Michael Baker, the executive of the Volunteers of Outdoor Arizona (VOAZ) organization, stood behind the shivering volunteers in the early morning air at the base of Horton Creek Trail on a Saturday morning at the end of September.
Most of the volunteer trail builders hailed from Phoenix. They were not used to the brisk 6,000-foot elevation air so they donned heavy jackets instead of the shorts and T-shirts they wear in the Valley.
A lanky man with an aquiline face surrounded by Einstein-like hair, Baker quietly made sure everything was out of the official pickup truck before turning over the event to Jim, one of the crew leaders.
Jim has participated in more than two dozen VOAZ events. As a result, Baker had identified Jim as a potential crew leader early on in his trail building volunteer days.
“I guess I was fast tracked,” said Jim a retired engineer.
Jim wore trail pants he could convert to shorts with the tug of a zipper. VOAZ had received a donation of these pants from an outdoor outfitter and gave a pair to every crew leader.
“Welcome to the VOAZ trail day ...” Jim said to the chilled volunteers squinting into the rising sun.
“Where is the sun?” interjected Mike, a big guy and natural leader. He pointed to the sun.
Seeing the squints, Jim quickly shifted positions — so he would squint, not the volunteers. “OK ... welcome to the VOAZ trail building day,” he started.
The sturdy top-of-the-line-tools lay lined up perfectly for the task of realigning a part of the Horton Creek Trail the stream had started to undercut. In a few years, the trail would disappear without maintenance.
No one used last names that day besides Baker; there was Mark, Rick, Bruce and Janet. VOAZ uses volunteers as often as it can on the Highline Trail Rehabilitation project. For some of the more remote areas, VOAZ hires the Youth Conservation Corps supported through the National Park Service,
VOAZ incorporated as a non-profit corporation in August of 2002. The organization’s mission promotes community involvement through stewardship of the land.
Some of the projects VOAZ volunteers currently complete include trails in Cave Creek, the Granite Mountain Trail in Prescott, the Jug Trail Extension at Salome Creek, Montezuma Castle Conservation work, the Highline Trail Rehabilitation, and the SoMo Pima Canyon Trail and Land Rehab.
(For a list of projects see www.voaz.org.)
Jim finished up his presentation after teaching the proper way to hold tools, how far apart to hike to avoid injury, how often to take breaks and the proper protocol to make sure no one got lost in the woods.
Baker then divided the group into two work groups and started up the hill.
The start of the reroute sat near a part of the trail where the year-round Horton Creek goes into the ground at a fracture point of an earthquake fault.
“The water comes out somewhere near Highway 260,” said Baker after the whole group arrived as he told the tale of the disappearing water.
Then the two crews split to focus on two different areas of the trail.
The crew by the disappearing creek worked on the lower part of the trail. The crew a quarter of a mile away worked at trimming trees to make sure a horse and rider could pass, hoeing away stubborn grass tufts to make the location of the trail clear, and most importantly, building a rock wall to disperse the energy of water from a flash flood channel. The rock wall protected the trail that ran right through the middle of the channel.
As crews worked, Baker tromped back and forth making sure everyone knew how to use the tools correctly, crew leaders had the right direction, and the trail work stayed on task.
During the lunch break, Baker sat down to tell the story of Dorothy M. Garske, whose estate supports VOAZ in many ways. “She was a character,” said Baker.
He said Garske and her husband made their money creating planned communities, often for the elderly, in Phoenix. So beloved was Garske that the residents of a mobile home park got up and moved en mass to a new mobile home park she made next door.
“I understand they just wanted to be near her,” said Baker.
After Garske died, Baker said she put her estate into an endowment to help the elderly. However, Baker said the board started to get burned out on elderly issues after a couple of decades. Baker would know the history intimately, he has been the executive director of the Garske Foundation for 30 years.
So, in the late ’90s, Baker suggested VOAZ and set it up as a non-profit corporation.
Baker said volunteers are the backbone of the organization so he treats them well.
Crews worked about six hours with a generous lunch break — not too much to exhaust anyone, but enough to complete 300 feet of new trail and 250 feet of reclaimed trail.
By late afternoon, the crew packed it in and headed for camp where dinner preparations started as soon as the crews arrived.
Mike’s wife Jackie had two banquet-sized tables set up with four huge gas burners, a hand washing station, and pots that could hold enough food to feed an army.
As she frantically fixed dinner she said, “You weren’t supposed to be here until 4:30 — at the earliest!”
To fill the gap, Jackie sliced up cheese and pulled out crackers to keep the hungry volunteers at bay. The group set up camp chairs and pulled out beers and even wine. Baker quietly sat behind the scenes watching and listening to everyone chat.
Paige worked as a nurse caseworker.
Rick had grandchildren and loved to talk about them and the gadgets he bought them.
Jim, the engineer, sat quietly until someone mentioned coconut oil.
“My wife said that causes high cholesterol.”
He quickly learned from a few of the volunteers, that coconut oil actually contains essential fatty acids, oils needed for good health. “I’ll have to tell her,” he said.
After a gourmet outdoor meal of chicken chili, tomato-basil soup, corn bread, artesian bread and a salad made with field greens and homegrown veggies, Baker passed out tickets for a drawing.
Every event, Baker gives out field guides, hats, repair kits and numerous other goodies he has received as donations from outdoor companies.
Soon after the drawing, the cold drove people into tents, but not before oooing and ahhhing over the stars in the sky.