The Start of My Outdoor Career: 8 Days in the Desolation Wilderness- Part 1

The Start of My Outdoor Career: 8 Days in the Desolation Wilderness- Part 1

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In that first season on the trail crew for the Eldorado National Forest, I had spent several weeks learning a variety of different trail maintenance skills and now I was feeling confident. I could take on the world in my new outdoor career!

Little did I know that an eight day “hitch” or, in other words, spending eight days in the backcountry, was going to be one the best but most challenging experiences I’ve had in my early career.  Just me, my 50-pound backpack, a hand tool (in this case a Pulaski) and enough dehydrated food to keep my fed.   Keep in mind that, when you are backpacking, you pack as minimally as possible to save weight- I was a 5’2, 110-pound female carrying around 50 pounds—almost half my body weight!

Becky Shufelt, shares a story as a trail crew member at the start of her outdoor career.

There were eight of us on the trail crew with the goal of clearing as much trail as we could with crosscut saws in the Desolation Wilderness. This simply meant that we had to use crosscut saws to buck, or cut out, all of the dead and down trees over the trail—there was a big blow down over the winter that year so there were hundreds.

On day 6 of the “adventure”, the day started out like a normal workday on the trail. It was a blue-bird morning, with temperatures into the low 80’s.  At this point, I was in the best physical shape of my life and nothing could stop me.  As we had done all week, we continued to hike with our backpacks on until we arrived at a trail intersection to drop our gear and hike to areas that had places that needed to be cleared without our heavy loads. Once we finished, we would come back to the trail intersection, pickup our large backpacks and move to the next area. However, by the afternoon, the weather started to change rapidly.

Backpacks and tools attached to us, the members of the trail crew and I pursued on…at least until we heard the first thunder of a storm that was well on its way toward us.  Being on top of a mountain ridge, we saw a lightning bolt and heard more thunder…3 seconds away. It was close—by about 3 miles.  Great, I have metal tools attached to me. I am a walking magnet for lightning. Yikes!

Hail started to come down slightly and then, over ten minutes, it started to get heavier and heavier.  We retreated to canopy cover where the trees would shelter us from the pounding hail.  It was at this moment that I realized I had forgotten my rain gear. Okay, maybe I was getting a little too cocky because this was definitely a large oversight. But really, who would think you need rain gear in the middle of August?

The hail was easily brushed off and I was relieved that I wasn’t getting too wet. Okay, maybe it wasn’t such an oversight after all.  Phew!  As we waited the hail to pass, we decided that we would make a move toward our planned base camp. This is where we would pitch our tents and stay the night. 

When the hail let up, we started making our move and started down the mountain, 2 miles from base camp. It didn’t take long for the rain to start.  At first it was just a light sprinkle, if anything, but it seemed to gain momentum as we made progress during our decent down the mountain. I was getting soaked, and the lightning continued while getting closer. Okay, leaving behind rain gear was a huge mistake. Am I cut out for an outdoor career?

The thunder that came behind rattled my body, triggering me to run on pure adrenaline. It took everything I could to not fall and twist an ankle and roll down the mountain.

Soon we came upon a river crossing and one that there was no possible way I would come out dry.  Luckily, one of the items I brought were my Chaco river shoes.  So, I put on my Chacos and rolled my Carhart pants up and made a go at it.  My legs were tired, but the adrenaline gave me sure confidence that I was not going to fall into this large creek and get wet with all my belongings that would keep me safe and dry.  I grabbed a large stick to keep my balance.  My legs were wobbling.  I took a deep breath every time I took a step.  You can do this, Becky. Step. You’ve got this. Another step. Now one more to go…

After what seemed like an eternity, I realized that I had made it safely across without getting everything I had on my back to keep me alive wet. *Big sigh of relief*. I survived my first thunderstorm on the trail crew.

Stay tuned to The Start of My Outdoor Career- Part 2!

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