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LandPaths volunteers trek into hills near Healdsburg to carve out hiking path

John Fairbank of Santa Rosa took a break from his chore Saturday morning, hacking a dirt trail across? a steep, oak-covered slope deep in the hills west of Healdsburg.

“Who wants to pay for a gym membership when you can do this?” he said with a smile.

Fairbank was one of eight volunteers helping LandPaths, a Santa Rosa-based land stewardship nonprofit, build backcountry trails on a portion of the 400-acre Riddell Preserve tucked far down a private dirt road above Dry Creek Valley.

The volunteers, led by Kyle Gift, a LandPaths stewardship specialist, managed to cut nearly 200 feet of fresh trail, a few feet wide, using shovels, mattocks and other hand tools to carve the rain-soaked dark brown soil.

It was slow going, Gift said, because of the slope of the ravine and the need, along much of the way, to carry the loose dirt in 5-gallon buckets to a spot where it could be spread on the ground, minimizing the chance of it washing down to a small stream.

But it’s just the kind of work guys like Fairbank, an avid hiker and five-year LandPaths volunteer, relish. When he’s out hiking other places - Trione-Annadel State Park, Shiloh Ranch or Taylor Mountain Regional Park - he carries his own trail-clearing tools or pulls thistles by hand.

“I love trail building,” said Steve Kent of Healdsburg, a four-year LandPaths volunteer who also leads work days on Healdsburg’s Fitch Mountain Park. Kent came by his passion for hiking while growing up in New England and loves creating a trail from bare earth.

His son-in-law, Josh Rahaeuser of Folsom, was spending the holidays here and decided to join the work detail.

“It’s fun, it’s rewarding,” he said. “When we got here it was just a hillside and now it’s a walkable trail.”

LandPaths sees plenty of potential at Riddell Preserve to fulfill its mission of getting people immersed in the wild world.

But it’s going to take many more days like Saturday to make it place where busloads of youths could hike the wooded hills within the original homeland of the Dry Creek Rancheria Band of Pomo Indians, sleep out under the stars on the deck of a rustic cabin and learn about mushrooms and herbal medicine amid wildland serenity.

The preserve now has a nearly mile-long trail with 14 uphill switchbacks to the cabin and a 2.25-mile loop trail around the cabin that Fairbank is seriously overgrown in places.

Saturday’s work extended Hunter’s Trail, a brand new route that will eventually lead to its own loop with backcountry camping spots and an old abandoned car in a field.

Kay and Bob Riddell bought the land in 1971 as a family camping place, and built the two-bedroom cabin as a refuge for their leukemia-stricken son Steve. After he died, they donated the property to LandPaths.

Work on the trail system began in 2016.

Volunteer Al Casey of Graton, who was wielding a McLeod tool, said he joined the crew Saturday “to show my love for nature” and enjoy human camaraderie.

“It’s a great way to meet a bunch of like-minded people who care about the environment,” he said.

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