Friday, February 28, 2014

Why Trails Are Fading From The Map

Ken Murray MD

One of the great things about living in California’s Central Valley is the easy access to one of the great mountain ranges of the world, the Sierra Nevada, and its beautiful forests. Unfortunately, through no fault of anyone in the valley, that access is being threatened.

As a lifelong Californian, I've grown to love the mountains so much that I've done volunteer work in the forests of the Sierra for the past 15 years. And over that time, I've seen a dramatic shift in the condition of the forests. The problems are twofold: a lack of funding and a lack of personnel.

The problem is particularly acute in the Sequoia National Forest, most easily accessed from Bakersfield or Porterville. It has no forest rangers. Let me be very clear: I do not use the word “ranger” like others, who count anyone wearing a Forest Service uniform as a ranger. What I am talking about is the absence of the traditional “ranger-naturalist” who spends his or her time tromping the trails.

These are the rangers who interact with people in the backcountry, protect our resources on the ground, maintain the structures related to trails, check permits, and help people in trouble. Interacting with such folks remains a very fond memory of my youth, and it was part of what brings me back to the mountains.

Such people are gone now. Yes, you will find a few rangers who work in the information booths and offices, where the cars park, but there is no one away from the roads. This has translated into a slow but steady degradation of the forest, and the rise of destructive visitor behavior, such as graffiti on trees or the creation of fires when conditions are dangerous.

It’s not just the rangers who are gone. The professional trail maintainers have disappeared, too. Not so long ago, teams of such people maintained trails, using only “primitive” tools like shovels and handsaws. Skills with such tools are crucial because one rule of working in Forest Service wilderness is that any kind of engine or wheeled device is prohibited. Trails can’t be maintained with chain saws or wheelbarrows.

Why are all these skilled people gone? It’s money, of course. The Forest Service budget to the Sierra forests has been cut on an almost an annual basis, with frontline workers bearing the brunt of the cuts.

Who fills the gap? Volunteers like me. Today, all the trail maintenance done in the Sequoia National Forest is performed by a half-dozen volunteer groups, members of which spend their own time and money to get special training, buy their own tools, drive up to the forest, and work hard for days or even weeks. For example, my group, the High Sierra Volunteer Trail Crew, has restored many trails that had been left to deteriorate.

Such work has to be done. Trails are artificial things. Water washes them out, trees fall on them, and rocks crash onto them. If these problems are not fixed, trails become impassible in just a few years.

Most trails require work every year, or they deteriorate. But such maintenance doesn’t always happen. Two years ago, I led a crew to repair a portion of the remote Pacific Crest Trail, which had gotten no attention in almost a decade. This is one of our great national scenic trails, yet it took my crew of 15 two hours to find it. It was so terribly overgrown that it took 30 days of work over a three-year span to clear just a few miles of trail.

This sort of thing is not just a labor of love but also a labor of public health. Trails need maintenance not only because people wish to travel in the wilderness, but also because poorly maintained trails erode the watershed, diminishing the quality of water in Central Valley cities.

Volunteers, of course, can do only a small part of this work. At least that has been the standard thinking. But now, there are only volunteers. With no one else chipping in, we don't merely lose access to trails. We lose trails altogether.

The trails are organized into a system, and “system trails” are required, by law, to be maintained. But when trails can’t be maintained, as is the case now, the government complies with the law by “decommissioning” poorly maintained trails from the trail system. And decommissioned trails literally disappear from maps. One of the best mapmakers for the Sierra, Tom Harrison, tells me that Forest Service personnel regularly instruct him to remove trails from his maps. Eventually, no one knows the trail was ever there.

This trend represents the ongoing loss of national resources — our trails and the access they provide. And these losses seem to be happening without public awareness or debate. Yes, there are some people who believe that wilderness areas are better off without trails or the ability of people to access them; they want the land kept pure and believe that the harder it is to get into the forests, the better. They hold as their scripture the 1964 Federal Wilderness Act, which designates areas “where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man.”

I read the Wilderness Act differently, since it also speaks of wilderness lands being preserved “for the people,” as places where “man himself is a visitor.” Access to our public lands is a right of all Americans, and the huge system of public lands is something that distinguishes America from most of the world’s other countries. It also makes the Central Valley a special place to live. With the decline of forests and trails, we are losing a part of California — and part of our American selves.

Ken Murray, MD, is a retired clinical assistant professor of family medicine at the University of Southern California. Via

Thursday, February 20, 2014

A Prayer For California In A Time Of Drought

Fr. Dale Matson

The San Joaquin Valley is now the valley of the dry bones. Lord bring us rain.
Our crops will not be planted and our fruit trees will perish. Lord bring us rain
Our nut trees will all dry up and our lands will lay fallow. Lord we ask for rain.
The soil is too dry and parched and hard for planting. Lord where is our rain?
Our winter hills remain a lifeless brown. Lord, Your land needs rain.
It is a harsh winter of rain and snow for others and still, we have no rain.
Lord our lands thirst and our souls are in torment. Please bring us rain.
Peaks lack snow and the source streams are drying up. Snow is needed Lord.
Our aquifers and wells no longer hold water. Fill them once again.
Your people, your creatures and your land cry for rain. Please make it be.
Your people cannot be fruitful. They can do no work. Do not hold back the rain.
You are the source and from Your hand we feed. It is not of us we know.
Give us our rain in due season and with it Your Glory show. Amen  

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Monterey Bay California

Dale Matson

One of the advantages to Fresno’s location in (almost) the center of California (North Fork is the center), is the access it provides to the mountains to the east and and the central coast to the west. Over the years we have done overnights and day trips to Monterey. It is about a three-hour drive to Monterey from Fresno and it can be quite a welcome respite in the heat of summer here.

My first visit to the area was Infantry training in 1967 at Fort Ord. I do remember enjoying the elaborate Enlisted Men’s Club that was right on the beach. As it would turn out, my group that came after finishing basic training in Ft. Leonard Wood MO was only there for two weeks and was sent back to Ft. Leonard Wood for AIT training as Combat Engineers. There is a sadness to revisit the area that is now California State University – Monterey. Many of the old buildings are abandoned and filled with graffiti.

We have driven, hiked, biked and run most of the area around Monterey Bay including Seaside to the north, Pacific Grove to the west and Carmel to the south. There is great bike path going north from Monterey along the coast and there is a bike lane on 17-mile drive.

I had an opportunity to run the Big Sur Marathon twice. It begins in Big Sur and ends in Carmel. It is considered one of the most beautiful marathon courses in the world. I especially like the view of the iconic Bixby Bridge but there are some serious hills on this course.

We have been to Point Lobos several times and enjoyed the ocean views and sea life including migrating whales passing the point. Watch out for poison oak along the trails! There is also a Monarch butterfly park in Pacific Grove where migrating butterflies overwinter. There are also several charter boats for fishing and whale watching. There are Kayaking and scuba diving opportunities also. The Monterey Bay Aquarium is great for kids and has almost 2 million visitors a year. One of the 21 Roman Catholic Missions is in Carmel.

There are some things that are always a part of our visit. We always take in the colorful Monterey Fisherman’s Wharf with its clam chowder, shops and restaurants. In addition to the restaurants we also hit the sweet shop for a chocolate treat of one sort or another (does it matter?) We also visit 17-mile drive with the wonderful ocean views, stately mansions and iconic stops like the ‘Lone Cyprus’, which is one of the most photographed objects in the world. If you drive it, you will get a map at the gate house when you pay your $10.00 entrance fee. The map will locate and describe all of the views at the numbered pull out locations.

Sometimes my wife and I just sit on a rock by the ocean and let the smells, breezes and views fill us to the brim. It is a wonderful place. Each visit brings back all the past memories in a cumulative contentedness. Click on photographs to enlarge.  

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Trail Running Shoes And Lightweight Backpacking

Dale Matson

Twenty-five years ago most trail runners used the same shoes for trails as they did for road racing. I used the Nike Air Pegasus and one of the best local ultrarunners Joe Schlereth ran in Nike Air Icarus shoes. The shoes were called trainers because they were made for high mileage and were more cushioned than racing flats. Joe ran 10,000 miles one year preparing for the Western States 100. He came in 3rd that year behind Tim Twietmeyer and Ann Trason.

In 1995 I broke one of the rules of racing and bought new shoes for the beginning leg of W.S. The race director Norm Klein told us the first 26 miles of the run were covered with snow. I bought a pair with deeper lugs for traction on the snow. I fell as much as anyone else. My choice of shoe was a moot point by the time I reached the Rucky Chucky crossing of the American River. I had not met the cutoff time and was mercifully pulled from the race. The 107-degree temperatures in the canyons had done me in.

In Wisconsin we screwed hex head sheet metal screws into the bottom of the shoe sole for running the trails in winter. This method also worked well for running on roads covered in ice and snow. I did finish W.S. in 2001 using Brooks Glycerin running shoes. I finished the Kettle Moraine 100 the previous year in the same model. I started the Kettle Moraine in a pair of Asics and developed knee pain in less than 20 miles so I switched to the Brooks shoes with no problems after that.

My point here is that after running scores of trail ultras, I was still running in trainers. Actually deep lugs and aggressive treads can cause you to stumble when you are fatigued and your ‘stride’ has become a shuffle.

Two things happened that led to my use of trail shoes. I became a lightweight backpacker and a civilian volunteer for the Fresno County Search and Rescue (SAR) team. Trails are highways in the wilderness. Searching off trails on slippery snow covered granite with a 20 pound pack required better traction. The deputies used Asolo boots and complained of blisters. I wore my trainers and complained of traction. It was then that I looked to trail shoes again. I went with the Salomon Speedcross and decided to use them for backpacking too since my multiday pack is about 25 pounds. Last year I replaced my Speedcross shoes with the Speedcross III with good results again. The soles are adequate for sharp rocks and they are sturdy shoes. My first pair lasted about 300 miles but 20 of those miles were off trail, which is much harder on shoes and those wearing the shoes. They are not good on wet rocks in streams.

Salomon Speedcross III

La Sportiva Anakonda

I was watching some trail running videos recently and saw some of the elite runners in La Sportiva Anakonda shoes. Trail running seems to be evolving into running/class 3 scrambling these days. Kilian Jornet with about 4% body fat and no pack can defy gravity with his minimalist shoes but I am not Kilian. Well, I’m not putting out six-minute miles (actually, I never did) but I am a 20-mile a day mountain backpacker that needs extra traction for climbing off trail. I am not wed to any brand. I have used the La Sportiva shoes and am still breaking them in. They have a rather ‘flat’ sole because the heal is not built up like most running shoes and is more like a racing flat. I was also surprised to see that the Anakondas and the Speedcross III shoes (size 12) were both the same weight at about 26 ounces a pair.

I am sure the minimalist style of running shoes will be in fashion for some time. They appeal to me because “less weight” has always been my mantra. Gone are the days however where I would run the trails of Yosemite with a tee shirt and shorts, water bottle, water purification pills and a flask of hammer gel. 

 Dale At Cloud's Rest

Sunday, February 9, 2014


Dale Matson

"Therefore I do not run like a man running Aimlessly" (1 Corinthians 9:26a)

Ultrarunning is esoteric enough that even most marathoners don’t know about it. About twenty years ago, I happened to see an issue of Ultrarunning Magazine for sale in a running store and bought a copy along with my new Nike Air Max running shoes.

A whole new world was opened up as I read the magazine from cover to cover. How could people be discussing renal shutdown and bloody urine so casually in the letters to the editor? People I had never heard of were running distances I never thought about. What do you mean a 24 or 48 or 72 hour race? What do you mean a 50 mile, 100K or 100 mile run?

For people like me, who believe that everything worth doing is worth overdoing, this was a siren song that beckoned me into the woods near my home. The ice age trails were a part of the Kettle Moraine area of southeastern Wisconsin. There were crazy people like Tom and Lorraine Bunk, Kevin and Kris Setnes, Jim Lambert and Rod Condon among others. They screwed hex head sheet metal screws into their running shoe soles and ran the snow mobile trails in the winter in near subzero weather. They were friendly enough but I couldn’t keep up. I became an excellent tracker and eventually was able to follow their tracks back to the parking area on our Saturday runs. They were a strange subset of the Badgerland Striders running club.

The summer I moved to California they talked me into running the Voyager 50 miler in Minnesota before I left. They also told me that I was on the verge of being admitted to the Duke Ultrarunning Club (Gary Hauser president) named after John Wayne. That was it; I would have to do it. I finished with three others at the tail end having made a wrong turn with two miles to go. I went to bed that night thinking I would probably die during the night. I didn’t.

The Kettle Moraine area is known for two runs in particular. I helped at the Ice Age 50 mile run and got a Tee shirt. It immediately became my favorite shirt and I wore it until it became threadbare. The other run is the Kettle Moraine 100 mile run. I came back from California to finish it in 2000. It was good to see the running group but not the deer ticks again.

And that is kind of how you get the bug to run and run and run. I’ve participated in a few 24 hour track runs also and find them more challenging in some ways since you can step off the track whenever you wish and be done. And that is when the healthy voices speaking through your blisters tell you it’s time to pack it in. Finishing the Western States 100 Mile Endurance Run in 2001 after two previous failures was my biggest physical accomplishment.

Ultrarunners are just like any cross section of people you will meet. Some are kind of scary and seem to have no permanent address. They live out of the back of their trucks and haven’t shaved for quite some time. Some have quite an assortment of body art underneath their tie dyed shirts. Here is my final bit of advice to wannabe Ultrarunners, “No whining and the beatings will continue until the moral improves".

Friday, February 7, 2014

The Politics Of Death Valley National Park And The Possible Death Of The Badwater Ultramarathon

Dale Matson

"It is exciting to return to the desert and continue to learn about the desert environment, diversity of the resources and incredible culture of the area. I look forward to joining the park team in advancing the stewardship vision for Death Valley National Park." Kathy Billings January 24th 2013

The Fresno Bee had an excellent article today that is reprinted from the Los Angeles Times on the Death Valley portion of the Badwater Ultramarathon being banned from the 2014 race by Kathy Billings. This 135-mile race from Death Valley to the Whitney Portal could be considered the worlds toughest foot race and the 100 participants are there by invitation only. This race has been conducted for the last 27 years without incident under strict race rules and governance. The current race director is Chris Kostman.

Kostman and supportive Inyo County officials met with Billings in December and offered concessions to reduce the impact of the race on Death Valley. “They also suggested immediate changes to reduce impact — including cutting Badwater support crews from six to four people and requiring them to operate in one car, instead of two. Inyo County administrator Kevin D. Carunchio told the Park Service that county workers could help speed up the safety review. Billings said she wasn't open to negotiation, meeting participants said.”,0,7299540.story#ixzz2sfJY0ChE.

Billing said that the reason for the ban is that a safety study needs to be conducted before any more events will be allowed. My first thought was, “Why wouldn’t they want to conduct the safety study during the run?” To explain the rationale for the shut down of the event, Billings offered a letter that included the following statement. “Recently, Death Valley National Park placed a temporary moratorium on issuing special use permits for sporting events within Death Valley while a safety assessment is conducted on these types of events. Over the past few years, numerous safety risks and issues have been observed by park staff and park visitors during sporting events on Death Valley roads. This past year, multiple near misses between event participants and park visitors in vehicles were observed.”
While Billings listed safety concerns and the need for a safety assessment, she offered no specific evidence other than statements like “numerous safety risks and issues” and “multiple near misses…. were observed”. I would ask, “How many citations were issued by park rangers and for what offenses related to the race?”

I believe there is a more important issue at play here below the surface and it has to do with Kathy Billings and her “vision” for Death Valley National Park. Her vision has to do with her understanding and implementation of the “Wilderness and Backcountry Stewardship Plan” (July 2013). The selected impact ‘Plan D’ does affect running events in the park.

While Kathy Billings stated that safety is the key issue for the ‘moratorium’, I believe she is more concerned about how good a fit the ultramaraton is for Death Valley, which is designated as over 90% “Wilderness”, with all that entails in terms of use restrictions. Because Badwater is a footrace on paved highway, I see no threat even if support crews are added to the mix. They help ensure the safety of the runners. Actually, I can understand why the Tour of California was denied a day use permit for a bike race leg in Yosemite with all the logistics and narrow winding roads. Safety would be an issue in that case.

I am an ultra runner and an environmentalist. Part of my qualifications for entrance in the Western States 100 Mile Endurance Run was a documented participation in trail maintenance. The WS 100 is run in the Granite Chief Wilderness area on single-track trails. The spirit of John Muir welcomes people into the wilderness so that they will be changed by the experience. The contemporary understanding is just the opposite. People are viewed a threat to the wilderness not partners in stewardship. A balanced understanding of the mix of people and wilderness needs to be restored. People who have been in the wilderness are the most informed and strongest defenders of the wilderness.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Skiing With Airedales In The Back Country

Dale Matson

Parking Lot At Tamarack Snow Park

We are blessed in Fresno to be only one and a half hours away from two snow parks along highway 168. In just one and a half hours you can climb from about 300’ above sea level in Fresno to the snow park at about 7,600’ near Tamarack Ridge. We buy a yearly snow park pass for $25.00 but most folks buy a day pass for $5.00.

The trail system at Tamarack and Coyote (on the other side of 168) has intermittent signage and there is a snow trail map available at the U. S. Forest Service Office in Prather CA. We ski during the week because the snow park lots can be overfull on a weekend. Each area has potties.

During this three-year drought, it has been a long wait for snow again this season. Recently we received about two feet of new snow in the Sierras. There is a sweet spot window for backcountry skiing. We usually allow a couple of days for the roads to be plowed and partially melted of snow so the driving is good for our trip up. After that, the roads are better, but the skiing is less powdery. Crusty snow is not fun and will cut the dog’s paws.

This year we purchased a ramp to help us get the dogs into the back of the Tahoe. They are simply too big and we are too old to be lifting them in. They never learned how to jump in like other dogs. They can tell by the sounds in the garage that we are preparing to go skiing and have their noses glued to the door leading to the garage until we finally let them into the garage.

They are antsy all the way up in anticipation of freedom they don’t have the rest of the year. Airedales appear to be stupid but that is only because they are so willful. They are on a leash when we hike in the summer. That is because they would chase after a deer, coyote or whatever and never come back. When the snow is chest deep, they are slowed down enough for us to stay with them and keep track of where they are.

When they are at home, we go for walks and they are pets. In the woods, they are trail companions. I have never seen an Airedale smile but an Airedale on his back making snow angels is about a joyous as a dog can be.

The trails out of Tamarack are both for snowmobiles and Nordic skiers. The Raven Trail cuts off the main trail and is only for Nordic skiers. It can be done as an out and back to the Shaver Lake Overlook or one can do a loop back to the main trail cross county and meet up with it heading inbound. This route is essentially unmarked. The out and back is about 5 miles round trip with a gradual descent followed by an ascent to the overlook. The route back has lots of climb when your legs are a tad fatigued. We usually have a lunch break at the overlook.

Shaver Lake Overlook

One important stop on the way back to Fresno is in Shaver Lake. Norman Kato’s Shaver Lake Deli has good food and hot chocolate.   

Saturday, February 1, 2014

Water In The Wilderness

Dale Matson

But whosoever drinketh of the water that I shall give him shall never thirst; but the water that I shall give him shall be in him a well of water springing up into everlasting life. (John 4:14, KJV)

If you are traveling in the wilderness, perhaps the most important commodity is water. Without water you will last about 3 days. Of course there are negatives to water. Water is relatively heavy. One liter of water is 2.2 pounds. That is more weight than my sleeping bag, more than my sleeping pad and nearly as much as my tent or pack. Sometimes water is too abundant and presents an obstacle, in the case of a swollen creek or river. In that case you will have to find a means to cross such as a log or you may have to ford the creek risking being swept downstream in the current.

Dale Crossing Sallie Keyes Creek East Of Florence Lake CA

Sometimes God intervenes and miraculously provides a path through the water as a temporary avenue for His people. For the enemy who pursues, there is certain death when the water returns. Crossing the Red Sea and the River Jordan was both a milestone and a type of baptism for God’s people.

Fortunately most established and maintained trails in the wilderness follow a stream and/or cross streams and creeks along the way.

South Fork Of San Joaquin River in Kings Canyon Along the John Muir Trail

This is a blessing for the wilderness pilgrim who only has to carry enough water until the next source, be it a stream or a lake. There is a caveat in this since many streams are seasonal. Just ask those who visit Yosemite in the Fall only to discover that Yosemite Creek and Bridalveil Creek no longer provide waterfalls and we must wait until the winter snows again replenish the source lakes in the high Sierras.

As a wilderness pilgrim, I am careful to note on the topographical map where the creeks cross the trail. I refill my containers at each opportunity. Being thirsty means that one cannot take in nutrition either since water is needed for digestion. The mountain air is dry and dehydration is an ever present possibility.

The Merced River Flowing Over Nevada Falls in Yosemite
Seen From Glacier Point Ski Trail

Water is an amazing substance. In the form of ice, it carved deep canyons. The Kings Canyon is over 8,000’ deep. Creeks continue to erode mountains today. Water seeps into cracks and the expansion as ice further fractures mighty boulders. As I hike, I can hear the sound of creeks and waterfalls as I approach. The sounds are telltale and welcome signs that my parched throat will again be refreshed. Yes, there are flies and mosquitos that share the water but soon I have climbed away from the dip in the trail created by the stream, being careful to hop carefully from rock to rock.

Yosemite Falls From Sentinel Dome In Winter 

Water is the lifeblood of the wilderness. The fauna and flora could not exist without it. Sometimes you can see the evidence of water before you can hear or smell it. There is vegetation on either side of a creek as it flows through granite, slag, scree and boulders. How important is water? When water leaves the wilderness, it flows down toward towns and cities. There would be no life on earth without water. God created water before He created light.

“Jesus answered, Verily, verily; I say unto thee, except a man is born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God.” (John 3:5, KJV)