The smell of gasoline cut the stale air of the equipment barn where Sarah Topp was beginning her day topping off her chain saw with fuel.
On her way out the door, she grabbed up a shovel and pickaxe from the dozens of hand tools lining the wall of the 80-year-old building, an original structure at the Pigeon River Country State Forest Headquarters.
Topp, 21, started this August day just like any other — a crisp Michigan sunrise, travel mug of coffee and a backpack of water and snacks slung over her shoulder. While other Gaylord kids spend their summer home from college shining golf clubs and driving beverage carts, Topp is the sole caretaker of trails in the heart of the Lower Peninsula’s most expansive state forest.
“I’m glad I work out here,” she said, setting her tools into the bed of her work truck, an old Department of Natural Resources conservation officer pickup. “There’s just more freedom.”
That truck, still outfitted with a brush guard and spotlights, has already been through hell and back via the back roads of Northern Michigan. Now it’s living the “retired” life bumping along the Pigeon Forest’s wheel-jerking two tracks with Topp, a slender 5 foot 6, at the helm.
“I’ve put 9,000 miles on this truck this summer,” she said as tree branches raked down the side.
That’s like driving from here to Sydney, Australia, almost exclusively off road.
As an intern of the Pigeon River Country Association, Topp is tasked with maintaining the forest’s 100-plus miles of trails, including the 11-mile Shingle Mill Pathway and the extensive, 82-mile High Country Pathway — a route that hasn’t officially been worked on since 2004.
Her first job on this particular morning was to fill in a pair of badger holes she had scouted out a day earlier. Topp steered her truck off a washboard gravel road onto a two-track, which practically disappeared into tall grass and ferns, then parked and grabbed her tools.
The badger holes, dug into the trail’s sandy soil, were deep enough to twist or snap a hiker’s ankle. Using her pickaxe, she hacked away at the ground, burying the tunnel with compacted sand, then repeated the job on two more holes.
Her scouting mission the day before had revealed her closest drive-up access to the job — a luxury that doesn’t always happen.
“I usually try to hike sections of trail first to see what work needs to be done and what tools I need,” she said, noting hike-in jobs sometimes require her to carry 40 pounds of tools and materials a couple miles into the woods.
Once, some insolent campers had destroyed a DNR sign and used it for firewood. The fix required a new sign, two 8-foot 4-by-4 posts, a 10-pound tamping bar, post hole digger and a two-mile hike carrying it all on her shoulders.
“They don’t realize how inconvenient it is for me to hike that in there,” she laughed.
But that’s how her job goes: She’s out there to remove inconveniences for trail users.
Downed trees that lay across the trail are no match for Topp as she cuts them in half with a chain saw. If she’s slapped in the face by a branch during a mountain bike ride in her off time, she seeks revenge the next day by returning to the same stretch of trail with a pair of trimmers. It’s hard work, and she has the scratches, bruises and sprains to show it.
Topp got into this field while working with a trail crew at Durango, Colo. last summer, a job that sometimes called on her to use explosives to clear rock slides.
She injured her back while attempting to move an 800-pound boulder with other people and on more than one occasion she rode out thunderstorms high up in the mountains during Colorado’s notoriously rainy August she called “monsoon season.”
“When you’re 10,000 or 12,000 feet up in the mountains, it’s pretty scary,” she said of thunderstorms.
Still, Topp said she’d rather work in a rainstorm than the 90 degree days she’s labored here in Northern Michigan and she feels it’s the most challenging days that bring the most reward.
“My highlights are definitely seeing places you can’t drive to,” she said, recounting long days where she’s spooked deer and coyotes.
She’s had a close encounter with a bear cub calling to its mom, has snuck up on elk, spotted a 9-point whitetail buck in velvet and once watched a loon circle Ford Lake on takeoff.
“You have to work to see these places,” Topp said. “There’s something special about that.”
For all her work, Topp wasn’t paid a wage. Rather, she received a scholarship through the Pigeon River Country Association.
“She’s a real hard worker and was a great student intern for the summer, there’s no doubt about that,” said Joe Jarecki, PRCA treasurer who helped orient Topp to the job. “Brush had pretty much made the trail a jungle to navigate through on some stretches. The whole trail is now much better from her being here this summer.”
Now, Topp is back at Northern Michigan University where she’s seeking a degree in a field where she can work outdoors permanently.
“I decided I had to be outside and I’ve always been fascinated with stories of animals being rehabilitated,” she hinted.
For her love of outdoors, she thanks her parents, who took her and her siblings camping often, usually in the Pigeon River Forest.
“When I was 7, I asked my mom ‘How do the trails get here?”’ Topp said. “She told me it was just from people walking. I thought it was really funny she sincerely thought that. It is an unbelievable amount of work just to maintain what is already there.”
Next year, she hopes another internship takes her to Washington or California.
“There’s always trails and always work to be done,” she said.
Ways you can help keep trails in shape
We can’t all be Sarah Topp, but we can all do our part to make sure Northern Michigan’s trails are kept in good shape for the next person. Here’s a few ways people can help, as suggested by Pigeon River Country Association treasurer Joe Jarecki.
• Take a bag and collect any trash you see.
• Use a knife or pair of snippers to clear any small obstructive branches reaching over trail at eye level or lower. Cut branches at their base.
• Move deadfall off the trail only if you are physically capable.
• Report any obstacles or obstructions, missing or damaged signs, missing trail maps, etc. by calling the local agency that manages the trail, such as the Department of Natural Resources.
• Join a trail user group that has volunteer agreements with the state, such as the Northern Michigan chapter of the International Mountain Bike Association, which has at least three volunteer days in the Pigeon forest annually and welcomes the help of nonmember volunteers. Get more information at imba.com or facebook.com/nmmba.
This article originally appeared in the Gaylord Herald-Times WILD special edition. Re-posted with permission. Click here to read other terrific WILD features, including a photo gallery of PRCA intern Sarah Topp at work on the High Country Pathway!