Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Blood, Sweat and Poison Ivy

I am a trail builder.  I like to get out into the woods, imagine a path through the trees and across the hills, and then make it real.  Of course a big part of the drive to transform a piece of wooded hillside into a contoured trail is the desire to get out on the finished product on a bike, but there is so much more to it than that.

Typically around here in northeastern Ohio trail building is done in the milder temperatures of fall and spring - even during winter months if there isn't too much snowfall.  The benefits from this schedule are many - cooler temperatures, little foliage, no mosquitoes and no interference with the summer mtb riding opportunities.  Add to that a corollary benefit - all the poison ivy is dormant - and it's easy to see why this is the widely accepted practice.

Unfortunately I'm not patient enough to wait through the whole warm season to start trail work - my fevered little mind can't help but see potential trails everywhere (and if I don't build them WHO WILL??)  So when I started as volunteer trail boss on the county park project I made it clear that I would be working all year 'round - including summer.  That means suffering through the mosquito hordes and doses of toxic repellant.  It means sweating like a dog while working in hot and humid conditions.  And to protect against the poison ivy it means wearing gloves and long pants in weather that is far more suitable for shorts.  As a bonus, at the hills of the state park project we not only have poison ivy, but also stinging nettles - an interesting plant with miniscule hollow hairs that you cannot touch without producing instant itching and burning as chemical irritants are injected into your skin. 

Not surprisingly there are far fewer volunteers that show up during the summer months.  Sometimes it's just me out there, slowly figuring out the next section and leaving new trail behind me.  But a day in the woods is almost always a good thing, so I try to head out and do some trail work every weekend, regardless of the number of other people that show up.

A trail work session usually starts with choosing the tools of the day and hauling them out to the work site.  Since I'm located in northeast Ohio, where there are no remaining large tracts of unbroken forest, this is usually a fairly short hike.  Our tools are mostly not that heavy to carry, but limiting yourself to two at a time is the safe way to go.  Or if I'm doing rock work and carrying a 40 pound, 5 foot long rock bar, then ONE tool is definitely enough. 

On my back there is always a light pack, with plenty of water, some small tools, and a first aid kit.  I've carried these small packs for so many rides and hikes that I often forget I have one on and end up working most of the day without removing it.  But with my past safety record it's an excellent idea to carry first aid, and during the summer heat I need more than one bottle of water, so forgetting the pack is not an option.  Besides, being prepared is part of the responsibility of solo adventuring.  Having the means and capability to handle unexpected situations can mean the difference between having an interesting story to tell and having a closed casket ceremony. 

It's always a great feeling hiking out to the work site from the parking.  I get to follow the trail we've built from the start, progressing from the part done on the first day of work way back when.  Each section I travel is another day's work, with the memories of how it looked before in my mind and the accomplishments of each day under my feet.  Before long the end of the trail is there - and the land ahead goes on with its forest business as I look at the task of the day and plan the next step.  Then on go the work gloves and let the festivities begin.

I've found that whether the job is using loppers to cut a corridor through a thicket, benching a tread into the side of a slope, or skimming back the grass and weeds from the tread it's best to keep my pace slow.  During winter trail days you start off cold and then warm up as you work, in the summer you start off hot and quickly progress to overheated.  So I set a pace that I can maintain, at least for short periods, and start to carve a thin slice of direction out of the wonderful clutter of the woods.  Piece by piece, foot by foot, the unordered undergrowth slowly parts as the new trail reveals itself.  Each rest break shows a bit of progress, another step, another pedal stroke of distance created.   Two hours to build and ten seconds to ride...

Rocks are rarely where you want them to be.  If they're big enough, you just change your expectations to conform to the position of the rock.  But usually your relationship with rocks involves them changing from one location or position to another.  The bigger the rock, or the bigger the distance to move it, the more difficult it becomes.  One thing I've found to be a big help when working with rocks on hillsides is gravity - it's always easier to move a rock down a hill to the trail then up a hill.  But even with a best case scenario moving rocks is a gradual business.  And when working alone it requires not only a bit of muscle, but some planning skills as well.  Sometimes it can be like solving a puzzle: trying to move a big rock, turn it 90 degrees and use the rock bar as a lever to flip it over, get log rollers underneath it and PUSH it into the desired position.  Days with lots of rock work can be both rewarding and frustrating.  It always gives a feeling of accomplishment when you see a nicely built rock feature, and know that it will likely be there without problems for years, maybe even decades.  But then at the end of the day, when you walk back over the brand new trail and see that you only finished 20 feet in three hours - well, that can certainly be demoralizing.

Undertaking one of these projects means realizing that it's going to take a long time, lots of sweat and  a lot of volunteers.  But it's always the same - small steps, one section at a time, one rock at a time, one day of work at a time.  At each session's end, carrying the tools back out gives a chance to see what got done that day, and how many more feet were added.  The hike out usually gives me a chance to imagine the finished trail, and what it would be like riding it back to the start.  As I look out through the trees and relish the sight of a well defined line of new trail swooping across a hillside and over the rocks it always brings a smile.  No matter how dirty, sweaty and tired I am that always gives me the motivation to come back again.


  1. Nice work! And now your are famous via Tim Joe at TPC!

  2. Steve! That last photo is beautiful. You have a lot more energy than I do, my friend.

    The County went ahead and roller-chopped our only little single track and now they plan to burn it. I will ride out this weekend and survey the damage. I can't quite tell from the story, but they may have not completely demolished the whole thing.

    A strange kind of irony reading about your strenuous solo efforts alone in the forest and then seeing this morning about our local machine tearing down the work of volunteers like you...


    1. I try not to think about the situation with that trail down there. Makes no sense to me. I guess all we can do is one person's worth of work to try and make things better.

      Steve Z

  3. Good work. You may be out there alone sometimes, but you are setting a good example. I'm sure when riders see you out there alone, the nagging thoughts creep in... "I should be helping him."

    1. I should hope so. That guilt is what got me to start going to trail work days. If 5% of riders gave 4 work days a year, we'd have all the volunteer hours we needed.

      Steve Z