Slow down and shovel

Erryday I’m shovelin’. (Shovelin’, shovelin’.)

Shovelin’ out the Harding Icefield Trail, that is—scooping snow out of the track, piling it on switchbacks or trampled vegetation to protect plants and the trail from erosion.

Prevention is the best medicine, and preservation the second—so shoveling out the summer Icefield trail, keeping people on the path and off the veg, is the best way to save our vegetation, prevent trail erosion, and preclude the need for restoration.

We track the trail beneath the snow with a Trimble GPS unit (which pinpoints with sub-meter accuracy), flagging tracks and switchbacks into the blank slate of the snow slope. It’s almost intoxicating, the power that these little orange flags have, to steer hikers across the winter-white paradise up to the Top of the Cliffs.

But sometimes there’s trouble in paradise.

“Kay boys, and girls,” our lead biotech sighs as we reach yet another patch of dormant cow parsnip already trampled into the mud by hikers headed off-trail. “It’s shovel time.”

So we shovel, chiseling deep into snowbanks, piling torso-sized snowballs along the eroded edge of the melting slope. The trail seems like a gravelly flat illusion that might or might not exist (reinforced by potholing, or falling thigh-deep through a layer of rotten snow into the hollow space melted out underneath). Sometimes you scrape bottom with a satisfying clang, and come up with a chunk that peels off the bottom like loose skin off a wound. Sometimes you miss, and you hit an impenetrable layer of clear ice, or sink into the muddy bank of vegetation (ouch!).

It’s a demanding, creative process. Carving out blocks of crystallized water and stacking them on the muddy trail banks, newly grown with grass. Crafting shelves and stairways, inviting paths on a steep slide of melting snow, to entice travelers back onto the trail five feet under.

Snow is an incredibly plastic media. With the flourish of a snow shovel and a couple of scooping motions, you can reroute an entire trail, scooping flat the new track twenty feet upslope and pile dirty snow rubble on the old.

It’s all a psychological game: how can we convince hikers, intent on pursuing the fastest, easiest route to the top of the cliffs, to walk in the middle of a muddy, melted slop of a trail instead of on the vulnerably vegetated berms two feet away?

For all our flagging, and shoveling, and stair-building, there will be glissaders, marauders, scalawags who slide willy-nilly through carefully engineered snow stairs and trample the veg. But they’re people too, with desires and needs and goals. And I almost can’t blame them for not wanting to follow our winding path across the side of the mountain.

Though you’d think people would know better than to walk straight across a pile of snow rubble on top of fragile newly-emerged grass. Nope. Trail building may be an investment in the future, but hiking, unless you watch birds, or you hike the same trails over and over because you either love them or work on them (and I have now done both), is a thing of the moment, a route, a track onward and upward as fast and efficiently as you can.

But efficiency isn’t necessarily the name of the game here. More often than not, it takes us twice as long as most people do to reach the Top of the Cliffs, the 3/4 point on the trail, than it normally would. It’s because we take our time, pace ourselves, work hard and shovel steadily. We take care with every shovelful, conserving energy and fast-melting snow, to make sure that we send people down the right track.

Faster isn’t necessarily better in trail-shoveling, or cooking, or living. Speed kills, trampling slow-sprouting fragile life in the mud. Slow down, nature says. Tread carefully. And live more richly with your leafy neighbors.