Dirt Work: An Education in the Woods by Christine Byl

dirt workWhen hiking a trail in a national or state park, I sometimes wonder who puts these walkways together.  Some trails look pretty straight forward; others seem to require some engineering (the stairs at Stone Mountain State Park come to mind).

Dirt Work brings to the forefront the lives of the traildogs – the folks who maintain, build, and occasionally reroute hiking trails.  It is long, arduous work, and the descriptions of a typical workday would make the average one of us ache just thinking about it.

The author began her tenure in trail work after college, when she signed on for a seasonal job in Glacier National Park in Montana.  The team she worked with often hiked miles into the woods for a shift, handling dangerous tools, learning lots of serious lessons, and developing a camaraderie along the way.  The author also met her future husband at Glacier and worked with him there on numerous occasions.

After years in Montana, Byl and her husband moved up to Alaska, first pulling a stint in the Chugach National Forest, and then to the interior, working in Denali National Park.  Alaska proved to be completely different – at Chugach, they boated more often than hiked to work spots, and the weather, especially along the coast, was a change – rain, and more rain.  Denali was another experience – Montana was more forest, Denali a tundra environment.  There were weather and seasonal issues – days of below zero temperature, time stretches of all light or all darkness, etc.

Apparently, Alaska was enough of a draw for them to stay there, although when you get towards the book’s end, you’ll find out that their work takes them away from the national park system.

Dirt Work is a fine poetical observation of the rough and grisly aspects of trail building.  I have a changed and better respect for the traildogs, the unsung heroes of hiking paths.

(William Hicks, Information Services)

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