Challenges and Pionjars

Today we hear a little more of Shawna Lemos’s story.

I’m a pretty competitive person. Naturally I had a lot of pride trying to hike in to our job site and be first! To challenge myself, I would offer to carry the heaviest tools. The most challenging tools to carry were a 65 pound Pionjar or the largest chainsaw. It wasn’t until I met our new Supervisor (Terrance Johnson) that I was given the biggest challenge! He discussed an opportunity to be a leader within our crew and I accepted the goal with open arms. At first, I was given organizational tasks. He allowed me to make a checklists and get us ready for Spikes! I enjoyed making sure equipment was ready and delegating. There were a few deeper lessons to be learned though. One day Terrance sent me out to hike into a worksite, but requested I be last. I pretty much complained and took it out on the guy that hiked the slowest. I think I prob did that for a week straight! (Poor guy!) Terrance checked in one day and held me waaaaay back from the crew. He asked me if my attitude was helping the slow guy in ANY way. You know what? It didn’t help him, or me, or the crew at all! So I started encouraging him instead. It didn’t make him faster, but it did change my outlook from selfish to being more team minded. I’ve used this lesson in many areas of my life including parenting! I’m so grateful for the many challenges the C’s have given me.

Shawna shows one of the best things that good C1s in  the CCC do: develop Corpsmembers and make them better people. Corpies learn these lessons and take them wherever else they go in life.

As you read Shawna’s piece, if you were not in the CCC, you might have asked “What’s a Pionjar?”

A Pionjar is a specific brand of gasoline-powered rock drill.

Pionjar Demonstration

If you click on the above link and watch the video, you will see a basic demonstration of how the Pionjar is used. An interesting note: the narrator in the video pronounces Pionjar as ‘PYON-yar.’ It is a Scandinavian company, so that pronunciation is probably correct, but that video is the first time I had ever heard it pronounced that way. Corpies and NPS trail workers in the United States in my experience have always pronounced it ‘POON-jar’. It’s fun to say! Try it: POON-jar. 🙂

Why would anybody need to drill into rock? There could be several reasons. We might need to drill holes to place explosives into to blow up big rocks. We do this for trails, and we also do this for salmon habitat restoration, if a huge boulder that has rolled down into a streambed is causing debris to back up against it in high water and cause flooding.

We drill into rock in order to quarry big rocks into little rocks, to use in trail construction and maintenance.

We might need to drill into rock to anchor posts for fences or any of other many uses. In the Cobra video below, it looks like the workers are going to be anchoring a post for some sort of construction.

Pionjar is not the only company that makes these types of rock drills. I have also used Cobra rock drills, and I’m sure there are others.

Shawna did not have any available photos of a Pionjar for this piece, so I asked around at several Facebook CCC groups, such as California Conservation Corps former Corpsmembers and CCC Backcountry Trails Alumni, to see if anybody did have pictures. Sure enough, several former Corpsmembers came through with pics.

Karen Kollar Nancy Martin Stan 91

This pic is from Nancy Martin, of Karen Kollar operating a Pionjar on the Stanislaus Backcountry crew in 1991.


E Moreira P Martinez Inyo Modoc Redw 89

This pic of Eddie Moreira and Peter Martinez on the Inyo-Modoc-Redwoods crew in 1989, shows how the Pionjar is used to quarry rock. (Eddie provided the pic.) Holes are drilled in a line across the rock, and then something called ‘pins and feathers’ are used to split the rock. If you look closely at the steel sticking out of the holes, you can see there are three parts there. The long middle part is the ‘pin’ The shorter curved pieces around it are called the ‘feathers’. The feather are inserted first. The pin is placed between them. They are placed in all of the holes in the line. Then a double jack (or sledge hammer) is used to hit the pins down into the holes. All of the pins are hit evenly. As the pin goes deeper, the feathers are forced apart, and eventually, the big rock will split into little rocks along that line. This way, trail crews can quarry whatever sized rocks they need for their construction projects out of materials that are close by.

Eric Vanderleest

This pic shows Eric Vanderleest in Yosemite National Park in 1982. (Eric’s brother, Wayne Vanderleest, provided the photo.) Backcountry trail crews get very creative in using Pionjars in all sorts of positions.

Like Shawna said in her piece, these large heavy pieces of equipment might get shipped into camp on a mule, but they are usually transported on the backs of the trail workers from camp to the work sites.

Just another day of Hard Work, Low Pay, Miserable Conditions…and More!


2017 Backcountry Debriefing

Alpenglow is an amazing high mountain phenomenon. It’s not the normal glow of a sunrise or sunset. Certain atmospheric conditions need to be met, and the sun’s rays are actually bent through the sky to re-light alpine mountaintops for just a few minutes. Then it’s gone.

A Backcountry Trails season is kind of like alpenglow. It’s not a normal trip to the mountains. It’s heading up to the mountains with the determination to live there for five months, among the peaks and the pine martens, with the same small group that you came up there with, and living a deliberate existence that relatively few have ever experienced.

However, just as surely as alpenglow only lasts a few minutes, a Backcountry trails season does come to an end. And the 2017 season has come to an end.

Around 90 strangers gathered together at Placer Center in Auburn last April. They came from all over. CCC Corpies from places like San Luis Obispo, Fresno, and Redding. AmeriCorps members, such as a mechanic from Florida, a law student from Ohio, and a baker from Virginia were also in the mix. They formed into six crews and spread all across California. They spent the next five months doing the toughest work some of them will ever do. They bonded over campfires, long hikes, and star filled nights without a roof. They have weathered literal storms together—rain, hail, snow, and wind. Several of crews had the additional experience of moving camp ahead of approaching wildfires.

The ninety people now forged into six solid crews assembled at Camp Mather, outside of Yosemite National Park’s Hetch Hetchy on Monday, September 25 for final processing.  Tuesday, September 26 was the end of season celebration, which included the distribution of Backcountry patches, caps, and certificates. The Corpsmembers departed Camp Mather Wednesday morning, September 27, bound for bus stations or airports back to wherever they had come from…or in some cases, on to their next adventure.

Below is a gallery of scenes from debriefing. Over the next few weeks, you will hear some of the Corpsmember stories from the 2017 Backcountry Trails season.


The 2017 Backcountry Trails Season

My intention at the start of the season was to post a few stories on Backcountry orientation, then post a few crew updates throughout the season.

It didn’t work out that way.

Other things got in the way,and I did not get any writing in over the entire summer. Not on any of my ongoing writing projects. Hopefully, I am back on my feet now and you can look forward to a steady supply of CCC stories.

We’ve been pretty Backcountry-centric this week, as well. Be sure, this blog is not just for the Backcountry Trials program, but for all aspects of the CCC. We will cover other stories as they come up, but I had a lot of material to get out on Orientation, and with Debriefing next week, I could not delay the Orientation material any longer without it becoming hopelessly outdated.

You will see two non-Backcountry stories next week, and the following week, I will post about Debriefing. Then we will move on to some other CCC stories.

Meanwhile, even though I did not cover the Backcountry program over the summer, there is still plenty of material out there. The CCC has graciously shared many of their pictures with us via Facebook, and they have allowed me to share some of their photos on this blog.

The following is a gallery of pics from the 2017 season, from all crews, in no particular order.

Enjoy, and we’ll see you after debriefing.

The Rest of Orientation

Day 3—

More classroom. EEO training. EEO is Equal Employment Opportunity, and they are the rules that govern discrimination. Not everybody comes to the CCC, AmeriCorps, or the Backcountry program having experienced a diverse workplace. The CCC might be the first place that some CMs have ever had to work closely with people of other races or beliefs. Not only will they be working among diversity in the Backcountry, they will be living it, too, in very close quarters. EEO training might be the first time that some people have ever even considered that living in a diverse group might have its own special set of dynamics. This training covers Federal and California law that covers diversity.

CMs will also have a Writing Workshop on Day 3. Literacy is an important part of the program. Not only are books provided to read over the summer, but blank notebooks are provided that CMs will be expected to write in over the summer. This class gives CMs some guidelines for capturing their once-in-a-lifetime experiences over the following summer in words on paper.

Day 4—

This is the day that the crews finally get to spend the day outside. The only job they have to do today is hike with their crew. Carrying all their gear. All day. This is the final shake down before they hit the road for their work projects. This is where they find out if everything they have to carry fits well in their packs. This is where they find out if their boots are quite fitting well. This is the day where they get to experience the required hiking pace of three miles per hour with a load.

The crews pack their crew gear into their vehicle in the evening of this day.

Day 5—

This is the day that their journey gets real. They break their tents down in the morning and pack them. They eat breakfast and clean up the kitchen and showers/toilets one last time. Then they hit the road for their trial season.

And they’re off…

Orientation takes place during the last week of April. These crews have spent the last five months learning how to build and maintain trails in some of the most beautiful places in California: Yosemite and Kings Canyon National Parks, the Klamath, Shasta-Trinity, Stanislaus, and Inyo National Forests, and Big Basin State Park.

Next week is Debriefing, signaling the end of the 2017 Backcountry Trails season. I will be there, and will bring you some stories of that celebration afterwards.

We will end today’s post with a gallery of final scenes from the 2017 Backcountry Orientation…

School Day

Everybody who applies to the Backcountry program loves the outdoors. They love the sun on their faces. They love the wind in their hair. They live for the challenge of pushing their bodies to the limit. They love testing their endurance.

Day 2 of Orientation is not one of those sun in your face, wind in your hair kind of days.

They do get to test other types of endurance. Like…how long can you sit in a chair?

Day 2 is mostly classroom work. There is a morning class and an afternoon class. One of the classes applies to the outdoors. It’s a basic maps and compass course. The other is an important class for understanding state health and safety policies. Half of the crews are in one class, the other half in the other, and they switch after lunch.

One might think that in our high tech 21st century with GPS that there wouldn’t be a need for archaic methods as a paper map and compass. One would be wrong.

A GPS needs a clear view of multiple satellites to work. The Backcountry is full of canyons that block satellite signals. And what would you do if your GPS battery died?

Therefore, all Backcountry CMs are given basic instruction in how to use a good ol’ map and a compass together to navigate their way through the Backcountry.

Health and safety are two very important topics for the Backcountry. Everybody tries to be as safety conscious as possible, but things do happen. It’s important for everybody to know CalOSHA guidelines and the process of filing claims for injury.


After the classes are over…gear check!

And then dinner.

And Day 2 is done.

The Rest of Day 1

Yesterday’s post on Orientation Day 1 was just the officially scheduled activities.

But, wait! There’s more!

Corpsmembers already in the CCC are supposed to report to orientation with three sets of uniforms. But remember, a large portion of Backcountry CMs are direct hires through AmeriCorps. They don’t have any uniforms to bring. All of those AmeriCorps CMs need to be properly outfitted with uniforms and boots. Where do they fit this in?

Anywhere they can.

The process actually starts on Arrival Day, or maybe we could call it Day 0. A stockpile of uniforms are on hand in a designated supply area at Placer. Each crew will spend some time in this room outfitting CMs who need uniforms. This will not be completed on Day 0. Some time will be needed on Day 1 to complete the process. On Day 1, crews and CMs will fit this in wherever they can. As paperwork is completed, a group from the crew might be told to go over to supply and finish outfitting. They might be able to squeeze some time in after Vehicle Procedures. There will be less time for this by the end of Day 2, so it needs to be completed by the end of Day 1.



Have you noticed that all of the uniform shirts have patched on the sleeves? There will be at least one CCC patch and an AmeriCorps patch. Arriving CCC members might have more patches, such as a center patch representing the CCC center they came from, a crewleader or specialist rocker, or any of several special program patches.

Guess what? The shirts don’t come with these patches already on them.


Yes, a sewing kit is on that list of essential items that every CM is expected to bring to Backcountry. Continue reading “The Rest of Day 1”

Backcountry Orientation: First Full Day

Morning of the first full day of Backcountry orientation starts with breakfast at 6:30. Breakfast is in Placer’s Dining Hall. Each Corpsmember will also build a sack lunch now, with a sandwich, fruit, and chips. After breakfast, each crew is delegated a clean-up routine of either the kitchen or the temporary shower and toilet facilities set up for the temporary influx of 100 more people to Placer.

Crews then get down to business.

The first order of business for the first day is to attend a talk on Backcountry Program Standards and Expectations. This talk is very much like the one given by Peter Lewis in 1987. It boils down to “Wake up early, hike fast, and respect one another.”

Then crews split out into three different tracks.

Some crews will start AmeriCorps and CCC Enrollment paperwork. Some crews will attend a sobriety discussion. Other crews will have driver training and orientation.

The bureaucratic labyrinth begins with AmeriCorps and CCC enrollment. Thirty years ago, this part was barely necessary. All of the Corpsmembers were already in the CCC. Today, a large portion of the Corpsmembers come directly from the Federal AmeriCorps Program. Every CM needs to be enrolled in both programs for each program to allocate the proper funds, and for each CM to qualify for and receive the scholarship bonuses available upon completion of the program.

Lining up for paperwork

The crews will line up outside of the temporary Backcountry admin building (a commandeered meeting room), forms are distributed, and CMs find the nearest flat surface on which to fill out the forms. Two hours are allotted for this process. Once the forms are completed, they are collected and sent inside to the admin staff, who will then process every single piece of paper that comes through. Every space has to be filled out correctly, and supporting employment eligibility documentation needs to be verified. Emergency notification forms need to be accurate, so that family can be quickly contacted in the event a CM has an emergency. It is critical that this documentation be completed before the crews leave here, because when they leave, they will be scattering all across California to places with no cell phone service, Internet, of fax machines.

IMG_6044 Continue reading “Backcountry Orientation: First Full Day”

Backcountry Orientation, 2017

As the 2017 Backcountry Trail season winds down into its last weeks, I wanted to share the glimpse that I had of the birth of the season.

I had intended to write a chronological piece covering one typical day at orientation.

I couldn’t do it. Not chronologically, anyway.

A Backcountry Orientation is a very chaotic animal. Many different things are happening simultaneously, but every piece of that chaos is directed towards a very specific goal: outfitting six separate crews and getting them on the road to their respective Backcountry locations. Those six crews are made up of six supervisors and ninety-seven Corpsmembers, or CMs. These ninety-seven people are mostly from California, but a good number of them are coming in from all over the country. They are arriving by car, bus, plane, and train…and not all at the same time.

The first day of orientation is Arrival Day. Backcountry Program staff have a carefully crafted itinerary of rounds between the airport, bus station, and train station to pick up incoming CMs and getting them safely to the CCC’s Placer Center in Auburn. Unlike 1987, when all of the arriving CMs were coming through the bus station and it was easy to let them wait there for a while until a van-load had accumulated, or the had the option to walk the few blocks to the center, CMs today have to be transported from the west side of Sacramento to Auburn, about thirty miles. They are arriving all day. Sometimes arrivals are not on time because of their transportation. In 2016, flights from east of the Mississippi River were delayed because of a hurricane that diverted flight paths. This is quite the logistics undertaking.

The CMs arrive at Placer by the van load. Backcountry Program Director Karlson Hubbard is there to meet each group as they pile out of the van. He greets them with a Welcome Speech, and knows them all by name. What makes this really amazing is that this is the first time he has met the out-of-state arrivals face to face. He knows all ninety-seven of them from the application process, which involves phone interviews and background checks. Each application has included a recent photo of the applicant, and Karlson knows them all by sight by the first day of Orientation.

So far so good. This part is easy to cover chronologically.

But then…

After hearing Karlson’s Welcome talk, the CMs are split up into their crews and meet their supervisor, which in the CCC is titled Conservationist 1, or C1. The first van might have anywhere from seven to fifteen people in it, so there are only a few people with each crew so far. The C1s introduce themselves and begin going over preliminary procedures with each CM, which includes inventorying gear. Each CM has received a list of gear they are expected to bring with them to orientation. Each C1 has to make sure that each CM does, indeed, have every item listed on the inventory. Each CM is also provided with a set of uniforms and work boots. If a CM is not already a member of the CCC and has already brought uniforms from their center, uniforms need to be issued. Each CM is also expected to report with several pieces of documentation relating to employment, such personal identification and verification of employment eligibility. Each C1 has to check each CM to make sure their documentation is in order. Each crew also has to set up their camp in a big field.

This is where it starts getting chaotic. More CMs are added to the mix throughout the day. Karlson greets every van. Then each CM is directed to wherever his/her crew is at the moment…but the crews don’t stay put. They might be erecting tents in the field. They might be at supply. They might be in an out-of-the-way corner of Placer Center going over paperwork. Each C1 is responsible for directing their own crew through all of these stations and keeping track of every one of their CMs.

By the time all ninety-seven CMs have reported, it’s close to dinner time, and the end of Arrival Day at Backcountry Orientation Week.

Just wait until you see the program for tomorrow!

Backcountry Orientation, 1987

Before I talk about the Backcountry Trail Program Orientation of 2017, I’d like to tell you about Backcountry Orientation thirty years ago, in 1987. That was the year that I went Backcountry. I was from Del Norte Center. Del Norte was on the North Coast, at the mouth of the Klamath River and near the town of Klamath.

In 1987, there was no AmeriCorps. The Backcountry program was strictly for members of the CCC. There were still six crews. That year there were two Yosemite crews, and one each in Kings Canyon and Sequoia National Parks, and the Inyo and Shasta-Trinity National Forests.

Each Corpsmember was responsible for getting themselves to Delta Center in Stockton for Orientation. Since joining the Backcountry program was essentially a voluntary transfer away from your center, you had to provide transportation to your new work location. I spent the weekend before Backcountry at my parent’s place in Antioch, so it was easy for them to drive me over to Stockton. Other CMs either were dropped off, or took a Greyhound bus to Stockton.

Monday was our travel day. We came dribbling in, individually or small groups, and were directed to our quarters for the next couple of nights. We were all housed in a long barracks-type bay at Delta. We were on our own that first night for dinner. We all knew what crews we had been assigned to, but hadn’t been formally placed upon those crews yet. A bunch of us formed a hodge-podge group and went out for pizza.

Tuesday was our Orientation Day. Peter Lewis was the Backcountry Director at that time. He was a remarkable and dynamic man. He had worked trails in Yosemite National Park for years, before becoming a CCC crew supervisor, or C1, and leading Backcountry crews himself. The morning of debriefing was largely a pep talk from Peter. He told us what the expectation would be for the summer. His key words of wisdom boiled down to “Wake up early, and hike fast.” He reminded us of the Big Five Rules of the CCC: No drugs or alcohol, no fighting, no refusal to work, and no destruction of State property. Violation of any one of these rules called for automatic termination from the program. Peter also spun magical tales of life in the Backcountry that held us spellbound. This is what we had all volunteered for. I had first heard about the Backcountry Program during my initial training at the Academy, outside of San Andreas. When I saw the Backcountry slide show that night, I knew that this program was exactly the adventure I had been looking for when I had left Illinois only about a month earlier. The entire focus of my CCC time for eight months was earning a place on a Backcountry trail crew, and now I was here. Everybody else here was just as eager to get started.

After lunch, we met formally with our crews for the first time. The C1 introduced himself or herself and shared their background that had brought them here. Everybody on the crew did the same. The C1 talked about their own expectations for their crews, and talked about the coming work projects for the summer. That took us to dinner, which we ate in the Delta dining hall.

And Orientation was over.

That was it. The next morning, we all piled in our vans and took off for our work projects and the rest of our summer.

Orientation in 2017 is a little more complex. Tomorrow we will begin that tale.

2017 Backcountry Season Opens

Today is the first day of orientation for the 2017 Backcountry Trail crew season. About 90 people are assembling at Placer Center for the orientation and training to accomplish the feat of spending the next five months living out of a backpack and maintaining trails in some of the most beautiful wilderness country in California. Backcountry trail crew members have come from all over the United States to dedicate the summer to the ultimate Hard Work, Low Pay, Miserable Conditions…and More!!

The Backcountry Trails program in the CCC has been around since 1979, but the trails work they will be doing is part of a far older tradition. They will be using dry rock masonry techniques to built stone structures with no concrete or cement. Some of the techniques have been around since the Egyptians built the Pyramids. Even trails work in the United States has a long and honored tradition. The first caretakers and trail builders of Yosemite National Park were troopers of the US Calvary in the late-1800s.

Backcountry orientation used to be a one day event. The Monday of orientation week was a travel day, and Backcountry Corpsmembers would show up at Delta Center in Stockton all day and slowly meet the rest of the Backcountry Corpsmembers as they all arrived. On Tuesday morning, Backcountry Program Director Peter Lewis would give a literal orientation to the season, describing what the season would be like and explaining the rules and expectations of the Corpsmembers. Tuesday afternoon was the first day the Corpsmembers officially met their crews. Introductions were made and each Crew Supervisor, or C1, would explain the projects they would be working on over the summer, and reinforce the expectations on Backcountry Corpsmembers. Tuesday evening was generally free time, and then the crews would roll out on Wednesday morning to their new assignments.

The program has changed since I went through it in 1987. Delta Center having long been closed, the crews now meet at Placer Center. (Okay…there is a CCC Center in Stockton today, but it is not the same one from the 1980s. That’s a whole other blog post. It’s on the agenda!) Orientation lasts a week now, with every Corpsmember receiving additional training that will help them succeed in their season.

I will be at orientation for the first couple of days this week. I’ll be posting stories and pics from there, and about the process.You can expect regular updates to our new Facebook page, also called CCC: Hard Corps.

Meanwhile, here is a 12 minute video that talks about the Backcountry Trails program. The video is from 1995, but it’s the best one I’ve found that gives a balanced view of the program. It includes information on the trails work, and thoughts from some of the Corpsmembers, crew supervisors, and sponsors.


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