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A trail is born

JACKSONVILLE — Dave Calahan pauses Tuesday atop a ridge overlooking Bishop Creek and the town of Ruch, then kicks aside a white ribbon denoting the route of the long-awaited East Applegate Ridge Trail in the hills outside of town.

"This," Calahan says, "is going to be fun."

He grips his brand-new Green Grubber trail shovel and swings it overhead, its downward momentum slicing the grubber's metal blade smoothly into the moist dirt.

"Nice and soft," he says. "We weren't legally permitted to do this until four days ago."

And just like that, a trail is born.

Calahan's artful blows mark the start of construction of the East ART Trail, the first leg of the Applegate Trails Association's ambitious journey to link Jacksonville and Grants Pass with a new path dedicated for hikers, bikers and equestrians — and no motors.

When completed — as early as this fall — the 5.6-mile East ART Trail will link the Sterling Creek Road area to Highway 238, snaking through mostly Bureau of Land Management land in a smooth, relatively easy pitch.

"The only way we can recreate in the Applegate without the chance of a motorcycle flying past us was to build our own trail dedicated for nonmotorized recreation," Calahan says.

"It's been a long struggle, but we're finally here," he says.

With the appeals period on an environmental study outlining and justifying the trail work freshly expired March 10, the ATA plans to work quickly to get as much of the trail built as possible before the summer wildfire season kicks in. 

The nonprofit association has organized three work parties in the next two months for volunteers to come out and help scratch in the 2-foot-wide trail.

The volunteer work will run in concert with paid crews the ATA will hire using a $35,000 cache for the trail raised over the years from grants and private fundraising, as well as four days of free crew work arranged by BLM.

When completed, the initial stretch will sport two access points, an information kiosk and a concrete picnic table to thwart would-be thieves or vandals.

And the trail markers that have dotted the envisioned route the past four years will be replaced by the real thing. 

"It's been lying on the ground for a long time," Calahan says.

Since 2009, Calahan and others have envisioned a 40-mile Applegate Ridge Trail linking Jacksonville with the Cathedral Hills trail system outside of Grants Pass. Plans include a proposed North ART Trail spur from the Bunny Meadows area to Jacksonville's Forest Park.

The Applegate Ridge Trail is also seen as a way to link into the proposed Jack-Ash Trail, a project being pursued by the Siskiyou Uplands Trails Association that would connect Jacksonville and Ashland.

If all becomes reality, hikers eventually would be able to hike from Grants Pass to Ashland and beyond.

But long treks on trails start with baby steps with a Green Grubber, a new-fangled trail-building tool that is supplanting the traditional Pulaski.

And the East ART is as good as any place to start. Its subtle slope averages a 3-percent grade, so it will be easy on young and more seasoned legs. It will offer Viewmaster-like panoramas of Ruch, the Red Buttes Wilderness Area and the sleepy little Bishop Creek watershed. 

"You get this big, expansive view as you get farther down the trail," says Luke Ruediger, an ATA board member and trail builder. "It's going to be one of those trails folks can access year-round."

East ART will also be a quiet, hydrocarbon-free zone.  

"This reserves a spot on the landscape for nonmotorized recreation," Ruediger says. "It's become more and more rare in the Applegate Valley, particularly on BLM lands."

The ATA was formed in 2012, largely to get this trail network built, and now is when the proverbial Green Grubber meets the dirt.

Calahan's first cut of the soil will be followed by thousands more. How quickly they make progress and how far their trail-crew dollars go will largely depend on what they find under the surface as they go.

"One big rock might throw your schedule out of whack," Calahan says.

"You're always wondering how deep in the soil we are going to go," Calahan says. "Is it all going to be nice, soft dirt, or are we going to go six inches down and hit rock? It all affects the price."

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

Dave Calahan breaks ground Tuesday on a hiking trail outside of Jacksonville that will eventually reach from Jacksonville to the Cathedral Hills trails outside Grants Pass. Mail Tribune / Jamie Lusch