Llama volunteers on the trail

Today the San Gabriel Mountains Trailbuilders and Mount SAC volunteers had a special treat. Manfred brought up llama volunteers to enjoy the day's exercise and take about 120 pounds of tools and equipments off of the backs of the human volunteers, allowing the work crews to get a bit more work done on maintaining and clearing the trail than would otherwise be afforded.

Being the 21st of April, a great many Earth Day projects were taking place in the Angeles National Forest, from tree plantings, San Gabriel River clean-up, to parks clean-ups and nature hikes in the cities, all of which meant that the U. S. Forest Service's Gateway Information Center above Azusa along Highway 39 was very crowded and somewhat chaotic, prompting the Trailbuilders to escape the turmoil promptly at 8:00 a.m. to head north toward the Rincon Fire Station.

At Rincon the volunteers sorted through the tools and equipment that would be needed today, checking to see how many Mount San Antonio College students and other volunteers would be participating in the day's effort.

Among the tools we pulled out many McLeod's for working the tread, metal rock bars for moving boulders and bucked trees, three chainsaws, Kevlar safety chaps, and other personal protective equipment for the certified and safety-trained sawyers.

Upon leaving the fire station we could look across the highway at the Environmental Education Center and see large numbers of volunteers gathering for other projects, happy to see a great many young volunteers who looked to be enthusiastic and ready to work along the cool riverbed collecting trash and hauling it to the East Fork for collection by volunteer horses and mules.

Rock work along the trail

After informing our Angeles Dispatch safety overlords over the radio that we would be working along Big Cienega Trail in the Crystal Lake Recreation Area we packed in to our vehicles and headed further North to Crystal Lake, to the Deer Flats Group Campgrounds, on to the abandoned Mount Saint Hawkins dirt road and there to the trailhead for Windy Gap and Big Cienega.

At the trailhead we had our daily safety meeting and Job Hazard Analysis rundown, taking a look at the local flora and fauna that we would probably like to avoid, and stepping through some of the tools that we would be utilizing today, making sure everyone was aware of environmental hazards, including the need to drink lots, and lots of water since today would be a hot one.

After the meeting we broke up in to groups, basically three groups. The llama and their human colleagues headed up the mountain first to get a jump on things, followed by the sawyers and swampers who would attempt to keep up with them, and a third group of tread work volunteers who would be fixing erosion, cutting back brush, removing growth from the trail, and establishing rock soil retention walls along the lower sections of the trails.

Since I was with the saw teams I had to hustle to keep up with the tools and equipment that had not been packed on the llamas, and with the growing heat I think I stopped at every spot of shade along the way. Since we were relieved of about 120 pounds of equipment thanks to the llamas we were able to get up the mountain and to the first dead tree obstruction quickly -- which was good because by the time I had got there I had used a third of my drinking water already, it was so hot.

From that point on the sawyers proceeded up in the mountain followed by the llama team, removing 18 dead obstructions from the trail and finally stopped at 13:00 which is the cut-off time according to the Job Hazard Analysts and Project Activity Level for the day. In all, 18 obstructions was a very good effort in the short number of hours that regulations permitted for the day. That's 4.5 obstructions bucked and removed by volunteers every hour which is very good.

From the point where we stopped cutting we could see four additional obstructions, all of which were complete blockages of the trail such that hikers must divert or climb under in some cases. After the fourth blockage is the junction where Big Cienega meets up with Islip which goes to the Winnona Cutoff, Little Jimmy Campground, and Windy Gap Trail as well as meets up with Angeles Crest Highway number 2.

The last 100 feet or so were very difficult for me and my knees were wobbly by that time, and shade is rather difficult to find at top of Big Cienega because of the 2002 Curve Fire that came through however one of the neat things about hiking this trail and Windy Gap Trail is the many new pine saplings that are growing which will some day restore the forest back to its shaded and green, cool heaven.

Obstruction gets bucked up

Hikers that went past us also paused to have their photographs taken with the llamas, and maybe half of the hikers who paused to talk with us knew about the Trailbuilders and the awesome work that the volunteer group does on these trails. In this respect it continues to be a source of great pride among Trailbuilder volunteers, the reputation of the volunteer organization is very, very good and many of its individual members' names are known. There's a solid sense of community, of civil service and dedication as well as a shared love of the forest and of hiking.

After a quick lunch and downing another third of my drinking water we started looking at heading back down to where the other volunteers were working on the tread. The llama team joined up with the sawyers and swampers for the hike back down which was an opportunity to observe the llamas closeup and to be amused at how they also stopped at every spot of shade on the way down, just like the humans did.

Also it was amusing to listen to the llamas complain about being asked to volunteer today, they complain by grunting in long drawn-out quiet bellows to voice their mild displeasure. Thing is, they were very lively of step, they liked to look around and sniff the breeze as it went by, and they were wide-eyed and enjoying the outdoor adventure by all external appearances.

In this respect they were a lot like Boy Scouts who some times complain about the heat and sweat and how tired they are but still manage to find plenty of energy to run around and throw rocks at each other and jump on each other once back down at the trailhead. I find myself smiling the whole way down and saw the other human volunteers also enjoying the company of the llamas.

On the way down we got a chance to see what tread work had been done by the other volunteers, long tracts of trail that had the Yerba Santa removed, brush cut way back, water-caused runnels filled in and repaired, drainage improved, and an awesome rock wall for soil retention had been added! Looked great!

When the llama and sawyer teams reached the trailhead we found that everyone else had already left since we were somewhat late for the rally point time of 15:30 and, using the radios, we confirmed that we would be late.

Eventually Trailbuilder Ben came back to the trailhead in a vehicle and picked the rest of us up, saying goodbye to the wonderful llama volunteers, and spiriting us away back to Runcon where we examined and stored our tools away until next time.

This one was a very enjoyable day out volunteering in the forest and the first actual hot and sweaty one of the year. During the day a great many volunteers worked throughout the forest planting trees, collecting and hauling trash, picking up litter, recycling what they cleaned up where possible, and generally lending a hand not only in the mountains but also in the parks down in the cities.

After storing the tools we headed back down the mountain and back to the Gateway Information Center where I opened the pickup's door, stepped out of the cab, and fell flat on my face since my legs refused to work. LOL! Man, what a day!

* Llamas at the trailhead for Big Conega and Windy Gap
* Volunteers staging up at the trailhead
* Volunteers wlaking up South Mount Hawkins Road to the trailhead
* Along Big Cienega Trail there is a stream crossing the trail
* Lots of water! Good to cool off in!
* Llamas in the distance, hiking up the mountain
* The sawyers catch up with the llama team
* The first obstruction is a small one. The small 16 inch saw takes care of it
* The next obstruction is a root ball and a blockage
* The two obstructions after that are much larger. Swampers stand ready also
* A look at what's coming up next
* One of the obstructions has a cut in it already from years ago
* Trailbuilder Tom pushes and shoves a bucked section of tree trunk
* As the bucked section is removed, the swampers work the tread
* As another obstruction is carefully bucked, swamper offers a wedge
* After 18 obstructions are removed, it's time for water! And lunch
* The llama team reaches the saw team
* Another look at the Windy Gap Saddle off in the distance
* Time for the llamas to pause and have lunch and rest also
* Some of the brush the llamas seemed to enjoy eating
* This is the next obstruction that must be bucked and cleaned off of the trail
* The obstruction after that one should be fairly easy and straight forward
* More obstructions along the trail just after that one
* One of the llamas decides to lay down and take a nap
* The other llama joins in the nap
* A look at the many limbs on the next obstruction
* The rock retaining wall that's gone in at the lower elevations

Site map is at: Crystal Lake site map

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