The Trail Builder’s Art – The Legacy of Russ Pfeifer-Hoyt

If you’re like me, you’ve been on a remote hiking path in the North Cascades and thought to yourself, “Gosh, this trail sure is remote and rugged and well-maintained. I wonder who humped all the way up here to build it?”

You’d be surprised at how often the answer is Russ Pfeiffer-Hoyt.

Russ and his team of intrepid trail-builders have blazed trails across the Pacific Northwest for nearly five decades. Whether it’s a local trail on private land or a substantial trail project for the US Forest Service, Russ and his crew can handle every aspect of the project.

I learned that if you work for your reputation and not for money, you are more likely to end up with both.

According to Russ, new trails usually start with visioning: what the land manager expects from their new trail. Next comes siting the trail. This involves deciding where the path will go – and why. With a firm commitment to the trail plan, he starts with heavy equipment for clearing and construction. Yet despite all the brute power and technology, in the end, it always comes down to McLeod rakes, pickaxes, and sweat.

I asked him about how he approaches new trail projects.

Russ Pfeiffer-Hoyt and Sophie Dixon, granddaughter of Erin Trimingham of the Stimpson Family at the Stimpson Family Nature Reserve. Photo by Susan Trimmingham.

“When I design a trail, I start by trying to understand the land manager’s purpose for the trail. Often, with the US Forest Service, the purpose is to be part of a transportation network – to get from point A to B. In that case, I calculate the elevation difference between A and B and take the maximum desired grade (steepness) to calculate the minimum trail length. Using that length, I look for the best combination of moderate slope, well-drained soil, and natural beauty. After choosing the general area, I flag a trail location, using a clinometer (an instrument used for measuring the angle or elevation of slopes) to measure trail grade, all the while looking for unique trees or points of beauty that I can incorporate into the route.

“When I build a trail for an organization like Whatcom Land Trust, the goal is not getting from point A to B, but rather to create an experience where hikers can meander through the glory of the land. This is both much more work to design, and more satisfying. I start by becoming familiar with the whole property, walking a grid pattern, and keeping notes of the features of the land, both areas that I might include in the trail and areas to avoid. Using these notes, I make a map of the general trail location, trying to incorporate at least one example of the various natural features types into the route.”

Russ at work. Photo by Rand Jack

 

Russ showed me his dog-eared notebook, rainproof yet worn from decades of use, its pages incised with carefully scribbled notes. Indecipherable to me, it was a chronicle of years spent in untrammeled forests, calculating elevation and grade, noting features and contours, accounting for wetlands and obstacles, and marveling at the possibilities.

So that partly answered my question: those trails I enjoy so much didn’t simply grow out of deer trails. A lot of thought, preparation, and plain-old elbow grease went into making my trails so enjoyable. But I needed to know: who are these people? Who are the unseen faces that labor in remote forests, paying careful attention not only to the trail but the culverts and drains that keep it viable? So I asked Russ about his past, trying to figure out what led him to this unusual and often thankless job.

“I was born in Seattle, raised in Kirkland, graduating from Lake Washington High School. I grew up with three brothers, so sports – especially baseball – were a major activity for us. I also wrestled and ran cross country. When I wasn’t outside, I read the World Book Encyclopedia over and over, curious about everything. When we grew up, our part of Kirkland was largely forested, so much of our time was spent in the woods.

“Our mom was busy caring for our dad, who was paralyzed with Multiple Sclerosis, so we were free to do anything we wanted. We hiked and camped, even if all we could do was camp along the railroad tracks. We spent part of each summer with our grandmother in Bellingham, often visiting the Nesset farm in Saxon, as she was a Nesset. The Nesset’s farming, logging, and love for nature strongly influenced me. My grandfather, originally from Sweden, was partner in a large logging company and sawmill in Darrington. From him, I learned that if you work for your reputation and not for money, you are more likely to end up with both.

“Our oldest brother, Steve ‘Sven’, got the rest of us brothers interested in hiking in the Cascades. Incidentally, Sven started the Sven Hoyt Community Garden on 32nd St., which we still own. The largest impact of my childhood was losing our dad to MS when I was seven. While I wouldn’t wish that experience on anyone, it gave me the perspective that life is finite and that I should strive to follow my mom’s teaching to ‘leave the world a better place than I found it.’”

After high school, Russ enrolled at Evergreen State College in 1971, making young Russ Pfeiffer-Hoyt one of its pioneer students among 1,128 in its first-ever academic year. 

Russ and Joseph Pfeiffer-Herbert building the Canyon Lake Creek bridge.

 

“Evergreen was a wonderful experience for me. I concentrated my studies on the human use of natural resources. My most memorable experience was six months of independent study in a small village in Southern Spain. I soon became accepted as a “hijo del pueblo” (son of the pueblo), working with the men every day, farming and herding with methods little changed from the Roman era. I also did a year of forestry. While at Evergreen, I worked as a caretaker for free rent, commuting to school across an inlet of Puget Sound by kayak.”

After college, Russ slotted himself into his destiny. Knowing he wanted to work in the outdoors but not sure what form such a career might take, he let it evolve naturally.

“After Evergreen, I worked planting trees and cutting shake bolts. My wife Cindy and I picked apples to pay for six months of our honeymoon in Europe. My brothers and I wanted to work together, so we bid on a US Forest Service trail contract, largely learning on the job. We hadn’t planned to make it a career, but one trail job led to another. Our brother, John, worked with us for one year and then went back to school to become a doctor. He has been president of Northwest Pathology in Bellingham for many years, helping grow the company into one of Bellingham’s larger employers.”

The US Forestry Service trail jobs continued to roll in. Russ became intimately familiar with the USFS trail guides, specifications, and standards. A dizzying array of bureaucratic exactitude, the kind of thing that scares away fly-by-night contractors, leaving only the toughest and most resilient to win bids. And win, he did.

Russ and his team built trails, installed bridges from Ferndale to Lake Chelan, and occasionally further afield. Some of his bridges are quite striking, so I asked him about them.

“Engineer’s Dream” (or “Nightmare”?). Russ building the Middle Fork Snoqualmie glulam arch suspension bridge.

“Bridges are designed by structural engineers. I am sometimes involved with choosing the type of bridge, basing the choice on feasibility, cost, and aesthetics. I took one quarter of architectural design, including structural engineering, at Evergreen—not enough to design a bridge but giving me an understanding of loads and stresses. We have worked on everything from building bridges with on-site materials, and splitting decking from old-growth cedar, to pre-fab steel. Because we often work miles from the nearest road, the location helps dictate the design. If I laid all of the bridges I built end to end, it would be over two miles long. Some of the most interesting bridges that I have worked on have been restoring suspension bridges in Idaho that were built in the 1940s, including some built by German POWs during World War II. They must have thought they had died and gone to heaven to be safe in the mountains of Idaho, doing fun work with full bellies.”

Building bridges and trails is hard enough. Building them when you are many miles from any forest roads – much less paved roads – is a considerable challenge. Russ told me about jobs where he needed to disassemble heavy equipment, have the various parts flown to the site by helicopter, then re-assembled and brought to life so the crew could get to work clearing a trail. What seems impossible to most of us is a mere logistical challenge to people like Russ. He told me about a job at Baker Lake:

“My favorite place to work is Baker Lake, in part due to the logistic challenges. I built four miles of trail between Noisy Creek and Blum Creek before there were any connecting trails. I built a raft to motor my backhoe across Baker Lake to start building the trail. I made an 8’ by 12’ plywood ‘palace’ to stay in, with a wood stove and a pipe from a nearby spring connected to a faucet by the door. I didn’t want that job to end.”

Rafting the backhoe across Baker Lake to build the East Bank Trail.

I recently wrote a story in this magazine about Governor’s Point (Governor’s Point: Finding Harmony on the Chuckanut Coast (Spring ’21), a spectacular peninsula of Chuckanut sandstone and second-growth forest just south of Bellingham. The new owner plans to build a few houses on the southwest edge of the peninsula and has offered the vast bulk of the beautiful waterfront forest to the public via the Whatcom Land Trust. Russ has already begun the process of formalizing the trail system there.

“The property owner, Randy Bishop, is donating the bulk of the peninsula for low-impact public use, including a trail and beach access. I am using a similar process to the Stimpson Trail, beginning with a thorough examination of the property. The trail will be about a three-mile loop, winding through stands of large trees, Chuckanut sandstone formations, and saltwater views.”

Nowadays, Russ is getting on in years. He knows he won’t be swinging an axe much longer, but he has hope for the future.

“Our three daughters have grown up working on trails. Our youngest daughter, Megan’s, first job at age two was putting washers on railings at a penny per washer. She was too young to count, so her sisters kept track. At the end of the first day, she took the $3.00 she had earned to the store to buy her first pacifier, learning her work ethic at a young age.

“I have also worked many years with Eric Carabba, now the owner of Backwoods Contracting, who is part of the next generation of master trail builders in Whatcom County.”

In addition to blazing trails in the mountainous wildlands, Russ has blazed a few more in the Mount Baker School District, where he has served on the school board for 22 years. A business owner with a keen eye for fiscal responsibility and windows of opportunity, Russ led successful efforts allowing school districts to keep all of their local timber revenue, which has brought several million dollars to Mount Baker School District.

“I ran for school board 22 years ago to take the district focus away from the ‘culture wars’ and back to academics. I feel that my greatest success is being part of a leadership team that has protected our staff from the social pressures straining our society, allowing them to focus on academics and helping our kids become better citizens. We are working hard to recover from pandemic learning loss. While we still have much to accomplish, I am proud of how our students and staff have weathered the challenges of the pandemic with understanding and grace.”

When it comes to balancing wilderness preservation with recreational access, Russ is philosophical and advocates for careful planning and intelligent public policy.

Elegant beauty and strength – Cindy Pfeiffer-Hoyt on Bagley Lake Bridge. This exquisite bridge is a legacy of USFS trail visionary, Scott Paul.

“The pandemic brought an increased interest in getting outdoors, which has strained parts of our trail system. Providing ample opportunities to experience the natural world brings so many benefits that it is vital that public land managers strive to keep up with the increased use. Expanding the existing trail systems is important, but the easiest way to keep up with hiking demand is to improve the access and condition of our existing trails. Whatcom County Parks has miles of trails at Canyon Lake, but they are currently almost inaccessible for lack of a short section of road easement. Elbow Lake Trail needs a new bridge across the Middle Fork of the Nooksack. Trail maintenance, especially drainage, allows much heavier trail use without leaving damage. For example, the trails in Heather Meadows (Mount Baker Ski Area) are so well-drained and hardened that the thousands of hikers each summer leave almost no sign of their use. I encourage trail users to join volunteer work parties organized by Washington Trail Association or Whatcom Land Trust.”

So: the next time you tromp along one of our beautiful trails, as you turn to drink in the beauty of the Early Winters Spires or Baker Lake, do give a passing thought to the workers who worked so hard to make your pathway safe and inspiring. And if you have the time, do what Russ says: join a volunteer work party to keep your beloved trails in tip-top shape. Then, the next time you pass through and see that repaired switchback or cleared tree fall, you will surely swell with pride.

Russ Pfeiffer-Hoyt’s Trails

1) Stimpson Trail
2) Port Whitehorn Trail
3) Canyon Lake Trails
4) Pine and Cedar Lakes Boardwalk
5) Elbow Lake Trail
6) Goat Mountain Trail Reconstruction
7) Hannegan Pass Trail Reconstruction
8) Wild Goose Trail
9) Shadow of the Sentinels Boardwalk
10) East Bank Baker Lake Trail (Noisy Creek to Blum Creek)
11) Happy Creek Boardwalk
12) Jensen Family Crest Trail
13) Maple Creek Bridge
14) Boulder Lake Trail
15) Fisher Creek Trail Reconstruction
16) Pacific Crest Trail – Suiattle River
17) Indian Creek Bridge
18) Elliot Creek Trail Reconstruction
19) Weden Creek Trail Reconstruction
20) Big Four Trail Segments
21) Mount Pilchuck Trail
22) Middle Fork Snoqualmie Trail
23) Twin Falls Bridge
24) Mason Lake (Ira Spring Trail)
25) Greywold River Bridge
26) Monument Park Trail
27) Shannon Ridge Trail
28) Lake Serene Trail
29) Baker Preserve Trail Reconstruction
30) Prince Creek Trail
31) Clarks Point Trails
32) Green River Trail (Mount St. Helens)
33) Arlecho Creek Trail
34) Anderson Creek Bridge
35) Snoqualmie Lake Trail Reconstruction
36) Rainier View Trail
37) Grouse Creek Bridge
38) Fire Creek Bridge
39) Cussed Hollow Creek Bridge
40) Entiat Bridges
41) Cashmere Bridges

The Forest Artist

By Rand Jack

On several occasions, I have walked with Russ as he laid out trails -Stimpson Family Nature Reserve, Lily Point, Canyon Lake Community Forest, Point Whitehorn, Teddy Bear Cove, and now, Governors Point. Russ’s technical skills are matched by an acute understanding of the geology and hydrology that underlie the forest ecosystem and its inhabitants.

Russ’ handiwork, Canyon Lake. Photo by Rand Jack

But what sets Russ apart is his aesthetic sense and execution as a master trail builder. He paints on a scale that would dumbfound most artists. He foresees the trail not just through his own practiced and expert eyes but also through the eyes of future generations of hikers. The goal is never just to get from one place to another but always to maximize the experience of the natural world of those walking the trail.

I remember once we were walking a tentative trail layout through the ancient trees at Canyon Lake, and Russ explained, “See, I moved the trail a few feet over this way so that you would then approach head-on those two magnificent trees standing side by side, rather than one partially obscuring the other.” I may have added the word ‘magnificent.’ Russ doesn’t talk that way. He just thinks and works that way. As they say, “the proof of the pudding is in the tasting.” Go out and walk at Stimpson or any of the other Russ Pfeiffer-Hoyt trails and see what you think.

Rand Jack is a co-founder of Whatcom Land Trust.

Ted Rosen is a freelance journalist, IT professional, and former chairman of the Bellingham Greenways Advisory Committee. He enjoys guitar, photography, and complaining about litter.

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