This is the latest in our “Discover the Boise Foothills” series of blog posts exploring different trails. On many of those trips, we’ll be joined by an expert who can provide some perspective on the land that has become one of Boise’s most popular and valuable assets.
This week: Polecat Gulch (and the trail ranger program)
Previously: Introduction, Hillside to Hollow (and rare plants), Corrals (and dog issues), Watchman (and the multi-agency Foothills partnership), the Hulls Gulch owls, Peggy’s Trail (and private landowners), Table Rock and Castle Rock (and the history of that land)
Polecat Gulch proved a fitting place to explore the Ridge to Rivers trail ranger program. I was joined by Pete Ritter, the lead trail ranger and the only one who is paid. He’s a part-time employee.
Within the first few minutes of our hike, we encountered a trail runner whose dog was off-leash. Polecat Gulch is unusual in that it’s an entirely on-leash area of the Foothills to protect rare Aase’s Onion plants and a resident deer herd.
Ritter informed the woman of the on-leash rule and pointed out that she didn’t have a leash, which is a requirement even for off-leash trails.
The woman thanked him for the information before continuing her run.
“That, in a nutshell, is the ranger job,” Ritter said.
And how often does it play out that smoothly?
“Nintey-nine percent of the time,” he said.
Ritter, the former deputy chief of Boise Police, has worked as a trail ranger most years since 2001. He retired at the end of 2013 and became the 19-hour-a-week lead trail ranger in March 2014.
He works with a crew of 15 volunteers (minimum two patrols per week, four total hours) to educate users, get feedback, count users and identify maintenance issues. Ritter also performs some light maintenance himself, like updating the stickers on trail signs and pruning rogue limbs.
“The rangers are mostly about education,” Ritter said. “You’ll get a lot of people who are new to the trail system. When I’m out patrolling or riding, there’s some natural stopping spots for most people. I try to hang out at those spots and ask them about their experience and how they’re doing, whether they have any questions. Occasionally, we’ll run into somebody who’s lost, which always surprises me.”
The three most common complaints rangers hear: uncontrolled dogs (they’re supposed to be within 30 feet of their owners and under voice control when off-leash), people not cleaning up after their dogs and mountain bikers going too fast.
The volunteers operate off a Google document, which allows them to share information about places they’ve visited. Ritter makes sure the rangers move around the system. They’re easy to spot because of the brightly colored ranger jerseys.
The volunteer crew changes slightly from year to year. Fifteen is the maximum right now, so there’s usually a waiting list of interested volunteers (apply here).
That allows the city to be choosy. It’s important to find people who follow the rules but also can deal with those who don’t in the right manner, Ritter said. There’s also an emphasis on getting different types of users involved — hikers, mountain bikers, trail runners, etc.
“You don’t want somebody out here yelling at somebody every time they see a violation,” Ritter said. “It’s supposed to be a friendly interaction. On the flip side, they have to be somebody who doesn’t completely flip out if they get the uncommon, not-nice person.
“... In some ways, I think ranger is a little bit of a misnomer. We’re more like trail hosts, kind of like they have at a ski resort.”
We covered 4.8 miles and about 400 feet of elevation gain during our hike through Polecat Gulch Reserve. A full loop is about 6 miles. We started at the trailhead off Cartwright Road and headed up Polecat Loop, taking the first right. We joined the Doe Ridge trail in the middle of the property, then Quick Draw trail, before returning to Polecat Loop for the hike back to the cars.
Ritter likes the Polecat property for the views — Bogus Basin on one side and Downtown Boise on the other — and wildlife. Birding is good in mornings and evenings, he said, and the resident deer herd includes the occasional albino deer. The property includes an old farmhouse and barn, too.
The trail system is nicely maintained and easy to follow. The frequent transitions between climbing and descending also make it a nice place for a bike ride.
“This is a great place to bring somebody when they’re a new mountain biker because the climbs are not too nasty and the downhills are not super technical,” Ritter said.
Ritter rides the Ridge to Rivers trails frequently, particularly when he’s on patrol. He can cover more ground that way.
“To have this as your workout gym is pretty nice,” he said.
Getting there: Polecat Gulch has two trailheads — one at the end of Collister Drive north of Hill Road, the other on Cartwright Road west of Bogus Basin Road.
Up next: The overlap of Ridge to Rivers and the Boise River Wildlife Management Area.