—and headed down the trail.

As we passed the High Sierra Camp, Glen hung back and said, “You guys go on ahead. I just want to sit and look around for a while. I want to be able to say I was the last one out.”

We left Glen behind. The crew got scattered all up and down the trail like we always did. We all dragged this hike out as long as we could. Nobody insisted that we hike NPS speed as we hiked for the last time past Choo Choo Ridge and down the Rafferty Causeway. We made the left turn when we got to the bottom of the switchbacks at the Lyell Canyon trail and headed for Tuolumne Meadows. The packers got down there before we did, and our backpacks were piled near the corral. We grabbed our packs as we showed up in ones and twos and headed for our van. Eventually Glen came in and said, “Okay. Let’s roll.”

“Wait a minute. Where’s Dewey?”

“He’s not here yet.”

“Did you pass him on the trail, Glen?”

“No. I never saw him.”

Great. Dewey got lost on the hike out on a pretty straightforward trail. We decided to give him another thirty minutes before we went back to look for him.

After about twenty minutes, Dewey came hiking up to the van.

“I got to the bottom of the switchbacks and turned right instead of left. I don’t know how far I went before I realized I was heading back up Lyell Canyon.” In fairness to Dewey, most of the rest of us had been back down to Tuolumne Meadows at least once and were already familiar with the trail.

“Hey, Glen! I guess you weren’t the last one out after all!”

“Oh, shut up.”

“Congratulations, Dewey! You were the last Yo2 Corpie out of the Backcountry!”

We all piled into the van and set off for Camp Mather and debriefing.

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