Inventorying for trails from top...
Popping into my head immediately, when I try and sum up my CLM Internship Program with the Chicago Botanic Garden is a single word. Gratitude. Hypothetically if you could hop into a time machine, go back in time and visit 10 year old Bryon, and you surprised him with an interview and quickly asked, “What do you want to do for a job when you grow up?” Ten year old me would probably have hummed and hawed, kicked the dirt and eventually responded sheepishly like little boys tend to do, “Uhhm….Is their a job where you just kind of explore around in the woods?”
Well little boy Bryon, you would be pleased to find out, indeed there is a job where you do that. For three field seasons I have been at the heart of a route inventory across the Medford District BLM, an accumulation of public lands totaling approximately 866,000 acres scattered across Southern Oregon. Another Chicago Botanic Garden Intern and I began the project in 2007, from which I continued on as the crew lead and data steward for the following two field seasons. During this period my crew and I have inventoried 204,431 acres and mapped 197 miles of previously undocumented trail. The breadth and extent to which I have been able to, “just kind of explore around in the woods,” is so staggering I often have to remind myself of how lucky I have been. This of course brings me back that single gracious word.
The essence of the project has been to cover as much ground as possible, as thoroughly as possible. Sounds simple right? Well sure, but remember in order to cover ground, you have must first know the ground. That is to say, to do the job correctly one must know exactly where they are, at all times. Most folks would think this means relying on GPS machines but I quickly learned it is the other way around. Satellites move, signals are slowly lost to entropy, and batteries can die. On the other hand we can count on contour lines, creek beds, and good ole Magnetic North to stay put (at least within our lifetimes). When things get confusing, or there is a bit of a (cough) internal dispute about location, UTM Coordinates can offer laser like precision. That being said nothing beats the ability to read contour lines like a book and the landscape like the face of an old friend. Map and compass navigation, like any skill, is improved with practice. When refined though, these skills can broaden our view of the landscape and free up the GPS machine for taking data instead of giving it out!
Giving orders to the machine, not taking them!
Besides navigation the other primary challenge to, “covering ground,” is the obvious part; actually getting around. Once again, this is easier said than done. Between crushing winter snowpack’s up in the “snow zone” (over 4,000 feet in this part of the world), dizzyingly steep ridges, and a summer fire season which can seriously restrict the use of motorized vehicles, selecting the most appropriate mode of travel has been much more than an afterthought.
Easy does it coming down!
The ultimate tool for covering ground is of course the dirt bike. Slim enough to squeeze through the tightest of spaces, and with power and speed that can cut travel time by a factor of 10 or 20, the dirt bike trades in any chance of being discrete, for quite simply, the fastest mode for moving to very specific locations. This makes it a very effective tool for this kind of work.
"Steep enough for you?!"
Even dirt bikes have their limits though and some trails are simply too steep to ride. Needless to say, the ability to judge for a limiting slope, which I like to refer to as, “The point of no return,” (particularly when going downhill) is an essential skill. At this point it was always back to the basics, scrambling and zig zagging up or down the crumbling trail by boot and foot.
Golden Fields of Fire Danger
A yearly summer occurrence here in Southern Oregon is fire season. During fire season the risk of wildfire can be so high the combustion engine of a motorcycle is deemed an unacceptable risk. During those periods our crew traded burning gasoline for burning carbohydrates. Mountain bikes usually make a good pairing with the slope of the winding mountain roads. When the roads become too steep to pedal up, they offer a cool breezy downhill reward to crew members who were willing to push the bicycle up the hill.
Just around the next bend...
The most common, and certainly most lasting, occurrence of the internship is perhaps the most simple. The act of walking up a shady mountain road, closed in by canopy and trunk, ears alert to the squirrels and birds skittering in the brush, tasting the weather of that day, and inevitably lulled back in time to that exact spot. It is wonderful feeling; kinship with those who have came before on this very path, taking the same crunchy steps, and entranced by the ancient thrush calls.
Remnants of Another Age
The world of yesterday is gone. Quiet Native Americans and crusty old miners will never walk these mountains as they once did. But if we get off the paved road, go up onto the dirt towards the summits, and turn off onto a smaller route once, maybe even twice, continuing up, out, away into the wild; something special will begin to happen. As we make our way the quiet grows, and the smallest of sounds begin to amplify. Our eyes become accustomed to the chlorophyll glow and manmade objects suddenly pop out as the exception grabbing our attention. We share feelings with the deer, both listening carefully to each other, cautious of any hidden threats. As the hours go on and on out there it becomes clear the greatest honor that we can serve to those that have come before us is to quietly walk in their footsteps and let the ever thriving sense of place gently fill us the same way it once filled them.
In my view public lands are the most essential and perfect representation of our country. Not only a living breathing example of freedom but our public lands offer endless inspiration with their mystery, beauty, and resilience. The American author Edward Abbey has a quote to the tune of, “I may never go to Alaska, but it sure is nice to know it is up there.” This quote is as true for our public lands as it is for Alaska. No matter whom you are or where you live across this broad country, even if you never even make it down the block to the town green, you should feel comfort to know there are more spectacular places than you could visit in 1000 lifetimes. And they all belong to YOU!
I can’t properly express with words, the pride I feel for these lands, and the pride I feel for the work I have done to help protect them and allow them to be enjoyed by others. The phrase, “Life changing experience,” doesn’t really seem to fit because I now feel like this is my life. Our land is so far beyond us, in quality and in quantity, that all we can do is hope for the chance to let some of it inside of us. To have received that chance, from The Chicago Botanic Garden and the BLM, I feel nothing but pure gratitude.
Bryon Harris, 2009
Pride for Our Land!