John, left, and Karen Poole ride through a wooded area of the High Lakes Trail which the couple maintains between Lake of the Woods and Fish Lake, along with another nine miles of trails around Lake of the Woods. - Jim Craven

Trail Blazers

LAKE of the WOODS — John and Karen Poole cross paths with the object of their affection on a stretch of the High Lakes Trail where packed gravel snakes through a field of white false bug bane and orange tiger lilies.

A man is sweating under a helmet that doesn't fit quite right, and he's pedaling a bike not quite fit for most mountain trails. John Poole eases his bicycle aside so the chain saw he carries in his bike trailer doesn't clip the man as they pass.

"Hey, you're doing great, except your wife's beating you," John Poole says.

The man laughs, says he doesn't mind being the slower spouse as long as his 18.6-mile loop between Fish Lake and Lake of the Woods is almost over.

"That guy and his wife are exactly who this trail is for," John Poole says. "You don't need to be an athlete or have an expensive bike. And there he is, having a great time. Perfect."

The man pedals out of sight, unaware that the two cyclists he just passed are the people who made it possible for him to enjoy an afternoon of mountain biking without a mountain bike.

As the keepers of the High Lakes Trail, the Pooles spend the summer maintaining this nine-mile-long hiking, biking and wheelchair-accessible trail — as well as nine miles of other paths around Lake of the Woods — so summer visitors can indulge their affinity for natural places.

Doing everything from sawing out downed timber from the trail and raking forest duff off the packed gravel, the pair pamper the 9.3-mile trail between Fish Lake and Lake of the Woods from Memorial Day through October, until snows chase the Pooles and their bikes away.

"It's just natural for us to be out on trails," says John Poole, 63. "This trail was designed to get people out of the campgrounds and in the woods fairly easily. That can plant a seed for people to get out of their houses more and enjoy their natural wonders."

The Pooles' efforts have not gone unnoticed by state and federal agencies whose cash-strapped budgets prevent them from maintaining trails like this one without help.

The Pooles on Friday were named the 2009 Doug Newman Memorial Award winners for their volunteer work on the trails around Lake of the Woods.

The award was presented during a meeting in Rogue River by the Oregon Recreation Trails Advisory Council, which is an arm of the Oregon Parks and Recreation Department.

It is named for a former Eugene Register-Guard outdoor writer who was plagued with polio since early childhood, but who wrote passionately about the outdoors. Newman died in 1992.

The couple, who split time between Salem and their Lake of the Woods cabin, are the first Southwest Oregon winners since Lollie Skillman of Medford won the award in 1994.

"The Pooles have kept these trails open, and it's been a big asset," says Rocky Houston, the parks department's recreational trails coordinator. "Their contribution is major, really. Yet people go up there and don't realize they keep open these trails that the Forest Service might not be able to do."

Keeping trails open has become something of an obsession for the Pooles, who first biked the trail shortly after it was built in 1995.

At a cost of $37,000 per mile, the Forest Service cut the trail to an average width of six feet and coated most of it with fine, packed gravel so the western 4.5 miles on the Lake of the Woods side is wheelchair accessible.

The trail is designed to invite casual cyclists or hikers out of Fish Lake and Lake of the Woods campgrounds and into the forest. It traverses lakeside riparian areas, thick old-growth pine stands, flowery meadows and enormous lava flows.

"You don't even need a mountain bike for this trail," says Karen Poole, 47. "This isn't gnarly mountain biking. It's almost as good as a paved path, but it's through the woods."

The couple start work on the trail each year just as the snows ease their grip on the 5,000-foot elevation forest in the High Cascades.

First, they drag away the timbers blown across the trail during the winter or dragged by insect-seeking bears. Larger trees are bucked by chainsaw.

The couple then use grass rakes to scrape each inch of trail clear of leaves, lichen, twigs and pine needles to keep the gravel exposed and hard-packed.

After weeks of that work, the Pooles spend the summer riding the trail weekly, brushing away sticks and picking up cigarette butts along the way. Other days are spent clearing brush to keep the trail plenty wide.

"There's never any shortage of work when it comes to trails," John Poole says. "It's a losing battle against vegetation in sunny areas."

The Pooles have been riding mountain bikes since the 1980s. Though they were High Lakes Trail regulars, it wasn't until 2002 that they discovered the trail needed to be adopted by someone for maintenance.

"As soon as we realized we could work on it or volunteer, we started thinking of it as our own," John Poole says.

But the Pooles love to share. And now the trail remains a favorite attraction for day-use and camping visitors to both lakes.

"They're amazing volunteers," says Margaret Bailey, the Klamath District Ranger for the Klamath-Winema National Forest, which houses the Lake of the Woods portion of the trail. "That trail is their pride and joy."

By cycling standards, the Pooles are hardcore. They've traversed the United States both north and south and east and west on their bicycles. Yet they revel in seeing those happy campers with too-tight helmets pedaling pedestrian bicycles through their little piece of heaven on the trail.

"This trail is inviting because it's not intimidating," John Poole says. "It's great to see people enjoy it."

Reach reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470, or e-mail

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