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Who Goes to the Backcountry?

What makes a person apply to the California Conservation Corps’ Backcountry Trail Crew Program? What kind of people volunteer to go live out of a backpack for six months, doing back breaking labor, with a crew of people you did not know before the season started? What prepares a person for this kind of adventure?

There is no one size fits all answer. We are people who love adventure. We are people who love the outdoors and want to experience the outdoors in a bigger, more immersive way than we had ever thought possible. Outside of those basic traits, we are people who are hard to categorize. Some of us come from the inner city, have never really experienced the outdoors before, and are only one step ahead of serious trouble without a significant life change. Others are rural raised who want to test our outdoors skills to the limit. Some prefer rock music. Some prefer country. Some prefer hip hop. And we are everything in between.

The one thing I know for sure is my own background that took me to the Backcountry. I think there are a couple of factors that led to my volunteering for a Backcountry trail crew. I grew up in a semi-rural area, and spent a lot of time outdoors. I was challenged by reading in history of people overcoming difficult circumstances. People like the pioneers as they drove their wagon trains west through the plains and the deserts. People like the Army veterans enduring frozen Bastogne, and the Chosin Reservoir. I wondered if I might be made of the same stuff as they were. I grew up thinking that the military was going to be my ticket to this adventure and self-discovery, but that was not to be.

I grew up in Round Lake, Illinois. We were in Lake County, between Chicago and Wisconsin. We lived on the border between the suburbs and ‘the country’. Many people in Round Lake commuted to Chicago or the ‘real’ suburbs for work. Our part of the county still had dairy farms, corn fields, and orchards. We lived in neighborhoods, just like the suburbs, but we didn’t have sidewalks. We were also lucky enough to live close to plenty of open spaces. I lived less than a mile away from my favorite open space haunt…The Ridge.

‘The Ridge’ was a general term for an open space south of Long Lake which covered a lot more than just the ridge. It was over two hundred acres of swamp, rolling pasture, and a huge hill. A creek flowed south out of Long Lake. The creek left the lake through a marsh. A steep hill rose quickly from the marsh. The creek cut through the middle of the hill, leaving a steep ridge on both sides of the creek. The ridges were covered with deciduous trees, mostly oak. The Ridge had two main trails. One followed the crest. The other circled all the way around the base. Connecting trails between the crest and base were few.

Between the ridge proper and the nearest homes on Villa Vista Way was a big field we called ‘the cow pasture’. We never saw any cows on it, and the grass grew tall enough in it to prove that domestic animals no longer grazed there. The cow pasture was relatively flat with some gentle rolls. From the trail at the base of the ridge, you could see across the pasture to the houses on Villa Vista. An occasional scrub oak or crabapple tree popped up here and there around the pasture.

This was my playground through junior high and high school in the late ’70s and early ’80s. If I wasn’t building World War Two airplane models or playing board wargames, I could usually be found out on The Ridge. My best friend Jerry lived at the end of Villa Vista, on the edge of the cow pasture. Ridge adventures usually started at Jerry’s house. We played a lot of Army on The Ridge in junior high school. By high school we had been bitten by the Lord of the Rings and Dungeons and Dragons bug. I read about the Society for Creative Anachronism. The SCA was a group of people who enjoyed dressing up in medieval garb and role playing the adventurous and glamorous parts of medieval life. (Reenacting the plague, for instance, was not so popular.) I read about the rules the SCA established to guide play acting sword fights and tournaments. By the next weekend we all had our makeshift swords and shields, and were running around the ridge bashing on each other with lumber.

My first non-family camping experiences were out on The Ridge. The Ridge did have another local nickname, Reefer Ridge. If you talked about camping on The Ridge, people assumed it was for partying, but that was not the kind of camping we did. We would have a fire, and a boom box with a stack of cassette tapes, sleeping bags, and munchies. Great times.

The Ridge was even a winter playground. We didn’t head out as often in the winter as we did in the summer, but we did explore the snow covered woods. We learned how to move through deep snow drifts and avoid hypothermia. There was a great sledding hill across the creek and past the ridge. The crowds would go to Hart’s Hill. We had our own private hill.

One day after high school, my friend Mark ‘The Barbarian’ Rhodes and I were talking at my kitchen table. We were talking about the wilderness and camping, and how much fun it would be to take off to the woods and never come back. We called it a ‘permanent camping trip’.

My Mom was listening in to the conversation, and said that it sounded like a great idea. She told us that we had better do something like that pretty soon, though, because once we got settled in with careers and families we would never have the opportunity again.

Mom’s advice was definitely on my mind when I headed for California a few years later, and ultimately, the Backcountry. The Ridge was my training ground for so many of the things I was to achieve on a Yosemite Backcountry trail crew.

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Permanent Camping Trip

Before the season actually gets started, I thought it might be helpful to throw some things out there in my life that led me to a Backcountry trail crew. What kind of person actually decides to go out and live in a tent for six months in the summer and perform such backbreaking work as rolling rocks…for minimum wage? I can’t speak for everybody in the program, but I can show you some things that went into this guys path that led to a trail crew.

One day after high school, my friend Mark ‘The Barbarian’ Rhodes and I were talking at my kitchen table. We were talking about the wilderness and camping, and how much fun it would be to take off to the woods and never come back. We called it a ‘permanent camping trip’.

My Mom was listening in to the conversation, and said that it sounded like a great idea. She told us that we had better do something like that pretty soon, though, because once we got settled in with careers and families we would never have the opportunity again.

Mom’s advice was definitely on my mind when I headed for California a few years later, and ultimately, the Backcountry.

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Bump In the Road

Yes, I seem to have hit a little bump in the road here.

We’ve been having Internet issues at home, and I haven’t been able to get into town enough to post new stuff. And I’ve caught up to almost all of the new stuff I had written, anyway.

This had been a slow week for the Backcountry, anyway. This was the week I hiked out with the intention of flying to Wisconsin to be the best man at a wedding. It didn’t work out that way. Some of you have read that story already, over on The Grinning Dwarf Pub. Since this is the week in the season that it actually happened, around August 13-15, this would be a good place to insert it in the proper chronology. I’ll re-post that story next. It’s a long one!

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June 28, 1987: No Contact

I’m kinda ticked off right now. I spent the better part of the morning digging up enough change to call Kathy in Illinois. I got no answer at her house. No big deal. I thought she might be at David’s. I got a blasted recording at David’s, and it cost me $1.75 to find out he wasn’t home. Next I tried Scott’s, and it cost me another $1.75 to find out he wasn’t home from his little kid. Argh!

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Looking For Backcountry Stories

Howdy!

I received a request that I will publish here in full:

My name is Adam Somers. I am working as a volunteer with the CCC to create an anthology of writing from any Backcountry Trails Program alumnus that wants to share their experience as a corps member either from the point-of-view of their time in the BC Program from journal entries, etc. or from the perspective of looking back on the experience and its impact on their lives today for example. I was wondering if you could publish this on your blog and have submissions sent to my email address. The deadline is roughly the end of August. I would also be interested in poetry, short stories, memoir from the BC Program experience as well.

I have checked this out through Backcountry staff, and it is for real. So…any Backcountry Corpies who want to get involved in this worthwhile project, send your stuff to Adam’s e-mail:

adamlsomers@gmail.com

Go for it, Corpies!

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Bodie

Sunday, June 21 was going to be the last day that Yosemite 1 and Yosemite 2 were going to be together before debriefing at the end of the season. Moose and Roxanne had a great day planned for us.

After breakfast each crew loaded into their own transportation and headed east together out of Tuolumne Meadows. Down through Tioga Pass. Take a left at 395. Drive north past Lee Vining…with a stop at Mono Lake, of course! Continue on out to the real boonies to a real California ghost town…Bodie!

Bodie photo 42.jpg

Bodie was a mining town in the high deserts south of Reno in the late 1800s. It went through a cycle of booms and busts until it the last mine closed in 1942.

Anne in bodie photo 41.jpg

The town site is now a California State Historic Park. The building stand pretty much as they were left. Most of the building are closed to visitors, but you can look in through most of the windows. Of course, there is a gift shop.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bodie,_California

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June 19, 1987: Star Party

Lots has happened in the 11 days since I last wrote. Another fire, a camp move, an overnighter on Sentinel Dome. Tomorrow we go to the climbing school in Tuolumne. Yeah!!

 
I’m starting to learn some astronomy. I’m reading Mark’s book Naked Eye Astronomy and last night a bunch of us went star gazing down at the Meadow. I can identify Ursa Major & Minor, Cassiopeia, Cygnus, the Summer Triangle, Lyra and Delphinus. I’d like to go back tonight and locate Draco, Cepheus, and Lacerta.

 
The camp here at Tuolumne resembles a Backcountry camp more than the one at Wawona. At least we don’t drive to work anymore.

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Hiking in Yosemite High Country

Sharon has some great recent pics of/from Sentinel Dome here, including what the ol’ Jeffrey pine looks like now. Enjoy!

Traeger Travel

Last week we hiked and backpacked in Yosemite with an able and informative guide, Kari. In 3 days we hiked 24 miles along the Pohono, Panorama, and the John Muir Trails, and camped for 2 nights. Our route started at the Tunnel View trailhead, with a steep uphill climb over a rocky (Kari called it “technical”) and unshaded path. My first impression was regret that I had committed myself to 3 days of this exercise. It was hard to appreciate the scenery as I stepped gingerly over loose rocks and dry sandy soil.

Our first break was a viewpoint at Mile 1.3, Inspiration Point; and it is aptly named. By this time we had climbed to 5,390 elevation, and had earned a view of Yosemite Valley and Bridalveil Fall. John Muir took Teddy Roosevelt to Inspiration Point in 1903 when they explored Yosemite together.

Our next two days consisted of…

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Glen Pass

A PCT thru hiker in Kings Canyon National Park just passed through a section I worked on with NPS in 1989. Great memories here!

Little Toccoa Creek Farm

Breath taking moments abound in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. There’s something about climbing a rocky trail in the light of the morning sun to come around a corner and see an ice covered lake below. It’s grand. Granted no less so than the towering peaks, the snow, the magnificent trees, and animals like marmot and deer.

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I climbed alone to Glen Pass; I’ve done it before in both directions. It was fun to see the lake I swam in last time covered in ice and much of the trail under snow.
Two hikers coming back down said it was too dangerous to go over the top. I headed on, but vowed to not go down the north side alone or if I couldn’t do it safely. Fortunately, others hiked to the pass while I sat on the summit enjoying the views.
Hermes and Lotus offered to let me follow them…

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May 13, 1987: Seven Rocks

Causeway Ready For Fill photo 38-1.jpg
Causeway under construction. This is not the section that Erin didn’t like, but this is the kind of trail we were building.

Back to reality today. I got 7 rocks in my section of causeway, but I wound up having to rework the whole blasted thing. This morning when Matt was lining me out, he showed me where the next step was supposed to go. So, I just started at the lower step and worked in a straight line for the next step. Boy, did it look nice. A nice straight line, contact on at least the entire front of the rock (usually more). It was great.

However, I noticed that the trail was getting kind of narrow after I put in my 5th rock. I asked Matt about it, and he had me straighten the last couple out, and then I continued. Just before the afternoon break, Matt asked Erin (Anders) if the trail width would be acceptable. Erin looked at it and laughed. He laughed. I don’t think he could have done anything that would have pissed me off more than that. At that time I guess I copped an attitude and I didn’t really grasp what little reasoning he gave for having me tear it out and make it conform more to Matt’s side. All I know is that I was really pissed off at Erin all afternoon after the break. I pulled out all of my rocks, making room to adjust them and used a stretched string line to keep my side exactly 6 ½ feet from Matt’s. What really made it worse was that my side was a perfectly straight line, while Matt’s looked like it zig-zagged all over the place. As I’ve already said, I was furious.

After work I talked to Erin about it and he explained in more detail about the necessary width and using Matt’s side of the causeway as a guide. But I still don’t understand why they wanted the trail rambling all over the place when it’s just as easy to make it a straight line. That whole section of trail is on dirt—it’s not like we had to work around obstructions. But I understand now the importance of working off the other guy’s work.

Completed Causeway in Wawona photo 39.jpg
Completed causeway section. This is what we were shooting for. It still needs some cosmetic work along the sides to blend it in with the surrounding forest.

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