by Jim Hight
A BLACK CORMORANT RODE THE WIND a few inches
above the Mad River. Twisted shore
pines etched the pale sky.
On the far bank a thin peninsula of sand
dunes held its position as nature's levee between river and sea.
The pathway to this remarkable confluence of sea, river and dunes is the four-mile Hammond Trail, which starts in the Arcata Bottom and ends on this coastal panorama in McKinleyville.
The trail is a bikeway between towns, a path to beaches and parks and a great place to walk. It's enormously popular; at mid-morning on a recent weekday, dozens of people were strolling and cycling in the mist. On a sunny weekend, it can be downright crowded.
How many of these trail users ever pause to wonder how this trail came into being? Does the middle-aged woman in blue appreciate the people who wrote grants and hacked through poison oak to create a place for her to walk her dogs? Does the elderly couple recall that years ago, volunteers knocked on doors in the neighborhood trying to convince homeowners to share their exclusive oceanfront yards with the public?
On a recent afternoon, The Journal asked walkers and bicyclists why they used the Hammond Trail. Here, Sari Baker and Mariam Oldridge enjoy a break in the weather.
Probably not. Like most of us, they just enjoy this wonderful wild place and, if feeling particularly grateful, direct their thanks toward higher forces.
Luckily for anyone who uses these pathways to nature, other trailblazers are still at work, envisioning miles of new and restored trails from Trinidad to Fortuna; trails crossing dikes and old logging roads and trails through Cooper Gulch, Martin Slough and other creek basins that furrow the topography of Eureka and Cutten.
They're already working to create a six-mile path following the Mad River from Arcata to Blue Lake. And some trailblazers even hope to resurrect old horse-packing and American Indian routes deep into the Klamath-Trinity mountains.
"Linking trails with existing roads, it's conceivable that you could bike or ride a horse all the way to Redding," said Dick Wild, a leader of California Backcountry Horsemen.
In the trailblazers' ideal scenario, Class 1 trails devoted to non-motorized use, from wheelchairs to horses will link up with new Class 2 paths, which are on the shoulders of county and state roads. As bicycle travel becomes safer and more convenient, they predict more people will leave their cars at home, saving gas and reducing pollution.
A network of trails, they say, would even be good for the economy, making our coastal towns more attractive to tourists and retirees. Some trail advocates talk about Arcata and Eureka becoming like Moab, Utah, a trail hub that draws scads of mountain bikers and hikers.
But getting there from here won't be an easy or smooth ride. Trails are expensive -- at least $100,000 a mile for construction.
Maintenance funds are needed for trash pickup, tree pruning and periodic resurfacing. Trails even cost money before construction begins: the Friends of the Historic Annie & Mary Rail Trail are trying to raise $40,000 for a feasibility study and environmental analysis, the first steps toward creating the trail they envision between Arcata and Blue Lake.
Some conservationists oppose building trails along streams and rivers because of damage to the riparian ecosystems. Such an environmental challenge, in fact, played a part in stopping the Hammond Trail builders from continuing the trail up Widow White Creek in McKinleyville.
But the tallest hurdles trail builders
have to leap are those mounted by landowners whose property sits in their
-- Caregiver Cristy Short and Mary Barney
Landowners have many reasons to be concerned about trails crossing or giving access to their property. Farmers and ranchers don't want to open their land to trespassers and vandals. Timberland owners worry about mountain-biking injuries, homeless encampments and protesters. Homeowners are reluctant to share their secluded backyard vistas with the public.
Dozens of property owners in McKinleyville reacted with anger and hostility after a draft of the new general plan for the area showed miles of new trails crossing private land. The Community Advisory Committee had decided to include every trail ever proposed for the town and environs.
"A lot of these (proposed trails) were totally out of the question, but the committee wanted to let citizens have the final say," said committee member Scott Kelly.
After a fiery public hearing and other input, the planners culled the list of possible trails down to "a perimeter trail linking the Hammond Trail on the west ... and on the east side going through timberland owned primarily by Simpson ... and the Central McKinleyville Trail," Kelly said.
The central trail, or "Midtown Trail" as residents have taken to calling it, would run between Central and McKinleyville avenues, starting at School Road on the south and ending at Murray Road to the north. A quarter-mile section near Railroad Avenue is already planned as part of two subdivisions being developed by JLF Construction.
"I think this Midtown Trail is the will of the community," said JLF owner Jim Furtado.
"It's away from the histle and bustle of downtown. There are lots of bird sounds, ocan sounds. We saw a quail. That was pretty cool."
-- Jennipher, Alda, Christopher and Stephen Catalan
Furtado will assess each buyer a fee to support the trail. He is unsure how the trail will affect home sales, especially those units adjacent to the public path. "It will probably limit who we can sell those units to. Some buyers will like it, some won't."
Trailblazers know that lines on general plan maps won't turn into real pathways unless they are embraced in this way by landowners and developers. McKinleyville's Midtown Trail will only go beyond Furtado's property if other large landowners buy into the concept. And they will doubtlessly be paying attention to how Furtado's sales progress.
In Fortuna, city planners three years ago were eyeing the possibility of creating a trail along Strong's Creek from Newburg Park to Fortuna Boulevard. When developers John and Gene Senestraro proposed a 130-unit subdivision along the way, the city required them to study the idea of incorporating a creekside trail in their plans. But the developers ultimately opposed the idea, citing the loss of several lots and potential dampening of home sales.
"The Planning Commission decided it wasn't a reasonable thing to require," City Manager Dale Neiman said.
In the hills around coastal communities, huge tracts of timberland present opportunities for new trails. Indeed, logging roads are used by many often illegally for running, horseback riding and mountain-biking.
But Simpson Timber, which owns land coveted by trailblazers around Eureka and McKinleyville, has no plans to sell or grant public access to its roads. The company does issue access permits to employees, individuals and mountain-biking groups.
Many people from senior cyclists to teenage skaters are already drooling over the proposed Historic Annie & Mary Rail-Trail.
From Arcata's West End Road, the trail would follow the railroad grade along the south bank of the Mad River. It would connect with beaches, parks and swimming spots and cross the river over a long trestle that promises exhilarating views.
It's easy to imagine downtown Blue Lake revitalized as the terminus for such a path: sunburned families devour pizza after a day of swimming. Cyclists from Trinidad savor their workout over coffee and juice. Patrons of the Mad River Festival arrive early for a picnic.
"A lot of folks are really into seeing it happen for their kids," said Bettina Eiper, chairwoman of Friends of the Historic Annie & Mary Rail-Trail. "It would make it so easy to get out along the river for swimming and picnicking."
The North Coast Railroad Authority board recently voted to support a study of the concept, with one caveat: the trail must be temporary. Although tracks have been stripped from the dormant Arcata & Mad River Line, "It's our intent to eventually put the rail back in all the way to Korbel," said NCRA Director Dan Hauser.
Hauser estimates the temporary trail would be in use for three to five years. "Then when we went to rebuild, we'd work with them (to locate it to the side)."
One idea is for the trail to be graveled and hardened to a trail surface, but not paved. The trestle over the Mad River would need new decking and a safety fence.
"I was riding my bike and we got here (Hiller Park) and we saw a lot of dogs and two puppies."
-- Terra, Drake, Cebre and Trace Allen
The permanent trail would be built alongside the tracks in a "rails with trails" configuration. Such trails have been built along scores of working railroads, separated from trains by fences or landscaping.
Because the right of way is very narrow in some places, trail users would detour along county roads for long stretches. In other spots, business uses would require a diversion. At Blue Lake Forest Products, for instance, the rail line passes through mill yards and loading facilities.
The Annie & Mary Trail has resonated loudly in Blue Lake and Arcata. "People are always coming up to me and saying, `How's the trail coming? When's it going to be done?'" Eiper said.
In truth, the trail is probably years away from construction. Once money is raised for a feasibility study, a "managing entity" must be established with yearly funding for maintenance.
"We need to do a bunch of research and feasibility analyses so we can hand a package to the county or to a land trust or to whatever entity will manage it saying `This is what you need to know if you want to manage the trail,'" Eiper said.
The trailblazers must simultaneously tackle the job of gaining support from property owners. The route passes close to homes, farms and small ranches.
At least one landowner, who did not want to be identified, is already fighting the trail with a legal action to reclaim title to the right of way crossing his property. (The NCRA says, however, that it has full title to the right of way, but such legal battles have tied up and defeated rails-to-trail proposals elsewhere.)
"I already have enough trouble with kids coming down this trail," the landowner said, gesturing toward the dirt track that was once the railroad. "Can you imagine what it would be like with motorcycles coming down here at all hours?"
-- Scott Spenceley
The Blue Lake group and other trail advocates are fortunate to have help in the area of landowner relations from the Redwood Community Action Agency, a social service group based in Eureka. RCAA's Natural Resources Services has worked with landowners on other projects and its work on the coastal leg of the Hammond Trail is a model of cooperation.
The Hammond Trail was complete from the Mad River Bridge to Knox Cove. But it stopped there, a few yards from the coastal bluffs overlooking the river estuary and the ocean. The river had eroded much of the grade where the planned trail was to go. Funding had run short, and opposition was being mounted by adjoining homeowners.
A new trail route and a grant from the state Coastal Conservancy solved the first two problems. But eight homeowners stood firm against it. The right of way was grown over, and residents were in the habit of cutting their private paths down to the river every spring.
"The homeowners loved it that way," said Stephen "Sungnome" Madrone, director of the Natural Resources Services. "They used to throw brush tailings down there to make it thick and gnarly so nobody every came through it. ... Imagine someone showing up with long hair and a beard saying, `I'm going to build a trail in your backyard.'"
The Coastal Conservancy gave the RCAA extra time to use the trail funds it granted in 1992.
Alexis and Steffi have been trained to pick up cans. Vandalism concerns their owners. "We've had people drive through here and knock down fences."
-- Hershel and Rickie Mack
"Normally you have 12 to 18 months to spend that kind of grant, but we'd told the conservancy that we needed time to work with the landowners," Madrone said.
"For two or three years, I called people and asked to come over and talk about our plans. I'd sit in their living rooms and have tea. I'd come over on weekends and do some fence repair. We cared about their peace, security and privacy."
Several residents said this backyard diplomacy swayed them.
"Sungnome and RCAA took great pains to work with me," said trail neighbor Barbara Morrison. "He spent a lot of time here. He helped me plant a hedge and put up a privacy fence."
The trail may well have gone through even if the residents had continued to object. It was designated in the trail's element of the county general plan in 1980, and the right of way was public property.
"But in the end we wouldn't have had the kind of support we have," Madrone said. "The homeowners are now stewards of the trail. They keep an eye on it, and do some of the work on it. When you work with people and get their cooperation they become stewards. When you just force it down their throats, they're going to mess with you on every level."
Morrison says she can see the tops of trail-users' heads, but "the trail hasn't taken away my sense of security. It was so well planned and done gradually and carefully with a great deal of concern for us."
She says many of her neighbors feel the same way. One exception is Ted Mosier, whose home is exposed to trail users on three sides: the trail in his backyard, the Murray Road trail head to one side and trail parking in front.
"A lot of people are using the trail without causing any problems, but some people are spoiling it," said Mosier. "People go down the trail at 3 or 4 in the morning, making lots of noise. The worst part is that people turn their dogs loose and they get all over our garden. One dog killed my wife's cat right in our front yard.
"A lot of nice people use the trail, but I wouldn't advise anyone to have one close to their house like this."
Madrone acknowledged that there are problems with people encroaching on their property.
The Mosier's experience is instructive. While the trail poses only a small degree of intrusion where it skirts residents' backyards, the trailhead and parking area compounds the disturbance.
This is the kind of potential problem that the Friends of the Annie & Mary Trail want to uncover through early collaboration with trail-side landowners.
"We want to identify all their issues and needs and design a trail that will work for them as well as us," Eiper said.
To a tourist from the San Francisco Bay area it may seem odd that people in Redwood Country are so eager to create new trails. With so many state and national parks, as well as the national forests, why would we feel the need for more public paths?
Local trailblazers share one motivation with urban trail advocates: They want to create more incentive for people to walk and ride more and drive less.<