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Cutca Valley Trail

18 May 1996 (Trail Work)

By: Alan Coles

Leaders: Alan Coles, Gail Hanna

This trip was scheduled to be led with Theresia Glover before her tragic death in January. It deprived me of the opportunity to meet her after only a brief conversation at the HPS banquet. She had expressed enthusiasm for seeing the trail and helping to restore it.

Only the 2 leaders showed up at the meeting point, the others canceling for various reasons. Still, we decided to go ahead with the trip on a balmy clear weekend.

Our new trail register had only 1 new entry: a couple from San Diego on their way to Dripping Springs. Other than that, it was the same route past browning meadows still filled with many flowers such as purple lupines, blue larkspur, yellow buckwheat and baby blue eyes. The streams were lower and some had already run dry.

We dropped our packs at the mouth of the canyon near the wilderness boundary and began working where our group ended on the last trip. Though we had provided a 6' width clearing the previous year, rapid growth has claimed most of it back (those of you who were on Carleton's trip to Eagle Crag last year might appreciate how much work it takes to keep the trail clear in the canyon). It took longer than we had hoped, but the 2 of us managed to regain the necessary side margin.

We put our packs back on and climbed under the massive fallen oak and over a new one (since our April trip) before setting up camp on a flat under a tall canopy of sycamores, big cone spruce, incense cedars and the tallest Coulter Pines I have ever seen. The canyon bottom, rich with the bright green color of wild currants, blackberries and bracken ferns, gave little indication of the fiery storm that engulfed the wilderness 6 years ago.

We took the Polanski and McCloud up the canyon and worked the tread where it was obscure. We constructed a short section of new trail around a washed out section. Hopefully the trail will be easier to find.

Sunday we took clippers and continued cutting brush along the trail in the canyon bottom. We worked our way up the first few switchbacks and finally my clippers seized up. I took it as an omen and acquiesced.

Once again, many thanks to Gail for getting almost all of the participants on our trips.

Some natural history notes:
The Vail Fire of 1989 burned most of the northern part of the Agua Tibia Wilderness. Before the fire, the chaparral was decadent with about 90% of the understory dead. About 20% to 30% of the Coulter Pines were dead or dying from insect infestations and disease. There hadn't been a fire in the area for about 100 years.

Now almost 7 years after the fire the forest is extremely healthy as we have witnessed with our trail work. In the open areas, various ceanothus species have germinated about 1 every square foot and have now reach 5' to 10' in height. Growth in the wetter areas last year averaged about 2' to 3' while on the slopes it ranges from around 6" to 15".

About 90% of the canyon live oaks survived the fire and have now reached about 50% of their former canopy. Most sycamore also survived although those in open areas have sprouted new growth from their crowns. About 30% of the big cone spruce and incense cedars died while the others, particularly the taller ones, retained most of their high limbs. Coulter Pines tend to grow in fire prone areas (often with a manzanita understory) and most of the exposed ones died and have fallen down.

Much discussion lately has centered around salvage logging with the recision bill signed by the president. It is interesting to note the contribution downed trees make to the environment which is easily observed along the Cutca Trail (you have to cross several of them along the way). The dead trees, especially the ones on open, sunny slopes, provide shade and soil nutrients for the new trees that have germinated. The soil retains moisture better and promotes growth of the new trees. Some of the new Coulter Pines are 5' to 10' tall and growing rapidly. One can sometimes detect the time from a previous fire because most Coulters grow in uniform groves due to their propensity to burn and regrow.

If you are doing Eagle Crag by this route, take some time to look at the new plants and trees and discover how important fire is to the environment. The cut logs and bushes along the trail will give you a rare opportunity to observe a remarkable recovery.

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