Clearing a trail through Southern Oregon’s wilderness
Gabe Howe, the co-found of the Siskiyou Mountain Club, uses a crosscut saw to clear a trail.

The Siskiyou Mountain Club uses volunteer work crews to keep wilderness trails in the Kalmiopsis and other southwest Oregon areas open to the public. They haul their gear into the backcountry and use old-school tools to make it happen.

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By Zach Urness of the Daily Courier

The Kalmiopsis Wilderness is a place revered both locally and around the state for its unique beauty.

Home to bright orange mountains, emerald green rivers and a botanical diversity matched by few places in the world, the Kalmiopsis is a prized destination for hikers, anglers and boaters.

But since the Biscuit Fire torched virtually all 179,755 acres in 2002, the wilderness also has become a clearinghouse of tales from people who’ve struggled to navigate trails that often are in catastrophic shape.

The third-largest wildfire in Oregon’s history left behind a few million dead trees that are forever falling across trails and, combined with rapid new growth, have turned some routes into tangled messes.

“There are plenty of horror stories about those trails, about people getting lost and beaten up,” said Gabe Howe, the co-founder and executive director of the Siskiyou Mountain Club. “The problem is that trees don’t fall all at once; they’ll probably be falling for the next 10 years. Combine that with brush that’s growing back at a tremendous rate, you have a trails that (are in rough shape).”

Rather than watching the Kalmiopsis’ paths fade into memory, Howe and the SMC’s work crew of volunteers have made it their mission to keep wilderness trails open to the public.

Howe, 28, founded the group with his wife, Jillian Stokes, in 2009. They incorporated as a nonprofit in 2010 and have gradually put together a group that includes 35 volunteers and works in multiple destinations throughout the Siskiyous.

“These trails lead to the most amazing places,” said Justin Rohde, a SMC volunteer who lives in Cave Junction. “But while backpacking there, I've experienced some of the worst trail conditions imaginable. I want these trails cleared and maintained so that others can explore these areas without undergoing the hardships I experienced.”

The work requires a different type of devotion. The Wilderness Act of 1964 prohibits use of motorized vehicles or equipment, which means SMC crews must haul their gear into camps and use tools popular during the early 1900s.

Instead of a chainsaw, they use a crosscut saw. Instead of electric trimmers, they use loppers.

“We seek out vintage steel for our crosscut saws, and we take a lot of pride in using them,” Howe said. “We carry a very strong wilderness ethic. It’s actually kind of fun using traditional tools. We’ve gotten pretty efficient with them.”

The work can be difficult, but for some volunteers that challenge is part of the appeal.

Matt Cortese, 30, came from Portland for a week of trail maintenance in the Kalmiopsis.

“It was very hard work, but I?gained a lot of insight into how much I can be pushed,” Cortese said. “I’m an avid hiker and love to explore new places. Without good trails, I couldn’t do that.”

Rohde agreed, but added that a number of different people could pitch in.

“It’s challenging, but any one in good physical condition can do it,” Rohde said. “A lot of the work is pruning and small cuts with hand saws, so there is something for everyone. It’s easier than it looks.”

Nonprofit groups such as SMC are becoming increasingly important during an age when many federal agencies are losing funding.

The Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management often lack the resources to maintain wilderness trails.

“In the new economy,” Howe said, “it’s going to fall to the community to preserve wilderness trails.”

Which is why Howe does his best to recruit new volunteers, obtain grant money and figure out ways to stretch his resources.

“The hardest thing for me is that people don’t notice when a trail is well-maintained — they just take it for granted,” he said. “It’s only when a trail is in terrible shape that people get up in arms.

“Hikers and other users need to recognize that trails don’t maintain themselves. If they want this resource to be available, they need to get their boots on the ground and support the people and organizations that keep these trails open.”

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