Oregon club using hand tools to clear wilderness trail

The sharp teeth of the cross-cut saw carve like a file through the thick fir log to the rhythm of Jason Middleton and Aaron Babcock pushing and pulling this antique tool of the backwoods. “We’d already be through it but we hit a knot,” Babcock says.

The knot proves to be no match for the seasoned saw, and the split log sloughs into the Middle Fork Trail, where Gabe Howe joins the men in hauling the log away to make way on the trail. That’s 1 down, 14,999 to go.

Babcock, Howe and other members of the Siskiyou Mountain Club are embarking on an ambitious task of reclaiming a historic 27-mile hiking loop through the Sky Lakes Wilderness Area in the southern Cascade Range of Oregon that is blocked with an estimated 15,000 blown-down trees, including thousands within 2008’s Middle Fork fire zone.

Three SMC crews will each log 10-day hitches in the wilderness area, armed only with cross-cut saws, axes and other hand tools, because chain saws and other mechanized tools are banned in federally designated wilderness areas.

They’ll be joined by volunteers as they work their way all summer from the Middle Fork Trailhead through the long loop created by a suite of other conjoining trails. “I think it’s a reasonable goal, but there are features that are out of our control,” says Babcock, a SMC crew leader.

It’s all part of the nonprofit club’s credo of stepping into Southern Oregon’s backcountry to reclaim wilderness trails left impassable amid years of U.S. Forest Service maintenance backlogs, particularly those where a lack of post-wildfire work could see historic trails disappear.

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