Stewardship with City High School

On May 2, 2019, 7 students from City High School embarked on a mission to help repair The Arizona Trail.  We had heard rumors of trail obstructions on Oracle Ridge Trail that had occurred during the late winter storms, and planned to scout the area in case it needed repair. Our previous trips were filled with hiking and adventure, using trails as pathways to learn about the natural area. On this day the trails were the lessons. Helping students understand just how much work goes into repairing, maintaining, and creating trails was the goal for the day. We would do this by teaching students what tools to use, how to use the tools, what trail issues might look like and how to spot them. 

Follow a long and windy road deep into the heart of the Santa Catalina Mountains, and it will transport you to a whole new world. Lifted from the low cactus-filled Sonoran Desert Tucson Vally, we found ourselves standing with tall pine trees at nearly 10,000’. Oracle Ridge Trail takes The Arizona Trail along a North/South spine with spectacular views of neighboring ranges, valleys, and towns. This area is also very exposed due to a decade-old fire that ripped through the steep slopes. Because of this exposure and height, fast winds fold dead burned trees to the ground, often right onto the trail. At times this place can be dangerous. 

We gathered in a circle and began discussing each tool we would use today. Picks, McLeod, loppers, saws, shovel. ‘I don’t know what we will find out there today, but its best we are prepared.’ I demonstrated how each tool is used, how to stay safe while using them. When the group seemed to fully understand, we put on our helmets, glasses, gloves, grabbed our tools, and began our march up the trail. 

The trail was thick and overgrown in some places, requiring us to learn how to trim branches correctly. ‘We need to cut it so it looks as natural as possible, and as clean as possible so it does not harm the plant too much.’ Careful cuts were made, and the trimmings were disposed of in secret places. We continued our march forward when we were suddenly stopped in our tracks. A huge bare tree had fallen on the trail, blocking any easy passing. This tree died after the fires, continuing to stand through years of fierce storms before finally toppling over. I was not confident we would be able to do anything about this because moving such heavy and large material is hazardous, but I thought it could provide good lessons. I discussed how to saw, and some important methods. Sawing is an important skill and not one often practiced. With this in mind, I had the students line up. ‘Get in a line, and the person in the front begin to saw. When you get tired, move to the back and let the next start where you stopped.’ Because the tree was between two slopes, the weight was falling in the middle, where we were sawing. This pinched our saw blades as we cut deeper into the interior. This required me to use the ax and cut a wedge where we cut a saw line. When the wedge successfully cut the sidewalls away removing any pinching pressure on the blade, the students would begin sawing again. And so the process continued in this pattern. Saw, saw, saw, ax, saw, saw, saw, ax. With serious surprise, this process was effective, and in little time we halved the fallen tree.

With the whole group’s effort, and a 3 count and a heave, we pushed the intruding half down the valley slope and off the trail. We all yelled with joy, breathless and accomplished. The path was now crossable by all Arizona Trail users, from mountain bikers to equestrian riders. The students really saw what fixing one impasse requires. From the top of Oracle Ridge Trail, we could see hundreds of miles. ‘Remember the trail is 800 miles long, and the whole thing was built by hand.’ I think this stuck with the students. It is a lot of work keeping a trail usable and in good condition. On this day the 7 City High School students put in that hard work, and made it a better trail for the thousands of people that would use it in the days after.