Gabe Howe, director of the Siskiyou Mountain Club, walks on the Rogue River Trail near Grave Creek Tuesday. The club plans to use a federal grant to bring ground crews into the area over the next two summers to work on portions of the 40-mile main Rogue River Trail and restore three other wilderness trails. Mail Tribune / Jamie Lusch

Trail tenders

MARIAL —  While working in the summer of 2005 as a caretaker of the famed Rogue River Ranch along the Wild and Scenic Rogue River, Gabe Howe explored a handful of old spur trails off the Rogue River National Recreation Trail.{br class="hardreturn" /}
"You could see even then how these trails hadn't gotten much maintenance," Howe says.{br class="hardreturn" /}
That summer's Wassom fire was no help, eventually littering the trails with downed snags and other debris that rendered pathways such as the Mule Creek and Clay Hill trails difficult to traverse in the already tough-to-access Wild Rogue Wilderness Area.{br class="hardreturn" /}
A decade later, Howe plans a homecoming to this federally designated wilderness area to do right to these historic trails.{br class="hardreturn" /}
Howe's Siskiyou Mountain Club is on the cusp of earning a nearly $21,000 federal grant to bring ground crews into the area over the next two summers to spruce up portions of the 40-mile main Rogue River Trail and restore three other wilderness trails.{br class="hardreturn" /}
Reopening and strengthening the Mule Creek, Clay Hill and Panther Ridge trails will create a 30-mile look for hikers looking for a challenging detour off the Rogue River Trail into one of Southern Oregon's famed wilderness areas.{br class="hardreturn" /}
The Siskiyou Mountain Club, for which Howe is the executive director, will hire crews of workers in their late teens and early 20s to do the work, similar to club crews that spent the past few years working to reopen a key trail through the Kalmiopsis Wilderness Area blocked from 2002's Biscuit fire.{br class="hardreturn" /}
Like the Kalmiopsis trails, the Rogue Wilderness trails have fallen victim to cuts in Forest Service trail maintenance programs over time.{br class="hardreturn" /}
"It used to go unnoticed how many resources went into trail maintenance programs until the programs dried up," Howe says. "The agency just doesn't have the people to do it."{br class="hardreturn" /}
That angle of having a nonprofit club hire young workers to improve recreation infrastructure on federal lands was a key ingredient in landing the club a high ranking for the grant through the Oregon State Recreational Trails Program, says Laura Underhill, the program's coordinator.{br class="hardreturn" /}
"It's always a good sell — opening up corridors that have been closed," Underhill says. "And it's always nice when a club likes to help out an agency like the Forest Service and do projects on their property."{br class="hardreturn" /}
The money is from a pool of about $1.5 million from federal gas taxes passed annually to the Oregon State Parks and Recreation Department for various forms of trail work here, Underhill says.{br class="hardreturn" /}
The club's grant still awaits approval by the Oregon Parks and Recreation Commission and federal highway officials, but its recent high ranking for funding is the toughest of hurdles for the grant, Underhill says.{br class="hardreturn" /}
The 40-mile Rogue River National Recreation Trail is in the heart of the National Wild and Scenic Rogue River Canyon and runs between Grave Creek near Galice to Illahe about 30 miles east of Gold Beach. It's an Oregon bucket-list hike for travelers who either do it alone or with the help of various Rogue River Canyon rafting liveries who offer packages for guided and supported hikes.{br class="hardreturn" /}
The trail hugging the Rogue's north bank is co-managed by the Bureau of Land Management and the Forest Service, with the Forest Service portion in greater need of clearing and improving to meet trail specifications, Howe says.{br class="hardreturn" /}
The trail is narrow and often at high elevations, so it is not recommended for kids under 12 and those afraid of heights, according to the Forest Service.{br class="hardreturn" /}
Two of the project's bigger challenges will be clearing the Mule Creek Trail, which snakes between Marial and Eden Valley. The trail was once a supply route for miners who eked out their living in the hardscrabble mountains around Marial, which was large enough to support its own post office until the 1950s. It has fallen into disrepair, except when it's cleared strictly as a route for ground forces fighting wildfires in the wilderness area, where mechanized items such as chainsaws and water tenders are banned by federal law.{br class="hardreturn" /}
The Clay Hill Trail will test crews' mettle as they battle blown-down snags and overgrowth along steep switchbacks.{br class="hardreturn" /}
"Any time you have a steep trail with a lot of switchbacks, it's hard to clear 10 years worth of snags," Howe says.{br class="hardreturn" /}
The work in and around Marial will bring Howe back to the trails he explored a decade ago with maps and canteens. Now it will be with hardhats and hand tools to transform these paths for others to enjoy.{br class="hardreturn" /}
"It'll be nice to be home again," Howe says.{br class="hardreturn" /}
Reach reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470 or mfreeman@mailtribune.com. Follow him at www.twitter.com/MTwriterFreeman.{br class="hardreturn" /}

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