A Day in the Life of a Stewardship Intern

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Digging in the dirt. Raising money for a good cause. Getting people stoked on bike events that promote friends, family, community, great music and good times. Contributing my exceptional Excel spreadsheet skills rich with auto-sum, freeze panes and ctrl C and V. And most importantly, having the opportunity to ride my mountain bike every day on some of the best trails in North America. A day in the life of a Sierra Buttes Trail Stewardship intern is completely different depending on the day, and for five weeks I lived this dream. By the end, I felt like I barely scratched the surface of how much time and effort each member of the Stewardship gives to keep the dream of mountain living alive.

To survive in the Lost Sierra, you have to think outside the box and get creative. Take the Sierra Buttes Trail Stewardship for example; a local 501c3 non-profit dedicated to maintaining and building trails in the Northern Sierra Nevada region. In order to keep nearly 25 local Plumas and Sierra County residents employed, the Stewardship exists to restore habitat as well as create recreational opportunities through trails, fostering a vibrant, low-impact tourism economy in a region of California that desperately needs it. But in order to build trail and employ local folks, you need money. That's where the creativity comes in. The Stewardship has evolved through raising funds for trails from four sources; events, membership, retail and grants.

As a full-time employee for Patagonia in Reno, I started this whole intern journey with an annual email that circulates the company calling for Environmental Internship Program applicants. Since starting with the company 19 months earlier, I had yet to take advantage of this unique opportunity for Patagonia employees. How can you resist being offered the chance to volunteer for an environmental organization for several weeks while getting paid your normal wage and co-workers cover your workload while you’re gone? 

As an intern for the Stewardship, I would be exposed to every aspect of the organization that keeps it ticking, evenly split between trail and office time.  Part of my job was to work with the trail crew.  Each day started at 7:30am with as many as six crew members meeting up, loading tools and heading out to the work area.  My trail time was focused on two main trail hubs: Mount Hough near Quincy and the Butcher Ranch Trail along the Downieville Downhill route.  Both trail work sites allowed for experience in all of the diverse tasks that go into building and maintaining top-notch trail.  We spent 10 hour work days digging in the dirt, cutting back brush, clearing trail drainage and rock armoring the trailbed to minimize the effects of erosion.

Some days were perfect weather for manual labor outside; slightly overcast, calm and cool. Other days the winds howled, blowing freshly shoveled dirt right back to its starting place. Bracing for impact, the crew would pull our bandanas up over our faces, hold down our hats, and wait for Mother Nature to blow herself out.  It was an ongoing game of windy red light, green light on the mountain.  I had dirt in my snot for several days after that one, but as the old quip goes, “A little dirt don’t hurt.”

In addition to the glamourous world of trail digging, I also helped out with the more tedious, but most important, office work that the Stewardship must handle each day to keep the economic engine turning. The amount of behind the scenes office work that goes into making the Stewardship run like a well-oiled machine would be overwhelming for most. But they manage to pull it off each year, making it look easy from the outside. 

I was answering emails, picking up trucker hats and tees from the printer, mailing new membership letters, shuttling vans, ordering product for our bike shop, Yuba Expeditions, and streamlining spreadsheets with my expert Excel skills.  I barely had time to drink beer, a highly prioritized activity within the Stewardship to help calm stress levels and remind us that this is also supposed to be fun. No need to freak out though, because luckily I am really good at multitasking, enjoying a sudsy libation while deciding what color socks and tech tees to send to new Stewardship Annual and Core Members. (Bob: I hope you really like those lavender ones I sent you). 

During my internship, it was a particularly busy time, as the Stewardship just recovered from the Downieville Classic hangover, a legendary mountain bike event 21 years in the making that completely sold out this year. We were also in the middle of the $5 a Foot fundraiser campaign with Ibis Cycles, giving away a $10,000 bike to one lucky winner, which ended up raising more than $70,000 for trails. We were also preparing for Grinduro, another sellout off-road bike event showcasing the amazing backcountry terrain of Plumas County. 

I've participated in all three Stewardship events: Lost & Found, Downieville Classic and Grinduro, and have always come away with a big smile thanks to the perfect balance of challenging courses, beautiful scenery and an awesome after party. Needless to say, the Stewardship is making big things happen in the Lost Sierra, and it requires employees willing to wear multiple hats to pull off such a mission.

Not all of my office days were spent in the office; I also had the opportunity to get my Excel sheet magic done while hanging out at Yuba Expeditions, the Stewardship’s full service bike shop and shuttle service. Time spent at the shop allowed me the chance to interact and spread the Stewardship gospel to everyone that walked in the door.  For instance, did you know that every dollar spent at Yuba goes directly back to the Stewardship?  That includes those sweet shuttles to the top of the Buttes, the complete fleet of Ibis and Santa Cruz demo bikes, a $15 waterproof Downieville & Lakes Basin map (that also makes an amazing emergency tire boot) and all of our apparel. 

In addition to information about where your well spent Yuba money goes, I also talked about all of the amazing trails the area has to offer.  Were you aware that there are several trails that leave directly from town?  Next time you are in Downieville check out the Downie River Trail (recently adopted by Paul Components Engineering and Paragon Machine Works), North Yuba Trail (adopted by Wendel, Rosen, Black & Dean LLP), and Lavezzola Creek Trail.  These are just some of my favorites when I want to get off the more travelled path, get a good pedal in, see gorgeous views and potentially get spied on by a bear.

At the close of my five weeks with the Stewardship, I was leaving with more substantial callouses on my hands, but also a whole new appreciation for how hard everyone that is involved with the Stewardship works.  Everyone here loves this area and wants to do what they can to help it thrive.  Being accepted as a member of the tribe and spending time with those that make the Stewardship great is an amazing feeling.  The love and passion that the Stewardship has for the Sierra Nevada region is infectious.  You can’t help but miss the trails, and more importantly, the people, within hours of getting back home. Who knew being a 33 year old intern would be so inspiring.