16 September 2007
|Disclaimer: The views expressed below are my personal observations and opinions. They do not necessarily represent the views of the U.S. Forest Service or any other government or private entity.|
Compared to its larger cousins such as rainbow or brown trout, the golden trout is a tiny little fish. What makes the golden trout so special, besides its magnificent coloring, is the fact that it only lives in a tiny little part of the world. The Golden Trout Wilderness is in Sequoia and Inyo National Forests, in the southern California Sierras, just south of Mount Whitney. Having such a tiny range and population means that habitat degradation and hybridization are major threats to the golden trout. Every year some government agencies (California Department of Fish and Game and the U.S. Forest Service) team up with several organizations (Trout Unlimited, CalTrout, Federation of Flyfishers, etc.) and other volunteers in a collaborative effort to protect and restore the California Golden Trout. This year I went on one of the volunteer trips.
One night, while sitting around the camp fire after a hard day of moving rocks and large branches, the trail crew boss asked all of the volunteers why we had volunteered for the trip. I wanted to say something righteous about saving a threatened species of fish or helping to right the wrongs in our environment. Those are reasons I volunteered but they're minor compared to my real reason. My main reason for volunteering was the mules.
Being a wilderness area means there are no vehicles allowed. Even official government vehicles are not allowed. The only way to get there is to hike or ride a horse. In our case the humans walked while a team of mules carried all of our food and heavy supplies. We spent six days in the wilderness. Carrying everything you need for six days in a backpack can be a rough, hungry and tiring experience. Having the mules there allowed us to bring plenty of food and other luxury items such as tables, camp chairs and fly rods. With the help of the mules, we spent six days in relative comfort.
Of course the Forest Service didn't pay for the mules just so a bunch of volunteers could go sight seeing and fly fishing, we were expected to work. Our primary project for this trip was a headcut restoration. I didn't understand exactly what that was until I got there and saw the project.
Scroll over the above picture to see the meadow upstream of the headcut. The stream has not yet eroded away so the meadow is flat, lush and green. The water table is high and every spring the creek expands to fill large parts of the meadow where the flood waters slow and nurture the lush meadow.
Downstream of the headcut, erosion has created a gully with steep banks. The water table has dropped and sage brush has started taking over most of the meadow. When spring rains flood the creek the water rushes down the gully creating more erosion and making the problem worse. It may not look like much in the pictures but once you stand there it is fairly obvious that the meadow is being changed in a major way.
The Forest Service is looking into what causes the bank erosion that starts a headcut. All I know is that cattle were introduced to the area about a hundred years ago and I could see an obvious difference between the meadows with cattle and the ones without. In 1978 the area was designated as wilderness which means no vehicles are allowed. Since cows aren't vehicles, and they were there prior to 1978, grazing is still allowed in much of the area. No vehicles allowed means we had to do everything by hand. Even the two wheelbarrows we had required major paperwork before they could be brought in because having a wheel means they are considered a vehicle.
This particular headcut had been fixed before and the fixes seemed to be working. We were there to make repairs. We lined the creek bed with rocks to prevent further erosion then covered the entire are with branches in an attempt to keep the cattle out. The difficult part was that there weren't any rocks or branches in the immediate area. The closest rocks were a good 500 feet away so I'm very glad we had the wheelbarrows. There was also a large dead tree over by the rocks. Using axes and a misery saw we cut the dead branches off and hauled them all the way to the headcut. It certainly wasn't easy work but we managed to finish it all in two days.
Our next big project was a stream crossing repair. The area is called Bullfrog Meadow even though it is actually inhabited by the rare Mountain Yellow-legged frogs. Their legs didn't look yellow to me but I didn't get very close. We made sure there weren't any frogs in the area before we started working. I teased the Forest Service biologist that I wanted to see her dog eat some endangered frogs. Her dog was far too well behaved for that.
We did a couple more trail repair projects on our final work day. Again, we finished early so we had the entire afternoon off. What would you do with a day off after nearly a week of hard manual labor in the wilderness? Well, most of us decided to go fishing in Ramshaw Meadow which meant a six mile hike over "bitch pass" and back. Two others decided to summit a nearby peak that was 11,600 feet high. Another volunteer decided to explore a trail his friend had said was really tough. We had briefly considered staying in camp to relax and maybe take naps but who would want to do that when you can go on a long hike through the wilderness instead?
Being a coffee farmer, I get plenty of outdoor time in my daily routine. Many of my friends can't fathom why I would want to take time off and pay for airfare just to go camp in the wilderness and work for free but I found the trip very rewarding. They didn't work us too hard and the work was both interesting and rewarding. This isn't the first volunteer trip I've been on and hopefully it won't be the last.