The Environment Needs to Speak to You

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When John Aranson designs a trail, he studies the terrain until he sees where the trail needs to go. “That’s what I call ground mapping,” he says. “The environment needs to speak to you.”

John has been building trails since he graduated from high school, when hand tools were the norm, and environmental permits didn’t exist. His first job was working at Mt. Tam State Park, and that’s all he’s ever wanted to do. “I figured out at a very early age that working outside, particularly on trails, was going to be my passion and my career,” he says.

As chief steward of the Bay Area Ridge Trail, John considers his work both “a science and an art.” His trails follow geography and use native materials when possible. “My mantra is you want to be sure that the trail you’re designing will be there for generations,” he says. “That’s what it’s all about.”

The Ridge Trail is a bold and ambitious project that Aranson and team have been working on for 28 years. The vision is a 550-mile continuous loop that traces the ridgeline above San Francisco Bay, and the trail’s seven-member council is working to see it completed, mile by mile. 365 have been built, with a goal to reach 400 in three years. It’s the “last hundred,” as the council refers to the gaps in the trail, that will be the hardest to connect.

 

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A consultant on the Bay Area Ridge Trail council, John Aranson says designing a trail is “both a science and an art.”

Janet McBride, the council’s executive director, is up to the challenge. A veteran urban and environmental planner, she says the Ridge Trail is a “poster project” for collaboration between public and private agencies. Even so, when people disagree or funding disappears, projects can stall, so Janet’s focus is building partnerships to keep things moving. “Some people may consider it political, but I think of it as problem solving,” she says.

Janet, who grew up in Southern California, had her environmental awakening on Earth Day when she was 10 years old. It was during the Santa Barbara oil crisis, and “Save the Planet” was the popular refrain. Janet had spent her childhood vacations camping at national and state parks with her family, and she loved the beauty of the beaches and woods they explored. In college, she says she rebelled against what she perceived as a “separation from nature,” which led her to study environmental planning. She is very good at what she does, and her work has made a huge impact on the progress of the Ridge Trail.

The main obstacle to completing the last hundred is private landowners who don’t want the trail to cross their property, and the whole council has to work together to find a way forward. John knocks on doors. Janet negotiates. Their colleague Emily Bauska spreads the trail love.

 

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Executive Director Janet McBride says the Bay Area Ridge Trail is a “poster project” for collaboration between public and private agencies.

Janet says that Emily is “happiness in a bottle,” and her infectious energy is crucial to the trail’s survival. Recently Emily attended a volunteer-led moonrise hike. “The sky had started getting that golden hour look and there were these amazing clouds,” she says. The first people to reach the top of the hill cheered on the others. Then the group watched the sunset on one side of their perch and the moonrise on the other. People were enchanted by the experience, which meant Emily had done her job.

Emily grew up in a small town in Eastern Oregon, where she and her brother used to roam free, exploring the desert trails on their own. Their dad often took them on “adventure weekends” to go hiking, fishing and fossil collecting around the Northwest.

A few years ago, Emily hiked the John Muir Trail in the Sierra Nevada mountain range with her friend Sammy, who showed up at the trailhead with an injured knee and zero backpacking experience. “I think I should have been a little more concerned,” Emily says. But she and Sammy finished the 211-mile trail in such good shape that they dropped their packs and ran up to the summit of Mt. Whitney. Emily lives for that exhilaration. “When I’m down, something that picks me up is planning an adventure,” she says.

 

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Emily Bauska, the staff’s volunteer and events manager, often rides her bike on the Bay Area Ridge Trail after work.

That’s the spirit that drives the Ridge Trail council. They want people to have epic thru-hiking adventures on the Ridge Trail, and to pass on the love of nature through generations. “Before we actually build a trail, we try to make sure that someone is going to be there to steward it,” John says. “It’s like a child. You can’t just build a trail and just forget about it.”

Urban access is also very important to everyone on the council. “It’s a huge, important part of trail design,” John says. They are also highly attuned to the protection of wildlife and native plants. John only uses wildlife-friendly fences, never barbed wire, and Janet says that trails create “wildlife corridors” that actually make it easier for animals to travel through their natural habitat.

John knows that he might not see the trail completed in his lifetime, but he feels good about the work he’s done. “For me, it’s the complexity of unlocking the trail, the challenge of building it, and having that warm feeling inside of doing something that really means something to a lot of people,” he says. “It’s just an incredible legacy.”

 

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Learn more at REI.com/trails.

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