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The Hawk's Nest

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The Hawk's Nest

Lines Creek - Serving a lesson


We were just over half way around the three-mile loop, deep in the St. Joe Ranger District, when Linda, a few steps ahead of me on the trail, stopped and said “Oh look.” There it was, a steel and iron ghost from the past. Broken and rusty, a derelict left in the woods, the old steam locomotive leaned against a tree.

We had started the day from our camp on Marble Creek just upstream from Donkey Creek. The twelve-mile drive to the trailhead on Forest Service roads had been a breathtaking trip through dense fir and pine stands on steep canyon walls. We drove past expansive views from hundreds of feet above Eagle Creek and across pristine mountain meadows sprinkled with red, yellow, white and purple wild flowers, and small, unnamed seasonal streams and ponds.

It was midmorning of a rather warm day so, as expected, we didn’t see much wildlife, but the sights, sounds and smells were robust.

As we drove we found several camp sites for future trips, even more isolated than where we had spent the last couple of nights. One was next to the road were it crossed Lines Creek. It was also our trailhead. 

We were in the “Joe” to see the giant cedars in the Hobo Cedar Grove, but also discovered several historical trails that needed our footprints. One was the Lines Creek Historical trail, considered easy to moderate, and it stimulated our “what’s-over-there-itis” which is never quite dormant in us. 

In the early Twenties, the call of the White Pine had brought hundreds of lumberjacks and a few women to the area. At the head of this stream, about a mile and a half from where we started, they had built an incline line. 

With trekking poles, some fruit and water we headed out. As expected, there were huge stumps with springboard notches three to four feet off the ground. Below the trail were the remains of a flume dam. Where the pond once was, a brushy field grows out of the silt deposits. There were remains of a fire in 1922 and old log chutes. 

After about an hour of leisurely hiking and exploring and just before the trail crossed the creek, we saw the remains of the incline line. The “line” was a narrow gauge railroad going straight up the side of the hill. Cars loaded with fresh cut logs were attached to an inch and five-eighths steel cable pulled by two steam donkeys at the top of the hill. At the top the cars were sent down the other side still attached to the donkey for control. 

The incline is not part of the trail we were hiking. Buuut, a serious case of “what’s- up- there-itis” got us bad. So, up we went. Partially buried cable was ever present on, or crossing, the path or, sometimes, wrapped around a tree stump. Big pieces of iron and steel hardware, strewn along the side of the grade, reminded us of the history we were walking through. Rusty barrels leaned against trees while spikes, bolts and bars stuck out of the ground. A recent blowdown dropped on it caused the only turn in the track. Otherwise, it was straight up the hill. 

We climbed and rested, then climbed and ate fruit, then climbed and drank water, but regardless of what else we did, we always climbed. The value of switchbacks was an obvious lesson we were experiencing. 

Finally, at the top was our reward with views of West Elk Peak and East Elk Peak from the edge of a jagged rock cliff. We also got a good look at the incline down the other side, but just a look satisfied us this time. 

We had climbed over a thousand feet in slightly more then three quarters of a mile. We enjoyed a short rest with some more fruit and water before we started back down the way we came. 

As a side note, just below the top we crossed the road; you know the kind you drive on. This is not a good time to question our intelligence. 

Back at the bottom we crossed Lines Creek and continued on the trail, a little tired but still gripped with “what’s-around-the-bend-itis.” It was just around the bend where Linda spotted the old locomotive. The only thing left was the cab and boiler, an inglorious end to a once powerful engine that had carried tons of logs, now a relic of scrap iron and boilerplate, being held up by a tree whose parents and grandparents it had hauled away. 

Around another few bends were the sixty foot tall remnants of a trestle. These timbers had supported trains 140 to 150 cars long, each car weighing 60 tons or more; now they lean precariously on each other. The only thing they can support now is each other. 

The trail ended where it began, an easy hike, if you don’t do the incline, but with the incline came a deeper understanding of the history.

I may sound impressed, even excited about these relics, and I am. Yet their environmental consequences are not lost on me. Allowing mountain streambeds to fill with silt due to poorly planned dams, and erosion from putting a trail straight up a steep hill, have left scars that will last longer than the iron and steel that is rusting away under the trees. 

Still, I hope this part of the historic trail will serve a lesson also. These practices were not thought through with future generations in mind. 

There was a time when I would get angry over activities from days gone by. Today I know that I can’t get angry enough to change anything that was done. So I look with the same fascination of an archeologist studying another culture, the same fascination of a historian studying the past, and I hope to learn for our grandchildren’s sake. Not put my judgment on it, just observe and learn with today’s knowledge. 

I also hope to learn to check the map for roads before I start up an incline line. 


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Author info

Ernie Hawks Ernie Hawks is a former theater director who has branched into the creative fields of writing and photography. He lives in a cabin in Athol with his lovely wife Linda, and feeds the birds in his spare time.

Tagged as:

Environment, outdoors, Lines Creek, St. Joe

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