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From walking sticks to shovels

JACKSONVILLE — Dave Calahan spooks a blacktail deer, then flushes a forest grouse and sidesteps a fresh pile of bear scat as he bushwhacks up a forest hillside to an open patch where the majesty of the Bishop Creek drainage lies before him.

Calahan looks down toward a parasailer who recently launched from nearby Woodrat Mountain, then peers farther down the drainage toward the town of Ruch in the valley below.

"You can look all the way down the valley and see the top of the church in Ruch," Calahan says. "It's a view you're not going to see from anywhere else."

Calahan hopes to eschew his walking stick for a shovel sooner than later and start construction of this new hiking trail outside of Jacksonville that one day could be part of a new network of trails linking Grants Pass's Cathedral Hills trails to Ashland and even the Pacific Crest Trail.

Calahan and his Applegate Trails Association members are in the midst of hoop-jumping with the federal Bureau of Land Management in their quest to begin carving the roughly 40-mile Applegate Ridge Trail that would provide hikers, cyclists and horseback riders their own dedicated trail between Jacksonville and Grants Pass.

Eventually, it could also link into the proposed Jack-Ash Trail envisioned to link Jacksonville to Ashland, creating new backwoods opportunities for hikers and others looking to enjoy some of Southern Oregon's hideaways without crossing paths with off-road vehicles.

The BLM is in the midst of collecting comments to be addressed in an upcoming environmental study that could open the door for Calahan and others to begin cutting this route, which has been flagged and ready for work the past three years.

"Thousands of hours have gone into just getting us to this point," Calahan says. "None of us have turned a shovel full of dirt on this trail. It's pretty frustrating."

Though awaiting permission, the association already has lined up funding to build the route's eastern trailhead off Sterling Creek Road and craft part of the eastern six miles of the planned route.

The so-called East ART stretch would link Sterling Creek Road to Highway 238 near Forest Creek, passing through the Bishop Creek ridgeline regularly speckled with parasailers and paragliders and Applegate Valley panoramas barely 10 minutes outside of Jacksonville.

"This will be a great addition to the low-elevation trail network for people in the Rogue Valley," says Ed Reilly, a retired BLM planner who is helping craft a draft environmental assessment vetting the proposed project.

The Applegate Ridge Trail concept began to coalesce more than four years ago among a group of hikers searching for Applegate trails they don't have to share with off-highway vehicles, Calahan says.

Realizing the only way they could get one was to build one, they began work on the trail layout that snakes solely through BLM lands and mostly on softer slopes more doable by average hikers.

Calahan says only about 30 percent of the trail footprint would include existing roads or trails.

The East ART is the association's jumping-off point, and they found a more-than-willing partner recently with REI in Medford.

The local store received $20,000 to allocate to nonprofit groups looking to improve access to the outdoors valued by REI customers, says Shelby Vorwald, the Medford REI store's outdoor programs and outreach market coordinator.

Half of that went to the Ashland-based Siskiyou Mountain Club for restoring and rehabbing trails in the Wild Rogue Wilderness Area along the Rogue River downstream of Galice, Vorwald says. The rest went to the East ART project, she says.

"Having these trail systems will provide great access for our members," she says.

Calahan hopes to use that money to hire crews to join volunteers in creating as much of that East ART arterial as he can before the funds run out.

Reilly says he expects the environmental assessment to be done in time for work in spring.

Calahan is less patient, saying there's no reason crews shouldn't be turning shovels on the trail this winter.

"We've walked it many times, but we need to do more than just walk it," Calahan says. "We need to dig."

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

Dave Calahan hopes to start construction of a new hiking trail outside of Jacksonville that could be part of a new network of trails linking Grants Pass's Cathedral Hills trail system to Ashland and the Pacific Crest Trail. Mail Tribune / Jamie Lusch