Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Rebuilding the Water Canyon Trail, Parts 1 and 2

In the pre-Cerro Grande heyday of mountain biking around Los Alamos, the downhill trip through Water Canyon was nearly everyone’s favorite lunchtime getaway. It was a fast-paced trip through thick forest on a narrow trail and we all thought it was a great mimic of the Ewok speeder scenes in the original Star Wars trilogy. 

There were many reasons to love the canyon. It always had water and all kinds of wildflowers. In some winters, you could cross-country ski down the narrow track. It held monster Douglas firs, bright aspen groves, and you could almost always find bear tracks.

We rarely think of taking photos of our common experiences; we assume the opportunity will be there forever. My collection of 50,000 photographs has only a few of trails before 1999 and none showing the shady route in Water that I traveled dozens of times.

The Cerro Grande fire changed almost everything about Water Canyon. The trail was so devastated by post-fire floods that I refused to lead work parties in there because it seemed hopeless. But the gentle downhill tilt of the canyon, the rocks, the isolation, and the bear population were unaltered. It was still Water Canyon.

In 2005, I asked my wife what she wanted for her birthday gift. "The Water Canyon Trail," she replied without a moment of hesitation. 

It was a snowless winter, Pajarito Mountain was rarely open, and so for our weekend exercise sessions we went into the canyon between West Jemez Road and the road to American Springs and started cutting a path through the fallen trees. It was nearly impossible to follow the original trail, so we snaked back and forth, picking up old trail segments as we found them. Before long, we noticed that others were working on the trail, too, including those amazing chainsaw operators who cut a long log bridge. The trail slowly came back to life and was again a great bike or hike trip. This was especially true after 2010 when we had the opportunity to get the Family YMCA's Youth Conservation Corps into the canyon and they did amazing tread work that truly brought the trail back to something like the original.

When the Las Conchas fire came through Water Canyon, the burn severity map showed it as mostly within a moderate burn area where the living trees are scorched but the needles aren't consumed. Only the uppermost section of the watershed high against the east ridge of Cerro Grande was really toasted. I was hopeful that the trail would survive the post-fire floods and that only some clean-up work would be necessary.

What do I know? During July and August 2011, the upper Water Canyon watershed received two rainstorms of more than 1.5 inches in less than an hour. That patch of high intensity burn high up was enough to throw a lot of water into the drainage. Plus, much of the fire in the Water Canyon drainage was re-burn in the Cerro Grande burn scar. The fuel consisted of small aspen and New Mexico locust, along with down logs from trees killed by the first fire. The area burned hot enough to kill the re-growth and to consume the down logs. This stripped the slopes of all ground cover--those logs would have helped slow runoff and would have reduced the intensity of the post-fire floods.

The result was that the entire trail was gone again. I reported in November 2011 that the canyon was basically a rut within a rut. The trail was either completely washed away or covered with boulders. The lower section of the trail below Sawmill Meadow was a total loss. 

This was getting personal. This time I was ready to jump right back into trail reconstruction no matter how hopeless the situation on the ground.

Española Ranger District Recreation Manager (and Los Alamos native) Lynn Bjorklund, Forest Service Volunteer Coordinator Jennifer Sublett and I toured the canyon in April 2012. We Lynn suggested that with so many miles of trail in need of work throughout the burned area that we set the goal for 2012 to rebuild the Water Canyon route to Sawmill Meadow. Just that much was daunting enough.

The first 2000 feet looked pretty easy: move the trail out of the canyon bottom onto the north slope. The route could wind through live Douglas firs, scoot over boulders, and weave through a couple of rock chutes. About a half-mile up, one of those picturesque rhyolite cliffs pushed to the edge of the deepest part of the rut and forced us to look to the south bank for passage. A boulder field—basketball-sized rocks tumbled down the canyon’s south fork a piled up by debris dams formed from Cerro Grande-killed firs—completely blocked the way. The next challenge would be re-crossing the rutted stream channel avoid the old channel now choked with bison-sized chunks of rhyolite. We roamed in circles for a couple hours without finding a solution. We left Water Canyon an unresolved problem and spent the next three months working other trails in other canyons.

Two events in July turned around my thinking. As I worked with the Youth Conservation Corps in Cañon de Valle, I was reminded just how much you can accomplish with a devoted crew. The YCC moved impossible rocks, tons and tons of dirt and gravel, and felt that nothing was too difficult to finish. They found a method to deal with each problem spot they faced. That crew wasn't authorized to work in Water Canyon, but multi-talented Boy Scout Aaron Bao was looking for a worthy challenge for his Eagle Scout project and waited patiently as Lynn worked on removing hazard trees and getting the necessary clearances for moving the trail. I knew Aaron was the right guy to lead the project and that Troop 129 was a crew that could handle it.

Inspired by the younger generation, I went back to Water Canyon to take a second look. Just like I can’t write a paragraph if some of my attention is diverted by chatter in the next room, I can’t layout a trail if I’m not by myself. I spent two mornings alone in the canyon, looking for the little seams in the boulder blockage that I could force open wide enough for a trail. I found slots that could be worked, and did some experimenting. Could we use shovels and picks to cut through a three-foot high berm left by receding debris flows? Could we pull log jams apart log by log? Could we cut through the bank of the rut and hold it up with a retaining wall? No problem—if you have the crew to do it.

Troop 129 showed up and cut the first 2000 feet in one day. It took another month to finish. We worked evenings and Saturdays, sometimes two of us, sometimes 10. I got some crazy looks when I said things like, “we’re going to dig through this berm and use the dirt to fill that trench.” All it involved was picks, shovels, several muscle groups, and maybe five tons of material.

The last day, on the last 200 feet, we had our first encounter with people actually using the trail. The Thompsons came up on us with the look of astonishment on their faces. “We figured we’d have to fight our way up here to see the meadow, but we followed a trail the entire way! We had no idea anyone was working on rebuilding trails.”

What a great way to end a project for the year, with the knowledge that someone, and others that would follow, appreciated your work.

Current Conditions

The Water Canyon Trail is in great shape from West Jemez Road to Forest Road 181. The only issue is that the old trailhead parking area has been blocked off by new construction. There is parking on the west side (right side heading toward the back gate) of the road just beyond the guardrail as the road starts to climb to the back gate. Pick up the trail by heading toward the large detention basin, but quickly veering off onto a rough double track to the left. The double track crosses a small open field, then crosses the stream channel. On the north bank of the channel, turn left onto the old road and watch for cairns marking the start of the singletrack trail. It's easy to follow from there to the meadow and then take the left fork to continue up canyon.

Look for Part 3 of the story in 2013! The trail is rebuilt, but I haven't had time to tell the story.

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