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South Whidbey's John Wayne, Gary Putney, and his mule LuLu lead the way into the new trail system connecting Department of Natural Resources land with Saratoga Woods.
— image credit: Gayle Saran

It was more happy trails for South Whidbey horseback riders when a trail connecting Department of Natural Resources land and Saratoga Woods opened this summer.

The new trail allows horses and their riders access to about 20 miles of trail through acres of public and some private wooded land. Most of the trails, which are everything from old logging roads to narrow foot paths, have been built over the years. Saratoga Woods, a 118-acre piece of woodland purchased with private funds and donated to Island County as a park, is the final link in a complex chain of meandering trails.

"This is one of the most beautiful and pristine areas on South Whidbey," said Gary Putney, who with his wife, Diana, have been instrumental in developing and maintaining South Whidbey's equestrian trails.

The Saratoga Woods and DNR trails, as well as trails on Metcalf family trust land, were all linked during the spring and summer by volunteers and South Whidbey AmeriCorps team members. These people cut connecting trails between the formerly separate trail systems, creating a trail wonderland bordered by Saratoga and Lone Lake roads.

Altogether, said Gary Putney, over 2,000 acres are now accessible on public trails. The trails were built for nonmotorized recreation -- walkers, hikers, joggers, mountain bikers and horseback riders.

The Putneys are some of the people who will keep up with the ongoing maintenance of the trail system. They and the other 23 members of the Island County chapter of the Back Country Horsemen contributed over 1,000 hours of labor in the past year to the South Whidbey trail system.

The Putneys and their horses and mules benefit directly. Their home, Edgewood Farm, is across the road from one of the entrances to the DNR land.

"We are fortunate to be so close," Diana Putney said.

On a recent tour of the woods with a new rider, the Putneys showed off their knowledge of every trail, every twist and turn, and where the sweetest huckleberry bushes are.

Gary Putney stopped along the way at one point to do a little trail maintenance. He cut back overhanging branches while talking about the different species and trees in the woods and the last major logging operation.

Stands of mature, second-growth Douglas fir, western hemlock and western white pine share the forest with wild rhododendrons and acres of huckleberry bushes. The area is habitat for pileated woodpeckers, hairy woodpeckers, barred owls, great horned owls, Cooper's hawks, black-tailed deer, cottontail rabbits, chipmunks and flying squirrels, to name a few.

Changes are coming along some of the trails -- changes many trail users will not like. Property owned by Trillium Corp. is visible along a section of the trail network and trees on the perimeter of the timber company's land are marked with bright pink paint.

Putney said these trees are picked for logging, which might or might not happen at any time.

"But to log the trees, they have to cross private property, and owners won't give them an easement," Putney said. "It would be a shame to lose those trees."

South Whidbey resident Steve Ford, owner of Trax Maps, has mapped the trail system with a GPS system. The map of the trail system is posted at the Keller Road entrance to the DNR trails.

The DNR land, called the Goss Lake Woods, consists of 600 acres of forest. A bill introduced into the state legislature last year protected the woods against logging for the next several decades.

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