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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Volunteers have created wildly popular trail system on bluff

For more than two decades, a don’t-ask, don’t-tell volunteer trail-building effort has been wildly successful on the South Hill bluff below High Drive.

Spokane has a premier neighborhood recreation area with more than 22 miles of routes heavily used by walkers, runners and mountain bikers. And the trails were developed at virtually no cost to the city.

Taylor Bressler, Spokane Parks and Recreation Department planning and development director, hints that it’s been a white-knuckle ride for city managers since unknown laborers began carving trails into the steep erodible slopes above Hangman Creek.

“We’ve got a good thing going,” he said Tuesday. “We just can’t talk a lot about it.”

Success is a great persuader, said Dave Breidenbach, 58, owner of Spoke ’N Sport Bicycle Shop. In the mid-1990s, “Spokane Parks mailed me a cease-and-desist notice when they learned that I was building trails on the city’s land over the bluff,” he said.

“A woman from the neighborhood became very agitated when she saw me moving dirt down there and she complained to the city. I think they had to have that sort of official reaction. But a few of us kept at it under cover, and the results speak for themselves.

“I’m proud to see the use – walkers and bikers, old people and young, high school cross-country teams, you name it.”

The trails were built by a small, quiet legion of volunteers.

Steve Noland, a Spokane native who recalls playing cowboys and Indians below the bluff in the 1950s, started building trails down the slopes in the fall of 1985.

An old horse trail that might date back a century came steeply down the bluff from near the current Rocket Market location, and that was about the only definable route, he said.

“I’d bought my first mountain bike and the only way to go down the bluff back then was to slide straight down the old eroded motorcycle climbs,” he said. “Then I had to push my bike back up. So I wanted a gentler switchback trail that I could ride up and down.”

The city didn’t know what he was up to, but Noland, now retired from the state Department of Transportation, was the right man for the job. His geography degree required training in soils; he’d been a surveyor in the Army, and he was a member of the Spokane Mountaineers.

“I had a sense for what to do,” he said. “But that doesn’t mean I didn’t learn from a few mistakes.”

His first trail has become a popular route that starts behind the guard rail where Bernard Street joins High Drive and switchbacks down to the valley floor.

He started the trail in the fall of 1985 and finished it the next spring.

Later, Breidenbach and friends began a trail from Noland’s first switchback and then contoured northwest toward 29th Avenue, another of today’s popular routes.

And so began the effort that grew like a windshield rock chip in a cold snap.

“I would go out of sight as much as possible, build a section of trail and then connect the ends stealthfully in the early morning to avoid arousing too much interest,” Noland said. “Very few people were down low on the bluff in those days.”

One of his greatest satisfactions came the day he pedaled one of the trails near The Creek at Qualchan Golf Course and saw that Spokane Parks had installed a “public trails” sign that legitimized the trail-building efforts.

Trail builders who joined the effort all seem to recognize each other, but rarely by full name.

Among them are a Randy and at least a couple of Garys, including one who built miles of trails, always teemed with his dog and sometimes a wheelbarrow and occasionally a young child.

A father-son team has been creating winding mountain bike trails near Hatch Road.

And there’s Bob Dickson, who preceded them all shortly after he moved to Spokane’s South Hill in 1963 and was immediately attracted to the bluff.

“I couldn’t believe that just minutes from my house and paved street I could spill over the bluff and be in another world,” said the retired physician.

Dickson quietly carved out trails to enable him and his three sons to wander more easily up and down the steep slopes above Hangman Creek.

“The existing trails were made by motorcycles and they were a disaster,” he said. “Our idea was that if we created a place for hikers to use there would be social pressure to take care of the area and make it all a public park.”

Mountain bikers took the trail system to a new level when they got involved in the 1980s, he said.

“Proper trails benefit everyone and the native plants because it keeps people from going all over the place,” he said. “They stay on the trails. The bluff trails are a city treasure.”

When two fires swept up the hillside in 2003, firefighters used the trails to gain access to the flames and as ready-made fire breaks.

“I’m 79 now, so I’m out of the trail-building business,” Dickson said. “But my walking stick has pruners on it. Once you get started, you never can stop.”

That sense of stewardship seems to be spreading through the High Drive neighborhoods, with groups stepping up to address weeds, fire danger and dog poop. During summer, some people stash jugs of water at a dry site low on the bluffs to fill a dished rock “bowl” for dogs and wildlife.

But trails are the heart of the interest.

“Trail building became addictive,” Noland said. “It’s good physical exercise. You see the fruit of your labor. You get to use the trails, and better yet, you get to see other people enjoying them.”

As the bluff has become saturated with trails, Noland and others he knows have turned their efforts mostly to maintenance.

“Every spring some branches need to be trimmed back, a few trees blow down across trails, stretches need to be regraded,” he said. “Some mountain bikers have done good work to stabilize switchbacks.”

However, the early trail builders all seem to worry that some people might take the trail building too far.

“I’m concerned about some of the deeper cuts in the sandy soils that are showing up to create jumps and things like that,” Noland said.

“Right now, the mountain biking that’s going on is pretty mellow, fitting in with the dog walkers and runners. You don’t see a real racy crowd there. You see mountain bikers stopping for walkers or at least thanking them when hikers step off the trail to let them by. But if people build steeper faster trails and jumps, the dynamic could change.

“All and all, most of what I see is pretty well done – although the first zigzag trail I built is too steep for me to ride now that I’m 17 years older.”

Bressler said Spokane Parks can stretch its dollars when the public takes charge of a city recreation area.

“There have been some inappropriate switchacks and erosion because of some of the trails. But that’s mostly stopped and I think it’s because of peer pressure,” he said. “People are looking out for the place. If they see somebody doing harm they speak up.”

He especially appreciates the “solid patronage of volunteers maintaining the trails.”

Breidenbach said the bluff fills a niche that goes beyond a quick neighborhood exercise area.

“Riders come from other parts of town because the south-facing bluff dries out quickly even during winter and provides hiking and biking when other areas are thick with snow or mud,” he said.

Breidenback said he’s devoted a couple thousand hours to building and maintaining trails, but he got a good signal that it was worthwhile a few years after the city told him to “cease and desist.”

“I was on the trails when I passed the woman who’d confronted me and filed the complaint,” he said “She was enjoying the trails and made a point to tell me that things had worked out OK.

“I hope it never comes to the point the bluff needs to be regulated,” he said. “Before people started building trails, there was more partying and abuse back there. There’s less of that because good people are constantly using the trails.

“To me, the bluff is a field of dreams.”