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Patience and Pragmatism: How One Man's Approach to Work Shaped Lives, Trails and WTA

Hikers all across Washington owe thanks to Alan Carter Mortimer, WTA’s field programs manager. Alan retired recently and while he's definitely not leaving the WTA community, we wanted to celebrate the work he's done in 15 years on staff and, before that, 11 years as a volunteer. By Anna Roth

If you hike in Washington, odds are high that you’ve set foot on a trail maintained, designed or built by Alan Carter Mortimer, WTA’s field programs manager. From the Pasayten to Pierce County Parks to trails in Port Angeles, he has gotten his hands dirty improving trails across the state.

Alan retired in October after 15 years on staff and, before that, 11 years as a volunteer. But his impact on WTA’s volunteer community and Washington’s trail network will resonate for a lot longer.

2012.jpgAlan’s trail expertise and commitment to WTA’s mission are legendary. He has supported WTA’s trails program since its inception nearly 30 years ago. His combination of patience and pragmatism have been a major influence on our approach to trail work and how we train volunteers today. His teaching style instills in people basic trail maintenance concepts, then trusts them to find workable solutions themselves.

It’s a flexible approach rooted in trusting a person’s competency and ability to do the tasks you teach them. It’s most evident in his crosscut saw trainings — since crosscutting is a skill that requires creativity, competency and a solid understanding of priorities — but this teaching approach is apparent whenever you work with him on trail. 

Start ’em early

Alan has cultivated knowledge of how to build and maintain trails his whole life. It began with his Eagle Scout project. He rerouted a section of the Metacomet Trail in Connecticut so the trail’s crossing point on a busy highway had better sightlines. It was an early glimpse into the spirit of the work he’d do with us for 26 years: trail work to improve the user experience,

Backpacker ad.jpgBut it would take until 1990 for him to make it to Washington and another 7 years before he found WTA. 

Alan had a solid outdoors career background when he encountered WTA. He'd been a gardener, done house construction and worked maintenance in Yellowstone National Park.

He’d enrolled in the University of Washington’s geographic information system (GIS) program in the late 90s but wanted to continue spending time working outside. So when he saw a small sidebar ad in Backpacker magazine about an organization doing volunteer trail work, he contacted them.

“I loved hiking, scrambling and climbing,” he said. “And I liked being outside. So volunteering on trails just seemed to fit.” 

The organization was Washington Trails Association. 

Getting going

Alan joined WTA when the trail maintenance program was quite new. Greg Ball, WTA’s first trail maintenance program director, and Gary Paull of the U.S. Forest Service were testing whether volunteers could work to Forest Service standards and stretch their dwindling trail maintenance budget. As the structure of the volunteer trail maintenance program formed, Alan was excited to fill some of the roles available.

“I volunteered a few times in ’96 and more in ’97,” he said. “I was an ACL (assistant crew leader) by ’97 and told Greg I wanted to be a crew leader by ’98. You moved up through the ranks pretty fast back then because we really needed people.”

Despite being in school, Alan volunteered at least once a week. And he made an impression on Gary Paull for his reliability and willingness to work in terrible weather.

“Alan was one of the stalwart steady hands who kept the WTA trail maintenance program humming along,” Gary said.

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Alan on a snowy, rainy work party in 2007 demonstrating his willingness to work in all kinds of weather. Photo from WTA archives.

“He was a participant on the (thankfully) now-defunct New Year’s Eve Boulder River log out. Greg B. and I thought it would be fun to go out in the cold rain and cut logs on Boulder River. Alan was one of the first to participate in this muddy affair.”

With the establishment of the trail maintenance volunteer program, two of WTA’s core values — partnership and volunteerism — were strengthened. And Alan was a key part of the group establishing it.

Showing up and stepping back

Alan’s patience and willingness to show up set the tone for his career in our trail maintenance program. Eleven years after he first volunteered, WTA hired him on as staff.

“Jenny Blake (who was part of the trails program) asked me if I wanted to get a beer one day after work. She’d said she had something she wanted to talk to me about. I thought it was details for another project, but she asked me if I wanted to work for WTA,” Alan said. 

He said yes and started as the field programs manager. While it’s the same title he’s retiring with, Alan’s role changed substantially as WTA grew. In the early days, he was put in charge of work parties from the Olympic Peninsula to Spokane and Bellingham to Vancouver. He made a point to show up to work parties no matter how far they were from home. Showing up in person can sometimes translate to many hours in the work truck. So it's a good thing he likes driving.

Alan (far right) with crew on bridge they completed. Mount Spokane - 4mb. Photo by Holly Weiler..jpg
Alan poses with a crew out in Spokane on one of his many trips to the east side of the state as field programs manager. Photo by Holly Weiler

“I recall one week when I was in Spokane over the weekend and into Monday, headed to Winthrop for a couple days of meetings, then home to Seattle for 3 days. Then I was on a project in Olympia over the weekend and finished it all with a trip out to Neah Bay and Cape Flattery to look at trails on the following Monday,” he said. “Felt like I had covered the state on that trip.” 

His willingness to show up is not lost on WTA volunteers and staff.

“When I ask (Alan) to come look at something that I think is an issue or can't figure out how to fix, he adjusts his schedule and comes over,” said Charlie Romine, WTA’s Olympic Peninsula crew leader.

And when he comes to help out, Alan doesn’t steal the spotlight despite his extensive trail knowledge. He’ll work in the background, taking on tasks like sourcing fill material or moving rocks (the repetitive tasks that get the job done but aren’t necessarily glamorous), only weighing in on a project when he’s asked.

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Alan helps two green hats move a rock on the Skyline Trail at Rainier. Photo from WTA archives.

Witnessing this firsthand

I remember seeing this in action at the first work party I did with Alan. I was running late to my fifth or sixth work party as a new volunteer — the trailhead was only accessible going one way, so if you missed it you had to double back twice. By the time I finally made it, the crew was already on trail, and there was just one tall guy standing in the parking lot, arms crossed, smirking a little as I screeched into the parking lot in a cloud of Forest Road dust. I scrambled for my shoes and pack and as I walked up to him he chuckled and said, “Missed the turn, huh?” 

I laughed sort of sheepishly and he just said, "Let's go." Despite having inconvenienced the crew and more specifically, Alan, since he’d had to wait for me, he didn’t get mad or make me feel bad for being late. We just hiked quietly to the project site and got to work with everyone else. 

We were working on a small construction project that required a lot of fill material. Searching for fill is an unglamorous repetitive task, and many of us newer volunteers were angling to get in on the construction job (which was also in the shade, and it was hot that day). 

However despite the heat, Alan quietly bucket after bucket of rock back and forth from the job site. He just did it, uncomplainingly. And when we had enough fill, he helped us build a bridge. But only after the crew leader asked him for help. 

Trail design wizard

Hikers across the state have benefited from Alan’s trail expertise, though they may not realize it. When he lays out a trail system or performs a maintenance task, he takes into account the need for low-cost maintenance while also providing a good hiking experience. 

One way of reducing maintenance expenses is to build with minimal structures. Alan’s a master of the reverse grade — a trail-building trick that guides water off trail without requiring drainages. The end result is an attractive trail that’s fun to hike and stays drier, which means it will hold up for many years. 

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A reverse grade laid out by Alan on Manastash Ridge. Photo by Anna Roth.

Alan applies this consideration for user experience when he’s working on larger projects too. He has personally laid out trails in dozens of locations, including Manastash Ridge outside Ellensburg, Candy Point in Grand Coulee and Squak Mountain near Issaquah. 

Most recently, he’s been instrumental in laying out the extensive trail network in the Teanaway Community Forest. Austin Easter, WTA’s statewide trails program manager, has been working with Alan on this project, which required them to hike through miles of brush, stream crossings and downed timber on their scouting trips. 

“Alan has been, and will continue to be, a masterful trail design wizard equipped with just a clinometer and a roll of orange flagging tape for laying out trail systems,” Austin said. “He took thousands of data points from a 50,000-acre forest and consolidated those trails and miles into a 60-mile trail system on easy-to-digest GIS maps. It is impressive and was a privilege to watch unfold.”

Alan’s favorite part of his job is the field work. He’s lost track of the number of days he’s been on projects, but we have an unofficial count. 

“Alan has nearly 1,300 days on trail in our records, but considering his habit of dropping in on work parties unannounced, the actual number is likely in the thousands,” said Janée Romesberg, trails program senior manager for WTA.

Whatever the exact total is, Alan says it’s not enough, because “it’s one of the best parts of my job. Another best part is all the great people I have gotten to work with over the years.”


All the great people

As the field programs manager, Alan hired seasonal WTA staff for many years, offering opportunities for people to begin or continue their environmentally focused career with a position at WTA. Many of the people he has hired have returned for multiple seasons. Several individuals have gone on to long-term careers in the environmental sector, including working for the Washington State Department of Natural Resources, King County and as managers at WTA.

Ben Mayberry, a former WTA crew leader who now works for the Washington State Department of Natural Resources as the Snoqualmie recreation and operations manager, credits Alan for his personal work philosophy.

“Alan hired me as a know-nothing volunteer in 2013 and set me on a path toward becoming the knows-some-things land manager I am today,” Ben said. “His pragmatism, attentiveness to both projects and people, and ability to problem solve in the field are qualities I strive to emulate in my own career.”

Skyline - Mount Rainier. Photo by Andrew James.JPG
Alan helping out on a trail project at Mount Rainier, where Trail Programs Director Jen Gradisher met him for the first time. Photo from WTA archives.

WTA’s own Trail Programs Director Jen Gradisher, who started as the Mount Rainier district crew leader in 2013, remembers the first time Alan welcomed them to the WTA team.

“(I’d) never engaged with WTA before,” they said. “Alan helped me immediately feel welcome in my new role within this community. His confidence in my skills and trust that I could lead our volunteers helped set me on a fast-paced trajectory into my current role. I am forever grateful for his support and guidance along the way.”

See you on trail

Alan has had an incredible impact on Washington’s trails. Hikers, bikers, horseback riders, even motorized users will benefit from his influence on our trail network for years to come.

And the land managers and trail workers who learned from him how to work with what the landscape offers will continue his legacy of flexibility and hard work far into the future. 

Alan has always said that he started with WTA as a volunteer and he intends to finish as one. We know we’ll see him on trail, but will miss him on staff.

He helped set our foundational values of reliability, resourcefulness and respect for the people and landscapes involved in a project. We’re thankful for the 26 years he dedicated to us, and so is the rest of Washington’s hiking community. 

This article originally appeared in the Winter 2022 issue of Washington Trails Magazine. Support trails as a member of WTA to get your one-year subscription to the magazine.