Snowbrush is the curse of the Cunningham Cove trail and Victoria Mitts is the blessing.
Without Victoria’s dexterity with a pair of metal pruners, I would probably still be wading through the shrubby thickets, half-mad in my fruitless search for the path and bleeding dozens of shallow scratches.
My hiking companions, being considerably less stubborn – and wiser – would have long since abandoned me to my inefficient twists and turns.
Fortunately, no such conflict spoiled my June 27 hike with my wife, Lisa, and our children, Olivia, 14, and Max, 10.
It wouldn’t have been the case without Victoria’s efforts.
The Cunningham Cove Trail is her first assignment as an initial employee of the Trailhead Stewardship Project.
This partnership between the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest and The Trailhead, the Baker City bike, ski and outdoor store that Anthony Lakes Mountain Resort opened several years ago, aims to reverse years of neglect in the area. maintenance of trails that have left paths such as Cunningham Cove in deplorable shape.
Assuming you can actually find the trails to mark them as such. And in the case of Cunningham Cove, that’s far from certain.
Victoria found the trail.
But she must have looked pretty hard.
Cunningham Cove, a roughly five mile trail that climbs from the North Fork John Day River to Peavy Cabin to a junction with the Elkhorn Crest National Recreation Trail, has deteriorated to an alarming degree since I hiked it for the first time in 1990.
The Sloans Ridge fire in 1996 was the main culprit.
The fire burned the mature forest of larch, lodgepole pine and, along the streams, Engelmann spruce.
Relatively few large trees survived the flames – enough, however, to provide the seeds for the young forest that now thrives.
As is often the case in the decades after a serious fire, the crooked twists, which sometimes have serotinous cones (sealed with resin) that only release their seeds when exposed to flames, dominate.
Well, at least the lodgepoles dominate among the evergreens.
But even their ubiquity is questioned by the snowbrush, one of the ceonathus shrubs, which also has seeds with a protective layer that usually only germinate after some sort of disturbance.
And fire is nothing if not disturbance.
As a result of the Sloans Ridge fire, snow formed dense, almost unbroken mats on the slopes where the Cunningham Cove Trail passes.
The snowbrush isn’t quite a malicious plant – nothing like the poison oak or the devil’s club.
Indeed, the day we hiked the snowbrush was in full bloom, its clusters of attractive white flowers and its pleasant fresh scent.
But as with many things – beer, processed cheese and ABBA, to name just three – beyond a certain amount, the attractive attributes of the snow brush are overwhelmed by the deleterious effects of its bulk.
Snowbrush is basically the chaparral of the Blue Mountains.
A few tufts hanging down the edge of the trail are easily dodged.
But when the stuff thickens on both sides, overhanging and meeting in the middle, the only way to get through is to wallow.
This is unpleasant, because the snow brush, although it does not have thorns, for example, hawthorn, is a sturdy shrub, and if you have to dive a large stretch, the limbs will inflict many scratches.
Enter Victoria and her secateurs.
I had spoken with Peter Johnson, General Manager of Anthony Lakes, a few days before our hike. He told me Victoria had started working on the Cunningham Cove trail and was making good progress.
When we started the climb – around 8am, out of respect for the heat expected later in the day – we hadn’t walked a quarter of a mile before seeing and appreciating his work.
The runway in places was more like a space between hedges – the kind of place the GIs crept in in June 1944, M1s ready, listening to the clatter of German tanks.
Next, we saw Victoria herself, getting rid of what seemed like a Sisyphus task.
We stopped for a few minutes to chat and thank her for making the hike possible. I didn’t realize the true magnitude of the effort until a few days later when I saw a photo of the trail before Victoria started pushing the snow brush back. But even without photographic evidence, it was evident from a brief glance at the dozens of freshly severed limbs scattered along the trail during our hike, that before pruning, walking this way would have been an exercise in frustration. .
But now it was just exercise.
And strenuous exercise, considering the incline of the Cunningham Cove trail, which ranges from moderately steep to an incline that can make you wonder if someone designed the route or if it is just following the paths made by the elk. and other animals that are much more agile than us.
In addition to battling the snow brush, Victoria had sawed down over 40 trees that had fallen on the trail.
It is also an inevitable effect following a major fire. Dead trees, deprived of their old roots, are easy prey for winter winds.
Victoria told us she cleared about a mile and a half from the trail.
And indeed, the limit was glaring – we went quite suddenly from an obvious path to a much less distinct route due to fallen trees and overgrown vegetation (masts, mainly; luckily the snow brush is mostly confined to the lower sections of the trail).
We had to stop several times to find the way. Some hikers or trail workers have built multiple rock cairns, but there aren’t enough of them to act as guides where the tread becomes virtually indistinguishable.
Another useful tactic is to stop and look for logs that have been sawn off. This is usually reliable evidence that the trail is near.
We continued, however, and finally reached the Elkhorn Crest trail. It was worth walking a hundred feet north on the Crest Trail for the view of Crawfish Meadow with its unmistakable shade of woodland green. The breeze was cool and the air pleasantly cool under the shade of the whitebark pines.
We had another brief chat with Victoria on the way down, during which she preyed on the crooked twisted youngsters that invade the trail in spots.
It was an enlightening experience.
We hadn’t hiked Cunningham Cove since early fall 2012 when Max, just a toddler, rode the trip on my shoulders in a backpack.
I wasn’t a little dismayed at how terribly the trail had deteriorated in just under nine years. If the road had been as it is now, we certainly would not have reached the end.
But I was simultaneously satisfied that something was being done to improve the situation, that Victoria was at work, resuscitating, so to speak, a public road that could well have been lost to the ravages of forest fires and the relentless alpine climate. .
She still has a lot to do.
From what we saw on June 26th, I would not recommend the Cunningham Cove Trail to hikers who are not used to difficult terrain and confident in their route finding abilities.
But the improvements made by Victoria are remarkable.
Jayson Jacoby is the editor of the Baker City Herald.