Shiloh Ranch park in Windsor gets upgrade from Volunteers for Outdoor California

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It’s early Saturday morning, and a crew of 55 volunteers from all over the Bay Area are already hard at work on a steep, narrow trail in Windsor’s Shiloh Ranch Regional Park, a rugged area popular with both hikers and equestrians.

The crew from the nonprofit Volunteers for Outdoor California are attacking a 1,500-foot stretch of the Creekside Trail with hand tools such as the Pulaski to rip out tree trunks and help place logs and rocks along the trail’s edge. Their mission is to widen the trail, create more drainage and avoid erosion, with the goal of helping hikers with their footing and providing better access for maintenance equipment.

Mundo Murguia, a planner for the Sonoma County Regional Parks, is overseeing a particularly thorny project — the erection of a rock wall and ramp along a tight, tortuous section of the trail.

“Let’s have some dirt right here,” he tells volunteers while he carefully directs the placement of each rock.

“There was an 18-inch step here, so it will make a smoother transition,” said Murguia, whose T-shirt is already soaked with sweat. “We could have taken that oak tree down, but we’re doing this instead.”

John Ryan, volunteer coordinator for Sonoma County Regional Parks, said the park service has wanted to upgrade the 20-year-old Creekside Trail for a long time. The 20-year-old trail wends its way through a tree-lined, steep canyon on the northern edge of the 860-acre park, meeting up with the Pond Trail on the eastern edge.

“It’s a very narrow trail ... so you have to do stuff by hand, and that’s why these volunteers are so valuable,” Ryan said. “I could have a volunteer project a week at Shiloh’s trails and never catch up.”

As the volunteer coordinator, Ryan oversees about 500 volunteers a year who are signed up for ongoing work, such as campground hosts and hikers or equestrians who report back on conditions. There are also about 1,000 additional helpers such as the V-O-Cal volunteers, who come for a few work days a year.

“They do a lot of natural resource management, like removing invasive plants,” he said. “Then they do litter pickups, building and installing fences and maintenance.”

Volunteers for Outdoor California, known as V-O-Cal, provides trail builders and tools for stewardship projects in partnership with public agencies and nonprofits all over the Bay Area.

“The crew leaders are all skilled and dedicated,” said park planner Karen Davis-Brown, who headed up this weekend’s project. “It was really exciting to see all the campers here, ready to work this morning.”

The Belmont nonprofit’s volunteers get together one weekend a month from April through October. They set up camp at the site and are rewarded with meals and solar showers, plus hats and pins each time they finish five projects. It’s a dirty job, and they often have to brave poison oak, ticks, sore muscles and heatstroke.

“Last year, we did another project in Shiloh Ranch, which was up at the top in 103-degree heat and direct sun,” said Eliot Hudson, project leader for the weekend’s project, which will wrap up today. “This year, the trail is shaded and not so hot.”

The nonprofit attracts a wide range of people, from professors and physicists to carpenters and bicycle repair experts. All of the volunteers enjoy working outside in nature and giving back.

Crew leader Francesca Verdier of Berkeley, who has been a volunteer for nine years, headed up a section where volunteers were installing four retaining walls made with logs. That entailed drilling through the logs as well as pounding in rebar as reinforcement.

“It’s good exercise, it gets you into nature and you get immediate gratification,” she said. “Plus you work with very cool people.”

Jeff Chilcott of Alameda brought his two granddaughters — Wren, 7, and Preston, 9 — to participate in the project. Preston was taking out rocks, while Wren was piling them up on the side of the trail.

“They wanted to go camping, and I said, ‘I’ve got just the thing,’ ” he said. “They’re buying into it so I’m happy.”

Nick Altenburg of Wikiup in Santa Rosa has served as a volunteer for two years and said he enjoys the family aspect of the endeavor.

“It’s hard work — it’s not always fun to do manual labor on your day off,” he said. “But the people are fun.”

Crew Leader Rudi Boekamp of Redwood City, who has been a volunteer for 10 years, said he enjoys the problem-solving and the collaboration necessary to get the job done.

“It’s nice, interesting technical work because of the special drainage we have to build,” he said. “At the end of the day, we walk through the trail, and it looks perfectly manicured. I often come back six months or a year later to see if it still looks good. It’s about building a trail that will last so the elements — or the hikers — don’t destroy it.”

Saturday afternoon, the sweaty volunteers were looking forward to deepening their camaraderie around a donated keg from Fogbelt Brewing of Santa Rosa as well as a gourmet dinner of stuffed chicken breasts.

“People bring guitars and Frisbees and games to play,” Hudson said. “Our goal is to get people outdoors ... get people engaged in enjoying their parks and make volunteering fun.”

You can reach Staff Writer Diane Peterson at 707-521-5287 or diane.peterson@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @dianepete56.

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