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.
Historic homes with holiday events
Luther Burbank Home and Gardens, Santa Rosa. Enjoy a 36-year community tradition on the site of Burbank’s home and working garden. Tour the modest Greek Revival house decked out in old-fashioned holiday finery. See the latest exhibit and shop for Burbank-related items in the Carriage House Museum & Gift Shop. Entry: $2; free for kids. 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Dec. 5-6. Entrance at corner of Santa Rosa and Sonoma avenues, Santa Rosa. (707) 524-5445, lutherburbank.org.
Falkirk Cultural Center, San Rafael. Join Charles Dickens and his family for an evening of Victorian revelry at the 17-room, Queen Anne-style Falkirk mansion built in 1888. Partake in light holiday food and drink as you listen to Dickens read from his works and watch his characters come alive. Meet Father Christmas, play parlor games, dance and sing with the Victorian family. 6:30 p.m. Dec. 4. Tickets $10, $7 children, by reservation at (800) 848-3006. 1408 Mission Avenue, San Rafael.
Haas-Lilienthal House, San Francisco. Built in 1886 for wealthy businessman William Hass, this elegant home has gables and a round tower. Fully furnished rooms, mostly with original furnishings, are decorated for the season. Enjoy holiday cheer, a festive buffet, music, a train for tots and a visit from Santa noon-3 p.m. Dec. 6. $15. RSVP required at sfheritage.org/haas-lilienthal-house. 2007 Franklin St., San Francisco.
Shadelands, Walnut Creek. A Holiday Faire is a seasonal tradition at Shadelands’ 1902-built Colonial Revival ranch house. The two-week Faire features dozens of vendors offering hand-crafted items and gifts for sale. Coinciding with the Faire are three-course Victorian tea luncheons; seating’s at 11:30 am and 1:30pm. Open 10 a.m.-4 p.m. daily through Dec. 13. Admission is free. Tickets for Victorian tea luncheons, $35. Info and reservations: (925) 935-7871. 2660 Ygnacio Valley Road, Walnut Creek.
Filoli, Woodside. Designed by Willis Polk and known for its extensive collection of 17th and 18th century English antiques, this charming mansion offers a holiday world of opulent elegance brimming with fresh flowers, greenery and holiday scents. Through Dec. 5, sample specialty foods and shop for trendy women’s clothing. Visit the toy shop, the gingerbread bakery and the Garden Room, where holiday plants and fresh-greenery wreaths are available for purchase. Advance reservations required at filoli.org/holiday-traditions or (650) 364-8300 X508. 86 Cañada Road, Woodside.