I was stabbed in the back once by a dead tree and although the wound left no physical scar the emotional toll lingers, lo these many years later.
The tree in question lay across the Cliff River Trail in the Eagle Cap Wilderness north of Halfway. I suspect a wind gust was responsible for its being toppled, although I suppose an especially muscular, or bored, Bigfoot might have knocked the subalpine fir over merely to see if it was possible.
(Which would mean, I guess, that at least the tree made a sound when it went down.)
Whatever the cause, the tree was in my way.
And due to the topography it presented no minor obstacle.
This particular trail, as mountain trails often are, was carved into a slope of moderate steepness. The tree, which until its untimely demise had been growing on the uphill side of the trail, fetched up in a way that left the thickest part of its bole spanning the trail at a height of about 4 feet.
Which, to a person with limbs of average dimensions, as mine are, is about the most unfortunate position possible.
The tree, besides being canted at the approximate angle of a ski jump, was high enough that I couldn’t clamber over it in the awkward but generally effective method that hikers employ — the sort of controlled roll that high-jumpers used before Dick Fosbury came along.
(Also, it’s not so much that my own days of high jumping are over but that they never happened at all.)
Yet the tree also blocked the trail at a height too low for me to easily slither beneath it, in the fashion of a tortoise or some other low-slung creature.
I unstrapped my backpack — to attempt in any way to get past this impediment with 25 pounds on my back would surely have inflicted a much more grievous injury — and considered my list of unappealing options.
I chose the tortoise route, mainly because it seemed less likely to result in a long and punishing tumble down the mountain.
I hunkered, as adults do when they’re accompanying a small child in an amusement park or other setting designed for tots, and began to sidle beneath the fir.
I crab-walked until I was pretty sure I was clear.
But as I began to raise up I felt a sudden sharp pain about halfway down my back and off to one side, in the kidney region. I went down to my knees and scrabbled a few feet farther.
I looked back and saw the culprit. One branch, about the thickness of my wrist, had snapped off during the tree’s tumble, leaving a jagged stump extending about 2 inches from the trunk, an organic dagger.
As I stood there smarting from the pain I also fumed, my frustration a combustible combination of anger at my own clumsiness and at the knowledge that a brief bit of light work with a saw would have spared me and any other hiker likely to come that way until the next winter’s gales.
I recently replayed this episode in my mind, my annoyance tempered somewhat by the passage of many years (and also my back wasn’t stinging), while reading a press release I received from an outfit called Wilderness Watch.
The group is a member of a coalition that’s suing the Forest Service over the agency’s plan to allow employees to use motorized chainsaws this summer to cut fallen logs on trails in a couple of Colorado wildern ess areas.
Chainsaws, in common with motorcycles and other vehicles powered by an engine, are prohibited on public land designated by Congress as wilderness under a 1964 law.
The law allows for exceptions.
The Forest Service and other agencies that manage wilderness areas have for instance allowed helicopters to land to extricate an injured hiker or climber. A provision in the Wilderness Act mentions exceptions “required in emergencies involving health and safety of persons within the area.”
But Wilderness Watch and its co-plaintiffs contend that the purpose in the Colorado case — to more rapidly clear fallen trees from hiking trails — doesn’t justify an exception to the 1964 Wilderness Act. That legislation contains several passages — ones I’ve read in many publications — that attempt to define attributes that distinguish a wilderness.
Among these are the idea that a wilderness is a place “untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain,” and an area that “generally appears to have been affected primarily by the forces of nature, with the imprint of man’s work substantially unnoticeable.”
The plaintiffs cite the Forest Service’s own guidelines, which note that agency managers can’t approve an exception to the ban on motorized equipment in wilderness areas based “solely on a rationale that the method or tool is quicker, cheaper and easier.”
It’s a persuasive argument in this specific case.
Yet my thoughts about the more general issue of how the government manages wilderness areas are marked mainly by ambivalence — a position that seems to me to have gone out of favor in our era even though, in my view, uncertainty is a perfectly reasonable attitude to have in a world that’s vastly more nuanced, and complicated, than the absolutes of social media imply.
I have read comments from people who believe wilderness areas should be even wilder than they are. These people, who I suspect constitute a tiny minority, contend that the Forest Service ought not do anything in wilderness areas, including maintaining trails. Some advocate for removing trail signs and any other tangible evidence of human activity and presence.
I think I understand their desire to visit places that, to again quote the Wilderness Act, are “primeval” and “without permanent improvements.”
But I can’t go in with this rather extreme definition of wilderness.
And the reason is that these areas, like the majority of the public land that the Forest Service, BLM, National Park Service and other agencies oversee, are, well, public. Which is to say, they belong to every American.
I’m not suggesting that every acre of public land must be made accessible to all, that we are obligated to build chairlifts up El Capitan or climate-controlled skybridges to the summit of Mount Hood.
Yet if we will continue to spend tax dollars to maintain trails in wilderness areas — and I’ve read nothing that suggests we will not — then it seems to me that we also should strive to ensure those trails are reasonably usable by the people footing the bill.
“Reasonable,” of course, is the most troublesome of adjectives.
I certainly don’t think it’s reasonable to expect that I’ll never have to do the limbo under a subalpine fir.
And as the plaintiffs in the Colorado case note, a muscle-powered crosscut saw can get through logs too — but not as fast as a chainsaw can.
Based on the conversations I’ve had with Forest Service officials around here over the past couple decades, the issue with trails in the Eagle Cap and other wilderness areas isn’t what sort of saw is used, but rather having enough money to hire people to wield the implement.
Considering the relatively modest cost to put together a trail crew, it seems to me the more pres sing task is not to fight over saws, but to press Congress to put up more money to equip a cadre of sawyers with nearly silent, and generally non-litigious, crosscuts.
J ayson Jacoby is editor
of the Baker City Herald.