Early on a Saturday morning in May at the base of Hood Mountain, the process begins when the volunteers of the nonprofit group Volunteers for Outdoor California — VO-Cal — climb from their tents and gather for a quick meal. They’re a lively, cheerful group, a mix of ages, sexes and occupations: a math teacher, a computer executive, a land use official, a construction worker, desk jockeys, students, store clerks and retirees.
Once a month VO-Cal sponsors a weekend trail building project somewhere between Big Sur and Sonoma County, and put out the call for volunteers. This weekend they’ve driven in from Oakland and San Mateo, Sacramento, Napa and Sonoma County to lay in a new section of trail across a burned slope near the summit of Hood Mountain. The new stretch will bypass and replace a leg of the Nattkemper trail deeply eroded by runoff.
After a safety briefing and crew assignments, the 70-odd volunteers and their section leaders ride a van from camp up a steep fire road, then hike a half mile on foot to the summit, and fan out single file along a steep hillside. Perched above an incredible vista, the trail-less slope is studded with blackened tree trunks from the recent fires. The new trail route across the hillside is marked by a line of small red flags, placed by park staff the day before.
Armed with heavy tools of the trade — McLeods, Pulaskis, Pick Mattocks and tamper bars — individuals in the crews begin chopping out stumps along a third of a mile of wild land, carving a level platform into the soil for the new trail, digging out mats of roots, moving dirt and awkward large stones.
Several hours later, a 3-foot-wide ribbon of freshly cleared and turned earth has been shaped into a rough track that’s starting to look like a path. A few of the most difficult trees are still being chopped and dug and levered out. After an hour, two volunteers victoriously raise one particularly stubborn stump overhead after they axe and wrench it from the middle of their section.
Before it’s finished, the emerging trail must be properly sloped and channeled for runoff water, with stone armoring applied at intersections with natural drainage. The entire process is both a feat of hand-crafted art and engineering.
The engineering part — the trail layout, design and supervision — is provided by Sonoma County Regional Parks staff. In a bright orange parka, Karin Davis-Brown, the Park’s trail Planner for Hood Mountain, walks up and down the line of volunteers, answering questions, checking features. Just to get to this point has taken many months of her team’s time, for coordination, research, design, regulatory filings, budgeting and logistics.
It’s a full-time job, she says. And while they do hire contractors for some work, Regional Parks relies heavily on volunteers and partnerships with groups like VO-Cal to build and maintain the miles of trails.
Regional Parks’ Project Manager Steve Ehret is even more emphatic. With limited budgets for materials, staff and equipment, he says, volunteers are crucial. And their value is multiplied: Every hour of contributed volunteer labor actually qualifies the Parks for funding that would otherwise not be available.
“Most people don’t realize that volunteer hours are key to obtaining a massive amount of financial support for the Parks,” Ehret says, to build bridges, repair and realign old or environmentally poor trails, and maintain them safely for the public.