Whitman students pushing a large fallen tree during trail work

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Story originally published in the BLUE Journal of The Blue Mountain Land Trust Summer 2021 Issue

Blue Mountain Land Trust & Whitman College Outdoor Program partner with the Umatilla National Forest to restore the North Fork John Day River Trail

Last fall, Brien Sheedy and Stuart Chapin took a trip to the North Fork of the John Day River in Northeast Oregon. As leaders of the Whitman College Outdoor Program, the duo scouted the area for new recreation opportunities to share with students and found a beautiful trail system in need of extensive work. This was the beginning of a collaborative effort to give back to our region’s wilderness areas and share outdoor skills with a new generation.

Fast forward to summer 2021. A group of students and leaders from the Whitman College Outdoor Program joined BMLT Blues Crew volunteers, and employees of the Umatilla National Forest (John Day Ranger District) on a five day work party with the goals of improving trail conditions and fixing safety concerns. It also was an opportunity to learn new skills and forge meaningful connections around conservation.

“We wanted to provide a volunteer opportunity for Whitman students to learn about trail work. I love getting students out into the outdoors where they can connect with nature and others away from technology,” said Sheedy. “Many of the students did not know each other at the beginning, but became friends during the trip.”

While some student volunteers had a few trail miles under their belts, this was the first wilderness experience for many. Linda Herbert—dedicated BMLT Blues Crew volunteer and board president—joined the excursion and left deeply inspired by the work ethic of all involved.

“I was so impressed by the unwaning energy and the ownership of completing the work by this young group on these long days, especially considering the hot weather,” said Herbert. “It was an ambitious undertaking, and we needed to triage our priorities since there was no way we could get that entire stretch of long neglected trail totally rehabbed in such a short amount of time.”

During the five days, the group of 12 volunteers improved 4.5 miles of the trail from the confluence of Granite Creek and the North Fork John Day River. Volunteers split into three working groups, each tackling different sections and jobs. The trail had a number of safety issues to address including blocked trail access from downed logs, brushwork, gradient repair, and tread reconstruction. A section even required a river crossing for access.

Whitman students crossing a river to performing trail work

 

“River crossings can be tricky. While the water level here was not dangerously high, it would be more challenging due to carrying heavy tools,” said Herbert. “Stuart and Brien are very experienced in this and taught us the ‘train method’ of safe crossing with a group. Their expertise was appreciated.”

Staff from the John Day Ranger District made this work party possible by planning and executing trip details, hauling heavy gear to the site using horse support, and working directly with the volunteers. The work was incredibly rewarding, but the unique perspectives and expertise shared around the campfire contributed to some of the most memorable moments.

“Every trip is always different and anopportunity to learn. Everyone was open to sharing and working hard together and it really felt like the group developed a wonderful sense of camaraderie, ” said Sheedy.

While this is just the beginning of trail work in the area, the group shared a clear sense of accomplishment from their efforts. This new partnership will continue to work collaboratively together on future volunteer opportunities to empower the next generation of trail stewards.

“Trail work is not only transformative, but serves the greater good. There is great energy that comes from working together towards a common goal,” said Herbert. “One student asked if it would be possible to arrange a similar trail work party with his fraternity brothers. It always feels good to me when people come away from their first trail experience and are eager to go again.”

“Volunteer service work enables everyone involved to help give back and support wilderness areas,” said Sheedy. “People also develop an appreciation of the area in the process and a desire to see it protected. Everyone hopefully becomes an advocate of that area in the future.”