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Alex Relph, a member of a Siskiyou Mountain Club trail crew, helps to build a section of steps on the new Pilot Rock Trail.

Hiking groups do more than hike

When people think of hiking clubs, they probably envision groups that lead hikes in the forests and mountains — and they’d be right.


But Southern Oregon is home to a number of organizations that do a lot more than hike — they actually get their hands dirty keeping trails open, and in some cases they are building new thoroughfares in the backcountry.


Gabe Howe, director of the Siskiyou Mountain Club, knows trails don’t just happen on their own. Trail markers don’t jump onto tree trunks by themselves, and vandalized trail signs aren’t self-cleaning. Storm damage isn’t cleared by magic elves, and fallen trees from raging wildfires don’t move themselves.


So it’s a good thing Howe knows how to organize people interested in seeing that work gets done.


“We have more interest from the community than we can coordinate,” he says. “And it is something anybody can do.”


Hiking, like most outdoor activities, has its seasons, but the work to maintain trails goes on year-round. Siskiyou Mountain Club had volunteers out restoring trails throughout the winter. This year, a major focus of that work is cleaning up damage from last years’ wildfires.


Howe and several of his friends created the SMC in response to damage across the Kalmiopsis Wilderness, much of it from the 2002 Biscuit fire.


“By the time we started hiking out there, the trails were disappearing,” Howe says. “The trees that burned were starting to fall and form log jams. ... That would go on for miles.”


But, he says, the Kalmiopsis was still “a really wild and beautiful place. Me and a few other folks were really compelled by it.”


Restoring that federal wilderness was not high on the priority list for the U.S. Forest Service or any other local groups at the time. So they took charge, first gathering permission — and then tools and equipment — from the Forest Service, beginning their first restoration in 2010. A year later, they registered as a nonprofit with the state, and the Siskiyou Mountain Club was born.


Each year, the group engages more than 100 volunteers who log about 2,000 collective hours, Howe says. It also employs six to eight paid interns each summer, giving them an opportunity to lead wilderness restoration and hiking trips. They’ve had interns come from as far away as Michigan and Pennsylvania.


“We see it year after year: People come in and have formative experiences like we did in our early 20s,” Howe says. “Extending that to the next generation is a cardinal value of our organization.”


The club has expanded beyond the Kalmiopsis in recent years as its reputation for getting things done has spread. The club has cleared about 250 miles of trail in six federal wilderness areas, including the Wild Rogue Wilderness and Soda Mountain Wilderness.


Another local club that gets its hands dirty is the Siskiyou Upland Trails Association, which specializes in maintaining trails in the area between Jacksonville and Ashland, including the Sterling Mine Ditch trail system. SUTA is also the driving force behind the Jack-Ash route, which is destined to link Jacksonville and Ashland via a footpath through the Siskiyou highlands and Applegate Ridge trail system.


The group worked with the Bureau of Land Management to complete the first phase of the Jack-Ash, while the next phase will cut through Forest Service land and private property.


The Applegate Ridge Trail is the stomping grounds of the Applegate Trails Association, a club that leads hikes and maintains the trail system at Cantrall-Buckley County Park. And it has its own long-distance project, the Applegate Ridge Trail — affectionately referred to as the ART — which will stretch for more than 40 miles, connecting to the Cathedral Hills trails near Grants Pass.


The ATA used to lead more social hikes than it presently does, because the small club has its hands full with the ART project.


“We are leading a lot of hikes, principally to build the east arm of the Applegate Ridge Trail,” said David Callahan, chair of the ATA. “That’s got a lot folks out.”


The club intends to lead a couple of social hikes later this summer, including a popular outing on the trails behind Red Lily Vineyards.


Reach Mail Tribune reporter Kaylee Tornay at 541-776-4497 or ktornay@rosebudmedia.com. Tony Boom contributed to this story

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