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Roughing it

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BROOKINGS — Eric Fung spent all 19 years of his young life negotiating the chaos of Manhattan, where roughing it meant standing in line at a curbside hotdog cart.

Then in the span of a single sunset, Fung found himself carrying 70 pounds of food, gear and tools into the harsh Kalmiopsis Wilderness Area for a week of scratching out remote trails and cutting through fire-killed timber by day, and sleeping under the Milky Way at night.

“In the matter of 24 hours, I went from there to out here in the middle of nowhere, in the wilderness,” Fung says.

“I’m looking to flip things on its head,” he says.

The head-flipping comes thanks to the Siskiyou Mountain Club, where Fung is one of a half-dozen new interns charged this summer with maintaining neglected backwoods Forest Service trails, and in the process discovering something about themselves in some of the most remote lands in the lower 48 states.

The six new interns recently spent a week in the Kalmiopsis, 282 square miles of rugged and remote wilderness straddling the Josephine and Curry county lines within the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest.

None had ever heard of the Kalmiopsis — a forebearing landscape once home to timber wars over the northern spotted owl and the site of regular lighting-caused mega-fires that have left remote thoroughfares like the Illinois River Trail choked with downed snags and morasses of grass and brush that spring from wildfire ashes.

The Ashland-based nonprofit has spent the past decade using crosscut saws and other hand-tools — chainsaws are banned in wilderness areas — to slice through thousands of downed trees a year to keep trails like this one passable.

The club maintains about 320 miles of single-track trails, physically clearing about one-third of that mileage a year, says Gabe Howe, the club’s founder and executive director.

After the one-week orientation, the crew this summer will work 10-day hitches in the wilderness, cutting trail by day and “cowboy camping” by sleeping under the stars sans tents each night.

After a four-day break, they’re back at it again.

Just getting to work is an adventure, with the crew riding more than 10 miles up the treacherous Bald Mountain Road with 1,000-foot drops before scrambling up a steep slope just to begin another 10 days at work in the wilderness.

Owen Brodie is a 19-year-old University of Washington student from Olympia who has a long history of backpacking with his family. But that was barely prep work for his first week on the trail crew.

Learning to cut trees from trails and swing a Pulaski all day before hunkering down to recharge with ramen and dried cranberries to do it all over again makes simply walking trails feel effortless.

“It’s definitely very challenging,” Brodie says. “But it’s with good people. Everybody has their heart in the right place.”

The Kalmiopsis Wilderness Area, and the Illinois River Trail in particular, have a special place in Howe’s heart and played a core role in the creation of the Siskiyou Mountain Club in 2010.

In 2006, Howe and his wife, Jill, were making their way down this exact trail after two large fires left downed logs and other debris throughout the trail.

“There were so many trees on the trail that we kept losing it,” Howe says. “We weren’t making any mileage on the trail.”

They scrambled down to hike out on the Bald Mountain Road, but the experience stuck with Howe, knowing the Forest Service had stepped away from maintaining many of the trails like these in wilderness areas, particularly burned ones.

“Running into a really cool place with bad trail conditions just didn’t do it,” Howe says.

Howe formed the nonprofit, and by 2013 the club began the intern crew format that continues today.

The intern pay is $3,000 for the summer, plus a $1,000 scholarship when they complete a project that somehow documents what they did during their time in the woods.

Brodie and Fung are among 150 people who applied for the internship this summer, a strong showing despite the COVID-19 pandemic as more and more people appear to be looking for jobs outside, says Trevor Meyer, who led this year’s club orientation.

The crew cleared six miles of trail in the six days of work learning.

“For a lot of them, this was an introduction to a cross-cut saw, let alone how to use one,” Meyer says.

Fung says he found the club and the internship during a “deep Google dive” while looking for summer conservation work somewhere in the West.

He applied and won one of the slots. Twenty-four hours after leaving Manhattan, he entered the Kalmiopsis for the first time and was awed at the massive panoramas, huge swaths of burned timber, pockets of lush forests and foreboding rocky crags named for men who never ascended them.

“Simply put, we don’t have sites like this on the East Coast,” Fung says.

The first week was hard, Fung says, but he’s going to stick with it this summer. Perhaps longer.

“It’s the kind of lifestyle I aspire to now,” he says.

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

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Jamie Lusch / Mail Tribune Members of the Siskiyou Mountain Club return from trail work on the Illinois Trail in the Kalmiopsis Wilderness.