'The bulk of our trails were laid out by the CCC [Civilian Conservation Corps] during the late 1930s, when they tended to install trails similar to how you would put in a roadway," says Michael Curtis, volunteer coordinator for trail maintenance at Cuyamaca Rancho State Park. "Using those construction techniques, trails winded up being too steep and were placed in the wrong places, so over a period of time they caught water and became badly trenched. With close to 100 miles of trails, you'd need a really large maintenance crew in order to keep filling in all the trenches." On Saturday, March 18, Curtis will lead a group of volunteers in trail repair and rerouting older trails. "The first thing you do when installing a trail is go through and remove all the brush, trees, and grass along the trail route." The current routes were drawn with the help of archaeologists, ecologists, historians, and botanists. "We say that we want to put a trail in this general area, and they come back to us and show us sensitive areas on the map. Then we go out and survey the land so that we can install the trail and avoid all the sensitive places," says Curtis. The terrain also dictates where a trail will be drawn. "If you've got a huge rock area, you can't really go through it. Those are called 'control points.' You work your way through control points without getting too steep of a grade into the trail, the way they install highways or railways -- slowly gaining in elevation and slowly losing elevation. That way [the trail] is much more sustainable and needs a lot less work."
The next step is to cut into the hillside using the "full bench cut." According to the International Mountain Bicycling Association, "full bench construction means that the full width of the tread is cut into the side of a hill. The entire tread is dug down to compacted mineral soil." All of Cuyamaca's trails should have a four-foot-wide tread. "We normally try to outslope our trails between five to ten percent so that water running down the hill will land on the trail and run directly across it and down the hillside. If the trail is too steep, water will start running down the trail and that will trench the trail," says Curtis.
Curtis prefers modern machinery when it comes to compacting the soil on the trail once it has been cut. "We have a hand compacter, which is just a steel plate with a long handle on it. We also have plate vibrators, [which] you can just start up and it has concentric weight and vibrates to compact the trail. But we recently purchased a trail machine, a mini bulldozer." The SWECO Trail Dozer Curtis refers to is 40 inches wide, 11 feet long, and 6 feet tall. According to americantrails.org, "They weigh about 8000 pounds, are powered by turbo diesel engines, and have hydraulic controls with full hydrostatic drive. The six-way floating blade and rock rippers allow for the removal of most rock and roots from the trail bed, leaving a smooth and sustainable finished trail surface."
"A year ago we probably spent two and a half months with fairly large crews working half a day on Saturdays and all day on Wednesdays to install 600 yards [of trail]," says Curtis. "It was very hard work, particularly for the retirees. We lost a lot of [volunteers]. The machine would have done the same thing we did in maybe a week or two."
Curtis works on the trails almost every Saturday. "Eight months out of the year we go out and do brushing -- cutting back the plants that are intruding into the trail," he says. "The largest germination we've had since the fire is Ceanothus, or lilac." According to theodorepayne.org, this California lilac has "thick seed coatings that must be scarified by heat from fire or are germinated by chemicals in the charcoal left after a fire...these 'fire annuals' or 'fire followers' leave seeds that may lie dormant for fifty years or longer."
Other vegetation includes mountain mahogany, scrub oak, live oak, black oak, and manzanita. "Some of that has already gotten overhead, in the eight-foot-tall range. It's thickets, absolutely filled in," says Curtis. "All those plants have grown up in this environment so they're used to fire. When the fire came through, it burned all of the above-ground portions of plant, and those plants didn't really care; their roots survived and they just sent up new shoots." Root bundles deemed too close to the trails must be dug from the ground.
Curtis stresses that it can get pretty cold at an elevation of 5000 feet. "People need good, strong shoes, long pants, and long sleeves." Though volunteers are asked to sign a waiver, the closest thing to an injury reported thus far has been a case of poison oak. -- Barbarella
Trail repair at Cuyamaca Rancho State Park
Saturday, March 18
9 a.m. to 1 p.m.
Highway 79 north of I-8
(Meet at the Paso Picacho Campground maintenance area behind the Fire Department)
Info: 858-278-3280 or www.cuyamaca.us