Blazing trails

Thank Scott Semans and Bill Longwell for your next walk in the woods
Lawrence W. Cheek

Hikers stepping past one of Bill Longwell's or Scott Semans's trail-maintenance crews in the Issaquah Alps seem a little unsure of what to offer as a greeting. "Sure looks like work" would certainly be true, but inane. "Have a nice day" might not be applicable, especially if it's raining and the crew is lathered in mud. What Longwell and Semans crave to hear, of course, is, "Where do I sign up?" They don't hear it often enough.

"I have seven or eight people who volunteer over and over, and they're almost all around 70," says Longwell, himself 68. "We enjoy doing trail work. But nobody's coming along to replace us."

Longwell and Semans, who is 53, both volunteer for the Issaquah Alps Trails Club; Semans is the club's volunteer coordinator. "It's not hard to get people to volunteer," he says. "A lot of hikers feel a sense of obligation. What's hard is to get them to come back and do it again. I think they feel their obligation is discharged. And yeah, it's hard work."

It would be much harder work for hikers to bushwhack through the mountains east of Seattle if not for these guys. Longwell, a retired English teacher who just passed the 46,000-mile mark in lifetime hiking, laid out the Issaquahs' fetching 16-mile Tiger Mountain Trail and began building it in 1977. Semans, who makes his living with an Internet business dealing in rare Asian coins, stumbled into trail building in 1997. He discovered a remnant of a long-abandoned county trail on Cougar Mountain and decided, without exactly asking permission, to restore it so he could enjoy solitary strolls in the woods.

The art of trail design

Both men are now experts on the nuances of trail design and maintenance. They love to discuss such arcana as which kind of logs to use for curbs that reinforce a trail's downhill edge (Douglas fir or hemlock, which resist rot better than hardwoods). They can look at a slight depression in a trail segment, anticipate trouble, and engineer a drainage channel on the spot. Their styles are different, however. Leading maintenance parties, Longwell likes to move fast and clear maximum mileage. Semans is a detail freak who will fill and grade a single curve for an hour, then return alone after his crew has departed to massage it into perfect form.

In defense of such occasional extremism, trail design and care is surprisingly complicated and is becoming more so. Nature nags western Washington trails with relentless rain and encroaching greenery, such as salal and sword ferns, and periodically unleashes a wind or ice storm (as it did December 4) that topples thousands of trees onto the paths. Metro Seattle's burgeoning population spills an army of hikers onto the nearby trails every week, and the newer crazes of mountain biking and trail running erode paths faster than hiking ever did.

On a winter-morning hike on Tiger Mountain, Semans stops to frown at a kink in a trail, navigating around a recently fallen fir. If he had been packing a saw, he would have attacked the log on the spot and restored the original route.

"I'm very conservative," he explains. "I'd keep the trail where it was. Partly out of a sense of history, but also partly because you don't know what could go wrong with a new route. People will naturally take the easiest route, but the problem is that water always seeks out the path of least resistance too."

That path of least resistance is what worries Longwell and Semans when it comes to people enjoying these trails. They would love to see more volunteers join their work parties or even see hikers pocket a folding limb saw and engage in a little freelance maintenance while exploring the trails. "There are a lot of lone wolves working out there," Longwell says. "Sometimes they contact us and we adopt them. It sort of gets in your blood."

How to pitch in
Bill Longwell and Scott Semans lead volunteers for the Issaquah Alps Trails Club, but every mountain, forest, city park, and public beach needs help these days. Here are a few groups to contact if you want to lend a hand.

Issaquah Alps Trails Club. Visit www.issaquahalps.org or contact volunteer coordinator Scott Semans at 425/ 369-1725.

Metro Parks Tacoma. With the "Chip In" partnership, help maintain Tacoma parks. www.metroparkstacoma.org or 253/305-1060.

Seattle Parks and Recreation. Aid in wetlands restoration, planting, and battling invasive species. www.cityofseattle.net/parks/volunteers/index.htm or 206/684-4075.

Washington Trails Association. Contribute trail work and retrieve trail condition reports. www.wta.org or 206/625-1367.

Washington Water Trails Association. Help with work parties for paddlers' campsites and community outreach. www.wwta.org or 206/545-9161.