With Angela Panter setting a comfortable place, the hikers trekked through areas burned 15 years ago in the mammoth Biscuit Fire and burned, again, last summer in the huge Chetco Bar Fire.
Panter is president of the Siskiyou Mountain Club, which is more than a group of hiking enthusiasts. Club members work to build and maintain the trails they use in the region’s wilderness areas.
The newly charred landscape near Babyfoot Lake, on the edge of the Kalmiopsis Wilderness about 10 miles southwest of Selma, will be the target of the club’s restoration efforts beginning this spring. That work will be on top of the club’s usual trail clearing and maintenance work.
In the seven years or so of the club’s existence, nearly 120 miles of trails have been cleared by club volunteers, paid interns and staffers. The nonprofit organization has an Ashland address but has members from Josephine County.
Panter says club founder Gabriel Howe several years ago decided to do something about the overgrown trails he and his wife found in the wilderness areas of Southwest Oregon and northern California.
“I think they realized the wilderness areas weren’t being taken care of,” said Panter, who joined the club a few years ago after volunteering one day to help the group clear brush.
The moderately difficult trek of about 5 miles offered vistas stretching from mountains near the coast to jagged peaks south and east of Cave Junction. Babyfoot Lake was slightly frozen over. The lake is an easy hike of a bit more than a mile from the trailhead, but Panter extended the recent hike beyond that.
The trail she took provided a few edge-of-the-world experiences beside steep dropoffs, one difficult descent fit for a billy goat and a bonus off-trail bushwhacking side trip. Along the way, there were downed trees to clamber over, several richly vegetated streamlets to step across and some crunchy snow to walk on.
Chris Friend, a retired state forestry worker from Wilderville, said the fires burned away trees that normally would have blocked views.
“Expansive views,” he said.
The Chetco Fire burned a lot of brush that had been coming back after the Biscuit Fire. That brush included a lot of manzanita bushes, known for their distinctive reddish branches.
Atop one burned-over ridge, Dave Eye, a case manager for disabled persons, found a tiny lone plant rising up out of the blackened rocky soil. He and Panter celebrated by taking pictures of it.
It was the cycle of life on display. Fire is both destructive and creative.
“It’s sad to see it like this, but it needs to happen,” Panter said.
“Ghostly,” someone said, describing the scene.
“Ghostly’s a pretty good word,” Panter replied. “It’s like bittersweet, to see it before and after.”
She looked around.
“These plants worked so hard to get where they got.”
Trekking down off the ridge, the hikers used a burned-over trail that already was eroding from runoff. It had created a channel down the middle of the trail. Brennan said it pointed to the need for early fire restoration work. “Water bars” can be built to divert runoff away from trails.
Once erosion starts, Panter said, “it just feeds on itself.
“It gets bigger and bigger.”
At one point, Eye talked about trail work that involves the use of handheld saws. Chain saws and machinery typically are not allowed in wilderness areas.
A saw, Eye said, “it sings.”
“A chain saw doesn’t sing.”
Mountain bikes aren’t allowed in wilderness areas either, although a bill was recently passed by the U.S. House of Representatives to allow them.
Dave Brennan, a member of the club who works with Panter at outdoor outfitter REI in Medford, said he’s already been in touch with Rep. Greg Walden about the issue. Bike tires can damage trails.
“I’m pretty concerned with it,” Brennan said.
Brennan and Panter hauled out some trash they found during the hike. Up where the van was parked, they bagged a couple diapers left in a fire ring built in the middle of the gravel lot, then dismantled the ring by tossing aside rocks and shoveling out ash. Panter dropped the ash near bushes, as a nutrient.
Panter wondered why someone would make the trek all the way up there only to trash it. She talked about coming back and cleaning up around the lake.