Volunteers spend day giving fix-up to Hanging Lake

Will Grandbois
Glenwood Springs Post Independent

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Like many locals, I mostly avoid Hanging Lake because of unprecedented crowds.

When I braved the trail for the first time in more than a decade one Wednesday morning earlier this summer, I did so for a story, and viewed the trip as a social — not an outdoor — experience. I found the stories I’d been told of holding patterns in the parking lot, traffic jams on the trail and hooligans at the lake were entirely accurate, and began to understand why the U.S. Forest Service and Colorado Department of Transportation are so eager for a solution.

On Saturday, I returned, along with 30-odd others, to try to help undo some of the damage that more than 100,000 pairs of feet have done this year to the short but steep trail to Hanging Lake.

The project was organized by the Roaring Fork Outdoor Volunteers, a local nonprofit celebrating 20 years of work. In order to give the workers some breathing room, the rest stop was closed all day. A side effect of the closure — and perhaps the reason many of us volunteered — was the opportunity for something rare at Hanging Lake — solitude.

Mounting the trail with the first work crew to depart, I soon lost sight of forest ranger Kelsey King, who makes the climb several times a week. Crew leader Eileen Wysocki and her husband, Glenn, adopted a more measured pace, leaving me effectively alone.

Without having to pause to let people pass, I was able to set my own pace and was quickly reminded of what a grunt the trail really is. Leaning on my pulaski to catch my breath, I could hear the birds and other small animals chatter all about me, as if in celebration at the reprieve from the throng. At the lake, the boardwalk was empty except for King, and the sound of water was a soothing song.

It didn’t take long for the rest of the crew to catch up, and they turned out to be a diverse group.

Several, like Lee Smith of Battlement Mesa, were Roaring Fork Outdoor Volunteer members who volunteer every year.

“You can’t beat the work environment,” Smith said.

Others, like Rifle substitute teacher Robi Sifers, came because of an attachment to the place.

“I love it. It’s amazing, and it’s right here in our backyard,” she said. “The one thing I don’t like about crowds is the trash. I think littering is totally disrespectful.”

Rachel Collins, a recent arrival in Glenwood Springs, saw a flier for the event at a local restaurant.

“What drew us to the area was the community,” she said. “It’s nice to have a community event and something we wanted to see.”

She brought her boyfriend, Will Brock, and their friend Josh Nugent of Denver.

Neither needed much coaxing.

“I’ve seen it on billboards in Texas,” said Brock. “I’ve wanted to come up here for a while, but I never did. It seems like the parking lot’s always full.”

The lake’s fame seemed to work in its favor for once, as Nugent wasn’t the only volunteer from the Front Range.

“We were just planning a hike for the weekend, heard about the volunteer opportunity and just joined,” said Sandra Stiers, who made the trip with her Highlands Ranch neighbor, Jen Baily. “It was an opportunity to give a little back to our great state.”

Still, there was an undeniable unity to the group.

“You meet a lot of like-minded people who really care about the environment,” Wysocki said.

It wasn’t the Wysockis’ first time doing trail work at Hanging Lake. Roaring Fork Outdoor Volunteers has had several big projects on the trail in the last decade.

“It’s kind of cool to come back and see the steps we built years ago,” Glenn Wysocki said.

“It’s more necessary than people realize,” Eileen Wysocki said of the volunteer day. “Forest Service budgets are shrinking all the time, and trails don’t just happen.”

At Hanging Lake, though, they sort of do.

While some volunteers worked to replace the old, rotten, heavily carved benches along the trail or rebuild the steps up to Spouting Rock, our crew was tasked with covering up and blocking what are known as “social trails.”

Many paths that split off from the main trail lead to dead ends. Some, in clear defiance of signs and ropes, criss-cross the fragile wetland above the lake. Each packed-down stretch of earth is an invitation to leave the paths, and each had to be covered with rocks, blocked with branches or roughed up so it looks like a natural forest floor.

That can be hard work, but everyone gets to work at their own pace.

“We never push people to do stuff beyond their ability,” Eileen Wysocki said. “It’s really up to the volunteer how much work they want to do.”

The Roaring Fork Outdoor Volunteers provide the tools, the direction and a meal afterward — all supported by donations.

“Volunteers are obviously our bread and butter, but the dollars are really important, too,” Eileen Wysocki said.

Volunteers and money will likely be increasingly necessary as visitors continue to flock to the White River National Forest.

“You can feel the population growth in the state in its impact on our trails,” said Sam Massman, trails and wildlife manager for the Eagle/Holy Cross ranger district. “The algae bloom we’re seeing in the lake wasn’t there five years ago. It seems to increase proportionally with the number of people coming here.”

The bad behavior, too, seems to scale with popularity. Massman recalls issuing one Bostonian a $125 ticket for walking on the log in the lake, only to be told “it was worth it.”

Social media, which may account in part for the record crowds on the trail, also illustrates broad disregard for the rules. Instagram hosts numerous photos of people on the log, some even including the sign forbidding it or a rebellious hashtag.

This year, the Forest Service has had a chance to see the problem in person through a funding agreement with Glenwood Springs and Garfield County that assigns a trio of rangers to the lake during peak hours.

Although it’s only 1 mile of 630 miles of trail in his district, Massman said that’s what it takes to protect the resource.

“We have put a lot of time and effort into this trail,” he said. “I think it deserves it.”

The Forest Service certainly seemed to appreciate the assistance from the Roaring Fork Outdoor Volunteers.

Back at the base at the end of the day, King smiled as the group lined up for dinner donated by The Pullman, Glenwood Canyon Brewing and Louis Swiss Pastry.

“I think just having a group of people that are willing to come and volunteer their time is huge,” she said. “It shows me people actually care.”