Thank Scott Semans and Bill Longwell for your next walk in the woods
Hikers stepping past one of Bill Longwell’s or Scott Semans’strail-maintenance crews in the Issaquah Alps seem a little unsureof what to offer as a greeting. “Sure looks like work” wouldcertainly be true, but inane. “Have a nice day” might not beapplicable, especially if it’s raining and the crew is lathered inmud. What Longwell and Semans crave to hear, of course, is, “Wheredo I sign up?” They don’t hear it often enough.
“I have seven or eight people who volunteer over and over, andthey’re almost all around 70,” says Longwell, himself 68. “We enjoydoing trail work. But nobody’s coming along to replace us.”
Longwell and Semans, who is 53, both volunteer for the IssaquahAlps Trails Club; Semans is the club’s volunteer coordinator. “It’snot hard to get people to volunteer,” he says. “A lot of hikersfeel a sense of obligation. What’s hard is to get them to come backand 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 themountains east of Seattle if not for these guys. Longwell, aretired English teacher who just passed the 46,000-mile mark inlifetime hiking, laid out the Issaquahs’ fetching 16-mile TigerMountain Trail and began building it in 1977. Semans, who makes hisliving with an Internet business dealing in rare Asian coins,stumbled into trail building in 1997. He discovered a remnant of along-abandoned county trail on Cougar Mountain and decided, withoutexactly asking permission, to restore it so he could enjoy solitarystrolls in the woods.
The art of trail design
Both men are now experts on the nuances of trail design andmaintenance. They love to discuss such arcana as which kind of logsto use for curbs that reinforce a trail’s downhill edge (Douglasfir or hemlock, which resist rot better than hardwoods). They canlook at a slight depression in a trail segment, anticipate trouble,and engineer a drainage channel on the spot. Their styles aredifferent, however. Leading maintenance parties, Longwell likes tomove fast and clear maximum mileage. Semans is a detail freak whowill fill and grade a single curve for an hour, then return aloneafter his crew has departed to massage it into perfect form.
In defense of such occasional extremism, trail design and careis surprisingly complicated and is becoming more so. Nature nagswestern Washington trails with relentless rain and encroachinggreenery, such as salal and sword ferns, and periodically unleashesa wind or ice storm (as it did December 4) that topples thousandsof trees onto the paths. Metro Seattle’s burgeoning populationspills an army of hikers onto the nearby trails every week, and thenewer crazes of mountain biking and trail running erode pathsfaster than hiking ever did.
On a winter-morning hike on Tiger Mountain, Semans stops tofrown at a kink in a trail, navigating around a recently fallenfir. If he had been packing a saw, he would have attacked the logon the spot and restored the original route.
“I’m very conservative,” he explains. “I’d keep the trail whereit was. Partly out of a sense of history, but also partly becauseyou don’t know what could go wrong with a new route. People willnaturally take the easiest route, but the problem is that wateralways seeks out the path of least resistance too.”
That path of least resistance is what worries Longwell andSemans when it comes to people enjoying these trails. They wouldlove to see more volunteers join their work parties or even seehikers pocket a folding limb saw and engage in a little freelancemaintenance while exploring the trails. “There are a lot of lonewolves working out there,” Longwell says. “Sometimes they contactus and we adopt them. It sort of gets in your blood.”
How to pitch in
Bill Longwell and Scott Semans lead volunteers for theIssaquah Alps Trails Club, but every mountain, forest, city park,and public beach needs help these days. Here are a few groups tocontact if you want to lend a hand.
Issaquah Alps Trails Club. Visit www.issaquahalps.org orcontact volunteer coordinator Scott Semans at 425/ 369-1725.
Metro Parks Tacoma. With the “Chip In” partnership, helpmaintain Tacoma parks. www.metroparkstacoma.orgor 253/305-1060.
Seattle Parks and Recreation. Aid in wetlands restoration,planting, and battling invasive species. www.cityofseattle.net/parks/volunteers/index.htmor 206/684-4075.
Washington Trails Association. Contribute trail work andretrieve trail condition reports. www.wta.org or206/625-1367.
Washington Water Trails Association. Help with work partiesfor paddlers’ campsites and community outreach. www.wwta.org or206/545-9161.