We drove through Toledo, past train cars heaped with wood pulp steaming in the morning sun. We weaved our way up along a couple miles of clearcut, onto Forest Service Road 5083. The trees, moss-draped alder and Douglas fir, returned.
I was with Corvallis to Sea (C2C) Trail Partnership volunteers, who for the last fifteen years have contributed over 39,000 hours to the establishment of a non-motorized trail linking the Willamette Valley to the coast.
We stopped on the downside of a hill. A volunteer hopped out to hand saw a branch blocking the road. After he pulled the branch aside, he stuffed the saw in a sheath made from a firehose and got back in the truck.
"We thought it was more important to get a doable trail than a through trail," said C2C Partnership President Gary Chapman, explaining how some parts of the hike require walking on roads.
"We have nearly 10 miles of decommissioned or stored roads to keep clear," Chapman said.
A 50-mile long system of public access trails requires considerable bureaucratic as well as physical volunteer work—C2C has secured permission agreements across lands of the Corvallis Watershed, Oregon State University, College of Forestry, Starker Forests, Inc., the Farmer family, and Hitselberger Ranch LLC.
The work we were doing on Palmer Mountain above Toledo included route finding. Chapman and volunteers flagged potential routes back in 2011. Our job was to return, hack through the eight-year-old rough draft of a trail, and drop off a tool cache for a work party coming in that weekend.
We carried tools—McCleods — or rakehoes, Pulaski axes — wildland firefighter tools combining an axe and an adze, which one guy told me "will kill you from either end,” shovels and hedge clippers—down an overgrown logging road informally called "Heartbreak Hill." We crunched through snow, dropping 600 feet in elevation in just under a mile. One volunteer tried pulling a wagon with pilings used for cribbing — a system of erosion control wherein rebar is pounded into logs to help hold up a slope. Dips and turns and brush made the going hard. He eventually used load straps to pull the logs.
No gas power tools are allowed between March and August as part of a law protecting the marbled murrelet and spotted owl. C2C's access agreement with the Forest Service requires that volunteers beat invasive species back 10 feet from the trail. Himalayan blackberry, foxglove, ox-eye daisy and herb Robert (or Stinky Bob, an escapee of ornamental plantings displacing native groundcover) were some of the invasive plants Chapman rattled off. Curating a trail without weed whackers was one of the handful of challenges I had never pondered when hiking in the woods.
Nor was what Chapman called the "almost imperceptible"5-degree slope of the trail. The forest service permit required the trail to be 18 inches wide. As we neared an unnamed stream Chapman pointed to a steep slope where he'd been instructed to install rocks to help keep sediment out of the water.
Watching Chapman discuss routes with volunteers was what I imagine it'd be like to watch a director work with audio specialists and choreographers. One volunteer wanted to "build suspense" by keeping a switchback near the stream. You hear the burbling water, but are forced to wait just a little longer. I was shown vistas I would've strolled right past, routes around logs that would spare a climb.
"Trail editors will come in behind us to clear initial brushing," Chapman told me.
After a few hours in the shade of big Doug firs, ducking the scrim of vine maple branches overhead, skirting a huge red cedar, I forgot we were only a few miles from Toledo. We spooked a grouse, analyzed mountain beaver holes, emerged onto a landing choked with salmonberry and ferns swishing in the breeze.
The trail runs from Corvallis to Philomath, through Old Peak Road to Woods Creek Road, then on to Shot Pouch Road, past Mary’s Peak Road, through Harlan and toward Big Elk Creek. Eventually, it will come out at Ona Beach.
C2C is completing a dream that started in the mid 70s. Supporters have worked through landowner and business resistance. They have rerouted and reinforced per government request. They've dug and sawed and hoed trails out of wilderness.
With the help of the Northwest Youth Corps this summer, they aim to tackle the remaining stretch.