Ask Mrs. Trails: Susan Schen
Susan is the Coast Stewardship Manager for Trailkeepers of Oregon. Recently she took a some time to tell us about her work on trails in Oregon.
What does Trailkeepers of Oregon (TKO) do, and why is it important?
TKO’s mission is to protect and enhance the hiking experience in Oregon through stewardship, advocacy, outreach, and education. Our programs transform trail users into trail stewards and provide a special connection between volunteer and trail that can only come from the experience of building or maintaining the trail. TKO’s bread and butter is the trail party — a day of work on the trail led by our volunteer crew leaders. The priorities for our trail parties are safety, fun, and getting work done — in that order. We teach volunteers everything they need to know to be safe and productive, so no experience is necessary to join in the fun.
In addition, we maintain the oregonhikers.org field guide and hikers forum where folks can go to share their experiences and find trail resources; advocate for trails in forums and meetings with legislators; and host educational events that train volunteers and land manager staff in trail techniques. Our work is important because, as the population of the area grows and our trails see drastically increased use, the impact of humans on the trail system exceeds the ability of our land manager partner to mitigate with their limited resources. Our engagement with volunteers and land managers helps bridge the gap between maintenance needs and resources and build the skillset of the next generation of trail stewards.
What is your role at TKO?
I’m the Coast Stewardship Manager tasked with bringing volunteer stewardship resources to the Oregon Coast Trail. My position is largely funded through a partnership with the Oregon Coast Visitors Association. This is an expansion of my previous position as North Coast Stewardship Coordinator where we first started our programming and partnering on the coast. I spend my time building new relationships with land managers and stewardship organizations, hosting trail parties and educational events, and developing maintenance plans for trail sections along the coast.
How did you get into trails?
I’ve enjoyed hiking since I was a child, but I was introduced to trail design during a workshop while I was in graduate school at the Conway School of Landscape Design. We spent some time in the classroom but spent the rest of the day outside using clinometers to route trails through the woods. I thought that part was really, really fun. Immediately after completing my degree, my wife and I moved to Portland where I started looking for opportunities to learn more about trail construction. I figured the best way to learn about designing trails was to actually go out and learn how they’re built. That search brought me to TKO and signing up for my first trail party building new trail at Milo McIver State Park.
What surprised you along the way?
I was surprised at how often plans have to change to adapt to the landscape. There are often several changes to a trail’s path or design from an initial concept on a map to actual construction. Tree roots, steep topography, drainages, springs, large rocks, and buried rotting logs can all force changes to the route or require the incorporation of structures like rock walls or bridges. These impact construction time, cost, and maintenance plans and there is no way to know about them until you get out on the land and see things firsthand.
Where is your favorite trail in the region right now (and why)?
Right now I’d say my favorite Portland-area trail is the Multnomah Wahkeena Loop. I led a dozen or so trail parties on the Larch Mountain Trail portion of the loop repairing damage from the Eagle Creek Fire. We did everything from clearing logs and rockslides, to gabion installation, to drainage repairs. Breaking for lunch by Wiesendanger Falls after a morning of clearing the adjacent switchbacks of rockslide debris with no one on the trail but my crew is a cherished memory.
What’s the most exciting thing happening with trails in Oregon these days?
I think the relationship building after the Eagle Creek Fire and increased awareness of equity and access issues in outdoor recreation are super exciting. There was a great deal of collaboration between land managers, transportation organizations, and non-profits in the response to the Eagle Creek Fire and the relationships built during that time have continued to enhance stewardship efforts. We’re also seeing more land stewardship meetings opening with acknowledgement that land has been taken from indigenous people and that they are still here and will continue to be here as active partners and the Oregon Trails Summit coming up in October has a number of sessions on access and inclusion this year. I think these are all good signs that we’ll see more expansion of partnerships to include those currently underrepresented in outdoor recreation and that diversity, equity, and inclusion are becoming higher priority goals in enhancing the outdoor experience in Oregon.
What’s your advice for people who want to get involved in trail work? Why should people help build/maintain trails?
I suggest choosing a trail party that really fits your needs for your first experience. Whether you want a short hike and light work or a multi-mile uphill trek with strenuous work, there is probably a trail party on our schedule that will match your style. Our event descriptions indicate the challenge level, so you can easily browse our calendar for a suitable event. For my first trail party, I asked the crew leader if I could come for only half a day because I wasn’t sure I could handle a full day of work. That isn’t always possible due to various factors, but folks should feel free to email email@example.com and ask if they have questions.
As for why people should help, there are a number of great reasons. Trails are more environmentally friendly, more pleasant to hike on, and accessible to more people if they’re well-maintained. It feels good to give back and have some ownership of a trail. It’s fun and eye-opening to learn about how trails are built and what it takes to maintain them. It’s great exercise and some of the skills learned can even be applied in one’s own neighborhood. The photos of folks at work are great to show off to friends. If nothing else, one has a greater appreciation and respect for trails once one has learned how much effort goes into building and maintaining them.
How can people get involved?
The most obvious way to get involved with TKO is to go to trailkeepersoforegon.org and sign up for a trail party or one of our training events. We also need help with email lists, event organization, website hosting and other tasks that don’t require so much physical activity. Contributing trip reports on the oregonhikers.org forums is a great way to help keep folks informed about trail conditions and get the word out about maintenance needs.
There are also lots of other stewardship organizations to volunteer with including trail associations, land trusts, watershed councils, conservancies, and “friends of -“ groups who do trail work, invasive plants removal, wildlife surveys, beach cleanups and other stewardship and education work. If folks find trails just aren’t their passion, I encourage them to take advantage of some of the many other volunteer opportunities that benefit our outdoor spaces.