The 15th week of the SCA Phoenix Field School program was devoted entirely to training. Seen as somewhat of a capstone of the program, Wildland Fire Fighting (S-190 & S-130), spanned four days in early December. Three of the eight members had taken this training prior when enrolled in Franklin Fire High School; so our group had high expectations of this training spurred by the romanticized tales of their colleagues.
The training entailed three days in the classroom learning as much as possible about fighting wildland fires. Topics included; factors affecting fire behavior, safety precautions when fighting fires, techniques commonly implemented on the fire line, and an introduction to the Incident Command System (ICS) utilized by federal agencies during emergencies such as wildland fires. One the final day of the training; the class traveled to a remote facility to practice fire-fighting techniques described earlier in the week. This included; constructing a fireline at real speed with real fire-fighting tools, maintaining the tools afterward, and practicing deployment of a fire shelter (a integral piece of safety equipment that serves as the last line of defense when caught in a wildfire). Everyone passed the final exam and our entire crew received S-190 and S-130 certifications!
The next day, we participated in a ATV Safety Training course. This one day course strived to teach the crew have to ride All Terrain Vehicles safely. The members deftly zoomed around cones in figure-eights and banked upon steep slopes for six hours until finally, the last of many trainings undertaken by the crew this year was complete.
Our thirteenth week was a short one, with just three days in the field before getting five whole days off for Thanksgiving. We returned to the rock work site to see if we could finish our rock retaining wall and maybe even move beyond it to begin digging the trail through the rocky outcropping. It was a tall order, but the crew was excited about finishing and gained energy from the thought of the upcoming vacation.
The crew worked tirelessly moving rocks, crushing rocks, and placing rocks. And just like that, the rock retaining wall was finished, with a beautiful crush and fill tread for the hikers to travel upon.
The next stretch of trailbuilding was challenging, as it required the removal of a large portion of the rocky hillside before solid, flat ground could be found. The guys were up to the challenge and would have worked straight through lunch each day (if they had been allowed).
The result of the long days was that a trail now exists where once only rocks lived. A job well done, and a good excuse to eat lots of turkey and pie.
In the 12th week of our program, we had rock workskills with Rebecca Pike. It was a wonderful experience because it took hard team work and determination to move boulders. The work site, a different section of the Copper Mountain Loop we worked on previously, was very beautiful. The hike there from our campsite was roughly two miles.
The rocks that we needed to move for the rock wall must have been at least 800 pounds each, if not more. But we didn't have to move just any rock - this rock was schist, a metamorphic rock. It tends to break apart with any rough movement, so we had to be very careful when moving them around.
We were able to move enormous rocks to a certain location to construct a rock wall after Rebecca taught us how to use rock bars to move large rocks safely and efficiently. We learned how to place the rocks with multiple points of contact to make a strong, sturdy, and long-lasting retaining wall.
Finding large rocks to build the wall was fun. We broke off pieces from the surrounding mountains or dug rocks out of the ground. We also learned a method called crush and fill to fill in the spaces in the rock wall. We smashed rocks with a double or single jack hammer to make pieces as small as possible. It was very tedious and hard work.
We finished the week with a great sense of pride in our wall. Although we did not accomplish a lot of distance, we know that the wall we built is strong and will support many hikers, bikers, and equestrians and will allow many people to enjoy the Copper Mountain Loop.
On week 11 of our amazing work together, we were supplied with Juniper wood to construct wood benches for people to sit on at an historic schol site at the Agua Fria National Monument. We had three teams to make three benches; Josh teamed up with Jacob and AJ, George teamed up with Chris, and Rip teamed up with Aron and Angel. First we started by taking all the bark off of the logs to make them easier to work with and last longer. Afterwards we used saws and wood chisels to shape the benches.
While Jacob and AJ figured out the dimensions for their bench; Rip, Aron, and Angel worked on a bench of their own. There they chiseled a lot of bark off to make the wood look as elegant as possible. We ended up carrying parts of our bench far into an archaeological site. When we got there, the team finished was left. The result was a nice looking and stable bench. The bench took hard work and determination, but in the end, it was successful.
It was a wonderful experience to know that our hours of timber work will improve the lives of the hundreds of visitors the site will receive. The camp site was next to the worksite so we didn't have to hike far at all. One night, as Josh, Rip, and Chris were going to the tents, they shined the light down the river bank to see ten pairs of eyes staring right back at them. It turned out to be five bulls drinking from the water. "Scariest thing to see before going to bed," says AJ.
Just as the Rands crew was getting used to the ups and downs of a normal work hitch, our post-
Thanksgiving schedule up and turned the whole durned thang inside out. For those who prefer brevity, here's a summary: We handed out permits, we monitored a fenceline, we cut things with chainsaws, we played hosts, and we even got some rain (or was that just extreme condensation?)!
The crew began the hitch on what the rest of America knows as Black Friday, and like much of America, we woke up with full bellies from the previous evening's Thanksgiving festivities (in our case, this included the most local and organic turkey EVER, which even our crew vegetarian bravely sampled). Instead of heading out to contribute to the economy, though, we met up with several hardy folks from the Ridgecrest BLM, who cut their vacations short to devote their energy to the busiest weekend of the year of Off-Highway-Vehicle riding. On both Friday and Saturday, the crew split into three groups and each group joined a BLM member in three different locations in and around the Rands. Our task: distribute free permits and maps to people looking to ride in the area, with the goal of raising awareness about the importance of staying on maintained routes.
Thanksgiving weekend certainly lived up to the hype we had been hearing about since our arrival in September. The tiny “living ghost town” of Randsburg filled like Disneyland on Christmas with riders of all ages on dirtbikes and quads. Amid clouds of exhaust and dust, riders dismounted their vehicles to meander into the General Store for a milkshake, into the art gallery for a postcard, into an antiques shop for who-knows-what, or into the White House Saloon for what I can only assume was a presidential pick-me-up. Outreach provided the crew with an opportunity to sink our teeth into a whole new aspect of land management: public interaction. The experience was predominantly positive, occasionally entertaining, and undoubtedly eye-opening. At the conclusion of our two days of outreach, we talked to over 1,000 members of the public, and the crew felt we had gained a broader perspective into the minds of OHV community members.
Following a sluggish Sunday of fence monitoring that left us all thankful to be a restoration crew, we began our much-hyped training session: S212 Chainsaw! We endured a day and a half of classroom instruction in order to get to the good stuff-- hearing the growl of the engine and the whir of the chain, seeing sawdust fly, and feeling the satisfaction of making a really good cut and sending our “trees” toppling (safely) to the ground. It was a personal victory to overcome my fear of the tool, and a collective triumph to emerge from the three-day training as a Chainsaw Certified Crew.
The collage-like nature of this hitch received some added color from our friendly neighborhood wilderness crew: Grass Valley. They joined us for dinner one night, then for the three days of chainsaw training, and then got to be our guests for two work days (see below)!
Everyone expressed excitement to be able to head back into the field for the final half of the hitch. We were all looking forward to our new campsite, a new polygon in a more interesting area, and a fresh new set of incursions to tackle in a short time. We packed our whitewall, our coolers, our rummy cards, our poetry books, our cameras, and our Nutella and headed out for six days back home in the Rands.
The field didn't disappoint, and the desert even held a few secrets for us during this short time out. We woke up each morning to dewdrops glistening on our tents. One morning was even sheathed in thick fog, so that the joshua trees emerged like mystical creatures from the hazy ground, and the sun's rays diffused into a golden orb that dangled above Fremont peak during breakfast. During the day, the clouds kept the temperature cool and the horizon interesting, and sunrises and sunsets were a sight to behold every day.
We had four days to accomplish a chunk of our self-created work plan, and for two of those days we doubled our numbers. The Grass Valley crew helped us patch up a number of incursions, and brought a new and amiable dynamic to our work environment. Hopefully they enjoyed their time in the Rands, as we certainly got a lot out of being hosts in an area we now consider home. Program Coordinator Matt also joined us in the field, and we enjoyed hosting him and learning from him, whether it was whilst constructing a check dam or playing rummy back at camp.
It was fitting to end such a hodgepodge hitch back in the prettiest part of our little corner of the Mojave, and though diversity in the schedule is never a bad thing, I at least felt a rush of gratitude each night in the field as I looked up at the sky. What a great place to live, what a great place to share laughter, food, ideas, and a blossoming sense of contentment and fulfillment at having landed here in this little pocket of the desert.
By Irene Gilchriese