Oregon Outdoors: A trail is born

Oregon Outdoors: A trail is born (Mail Tribune)

JACKSONVILLE — Duane Wallams is bushwhacking his way through the remote wilds of the Applegate’s Wolf Gap so that one day others can find it a walk in the park.

Armed with white flags and a slope-measuring tool, the retired Forest Service timber and fire veteran is literally roughing-in what a year from now could be a new trail sporting kid-friendly walks with vistas of the Siskiyou Mountains.

But for now, Mallams crawls under downed Ponderosa pines, over seas of poison oak and not just through thick brush. Some stands of manzanita are so thick Mallams can walk branch to branch across the canopy.

“I tell my friends, if you have to come rescue me some time, they’re probably going to find me in a patch of manzanita with my head straight down unable to get out with my pack on top of me and a roll of white flagging clinched between my teeth,” Mallams says.

But that’s how a trail is born.

Mallams and others in the Siskiyou Upland Trails Association are in the early stages of building a new loop trail, one of many future trails they envision as spin-offs from the Applegate’s historic Sterling Mine Ditch Trail.

SUTA plans to built about 2.5 miles of new trail and tap into part of the recently reopened Wolf Gap Trail and the 150-year-old Sterling Mine Ditch Trail for the loop trail.

If completed as planned by fall 2020, it will transect Bureau of Land Management lands along Wolf Gap between Demming Gulch and the Little Applegate River drainage.

“It’s a wonderful saddle where you can get incredible views of the Little Applegate drainage and north, too,” SUTA President Hope Robertson says.

The new trail will need environmental assessments and BLM’s blessings, as well as grants and other funds to pay for construction costs that often pencil out at $10,000 or more a mile.

The backbone of any trail-building project is flagging. Someone has to be first, and that someone is Mallams.

The trail’s first trimester is in the kitchen of his rural Central Point home, where he uses fine topographical maps to estimate a path from a starting point picked by SUTA and accepted by BLM.

Calculations off the map reveal potential paths through steep hills, but Mallams has a theoretical route that will see the new trail rise and fall just 800 feet over the course of five miles. Then the boots go on and the real work begins.

“Of course, every time you’re on the ground you realize it’s not as easy as it looks on a map,” Mallams says.

The map doesn’t show the gnarly manzanita stands or pockets of poison oak that dot this hillside, some of which have been here since before the Revolutionary War.

He ties white flags to trees about eye-high, and uses a portable clinometer to measure the slope between them to ensure the grade is casual enough for little legs.

Mallams doesn’t rely on naturally fleshed-out routes like deer trails because they rarely fit into the plan.

“They have a destination in mind, and it’s not the same as the destination I have,” Mallams says.

It makes for long, lonely and often tedious days.

“Sometimes it seems never-ending,” Mallams says. “You need to keep a good mental attitude going, but it does get old.”

The growing hiking community has sought new loop trails.

“We will build a series of these trails over time so people don’t have to do out-and-backs,” Robertson says.

“And as an equestrian, I can tell you loops are always great,” Robertson says. “You go to turn around on a horse, it says, ‘We’re going home,’ so they fly home. With a loop, they don’t know where they are.”

The piece de resistance on this trail is a grassy knoll with 360-degree views, a rarity for causal hikers because penthouse views like that normally come with a steep elevation gains.

When completed, Mallams’ route of white flags will be walked by members of SUTA and BLM, questioning such things as whether to snake the trail above or below a certain Ponderosa pine, or whether to march through a manzanita patch or around it.

“The scrutiny will begin,” he laughs.

One thing Mallams doesn’t laugh about is backwoods safety. Though often alone, he tells his wife exactly where he plans to flag that day and when he plans to be done.

Once the path is vetted and funded, the trail work will be done primarily by contract crews, because “with trails like this you can wear out your volunteers in an hour,” Robertson says.

The final trail will be flagged with small, red flags placed short distances apart just ahead of crews swinging pick-axes and other tools to create the trail bed.

When the trail is complete, Mallams says he’ll be able to enjoy it as a hiker, almost forgetting the hours and sweat it took to turn daydreaming with a map to trail reality.

I won’t ever remember how difficult it was to walk through here the first time or two,” Mallams says. “I have a short memory. You have to out here doing this. But it’s really worth it.”

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470 or mfreeman@rosebudmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter @MTwriterFreeman.

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