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Linking Hammond Trail [photo of Sungnome Madrone]
From Widow White Creek to STrawberry Creek

by ARNO HOLSCHUH

IT'S A GREAT WORK SITE, THAT'S FOR SURE."

Heavy equipment operator Matt Smith turns around and scans the horizon: To the west is Clam Beach, to the north is Trinidad Head and to the east are bluffs dotted with lupines. To the south is a long stretch of half-finished trail winding up a slope to Vista Point.

That is the Hammond Trail and its supporters are about to celebrate another victory: A section connecting two already existing stretches is nearing completion. After September you'll be able to walk the entire northern half of the trail -- from Letz Avenue on the north side of Widow White Creek in McKinleyville to Strawberry Creek just north of Clam Beach County Park. The section within Clam Beach was completed just this spring.

Trail users can already walk from the southern half, from its southern terminus at the Hammond Bridge north to the south side of Widow White Creek. A summer footbridge over the creek for hikers, which will connect the trail into one whole, is planned for 2002 or 2003. Horses, bikers, rollerbladers and stroller pushers would have to follow another as yet unfinished trail on the Mad River's bank back south to Murray Road and north on Letz Avenue to meet up with the hiker trail on the north side of Widow White Creek. There is no marked trail to connect the two sections, although one could walk on the beach north to Clam Beach and pick the trail up there again.

The trail's growth hasn't been easy. It was started in 1979 by Humboldt County, the Coastal Conservancy and Caltrans. The intention was to have the route follow the Hammond/Little River railroad grade from the Hammond Bridge over the Mad River to Clam Beach.

The grade was reasonably level, broad and -- most importantly -- allowed the trail builders to acquire the right-of-way for the entire length of the trail from a single landowner, Trueman Vroman. Vroman had purchased it from Louisiana-Pacific, which had acquired it from the original owners, the Hammond Lumber Co.

But mother nature didn't cooperate. The mouth of the Mad River began migrating northward in 1981, allowing waves from the ocean to break on the coastal bluffs that carried the railroad grade. In 1993 Caltrans put down rip rap, an anti-erosion material made of quarried rock, to stop the river from washing out the freeway above Clam Beach, but the damage was done: Waves had washed out large parts of the grade from Vista Point south to Widow White Creek.

The setback was almost the end of the Hammond Trail project. Faced with the prospect of finding a new route and securing right-of-way from multiple landowners, by 1985 the county was ready to give up. The trail had only been completed from the bridge in Arcata to Knox Cove at the end of Murray Road in McKinleyville.

"That's when the Redwood Community Action Agency got involved," said Sungnome Madrone (photo at top). Madrone is the director of the Natural Resources Services division of RCAA, a nonprofit private corporation, which stepped in to fill the vacuum left by the county.

It was slow going. In 1985 RCAA started a feasibility study. It would be eight years before the agency was able to complete another section of trail and continue the trail's progress northward.

"For eight years we met with private landowners, all the government agencies and all the user groups to determine the best rerouting of the trail," Madrone said.

The most difficult facet of rerouting was finding private landowners willing to allow the trail to use their land.

"Originally, I had lots of concerns," said property owner Bud Slagle. Worried that strangers would have access to his backyard, potentially causing trouble or disturbing him, Slagle was initially opposed to the idea. It was only the perseverance of Madrone, he said, that made him -- and other landowners along the route -- reconsider.

"When I first met him," Slagle said, "I didn't want the trail going through. But I changed my mind." Madrone told Slagle how the trail could actually clean up his property and make it safe by discouraging transients from using it as a campground.

"We have 35 acres, a couple ponds, some trees. And they [the transients] camp out up there." Slagle said he hopes the trail will attract "more upscale people" and help drive away transients he does not want using his property.

Madrone said landowners had other concerns, such as racing motorcycles. The solution? Put obstacles at the trailheads that make it difficult or impossible to get a motorcycle through.

But Madrone's most effective solution to residents' concerns has been patience. Working with residents and taking their concerns seriously has done a lot to convince them to cooperate, Madrone said.

"He does have patience," Slagle said. He admits to being skeptical of Madrone at first, but eight years later he counts him as a "good friend" -- so much so that he has hired Madrone as a consultant.

Today, Slagle is looking forward to the Hammond Trail being completed.

"I have a bike and it'll be nice to have access to Clam Beach."

Slagle won't be limited to a bike. Trail users also hike, rollerblade, jog and ride a horse. That's what makes the trail special, said the trail's project supervisor, Chris Turner.

"This trail is an important project because it is the premier -- really the only -- multiuse trail in Humboldt County or even this region of California," Turner said.

Being a multiuse trail is more than a matter of carrying that label. The trail's design and construction has several nuances to allow for varied users. There are shoulders made of rock for equestrians and hikers and a paved central path for bicycles and rollerbladers. The trail has been made wide enough to allow families to go hiking with baby strollers.

One section of trail where bicyclists might disobey posted speed limits and spook horses have been left unpaved to discourage excessive speed, but most of the trail has been paved to accommodate rollerbladers. And 90 percent of the slopes have been kept mild enough for people in wheelchairs to navigate.

Turner knows all those details intimately as he is responsible for supervising the physical work done on the trail. He knows that what looks to the layman like a seamless ribbon is really the product of a long and involved process, including as many as four layers of material.


[photo of Matt Aaron] Crewmember Matt Aaron operating a soil compaction machine called a Vibraplate.


For the portion of trail that's being completed today, trail crews had to create a bed by excavating dirt on the uphill side and filling it in downhill of the trail. Then they laid a cloth followed by a honeycomb-like plastic webbing called "cellular confinement material" that keeps the dirt in place. That layer is covered by another of cloth and, finally, gravel is put down and compacted. The final product is a trail that costs more than $80 a foot and which Turner estimates will be around "100 years or more."

Trail building is serious construction business and the people wearing hardhats and operating the heavy machinery certainly look professional. Not so, Turner says. While the workers are able and hard-working, very few are being paid; they are almost all volunteers.

Sometimes Turner has a crew assembled for him by groups like the Humboldt Trail Coalition, which links volunteers with trail projects. Occasionally he'll have a group from the Sheriff's Work Alternative Program, which puts low-risk inmates to work.

Right now he has an AmeriCorps crew, people who have dedicated a year of their lives to community service in return for hard work, $15 day and a the promise of a $4,275 scholarship toward future studies or student loans.

"They do competent work, pick up fast. They're smart and capable," said Turner of his crew. None of them arrived on the job knowing how to build a trail, but they do almost all the work, he said. That includes digging, laying brick, watering soil for better compaction and operating miniature backhoes and gas-powered soil compressors.

Then there are a few jobs involving larger heavy equipment that have to be left to career construction workers like Matt Smith.


[photo of AmeriCorps Crew] [photo of Chimberly Carter and Clare Seagraves]

The group of AmeriCorps Crew members (left) and AmeriCorps members Chimberly Carter and Clare Seagraves.


The AmeriCorps crew working at Vista Point had previously worked with at-risk youth in Reno, tutored elementary school kids in San Marcos and built houses in Spokane. Crew member Clare Seagraves of Portsmouth, Va., said, "This has been my favorite project. The sponsors are awesome and the people are really cool here."

Crewmate Chimberly Carter agreed. Carter, from Dallas, Texas, said that the people she had met in Humboldt County have been very generous.

"They give so much of themselves -- and so much to the project, just to see it completed." She said she and other crew members have received free food, bowling and rafting.

"Humboldt County has been good to us," she said.

Turner said he hopes tourists will make use of the trail and come away with similar positive feelings.

"It's key in our area, in relation to dwindling natural resources extraction industries, to balance our industrial (economic base) by providing a tourist infrastructure." He said the trail could encourage visitors stay in the area a little longer, see the area a little more completely, have a beneficial experience, "then relay that home -- Humboldt County can actually be destination."

Economic potential aside, the trail should really be about improving life for county residents, Turner said.

"It's a quality of life indicator that people can get out and recreate in this area. People will have nonvehicle access to points of recreation where they can go fishing, surfing, sight-seeing or be out on the beach," he said.

"Once it's completed, it will be a model for the rest of Humboldt County and the surrounding area as to what a multi-use trail can really provide the community."

 

Interested in helping the Hammond Trail or other trails around Humboldt County? Call the RCAA at 269-2065 or the Humboldt Trails Coalition at 269-2064.


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