It’s not every day you walk down a trail and find a 67-year-old man rolling half-ton boulders into a stream bed, but if you plan a hike when the Grey Wolves trail work crew is out, you’ve got a good chance of seeing just that.
The Grey Wolves, a crew comprised mainly of retirees, maintain the wilderness trails near Sequim, including the well-known trail that is their namesake.
These volunteers hike in carrying everything they need, including shovels, axes, cables, and even long crosscut saws or chainsaws, and the hikes can range from a quarter mile to a daylong session of over six miles.
It’s a muddy, sweaty, wet and dirty job, but somebody has to do it when the government can’t afford to.
While the Washington Trails Association is the largest group in the state, roughly a dozen work crews like the Grey Wolves have stepped up to maintain selected areas of the state and national parks on the Olympic Peninsula. These crews help repair trails, clear fallen trees and reinforce stream beds to keep parks accessible to the general public.
The Grey Wolves have maintained the wilderness trails near Sequim since 2006. Don Stoneman began the group in 2006 with Sequim resident Rod Farlee at the request of the U.S. Forest Service. Until then, there hadn’t been an organized work crew in almost 14 years. In 2010, Farlee took over crew leadership and was joined in 2011 by Bremerton resident Mike Bonomo.
The crew leaders act as de-facto organizers — coordinating work parties, learning trail construction techniques and making sure the crews work safely. Bonomo says that it’s important for the leaders to be actively involved with the work and adds that they are more organizers than supervisors. Currently a snafu between the Washington Trails Association has him collecting hardhats for his volunteers.
“It’s not like I’m the crew pusher,” Bonomo explained. “The crew leader’s job is to see that the job can be done, so it’s more of a soft ‘Let’s get something done, here!’” Leaders are typically the most experienced members of the group, based on their trail-building expertise, time to organize groups and trail knowledge.
The work can vary from brushing, or cutting weeds and brush down from a trail, to logouts which may or may not involve chainsaws or long crosscut saws. Other tasks include pulling fallen trees off the path, repairing and flattening the trail and creating rocky fords over areas where streams have washed out the trails.
Many of the workers volunteer their time for the exercise it provides. Bonomo says that since volunteering he’s lowered “all the important numbers,” such as weight, blood pressure and heart rate. Other volunteers provide their time for social reasons.
Randy Kraxberger, 58, lives in Port Townsend and works seasonally as a halibut and cod fisherman in Alaska. He got involved with the Grey Wolves during his off-season in October and likes working with the crew because he uses the trails himself and understands the need to maintain them. He also says that he volunteers for more than the exercise and opportunity to help the community.
The trail crews also provide the chance to meet people with wildly varied backgrounds. The volunteers include retirees from the science and information technology fields, naval officers and fishermen.
“You find yourself learning about things you never would have dreamed you’d talk about,” said Kraxberger. “I see submarines sailing by Port Townsend all the time, but I never thought I’d meet the captain of one.”
Without the trail crews, Bonomo said, most trails would be unhikable within two or three years. The rate of tree-falls in the areas, combined with culvert erosion and and trail degradation, would quickly make trails impassable. “Some trails might last more than a year,” Bonomo said, “but there’s parts of the Grey Wolf that if it hadn’t been for some logouts last year, it would be unusable.”
Those interested in volunteering on a work crew can do so at signupschedule.com/greywolf. The next work party will be on Feb. 17 at the Miller Peninsula Trail. A second signup, dated for Dec. 1, is simply a placeholder for Bonomo to send information to those interested in getting involved with the Grey Wolves.