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: Cooper Lake, Part Two – A Series of Unfortunate Events

On April 1st, a beautiful spring day in Texas, the Trails Across Texas (TAT) crew once again rolled northward to Cooper Lake State Park. The sunshine and roadside flowers (bluebonnets, paintbrushes, and firewheels) invigorated the crew after a shortened break. This sense of spring invigoration was soon subdued when the first of a series of unfortunate events made it clear that rough seas  lay ahead.

After filling up on gas at the trip’s halfway point, the van was brought to a jarring halt. Out hopped the crew leaders to find the trailer’s fender ripped off and the tire battered and bruised – a cement pylon by the gas pump being the culprit. Embarrassed and frustrated, the crew assessed the damages, it was safe, and we decided to carry on. When the crew finally pulled into the camp at Cooper Lake, the affected tire was well worn on the trailer side, indicative of a bent axle. The mishap turned into a debacle when an hour and a half’s worth of phone calls (“We only work on big rig trailers” or “We’re backed up for two weeks.”) led to a “Yeah, we can probably fix your trailer”. Crew Leader Layla and Crew Member Lauren left early the next morning, fingers crossed that the trailer could be repaired in a timely manner.

Trailer frustrations aside, there was work to be done! The crew worked at its wicked pace and in the span of two days had 17  lumber check steps and two Eastern Red Cedar (Juniperus virigina) water bars placed. However, before the crew could put the final touches on a series of steps (fill dirt to raise the eroded trail surface between steps), the clouds rolled in and thunder and lightning began. The rest of the afternoon/evening was spent watching the storm build from our humble screened shelter.

To accompany the electrical spectacle, the crew blasted Black Sabbath, making for an awkward encounter with one of the park’s mysterious denizens, a man nicknamed “Tornado Tom”. Donning a white tee and thick mustache, Tornado Tom had the peculiar fortune of meeting the crew as they danced to the riffs of “Iron Man”. The crew made conversation with Tornado Tom who soon turned and patted the 4×4 beam of the cinderblock bathroom that was going to act as a tornado shelter. Tom said, “Why, I’ve been in construction all my life, this here is a fine building, I’d trust it with my life.” With a healthy degree of uncertainty, the crew agreed with Tom and decided to move into the men’s room when the wind began blowing the rain sideways. Thirty minutes of wind gusts and relentless thunder passed and the night went still.

“Well, looks like this one’s about to blow over,” declared Tom. Those with smart phones tried to warn him that was only the beginning of the storm, and that a tornado warning was in effect for another two hours. Nevertheless, Tom exited and was off into the night. Soon after his departure the storm picked up. Winds gusted against the cinderblock walls as we hunkered down next to toilets and urinals. Tornado Tom briskly entered the bathroom and announced what we already knew: a tornado was headed our way. The wind whipped, pressure fluctuated, and the storm grew louder as we hunkered down.

After what felt like hours, we cautiously exited the bathroom to survey the storm’s damage. Plant debris littered the campground and coated the shelters. Water coursed and pooled, finding its way into every corner of the shelters – effectively soaking everything (books, tents, sleeping bags, clothes, stoves, etc’). Crew Member Austin was left ‘homeless’ after his tentpoles snapped. At 11 pm, alive and healthy, the crew slid into saturated sleeping bags and slept a soggy sleep.

The next morning the crew surveyed the surrounding environs. Trees and limbs littered the park and many of the homes near Sulphur Springs had stripped roofs, collapsed walls, fallen trees, and other damages. We learned that two tornadoes touched down to the North and Southeast of us and came dangerously close.

We volunteered our skills to the Cooper Lake staff and were soon using chainsaws and a come-along (manual wench) to remove debris and hazard trees. The crew felled and bucked six hazard trees and helped clear the roads in the park. The next day the crew hauled cedar logs down the trail and commenced work on another turnpike. Water stood in pools on the trail and the mucky, clay soils readily coated the crew and their tools. At 3:30 pm another unfortunate event occurred: the spring suspension popped out on the utility vehicle (“mule”) we had been using. What followed this incident was an absurd extraction mission involving: three utility vehicles (one of which had a flat tire which required patching/filling), a tractor (it sunk four feet into one of our check steps, but was able to tear its way out), and a whole lot of hauling/chaining/pushing/improvisation.

The ordeal left us muddy, soaked, and muleless (the forced extraction destroyed the driver’s side front end and left the tire dangling). Thankfully the trail and our structures held up well under the vehicular onslaught. The next day entailed more muck, a broken McLeod tool and broken auger, and finally, the finishing of the turnpike. Completion of the turnpike was the beginning of a much needed upswing.

The final two days of work were spent hiking the lengthy trail system and removing blow-down via axes. The weather warmed and sun shone as the crew axed through numerous hickories and oaks that had succumbed to the storm’s winds. Feeling very lumberjack-ish, the crew’s spirits noticeably soared. Meandering through woodlands, creeks, and beaver ponds, the trails were full of natural highlights including delectable morel mushrooms (Morel esculenta), a menacing spike-filled tree known as Hercule’s Club (Zanthoxylum clava-herculis), the industrious work of beavers (Castor canadensis), and a raft of white pelicans (Pelecanus erythrorhyncos) soaring above Cooper Lake.

The muck and misfortunes experienced over the course of the hitch tested the crew’s merit and grit, nevertheless they remained resilient. On the final night in Cooper Lake, the crew dined on sautéed morels and elk burgers grilled over oak logs. The elk meat was graciously donated by Elaine (Cooper Lake TPWD staff). As the night wound down, the crew recounted the bizarre events of the hitch with good humor, grateful to have survived the rough seas of Cooper Lake. Early the next morning the TAT crew rolled out of Cooper Lake State Park, the new axle and tire making for a safe, smooth ride back to Austin.

David Brady, Trails Across Texas Crew Leader