Tyler State Park Whispering Pines Trail Re-route

Five hitches. Fifty days. East Texas.

When the Trails Across Texas Crew first arrived in Tyler State Park in early March, we still had cold weather clothes packed in our bags just in case we had a couple more chilly mornings at the tail end of the spring season. We soon found out that we needn’t bring any cold weather gear to Tyler again, as the summer sun was beginning to gather its strength day by day. We were set to put in a new trail, about ¾ of a mile long, that would replace the original trail route done by the CCC boys back in the mid 1930s. Expecting to have the project completed within three to four hitches, we quickly got to work…

On our first hitch we consisted of a full crew, which was much needed for all the underbrush cutting and corridor clearing that had to be done before tread could be dug in. It took us a couple days to cut and clear all the thick, thorny underbrush at the feet of the tall Loblolly Pines that towered over us. We followed a path of red tape laid out by our project partners; Chris and Erick, and cut any green briar or vines that stood in our way. Thankfully, the park had prescribed a controlled burn to the area in which we were working about a month or two before we arrived, so the underbrush that consisted of thorny vines was mostly dead and therefore easier to clear.

After the corridor clearing was finished, it was time to start putting in the tread. We began our workdays by pulling pick-mattocks, cutter-mattocks, McLeods, and shovels out of the trailer, and hiking them down the existing trail to the turn off for our worksite. We split up into teams of three or four, and worked on separate sections of the corridor, cutting tread and then leap-frogging the teams in front to begin work on the next section. As the days passed by, we found we were running into some unforeseen difficulties that were hindering our progress. The proposed trail route that we were putting in was in a very hilly section of the park, and we had an incredible amount of full bench to dig out, which takes a considerable amount of time. And on top of digging full bench, we quickly discovered that we were digging into thick clay.

By the end of our first hitch, the crew was stunned by how difficult the tread digging was proving to be. When we returned for the second hitch, we carried on digging tread, and finished the entirety of the trail re-route, which was quite a relief. The work was slow going and each day was increasingly hotter as the season transitioned farther into an early Texas summer.

After completing the first two hitches at Tyler State Park, we had a brief hiatus from our trail re-routing project as we headed out to Bastrop for 10 days to work on some minor installations there, and out to Caprock Canyons for another 10 day hitch.

On the third Tyler hitch we began prep work for the bridges that would be installed over several creeks which the trail crossed here and there. At this point in the season we were down to six members, so there was only so much we could do every day on the worksite. Our days consisted of digging holes, three to four feet deep, and two feet wide, which made us all feel like Shia Labeouf for several days. After digging holes for the bridge posts, we brought down some heavy 6 foot posts and set them into the holes one by one. Following the placement of the posts, we poured concrete that we carried down from the roadside into a wheelbarrow and mixed it with a dirty hoe before pouring it into the holes and around the posts. Then, grip hoists were used to drag 800lbs I-beams down from the roadside to the bridge sites, where we pulled them across the ravines and set them into place. Chainsaws were used to cut notches into carefully marked and measured out posts, so that the I-beams would sit level on all of them. We continued this repetitive pattern of digging, setting in posts, pouring concrete, and cutting, all the way through our fourth hitch as well.

During the last hitch at Tyler, our 6 man crew was able to begin laying boards down on top of our I-beams, and putting in joists and decking too. The last two days were devoted to decking the first bridge site, which was a fun, but slow going procedure. We had a generator running with a compound miter saw hooked up to it, where we would cut our boards to length, some folks carrying boards from the saw to the bridge, and others screwing in the boards to the bridge itself. Unfortunately, the process was so lethargic that we were only able to get half of the decking laid down before it was time to say goodbye to Tyler State Park for the last time.

The project out at Tyler SP was long, tedious, and time consuming, but something for all of us on TAT to be proud about. Despite not finishing any of the bridges completely, we did the work that had to be done to ensure that they could be finished by the next crew, which is all we needed to do. Now we can go back in a year and look at the bridges that’ll be finished by the next TAT crew and reminisce on the hard work we put in to each and every one of them. Hopefully our new trail reroute will be used for the next 80 years, just like the original one put in by the CCC back in the 30s.

Hayden Price – Trails Across Texas Crew Member

Texas Conservation Corps at Cooper Lake – Part 3: The Escape

At the time of writing this entry, the Trails Across Texas Crew has spent an entire month of our lives in Cooper Lake State Park. Cooking, eating, cleaning, sleeping, working, etc. In addition to the routine, we’ve survived a tornado and a small fire (don’t ask). We have been frustrated with park staff and each other, as well as failing tools and machinery. We have also felt annoyed by the limbo temporarily imposed upon us by a misinterpretation of the contract responsible for our team’s existence and funding. Before our third and last consecutive spike at Cooper Lake, it seemed like all we had done was put in check-steps to repair a badly eroded horse trail, efforts that seemed futile once April showers turned our labor of love into a mucky mess. We were all a little bitter to be returning after our previous experiences in the park.

We made the journey from Austin to Cooper Lake on April 18th, spending the rest of the day setting up camp and cooking dinner. We woke up in the Buggy Whip Camping Area on the 19th with a new project: cutting tread for four new reroutes. Spirits improved at the thought of creating a trail that was planned to be inherently sustainable, rather than installing trail Band-Aids in the form of check-steps and drains. The week before, our Field Coordinator Erick had flagged a new corridor for the trail reroutes. One sawyer and one swamper cut the large stuff along the corridor with a chainsaw, while the rest of the crew followed behind with a combination of McLeods, picks, and Pulaskis removing material and uncovering our new trail. We then covered up the old dilapidated trail with our cuttings. Despite plenty of pauses and sidetrips to catch our breath, make action plans for felling uncooperative trees, and go on herpetological safaris, we finished the bulk of the eleven day project in three days.

On the 22nd, we awoke to a park and trail saturated from the previous night’s rainstorm. In order to protect the wet trail from our boots and tools, we used this as our half-day. We celebrated Earth Day on the drive home by cheering on our crew leaders as they rescued turtles crossing the road and moved them to truck-free locations.

The following days were dedicated to installing more trail features. Crewleaders David and Layla located anticipated problem areas where topography and soil type suggested a likelihood of erosion. The crew responded by installing check-steps and check-dams, waterbars, and turnpikes. Each of these structures created a more burly, sustainable trail through the clever use of rocks, timber, and shaping and compaction with hand tools.

The final night in camp, it seemed as though hundreds of fathers and children descended upon our campsite ring. It turns out that in the morning, the park was hosting a children’s fishing competition. Tents popped up everywhere complete with screaming and running children, adding a claustrophobic feeling we had yet to experience in our home away from home. In any other moment, I would be extremely annoyed with all of the activity and noise that kept me awake and distracted from the following days’ work. I took a moment to stop being selfish and realized that this park, which I associated with unpleasant weather and redundant work, was actually where a lot of people escaped.

This was a place for children to run around without the fear of city streets and strangers. It was a place where parents might turn their phones off and where groups of old friends planned their annual motorcycle ride/fishing trip. The trail that we maintained might be one of the most accessible and safe equestrian trails in the area for rookie riders in a state with very little public land. With this thought, our month spent in Cooper Lake immediately meant a lot more. With our low cost and our high motivation to constantly get the job done in spite of the conditions, Texas Conservation Corps members make public land in Texas a more viable cause. Texas Parks and Wildlife is an organization still recovering from natural disasters such as widespread wildfire and drought, as well as fighting the occasional political battle to secure the state funding that maintains basic operations. The work that our Trails Across Texas team provides may free up labor and financial resources for higher priority initiatives. I am convinced that the Texas Conservation Corps helps State Parks use quiet places to connect people to natural resources, and that our work is worthwhile beyond the enjoyment and growth I receive from it. These thoughts helped me tune out the other groups sharing our campsite long enough to fall asleep.

The next day, we put some finishing touches on the trail, packed up our trailer and van, and headed back to Austin. TAT left two days earlier than planned in anticipation of a storm and potential F5 tornado. After a short weekend, we made up these missed work days with local projects, split between a saw project in McKinney Falls State Park and a wet masonry project at Reimers Ranch. Next Stop: Martin Dies, Jr. State Park.

Andrew Spurlin, Trails Across Texas Crew Member