WOLF — It’s 8:30 in the morning, and the sun is already warming the arid Wyoming air near Eatons’ Ranch to nearly 80 degrees.
Wearing Carharts or jeans and long-sleeved shirts, three men sling 30-pound packs on their backs, each containing at least a gallon of water and a red hard hat. Radios are strapped to shoulder straps and sandwiches and granola bars are tucked away inside.
One man rests a 20-pound chainsaw on one shoulder and grips a McCleod — a firefighter’s axe — with his other hand. The other two carry an axe in one hand and a pole saw or McCleod in the other.
And then they hike.
They scan Wolf Creek Trail — Bighorn National Forest Trail No. 001 — for downed limbs, broken drainages and anything else that would make a trail difficult for hikers or horses.
They hike two miles at breakneck speed, stopping to saw a branch or hack off a dead limb, and hardly break a sweat. They gain nearly 2,000 feet in elevation in those two miles and breathe only mildly harder. After a couple hours, they stop to check the map and drink some water then look over yonder and set off again. They have six miles left to do that day.
Then again, they do that many miles — or double — every day. As the trail maintenance crew for the Bighorn National Forest, this is just another day in the office, so to speak.
“This is our office. We’re outside every day. It’s amazing. At the end of the day, you feel so achieved with what you’ve done,” crew member Ben Freimund said.
This year’s trail maintenance crew — comprised of crew boss Spencer Otto of Powell, Zannon Stands of Pryor, Mont., and Freimund of Missoula, Mont. — is out and about this summer, as crews are every summer, making sure the Bighorn National Forest is a safe and beautiful place to recreate.
This crew of three will maintain 200 miles of trail by clearing brush, limbs and other obstructions; cleaning or building water bars (drainage structures such as logs, rocks or soil berms placed at an angle to sheet water off the trail); and “logging out,” or chopping up downed trees and removing them from the trail.
The crew started in June with a few weeks of training on everything from tool use, to CPR, defensive driving and ethics. They will go through September, trekking 500 to 600 miles of trail and burning hundreds of thousands of calories.
“We want people to hike a trail and not notice that trail,” Bighorn National Forest Trails Coordinator Sara Evans Kirol said. “It means we’ve done our job if they don’t necessarily notice the job we did.”
The Bighorn National Forest contains 297 trails for a total of 1,200 miles over 1.8 million acres, which is considered a small national forest, Evans Kirol said. Three to four crew members maintain those trails over 70 days each summer, trying to spend one month in each of the three ranger districts and following a maintenance schedule that will see top trails maintained yearly, semi-popular trails maintained every two years and all others maintained every five to nine years.
“For many crew members, this is their first real job out of high school or college. We’re always trying to grow our ranks,” Evans Kirol said.
And, if you ask the men out on the trails this summer, it’s one of the best real jobs ever.
Freimund, who spent three years working for the National Park Service in Arches National Park in Utah before joining the Forest Service this year, is using the time to get as much experience as he can and try to get his foot in the door for a career outdoors. Otto is pursuing a degree in range management from the University of Wyoming and is considering a job with the Forest Service or a similar organization. Stands is studying petroleum engineering but feels his two years on the crew has prepared him to work hard in whatever he does.
Life on the trail crew is a mixture of hard work that doesn’t feel like hard work to these guys since it’s outdoors and living the Wyoming life in downtime. They share a dormitory, shop for groceries together, eat together and fish together.
At times they chat nonstop on the trail, making a game out of guessing how far or how high they’ve climbed, and at times they hike quietly, soaking in the sight of mountain, meadow and meandering creek.
Each trail is different.
Wolf Creek and Roosevelt trails, which are used heavily by horse riders out of Eaton’s Ranch, are well-maintained and only require a little trimming here and there over the eight-mile loop that involves hiking down redrock canyons that were used in the major motion picture, “Flicka.” Roosevelt Trail was named after President Theodore Roosevelt, who was the Eatons’ neighbor in North Dakota, Frank Eaton said.
Porcupine Falls trail, on the other hand, took two days to maintain its one-quarter mile of trail leading to a towering waterfall. It was like chopping down a forest of downed trees, Stands said.
And they loved it.
“Outdoors is what I love; I’m getting paid for what I love to do. I’m cherishing it while I can,” Stands said, echoing the sentiments of the others.
Because, really, for these three men, a day in the office is best spent when the office is 1.8 million acres of forest and mountain under the Wyoming sun.
MEET THE CREW
From staff reports
WOLF — Out of hundreds of applicants for Forest Service trail maintenence crews around the nation, these three men made the cut to become this year’s crew for the Bighorn National Forest. For nearly four months, they will hike eight to 12 miles per day, carrying 40 to 70 pounds of equipment, to make sure trails enjoyed by thousands of people from near and far are safe, clean and accessible.
College: Senior at University of Wyoming; range management major
Years on crew: Three, serving as crew boss this year
Footwear: Scarpa hiking boots, $325
Trail food: “I bring healthy food that has a lot of calories that doesn’t weigh too much. I eat a lot of nuts and sandwiches. Fruit is good, too, because it keeps you hydrated.”
Why he likes his job: “Just being outside. I hate working inside. I could be outside all the time. This is a great job for me.”
Hometown: Pryor, Mont.
College: Sophomore at University of Oklahoma; petroleum engineering major
Years on crew: Two
Footwear: Chippewa, 10-inch, $200
Trail food: “I try to eat all healthy. I don’t, like, bring pastries or donuts up here.” Ben interjects: “Just your smoked oysters. It’s disgusting.” Zannon: “It’s delicious.”
Why he likes his job: “Seeing all this different country. On weekends, you don’t got time to see all the trails that we get to see just working during the week, so that’s pretty rewarding. You can say I’ve been on this trail, and this trail, and this trail. That’s what I like most about the trail crew.”
Hometown: Missoula, Mont.
College: Graduated University of Montana in 2012; sociology major, wildlife biology minor
Years on crew: One, but he served three years with the National Park Service in Arches National Park in Utah
Footwear: White’s, 10-inch, $400
Trail food: “A lot of high calorie granola bars, nuts, trail mix and a lot of peanut butter.”
Why he likes his job: “This is our office. It’s always changing. We’re outside every day. It’s amazing. At the end of the day, you feel so achieved with what you’ve done.”