With the wind whipping across their backs, a team of volunteers steadily dug away at the side of Lewis and Clark Pass northeast of Lincoln. Behind them was 200 yards of freshly carved trail — the product of their work from the day before. Ahead of them was a path of tiny blue flags that outlined how much trail they had left to cut.
The volunteers were fighting against the wind to retread part of the Continental Divide National Scenic Trail (CDT) that was destroyed in the 2017 Alice Creek fire. The fire, which tore through about 30,000 acres last year, destroyed trail infrastructure and scorched a sign that denoted the significance of Lewis and Clark Pass. From June 25 through June 29, the group helped restore the trail and installed a new sign.
The drive to the group’s camp at the Alice Creek Trailhead was a living testimony to nature’s resiliency. The road starts just east of Lincoln with a vibrant display of healthy forest, but as it winds toward the trailhead damage from the fire becomes more evident. While charred trees stand along the mountainside, grass and flowers cover the ground in an act of defiance against the effects of natural disaster.
The four-day restoration project, which was put together by the Montana Wilderness Association and the Continental Divide Trail Coalition, was the group’s own act of defiance against wildfire damage. By restoring the trail and signage the group made life a bit easier for the 300-some hikers that attempt the full 3,100-mile CDT each year, and helped re-emphasize its historical significance.
“Beyond just the passion behind it, giving back would be the most important thing,” said volunteer Sean Jansen, a landscaper and photographer from Bozeman. “There are going to be people within the next month or two that are hiking down from Canada that are going to be really stoked that there’s an actual trail to follow. Don’t get me wrong, it’s fun to navigate and find your way, but it’s also a stress reliever when there’s a trail. The fact that we built that for them is pretty rewarding.”
Jansen hiked the Pacific Crest Trail but had never been to the Continental Divide Trail. He wanted to see the behind-the-scenes work that goes into trail maintenance. A day into the trip, Jansen got to see it — and feel it.
“It’s slow progress,” Jansen said. “It took us five hours to do about 200 yards of trail. But it’s rewarding. It’s really cool; you get your ass kicked.”
On top of trail work and the Lewis and Clark Pass sign replacement, the group also took part in the Blaze the CDT initiative started by the coalition. In honor of the CDT’s 40th anniversary — it was created in 1978 — the whole trail will be marked with signs. Many of the original signs have been stolen or damaged, and by November the entirety of the trail should be replenished.
According to Chad Angell, a field programs manager for the coalition, this is the largest push for signage along the CDT in decades. Fire rehabilitation is important, but so is trail marking.
“Marking the trail on this project and Blaze the CDT is important to keep people on the trail and not get lost,” Angell said. “This segment of the trail that locals might hike every year and see as the trail in their backyard is part of a bigger trail, a bigger system. It’s designated ‘National Scenic’ and it has a history, so letting people know that these trails in their backyards have a bigger story (is important).”
For volunteers and staff alike, the work was strenuous and the hours were long. MWA anticipated that and began each day with a stretching circle. Moving counterclockwise, each volunteer stated their safety tip of the day and offered a stretch that the rest of the group would then execute.
The crew got to know each other through time together at the camp at dawn and dusk. Sonny Mazzullo, stewardship coordinator with MWA, said that each volunteer brought their own reason for participating, most of which was a close connection to the trail.
One volunteer had his first backpacking trip with his dad along the CDT. Another worked for the Forest Service researching whitebark pines. Together with their attachment to the area, they brought a drive to improve the route.
“Everyone is here for the right reasons,” Mazzullo said. “They’re excited about giving back, and since so many of them had a connection with the landscape already, I think this crew is really taking the work seriously. The volunteers are here because they want to help. That’s the thing I’ve been struck with with this crew, is just how intent they are on getting the job done.”
Haley Roe, a trail steward with MWA, also noted the commitment to collaboration and the excitement of putting “heads together and hands together” to carve out this section of the CDT.
“We got some pretty outstanding volunteers,” Roe said. “It takes a special person to take their vacation days from work to come work here. It takes a special person to be willing to go do manual labor.”
Work by these volunteers and others like them is critical, according to Mazzullo. With President Donald Trump’s proposed budget cuts to the Department of the Interior and the Department of Agriculture in 2019, the Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management and National Park Service, volunteers can provide aid to programs that are on the chopping block. As Mazzullo said, there’s no end to the amount of trail work that can be done.
“Volunteers provide, supplement, and also, it’s a great opportunity for volunteers to come out and get a little more educated about what goes into maintaining a trail and how much work and planning it does take,” Mazzullo said. “I think it helps create more allies for our land management agencies to have the resources they need to get the job done.”