ASHLAND — In the friendly confines of a shady Lithia Park, Brandon Larrabee shows his newly minted mettle on the crosscut saw.
Cheered on by supporters from the Siskiyou Mountain Club, the Oregon State University geology student makes quick work of a fir log, charging through the bole in 50.86 seconds to set the bar high for his seven fellow Wilderness Conservation Corps crew members in this friendly competition.
"That's what I needed, a little time on the saw," says Larrabee, who had never touched a crosscut saw until a week earlier. "Hopefully the rest of them won't be at that pace."
While this one's for fun, the next few thousand logs will be all business when the corps members spend the next two months deep in the recesses of southwest Oregon reclaiming federal wilderness trails suffering from neglect.
The crews will work 10-day hitches, packing in everything they need to support their 8-hour work days in nature's greatest corner office.
This year they'll target trails in the Kalmiopsis, Siskiyou and Sky Lakes wilderness areas, where all the work will be with hand tools because mechanized tools such as power saws are banned there. They target trails that have become overgrown and impassable because the Forest Service cannot keep up with maintenance.
The Siskiyou Mountain Club crew will be putting these trails back into operation.
The interns are paid $40 a day, and at the end they each get $2,000 toward tuition reimbursement or student debt relief, says Gabe Howe, the club's founder and executive director.
Some, like Larrabee, hope to come back next year in one of the four staff or leadership positions supporting the crew, Howe says.
"It certainly beats an office job," says Larrabee, who eyes a future in conservation work. "Actually, it's kind of like the opposite. Come out, work outside, sleep in a tent all summer. Can't beat that."
The group spent five days in the Kalmiopsis Wilderness Area last week for training, and they quickly realized that hardscrabble office they chose for the summer can be as unforgiving as it is beautiful.
"There's no shade out there," Larrabee says. "We noticed that pretty quickly. We all had to hide together behind a chinquapin bush to get out of the sun."
Past crews that have tackled these backwoods projects have drawn admiration and support from backwoods enthusiasts who value wilderness experiences lost without access.
"What they're doing is a real noble thing," says Greg O'Neal, a Siskiyou Mountain Club supporter who attended a meet-and-greet barbecue June 29 at Lithia Park that included the crosscut saw competition.
"I find it remarkable that these young people will put down their cellphone, pick up a saw and do some work," O'Neal says.
Her interest in forests and wild places drew Indiana native Becca Weber, 21, away from USC for the summer to join the crew. She had heard of the Kalmiopsis, and her firsthand experience while training there didn't disappoint.
"The best way to learn about this is to get involved," Weber says. "It's important for people to understand the importance of wild places so they can protect them. To see how a day passes in a wilderness is huge."
Weber had never been in a federally designated wilderness area while growing up in Indiana, never saw a single-man crosscut saw, a double crosscut, nor heard of a Pulaski multipurpose digging tool, which is the staple of wildland firefighters and backwoods trail crews.
"They kept throwing in all these terms," she laughs. "The single, the double, Pulaski. They all make sense now. This has been my first full immersion in all of this," she says.
This is no environmental studies class at USC. The work is difficult, and it's tackled in extreme conditions with intense heat.
"It's really cool that we go out there with only hand tools," Weber says. "It's hard work. But if you do a bad job, you have to come back through and do it all over again. That would be terrible."
As for the crosscut, Weber lets those without calloused hands in on a little secret.
"It looks like super-physical activity," Weber says. "But you can let the saw do all the work, if you do it right."