Back in 1992, before smartphones and life online, the US Forest Service created the Quilcene Ranger Corps program.
Middle school students from Quilcene, a small town nestled between the Olympic National Forest and Hood Canal, could apply to the free program, which offered the chance to spend the summer working outdoors with schoolmates. Together, they learned to tend trails and to care for the natural resources nearby.
The program remained popular over the years, and nearly a decade later, the Forest Service would partner with the PNTA in its management.
Quilcene didn’t change too much in that quarter century. Dial-up internet service would become popular in the late ‘90s (as it would everywhere), and in 2008, a Facebook group called, “I’ve Heard of Quilcene” started up; its name an inside joke among locals. The quiet town remains relatively unknown compared to growing cities like Sequim and Port Townsend to the north.
While the Ranger’s hometown essentially stayed the same—as most of the remote towns along the Pacific Northwest Trail have—the life of a young person had changed everywhere.
Why Kids Need Nature
Today, most Americans experience nature as an image, or at a remove, if at all. Most of us feel more at home in a world built by us, one with clean surfaces that meet at right angles, one where nature is relegated to a decorative purpose on the margins, like a sprig of parsley at the edge of a dinner plate.
In 2005, Richard Louv published the best selling book, Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature Deficit Disorder. Louv won the Audubon Medal putting his finger on the problem—that being deprived of nature harms children—and for pointing us toward a solution.
It seems clear that youth programs that coax young folks away from screens and into the woods are even more urgently needed than they were in the ‘90s.
According to the advocacy group Children and Nature Network, mounting scientific evidence suggests that nature-deficit disorder can contribute to a “diminished use of the senses, attention difficulties, conditions of obesity, and higher rates of emotional and physical illnesses.”
Untreated, the disorder can have a permanent effect on individuals, with larger repercussions for society. Research also suggests that, “nature-deficit weakens ecological literacy and stewardship of the natural world.”
Absent these guiding principles, the ideas held by young people towards public lands and sustainable human communities could mark a radical shift from their forebears’— those who created our National Parks and laws to protect common resources like air and water.
Fortunately, research also shows that the effects of the disorder can be reversed. “Spending time in nature provides a wide range of health benefits and enhances educational outcomes by improving children’s academic performance, focus, behavior and love of learning,” according to the Children and Nature Network.
Youth programs, like the QRC, can solve two problems at once, by reversing these trends, and by giving trails much needed maintenance.
Although well-loved trails on our national forests see more visitors each year, these agencies are getting less and less funding, and a 300 million dollar maintenance backlog has been the result. Most find it surprising to learn that trails on the Olympic National Forest— whose boundaries interlock with Olympic National Park—are maintained solely by volunteers.
The faces of the QRC may have changed over the years, yet the mission has not. Fostering a sense of stewardship of our recreation infrastructure and of our natural resources begins with time spent in nature in our formative years.
“The QRC has fostered the youth of the community in spending more time outdoors, learning the foundation of a strong work ethic, and potentially creating future managers of our wild places,” said Fluharty.
The QRC Program
Each year, middle school-age students from Quilcene, and the surrounding area, work to maintain the Pacific Northwest Trail four days a week. Crews meet at the Hood Canal Ranger Station before shuttling off to Tubal Cain and other trailheads on the Forest.
Forest Service personnel like Meghan Fluharty, Wilderness and Trail Coordinator, work with the students to introduce them to careers in natural resource management, such as forestry, biology and wildland firefighting. “The QRC has fostered the youth of the community in spending more time outdoors, learning the foundation of a strong work ethic, and potentially creating future managers of our wild places,” said Fluharty.
Trail stewardship and entry-level job skills are the main takeaways from the program. Students are paid a stipend for their time, and the instruction they receive is to the high standards required by the U.S. Forest Service for trail maintenance.
Just as important are the collateral benefits of time spent working outdoors, and it seems clear that the students recognize these achievements in themselves. Robert, a 2008 Ranger said, “we got a chance to learn about each other and ourselves. We became friends. We became a team.”
“The PNTA has created a great opportunity for some of our local community’s youth. The Olympic National Forest has been proud of being able to “host” them on our forest and have greatly appreciated all of their hard work over the years,” said Fluharty.
GETTING YOUTH OUTDOORS
In July, I joined the QRC to experience life on the trail. Veteran Crew Leader, Tanner Boggs, greeted me at the ranger station for the Hood Canal Ranger District.
Boggs, who has instructed three successive classes of Rangers, seems to relish bucking larger trees, and walking along trunks to dizzying heights. He also makes a game of learning, by quizzing the crew on the names of native plants while they work.
The crew started work early, and a thick blanket of morning fog still clung to dewy meadows as Boggs directed mostly middle school-age students—and some high schoolers who had returned to the program—into the large shuttle van nicknamed the “Black Pearl” by this year’s crew.
The class of 2018 ranged from 7th-12th grade students, and yet even with the large age gap, most Rangers knew each other from school. Their K-12 school district is located on a single campus in the close-knit community.
Wyatt was now in his fourth year with the QRC, and a stoic high school senior. At 17 years old, he aspires to apply his trail skills as an Assistant Crew Leader with the program, or to work on a PNTA Performance Crew next summer.
I asked Richard, a second year student, why he had returned to the program as he stretched to trim back a crooked branch. “I like being outdoors and learning the names of all the plants here,” he said after removing the encroaching limb. Kalei, new to the program this year, overheard our conversation and added, “some kids spend their whole summer in front of an idiot box.”
Her comment wasn’t surprising. A television is an inexpensive baby sitter, much cheaper than summer camp, and behavioral addiction to screens and games is a growing problem that educators and doctors have only begun to grapple with.
CLEARING THE NOTCH PASS TRAIL
The crew began their work week on the Notch Pass Trail. They told me that daytime highs the previous week had reached the mid 90’s, and they were happy to work in the shade of the forest and in cooler weather.
Crew leader, Tanner Boggs, began by explaining the hidden history of the Notch Pass Trail to the crew; there was no interpretive kiosk installed at the trailhead to share its story. This special footpath existed long before trails were used as an escape from modern life, he explained. The Notch Pass Trail would have had a different name, but it had existed for centuries as an important overland route for the local S’klallam Tribe.
We descended briskly down the trail, dappled with morning light, filtered through a mix of fir and rhododendron. Along the way, the group of a dozen Rangers broke into two teams supporting Boggs and Assistant Crew Leader, Tim Hernandez, who was enjoying his first year with the program. “This is the best summer of life,” he told me after pointing to a few problem areas for his crew to fix.
His team of sawyers cleared smaller trees overgrowing the trail and the ten foot corridor needed for equestrians to pass. The team carried assorted tools: pruners, folding hand saws, and a telescoping pruner to reach the tallest branches.
“I don’t think I can do it,” Jacob, the youngest QRC member, worried aloud. “This is harder than it looks,” he whispered to Hernandez. He grimaced as he balanced the telescoping pruner and strained to pull the cord of the ratchet. With a little encouragement, he gave a final tug, and smiled with relief as the pruners’ blades sheared through a stubborn branch overhanging the trail.
It seems common for QRC students to discover deeper reserves of self confidence and to find a strong sense of group accomplishment in the work. Tasha, a former graduate of the program, reflected on her summer. “I didn’t think I was capable of moving a 1,000 pound boulder, but we all worked together, and we did it!”
QRC Helps Replace a Footbridge
The following day, the crew took a break from clearing trails, and QRC students joined volunteer groups led by the Back Country Horsemen to help out with a project seven years in the making.
Nearly a decade before, a footbridge had washed out along the Lower Gold Creek Trail. PNT enthusiasts might recognize its name; it serves as a connector trail between the red and black routes of the Pacific Northwest Trail on the eastern side of the Peninsula.
Although the bridge was on the Olympic National Forest, trails there are maintained solely by volunteers, and the bridge was left unrepaired for years. Hikers were left to ford Gold Creek, a daunting challenge when waters run high in the rainy season.
Before long, Tom Mix, Project Leader of the Back Country Horsemen’s Peninsula Chapter, set out to tackle the problem. Mix has volunteered with BCHA for 17 years, and also volunteers with the Trail Blazers, a group which stocks mountain lakes with fish.
For the Gold Creek project, Mix worked to secure grant funding to help cover the replacement costs for the footbridge, and for two others on the Forest. He would also work with the US Forest Service, which provided project oversight to ensure compliance with NEPA and other environmental and federal regulations.
BCHW-Peninsula chapter was the overall project leader and each participating crew member got to do the assignment they liked best. The foot log was moved into place by a collaboration of crew members representing BCHW, WTA, Gray Wolf, PNTA Quilcene Ranger Corp, and Klahhane hiking club. Safety of the crew and visitors was the top priority. -Tom Mix, Project Leader, BCHW-Peninsula Chapter.
The QRC was invited to help the project along by clearing the trail to the worksite before the other crews arrived. The Rangers spent a week removing downed trees and thick brush, battling ground nesting wasps and summer heat in the process.
Later in July, the project commenced and Meghan Fluharty, Wilderness and Trail Coordinator with the Forest Service, was onsite to lend a hand. In all, over two dozen volunteers, three mules, four trail associations and two dogs would chip in.
For the QRC students, the project offered a rare opportunity to work alongside other local volunteers. The large scale of the project let smaller teams of QRC students learn new skills and get one-on-one instruction from a variety of experienced Crew Leaders, including Mike Bonomo, Crew Leader with the Gray Wolves Trail Association.
The project would use a massive cedar log found near the worksite by Rod Farlee, founder of the Gray Wolves. Cedar has a natural ability to resist rot, making it ideal for backcountry structures like bridges and shelters. This tree had lived in the forest for over 200 years before falling to the forest floor a decade ago.
In 2014, I suggested a smaller cedar log, located north near the stock ford. We kept searching and found the larger one we used. Tom Mix and I returned the next day to cut it to ensure it had no heart rot or splits. The Forest Service spec for up to a 30 foot span requires 18″ diameter at mid-span. [The second log measured] 28.5 inches. It was twice as heavy as the first—that’s why we needed more blocks and it took a full day to yard it—but it was also twice as stiff. –Rod Farlee, founder of the Gray Wolves Trail Association
BUILDING NEW TRAIL
With the bridge to be sited in a new location, nearly 50 feet of new tread would need to be built. Tanner Boggs and his Rangers welcomed the challenge and change of pace. The young crew is usually tasked with light maintenance, rather than trail construction.
An animated speaker, Rebecca Wanagel, Chief Crew Leader with the Washington Trails Association, inspired the Rangers to own the project, walking them through the steps needed to build the new trail segment.
Their first task was to remove all of duff and organic material from the scratch trail, digging down to the mineral soil. “The QRC kids were so patient with getting rid of the “duff” as we call it. We often have to dig through a whole lot of duff to get down to the good stuff,” explained Wanagel.
“There’s far more to building a trail than simply scratching a line in the dirt. That won’t last. We build trails to last,” explained Wanagel.
Next, she showed crew members how to construct a level trail bed. Roots and rocks needed to be removed and several large holes along the path would need to be filled to even out the new trail.
Crew members worked to transport buckets of rocks and gravel from Gold Creek, tamping each layer of gradually smaller rocks into place.
“We are very careful with this,” said Wanagel. “If it is a creek or river that is sensitive fish habitat and if the Land Manager says no, we don’t take rocks from the creek. In this case it was deemed okay.”
“Tanner’s dog, Muir, was a huge help. Seriously! Tanner has taught him to dig where he points, and he was eagerly digging out a root we needed to cut out! It was adorable,” said Wanagel.
BUILDING THE SILL
Greg Sanders, in his eleventh year with WTA, worked with a team of Rangers to build a sill for the bridge on the opposite bank.
To build the foundation, the crew members transported large rocks and learned how to use rock bars to move them into place. It was exacting work—the cedar log sill would need to be installed at precisely the correct height and carefully levered into place with log peaveys.
CRAFTING THE FOOTBRIDGE
To create the bridge, a level walking surface and handrail were needed. Mike Bonomo oversaw construction and volunteers, Paul “Toothpick” Hornberger, Martin Knowles, and Doug Smith spent the day skillfully transforming the log.
Crew Leaders created a makeshift assembly line of adult volunteers and youth crew members. First, material would need to be removed from the top surface of the log for the walkway. Evenly spaced cuts were made to a premeasured depth by one team, while another used chisels to remove the material.
On the narrow end of the log, where shallow cuts were needed, Rebecca Wanagel instructed several QRC students in the use of crosscut saws. Although they had used small hand saws to trim branches before, the tool and the task were new to them. With Wanagel’s encouragement their enthusiasm grew, and even the shyest students were eager to get involved.
Meanwhile, on the opposite end, Mike Bonomo and Martin Knowles showed students Damiyon and Wyatt how to use pulaskis and chisels to chip away the material between cuts to create a level, textured tread surface that would provide enough traction on the bridge during wet weather.
“Over the course of 4 days the log was moved to a staging area where the tread was hewed and the railing support posts were fitted. Next the log was moved to the sill location and rigging was set to fly the log across the stream and to be placed on the sills.” -Tom Mix, Project Leader, BCHW-Peninsula Chapter.
SETTING THE RIGGING
While the footbridge took shape, the Back Country Horsemen saw to the transportation of the log. A complex system of cables, pulleys, grip hoists and a Lewis Winch—powered by a chainsaw engine—would be used to move the log across Gold Creek. Dell Sage used a pack string of three mules to bring the needed equipment to the work site.
Expert with rigging, Sage drew upon a lifetime of experience as a logger to set up the cables and pulleys needed to move the ten thousand pound footbridge without straining the equipment.
Meanwhile, Meghane Fluharty donned a linesman’s harness to climb a cedar on the opposite side of the creek. After installing a pulley that would be used to move the log across the creek, she gave a climbing lesson to Wyatt, a senior student with the program.
While he operated the winch, a team of BCHA volunteers, led by Tom Mix, assisted with the rigging. They worked to keep the log under proper tension and to keep it tracking straight while it was dragged across the forest floor. Both the sill and the footbridge were carefully moved with the system inch-by-inch. As the footbridge was pulled toward the creek, several new rigging setups were needed.
For the final pull, the rigging was moved to the block that Fluharty had placed high in the cedar. This setup allowed the team to pull the log up and across the creek and to set it down precisely on the opposite bank.
Now in its final position, crew members installed the handrail and celebrated a successful conclusion to the project, now seven years in the making.
Now in its final position, crew members installed the handrail and celebrated a successful conclusion to the project, now seven years in the making.
“What a beaut. It’ll last a good long while unless Mother Nature has other plans like throwing a tree down on it,” said Wanagel.
For the QRC students, it represented a major achievement that would surely live on in their memories as a highlight of the summer. Their individual contributions to the group project— a smooth handrail, a section of tread, or a cut log—will tell the story of the cooperative effort for years to come.
One of the goals of the Quilcene Ranger Corps Program is to help students appreciate that trails and our public lands are one generation’s gift to the next, and that trails can connect more than places, they bring people and communities together as well.