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Columnist for a Day: Left behind at the trailhead

BABYFOOT LAKE TRAILHEAD — Last Thursday I had the pleasure of rising early and heading for the Babyfoot Lake Trailhead instead of a desk.

I left at 5:30 a.m. with a van full of Siskiyou Mountain Club volunteers, who were joined by our three-person Chetco Bar crew.

The crew will be out there for five nights, slowly working their way through a punishing elevation profile that traverses nine or 10 Forest Service system trails, three Wild and Scenic watersheds, two mountain lakes, a handful of botanical areas, and treasures otherwise tucked deep in this remote wilderness.

They’ll remove hundreds of downed logs, dig out thousands of feet of trail, and brush out thickets of tanoak, manzanita, ceanothus. The crew will hang signs and maintain a route that without their effort would have been lost forever. They’ll sweat and get blisters and sunburns and curse wildly at times.

As they marched out of view yesterday, I was left to reconcile the dozens, maybe more than 100, memories from this remote trailhead. I started coming out here in 2006. I was young then, really young, and the experiences I had starting at this parking lot led me to where I am now — and that is not in the Kalmiopsis Wilderness.

I didn’t follow them up the Kalmiopsis Rim and down to the Chetco Divide. I headed back to Grants Pass for a medley of meetings that lasted until around 5 p.m.

By the time I got home for dinner with the family, I imagine the crew was sitting around eating down the heaviest of their food to drop pack weight. Their shoulders were burning and their bodies sore as they sulked in some of the last old-growth forests left on the eastern boundary of the Kalmiopsis.

I hope they looked out onto the horizon, climbed a peak, and caught a glimpse of the mighty Pacific so close, but so far away. After day one, the conversation was probably still pretty civil, but I imagine they had begun making some light jabs and hearty jokes that the wilderness brings out in us.

Jealous. I wanted to be there.

But I’m proud that with no waver, no question, no second thought, we keep coming back to this same place, ever more committed. It’s a tough business I’m in, building support to do essentially the same project over and over. It’s like painting the Golden Gate Bridge without any money.

I’ve watched some organizations let their supporters lead them into causes and projects that are popular at the time. Not us. We’re in the business of leading, time after time, to fulfill a vision of connecting people, trails and wilderness.

This morning, I’m a bit bitter:? bitter that the crew is waking up to a soggy campsite, bad coffee and some vast view of a place that I love so much. That’s where I want to be, but I’m here arranging my calendar, headed for the desk.

But I’m satisfied that we’ve stayed small and true. The wilderness has given so much to me that I could work my whole life giving back to it, and it would never be enough.

Back at the trailhead Thursday, my crew weren’t the only ones there. I saw a Siskiyou Mountain Club member, Edem Gomez. He was getting ready for a hike with his partner, Nicole, down to the Chetco, where they go once a year.

“Thank you guys so much for what you do,” he told me with the rim of Babyfoot Lake behind him. Before our persistent work here, Gomez’s trips would have been a pipe dream of downed log thickets and impenetrable brush. His trail would be gone.

“My cellphone doesn’t work here,” adds Gomez, who works as a planner for Rogue Valley Transportation District. “It’s such a blessing. It just means so much to me what you guys do.”

Yes, waking up to good coffee and a calendar is worth it.

Gabriel Howe is executive director of Siskiyou Mountain Club. When he’s not working, you might find him at the Y swimming laps.

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