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MailTribune.com
  • Rebirth from the ashes

    Volunteer crews help to reshape Biscuit-burned Trans-Kalmiopsis Trail
  • BROOKINGS — Hands sore, sweat dribbling into his eyes and his breaths pumping in rhythm with his steel saw, Gabe Howe can take out what took 80 years to grow and just seconds to get in the way.
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  • BROOKINGS — Hands sore, sweat dribbling into his eyes and his breaths pumping in rhythm with his steel saw, Gabe Howe can take out what took 80 years to grow and just seconds to get in the way.
    A hefty Douglas-fir strewn across the only true wilderness trail system linking Brookings to Cave Junction is one of many obstacles Howe will face this month in his quest to reclaim this trail one slice of a crosscut saw at a time.
    With each thrust, he'd love to reach down and pull the cord to fire up a chain saw. But 25 miles into Southern Oregon's Kalmiopsis Wilderness Area, chain saws are outlawed and as out of place as Miatas and McDonald's.
    "It's a weird paradox," says Howe, 27, of Ashland. "Chain saws are great, but you can't pack enough gas that deep into a trail. So crosscuts are more efficient that deep in. But only if they're sharp.
    "This time, the crosscuts are sharp," he says.
    Howe and his fellow volunteers with the Siskiyou Mountain Club this month will complete their quest to reopen the 32-mile Trans-Kalmiopsis Trail, which was rendered impassable by the region's largest wildfire on record — the Biscuit fire of 2002.
    The blaze left the rugged trail in shambles, and Howe's nonprofit club has hacked, scraped and crosscut through brush and trees over the past year to clear all but about nine of the most remote miles of the route.
    Work parties set to begin Monday will start clearing the last remaining obstacles in hopes of reopening this route so backwoods lovers can penetrate the heart of the Biscuit fire and observe nature's rebirth from the ashes.
    The nonprofit SMC formed to restore access to the Kalmiopsis route and held three work parties last summer to clear the trail.
    Howe hopes volunteers can bushwhack their way with enough speed and effectiveness to open the trail from Babyfoot Lake to Vulcan Lake before calling it quits June 30.
    "I'm hoping we can, but I have the habit of being really optimistic," Howe says. "It's so hard to predict.
    Things can change so much year to year."
    Much of the country turned its collective eyes to the Kalmiopsis during the summer of 2002 when the Biscuit fire burned nearly a half-million acres, much of it within the wilderness area and around two unique botanical areas that collectively encompass some of the most hardscrabble wilderness Oregon has to offer.
    But this wilderness comes with a capital W, creating a series of protections from the outside world.
    Along with more obvious bans on development, logging and off-road vehicle driving, federally designated wilderness areas include a series of more individual restrictions, including a ban on the use of any mechanized equipment.
    That means everything from mountain bikes to rugged strollers and, yes, even chainsaws, cannot cross into the areas.
    That's why Forest Service officials mainly watched the Biscuit fire's trek through the Kalmiopsis, and most forest-watchers didn't consider that a bad thing.
    Yet the fire took away true backwoods access for everyone from grizzled elk hunters to botany geeks who would occasionally cross paths along the Trans-Kalmiopsis trail.
    The 32-mile route features historic relics from the mining eras, ridge-top panoramas and sneak peaks of the upper Chetco River drainage that sports some of the best steelhead-rearing habitat in the lower 48 states.
    It's one of the few places where the word "pristine" truly comes into play.
    But the trail was so choked by post-fire brush regrowth, downed trees and slides that some of the trail was not only inaccessible, but also indistinguishable.
    "We couldn't keep up with the maintenance," says Brian Long, a recreation manager at the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest, which includes the Kalmiopsis. "We don't have the resources we used to."
    So Howe and fellow SMC cofounder Jillian Stokes gathered some friends and decided to do something about it. They sought approval from the Forest Service to work as volunteers to reclaim the route.
    The work is rough with machetes and the wildfire fighter's famous tool — the axe-hoe combo called the pulaski — to whack the brush and scratch the trail back into the Kalmiopsis.
    But the big work is fallen trees, and that's where Howe reaches into Oregon's logging history for the answer.
    The old crosscut saw, that feller of firs from the 19th century, still can power through wood without needing a single sip of gas.
    Just make sure it's no butterknife.
    "You can get through a 32-inch tree in 15 minutes without blowing your lungs out ... if you're saw's sharp," Howe says. "I know it sounds kind of dorky, but it really makes a difference."
    Reach reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470, or email mfreeman@mailtribune.com.
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