Bob Koscik gets onto his hands and knees and crawls under a fallen tree. He turns and watches as his daughter, Eva Berk, scrambles onto a log and then leaps down onto the back of another downed log. “This is what we call the dance of the Skyline,” Bob jokes.
Bob’s eyes scan the bark of the old-growth trees. “There’s a sign over there,” he says, pointing to the trunk of a thick fir tree. “That’s probably from the mid-’20s.”
“Wow, crazy,” says Eva, as she comes up to the small piece of metal, twisted and half-swallowed by the tree where it had been nailed a century ago. It was once white with green lettering but is now mostly rusted. The only word visible is “line.”
Bob and Eva know that the sign once read “Skyline.” They can tell the general direction the sign points, and that farther into the Mt. Hood National Forest there should be more signs like this. What they don’t know is how many are left, and if they can connect them all.
“No one’s heard of the Skyline Trail,” Bob said. “There’s this forgotten link that was so important a hundred years ago. Nobody knows it’s even there.”
With the help of his daughter, Bob has been on a search for Oregon’s original long-distance recreational trail, the Oregon Skyline Trail.
Many have heard of the Pacific Crest Trail (or PCT), but few know of its predecessor.
Long before the PCT, the Oregon Skyline Trail blazed a path from Mount Hood all the way down the spine of the Cascades to Crater Lake, and farther south to California.
Today, few traces remain. Bob and Eva have been on a quest to find the last remaining pieces of the Skyline and to discover a personal connection along the way.
Setting off on a treasure search
Starting when Eva was in middle school, the father-daughter team devoted several weeks each summer to searching for the Skyline from Mount Hood to Olallie Lake, just north of Mount Jefferson.
Bob saved up his vacation days from his job at an auto parts store in Portland to have adventures with his daughter during her summer school breaks. They bushwhacked more than 100 miles in the remote pockets of the national forest and drove the web of backroads in a vintage VW camper bus in search of the lost Skyline.
“I think that a lot of people don’t really even know that abandoned trails are even a thing in the first place,” Eva said. “You’re walking down the middle of this barely visible trail, it’s like you would never know that there’s so much there and so much that you can discover.”
“I like to look at a map and say let’s go there — look at this mountain, maybe there’s a meadow, maybe there’s an abandoned trail,” Bob said. “Who knows what’s there, let’s go research it, let’s go find out!”
Bob and Eva come to a stand of towering cedars and hemlocks. Sunlight filters into the understory in narrow rays. Here the trees have been growing slowly, adding rings each year that one could count all the way back to before the United States was a country. Bob and Eva’s bootsteps are cushioned by the layer of soft forest duff, which has long covered over any track of the old Skyline trail.
Bob pauses and looks around. “Is that one?” he asks, peering a few trees ahead. He’s looking for any indication of an old wound on a tree trunk, where the bark has grown over in a scar.
As he approaches, he sees what he’d hoped for: not just a scar, but three in a row. These were cuts made a century ago by a forest ranger’s hatchet. The marks are called a “blaze.” And the person who did it, a “trailblazer.”
“I’ve always loved the lingering effect of the past,” Bob said. “The things that are so indelible that they don’t go away.”
Bob pauses to imagine the scene. The sunlight, the trees, and everything would have been essentially identical to the year the blaze was cut, 1920. That year a young forest ranger, Fred Cleater, stood in the exact same spot, and marked the blaze on both sides of the tree, before continuing southward with his pack horse, leaving a dotted line of blazes that would become the first path of the Skyline.
For millennia, a system of trails used by Indigenous people braided through the forest. Some were adopted by early fur traders. Some by ranchers to graze sheep in the hundreds of natural meadows. Turn-of-the-century logging operations cut spur roads to extract the giant old growth. From the tracks of past users, Cleater pieced together a 260-mile route from Mount Hood to Crater lake.
The U.S. Forest Service described the Skyline’s original route as “made up of a combination of many pieces of rough trails, often with but a frail tread, usually devious in direction, the whole tied together in a quite intangible manner, and quite apparently a choice by course of least resistance.”
The next year, in 1921, the Skyline trail appeared for the first time on Forest Service maps.
Ghosts of the Great Depression
Cleater’s plans included shelters every 10 miles, which were eventually built in the 1930s as Depression-era public works projects. By 1936, the Oregon Skyline Trail had been extended to reach across the state, from the Columbia Gorge Ranger Station near the town of Cascade Locks south to Soda Mountain, just a few miles from the California border.
The Skyline was a modern trail with amenities. Remote outpost ranger stations could offer hay for horses or some chance for resupply. A line of early telephone cable was laid to connect a string of telephones along the route so hikers could call if they ran into trouble.
“Although improvements along the trail will modernize the convenience to make it a comfortable excursion for even the most city wise,” the Forest Service wrote in 1934, “it must be left in its rugged state where possible to satisfy those travelers searching for the primitive.”
During the 1920s and ‘30s, the Skyline had a heyday. Bob wants to find this moment again. “It was kind of a renaissance era of humans interacting with wilderness in a way that was very different,” Bob said. “It wasn’t survival, it was just coming out here to become whole again.”
Bob pulls the VW bus up to the Clackamas Lake Ranger Station. This location had been a ranger station since 1905, but between 1933-35, the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) built 11 of the buildings here. Today it is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
One of the buildings burned down in 2003. All that remains is a towering chimney of hand-laid stone and the hand-poured concrete foundation. Bob notices what appears to be signatures in the cement. He pushes aside the overgrown brush. “R.E. Bartel, 1933,” he reads, then notes, “These guys were working hard out here.”
Bob speculates that a couple of young men from the CCC poured the concrete during construction and scribed their names while it was still wet. When the cabin had been built over the foundation, the names would have been hidden, anonymous.
One of the young men was from Chicago, like Bob. The workers of the CCC received $30 a month, a good wage during the Great Depression. They were allowed to keep just $5 of the income for themselves and $25 was sent to their families back home. Bob can imagine being one of those guys in that generation. His imagination echoes with sounds of work and voices of young rangers. He imagines the ringing of axes and saws. The pounding of hammer to anvil in the blacksmith shop. The smell of coffee and pancakes in the mess hall. Pine sap and boot grease.
“Here it feels alive,” Bob said. “You still have the experience of being in the 1920s and ‘30s. It’s really frozen in time.”
Bob and Eva find the cabin of the district ranger intact, as if he had locked up that morning and would be back in a few days. The windows have the iconic “Forest Service tree” shutters from the ‘20s and ‘30s.
Eva sits on a bench carved from a solid log.
“Oh it’s really dark in there,” Bob says, peering into a window.
“See anything?” Eva asks.
“Maybe a mirror in there, that’s about it.”
Eva sits quietly and watches her dad. He circles the cabin with glee — a little boy again on a treasure hunt. At a distance, Eva’s nonchalance might look like a teenager tolerating a parent, but inside she is taking in the experience and processing. “As this unfolds, I’m like, ‘wow, this isn’t just like a trail no one cares about,’” she said. “It’s connected a lot of lives. And I think just uncovering that is something that’s really powerful.”
Following the Skyline Trail came the Skyline road. For the first time, folks could travel deeper into the national forest by automobile, accessing some of the ranger stations and waypoints of the Skyline.
“It was the beginning of the era of the roads,” Bob said. “Cars were becoming practical and for the first time average working class folks had cars.”
By driving cars into national forests, a new form of outdoor recreation was born: car camping.
Bob and Eva carry on this tradition — in their own way.
They drive the backroads of the national forest in a 1969 VW camper van, as a trail of summer dust billows behind. The gravel Forest Service road junctions with another, then another, then Bob cranks the wheel and heads up an unmarked rutted dirt road.
The VW rattles and sputters. It needs the carburetor manually adjusted in the higher elevation. Over the years, Bob has rebuilt the engine and reassembled the carburetor. He feels a sense of self-reliance knowing it so well mechanically.
Although more than a half-century old, the VW bus is more modern than Bob would prefer. If he could, Bob would drive a Ford “model A” through the forest. Although the bus is not the same circa as the trail he seeks, it gives Bob the feeling of being on the road in a bygone way.
Bob has owned the bus for the past 20 years. He had it when he was married and times were happy; it was there to take him into the woods after his divorce when times were hard.
Eva guesses that she might have been 11-weeks-old when she first camped in the bus. Her earliest memories were of sleeping in a small hammock strung above the front seats. She recalls all the times her dad would pick her up at school in the VW bus, feeling a little embarrassed that her dad drove such an anachronistic vehicle — and also feeling comforted by the continuity.
The windows are down. Eva drapes her hand out in the warm summer air. No radio, because the rattle of the bus and crunch of tires on the gravel is too loud. Eva’s legs are getting numb from so much bouncing on the old spring seats. But this is how she and her dad go camping, and she wouldn’t want it any other way.
They reach the end of the road. It probably once continued farther, but the brush has grown thick, and the path has narrowed to a deer trail. Through the trees is a meadow that was once a small lake. “This was a popular campground in the ‘20s and ‘30s,” Bob explains, though no visible signs remain.
Moonlight and Lanterns
As Bob unpacks the VW bus to set up camp, he pulls out an antique railroad lantern. Then another. Then another. Some are larger, some small. Bob got his first oil lantern when he was 16, and from there, his collection grew.
Soon he has at least a dozen old railroad lanterns set out in a row, ready to light.
Eva looks up from the book she’s been reading and chuckles. She is used to this nightly ritual.
After the lighting of the lanterns, Bob pulls out his acoustic guitar and begins to fingerpick a pattern like the 1920′s “Singing Brakeman” Jimmie Rodgers.
As dusk settles onto the forest, the tall trees are silhouetted black. The oil lamps glow orange. The modern world, said Bob, feels too complicated. But here at his camp, he has surrounded himself with things that Bob considers getting “back to the basics”: a vintage VW bus, Coleman camp stove, cast iron pan to cook breakfast. “A lamp is just oil and a flame and glass,” Bob said. “Ok, I understand that.”
As Bob finger-picks his guitar by lamplight, he hasn’t quite rewound time to the earliest decades of the Skyline, to the days of pack horses and canvas bedrolls, but he has claimed his private pocket of the Mt. Hood National Forest and managed to assemble a tableau as familiar and comfortable to him as his old wool camping sweater. He sings softly, accompanied by a chorus of croaking frogs, as wisps of clouds slip over the full moon.
The modern world closes in
Following World War II, the Forest Service shifted its focus from recreational trails to harvesting timber to meet the lumber demands of the post-war boom. Trail management changed as large-scale logging became a higher priority for the agency. The Forest Service built roads to access the harvest sites, and in some areas cut over the Skyline.
In 1968, the PCT incorporated much of the Skyline to create the 2,650-mile trail that is internationally known today.
“After a while, the Skyline just faded away,” Bob said. “People weren’t using it. It was obsolete.”
When Bob looks at the old maps, he sees how the forest once was — the forest he wishes he could still find. The maps from the 1920s and ‘30s show a vast wilderness, with small dotted lines that were once trails, running up river drainages, along spiny ridgelines, and connecting the far-flung peaks. On the old maps, the peaks are dotted where fire lookout towers stood and where lone sentinels once kept watch. There were once 80 iconic lookout towers on Mt Hood National Forest. Today, only five remain.
Scattered across the national forest were one-room cabins called “guard stations,” where backcountry rangers would be posted. Bob and Eva stop the VW Bus to explore a log cabin, built in 1910 as a guard station. It is one of the only two remaining in the forest.
As they approach, Bob notices that the cabin’s front door has been left ajar. “See if anybody’s home?” Bob jokes.
“I doubt it,” says Eva.
The door hinges creak when they push it open.
The cabin is empty, except for a rusted barrel stove with a broken stove pipe, some trash previous visitors have left, and walls and beams covered in graffiti.
“There’s a lot of neglect and that’s the frustrating thing about these places,” Bob said. “I’m not here to scold people. I think people are just so disconnected these days, they don’t realize the rich history that was here.”
As Bob latches the door to leave, he says with a deep sigh, “Yeah, it’s seen better days.”
The cabin faces a large meadow. Bob and Eva start walking, in no particular direction, with no particular purpose, other than to explore.
In Bob’s imagination, he sees the former ranger’s horse and pack mule that would have grazed back then. He tries to imagine the feeling of remoteness, knowing that it would have taken someone several days to ride here.
“I think that it’s definitely interesting how he sees the world and sees the wilderness as well,” Eva said. “I think that he himself wishes he was a ranger in the ‘20s. I think that’s part of the reason why he loves it so much.”
“There’s just a part of my being that feels like I stepped out of the 1920s. I can’t let go of that,” Bob said. “Maybe I’m romanticizing the past.”
Made to connect
After reaching the center of the meadow, Bob and Eva begin heading toward its far end. There’s no trail here to follow. The tall grass brushes their shins as they push forward.
When they first started the search for the Skyline, they’d stay out for weeks at a time. This trip Eva has to get back to her summer job at a gelato shop. And, Bob suspects, she misses her boyfriend.
They walk in silence across the tall grass toward the edge of the forest.
“The physical part of the trail isn’t what matters — it’s just a strip of dirt,” Eva said. “But I think what makes it really significant is knowing that just some dirt has the power to hold so much history and so many lives going down that experiencing the woods, experiencing just being there.”
Bob has enough food packed in the VW bus for another couple of nights. He’d gladly stay longer with Eva. It’s the end of summer, the last trip of the season, and perhaps the last on their quest to rediscover the lost Skyline.
When Bob first learned of the Skyline, Eva was in middle school; she’s now leaving Oregon for college.
“She’s going to go off to college and she’s going to have her own life,” Bob said. “Sure we’ll camp, but our roles will change, and yeah….” He pauses and looks down for a moment and swallows. “I’m going to miss her a lot.”
They reach the edge of the meadow. Ahead of them the forest stretches as far as the eye can see, and somewhere in the shadows are blazes in tree trunks, and log cabins silently collapsing, reclaimed by the woods.
They could go on and find more. There is always more. But for now, it is time to turn back. Jobs and school and lowland duties await.
“In the most literal sense, Skyline is a thing that’s made to connect,” Eva said. “It’s something that takes you where you need to go and still can even after years of being discarded. You can always choose to come back to something, even if it’s labeled as lost. You can always choose to find things again, and I think that’s a beautiful thing.”