Building Fences - and Character

A Sierra Club Volunteer Vacation Delivers a Supreme Satisfaction
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Bryce Canyon is "a helluva place to lose a cow." It's also a helluva place to spot a cow. Though I saw Frisbee-size cow patties around my tent and cow-crossing signs posted in town, no cows grazed the land before me. But as a paying volunteer on a Sierra Club service trip—someone who was willingly sacrificing my vacation time, and money, to make a contribution to the Western environment—sighting animals was not the main objective. Building fences to confine them was. Wherever they might be.

On the "Bryce Canyon Through the Back Door" trip in southwest Utah, our mission was to construct barbed-wire fences that would keep the cows inside Dixie National Forest, where they are welcome, and out of Bryce Canyon National Park, where they are not. (The environmental benefits of this project, we eventually learned, are not as clear-cut as we had hoped, of which more later.) Our back-country site was in the national forest, about 15 miles—or an hour-plus drive on rugged roads prone to miniature dust storms—from civilization.
The Sierra Club offers nearly 100 of these trips a year, in national wilderness areas across the United States, from Alaska to St. Croix to Maine. It is one of dozens of groups offering "service vacations" domestically and abroad. Projects range from general maintenance tasks (fixing trails with the American Hiking Society) to scientific research (collecting data on stomatopod crustaceans in Belize for the Oceanic Society). For the Sierra Club, volunteers in the Southwest have logged more than 100,000 hours while digging for Gallina artifacts, weeding noxious plants from Colorado river banks, and extending the 750-mile Arizona Trail, among other things. The club's motto is: "To explore, enjoy and protect the wild places of the Earth." Erecting fences, presumably, falls under this rubric.

Days began at 7:30, with the clang of the breakfast bell stirring 29 volunteers from sleep. We shuffled into the commissary in ones, twos and threes: an Oregon college student, a college alumni magazine editor, and a Medicare-age retiree, all traveling solo; an Iowa elementary school teacher and her boyfriend, a railroad worker who does John Wayne impressions; seven teenagers and the married founders/leaders of Chrysalis, a home-based program in Montana that uses challenging outdoor endeavors to help rehabilitate troubled adolescents after drug addiction, pregnancy, or other hardships.

After frosted flakes or hash browns with Tabasco sauce, we would pack a lunch, fill bottles using the "water buffalo"—a giant metal receptacle that was our sole source of water and was refilled midweek by rangers—and convene at the bottom of the trail for the 12-minute hike to the job site.

Ah, the job site. The work, trip leader Susan Estes told us, would be arduous. In pre-trip literature, Susan suggested a thrice-weekly exercise routine to prepare participants for the altitude, hikes, heat, and heavy loads. I quickly learned that regular workouts on the StairMaster get you, at most, to the visitor center of the 8,500-foot mountain. There is no modern workout to prepare you for hauling cedar posts; you can only grunt and bear it. Building a fence is more chain-gang labor than cooperative task. But it is a challenge nonetheless.

"If you can set a fence, ride a horse or milk a cow, you will never starve," offers Micheal "Cass" Castagnetto, the park's facility manager, who has been overseeing the Sierra Club project since it started seven years (and five miles of fence) ago. Our group dispersed according to assignments, though each workstation was flexible. I started the morning on a vertiginous slope with half a dozen others, including two of the garrulous yet hard-working teens and the 11-year-old daughter (the youngest volunteer) of the Chrysalis leader. Our job was to dig a hole for the cedar-and-metal posts, breaking through several feet of limestone and hardened red earth. We traded off jobs—operating an ear-crackling power drill and removing the chipped rock pieces on hands and knees. Every 300 yards, we'd plant another pole, under the direction of a park ranger and leader in training.

After an hour or so, a yelp for help elsewhere usually released me from my task. Up I hiked, until I reached a stack of logs. The job was to move the materials from Point A to Point B. A no-brainer. With assistant leader Dale Kemmerer, a semi-retired physician who could out-carry a Sherpa, I shouldered one end of the 60-plus-pound timber, feeling the bite of the bark through my T-shirt. We ran the materials back and forth, on countless trips, from the tool repository to the end of the line. Like members of a frenetic ant colony, we were always moving something. By day's end, I was removing fence erroneously placed 30 years ago. Wrapping a heavy chain around the rusted pole, I pumped the jack like I was changing a tire. The earth loosened, pushing forth the pole. One down, so many more to go. Some tasks were fruitless, like spending a half-hour hunting for a tool along a poorly marked trail, only to be told it was not needed. Or I would be given a job but no tool. Occasionally the work became monotonous. But frequent water breaks, noon lunches beneath the pine canopy and spontaneous bursts of conversation and tomfoolery—water bottle fights, carving our initials in the cedar posts--lightened the workload. The highlight, oddly, was stringing the wire. From one end to another, between wooden frames called H-braces, we formed a barbed-wire-carrying conga line, threading the gnarled metal along the posts and securing it with clips and macaroni-shaped spacers. Messages were passed down the line: "Talk to me," "Pull up the slack," "Tighter," "ALL SET . . . All Set . . . all set." At 3:30, we called it a day. Leisure time.

Published: 29 Feb 2000 | Last Updated: 14 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication
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