The Illinois River Trail snakes 28 miles through the spectacular backcountry of the Kalmiopsis Wilderness Area and across some of the most productive wild steelhead nurseries in North America — but the trail has some weak links.

The weakest link may very well be a 22-foot wooden bridge over Clear Creek Gorge. It's a tenuous span with rotted supports and missing guard rails, at risk of degrading to a point where it becomes the equivalent of a "No Trespassing" sign.

"You lose the bridge, it's like having a gate," says Gabe Howe, executive director of the Siskiyou Mountain Club. "You can have a beautiful trail that's well maintained, but if the bridge isn't there, it's useless."

This sobering discovery last month has Howe and his cadre of trail-lovers banding with the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest to bring these backwoods bridges up to snuff after years of neglect and lack of maintenance.

Howe's club is about to embark on an ambitious plan to repair or replace the worst of the forest's 110 foot bridges and then place them on a regular maintenance schedule that will keep them and the trails they serve open to the public.

The club is discussing the launching of a capital campaign to create an endowment to fund the work, which would be done by club crews and volunteers to curb costs that can easily hit six figures for some remote bridge replacements thanks to high labor costs and transportation that occasionally includes helicopter deliveries.

"I definitely think it's the direction we should go," says David Scovell, the forest's bridge engineer. "We could possibly be able to do these bridges with Gabe's help for a few hundred dollars."

The effort will start on the Illinois River Trail with new planks for a bridge over Briggs Creek near the trailhead. It will then proceed to the Clear Creek bridge more than three miles down the trail.

"We'll see how it goes and start to get a plan so we don't lose any more bridges," Howe says. "This is kind of exciting for us. It's new. It's important."

It's also daunting, and the Clear Creek bridge stands like a not-so-shining example of what deferred maintenance means in the woods.

The bridge was built about 40 years ago and is one Scovell says he inspects roughly on a five-year cycle. On a recent trip with Howe, they noted the missing railings as something that could be replaced.

Then they looked to the bridge supports and noticed decaying wood and realized this was far more than a rail-job. 

"It was a sobering moment," Howe says. "And this is just scratching the surface. There are all sorts of these bridges in the forest."

For the Briggs Creek bridge, they'll need to find someone to mill into planks some downed Port Orford cedar on Forest Service land near Cave Junction, then haul them over to Oak Flat to the Illinois River trailhead. The bridge is outside of the wilderness area, so volunteer crews can use electric saws to shape the planks for fastening to the bridge's steel supports.

Scovell will then design a replacement bridge for Clear Creek, where its location in the wilderness area poses greater obstacles, because no mechanized machines or tools can be used.

Howe will have to assemble a group of volunteers to carry supplies 3-1/2 miles to the bridge, where hand saws and hammers will have to do the trick.

Howe is hoping it can all come together during Memorial Day weekend before the traditional summer hiking season.

The trail is rough and traverses some of the more hardscrabble backwoods of Southern Oregon. It follows parts of the Wild and Scenic Illinois River and crosses Silver Creek, where snorkel surveys done after the 1987 Silver fire showed some of the highest juvenile wild steelhead densities ever encountered by the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife.

The trail snakes back to civilization near the remote Rogue River outpost of Agness 27 river miles from the Pacific.

Maintaining accessibility to trails and backcountry like this is what started the Siskiyou Mountain Club, whose fingerprints are all over Southern Oregon wilderness trails the Forest Service no longer can maintain on its own.

"Our mission doesn't always align with the Forest Service," Howe says. "But when it does, it's magic."

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