“Do you know what this is?” asked Driz Cook, as he held up in his hand something that looked like the axe Jack Nicholson wielded in The Shining. Standing in the parking lot of a campground in the hills above Big Bear Lake in late July, my friend Vince and I confessed we had no idea. When a ten-year-old girl piped up with the correct answer – “Pulaski” – I knew that I needed to pay close attention to Cook’s instructions. (Later, though, I learned this ten-year-old was actually Cook’s daughter, and she had spent many days doing trail work with her dad. Still, I felt sheepish for not knowing my trail clearance tools better.)
As an avid hiker and occasional mountain biker, I have spent some time on trails in our local mountains. However, like most of the estimated two million annual visitors to the San Bernardino National Forest, I can’t say that during my visits I have ever given much thought about how those trails were built.
Yet these trails have all been built by someone, sometimes through mass efforts, such as the 1930s New Deal era program known as the Civilian Conservation Corps which put nearly two million young men to work in this nation with the purpose of bettering our ability to enjoy nature through the building of trails, campsites and recreational facilities.
According to the Conference of California Historical Societies, during the summer of 1933 CCC crews built 850 miles of truck trails and 212 miles of firebreaks in the state of California. The stamp of the CCC can be seen in everything from the campsites at Chantry Flats to the trail that leads up Mount San Jacinto above Palm Springs.
Nearly 100 years have passed, however, since this great public works improvement effort was spurred by the Great Depression. In those years, the U.S. Forest Service has continued to improve upon the groundwork laid by these young men. Yet, the efforts have sometimes been slow and are often bogged down by governmental bureaucracy.
This effort to add a new trail in the Bear Valley was the first in 20 years, according to Cook and his organization, the Big Bear Trails Foundation. On this particular Wednesday afternoon high in the hills above Bear Valley, our group of five adults and two children had more modest goals: to refine a “rough cut” of a trail that had been plowed less than one year ago. While the full trail stretched for nearly 10 miles, our assigned stretch consisted of a straightaway of about 100 feet carved from manzanita and low lying white fir.
“Okay, so envision what you would do if you were on your bike and you were approaching this stretch of trail,” Cook told our group. “This stretch here is straight, and usually if you are on a bike you want there to be S-turns and berms to ride up. You like jumps. You want choices, too, because perhaps you don’t want to jump.”
When I first looked at the four-foot wide stretch of cleared dirt near 2N10 (a popular fire road that transverses the mountains between Bear Mountain resort in the East and Aspen Glen Campground in the West), I thought the trail looked fine. Yet this “rough cut” was just that — rough. And it was our job to add some character to this small stretch of trail.
Not many people had ridden this section of the trail, Cook told me. And those who did had told him that the trail thus far had “too much downhill,” “too much uphill,” was “too narrow,” was “too wide”, and was “too easy” and “too hard”. Clearly, we had our work cut out for us.
The idea for this trail sprung from what is known as the 2003 Old Fire that burned much of the acreage in and around the Bear Valley. Firefighters at this time created a firebreak that ranged from 20-300 feet wide. This land was then cleared after the fire, leaving a swath of land that paralleled the 2N10 fire road. It was in this area that the nonprofit Big Bear Trails Foundation decided to pursue the building of the trail we were working on. From discussion to completion, the whole process took under three years — record time for the creation of a 10-mile trail on public lands.
And here we were putting the finishing touches on the work that was completed for less than one dollar per foot by Bellfree Contractors, a Southern California company contracted to carve a four-foot cut through an area marked out by Cook and by Jeanette Granger of the U.S. Forest Service. Prior to their work, Foundation board members Siri Eggebraten and Randall Putz garnered support from the International Mountain Biking Association, whose efforts have proven instrumental in getting this dream realized, according to Cook.
Still, even with a pulaski in one hand and a McLeod in the other, I felt inept in my attempts. What I did feel competent doing was creating “options” when a rider would come to a boulder. With my limited skill, I knew that I would not want to mount the boulder with my bike and vault over a one-foot drop into the soft dirt below, so I carved an alternate path around the boulder. But my friend Vince, a more experienced cyclist, suggested that the boulder jump could be a choice for some riders, so I created a more solid landing area for that choice.
The S-curve idea, though, I just didn’t get. When Cook returned to the section Vince and I were working on, he took us back to the entrance area to this trail section and suggested we envision ourselves on our bikes again. “Look ahead at that boulder there,” he said, pointing to the piece of granite where I had been working. “Think about what kind of path you’d want to take to get to that point.”
Seeing the blank look on our faces, Cook began sketching out in the dirt with the edge of a pulaski how an S-curve could be carved into the straight section where we stood. With this pattern now etched in the dirt, Vince and I got to work with the McLeods (another tool of firefighters, akin to a large-toothed rake), pulling back dirt in some areas and pushing it back in other areas.
As the sun began to drop behind the Ponderosa and blue spruce trees, we could see the results of our labor. What had once been a straight line carved in the soil now bore the resemblance of a more interesting S-curve, a curve that would be covered on two wheels in less than one second. We had been working for nearly two hours.
“Someone will ride this trail someday,” Vince consoled me as we walked back to his dust-laden Subaru. “And they will get to this part of the trail and say, ‘Man, that is one fine S-curve.’” A nice thought to be sure.
While the trail had its grand opening celebration on August 17, the work is not done, according to Cook. The eastern sections of the trail that begin near Bear Mountain and continue past Snow Summit are more compacted due to their having sat under a bed of snow during the past winter. The western sections were completed after this last winter’s snow and will need moisture and compaction to make them ridable.
Still, the Facebook page for the Trails Foundation brims with accolades. Under a photo of our day’s work, cyclist Rob Kuhn wrote, “Thanks for the trail work you guys do! It’s really appreciated!” The CCC of the New Deal era is long gone, but at least the spirit of making nature accessible to more people continues.
Chris Davis teaches in the Glendale Unified School District and enjoys spending time on the trails in Big Bear. He wrote this piece to serve as an example of “participatory journalism” for his high school journalism students.