OUTBACK WITH BACKMAN: Have you ever wondered how hiking trails are built and maintained? It’s magic. Yes, it really is.


By Don Backman, for the Tillamook County Pioneer

The magic of human sweat, plain hard work, and dedication.

And in the case of Trailkeepers of Oregon, everyone is also having a great time working for a good cause.

“Be careful,” Guy, a highly experienced level C sawyer and trainer said, looking critically at the blown-down tree that they were preparing to cut out of the trail. He turned to Mike, his trainee, who was from the local area. “What do you think the tree is going to do when you cut it?” Mike and Guy spent many minutes sizing up the tree, climbing up the hill and inspecting the tangle of downed trees at the root wad, and also checked out what was down below.

“Which way is it going to move?” Guy asked.

“The tree isn’t going to go that way,” Mike said, pointing in my direction, then at a large tree still standing. “The tree is blocking it.” The two began discussing the planned cut and forces on the tree at length to make sure they did it safely.

Trailkeepers of Oregon (TKO) is an organization made up almost entirely of volunteers that are dedicated to maintaining the hiking trails in Oregon. Emily Akdedian, North Coast Stewardship Coordinator for Trailkeepers of Oregon, explains Trailkeepers, or TKO, as “A volunteer stewardship organization.” Their work is recently highlighted by work parties opening and maintaining trails in the Eagle Creek fire area along the Columbia River Gorge and also clearing storm debris on Mount Hood. What is less well known is TKO also works on the Oregon Coast Trail which runs the length of the Oregon Coast. Their calendar, located on their website, trailkeepersoforegon.org, and also hosted by Eventbrite, shows they are busy with a steady stream of projects.

On November 19th through 21st, TKO hosted work parties all weekend on closed sections of the Oregon Coast Trail in Tillamook County. Three work parties were scheduled for Cape Lookout, one on Friday, one Saturday, and another on Sunday. Two other groups met on Neah-Kah-Nie Mountain to train volunteers on saw work, and to also work on the closed section of the trail. The Saturday group was using only human-powered tools, and a Sunday group was using chainsaws.

Akdedian led a trail maintenance group at Cape Lookout State Park on Friday, November 19th. Akdedian, who is based out of North Tillamook County, explained that TKO has volunteer opportunities in many areas of the state. In addition to volunteers for the organized trail workdays, they also need Trail Ambassadors, which are people who hike their favorite trails and scout them for needed work for land managers and TKO.

Trailkeepers has a website and a calendar of upcoming events. “We need volunteers and ambassadors,” Akdedian said. “Tell them to check out out the website and calendar.”

Unfortunately, an accident closed Highway 6 and most of the volunteers were forced to turn around. Some did manage to make the long drive around and a smaller than the planned group was finally able to make a very late start. After an impressive safety and planning briefing, the group hiked in and started clearing the trail up to the blow-down areas. Akdedian explained that the goal for the weekend was to “Brush out the trail, take care of some deferred maintenance due to the trail closure, and work on some drainage issues.”

On Saturday, November 20th, a much larger group met at the south trailhead on Neah-Kah-Nie Mountain. They were coordinating with Oregon State Parks to start work on a section of trail that has been closed since the wind storm in the fall of 2020. They planned to hike in with crosscut saws and other equipment and were primarily going to train volunteers on saw work. This required first doing trail triage. That involves scouting and opening up a safe passage through the blow-downs so the current group and future groups could work safely, and also includes identifying dangerous situations for future work.

Volunteers are required to obtain sawyer certifications, ranging from A to C. TKO provides training opportunities, both for safety purposes and to meet landowner requirements. Some areas where crews volunteer, such as wilderness areas, only allow human-powered saws. They are required to become certified, too.

It was very clear that TKO takes this very seriously. Emily, the group leader, conducted a thorough safety briefing and went over the plan for the day, emergency protocol, and Native American history of the area. Once briefed, the group proceeded to load up and get ready to head up the trail.

Fortunately, Oregon State Parks had opened the access road gate and most of the group and all the equipment were driven to where the trail crosses the road again, avoiding the first steep climb. Once there, the group was joined by those who hiked up. After laying out all the equipment, teams were formed, equipment was picked up, and groups started carrying their equipment up the trail. Heidi, who had hiked the 2,653 mile Pacific Coast Trail which runs from the Mexican border in California to the Canadian border in Northern Washington Cascades, packed in a crosscut saw. “I also want to volunteer with the PCTA (Pacific Crest Trail Association),” she said, which would mean working on the Pacific Crest Trail.

The trail crossed up over the top on Neah-Kah-Nie Mountain, then dropped down toward the northern trailhead at Elk Flats. Eventually, we reached the edge of the blowdown where all signs of the trail completely disappeared under a jumble of twisted and tangled up timber.

Guy, who began volunteering with TKO after the Eagle Creek fire and brought many years of experience with him, explained that one of their first tasks was to find the trail. “There are areas where the trail has completely disappeared,” he said. He had scouted it and flagged where he thought it might be. “We have to find the trail if it still exists.”

The trail is in here … somewhere. Photo by Don Backman

Mike and Guy set to work clearing a piece of trail to allow the volunteers coming up the trail behind them to pass safely. Once it was cleared, volunteers disappeared into the morass as they inched their way forward, only the tops of their brightly colored hard hats giving them away. Guy explained that the main goal at that time was to make the trail safe for the crew so we can get in and out safely.”

Blown down trees that are piled and tangled up with other trees can be extremely dangerous because of the immense forces. They can be twisted and under tremendous pressure in several different directions which can cause them to break and spring back as if spring-loaded. They can also shift, slide, and roll, injuring or killing anyone in the way. A good sawyer or cutter has to learn to “read” the forces on the tree before cutting into it and approach it from a safer angle.

Guy and Mike had finished clearing the first section of the trail and had uncovered a smaller tree that was blocking the trail and creating problems for people passing through. They decided to clear it.

This was an opportunity for Mike to use Guy’s personal and treasured crosscut saw, an “Old one from back in the 1920s and 30’s when they made better saws. They don’t make them like that anymore.” Guy had Mike size up the tree and try to determine what the tree was likely to do. Then, they compared notes and discussed the strategy. Only then did they start on the tree.

First, they used an axe to skin the bark from the tree around the areas they planned to cut. “Bark can have things in it which can dull a saw,” Guy explained. After making sure the photographer was in a safe place, Mike started cutting the lower section of the tree where it left the trail. The saw cut surprisingly quickly. A stream of sawdust flew with each stroke of the saw. Soon, though, Mike stopped. “It’s starting to bind,” he said, meaning that the tree was starting to sag downward and pinch the saw. At Guy’s instruction, he removed the saw from the cut.

Guy took out a tool and used an axe to drive it into the underside of the tree. This tool consisted of a flat bar piece of metal with a roller on the side that could be adjusted to support a saw cutting upwards from the bottom of the tree. Mike commenced making a few strokes, then removed the saw out of the way, tapped the tool in deeper, cut again, and repeated. Eventually, he stopped and removed the saw. Taking up a crescent hand saw, he made more cuts. The tree popped, then the lower portion twisted away.

The first cut done, Guy then started cutting the tree where it crossed above the trail. Freed from the lower section, this cut went faster, and soon the trunk was cut and the section of log slid downhill, and the trail was clear. Then they packed up their gear and moved on down the trail to do it all again.

About twenty yards farther up the trail and just across and down below a huge pile of downed trees only the very top of Kate’s hardhat was visible above the brush, limbs, and logs. She was scouting a safe way forward among a tangle of logs. Andy was down in the brush as well, only the top of his hard hat visible.

Fred and Joan from Colorado, and Joan’s sister Jane from Beaverton, were working farther down the trail out of sight, too. “We volunteer on trails in Colorado,” Fred had explained when asked why they were there. “When we visit Jane she likes to volunteer, too, so when we visit we work on trails here.”

On the near side of the mess, Pat was teaching Nichole and Elaine how to clear an area where they had to crawl under some trees. “You have to cut these limbs on the top off flush,” he showed them, cutting one off with a curved handsaw. “Otherwise it would hang down and be in the way.” Once the area was clear and safe, they used the curved saws to quickly cut through a small log that was blocking the trail.

The crew made slow but steady progress, trainers taking the time to teach volunteers with varying levels of experience. Pat, one of the trainers, stopped Nicole before she started cutting a small limb off of a tree across the trail. “This one is OK to cut,” he explained. Then he had her show him how she could tell, which involved looking at all the other trees crossing over it and how they interacted. In this case, a large standing tree was blocking the log from moving toward her.

The crew was continuing their work as I left them. The short section of the newly opened trail was much easier and safer to pass through on the way back, even though they were leaving the big trees and tangles for other crews to tackle. It will be quite some time before Oregon State Parks can reopen this section of trail.

Trailkeepers of Oregon (TKO) is a non-profit organization whose mission is to protect and enhance the Oregon hiking experience through advocacy, stewardship, outreach, and education. Emily Akdedian, the North Coast Stewardship Coordinator for TKO, advises those who are interested to check out their activities calendar on their website at TrailkeepersofOregon.org, on Eventbrite, and you can even contact TKO on OregonHikers.Org.

Both groups were very friendly and welcoming. The volunteers, while working hard, were enjoying themselves. This is clearly a well-run organization that takes its work seriously.

Maintaining hiking trails really is magic. The magic of hard work.

See you on the trail.

For more of Don’s photos – see his website www.donbackmanphoto.com.