Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Building Bridges: A Camp Loll Adventure

I spent part of Labor Day weekend laboring. I told my kids that I had no interest in celebrating the labor movement, which promotes an entitlement mentality. But I was interested in promoting productive labor as something good for the soul. I explained that I felt that it was particularly useful to celebrate labor by working in some unselfish cause.

An opportunity for this kind of work presented itself when it was determined that a crew of volunteers would work to replace a 50’ footbridge at Camp Loll, a Boy Scout camp in a wilderness area just south of Yellowstone National Park. For those that are familiar with the camp, this is the footbridge down the trail from the showers.

My brother is an architect and is the chairman of the Scout council’s Camp Loll committee. Both he and I served on staff at the camp during our teen years. When he explained what needed to be accomplished in two days, I thought that the plan was somewhat ambitious.

Construction in a wilderness area presents a significant layer of challenges not faced in more settled areas. Yet another layer of challenges is added when you have to rely on volunteers for almost everything, including design, materials, equipment, and labor. Trying to get all of these factors to align well enough to complete a project is itself a daunting task.

Some volunteers headed up to camp on Thursday evening. Others of us headed up early Friday morning. (I took a day of vacation.) A few more arrived late Friday night. Volunteers ranged in age from early 20s to late 60s. Many of them were Camp Loll Staff alumni.

A volunteer that has been a successful businessman and now owns a spread in Star Valley donated lumber cut from his property. He and his hired help used a portable sawmill to cut the beams and planks needed for the job. Two BSA professionals loaded these materials onto a trailer and a pickup truck and made the hard drive over miles of rugged road to camp. (Oddly, although the forest service had requested the construction of this bridge, they would not let us cut the lumber for it from the nearby woodcutting zone.)

By the time we arrived on Friday morning, a crew had already removed the old footbridge. I was afraid that this would take a long time. But since the bridge was decayed from years of sitting in a swampy area, the crew was able to rip it apart with their bare hands. Fortunately, the span had no standing water, although, it was quite wet when I was there a few weeks ago. (I’ve never previously seen it when it wasn’t covered with water.)

The crew had already made good progress on building the two supports for the new bridge by the time we arrived. We immediately pitched in and started hauling rocks that the earlier crew had loaded into trucks. Some of the rocks came from near camp, while others came from a forest service quarry at a near Grassy Lake. The rocks were piled into 5x5x5’ baskets made of steel wire. Threaded rods extended from the bottom of the baskets. Rail ties were bolted to the rods atop the rock laden baskets. Rail ties were also set at each end of the bridge for footings.

By the way, the best of the camp’s three wheelbarrows is in sorry shape. It wouldn’t hurt for people to donate some new wheelbarrows.

Next came the hardest part: moving the six 1x1x20’ beams from the trailer to the bridge. The only way to do this in a wilderness zone is by human power. Each beam weighed somewhere around 1,200 lbs. Fortunately, a group of men had called the Scout office a couple of days earlier asking permission to camp at Loll over the holiday weekend and offering to perform service. This is where their muscle came in handy. We were able to get about 14 of us on each beam. It was challenging, but we were able to move the beams over an uneven trail, across the swamp, and into place. The beams were then bolted to the rail ties.

A crew cut the planks into 5’ lengths in the parking area using a chainsaw. Some of us did the grunt work of hauling the planks down to the bridge. The following morning we laid out the planks on the bridge. Then we got busy putting stain on all of the bridge’s wood surfaces. We coated the beams and the narrow sides of each plank. The bottoms of the planks were coated in a single operation.

A crew then flipped each plank over and screwed each plank into place. Of course, throughout the whole process there was a lot of measuring and adjusting to make sure everything ended up right. I began coveting one man’s contractor grade Milwaukee cordless drill. It outperformed the corded drill that was hooked to a generator. The staining crew followed right behind the fastening crew, so that only a small number of planks remained to be coated when the last plank was screwed into place.

About that time, a few raindrops started dripping from dark clouds that had been building throughout the day. As the staining crew wrapped up, we gathered the tools and leftover supplies and headed toward the parking area. As we loaded stuff onto the trucks and the trailer, the rain began falling more briskly. Then I saw a flash of lightning. A massive clap of thunder followed almost immediately. We all scurried into the lodge as a gully-washer of a rainstorm burst loose on the camp for the next half hour or so. We had finished the project and gotten everything put away just in the nick of time.

One of the tremendously satisfying benefits of labor of this nature is seeing the results. The bridge is the best such structure Camp Loll has seen in its 50 years of service. Although it matches the rustic ambiance of the camp, it is sturdy and will last for many years to come. My brother hopes that it will last decades. Camp director Delose Conner and program director Jody Orme quipped that a bridge of this nature will no doubt attract trolls.

The bridge will not be complete until road base gravel is hauled in to create ramps for the approach on each end of the bridge. But that looks like a job that will be done by the camp staff next June. They need to get a whole load of road base up there first. New wheelbarrows would be useful for this job.

Now for part 2. The other 50’ footbridge that spans the swamp between the Crow and Piute campsites will need to be replaced next year. The current thinking is to shoot for Labor Day weekend 2010 and to build a similar structure. This will present some additional challenges. The materials will need to be hauled a few hundred more feet, the swamp there will still be quite wet, and we can’t rely on a group of strong campers that just happen to be willing to help.

This means that we will need more volunteers to help us. Camp Loll Staff alumni ought to mark their calendars now. Anyone that has enjoyed camping at Camp Loll should consider coming to help. You can be part of a legacy that will benefit many others for many years.

Update: Delose Conner has photos of the bridge project here.

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