Erin Shepherd’s hard hat is impossibly clean and his green, collared Parks Canada shirt has nary a wrinkle in it.
For someone who heads up Jasper National Park’s trail crew, it sure looks like he spends a lot of time in the office.
“It’s not as much fun, but somebody’s got to build the spreadsheets,” he laments.
He hasn’t always been a paper jockey. Shepherd, who grew up in Jasper, worked with the trail crews of legend—rough, tough and innovative gangs who played as hard as they worked while building bridges and other historic facilities in Jasper’s remote backcountry.
“You’d go in for 10 days, come out for four, lather, rinse repeat,” he said. “We ate 3,000 calories a day and I still lost 20 pounds a summer.”
These days, trail crew is a different beast—the summer-long backcountry projects in one remote area of the park are a thing of the past. Today’s crews’ objectives are more specific in their scope, funds more surgical in their allocation. More attention is paid to park mandates, such as enhancing visitor experience and improving asset sustainability. It’s not a bad thing, Shepherd suggests, just different.
“The answers people used in the past were right for the personnel, policy and funding at the time,” he said.
Moreover, the way the park is used by visitors has changed the way trail crew works. Today’s average user sticks closer to the highway. As such, Shepherd’s crews have been busy at day-use facilities such as the Mary Schaeffer Loop at Maligne Lake, the Source of the Springs boardwalk at Miette Hotsprings and creating fencing improvements at Athabasca Falls.
“There’s a very intense usage of a few very limited corridors,” he said.
Athabasca Falls, in particular, checks all of the budget boxes. According to Shepherd, the park has seen an uptick in “near-misses” at the falls, where the frigid Athabasca River plunges over sharp, steep cliffs into a churning cascade of dangerous rapids. “Social” trails have formed where people have short-cut between walking paths and an egress from a former picnic area threatened a culturally-sensitive site (tool shards have been discovered). Creating new fencing to manage visitor flow, therefore, earns points for visitor safety, ecological integrity, heritage protection and visitor experience.
“It hits a number of priority targets,” he said.
Same goes in the Tonquin Valley, where another trail crew (there are three) has been rebuilding the deteriorating wooden corduroy near Amethyst Lakes. It’s a huge job, but Shepherd says when it’s done it will spell wins for sensitive vegetation (hikers won’t make their own trails), public safety (horses won’t break through the rotten wood and potentially throw their riders) and visitor experience (more enjoyable travel).
Times may have changed when it comes to where they focus their efforts since Shepherd was mending stream banks along the remote south boundary trail, but the fact that his crews are helping create new legacies in the park makes him forget about all the paper he has to push.
“I feel privileged to have a connection to the old ways and have an opportunity to help develop a new way,” he said.