Guest column: On the trail with the Roaring Fork Outdoor Volunteers |

Guest column: On the trail with the Roaring Fork Outdoor Volunteers

Justin Patrick
Guest Column

Many residents of central Colorado have a deep affection for the untrammeled outdoors. But when it comes to giving back and volunteering time for the environment, it is easy to be at a loss for tangible action. What, after all, can we do for Mother Nature, who often seems to do best when left alone?

There is an organization based in Basalt that specializes in leading volunteer missions to focus that communal spirit of protecting nature into very real tasks that ordinary people can do. The Roaring Fork Outdoor Volunteers teams up with the Forest Service and other groups to mitigate the impact of human presence in wilderness by intelligently designing trails and maintaining existing systems as well as undertaking habitat restoration projects.

I volunteered for an Roaring Fork Outdoor Volunteers wetlands restoration project in June. About 25 volunteers spent the weekend by the Crooked Creek Reservoir strategically planting sedge grass in drained, now-defunct commercial trout ponds. Sedge grass is a critical component that serves as the basis for healthy wetlands, and planting it was the first phase in a multi-stage project to revive that corridor.

I was impressed with the efficiency and expertise that the group brought to the experience. The volunteers — most of whom did not know each other on day one — quickly merged into a humming machine of shoveling, clipping and planting under precise directive. Staff members ensured that we were well fed and hydrated and served us gourmet meals and craft beer when we were finished. I eagerly signed up for another project on Aug. 29 to 30 along the Cathedral Lake trail.

Trail maintenance is the organizations specialty. Each year, the group identifies a number of potential projects brought to them by the Forest Service, nonprofits, observant citizens or internally by staff. They select the best projects by committee, secure the funding and then plan the logistics — a process that begins a year before they set foot on the ground.

The trail that runs from Cathedral Lake to Electric Pass was in great need of attention. It had become rutted and braided from high use coupled with water erosion from snowmelt and rainstorms. Many “casual trails” had been created, especially around Cathedral Lake, that were confusing hikers about where to walk and causing undue damage to the delicate alpine vegetation.

I was one of 38 registered volunteers who backpacked to Cathedral Lake as part of last weekend’s project, a collaboration between Roaring Fork Outdoor Volunteers and Carbondale’s Wilderness Workshop. When I arrived Friday evening, tents dotted the knob that overlooks the stunning lake, which sparkled against a sweeping backdrop of cliffy, jagged rocks that give the area its name. Capital Peak Outfitters, at the behest of the Roaring Fork Horse Council, had donated two horses and four mules to pack in the heavy gear and tools, so all we had to worry about was our personal camping equipment. We were served homemade chili and mac-n-cheese for dinner. I helped myself to a few cups of boxed wine and chatted with other volunteers as the bright, nearly full moon lit up the basin.

The next morning, camp was stirring soon after sunrise. I had sausages and a bagel with cream cheese and made a peanut butter sandwich for lunch while taking in the fresh, cool air. After breakfast, volunteers broke into groups with a designated crew leader and set out in these teams of eight or so to work on a specific section of trail at about 12,000 feet.

Our big task was building “water bars,” a mostly underground series of rocks positioned diagonally across the trail to prevent water from flowing down the fall line and into the trail, which is what causes the rutting. We used a combination of shovels, “pickmatics” (pick axes) and “McClouds” (a burly metal rake) to dig diagonal trenches across the trail and then fill them with large rocks we hauled by hand from the scree field 50 feet below. After positioning the rocks, we dug another “outflow” trench immediately uphill from the water bar, again to force water off the trail.

After several hours of constructing these miniature siege walls, I have a renewed appreciation for trail work. After we had put in four of those suckers, we set our attention to the trail itself. We used the tools to widen the ruts and then used that soil to fill them up a bit so they were much more accommodating to hikers. By creating one reliable trail, and by placing rocks along the rogue trails, Roaring Fork Outdoor Volunteers hopes to keep traffic concentrated along one thoroughfare. The surrounding vegetation will replenish, hikers will have a more enjoyable trail experience and the water bars will hopefully keep the trail stable for years.

By the end of the day, admiring our group’s work, I felt great. This is why do-goodism actually works. Strangers had come together for a common purpose, worked diligently and cooperatively under the sun at high altitude, and fixed a real problem in the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness that would otherwise have remained unaddressed (maintaining trails such as this one is a task the Forest Service can no longer handle independently after years of harsh budget cuts).

The volunteers returned to camp for a hearty meal of stir-fry with brownies for dessert. Everything had run smoothly and according to plan. I urge anyone looking for an opportunity to meet good people and give back to the great outdoors in a very real way to check out the Roaring Fork Outdoor Volunteers website and sign up for any of a variety of projects continuing through the fall and resuming again early next summer.