Blazing the trail: 68-year-old behind creation of River Ridge Trail in Fraser Valley
July 20, 2017
At the top of River Ridge Trail this week I spent some time with trail builder Melinda McWilliams and her dog, Lucy.
McWilliams seemed like just another friendly community gardener. But when I looked into her open car trunk at the Fraser Valley Community Garden last summer, I spied a pick axe, iron rake, buckets and heavy work gloves inside. Curious, I asked about the implements of destruction. She told me that she was, as a matter of fact, using the hefty tools to cut a path through rough, steep terrain, building the Fraser Valley's newest hiking trail. As a volunteer and in a labor of love, she designed, cleared, roughed and finished the River Ridge Trail last year. This would be a challenging and heavy physical task for the strongest 20-something — and the achievement is especially impressive when you consider that mild-mannered McWilliams is 68 years old.
After putting in 425 hours in the trail-building project, the River Ridge Trail opened in 2016 and now connects Fraser County's busiest County Road — CR 804 — to the Fraser River Trail. The River Ridge Trail showcases one of the widest and most beautiful views of the Fraser Valley, the winding Fraser River, and wonderful wildflowers. Its switchbacks and cribbing is a testament to McWilliams's determination and sweat equity, first earned over a career in Forest Land Management.
She earned a landscape architect degree from the University of Georgia in 1970 before embarking on a 27-year career in Asheville, N.C., with the National Forest Service Recreation Management, Forest Land Management Planning Department. That's where she developed her trail design, building and maintenance skills, "the whole shebang," as she puts it.
During her career in Asheville, McWilliams managed the trail program and worked with volunteers to teach them how to build and maintain trails.
"We had 260 miles of Appalachian Scenic Trails that were steep and rocky," she said. "We had a good foot or so of 'duff' (decomposing vegetation) that needed to be cleared before we got to the mineral soil."
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And so she explained that trail building in Colorado is easier than in North Carolina. In Colorado, she said, you just have to scratch the ground to reveal the mineral soil, which becomes the trail "tread" and the vegetation is easily cleared because the plant roots are shallow.
In the spring of 2015 she got her opportunity to use her lifetime of expertise when she attended a Fraser town meeting to discuss the County Road 804 reconstruction project. There were drainage issues on the road and pedestrian and bike safety were compromised because of a lack of a road shoulder. Andy Miller, a town of Fraser Trustee, had always wanted to connect County Road 804 to the Fraser River Trail and the town had recently acquired property to build it.
After the meeting, McWilliams approached Fraser Town Manager Jeff Durbin and told him she had the know-how to build the trail. She began in May 2015 by scouting and flagging the route. She and Miller looked over the proposed pathway together, and she used an aerial photograph of the area as well, adding in the trail flags. She took the photo to the Fraser Town Council Meeting and got approval to begin the River Ridge Trail project.
McWilliams spent the summer of 2015 clearing vegetation along the trail using long-handled loppers and clippers, and always had her pick axe and rake on hand while roughing out the route so she wouldn't fall off, she said. As she prepared the path, roughing out the tread of the trail and constructing control points, she kept as many wildflowers and as much vegetation as she could.
"First, I identified control points, the key spots along the way that you have to hit to determine the route. The most challenging control point was the switchback in the Aspen grove," she said. "If this didn't work, the rest of the trail would not exist. In most natural terrain there are level areas but there were no level areas on this hillside."
The most important control point in her trail design was the switchback in the Aspen grove. She had to create a level area, by hand, in natural terrain that did not exist before.
McWilliams said that another challenge in building the trail was the dryness of the soil as it wouldn't compact.
"I had to cut the trail 'full bench' so that the whole trail was on solid ground. I would never be able to build it on compacted fill. As I dug full bench, I threw off side-cast that looked like BBs and would slough off the side," she said. According to McWilliams, full bench is not a common trail building technique.
"Every rock has been hand set on the trail. Every rock is rounded by the river up here so it's hard to get them to grab together. The hillside is so steep even though I was digging full bench. The edges on the steep slopes and near the ditches needed rock cribbing to stabilize the tread."
Volunteers from the Headwaters Trails Alliance helped for three days, Miller came in and chain sawed eight aspen trees that McWilliams couldn't pull out, and Deb Buhayar, leader of the Fraser Valley Community Garden, lent a hand for a day. But in the end, 95 percent of all the work was completed by McWilliams, by hand, by herself.
"I can wield a pick for four to five hours a day without wearing out," she said.
She built 25 to 30 feet of finished trail each day: rough, dig, shape, repeat. "It was slow going," she said. She found deer hoof prints on the trail early on, and the animals used her switchbacks, without taking short cuts, she said proudly. She found one set of tracks from a moose, who dislodged a bunch of cribbed rocks. "It's hard to build a trail for a 2,000-pound moose," she exclaimed.
In addition to creating switchbacks, the River Ridge Trail crosses a ditch three times that begins up on County Road 804 and drops to the Fraser River Trail. The ditch was three-feet deep in places and McWilliams used cribbing — filling up the ditch and leveling the trail tread with small rocks. She placed straw-filled waddle water barriers at the top and along parts of the ditch to control erosion. The road reconstruction project also provided an assist on reducing erosion by redirecting the water that used to pour down the ditch from County Road 804 through new drainage.
She lives just up the hill from the trail and frequently walks with her Sheltie, Lucy, on the trail. "A lot of anglers love this trail because they can scout out ponds for fishing," she said.
McWilliams is now maintaining the trail by seeding critical fill slopes with wild, native grasses to help stabilize the slope.
Thanks go to the Town of Fraser, the Headwaters Trails Alliance, a few local friends, and especially to Melinda McWilliams for all the effort she has put into creating a wonderful trail with a phenomenal view.
Catherine Ripley Metzger of Grand County is an avid writer and founder of a food blog, http://www.foodfortheages.com.