An Alum’s View of Backcountry Debriefing, and Dallion Gayner (Kings, 2018)

On today’s episode of CCC: Hard Corps, I talk (starting at 1:30) about debriefing from an alum’s perspective thirty years after debriefing for my own Backcountry season, and the ghosts that I still find at Camp Mather.

We also hear from Dallion Gayner, of the 2018 Kings Canyon crew. (Starting at 19:30)

I also start a new segment (at 32:00) for CCC: Hard Corps, in which I tell you about items I think will be of interest to you. In this episode, I tell you about Cascade Hiker Podcast. Host Rudy Giecek’s goal is to inspire you to get on the trail. Sounds like a familiar goal to Corpsmembers, huh? Check out Rudy’s podcast. The focus of Cascade Hiker Podcast tends to be the Pacific Northwest, because that’s where Rudy is, but his topics and guests on the show are usually of interest to anybody who loves the outdoors. For a story focused a little closer to home for folks in California, check out his interview with Bobbi Walters, about hiking the Tahoe Rim Trail. I know Corpsmembers have been involved in construction and maintenance of that trail! (And a shout out to Mark Hanson, and the Corpsmembers and staff of Tahoe center.) Other recent Cascade Hiker podcasts have been with Tough Girl podcaster Sarah Williams, and on Ticks and Lyme Solution with Dr. Darin Engels.

To start things off…

Going to the Backcountry Trails debriefing as alumni can be kind of weird. After my own debriefing in 1987, it never occurred to me to go back to one. Why would I? Seemed like a thing for this year’s CMs and sponsors. I knew that I would feel weird going to one.

Twenty-nine years later, I finally made it back to one. And I had been right. It was weird. But it was cool!

There is a lot of reminiscing involved when an alum goes back to debriefing, as memories come back about your own season and your own debriefing.

The first one I made it back for was in 2016, and so this year’s was my fourth debriefing since my own. Normally, I take I5 south to Manteca and cut over to Yosemite on Hwy 120. This year I had some business in Stockton on the way down. When I finished my business, I headed east out of Stockton on Hwy 4. I couldn’t remember the last time I had taken this route—at least 25 years. As I went through the little hamlet of Farmington, I saw an old general store-type building on the corner at the one stop sign in town.

And I suddenly remembered stopping at this general store in 1987. Orientation then had been at the old Delta center in downtown Stockton. Hwy 4 to 120 was the quickest route to Yosemite then. We had been picked up by our new NPS sponsors. Kim Orr drove the van. Erin Anders drove the six-pack pickup truck. Our C1, Diane Brown, drove her personal Toyota pickup with the MOOSEX4 license plate. We hadn’t been on the road very long when we stopped here for drinks and snacks.

All of that memory came back at the stop sign.

I had been listening to podcasts all the way down from Redding to Stockton. I turned them off and drove up Hwy 4, with only my thoughts and the road noise.

New Priest Grade. Over one hundred curves and hairpin turns as it climbs over 1700 feet in less than eight miles. Old Priest Grade is worse. Kim told us a few stories as we made the climb.

Groveland. 1987 was a bad fire year. There were a lot of lightning-caused fires in Yosemite National Park and Stanislaus National Forest. The town of Groveland could have burned down, but firefighters were able to stop the fires on the edge of town.

Right before the official Yosemite National Park entrance, I turned north onto Evergreen Road. I passed the cattle guard with the sign that says ‘OPEN RANGE; WATCH FOR LIVESTOCK.’ It was right on this stretch of Evergreen Road, on the van radio, that I heard the Grateful Dead song ‘Touch of Grey’ for the first time.

A little farther north, I looked to my right and could see Bald Mountain. 1987 was such a bad fire year that Yosemite had asked the CCC if they could use our trail crew for fire duty. We had spent a few days on Bald Mountain, mopping up a fire that regular Yosemite fire crews had gotten a line around. We had relieved the Yosemite crews so they could go attack another fire. The best part: we were transported to that fire on a Huey helicopter out of Crane Flat Fire Lookout.

Evergreen Lodge. My crew had eaten dinner there once while working the fires. The Evergreen had been off limits to Corpsmembers at debriefing, because of the bar.

Lots of memories. And I hadn’t even arrived at Camp Mather yet.

For a further walk down memory lane, including my own Ghosts of Mather, continue with the podcast…



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.


And More

Today’s post was written by former Corpsmember Jonathan Kirchabel of Fortuna Center. Jonathan has written a more contemplative piece than a typical Corpsmember profile. Jonathan shows us what goes into the development of a Crewleader in the CCC. 



Jonathan, left. Ethan Smith, right

I don’t know how many times I sat and asked myself, “How much longer am I capable doing this?”

It didn’t happen a lot. It was most memorable during long conversations between the silence and myself. I would say absolutely nothing, and the nature would respond in the same manner. While working, spiking out on a project, and especially during my time in Yosemite, it didn’t matter where I went, this conversation would still follow.

When people ask me about my experience, I never know the right answer; only the wrong ones. As a leader in the program, I came to understand that you never want to discourage somebody from doing something just because it’s daunting or hard. You want to be real, honest, and tell people like it is, but you never want to discourage somebody. The program changed me, especially during those long conversations between nature and myself. I can remember finding joy after long tumultuous hikes during my backcountry season and while working to maintain trails around the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir, and having conversations with the nearby birds as they sent calls between each other. You know, because I went crazy, and that’s a heavy burden to bear.

There’s a certain peace that happens after two years, after doing what I’ve done, and after seeing what I’ve seen. There were two nights in particular that truly resonated with what I intend on getting across: the night that I laid in water for hours, and the night that I didn’t sleep, while in Yosemite.



The night I laid in cold water for hours was a treacherous reminder of why you should not be lazy. On a clear evening, we went to sleep thinking that we did not need to set up any tarps for coverage during the night. We were awoken by steadily dropping rain that only increased into a small storm. Luckily, Jose had swung his tarp over us, and shielded us from most of the barrage. However, I had not cared to bring any extra possible defense against the conditions for the weekend, and as a result my sleeping bag, clothes, and body, were all drenched in water for hours and hours. Jose had been positioned as perfectly as possible, and despite needing to go to the bathroom for several hours, I resisted all urges and uncomfortability until the storm passed four hours later. I sat, shivering in my rain gear, my only dryish clothes, and attempted several times to light a fire with wet materials. Had I not temporarily stopped smoking cigarettes a month prior on my birthday, I would have found solace in those seconds of slowly decaying away with each puff while silently staring into the river beside our campsite. Yet, I only had the river as comfort, as I sat for hours more, waiting for my comrades to wake up. Cuts on my feet, still shivering, and sore from the compilation of all that had happened up until then, I still found more serenity with each step forward back to camp, weight on my shoulders and all.

Continue reading “And More”

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