A Bob Marshall Trail

Rumors flew about an old trail along the south side of the North Fork of Birch Creek, but nobody could see it.

They said Bob Marshall, the Grand Poobah of western forest recreation and wilderness long before it become politicized, blazed the trail, but maps from 50 years ago did not include it.

Overgrown brush and trees hid any sign of it. What could be a blaze on a tree to mark the trail might also be a scar from another falling tree.

This supposed trail was in our backyard. Our East Slope Back Country Horsemen club uses Swift Dam, the reservoir behind it and the trails surrounding it as our primary jumping-off point into the back country. We maintain the trail around the reservoir and host a day-long poker ride each year. We know that country like we know our children. Rumors of a clandestine route were an affront to our personal sense of back-country proficiency.

We accepted the challenge to solve this mystery.

We would find the trail and evaluate how much work it would take to clear it. It might take years to remove all the downed trees and repair all of the washouts, but we were committed to the long term.

Our president, Fred, dug up a map with the coordinates of the trail, but an irrigation pump repair job prevented him from riding along on this Journey of Discovery. In a volunteer organization, business still has to come first.

I didn’t expect to be able to go either. My daughter, Abby, and I just joined our friends for Sunday morning breakfast at Swift Dam then planned to finally clean house when we got back to the ranch.

But Marty had an extra horse and I’ll do just about anything to avoid cleaning house. So Marty, Bob and I saddled up with the map in hand to find Bob Marshall’s old trail.

The sun was warm, but not hot and wild flowers greeted us as we rode along – Indian paintbrush, violets and a version of hollyhocks perfumed the air.

Most of the Swift Dam trail is fairly easy – a good grade with a wide trail. But at one point, riders have to dive off a rocky point down into a canyon, cross the creek and ride up a steep trail through dark timber on a north-facing slope with lots of springs along the trail.

Well, it used to be dark timber.

Last year’s Strawberry Fire had burned hot, leaving vulnerable bare ground, so this spring’s snowmelt washed holes in the trail on that north-facing slope. Bob, Marty and other back country horsemen members had repaired three washouts along the trail in the rain the day before. Our horses’ feet sucked through the mud of their repairs.

But last year’s fire also gave us the clue we needed. With the timber burned out, we could look across the canyon of the North Fork and see a cut in the vegetation that just had to be the trail.

Bob’s GPS put us in the vicinity of the intersection.

Sure enough, we could see a faint trail heading west.

We piled a rock cairn to mark the juncture, then followed the narrow strip of bare ground winding its way through a wide swath in the trees. In all of these years, only a few trees had grown up near the trail. Now those were burned and dead.

The trail sidehilled through the brush and a couple of meadows to a flat wide creek crossing where it joined the trail to Badger Pass. No wonder Bob Marshall blazed this route. It is a much easier avenue for both pack strings and day riders.

We were surprise to find that it is in good shape. Only one spot needs a bit of shovel work and one log needs a chainsaw, then the trail will be ready for our Swift Dam Poker Ride on August 4. Come check it out. Bring your horse and a few snacks. We’ll have hamburgers and hot dogs ready at the campground when you get back. You won’t be disappointed.

Kristyn Rowland