Interview by Mack Robertson
It’s a late spring day in 2020. The forest has gone through its annual transition from a dull brown hue to exploding with life and color. With this rebirth, the foliage experiences a period of growth that seems nearly impossible in the short time frame. The deciduous trees sag with the weight of spring leaves, undergrowth explodes out onto the trail, covering the misshapen tread below. In the previous months, the park has been an absolute mud pit. An insurgence of pandemic outdoor traffic has re-formed the trails into a lumpy mess that is beginning to harden as the forest dries out.
I’m beginning my run into Forest Park with a steep descent down the slip and slide that is Firelane 2. I challenge anyone to stay upright on this trail in the dead of winter. The Strava segment for the lower section of this trail is called “Forest Park Staircase” because, I can only assume, the trail-use in the winter forms a sort of staircase in the steep mud that hardens and remains intact all summer. As I round the first corner to begin the hellish descent I am met with the smoothest trail I’ve ever seen in the park. The tread has been leveled, drains installed for water management, and the typically overgrown flanks are trimmed back. I even notice some logs that have been across the trail since the winter are removed.
As I make my way down the hill I come across a lone man working the tread with a McLeod (a common trail restoration tool that’s somewhere between a hoe and a rake). After some chatting I gather that this is Bill Bannister, a retiree who has taken on the tall task of repairing the trails in Forest Park- a truly never-ending project. If you’ve spent any time in Forest Park the last couple of years, you’ve likely crossed his path. If you haven’t had the pleasure of meeting him, then you’ve certainly seen his work. Bill is happy to take the time to chat with you about his current project or gather reports from trail users about downed trees and damaged trail. Bill tracks all of his trail work on Strava, regularly posting about his latest project. For local Portland runners, he is an invaluable resource to keep up to date on trail conditions.
As trail runners, we’re often the end-users of a trail system, enjoying the fruits of others’ labor. We wanted to chat with Bill and find out what it takes to keep a trail system working. Bill, along with other volunteers from Forest Park Conservancy and Portland Parks, maintains more than 80 miles of trail in the park. We encourage everyone to consider volunteering with Forest Park Conservancy or your local trailwork organization. We’ve included a link at the end of this article.
Can you give us a little background on yourself? Have you always enjoyed the outdoors? I believe you mentioned you were retired, what did you do professionally?
I grew up surrounded by farms: cows/dairy, potatoes, chickens/eggs and horses/stud. My love of the outdoors was simply a way of life in the country. My neighboring forest looked like small state parks.
I met my wife in college where I studied math and economics. The math skills morphed into computer science and then a 35 year career. Even then, my best ideas have formed while walking or hiking. One even got me a patent.
When and why did you begin doing trail work?
Having been a computer nerd for 35 years, I was overweight and out of shape. I was introduced to an electric bike in 2018 and was amazed that I could ride again.
While riding Leif Erikson, Crown Zellerbach & Banks-Vernonia trails, I found it necessary to carry a saw to clear the way. I found a warm satisfaction in clearing the trails and hearing “Thank You” as others passed by.
3,000 miles later, I also started hiking the soft trails in Forest Park. I found more trees to clear and a wide area of water drainage issues. And began hearing many more “Thank You”s as others passed by. Then I met the trails managers for FPC (Forest Park Conservancy) and PP&R and my path to trail steward was set.
Which projects in the park do you get excited about doing? Which projects do you dread?
I love any project that makes an easily visible change. Brushing, raking leaves, tread work, branch and tree clearing.
Dread? None really. The closest I come is trying to fix erosion and drainage issues without ready access to stone. The dread part there is knowing the work will need repeating each year until we get some stone.
How often are you out on the trails working? Do you ever take a day off and just go out for a hike or would that turn into a scouting mission?
Pretty much daily. Sunday - Saturday for about 4-6 hours. I rarely just hike any more other than to get where I’m going. Even if I do, I can't pass up removing branches from the trail and getting pictures of what needs attention.
What do you enjoy doing outside of trail work?
For the past 3+ years, it’s all related to trail work. This year I got into short movies as training videos for the Forest Park Conservancy. Still on the steep side of that learning curve.
Do you have a favorite part of Forest Park?
It depends on the season.
When the waters are flowing I love the bridges on Maple.
When the leaves fall it’s the fire lanes.
For the spring, it’s Wildwood and the calls of the birds.
When it snows, it’s any trail in the park.
When it rains, any trail I get first hand views of drainage issues.
Is there anything you wish trail users knew about what it takes to maintain the trails?
The park is living, growing, constantly changing and wonderful place. I wish all that are able to come join our volunteer events to see firsthand what is done and what a difference it makes.