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Hard Rock Drilling in the Land of Sleeping Giants

Fishlake National Forest, Utah, 2001
by Mel Bashore, PIT Volunteer

Four years ago, I sent in my first PIT application to work in the Fishlake NF in Utah, building hiking and backcountry horse trails. The description of the work in the PIT Traveler sounded challenging. Indeed, Bob Leonard, the Fishlake FSarchaeologist in charge of the PIT projects in Bullion Canyon, enjoys telling people how he hesitated when accepting my application, because he envisioned having to babysit a middle-aged, probably gone-to-seed, hinky-dink librarian. Now he refers to me as his “master hard-rock driller.” If at any time in the future I consider chucking my career as a librarian for jackhammer work, he said he’d be happy to write a letter of reference for me. I doubt I’d do it, but it’s comforting to know I have acquired another marketable skill!

In past years on this project, I have drilled dynamite holes on a stretch of rock on the trail above a 60-foot waterfall that I have affectionately dubbed “Alcatraz.” My first year’s work along that 50-foot section of trail was wiped out the following year by a raging flash flood that crashed down the gully. This stretch of trail was in a very steep, rugged gully, and access to the high country would be seriously impaired unless the trail could be repaired. Plans were made to drill holes for a lacework of thick-gauge rebar to support a trail base of rubble. I couldn’t not put in for a second year on my little Alcatraz, because wasn’t I the master driller? Although I’ve made it sound like penal punishment, the hard work was shared and lightened by the company of other interesting and hard-working volunteers who were drawn from places around the state and country. It was a satisfying moment when the last rebar was set in place and the rubble trail base was anchored.

I returned for a third year with one of my sons, Will, when the chance to work and camp for a week in the highest reaches of this “Sound of Music” paradise (I can’t think of any more beautiful stretch of mountains in this mountainous state) beckoned. One aspect of the project called for more rock drilling (my specialty) on some slick outcroppings that had proven hazardous to horse riders. A small but enthusiastic crew of excited volunteers assembled, including one (Mike) who had flown in from New Jersey. (Was he ever sucking wind the first day!) A backcountry horse riders organization volunteered to pack in all our gear to the base camp. A helicopter hauled the heavy drilling gear, generator, water, and miscellaneous supplies and set them down in camp. It was like a small military operation.

We were set to do some serious drilling and moving dirt on that hill! From Day 1, however, Mother Nature had other plans. Like clockwork, every afternoon at 1 P.M. she tried to knock us off the hill. She threw rain, lightning, wind, and hail at us. The only thing we stopped for was the lightning—hunkering down, trying to look inconspicuous, and thinking nonconductive thoughts. At the end of the week, we’d finished every part of the project and more. The regular FS trail crew pulled out on the third day because the weather was so rotten. Every tent leaked to one degree or another. Our only two female volunteers (Leslie and her 16-year-old daughter, Jessica) bailed out on the next-to-last day only because their nights proved to be so miserable. Since I was the senior citizen of the outfit and was nursing a shin splint, I was given the option of riding out from a high mountain meadow in a FSvehicle. I passed on that offer, preferring to venture down a stretch of trail that I’d never hiked. What an unforgettable adventure! We left during a wicked hailstorm that blanketed our “sleeping giants”—three more-than-12,000-foot-high peaks. After the storm clouds lifted and we could see the range, it looked like Christmas in August! Every gully funneled its chocolate-milk stream into the raging river at the bottom of the canyon. We were soaked from head to boot and loving every minute of it. Hard to fathom! You had to be there. In two of the flooded stream crossings, the younger guys saved the old man’s bacon. (The adventure was almost a little bit more than I had bargained for. Thanks, Daniel and Mike!) When our bedraggled foursome got to the bottom of the trail, greeting us were our two lady volunteers with a homemade sign reading “Welcome Home, Boys.” They threw some boxes of powdered donuts and sodas at the famished boys, who polished them off with dispatch. My son had so much white donut residue around his bewhiskered mouth that I had to say, “Will, you look like you’ve got rabies and are frothing at the mouth.”

Then it was off to Hoover’s for burgers. It’s a toss-up as to what keeps bringing us back—the greasy burgers at Hoover’s across from Big Rock Candy Mountain or the beautiful Tusher Mountains of central Utah. Allen White (whose business card reads “Retired & Moving On”) claims that he drove out from Oklahoma for two years straight to work on the Bullion Canyon trails because of the burgers. I do like the burgers, but a chance to spend a week in Bullion Pasture or the Pocket is a compelling drawing card.
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