Craig Hill: Trail advocate gone, but legacy continues

Ernie Bay, left, a trail activist from Puyallup, walks the Nathan Chapman Memorial Trail with Sen. Jim Kastama in 2005. The trail is named after the first U.S. casualty in Afghanistan, Nathan Chapman from South Hill. Bay, who dedicated years to South Sound trails, died March 18.
Ernie Bay, left, a trail activist from Puyallup, walks the Nathan Chapman Memorial Trail with Sen. Jim Kastama in 2005. The trail is named after the first U.S. casualty in Afghanistan, Nathan Chapman from South Hill. Bay, who dedicated years to South Sound trails, died March 18. Staff file, 2005

Ernie Bay’s dreams for the South Sound came with a disclaimer.

“It might not happen in my lifetime, but …”

But imagine a trail that runs from Point Defiance to Mount Rainier.

But imagine a section of the Foothills Trail going to Buckley and Enumclaw.

But imagine a network of trails throughout the state.

What does it say about a person that he makes a significant part of his life work a project he knows he’ll never see completed? A project that’s more for others than himself?

Just as these decades-old ideas are gaining enough momentum that many at the Foothills Rails-to-Trails Coalition are starting to stop using Bay’s disclaimer, the dream team has lost one of its pioneers.

On March 18, Bay died after suffering a stroke. He was 86.

Bay, a Puyallup resident, was the first president of the coalition when it formed in 1984 and rallied support for the first section of the Foothills Trail. The trail currently stretches 15 miles from Puyallup to South Prairie.

Work is scheduled to start this year on a spur trail stretching from South Prairie to Buckley. Pierce County officials have said the trail could be open in 2017.

“Nothing would have pleased Ernie more than the completion of the section from South Prairie to Buckley,” said Dave Seago, a coalition board member. “That’s something they’ve been dreaming about for years. … It’s a shame Ernie couldn’t see it, but at least before he passed on, he knew it would get done.

“That’s actually pretty fitting. He would have been enormously proud.”

A week after Bay died, the Puyallup Watershed Initiative’s Active Transportation Community of Interest launched an effort to build more support for what it’s calling the Tahoma to Tacoma Trail Network. It presented a report from Alta Planning and Design that determined the economic benefits of such a trail network would be $13-$16.6 million per year for Pierce County.

Dixie Gatchel, 91, is a board member of the coalition championing the network. She credits Bay for teaching her how to advocate for trails.

Gatchel’s husband, Clay, died after a bicycle accident on the Foothills trail in 2005.

“After that I kind of got into this deep depression because we’d been married for so many years and always did everything outdoors together,” Gatchel said. “Ernie and my Foothills angels, as I call them, drug me out and said, ‘Come on, ma, you got to get out on the trail.’ 

Gatchel is dealing with a hip problem and said Bay would constantly call to offer her a ride. He brought her flags and lights for her mobility scooter and vegetables from his garden.

Bay encouraged Gatchel and other advocates to join Toastmasters to hone their public speaking skills in preparation for speaking at public meetings.

A retired college professor, Bay was a regular on the trail. He helped launch the Foothills patrol program. The patrol’s bright yellow vest became one of his favorite pieces of clothing.

He was a founding member of the Friends of the Puyallup Riverwalk, a committee of the Foothills Rails-to-Trails Coalition, and his name can be seen on a trailside plaque commemorating the trail’s dedication.

“He’s one of the best examples of a citizen servant leader that I’ve ever seen,” Seago said. “I know he was an inspiration for me and a lot of other people.”

Most of the thousands of people who use the Foothills, Riverwalk and other trails on sunny days have never heard of Bay and the others who worked to make these paths a reality. Most likely don’t realize that advocacy groups such as the Foothills Rails-to-Trails Coalition are working to expand and maintain these trails.

The coalition bought a piece of property for the trail near Carbonado earlier this year. It pledged $50,000 for work on the South Prairie-to-Buckley section. And, Grant says, it’s planning to pledge at least $50,000 to help bridge the White River so the trail can stretch from Buckley to Enumclaw.

Most trail users don’t realize their help is wanted to maintain the momentum. The coalition needs more young members, Gatchel said.

“I always encourage people to get involved with a recognized trail group,” said Bryan Bowden, a coalition board member and former president of ForeverGreen Trails, “because through organized groups, you have more power to implement your dreams as opposed to an individual. Joining the Foothills Trails Coalition and paying your annual dues (is a good way to support trails).

“… People need to be more vocal and speak out to their elected officials that they support trails. If there are bond measures or taxing measures, you might be willing to say, ‘Yes, I’m willing to pay a tax to support the development and operation of trails.’ ”

Bay might have been right when he said he wouldn’t be around to see the final product, but he was close enough to see the finish line. Although, like so many advocates, he would have insisted the finish line be moved once he got there.

“We can almost see the end,” Buzz Grant, president of the coalition, said Tuesday night after spending the day working on a section of the trail near Carbonado. “But, you know, trail people are as bad as freeway people. Once we finish one project, we are looking for another.

“We could go on forever.”