At the time of writing this entry, the Trails Across Texas Crew has spent an entire month of our lives in Cooper Lake State Park. Cooking, eating, cleaning, sleeping, working, etc. In addition to the routine, we’ve survived a tornado and a small fire (don’t ask). We have been frustrated with park staff and each other, as well as failing tools and machinery. We have also felt annoyed by the limbo temporarily imposed upon us by a misinterpretation of the contract responsible for our team’s existence and funding. Before our third and last consecutive spike at Cooper Lake, it seemed like all we had done was put in check-steps to repair a badly eroded horse trail, efforts that seemed futile once April showers turned our labor of love into a mucky mess. We were all a little bitter to be returning after our previous experiences in the park.
We made the journey from Austin to Cooper Lake on April 18th, spending the rest of the day setting up camp and cooking dinner. We woke up in the Buggy Whip Camping Area on the 19th with a new project: cutting tread for four new reroutes. Spirits improved at the thought of creating a trail that was planned to be inherently sustainable, rather than installing trail Band-Aids in the form of check-steps and drains. The week before, our Field Coordinator Erick had flagged a new corridor for the trail reroutes. One sawyer and one swamper cut the large stuff along the corridor with a chainsaw, while the rest of the crew followed behind with a combination of McLeods, picks, and Pulaskis removing material and uncovering our new trail. We then covered up the old dilapidated trail with our cuttings. Despite plenty of pauses and sidetrips to catch our breath, make action plans for felling uncooperative trees, and go on herpetological safaris, we finished the bulk of the eleven day project in three days.
On the 22nd, we awoke to a park and trail saturated from the previous night’s rainstorm. In order to protect the wet trail from our boots and tools, we used this as our half-day. We celebrated Earth Day on the drive home by cheering on our crew leaders as they rescued turtles crossing the road and moved them to truck-free locations.
The following days were dedicated to installing more trail features. Crewleaders David and Layla located anticipated problem areas where topography and soil type suggested a likelihood of erosion. The crew responded by installing check-steps and check-dams, waterbars, and turnpikes. Each of these structures created a more burly, sustainable trail through the clever use of rocks, timber, and shaping and compaction with hand tools.
The final night in camp, it seemed as though hundreds of fathers and children descended upon our campsite ring. It turns out that in the morning, the park was hosting a children’s fishing competition. Tents popped up everywhere complete with screaming and running children, adding a claustrophobic feeling we had yet to experience in our home away from home. In any other moment, I would be extremely annoyed with all of the activity and noise that kept me awake and distracted from the following days’ work. I took a moment to stop being selfish and realized that this park, which I associated with unpleasant weather and redundant work, was actually where a lot of people escaped.
This was a place for children to run around without the fear of city streets and strangers. It was a place where parents might turn their phones off and where groups of old friends planned their annual motorcycle ride/fishing trip. The trail that we maintained might be one of the most accessible and safe equestrian trails in the area for rookie riders in a state with very little public land. With this thought, our month spent in Cooper Lake immediately meant a lot more. With our low cost and our high motivation to constantly get the job done in spite of the conditions, Texas Conservation Corps members make public land in Texas a more viable cause. Texas Parks and Wildlife is an organization still recovering from natural disasters such as widespread wildfire and drought, as well as fighting the occasional political battle to secure the state funding that maintains basic operations. The work that our Trails Across Texas team provides may free up labor and financial resources for higher priority initiatives. I am convinced that the Texas Conservation Corps helps State Parks use quiet places to connect people to natural resources, and that our work is worthwhile beyond the enjoyment and growth I receive from it. These thoughts helped me tune out the other groups sharing our campsite long enough to fall asleep.
The next day, we put some finishing touches on the trail, packed up our trailer and van, and headed back to Austin. TAT left two days earlier than planned in anticipation of a storm and potential F5 tornado. After a short weekend, we made up these missed work days with local projects, split between a saw project in McKinney Falls State Park and a wet masonry project at Reimers Ranch. Next Stop: Martin Dies, Jr. State Park.
Andrew Spurlin, Trails Across Texas Crew Member