Trail Work: Lewis and Clark Pass

Right away the drive took me by surprise from Bozeman. The slow grassy fields of farm lands, family ranches, and endlessly strait highway quickly turned to heavily forested and windy roads. Instantly I knew I had to be getting close to the Continental Divide and before I knew it, I rounded a curve of forest and there it was smiling at me. Soon thereafter, the turn to Alice Creek was present and my weeklong volunteering adventure on the Continental Divide Trail had slowly began to be realized as the 11 mile dirt road went from green dense forest to barren trunks with skeleton branches parched red from fire damage. Welcome to the Lewis and Clark Pass trail restoration project on the CDT.

Coming into the col-du-sac of the trailhead, I see two people sitting on the tailgate of a truck. One was wearing a cap with the CDT emblem on it, clearly visible from 50 yards away. That turned out to be Chad. Chad is the Field Programs Manager at the Continental Divide Trail Coalition and one of the four volunteer leaders for the trip. The other was Morgan, the Field Programs Coordinator for the CDTC and another volunteer trail crew leader. We began talking while another car showed up. That was Haley, the Trail Steward for the Montana Wilderness Assoc. and the third of the project leaders. As the four of us were conversing, a tall slender man wearing chacos and a worn down Carhartt shirt came walking up and introduced himself. He was Sonny, the Stewardship Coordinator with MWA and head hancho so to speak for the Lewis and Clark Pass fire rehabilitation project and the last of the leaders.

As we all assembled camp, other volunteers began showing up and introducing themselves until it came time for a short meeting and a JHA or Job Hazard Analysis. The ten of us huddled underneath a makeshift tarp with two tables linked together. 100 gallons worth of water jugs, a nearby creak, and wind gusts upwards of 20 miles an hour, a motto for the next two days ahead. The evening beckoned with e near full moon and shared joy of trail work for the coming days.

The start time for everyday was seven. Seven meant packing a lunch, a couple of bagels with cream cheese, and lots and lots of coffee with random morning conversations. After all was said and done, Sonny pulled us all together and gave an introduction on the tools used and vocabulary spoken. And before we knew it, we were strapped down with gear, counting down miles on trail, and following in the literal footsteps of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark.

Lewis and Clark Pass, infamous for Lewis’ return journey east is about a mile and a half from camp. Upon reaching the pass, we would all take a break where one, we would eventually work on rebuilding the sign of the area that ultimately burned down from the Alice Creek fire a year previous, and to do our mandatory morning safety meeting and group stretch.

Soon after the group would split up for the day doing various roles with regards to building the sign to re-treading the trail. Meaning we got to literally build the trail from scratch. Incredibly hard work swinging pick-axes and pulaski’s (axe/mattic). Carving away at limestone and weeds while others followed behind with rogue hoes (a hoe and rake in one) scraping and tamping the new trail.

We discovered the process was slow however rewarding to see the hard work that goes into making a trail. I have been fortunate enough to complete a thru-hike within the same vein as the CDT. I hiked the Pacific Crest Trail or PCT, in 2015. However upon completion, not once did I take into account just how much work goes into making such an epic trail. Needless to say, I am learning this now the hard way on the CDT and rightfully so.

Our day ends around three thirty where we stow tools away on the pass and make the hour or so hike back down to camp. The four trail leaders prepare dinner while the rest of us get to relax and enjoy whatever it is we seek until dinner is ready. Which was an amazing chicken curry. We relax around the kitchen area and reminisce about the day with further talks about tomorrow. Some of us with tea in hand watching the sun creep around the mountain pass and the shadow of night extend east towards the pass and tomorrows agenda. A glorious full moon made headlamps useless and the trail soldiers began falling for rest.

No alarm was needed as the five in the morning sunrise always tended to massage the eyes open. Coffee was made and breakfast was a surprise as Linda, one of the volunteers cooked the team an egg and sausage casserole with her Dutch oven. We made ready and headed back up to the pass for our morning safety meeting and stretch. The day’s agenda for me was a challenging one. I got the privilege of telling Sonny that I work in landscaping building rock patios and he thought I’d be perfect to build a water bar. A water bar is a dam of sorts on a trail that hikers and horses can still step over yet helps divert water off of the trail during storms or runoff. So I was assigned to do two of them and very quickly found out that I was in a little over my head and that they take an incredible amount of work.

Morgan came over to lend a hand and showed me the ropes so to speak. As we were constructing it, we were all surprised by a bear running down the pass. I was able to snap a few photos and the conclusion of which species it was is still unknown. I went back into town to check emails and by a couple of provisions while Sonny as well went into town to buy a couple of bigger screws so the sign could be put up the following day. Dinner was another epic one of burritos. I walked up and around a foothill at sunset to capture the fire damage and sunset with wildflowers.

Woke up for the day with a slight concern for some afternoon thunder. The forecast called for twenty percent but in my experience in the mountains, any chance means rain. But the morning was beautiful and we were joined by two journalists from the Helena newspaper who hiked up with us to document our work thus far. Morgan and I continued our water bar construction yet we got sidetracked and took the opportunity to hike up to Green Mountain. The views were splendid to say the least and our work ethic for the day dwindled as we sat up top and took in the views for longer than need be. But we finished the water bars and huddled around the finished sign to wrap up the day. We made it back to camp just in time as the afternoon rainstorm started.

We all sat beneath the tarp in the kitchen area while we took turns running back and forth to the fire where the CDTC brought a branding iron with the CDT logo on it to brand into a tree cookie that we each cut from a downed tree. Carl, a volunteer brought out a bottle of scotch and generously shared it with all of us as the rain poured down until the evening. For the most part everyone went to bed and I stayed awake to catch up in my journal all to look up and see a sunset like no other, with a rainbow casted over the pass.

The last day started with a shared trial companion in the Forest Service and trail liaison for the area. The agenda for Haley, myself and another volunteer was to hike past Green Mountain and build cairns and install blazes, or trail signs. The hike up was grueling but the work for the day was incredible. We installed 16 signs and built rock cairns while we enjoyed the view and weather as the rain clouds crept closer and closer.

We began to wrap up our job and day just in time for the rain to begin. We said our goodbyes and parted ways all with satisfaction in out stomachs for our six miles of CDT trail stewardship and half mile of complete trail re-build. The sense of satisfaction was overwhelming for me and my heart is full for those who I hope hike the trail and understand what it takes to make the trial possible.

Montana Wilderness Association