Brothers of the Brush Hook, an Interview with Charlie Dundas

The thing that excites me is when I go out and I see people using our trails and I see families on the trails, you know? It pleases me and excites me that I’m beginning to, once again, see moms and dads and kids on trails, not just the mountain bikers.

by Mike Passo, Executive Director, American Trails

Charlie Dundas has been my friend and colleague for many years. He is a larger than life forest dweller, with a booming voice and a huge white beard. He is gruff, hilarious, and, at times, quite professorial. His stories are fabulous and endless, and you always know exactly where he stands. And he has been building some of the best trails in the world for over 60 years.

I decided to interview Charlie as a means of helping young, up-and-coming members of the trails community to understand the history of trail building through the eyes of one of the best and most experienced trail builders alive. If you are interested in becoming a trail builder and making a life around trail building, you could do much worse than spending some time in the shadow of this trail guru. Take his class. Work for his company. Your time will be very well spent.

Charlie is from Huntington, West Virginia, and has spent his entire life based in the deep woods and steep hollers where he plies his trade. He owns a trail construction company called Tri-State Company, and has been constantly in business for over 30 years. Over that time, his business has expanded to many other states in the Mid-Atlantic and Southeastern U.S.

My discussion with Charlie was long and wide-ranging, and I did my best to distill some of his great stories and wise messages below.

How did you get started in trail building?

Charlie started his trail building career at the tender age of 14 with his local Boy Scout troop. “When I started building trails, it was kind of the result of there being no trails in my area. The troop would need to drive 200 miles to find somewhere to hike trails, so we just kinda thought it would be good if we could build our own trails,” says Dundas.

Charlie and his fellow boy scouts found some old 1913 topo maps that showed the roads and tracks that criss-crossed the woods of his area and started piecing them together for their use. Little did they know their efforts would eventually become the Kanawha Trace Trail, which just celebrated 55 years of continuous use.

The Kanawha Trace is a 32-mile trail leading to the beautiful Kanawha River, and except for a few sections that follow roads, it is entirely on private land. Charlie says “I believe this is the only trail of its kind in the country, as far as I know. It is incredibly unique, and requires a lot of maintaining relationships with each landowner on this trail.” Troop 42 out of Huntington, WV still maintains this amazing trail.

Charlie and his fellow scouts would hike the beginnings of the Kanawha Trace by bushwhacking the old roads, sleeping in barns and outbuildings, and making relationships with each of the land owners they met. Eventually, they bought their first trail building equipment— a bunch of brush hooks— to keep the trace free of brush. This lead to their self-imposed moniker “Brothers of the Brush Hook.” But everyone else called them the “Dirty Shirt Gang.”

What was trail building like when you started?

There are very few other trail builders in this world that can boast almost 60 years of experience. When he started, his slate of tools looked an awful lot like what you’d find in the barn shed of any 1950s era farm. “Starting out, we used what are called brush hooks and idiot sticks. These were blades on sticks that cut weeds.

Then we worked with double blade axes and mattocks and shovels because we didn’t have access to fire rakes and other tools. It was all done by hand,” says Dundas. The Boy Scouts started out ensuring there was at least an 18” wide path. This evolved into preparing the tread surface, and the trails got a bit wider.

Charlie reminisces, “Then we started reading the Forest Service Manual and learned about water bars and about side hill construction. And so we began to incorporate those kinds of techniques into our trail.”

As their experience and knowledge grew, so did the interest from local folks. Charlie and his “brothers” got a reputation for doing quality trail work, and they started working on projects in other areas. Eventually, Charlie realized that there was a business potential here, so he started his own trail building company. They’ve been at it for 30 years.

Charlie Dundas heading out with materials for the job

Charlie Dundas heading out with materials for the job

What is the best innovation you’ve seen in trail building?

Charlie’s instant response to this question is that the most important innovation in trail building in his time has definitely been mechanization (trail sized dozers, mini excavators, and various walk-behind and ride-on skid steers).

Charlie says, “The trails that were built by the CCC, things that were done by the WPA in this country, it just couldn’t be done today because you could not get the huge number of people to do the work. So, we had to turn to mechanization.”

Charlie goes on to say, “The fact is that history has changed and we no longer have great empires with masses of people to build amazing things. But given the time, equipment, and manpower, you can still do tremendous work. And given enough time and money, you can build trails anywhere, I’m proof of that.”

“Today, they want trails wide enough to be able to run equipment over the trails to do the maintenance, because they don’t have large numbers of people. They have two or three guys to throw the chain saws and tools in the back of a UTV to go out and do the work. You can’t build those size trails by hand.” So mechanized construction became the norm for Tri-State Company.

What advice would you give to someone interested in getting into trail building today?

If you know anything about Charlie, you know, he is NEVER short of advice.

Charlie says, “So my advice to anybody entering the business is, first of all, you don’t just enter this business from scratch. There is no apprenticeship program or anything. You have to gain some experience through on the job training. Work with an existing trail building company, or a youth corps, or a Forest Service crew. If you can’t do that, then you need to sit down and read the literature to learn at least the basics of the program. To me, of course, you know, the first document I would recommend is the trail building handbook that the US Forest Service has come up with.”

Charlie holds the US Forest Service trail building resources in very high regard. Charlie says that they represent decades of the best on the ground experience and research in appropriate trail building techniques, structures, and methods.
He also points to the Trail Solutions guide to building mountain bike trails as a good resource. Ultimately, Charlie says, it is up to an aspiring trail builder to read up on the latest trail building techniques and do their research.

If you had it all to do again, what would you do differently?

“Yeah, actually I have given a lot of thought to this,” says Dundas. “I would’ve gotten into mechanization sooner. It’s kind of like that movie, ‘if you build it, they will come.’ If we’d have purchased a trail dozer or a mini excavator earlier, we would have made more money.”

Charlie purchased his first trail dozer (a Sutter 480) only a few years ago. He, of course, got a great deal on it. And when he thinks back on that, he says, “The fact is that if you have a trail dozer, there’ll be people wanting you to use it.” The changing demographic of customers and the need for wider, highly sustainable trails made the use of trail dozers and mini excavators not only desirable, but necessary.

Charlie explains the business of trail building as, “You can’t stay in business if you don’t make money. And it is hard in the trail business to make money. In the sea that we swim in, you have to survive on competitive bidding. You can’t make money at low bid, you know, so you have to constantly stay working. That’s hard.”

Charlie goes on to explain how they’ve overcome the constraints of the low bid process on their company’s profitability, “but our solution was that we’ve gotten away from exclusive government low bid contracts, and we’re doing private contracting, which we made a lot of money at. With private contracts, we have people calling us and we also have people that just select us. Many people consider us to be one of the premier builders and we have a great reputation, so they want that.”
In this way, Tri-State Company has become a very successful trail company that travels far and wide, building excellent trail.

What are your thoughts about the future of trails?

Charlie does have some concerns about the future of trails. “I’ve come to view development as probably the biggest threat to trails. We’re particularly vulnerable to it because the trail systems that we have in this area are primarily on private land, and we’re constantly having to compete with commercial and personal development, and the land is just being eaten up in this part of the country.”

Charlie will be the first to admit that he does not always see eye-to-eye with the burgeoning growth of mountain bike trail construction. However, he does concede, “I will credit the biking community, quite frankly— and you can quote this on me on this— that mountain bikers have been the salvation of the trail system in this country, you know. No ifs, ands, and buts about it. They have organized and promoted trails and have organized huge numbers of clubs. I don’t always agree with everything they do. Very little of it I actually agree with in terms of the trade. But I just cannot help but give them all kinds of credit for having turned around the trail building industry.”

Charlie is very animated when he thinks about the future of trails. He says, “The thing that excites me is when I go out and I see people using our trails and I see families on the trails, you know? It pleases me and excites me that I’m beginning to once again see moms and dads and kids on trails, not just the mountain bikers. And I add that people are building trails that are not just mountain bike trails, but are attempting to draw families in, too.”

Without the decades of work and experience and knowledge brought to our outdoor environment by Charlie, and the trail builders like him, we all would have far fewer quality places to recreate. I feel that we all owe these folks a debt of gratitude for their diligence over the decades. They make trails happen, and for that, I am forever grateful.

About the Author

Mike Passo is the Executive Director of American Trails. Mike has also served as the Executive Director of the Professional Trailbuilders Association and the owner and operator of a sea kayak outfitter called Elakah Expeditions. Mike has led groups of all backgrounds, ages and abilities on sea kayak expeditions in the San Juan Islands of Washington, Vancouver Island in British Columbia, and in Glacier Bay, Alaska. Mike has conducted an extensive study of outdoor developed areas nationwide to determine the cost implications of construction according to proposed Americans with Disabilities Act standards, and a Congressional study on improving access to outdoor recreational activities on federal land. He has a B.S. in Recreation Resource Management from the University of Wisconsin—Madison, including three years’ coursework in Landscape Architecture and Civil Engineering. He has presented on Universal Design and Programming at several national conferences and served on the Board of Directors of American Trails since 2000. His love of the outdoors and his own paraplegia has given him a great interest in the creation of an accessible outdoor environment that does not ruin the characteristics and value of that environment.

Contact: [email protected]

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