June 4, 2022
The trails of reference are in the mountainous eastern quarter of the island. In current usage, Grand Ridge of the Blue Mountains refers to a series of interconnected peaks that trend roughly from Candelfly Peak 1505m in the southeast to John Crow Peak at 1762 m in the northwest. The highest point on the Ridge, the Blue Mountain Peak is at 2256m. In the past, the western boundary of the Grand Ridge was extended across the Buff Bay Valley to terminate in Mt Telegraph (1300m) near to the Wagwater River Valley.
The topography has determined the patterns of settlement, land use and communication. Rivers tend to flow from the ridge to the north and south (see map). The terrain is quite rugged at higher elevations. Vegetation is mainly primary tropical rain forest at higher elevations and degraded forest and agriculture at lower elevations. Major crossings of the mountain ridge are (a) The Junction Road that follows the Wagwater River Valley and (b) the Newcastle to Buff Bay crossing which follows the Buff Bay River Valley. A major coastal road that links north and south sides. Both on the north and south, there are minor roads that connect the villages on the slopes, but there is no major east to west roadway. Settlements tends to be associated with the lower reaches of the various river valleys. Large sections of the mountains that are now a part of the Blue and John Crow Mountain Nation Park are not settled. Main activity in some of these areas are farming and hunting.
History of Occupation.
Earliest occupiers of the island were the Taino tribes from about 650 AD. Although largely thought to be coastal dwellers, there is nothing to suggest that they did not explore the mountains of the island. Artifacts left in may caves across the island show that they ranged far from the coast. By the arrival of Columbus, there were over 200 Taino villages in Jamaica. The records indicates that enslavement of the Tainos for work on Spanish Plantations did not go as planned. Many died and others ran away. The Blue Mountains were one such refuge area. The Spanish then imported Africans. Many ran away and either joined Tainos in the mountains or set up villages of their own. It is believed that during this period, while the colonial authorities and settlers developed the main communication paths on the island, there was a parallel development of mainly secretive mountainous trails that were used by Tianos and Maroons. These became important as outright guerrilla war was fought between the British and the maroons for long periods. The battle fields were often the mountains and valleys of eastern Jamaica and the legends have it that one the main advantage of the maroons was their intimate knowledge of the interior which not only allowed them to flee quickly, but to set up ambush points for the British army formations. These wars. ceased with the signing of various treaties some of which are topical today.
Road and Trail Development
We can therefore paint of picture of the immediate post slavery communication system of the island as
- Main network of roadways linking major towns
- Subsidiary network of parochial and minor roads and bridle paths that facilitated rural development, internal trade and agriculture
- Routes of mountain trails mainly used by maroon villages and by other persons who were moving to occupy lands in remote interior areas.
Whilst A and B would have been official growth areas, perhaps less emphasis would have been placed on C. My speculation is that trail use probably subsided and in the period 1850 to 1950 much of the activity that would have kept trails open were:
- Topographic surveys. There are details of surveys along the grand ridge of the Blue Mountains and the slopes to the north and south
- Naturalists and Botanical research. The establishment on the southern slopes of the Cinchona Botanical gardens in 1868 may have been a catalyst for visits to the area for many naturalists including persons form the Smithsonian Institute.
- Geological surveys. During the 1860, pioneering geologists such as Barrett and Sawkins would have travelled extensively through the eastern mountains. Geological surveys are ongoing. I was introduced to the Blue Mountains by my high school Geology teacher, an Australian who spent months in the Back Rio Grande in the early 1970s, while working for Anaconda looking for copper and other metals.
- Local community use. Trails were used by the local dwellers for access to fields, for hunting of wild hogs, for reaping forest products or for “shortcuts” between distant communities. The Vinegar Hill trail (approx. 15 Km) for instance was used to move between Claverty Cottage in the north and Westphalia in the south and there was much trading and intermarriages between the villages.
Decline in Trail Use and Trail Maintenance
Except for the trail from Farm Hill Gap to the Blue Mountain Peak, there appears to have been a general neglect and decline in use of many of the other mountain trails in the last 50 years. Some contributing factors include
Trails and their use are often closely related to other activities in their locale. Some examples are
- Decline in structured rural development programs:
- Decline in municipal involvement in bridle path maintenance
- Decline in mainstream Forestry Department activities
- Changing population settlement patterns and migration to cities
These by themselves or combined, would lead to lack of emphasis in trails.
- Trails need maintenance. With decline in utilization, it is likely that the required bushing and drain clearing would not be done and a trail could easily become overgrown or unsafe, which would lead to a further reduction in their use
- Hurricane damage. Hurricanes damage trails in a variety of ways. Trails can become blocked by falling trees, damage to vegetation can lead to barren slopes which then erode very quickly, excessive rainfall can trigger rock and soil slippages which can block or obscure trails.
- Trails under a forest canopy can usually be located with little difficulty even if rarely used. Often areas which have original vegetation compromised by hurricanes, become vulnerable to rapid occupation by invasive species. These are usually very hardly, easily self-propagating and fast growing and can either completely block or obscure a trail.
The current Trail Project activities are multifaceted and include many aspects. They are being undertaken under the auspices of the JCDT. They are not listed in any priority order. They include:
A master catalog of trails is being developed and maintained, that will have current data on the location, length, difficulty level, cultural highlights and other aspects of the trails. This will have relevance to the marketing and promotion efforts, as well as guide the required development and maintenance of the trails.
Clearing/Reopening of Trails
Trails are in various conditions. There is a priority listing of trails to be cleared and reopened. One active effort is the Morces Gap to Portland Gap via Sir Johns Peak Trail reopening which should be completed in 2022. This will allow clear access to large sections of the Grand Ridge and provide other options for multiple day long hikes in the area. To date, activity on this leg has included:
- August 2021. Hiking west from Portland Gap in the direction of Sir Johns Peak. We get as far as Speculation River that is fairly close to High peak. Hike began and terminated at Portland Gap.
- February 2022. Hiking east from the Cinchona, going past Bellevue Peak and Sir Johns Peak and stopping just short of High Peak. Much of the trail was bushed over and it was total obscured in places. Hike began and terminated at Cinchona.
- Next Phase: Planned for August 2022 will be through hike to close the gap between High Peak and Speculation River.
Other clearing opportunities include:
– Clydesdale to Morces Gap route which will add more diversification to the trail options by opening a Clydesdale to Morces Gap to Cinchona to Clydesdale Loop trail. Some work was done on this in March 2021.
– There is also a Portland Gap to Swift River Bridle path which was active up to the mid-1980s, that could be reopened and integrated into the current trail offerings.
– There is drone footage of a magnificent waterfall along the Mabess River. There are rudiments of a trail, but this also is an opportunity to design and clear a proper trail to the waterfall.
Development of New Trails Options
Many sections to the east of Portland Gap are poorly explored. While there have been very occasional forays to the north and east to the areas of Nanny Town, there are vast expanses of mountains of which little is known. Options include new trails both to the north and south as well as trails which could intersect the Cuna Cuna trail to the east. A trail going east from Portland Gap into the Rio Grande Valley, would allow the development of a 4 day trip which could originate in Port Antonio, and involve hiking the Vinegar Hill trail, Morces Gap to Blue Mountain Peak, Portland Gap to Moore Town and return to Port Antonio via the Rio Grande Valley.
Development of Trail Management Expertise
A training plan is to be developed to ensure that the learnings by Park Rangers and Volunteers involved in trail development activities is retained within the organization and that there is some continuity of personnel development in this area. Current options include online conferences, MOOCS and local training days. Visits to Jamaica by overseas experts and working visits to US sites by Jamaicans will be a useful addition to the efforts.
Promotion of Trails
A Jamaica Blue Mountain Trails Website will be a part of the effort to promote trail project activities. Visitors will be able to get current MCOT information and will be able to make informed decisions about trail options.
The public and visitors to the island will be the major beneficiaries of the success of the trail project. The JCDT will enhance its image and will also be a beneficiary of the additional National Park user fees that the project expects to generate. The local community in trail areas are also expected to be major beneficiaries and will earn incomes through provision of guide and porter services, lodging (where applicable), sale of food and sales of cultural artifacts from their areas.