As Jacques Rieux hikes up the Hewlett Gulch trail near Poudre Park, he often thinks of himself as a gardener.
“An uncared-for wilderness is like an untended garden,” he said. “Doing this gives me a sense of responsibility. Somebody has to take care of it.”
Rieux has hiked with a purpose as a member of the Poudre Wilderness Volunteers since 1995, shortly after the founding of the nonprofit group, making well over 200 trips so far. He is one of some 270 men and women who patrol the trails in the Canyon Lakes Ranger District, functioning as assistant rangers. PWV volunteers agree to make six or more patrol hikes per year.
Virtually every day in the season, teams of two or more are out on foot or horseback, moving fallen trees, picking up trash, assisting other hikers, dispersing illegal fire rings, and reporting trail usage and conditions to the U.S. Forest Service, which does not have the budget to provide these services.
This day, Rieux is hiking with John Gascoyne, a four-year volunteer on his 25th hike. Gascoyne tells the crew of an close encounter with a rattlesnake on the trail earlier. The third member of the crew, Virginia Slauson, is rounding out her first year.
At the trailhead, they first scout for trash and come up with a number of filled dog-poop bags that the owners carried down off the trail but abandoned in the parking lot. They post a sign that the trail is under patrol, double-check their packs and set off. They wear khaki uniform shirts with Forest Service and PWV emblems. They carry extra water to share with other hikers, first-aid kits, sunscreen and a satellite beacon for medical emergencies. Among them, they also carry a vast knowledge of the local trails, flora and fauna.
They soon come to a large recent campsite, possibly a party spot, with another close by. The trio disperse a fire pit and pick up some broken glass and beer bottle caps. They make a note of the GPS location for their daily report.
Gascoyne explains that the pit was within 200 feet of a stream or lake, which would be illegal in a wilderness area, and it could encourage others to camp there before the matted vegetation recovers.
Moving up the trail they find another campsite, disperse the fire ring, and pick up more trash, including a can with bullet holes and, curiously, a fan belt — a quarter mile beyond any vehicle access.
By the end of the day they gather trash at the rate of two pounds per mile. It is no surprise that they carry a stock of laminated Leave No Trace cards and teach this ethic to other hikers.
They also find great evidence of bear activity. Fresh bear scat litters the trail, from bears gorging on berries growing along Gordon Creek. The creek itself holds little water now, late in the season, and sometimes disappears completely until reemerging later.
At one trash stop, the rangers are met by a woman hiking uphill with two dogs, one on a leash and one off leash. She’s excited to report she had just seen a bear running up the side ridge very close by. After a discussion about bears and the behavior of dogs, Slauson lends her an extra leash. The woman quickly takes the dogs back to the parking lot.
The volunteers greet and talk with everyone on the trail that day, except for one mountain biker puffing heavily uphill — no one wanted to interrupt such an awesome performance.
As they spoke with other hikers there was much discussion of bear scat. Some hadn’t seen it before and were surprised to learn what they had been walking over.
“I enjoy the interaction with people,” Gascoyne said, adding that he is “a lazy hiker,” so doing the PWV work gets him out to new areas.
Founded in 1996 by Charles “Chuck” Bell, PWV patrols 58 trails totaling 250 miles in the Canyon Lakes Ranger District. In 2010, volunteers put in 20,300 miles without a single injury.
Bell himself still works the trails, and he and his wife recently put in five days on a patrol in the Rawah Wilderness. Using five llamas to carry gear, they spent most of their time cutting and moving fallen trees off the trail. This prevents the ad hoc creation of trails around such obstacles. A fascinating account of this hike can be found on Bell’s website www.bellbirdramblings.blogspot.com .
Bell, who recently won a national award for public lands stewardship from the Department of the Interior, founded Poudre Wilderness Volunteers while working as a Forest Service volunteer himself. One one overnight hike in the Rawah, he encountered 113 hikers.
“As I lay in my tent that night, reflecting on the day and the dilemma of the USFS budget cuts, it became clear to me that the only realistic chance for managing this beautiful wilderness, and the other wonderful areas in our region, would be to establish a fairly large corps of trained volunteers,” he recalled.
The organization’s website, www.poudrewildernessvolunteers.org is full of useful information, including maps of all trails, driving directions and a trail selector to compare trail features. It also offers information on programs that PWV provides, such as Adopt-A-Trail, Kids in Nature and Adopt-A-Highway, as well as how to become a volunteer or donate or sign up for the newsletter. The group also sells copies of its field guide at local sporting goods stores.