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Walking the wild

Signature trail offers 30 miles of chloro-full fun
by: DENISE FARWELL, Sunset High School students Hyo-Jung Na (left) and Katie Litvin, both 17, watch on a Saturday earlier this month as one of their schoolmates crosses an ivy-covered slope in Forest Park. When they were done volunteering to remove the invasive plant, there was less to navigate, and more chance for trees to survive.

Thirty miles. You could hike the whole thing in one long day if you were in shape and started early enough.

It would be a long day walking past fir and cedar trees, pausing at small, tinkling streams, hearing traffic only at the rare road crossing.

Forest Park's Wildwood Trail zigzags from Washington Park to the far northern edge of Forest Park near Linnton. On the way it passes through Hoyt Arboretum, with more than 800 kinds of trees and shrubs from around the world.

Deeper into Forest Park it is possible to see blacktailed deer, coyote, bobcat, fox and even bear. Or you might see a group of shoeless walkers, the Portland Barefoot Hikers, who often take outings on the Wildwood.

Nearly 60 years ago Forest Park and its best-known feature, the Wildwood Trail, officially came into existence. For another half-century before that, groups had been encouraging the city of Portland to turn the second-growth fir forest that covers Tualatin Mountain into a massive natural park, something that would rival New York's Central Park or San Francisco's Golden Gate Park.

Today, both Forest Park and the Wildwood Trail have grown into something unique. Immensely popular with local hikers, Wildwood Trail is also famed among trail runners. According to Runner's World magazine, any trail runner visiting Portland and not running the Wildwood 'is as blasphemous as an artist visiting Madrid and skipping the Prado.'

Portland attorney David Shannon, who ran portions of the trail in preparation for the Portland Marathon, agrees.

'It's awesome,' he says. 'Where else can you be out in the wild and woolly and still be so close to the city?'

The Wildwood's charm - its proximity to downtown Portland - is also its curse. During the summertime, popular portions of the trail are used by hundreds, even thousands, of people a day. It's a convenient place for fundraising, such as the recent Run for Congo Women and the Walk for the Wildwood.

Friends keep park growing

The constant use means constant upkeep, and with Portland Parks and Recreation's small budget, trail maintenance and trail building have become the job of Friends of Forest Park, a local nonprofit group.

Although a less formal organization had been around since the trail's official birth in 1948, Friends of Forest Park incorporated in 1989 in order to buy land.

Working closely with Parks and Recreation, the group raises grant money, acquires land, organizes volunteers and prints the free maps available at feeder trails on Forest Park's fringes. Since 1991 the group has raised more than $1 million for land acquisition.

According to Friends Executive Director Gail Snyder, a lot of the group's energy goes toward the seemingly simple task of keeping the Wildwood walkable. But trail upkeep - which includes everything from cutting back overgrowth to clearing away landslides - keeps a crew of volunteers and AmeriCorps staff busy through the summer.

The group also builds new trails. In 2000 it added three miles to the Wildwood's northern end, to connect it with Northwest Newberry Road, its current terminus. In 2004, Friends of Forest Park built a feeder trail from the west end of the St. Johns Bridge. As Snyder explains, her vowels still bearing traces of an Australian upbringing, trail construction is as multifaceted as trail maintenance.

'Trail construction is also restoration, and not just of the trail but the surrounding area,' she says, adding that the crews 'clean up trash dumps, remove invasive species and, working with Friends of Trees, plant native species.'

During the 2004 Ridge Trail construction from the St. Johns Bridge, the trail crew encountered homeless encampments, trash dumps and blighted patches of forest overrun with ivy and blackberries.

Trail building is also expensive. Snyder estimates each mile costs $15,000 to $20,000, and some, due to permitting, can cost even more.

'The last tenth of a mile of the connection to Newberry Road cost $10,000,' Snyder says, 'because we left Portland and entered Multnomah County.'

Ironically, trail construction also means trail removal. Hikers seeking a way from the St. Johns Bridge to the Wildwood Trail had created several informal paths, called 'social trails.' During construction of the St. Johns Ridge Trail, the social trails were decommissioned.

'Social trails' show a need

'One of the reasons why we created the Ridge Trail was because of the social trails. We wanted to put in a properly constructed trail with drainage and bridges and remove the social trails,' Snyder says.

All trails are a two-edged sword. The Wildwood, for example, gives hikers access to quiet areas of Forest Park. But it also gives a path for invasive species, many of which travel primarily by seeds lodged in the clothing of hikers and cyclists or in dog fur. Numerous social trails increase the potential for invasive species to flourish, creating more work for conservation crews.

While Friends of Forest Park crews battle invasive species in cutting trails, the No Ivy League, formerly known as the Ivy Removal Project, has dedicated itself to the removal of English ivy and other invasive species thriving in Forest Park.

People hiking the Wildwood have been surprised by No Ivy teams in the past, rounding a bend to spot a group gathered around some strangled fir, hacking at chunks of ivy as thick as Arnold Schwarzenegger's biceps.

Pulling weeds saves trees

Sandy Diedrich, the league coordinator known as the No Ivy Diva, has been bringing in volunteers and schoolkids to battle ivy, garlic mustard and other thriving invasive species since 1994. She estimates that her volunteers have rescued around 27,000 trees in Forest Park alone, and helped organize efforts to save another 70,000 in parks across the state.

'I can't imagine what the park would look like without the work that we've done. We would have a wholesale collapse of canopy in some areas,' Diedrich says.

The group's long-term goal is to eliminate patches of ivy in isolated areas of the park, save as many trees as possible and eliminate new seed sources. Diedrich doesn't expect to completely remove ivy from Forest Park but does hope to limit it. In fact, despite all the work, Diedrich concedes that the amount of ivy has probably remained constant.

'But I think that's pretty good considering the amount of seeds coming into the park,' she says.

Like Friends of Forest Park, the work done by the No Ivy League affecting the Wildwood is hard physical labor and depends on a constant stream of volunteers.

'We get together every Saturday, but it's impossible to say what an average group is like,' Diedrich says. 'Sometimes there's one person. Sometimes there are hundreds. Sometimes we have groups of elementary schoolchildren who do a little work, and sometimes we get real hard-core REI employees who really make the vine whine.'

Paths can lead to solitude

Rose Orleans, walking back to her home near Macleay Park, says that she is happy to have a trail to hike within walking distance of her home. The recent transplant from Montana has only been here about a month, but she knew about Forest Park. Discovering the Wildwood Trail, she says, was a pleasure. She has already gone on several 4- to 5-mile hikes.

'I think it's great as far as accessibility goes,' Orleans says. 'It's better than most places I've lived. There are a lot of people on the trail, but if you walk for a while you can get some solitude.'

Portland native Ron Hill agrees. The 50-year-old accountant has been hiking portions of the Wildwood Trail for more than 20 years.

'It's definitely getting more use now than in the '80s. There are also more kinds of people, more dogs and sometimes bikes, which aren't supposed to be allowed,' he says. 'Considering the use the trail gets, it's in good shape, and if you go north of Germantown Road, you can walk for hours without seeing anybody else.'

And someday there may be more. Snyder and the rest of the Friends of Forest Park have their eyes on a parcel of land at the northern edge of Forest Park, the purchase of which could add 10 more miles to the Wildwood.

Some of the money to purchase the land could arrive soon, in the form of Measure 26-80, the Natural Areas, Parks and Streams Bond Measure. If Measure 26-80 passes in November, Metro will receive more than $200 million to preserve local natural areas.

Snyder hopes that some of this money will go toward purchasing the land north of Forest Park. In her fondest imaginings, she sees this as the next step toward the Wildwood's final growth spurt.

'We'd like to see a trail go all the way to the coast,' she says wistfully. 'It's a long way off, but wouldn't that be great?'