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

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