Too Deep In The Forest

Adapting to the life of a trail builder


Deep in the forest, far beyond the roads and cell phone coverage we have all grown to depend on is a reality that will test your independence and spirit.  It is indifferent to our needs for comfort and quick to bring this to the forefront of experience.  This is not a world for those who cannot enjoy the rawness of nature and the discomfort that sometimes is its companion.  It demands the courage to grin and laugh and sing our triumphs verse our complaints.

Similar to this challenge is the need to peer through the impossibly dense growth that inhabits some of these wild places and piece together glimpses of beauty.  A twisted Madrone struggling to free itself frimg_01811om tangles of inch and a half poison oak.  Meshed 9ft Chamise brush choking a small stand of Bay Trees.  The tip of a 7ft mossy boulder gasping for its last breath above the sea of brush.  The vision of a mossy stone wall to traverse an impossibly steep ravine.

Sometimes, the only way through is the crawl through ghostly rabbit like passages where even light struggles to penetrate.

The slow process of many layers of study and exploration to refine an alignment may seem like a undesirable tease for those ready to build.  While I also share the love of the build, a img_01291trail built without this level of thoughtful exploration and crafting (blind flagging) is a passage sold short of the magic that environments can share for generations.  For those who understand the complex hierarchy of considerations that go into design, this part of the trail development is an engaging and rich experience.

Part of the vision of Forest Trails Alliance is to train and inspire those who wish to be trail designers who represent communities all over Norther California so land managers and agency representatives who don’t have either the budget or experience to do this are supported by people who do.  Trails for years have been misunderstood and categorically placed solidly into an engineer perspective which often focuses on tactical considerations like consistent grade or objective focused routing.  Trails are not transit objective based efforts like roads, they are more like music or art where the intent is to provide an experience.

Help shape great outdoor experiences!




The Double Edge of Adventure

Although it was only 3:30, bruised dark clouds and biting sleet fore told of the coming of night.  I was alone, two partially snow obscured tracks were all I had to follow.  I was wet to the bone and my hands and feet had lost feeling half an hour ago.  This was not good.


Excitement Builds

This adventure started with high spirits.  Blue sky’s foretold of another exaggerated storm forecast.  Individuals who thrive on the taste of a quest were rallying from the foothills and central valley for this new epic loop.   While some are wary of the unknown, others push into it. Today it was Mike, Brian, Pete, Tom, Jeff and I.  All great company.


Strange penis rock along trail.

Our team rallied and set logistics like clockwork.  Soon we were racing through the forest on the incredible Pioneer Trail like frisky cats.  Our first test came within 15 min of the trucks when my tire rolled off the rim in what is called a Burp.  Without an inner-tube, the tire relies on the connection to the rim to hold air.  After I wiped most of the dirt and pine needles from this tentative spot, we tried to hand set the tire with a cigar sized pump.  Not till five of us carefully each pinched a segment of the tire to the rim did we get it to catch.  Our first hurdle overcome!


incredible view of Bear Valley

The morning was bright and fresh.  We stopped at the top of the Bear Valley descent at ‘7 turns’.  This was the first trail contract FTA accomplished with the USFS.  To keep the trail from crossing the busy highway, this new trail segment was built including 7 intense switchbacks 5+ft tall out of stone and sweat down an narrow steep section of property.  14 years later they are still bomber and we wove down the hill like a flock of synchronized sparrows.


Bundled and ready for extraction

The lower part of this fast descent follows the old highway 20. Old shaded asphalt broken by sections of scree filled wildness.  A good grip on the handlebars and intent focus on threading baby head size rocks is needed, with of course, wind whipping speed.  Near the bottom, we come to a huge flume suspended on thousands of timber like a massive centipede.  A short pause becomes an distressing wait till the hunched form of Pete comes around the corner with Brian walking his bike.  His form is distorted with his right arm a mutated lump under his spandex shirt.  A distinct bulge highlights the broken collar bone but he is in good spirits.  In 10 minutes, extraction has been planned and Brian and Pete disappear behind the now group of four.


Beautiful Bear River crossing

Bear Valley is a magical place.  On the NE end, the trail crosses Bear River over a bridge at a stunning waterfall.  This sacred spot is diminished by two observations, an incredible plaque, commemorating the trail lay on the ground revealing a poorly prepared thinset spot on a large boulder and a Oak Tree which had fallen across the road and bridge.  The oak had been cut out of the road but three small 4″ limbs were left obstructing the passage to the bridge.  A sad reflection on the value of this great trail.  Bitter winds and the first rains pressed us forward.


hidden tree house

The trail to the Yuba which runs along the Bowman Lake Rd is gnarly and gushing with water crossing and running down the trail.  Tom and I had helped build this trail 20 years ago with Bill Haire.  A poor relationship to hydrology but fun.  At the bottom we choose asphalt to recover lost time vs the trail to Fuller Lake.  We pass many people evacuating the high country with boats and trailered off road vehicles.  At some point, we dart down a path and come to a massive tree house.  We stop for lunch and take shelter in a small enclosed loft space of the fourth floor 80ft above the forest floor.  The room gently rolls with the wind and the window reveals the first snowflakes of the day.

We finally reach a point on our GPS and drop down off the ridge to the thunder of water as a 16ft wide ditch dumps water into a hole at the base of a cliff.  The tunnel goes straight through the mountain to Fuller.  We spin 4 miles along this ditch to the Camp 19 road.  We are now very remote on a finger ridge above the Yuba.  Out of the gloom suddenly races a pickup and I tense for the encounter.  It is an old face in a forest service truck.  Ron, a USFS law enforcement legend, leans out the window with his big grin.  Missing was his cowboy hat, but it seemed we all had a connection with this man.  Mine was staring at the black hole of his steady pistol during one misunderstanding and another with his investigation of timber theft in Forest City which left me with positive feelings for this high sierra maverick.  He was hunting a group of poachers alone in the harsh backcountry slick dirt roads but did not know of our trail we sought.

We were now at the critical part of the expedition.  The ridge had suffered a massive forest fire and then the many probes to salvage the timber.  The elusive Camp 19 trail intersected one of these many roads but which one.  The trail departs the main ridge and descends to a narrow hogs back spine which is only 30ft or so wide.  Our GPS showed us right above this control point butdrtfjh the small clearing where this road ended revealed no trail head.  Wind whipped the 8ft tall brush wildly and I could sense the fear on the edge of the shouted words.  We had less than 2 miles to Maybert Road but were running out of time and light.  Jeff called for immediate retreat but I dreaded the long climb back 12 miles to the main road.  We pushed through brush wading through mountain misery and did a quick cross section search of the bluff to no avail.  Mike and I tried our phone to rally a pick up to no avail.  It was time to flee!

Jeff and Tom were in the lead and when we came to the turn onto the ditch their tracks in the snow continued on.  No response to my shouts so Mike and I followed their tracks knowing we needed to stick together.  In a half hour, with the wind driven snow obscuring the tracks ahead we came to Bowman Lake Road.  A black expensive audi rolled out of the gloom and then pulled off the side of the road just past my sodden form.  As I began to roll towards the promise of help the car suddenly accelerated away.  I could hear the fear in Mikes voice as he asked how far to a structure.  I knew he was right, we needed shelter and fast, even if it meant breaking into a house.

The descent worsened our condition as windchill increased and grit and slush made visibility impossible.  As we neared Fuller once again, I smelled smoke, Bonfire2and we ducked under an imposing gate.  Just down the dirt road, out in a broad meadow, was a massive 10ft tall bomb fire.  We plunged off the road and road through the thick snow covered grasses to stumble toward the fire.  A single Hispanic fellow stared at us as we nearly stepped into the fire.  Blooms of steam erupted from our clothing and Mike fell to the damp grass and removed his shoes to clutch his bare feet.  My fingers began to thaw and I experienced pain so intense I moaned  with eyes squinted for 5 minutes till it subsided.

Two fellows in a massive truck crashed out into the meadow soon after.  They had seen us four hours ago on our way up.  They agreed to give us a ride to our truck or companions on their way to Grass Valley.  In my delirium, I admit I do not recall their names but they were fascinated by our bikes and we stood chatting a bit before they noticed my quivering voice and shaking arms.  As we drove up past the NID house near 20 I spotted Jeff and Tom’s bikes.  The Power House keeper Justin had driven them to our truck on 20.  We said good bye to our saviors from the meadow and Justin’s wife welcomed us inside to their warm wood stove as we waited for our crews return.  The exuberance of two incredibly excited kids and a cup of hot coco began to bring life back inside of me.  We made it.

What makes people seek the edge of existence?  Do our lives represent such a mundane track that this testing of our capabilities is needed to feel alive and vital?  What drives people to discover the unknown or to test their merit in such a challenging way?  I know not the answer but I do feel more connected and appreciative of life.  And I am sure as hell not going to let this mystery of this trail fade to grey.  Come spring….

Mexican Mine Trail Discovered


Zachi’s favorite reading material

In an old board clad room in a cabin built in 1876, my comrades and I prepared for a grand adventure.  A coffee stained topo map, faded with age, was stapled onto the wall.  Early morning light filtered through cracked and warped glass and made it just possible to follow the historic thin dotted trail with my calloused finger .  As the faded line reached the end of the finger ridge I saw multiple shovel and pick symbols for mines.  By the concentration of elevation lines I could tell it was steep.  The alignment hung to this knife like ridge as it plunged over 2000ft straight down to Goodyears Bar.

For a mountain cyclists, this was the equivalent of a treasure map.  Joe, a Forest City resident, whose 92 year old face was as article-0-1BE8A996000005DC-827_634x239wrinkled as the bound map he handed me, had causally passes this across to me like yesterdays paper.  Brightly colored with the different geologic formations which lay beneath the ground, the map was littered with branching representations of existing underground mines.  But more important, this four foot wide ancient artifact, a 3 3/4 topo, still showcased all the mule trails that created a commercial web of connectivity between mines and communities.

Fellow adventures in Forest City, my community

2 years later, on this spring morning, 2002, my friends and I would brave the unforgiving wildness and trace this faded route on our bikes.  The goal was simple, to rediscover ways to traverse great spans of space from town to town in the ways people did for generations, in the forests, with the smells of moist mountain missery and sounds of tree filtered wind.

Ruby View

Incredible view from top of Ruby Bluffs

Many brush choked dirt roads branching randomly and frequently made navigation challenging.  By lunch we had made it Ruby Bluffs, a strange balded bluff with striking cliffs, 100s of feet tall, which fell away to the tops of towering pines below.  From a prominent point we gazed down across the Rock Creek drainage to the far Mexican Mine Ridge.  Even from this distance, the descending knife ridge looked like a menacing tail of a sleeping dragon.  Mid point on the tail, a light green wart rose from a open area.  It was hard to understand what we were seeing with the turquoise color and bold shape.  Our excitement grew.


Ruby Mine in its glory in the 1800s

An hour later we descended radically down a mile long graveled road at speeds unreasonably fast for an exploratory.  None of us wanted to ease off into the chasing plume of dust, and a broad 180 degree turn swept us too wide like a water skier tethered to arc of disaster. Unable to rein in our arc, we were only saved by an small offshoot road which we plunged down skidding to a stop.  Huge semi sized snow blowers with gaping augured mouths greeted us along with other mining equipment from the Ruby Mine.  After a short map consult we found a small path following a power line North to a foot bridge to the Brown Bear Mine.  Although there was no one around, the three story elevator shaft frame lofted plumes of silent dirt into the air.  This meant, three miles away, 5ft twin fans mounted on the closed portal doors of the Ruby Mine, were operating to provide fresh air to the workers.  Just beyond was the road.

We finally found the last turn to the Mexican Ridge, the twin track dirt road twisted between looming oaks and encroaching brush.  Along the way, we noticed a huge irregular gaping pit 40 x 100ft.  The lazy sides were 15ft deep and we paused only briefly before we launched into it like a skate boarder in a pool.  The surface was still too soft for speed, and our push back out tempered our fire.


Monster Trees at the top of Mexican Mine Ridge

The last segment again narrowed after a fork that branched right to Slug Canyon.  Our track was gutted by erosion and it soon twisted sharply uphill and we had to gear down.  The brushy open areas fell behind and we entered a thicker forest.  We topped several short hills and as we came up to the last rise, darker shapes to the sides caught our attention.  They were monster trees.  In all the years of exploring the Sierras, I had not encountered any old trees before.  Instead I had seen many historic photos showing barren landscapes stretching for miles without a single tree, stripped clean for fuel, building or mine shoring.  Stretching out my arms, my 6ft wing span was dwarfed.  We leap froged our spans around the tree more than four times.  WOW.

We lost track of the count of these lurking giants as we reached the end.  The old road petered out in a round quiet clearing.  A narrow four foot path left the far side and we lowered our seats in anticipation.  Right off, the trail pitches exceeded 30%, and challenged the braking capacity of our calipers.  Popping up over the occasional small log was much more difficult at this pitch.  Then the trail got serious and the pitch increased to 50%.  The deep pine needles wadded up and the brakes had to be burped to relieve the bulging growths.  This sudden acceleration was barely contained before the next needed wheel burp.   Another bend revealed a steeper 200ft segment and this exceeded capacity and the front tires began to slip.  Willie went down, a mere foot in front of me and I pitched left to avoid his surfing bike and body and caught a 3″ fir tree with my bar ends square but giving to my body enough to reduce the pain and also stop my flight.


Massive waterfalls along Rock Creek’s descent

A dramatic run out at the bottom propelled us into a huge clearing.  Little shards of green flakes littered the ground but provided a smooth transition as we rolled uphill into the shade of a four story outcrop of Serpentine.  At the top, looking north, Grizzly Peak confronted us with four hundred foot stone columns that towered above the North Fork of the Yuba River.  I hunkered down and peered over the edge to see 120% pitches of scree disappear into woods 600ft down.  Another short break and were off, down a more relaxed but intense series of rises and drops.


Early pioneers Borg and Zachi

Occasional piles of mining timber, moss covered and rotting, waited beside the trail, apparently forgotten.  At the bottom of a saddle, on one side, was an old trail with piles of timber and debris scatted from an collapsed structure.  The old hard rock mine, played out, was abandoned and left for more responsible people to clean up apparently.  On the other side, a low growling thunder crept from the depths of Rock Creek.  A faint mist leaked up through the oaks from the narrow gorge 600ft below.  We would explore Jug Waterfalls on another adventure.


Past FTA President Jeff Brooks building bridge approaches on the N Yuba Trail at the bottom where Mexican Mine Trail will intersect

The 18″ foot path was expertly laid through a tangled sprawl of outcrops and oak.  Technical  falling off switchbacks challenged us as well as following the faint signature that remained of the route. Our group would pause at each challenge, for entertainment or aid. We counted over 40 switchbacks by the time we finally made it down to an active ditch on the back side of Goodyears Bar.  The trail from there, which tapers down the side slope on the south side of ridge, was difficult to find but we made it out along side the bridge at the road.


Post adventure story telling around the campfire in Forest City

There were grins and bruises.  A swim in the river and a long ride back up Mountain House Road ended that day.  But the experience captured my imagination and that of my friends.  We would spend the next four years hiking this ridge, probing, exploring, laughing and bleeding as we began to lay the bread crumbs of what will be the new Mexican Mine Trail.  There are many half forgotten sacred places scattered about the rich and diverse forests of the Sierras.  I am honored to share this one with you.

MEXICAN MINE Trail Log Expedition


Trail Log Expedition

This massive 20 mile alignment, like a slow moving 7 year train, has finally made it to the station.  The trail is designed to work in tandem with a recently completed extension of the Truckee Ditch Trail to provide an epic experience of a 43 mile trail loop or 27 mile Shuttle assist ride back to Downieville.  With the 4 mile approach to the start of Mexican recently completed, our efforts were now on preparing the trail log.


Blair records way points from the GPS device.

The Trail Log, a linear list of features along the trail, will help us not only create the construction plan but it will also help develop the budget.  In addition to cataloging bridges, cobbled drainages, switchbacks, signage, rock walls and other prescriptions, our team will photograph the waterfalls, huge rock formations, old growth trees and epic vistas to highlight the attractions of this route.


Ruedy, checking out an old trail sign.

Also, the trail ‘corridor’, a wide study area that follows the general route of the trail needed the flagging strengthened and adapted for undulations and drainages.   The ribbon is designed to biodegrade and we did not expect this to take so long.  This four person team effort is detail rich and exhausting, each step a potential body slam on the slippery 30-100% side-slopes.


40ft around trees are common.

The extreme canyon that Rock Creek flows down is severe and boasts several mega waterfalls.  The steep pitch and difficult access explains the reason there are still massive 40ft around trees.  After documenting over 40 massive trees, Ruedy put his foot down saying ‘enough’!

Back in the days of marajana prohibition, people actually went to extreme lengths to hide their grows in remote places, one waterfall still sported old poly pipe, chewed by various animals and randomly leaping from leafy cover as it twisted downhill to the old grow site.

The BIG waterfall at the confluence of three drains was 20150904_143247exceptional.  Massive house sized boulders frame the gentle flow of water. Huge cravass caves shrouded by moss and ferns are partially hidden by curtains of falling water.  We eat lunch on a 40ft ledge 20150904_142710where water at higher levels launches off a four story edge.

From the waterfall, the trail meanders along an old 24″ ditch supported by crusty dry stack rockwork.  It passes adjacent a 5 story looming cliff and more massive trees before day lighting back on the top of the narrow knife like ridge top.  A 50ft tall serpentine rock formation projects from the ridge saddle resembling a rhino horn casting an afternoon shadow across piles 20150904_171247of crushed quartz and other mining relics.

From here, the long sinewy fast segments are replaced by more technical twisty trail as it crabs carefully down this narrow spine.  The trail resembles the Labyrinth with narrow squeezes between boulders and tricky twists and switchbacks.

At this point, our group focus begins to get eroded by the reality that dark will soon overtake us on this remote and dangerous

Buel, always the joker!

Buel, always the joker!

mountain side.  The sun has long since disappeared over the rim of Cal-Ida, long shadows replaced by a general gloom.  It is decided that short cutting directly down to the trail head where our second car is, is the best option.  The forest is fairly open but the steep  grade is 100% and gravel lightly covered with organics.  This is helpful as we slip and slide down the slope catching small trees along the way for resting.  At the vary bottom, in part blinded by lights at the road, my route takes me directly through 5ft blackberrys.  The discomfort from my blisters is muted by the raking pain of the thorns as I plow a route towards the waiting beer cooler only 100ft away.

Buel, Blair, Ruedy and I (zachi) meet Jeb here.  He owns the mining claim at the trail head.  We all share some good stories before climbing into the van for the long shuttle to retrieve the upper vehicles.  It is 10pm when we arrive back at base camp in Forest City.  Cant wait to review all the new data.

Creating a Recreational COMMERCIAL VORTEX

In most successful trail communities, the foundation of the drive to develop trail infrastructure comes from businesses.  Businesses represent succ-gdfessful economic planners on a community micro scale.  They make long term investments in their community not only to attract more business, but to let the community know they are stakeholders.  This often is the difference between an internet purchase and a drive to town.

Our community does not have a ski resort to dominate this conversation like Vail, Crested Butte, Park City, Mammoth or the Grand Tetons.

A ski resort with its economic river of gold

A ski resort with its economic river of gold

But we can thrive from the support of many types of smaller businesses.  Accommodations, outdoor retailers, gyms, pubs, restaurants, bike stores as well as from businesses who do not have direct benefit other than their love of our community.

As we complete the final paperwork for the new 16 miles of trails around Scotts Flat Lake, we look outward to our community partners for support to promote this project and begin the knit the fabric of interests that make our community great.
There are many new businesses that have pledged support.  In the next weeks we will begin to acknowledge these partners and welcome more to the table.  indexMany of you know Hansen Brothers but may not know they were huge supporters of last years suspension bridge project with over $3500 worth of contributions.  Infrastructure is not cheap and the new suspension bridge planned for Scott’s Flat Lake will run around $600,000 alone.

We are forming a business advisory group to help promote and develop this business initiative.  We need your ideas and support to develop an effective sponsorship program that will support this and other shovel ready projects.  Contact for more information how you can participate!



Robust system of non motorized routes in Crested Butte

The vision of a community similar to Park City or Crested Butte which supports active recreation by an expansive network of outdoor trail experiences is with in our reach.  These vibrant communities not only thrive from the robust tourism but attract families and businesses to move there for these experiences.

Our community already enjoys an adjacent relationship to the massive Tahoe National Forest, but there is no connectivity or

Line of cars waiting to drop of children

Line of cars waiting to drop of children

network to support people to visit our community and stage wonderful experiences.  Families, visitors and outdoor enthusiasts not only currently grope for local meaningful outdoor experiences but put their lives at risk getting around our small town.  It takes only moment to reflect upon the hundreds cars lined up every morning of parents who feel they must drive their children the short distance to school to realize how far from basic human needs we have strayed.

For years, I worked within the local land trust towards these means.  Land Trusts are valuable instruments to secure easements and open space. As one of the youngest advisory board members by 20 years, it was clear to me that I could contribute to our efforts by rallying a younger demographic to get more involved. To do this, it was clear we needed engaging trails that inspired use and the ability for people to be more personally involved physically.  Creating ways for people to engage creates long term stakeholders for maintaining the trail and a distinct reduction in cost (as much as 90% less expensive)

At first, I felt the bike club I started in 1986, BONC (originally called Fat Tire Samurai), would be ideal.  But a bike club would not represent the greater trails community and the new club leadership was inspired more about riding than the huge investment and professional conduct needed to develop trail building capacity. (equipment, insurances, time, training etc…) And that is how Forest Trails Alliance was born.


Trail Building for Montano De Oro State Park

27 years of trail obsession have taught us a thing or two.  Now a recognized trail organization in sustainable design and innovation, FTA has grown both in capacity and reputation.  Our fleet of equipment, unformed volunteers and unique skill sets has appealed to land-managers regionally and trail professionals internationally.  This is the third year FTA will be completely booked for contracting trail construction.  These contracts bring great revenue to our community projects and unique training opportunities to our members.

Now it is time for us all to come together around this vision.  Land Trust, Trail Organization, Trail user groups, Civic Organizations, Businesses, Families and land managers.  Two tiers of participation are needed, professional planning and development, and vocal and fiscal promotion of this vision by its citizens.  In the absence of this division, individuals without the commitment, qualifications or accountability have disrupted efforts and projects with drama and personal judgements.  While greater community involvement is needed, it is most needed in rallying behind the vision and helping generate the funding and support.

I would like to suggest while the politics of Nevada City get sorted out on the little half mile path to Sugar Loaf, that we ramp up and support the 16 miles of new trail we developed for Scotts Flat Lake areascottsflat with NID or any other shovel ready project .  We already designed and constructed 5 miles of great new trail.  This great trail project is just out of town with possible future connections to downtown Nevada City.