Free the trail

·4 min read

Jul. 8—SELMA — Trying to reclaim the famed Illinois River Trail after two horrific fires in the past two decades felt like a nightmare in which Gabe Howe was caught in backwoods carnival game with no way to win.

The 2002 Biscuit Fire, followed by 2017's Checto Bar Fire, left the Illinois River Trail impenetrable with downed trees and asphyxiating brush, no matter how hard Howe's Siskiyou Mountain Club crews worked to reclaim the trail.

"It was like a game of Whac-A-Mole," says Howe, the club's founder and executive director. "You'd get something opened up, and you'd think you got somewhere — and then, no. You'd realize that, 15 miles away, you had a new impenetrable jungle.

"It was a game of trying to get ahead of it, but we were never able to," Howe says.

The club last week pushed the "Game Over" button — for now — when it officially reopened one of Southern Oregon's most iconic wilderness trails for the first time in 20 years.

The 30-mile Illinois River Trail is now hikeable from the Selma area over the Siskiyou Mountains to the remote river town of Agness for the first time since the Biscuit Fire roared through the drainage 22 years ago.

This single-track trail rated extremely difficult bisects the rugged Kalmiopsis Wilderness Area and crosses Bald Mountain as it snakes through lands that iPhones don't acknowledge.

Much of the work has been done with hand saws or cross-cut saws, working through downed snags, smaller trees and impenetrable brush that sprouts annually after fire opens sunlight onto these fertile soils.

The brush- and tree-free trail is, in part, the success of nine years of work by Siskiyou Mountain Club interns who carried 80-pound packs into the wilderness for eight-day hitches of backbreaking work on behalf of the backwoods hiking community.

The biggest obstacle, as always, are massive brush fields of ceanothus and tan oak that shroud the post-fire trail annually.

"The brush is chest high, the sun's beating down on you but you push through it," says Natalie Frison, a Portlander who helped finish off the last stretch of trail. "But your mission is to get through it so other people don't have to."

The free-the-trail mission has its roots in the 2002 Biscuit Fire, which burned nearly 500,000 acres in mostly wilderness areas of Southern Oregon. The Chetco Bar fire of 2017 burned mostly within the Biscuit footprint.

Collectively, they placed a major "No Trespassing" sign on the remote Illinois River Trail, known on maps as National Trail No. 1161.

It spans from Oak Flat near Selma to another Oak Flat near Agness. In between, there is more than 4,000 feet of elevation gained and lost as the trail snakes through a mix of old-growth Douglas fir forests to serpentine soils and hardscrabble lands baked by summer's bitter sun.

After fires, backwoods trails like this are marred by burned snags falling on the trail. Later, the open areas typically get run over by ceanothus, tan oak and other brush that can block access for years.

The Siskiyou Mountain Club, in a joint venture with the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest, began opening short swaths of the trail in 2013. By then, the undergrowth was so thick club members had to shed their packs and crawl along the trail, using pruning shears and saws to claim centimeters of the trail at a time.

"They were literally opening up the trail inch by inch," Howe says.

The crew comprises interns from around the country, many of whom have had no wilderness experience but bring a zest for adventure.

They end up finding an ordeal that can define a lifetime.

"We jokingly say on the trail that we go through the five stages of grief every day," Frison says. "Acceptance is usually where you end. The pack's heavy. Your back's breaking. Then you put your pack down at the end of the day, and you think, 'Well, that wasn't so bad.'"

For years, club crews worked down the trail and into the remote Kalmiopsis. But it wasn't until two weeks ago that crews plowed through the last of the choking brush on the Curry County side to finally reopen this iconic trail.

"It was like a Golden Spike moment, after 20 years," Howe says.

But that moment likely will be fleeting.

The Whac-A-Mole never really goes away. It just surfaces somewhere else on the trail.

"We'll have to go in next year and clear brush in some of these same areas of trail," Howe says. "Maybe in five years, when the brush grows up and shades the actual trail, you'll get some stability."

"Well, stability until the next fire," he says.

Mark Freeman covers the outdoors for the Mail Tribune. Reach him at 541-776-4470 or by email at mfreeman@rosebudmedia.com.