Everybody that rides a bike on singletrack has probably at some point wondered about the origin of the trail that they're using. More casual trail users, such as people who might get out for a hike or ride a couple times a year, may not consider such an issue, but those of us who are out on the trail nearly every weekend have a significant relationship with the trails we frequent.
Years ago, before I started riding, I didn't really think about where the trails I walked came from. If asked I would have guessed that they were either really old trails that were still in use or that they had been built by the CCC during the depression (an idea fostered by years of hiking at Mill Creek Park). And if the issue was pressed further I would have probably said that the park rangers took care of the trails and made sure that they were safe for us to use.
Well, those ideas are somewhat off base. We do still have a number of trails in our part of the country that date back to the CCC days, but there are very few that are any older. And with decades of shrinking state park budgets the idea of park rangers spending hours maintaining trails is becoming less and less real.
The truth of the matter is that many of the trails we ride were imagined by average trail users, be they hikers or mountain bikers. These people had an idea, pushed to have their ideas accepted, and then spent the hours to make them real. Some of these projects were years in the making, and took the efforts of dozens if not hundreds of volunteers. Most of the trails we ride in this area have this history - West Branch, Beaver Creek, Reagan Park, Moraine. As riders we owe a huge debt to the people who had the vision and energy to create the trail systems we love.
Those of us who have spent hours and hours on the trails, who have gotten the enjoyment of great rides for year after year, should consider what our role is in this history. Mountain biking has seen a huge increase in popularity over the last two decades, of which a large part rides on the backs of the first generation of mtb volunteers. These are the people who took our trails from poorly built rogue trails along railroad and powerline rights of way to the well designed, sustainable trails that we enjoy today. They fought resource managers for the chance to prove that they could be a responsible user group and could make a positive impact on our parks. The amount of resistance that had to be overcome by this first generation was immense, yet they persevered. And now we get to spend our free time enjoying the fruits of their labors - great singletrack spread all across the state.
It's perhaps pushing things a bit to say that those who use the trails the most have a responsibility to get involved with trail building and maintenance. There is no real obligation to give something back to the things that you have gotten benefit from. But as members of a sport that wouldn't exist if not for the efforts of volunteers, its not only part of our tradition, its an investment in our own riding future. Thanks to the efforts of that first generation of mtb trail builders everyone in Ohio is within an hour or so drive of some sort of legal trail. With continued effort from today's riders we can open more trails to mountain bikes and we can create more miles of high quality, sustainable trails.
If you're a rider and are interested in getting involved with the trail building aspect, but hesitate because of the level of physical labor involved, consider this: it takes no more effort than an average ride, and provides an excellent cross training exercise. Plus, our trail stewards aren't there to crack the whip and make you miserable - you work at your own rate, on jobs suitable for you, and you quit when you want. Our trail work days range from two hours to five hours, depending on the weather and the task at hand. Any time that you can give to help is gratefully accepted.
If you're hesitant to get involved because you wonder about coming in to a tightly knit group of builders who will look down on an inexperienced newbie, you need not worry. Our trail building days have a strong social side to them, with groups of volunteers involved in conversations ranging from jokes to trail tails to environmental and political concerns. People take breaks as needed to rest, get some water or a snack, and check out the work being done by their fellow workers. The experienced builders are always willing to take time to explain the concepts behind a job and to listen to alternate ideas for any section of trail. While we do get a tremendous amount accomplished at a typical trail work day, we also have a lot of fun and get a real chance to socialize with our fellow riders and club members.
This may sound like a lot of the same old talk trying to get people to be involved in a cause, but there is a basic truth behind it. If we as riders don't get involved in building and maintaining our trails then they will eventually just cease to exist. We all know we don't want that - what we want is MORE and BETTER trails. And that won't happen either unless we show up and make our contribution. We can make a difference for riders in our area, and you can be a part of it. Be a trail builder.
Note: This is an article I wrote for the Rust Belt Revival Trail Coalition e-newsletter that I put together every month. If anyone out there is interested in reading these newsletters let me know through the 'comments'.