RIDGWAY – The Ouray Trail Group will receive the Outstanding Citizen Award from the Ridgway-Ouray Community Council at ROCC’s 20th annual Spaghetti Dinner, Saturday, Feb. 8 at the Ouray Community Center.
ROCC’s Outstanding Citizen Award recognizes and thanks individuals who have made a sustained contribution to Ouray County’s quality of life. This year, the ROCC Awards Committee chose to honor a nonprofit organization comprised of local volunteers. The Ouray Trail Group maintains more than 300 miles of world-class trails that annually draw thousands of visitors to Ouray County.
The Spaghetti Dinner begins Saturday, Feb. 8, at 6 p.m., followed by the award presentation and keynote address. This year’s featured speaker is Joe Ramey, meteorologist and climate specialist for the National Weather Service in Grand Junction. Ramey’s talk, “Climate to Weather in Western Colorado,” will examine the area’s historical and recent climate trends. His presentation will include a PowerPoint of his research and an outlook for the remainder of this year’s winter and projections for winter, 2014-15.
Ramey began his forecasting career in the United States Air Force as an observer and forecaster at the Air force Academy in Colorado Springs and in Daegu Korea. After completing his education at New Mexico State University, he worked at White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico. He has worked for the National Weather Service since 1994.
Every regular hiker in the area has probably encountered members of the Ouray Trail Group clearing debris and fallen trees from trails. Last year, 110 volunteers worked on trails, answered visitors’ questions at the Ouray Visitors’ Center, and offered other services to the organization.
“The knowledge of trail group volunteers benefits the whole community,” said Carol Garard, Ouray Visitors Center manager. “Visitors appreciate solid information on trail conditions and recommendations on which trails to consider. And once people learn about our excellent hiking trails, they tend to stay in Ouray longer.”
About 20 core members of the organization participate in regular work days from April through November. Their mission is to keep the 83 mapped hiking trails in Ouray County safe and enjoyable in a manner that protects the area’s resources and beauty. The OTG works in cooperation with U.S. Forest Service rangers, who attend OTG meetings and assist the group on National Trails Day each summer.
No forestry or wilderness experience is required of OTG volunteers. They come from all walks of life and many are retired. Some longtime members are in their 70s. Yet chronological age is no obstacle for the hearty crew.
The OTG was originally formed in 1986 to promote cross-country skiing and hiking around Ironton Park. Founders Bill and Joan Forsythe met with seven other Ouray area residents in the back of Ouray’s Timberline Deli, according to Karen Risch, who has written a history of the OTG’s beginnings. By June of that year, the group had published a guide to 13 hiking trails. Over the next few years, the organization rerouted and rebuilt more Forest Service trails, including the Blue Lakes Trail from the Lower Lake to Blue Lakes Pass and down into Yankee Boy Basin.
By the late 1990s, 17 trails were open for hiking. The OTG crew worked toward the goal of opening up every numbered U.S. Forest service trail in the county. Some were old miners’ trails that had not been maintained for more than 20 years.
A Forest Service ranger provided old topographical maps that helped the volunteers rediscover more trails, bringing the number to 83 in about three years. Since GPS was not widely available at the time, they measured distances with a cyclometer on wheels.
Bob and Karen Risch tackled the Silvershield Trail. Following old blazes on trees, they bushwhacked for miles until they found where the Oak Creek and Silvershield Trails connected. Roger Smith, current OTG president, remembers his part in that venture.
“We hiked back up with chainsaws and took down 64 trees on the Oak Creek Trail,” he said. “That typifies the work we did to increase the trail system from 17 to 83.”
Today, the trail group’s Hiking Trails of Ouray County map is sold in retail stores and visitors’ centers throughout western Colorado. Proceeds from map sales are the group’s main source of funding.
Any OTG member will tell you that trail work, from bucking out deadfall across trails to repairing water damagevto replacing signs and guideposts, is never-ending. Over the last 13 years, volunteers recorded between 3,000 and 5,000 hours of work every year. Trail workers frequently dodge lightning above tree-line and have endured storms that showered them with graupel (a form of precipitation similar to ice pellets) during monsoon seasons.
“Work in wilderness areas is particularly challenging since no power tools are allowed,” Smith said. “It can take a half-hour to make one cut in a tree with a cross-cut saw. We definitely could use some younger members!”
Extra help arrives in July when volunteers from the Hardrock 100 Endurance Run lend a hand. Every summer, they clear an avalanche area on the Bear Creek Trail and help the OTG with major projects on other trails.
Exactly how many people hike Ouray County trails each year remains a mystery. The U.S. Forest Service estimates that only about a third of hikers sign in at trailhead registration boxes. (The OTG provides and maintains the boxes.) In 2013, a total of 33,035 hikers signed in.
Plans for 2014 include a scenic extension of the Ouray Perimeter Trail that would take hikers through Oak Creek Canyon. As always, new volunteers are welcome.
“If you like to hike and you’re in good shape, it’s great fun,” said Phil Wolkin, trail work coordinator. “And it’s good to know the work pays off. I run into people from places like Durango who say they come here specifically to hike our trails because they are so well maintained.”
Admission to the Spaghetti Dinner is $10 per adult, and free for children 12 and under. The dinner includes spaghetti, a variety of homemade sauces, salad, garlic bread and homemade desserts. Beer and wine may be purchased.