There is no way to describe the hard work that goes into building the adventure route of the Olympic Discovery Trail, say the Clallam County jail inmates who have blazed the 25-mile wilderness detour from the Elwha River Valley to Lake Crescent.
“Unless you have seen it done or done it yourself, it is hard for someone to grasp the amount of work that is really put into it,” writes J.J., a former jail inmate whose anonymous correspondence was provided by the Clallam County Sheriff’s Office.
“I’ve found that the harder the work is, the better I feel when it is done.”
Led by Clallam County Chain Gang Officer Jon Beltrami, the inmate work crews have cut more than 14 miles of a soon to be 18-mile stretch of off-road trail in the rugged hills west of Port Angeles.
“One day you might be working knee deep in mud, the next day a foot of snow, maybe even 98 degree weather,” wrote T.R., one of more than 350 inmates who have helped build the hiking, mountain bike and horseback riding trail.
“A man can learn from how important it is to work as a team and how to have patience with every type of individual that you might be working with.”
Nonviolent, low-risk offenders in the county jail can apply to work on the chain gang. If they cut it, a third of their sentence is revoked.
“What’s really fun is teaching the guys,” Beltrami said in a series of interviews last month.
“They are so intrigued with this. These guys are so proud of what they do.”
Most of the inmates glean a sense of accomplishment from working in some of Clallam County’s most unforgiving terrain and seeing a trail take shape.
“The most important thing I have learned working the Discovery Trail is the great amount of respect I receive from others and myself while being sober from alcohol,” T.R. wrote.
This spring, the inmate work crews finished a 4-mile section of the trail south of Joyce that features three high-water bridges and stunning views of the Strait of Juan de Fuca and Olympic Mountains.
The so-called “adventure route” is a spur of the mostly paved Olympic Discovery Trail, which will eventually connect Port Townsend to the Pacific Ocean at LaPush.
The adventure route leaves the Olympic Discovery Trail at state Highway 112 just west of the Elwha River.
It winds its way through steep topography, dense forests and underbrush before reconnecting with the discovery trail in the Lyre River Valley north of Lake Crescent.
Portions of the wilderness route were previously on logging roads owned by the state Department of Natural Resources.
Safety and a genuine wilderness experience are two advantages of the emerging wilderness route.
The first 4 miles on the eastern end of the adventure route are closed this month for a logging operation. More logging operations are expected on other segments of the trail later this summer.
The inmate trail crews have dedicated more than 24,000 staff hours to the adventure route, which should be completed sometime next year, Beltrami said.
After that, the trail crews may be used to help build the Olympic Discovery Trail as it expands into the West End of Clallam County, Beltrami said.
The crews will also be called upon for maintenance of the adventure route.
Other Clallam County chain gang crews bag thousands of pounds of litter every week along county roads.
Beltrami and second-year chain gang officers Wes Miner and Dick Pitt design the adventure route and handle the blasting and chain saw work. The inmates do the labor-intensive trail building.
They remove stumps, roots, logs, rocks and brush. Using minimal tools, they cut a path into steep hillsides and help install bridges, staircases, barriers and woodsy trail infrastructure.
Chain gangs works independently from a group of volunteers who maintain the adventure route on Thursdays.
The vast majority of the construction — and all of the logging and rock blasting — is done by Beltrami and his crews.
“Some of these men work in our community and already have good work ethics and skills,” said Beltrami, who developed his trail-blazing skills as a Los Angeles County firefighter in the 1970s.
“Others need lots of attention.”
While in Southern California, Beltrami fought brushfires on a helicopter fly crew and helped build the Pacific Crest Trail in the offseason.
He later refined his bridge-building skills during a 15-year career as an aerospace mechanic and manufacturing engineer.
Inmates work 10-hour days four times a week while serving on the trail crew. They have helped build 10 high-water bridges and 500 feet of boardwalk.
Clallam County Road Superintendent Rob Hooker, to whom Beltrami credits for moving materials to the job sites, was so impressed with the crews that built the 51-foot-long Whisky Creek footbridge that he and Road Supervisor Jeff Doniger packed in pizzas and soda for the crew.
“The men are treated fairly and with respect,” Beltrami said.
“The primary responsibility is security and safety. During the six years of construction, injuries have been minimal considering some of the hazardous areas we work.”
One inmate who spent six months working on the crew was set to be released from jail days before a section was completed near Joyce-Piedmont Road.
He was willing to stay in jail after his time was up to finish the work.
“The crew once again rose to the occasion and somehow completed that section the day he was being released,” said Beltrami, who produced a 22-minute video showing trail crews blazing the trail, blowing up boulders, falling timber and building bridges.
Beltrami showed his video at a Port Angeles Regional Chamber of Commerce luncheon last month.
The video will be posted sometime this summer on the Clallam County website, www.clallam.net.
“After being on the chain gang off and on for so long I’ve got to go back and see all the work that so many of us have put into it,” wrote T.N.C.
“It’s just amazing, and to know that after we are long gone it will still be there. . . . My kids will get to use something that will last a lifetime.”
Another former trail worker, C.J., agreed.
“I know my kids will enjoy this [trail] as much as I will,” writes C.J., who recently spent 4 ½ months working on the path.
“Besides getting into excellent shape, I have also learned no matter how ugly a situation may be, you can always make something beautiful out of it.”
_________Reporter Rob Ollikainen can be reached at 360-417-3537 or at [email protected]