Eighty-six-year-old J.L. “Pickaxe Pete” Fish opens the door of his workshop to reveal a murderer’s row of trail tools, all weathered handles and gleaming edges. “I can’t abide a tool with a broken handle or a dull blade,” Fish says. “I’ve always been that way.” If you’ve ever set foot on the Pacific Crest Trail in Southern California—or even dreamed that you might someday—you are in Fish’s debt. It’s been 24 years since Fish first took up the Pulaski in the name of trail improvement, and in that time, he’s maintained the first 700 miles of the PCT (from the border with Mexico to Kennedy Meadows) and built a reputation for his hard-working crew of several hundred active volunteers: the Trail Gorillas. In January, Fish retired as the Trail Gorillas’ coordinator, but he hasn’t laid down his chainsaw. We caught up with him in April after he returned home to Ventura after clearing downed trees in the Angeles National Forest.
BACKPACKER: When did you start doing trail work?
FISH: For many years, my family had a cabin up near Lake Tahoe. I spent summers there and started helping my grandfather do trail work in 1940 or so. During World War II, when most of the Forest Service personnel were in the military, there would be an occasional ranger in the backcountry. Several of us kids would pac