Spring 2013

Dog Years

Who builds those thousands of miles of park trails and how do they do it?

By Christine Byl
Photograph by Illustrations by Dung Hoang

You don’t become a traildog overnight. To earn the title, you have to work on a professional trail crew, and you have to work on one for a long time.

To a hiker, a trail is a possibility. To a bear, a trail is a path of least resistance. To a child, a trail is an adventure. To a runner, a trail is a workout. To a historian, a trail is a story. And to a traildog, a trail is paycheck, commute, office, passion. A trail is the whole, entire point.

If you’ve hiked in a national park, you may have seen us. We’re spread along the trail working on rock steps, tools lying just out of your way. (“What’s that for?” you’ve wondered.) We hike past you in a line, inching by politely then blazing out of sight. Or you pass us. We’re hunched on rocks trailside, inhaling our lunches in a sweaty heap. Maybe you’ve seen us at the trailhead, climbing out of a crew cab, sleepy in the mornings, stretching or piling in at the end of the day, tossing tools into the bed with a metal clang. Sometimes we wear hard hats, but not always. We’re in worn Carhartts, tattered fleece, grimy T-shirts, a uniform when it’s required. Leather work boots, laces wound tight around the top. Even if you haven’t seen us, we’ve been there. We built this turnpike, that boardwalk. We sawed out windfall that blocked the trail. We cleared drains of rocks so water could flow. So the trails will last. So you can hike. We’re traildogs.

You don’t become a traildog overnight. To earn the title, you have to work on a professional trail crew, and you have to work on one for a long time. Two summers between college semesters isn’t enough. Four years volunteering with the Student Conservation Association won’t do it. Years of weeklong Sierra Club work trips—no deal. By strictest measures, to become a traildog, you have to put in seven seasons on a professional trail crew (a season is at least four months). Any less than this tenure earns you only the title “hobbyist.” Once you finish your seventh season—hang the last pulaski in the tool shed, turn in your keys to the admin ladies, give final high-fives to your crewmates, whose wrists and knees are as sore as yours and who are also thinking about ski season or a trip to Thailand or a month of late mornings reading in bed—only then do you finally “get your dog year.”

Trail work happens all over the country: city parks and nature preserves, bike paths and interpretive trails. But national parks are prime time for traildogs. It’s easy to see why: The Park Service manages around 17,000 miles of trail across the country, is renowned for its trail crew lineage, and typically pays some of the highest wages one could hope to labor for in the backcountry. Seven years weeds out hobbyists, who are pulled from fieldwork by grad school or “regular” jobs or the (wise) realization that they don’t actually want to swing a tool for another season. But when we do attain our dog year, Park Service traildogs often return again and again to the park they fell in love with, sometimes for a lifetime—a seasonal career. Case in point: I spent my first six seasons in Montana’s Glacier National Park, where the crew was full of “lifers,” at least six of whom have done trail work for 15 to 30 years.

I finally got my own dog year in Denali National Park, where after my formative years in Glacier—a premier hiking park whose crews cover long miles and spend 10-day hitches breaking rocks and clearing drains—it was time to try something new. Going in, I knew that Alaska was different—huge tracts of land and small visitation, trail systems much less developed than parks in the Lower 48. I knew that Denali’s trails were mostly in the front-country, so the crew worked near roads. No more stints like my Glacier days, where packers brought their gear 15 miles into the backcountry on mule strings. When I met the Denali crew the first day in the shop, another difference was clear: No lifers. Many were shiny new, just out of the local high school, or up to Alaska on a lark. Some had worked trails for a year or two, but even the trails foreman, rolled over from the road crew, had worked strictly on trails for only a few seasons. His quick move into a supervisory role spoke highly of his drive and skill set, but he’d skipped the formative years hitched out in a moldy tent, working 80-hour weeks in the rain. By the strange, proud logic of the subculture, he’d never be more than hobbyist.

Aric Baldwin was all traildog, though. Leaning against the break room wall that first day, he was a new-hire, up for his first Denali season, like me. If you didn’t guess his dog status looking at him—grubby uniform shirts with the old-school cursive nametag and a beat-up backpack—you’d know after talking shop, when it became clear he’d earned nearly every trail badge (build bridge, drive loader, blast snowdrift, dig drains, load mules). An East Coast native, at 16 he’d volunteered on a trail project as a Boy Scout in New Mexico, “which got trails in my blood, as they say.” Immediately hooked on the trails vibe, Aric spent six seasons in Rocky before moving up to Denali to earn his own dog year, congruent with mine. Over that season, my husband Gabe (a traildog, too, of course) and I bonded with Aric over many things—an itch for mountain travel, a love of sled dogs, a competitive Scrabble streak—but surely a pillar of our friendship was our traildog pack status—the shared, almost pheromonal quality you can sniff out across a room: spruce pitch, moldy rubber, chainsaw gas, peanut butter, sweat. We loved our jobs and felt lucky to make a living behind the scenes in a national park, clearing blowdown and building bridges and digging knee-deep in muck. How you build a trail depends on the ground it’s in and who’s going to use it. The first step is deciding where it goes. Often, an alignment is already on the ground, lined out by a foreman with survey tape in the trees, and the crew just has to dig. Other times, we crew leaders do the ground-pounding and map-reading, laying out the season’s work, a pin-flagged line snaking ahead of the crew. When it comes to construction, site predicts tactics. A wheelchair-accessible interpretive trail on permafrost tundra is quite different from a narrow switch-backed trail to an alpine pass. For the accessible trail, you’d use a Bobcat to remove tundra and gravel to replace it, plate compactors to harden the surface and geotextile fabric laid beneath the whole mass to prevent it from sinking into mud. Up in the alpine, you’d use hand tools to grub the trail tread into sloping ground, a rock wall here or there to hold up scree, maybe a foot-log to span a narrow creek.

Over years, traildogs learn that different tasks demand different tacks. There are varied methods of using the same tools, ways to pace yourself depending on the job at hand. How full to fill your buckets so you can haul gravel all day, how often to stretch when backing a Bobcat so your muscles don’t seize from craning your neck. Some constants persist in most any trail scenario, the tools you reach for again and again: shovel, biceps, pulaski, quads, work boots, brains, abs, chainsaw. And no matter what, you can always, always use grit, dirty jokes, a ready laugh, and a huge lunch.

After five good years building trails together in Denali, Aric, Gabe, and I moved in new directions, guided only by our minor professional addiction to trail work. Gabe and I stayed in the Denali area and started our own business doing trail design and construction across the state, a challenge we felt ready for. No more green and gray uniforms, timesheets, or crews. Now our main contact with the Park Service is at statewide conferences or the occasional training. Aric, on the other hand, moved to Skagway, Alaska, to become the trails foreman at Klondike Gold Rush National Park. In some ways, our trails paths could not be more different. Private sector vs. agency. Mainland Alaska vs. Southeast. Layout and design vs. historic reconstruction. We envy Aric his equipment budget, his paid sick leave, the fun of leading a crew; he envies us our flexible schedule, the diversity of our projects, the absence of federal paperwork. Yet on the ground, we share what we always have, the principles that bonded us in the first place: Work until you drop, and then a little longer. It’s easier to beg forgiveness than get permission. Keep your saw chain sharp. In a way, it’s odd that Aric migrated from Denali (third largest park in the state, no less the country) to tiny Klondike (at 12,996 acres, smaller than Manhattan), but when you consider the focus of the park, it makes sense. Klondike commemorates the eponymous Gold Rush of 1897–98, primarily through preservation of the Chilkoot Trail, named for the Tlingit tribe that pioneered this trade route. The American portion of the trail climbs 16 miles to Chilkoot Pass, where it crosses the Canadian border and descends into the Yukon. Klondike is one of the few parks in the system where a trail is the major focus—not a leg stretch off the road or a diversion from the visitor center but a destination in itself. Hiking trail as centerpiece: For a traildog, that’s as good as it gets. But the Chilkoot is not just recreation, it’s history; while Aric’s crew repairs damage, they’re also curating an artifact. When the gold miners first “upgraded” the Chilkoot Trail to get themselves to the goldfields, efforts were slapdash, which makes sense; the word “rush” does not suggest impeccable planning. Despite the often poorly sited trail, reroutes to better ground are not an option because of the park’s historical mission. Aric says, “Whenever possible we use turn-of-the-century methods to maintain the historical landscape, which in itself is a big draw to people who hike the trail.” In this, the spirit of the Gold Rush remains intact; he even gives the prospectors the benefit of the doubt: “I like to think that if given more time or forethought, they would have used these methods to create the trail in 1898.” (Read: If they weren’t in such a rush to get rich, they would have built great bridges, too.)

Aric is lucky. Most promotions to foreman mean that desk time supplants field work, anathema to traildogs. But Klondike’s size and its small crew keep Aric’s hands in the dirt. “We’re backcountry-oriented, and we hike over 400 miles a season,” he says. “I love being out for eight days at a time, where you really get into a groove with the trail, weather, crew.” These days, my crew is Gabe and me. (We take turns being the boss, because neither of us likes being told what to do, especially me.) We get to do a little of everything, from rock work to foot bridges to chainsaw work, but we specialize in trail prescription (what’s wrong and how to fix it) and trail design and layout (where to put it if it can’t be fixed), tasks perfectly suited to a pair tromping through brush and tundra. While Aric is busy maintaining history, Gabe and I often get hired to help an agency with a trail that has been damaged beyond repair. It’s incredibly satisfying to design new alignment, to find the very best solution. But though I love my job, my business, and my (part-time) boss, sometimes I miss the old days, when I’d hit the trail with five, seven, 12 other traildogs, in a line with tools over shoulder, hiking on each other’s heels, no one wanting to bring up the rear (which smells like an outhouse). I miss the large-scale havoc we could wreak—the massive piles of brush, the yards of gravel, the hundreds of feet of finished trail, the epic practical jokes—and the PBRs on the porch at 5:31. I’m glad Aric is still with the Park Service, lining out his crew, measuring twice, cutting once. Keeping it in the family.

Like all pack animals, traildogs have elaborate ways of communicating. There are probably 20 versions of the hand-slap/fist-bump, the secret crew handshakes that can mean “hey there,” “nice work,” “move it,” or “check you later.” We have hand signals for backing vehicles, cleaning up the work site, picking up the pace, and “here comes the boss.” Stories we tell and retell, code words only we know. We have raised eyebrows, pursed lips, finger gestures (obscene and otherwise); they communicate volumes. With 800 miles between our best traildog pal and us, subtle physical messaging is more difficult. Still, when we talk to Aric on the phone, after updates on home, family, dogs (“Did you pour your slab? How did the garden do? Did your mom have a good visit?”), we always get around to work. Aric wants to hear how thick the brush was on that state park job, if we finished close enough to our bid to make any money. (Yes and no.) Does he dig the yellow cedar bridge stringers he ordered? (Yes.) Did they get snow at Sheep Camp? (No.) We talk shop (budgets axed, trails flooded), confirm rumors (did you hear that so-and-so quit and bought a sailboat?), and prod each other for the details of our modest successes. We wish luck with next week’s project and hope for good weather, no backaches, a day where things go smoothly. When we hang up, I can hear a fist bump in his voice.

In the end, no matter where trail work happens—Denali, Glacier, Klondike, Rocky—one constant remains: We work our asses off for something we love, and always, we laugh. We’re blue-collar craftsmen, woodsy laborers, industrial athletes, as proud of our subculture as any ethnicity or sports fan. A pack, a gang, an unassailable tribe. Seven years is all it takes, and after that, maybe, a lifetime.