On the morning of Monday, August 17th, a fire erupted from a lightning strike and began burning off Jones Bar Road, in the Yuba River Drainage, northwest of Nevada City. Over the course of 12 days the Jones Fire burned 705 acres and destroyed 21 structures, including America’s first wheelchair nature trail, the Independence Trail.
A new film “A Wild Independence” – premiering this month on PBS – tells the story of how naturalist John Olmsted inspired a community and turned an abandoned mining ditch in California’s Gold Country into the beloved Independence Trail. The film is written, directed and told by Alden Olmsted, youngest son of John, through amazing archival film footage, as well as by the very people who toiled and sweated right beside John and who share his vision, and who are committed anew to rebuild this one-of-a-kind gem.
“My first reaction upon hearing that lightning had started a fast-moving fire near Jones Bar – was that the trail would be gone,” explains Olmsted. “I guess I just had a feeling, so when I got the phone call from a friend of dad’s it was more resignation than shock. An empty stomach kind of a feeling, but the feeling didn’t last as I knew dad wouldn’t have wasted much time in grieving, that he would be on the phone gathering support – likely while the embers were still smoking.”
The story of the Independence Trail is a unique one. John Olmsted was a California naturalist, interested in a cross California nature trail that would both educate and display California’s unique ecological zones. In the 1970’s, on one of these hikes across California he came upon the abandoned Excelsior Mining ditch seven miles from the town of Nevada City, and decided to purchase the land. John and his nonprofit Sequoya Challenge, and numerous volunteers, embarked on a multi-year challenge of repurposing the mining ditch as a nature trail in the wilderness, one that could specifically accommodate wheelchairs and people of all skill levels.
In 2012, Bear Yuba Land Trust (BYLT) was entrusted with ownership of the 207-acre Sequoya Challenge Preserve in the South Yuba River canyon which consists of seven separate parcels interspersed with California State Parks land along both the east and west portions of the Independence Trail bisected by Highway 49.
During the Jones Fire, the wooden flumes that form the west side of the Independence Trail, including the iconic flume over Rush Creek, were burned to near complete destruction and Bear Yuba Land Trust immediately began working to rebuild the locally cherished trail.
“The initial conversations that we had with Alden were about how to create a film that featured John Olmsted’s passion and deep devotion to creating the first wheelchair accessible wilderness trail in the US,” says Erin Tarr, Executive Director, Bear Yuba Land Trust. “We wanted to show how special it was and why we need to rebuild it for the community to enjoy.”
“We also wanted to convey to audiences the unique history of the trail, where the seed of the idea came from, and how special it really was to the disability community as well as regular hikers and visitors of all ages,” shares Olmsted.
An almost entirely local group of professionals was assembled to work on the film including producer Jesse Locks, directors of photography Val Camp and Robert Bryant, sound Jason Searles, editing Matthew Gottschalk, score Danny Black, motion graphics Romero Alves, design Lorrin Bertolli and music Gaia Mae Searles.
“This film, ‘A Wild Independence’ was the first film I’ve made with a shared vision going into it, and I think it shows in the final cut. I also had a great crew; having great cinematographers, sound and score, as well as production and scheduling, really elevated the quality from the opening shot to the ending credits,” shares Olmsted.
In addition to beautiful archival footage, the film includes the stories of several key individuals including Caleb Dardick, son of Sam Dardick, Nevada County Supervisor and disability activist; Rob Lee, an early visitor to the Independence Trail; filmmaker Gregg Schiffner; Ana Acton, Wheelchair activist; and Sally Cates, John Olmsted’s second wife, co-founder of the Independence Trail, among others.
“I think everyone who appears in the film shares both dad’s vision, of a wheelchair trail in the wilderness, but also grieves that it was lost, so the drive to rebuild it and the passion and concern to continue John’s legacy, I think is evident in every interview. That made the process of making the film truly a tribute to dad that was very special,” says Olmsted.
Over the last year and a half, BYLT has been fundraising and submitting grants to rebuild the trail, while also working with California State Parks to get FEMA funding that is available put to use on the trail rebuild. As of now BYLT has still not been awarded FEMA funds.
Tarr hopes, “The film will bring awareness to the complexity of the situation as well as hope that together, through collaboration and passion, we can rebuild this iconic trail.”
Olmsted adds “I hope viewers come to understand the vision of John Olmsted, knowing that he was a person with flaws, but with an unwavering dedication to fulfilling his mission: To keep California wild, accessible to all.”
BYLT is hosting a Watch Party for “A Wild Independence: The Story of Nevada City’s Independence Trail” Short Film on Wednesday, December 14, Doors 6:30pm, Film 7-7:30pm followed by a filmmaker Q&A.
The film can also be seen on KVIE on December 14 @ 7pm, December 16 @4pm, December 17 @ 7:30am, and December 18 @ 6:30pm.
Donations and other inquiries can be made to Sarah West at 530-272-5994 x 204 or email@example.com.
WHO: Bear Yuba Land Trust presents
WHAT: Watch Party for “A Wild Independence: The Story of Nevada City’s Independence Trail” Short Film
WHEN: Wednesday, December 14, Doors 6:30pm, Film 7-7:30pm, Filmmaker Q&A 7:30pm
WHERE: Nevada Theatre, 401 Broad Street, Nevada City
TICKETS: $10 Suggested Donation
INFO: www.bylt.org, other screening dates include December 14 @ 7pm, December 16 @4pm, December 17 @ 7:30am, and December 18 @ 6:30pm