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Recreation | Beyond The City

Trail Blazer

Fish Makes Maintaining Pacific Crest Trail His Life's Obsession

June 11, 1998|STEVE HYMON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Most people retire so they can finally relax.

Other people--such as Ventura resident Pete Fish--retire so they can get down to work. Not ordinary work, mind you. We're talking the kind of hard, gritty, back-breaking work that most people spend their lives trying to avoid.

Fish, 67, is the Southern California trails coordinator of the Pacific Crest Trail Assn., which serves as caretaker of the 2,630-mile PCT, which begins at the Mexican border and travels through California, Oregon and Washington to Canada. Fish's job is to make sure the first 700 miles of the trail is maintained, meaning he's in a constant struggle with brush, boulders, logs and most commonly, erosion.

In 1997, Fish spent 90 days working on the trail, and dozens of other days tending to administrative needs. This year he'll probably work even longer. His garage is a testimony to his passion: It's filled with buzz saws, chain saws, hand saws, post pounders, shovels, picks, spades, hard hats and, his latest toy, a griphoist. He uses the griphoist to move 5,000-pound boulders and logs off the trail.

Work on the trail is no picnic. Fish and his crew often begin work before 8 a.m. and don't quit until past 5 p.m. They work in weather that is sometimes downright miserable--although this is a word Fish never uses. To hear him tell it, a day pulling rootballs in 20-degree windchill was "an adventure."

"Pete's a bit obsessive," said Joyce Fish, his wife of 45 years. "When he gets involved in something, he doesn't always know when to stop."

*

The Pacific Crest Trail, by most accounts, is a worthy obsession.

Throughout its journey, the trail holds to the crest of the mountains. Locally, it passes over the San Jacinto, San Bernardino and San Gabriel ranges before traveling the entire length of the Sierra Nevada. From beginning to end, the trail winds through seven national parks, 24 national forests, 33 federal wilderness areas and six state parks. Lack of scenery is not a problem.

Pete Fish was first introduced to the PCT when his parents retired to Warner Springs, where an earlier version of the trail passed. "I remember standing on the trail and looking to the right and knowing the trail went all the way to Mexico," Fish said. "Then I looked left and knew the trail went to Canada. That stayed with me and when I retired I knew exactly what I wanted to do."

After working as a geologist for Chevron for 33 years--with stints living in Indonesia, Bakersfield and Alaska--Fish called it quits in 1990, when he was 59. Over the next four summers, Fish hiked bits and pieces of the PCT until he had completed the whole thing. One year, he hiked more than 1,200 miles, often spending weeks at a time on the trail.

Once, he spent seven straight days hiking the PCT through the San Gabriel Mountains without seeing another person--an area mostly within Los Angeles County. "That was the longest time I spent on the trail without having to use my voice," he said.

In Northern California, he walked around the end of a ridge one afternoon and came upon a large mountain lion in the middle of the trail. "We stood and stared at each other for a few seconds--I can still see the end of his tail twitching," Fish recalled. "Then he just loped off down the trail."

Although the scenery was great, what inspired Fish was the people he met along the way. Like the migrant worker who offered to buy him a sandwich after he stumbled off the trail in Agua Dulce, grubby as can be. Or the two homeless men in northern California who gave him coffee and helped him nurse a twisted ankle.

"It restores your faith in humanity," Fish said.

Finally, one day in 1994, he reached the Canadian border. To Fish, it was an accomplishment not far below finding his wife and having a satisfying career. "When you set down the last foot at the Canadian border," Fish said, "you are not the same person you were when you started the trail."

*

During his journey, Fish began thinking about all the people in the last 50 years who had dreamed of the trail, fought for it and worked on it. Fish knew what he had to do. In 1995, he began to volunteer on trail maintenance projects. When the previous area trails coordinator, Alice Krueper, died in 1996, Fish took the job.

Make no mistake--without Fish and his army of volunteers, there would be no PCT. Government resource agencies are perpetually stretched thin and have few resources to give to the trail. "We don't have a trail crew of our own and we don't get much of an appropriation from Congress to maintain the PCT," said Dave Walsh, a recreation specialist with the Bureau of Land Management's Ridgecrest Resource Area. "These guys have pretty much rescued us."

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