Monday, November 19, 2012

Trail Building: Making the Move to Become Involved

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'.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

One year plus

Yeah, I know.  I NEVER post two days in a row.  But there were a couple of things I wanted to say that wouldn't have fit in with the last post.  So I'm putting up a short, bonus post at no added cost to you.

It's been over a year since I started this blog.  And it's got 3,400 views - which is something I guess.  I still wonder who the heck in Ukraine is looking at my goofy stuff.  I do appreciate those who take the time to read, and especially the ones who submit a comment now and again.  It reminds me that I'm not just writing for myself.

There's been another milestone of sorts.  It's been over a year since my last injury.  Those who are familiar with my recent history know I've had a streak of not so great luck.  I'm hoping that I've learned enough to be able to end that baloney.

Here's a bit of video from a ride I took today.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Eyes open, mouth shut

We've been in the car for a while, chasing the vacation ideal by trying to fit too many things in one day.  A sign ahead announces a roadside rest, and since we're on a two lane highway winding through the forest in Michigan's Upper Peninsula it seems like a good idea to stop for a moment.  The rest area isn't your typical interstate style restroom and direction source.  We spot a sign indicating trail to a waterfall and start walking down a wide, mulch covered pathway through the woods.  Families on vacation speed hike on towards the sound of falling water.  A bit of russet brown catches my eye beside the trail, and we stop.  A white tail deer fawn lies tucked beneath the branches of a low growing shrub just off the trail.  It lies there silently curled into an oval, eyes open wide, perhaps four feet from the groups of tourists walking by with their eyes focused on the falls ahead.  The leafy branches a foot above it's head provide scant cover, but it remains unnoticed. We linger down the trail about 30 feet watching the fawn, and watching the people.  Fifty go by, then another fifty.  The fawn appears safe.


Sweat runs into my eyes for the twentieth time as I struggle.  I shrug my shoulder up to try and clear some of it away with my shirt without having to release my grip on the rock - not very effective unfortunately.  With one last yank it comes free from the jumble of earth, roots and rocks and I pull it towards the trail.  I'll need this rock, and about another 20 like it to finish the armoring on this part of our trail construction project.  Trying to figure out where this particular rock will fit, I rotate it around then flip it over.  The smoothly eroded surface on the back of the rock flows up in a warped plane, then is interrupted.  I take off my glove and brush away the dirt to reveal a branch about three inched in diameter, fossilized into the surface.  My fingers trace the contours, traveling to where it becomes enveloped by the rock, feeling the nub of an ancient knot.  When I place this rock into the trail surface I make sure it lies with the fossil upwards, just in case a sharp eye comes down the trail some day.


We start up the hill at a good pace, but roots and gravity rob momentum faster than tired legs can replace it.  At the top I put down a foot and stop my bike to catch my breath.  My brother quietly says "Look up on that fallen tree."  Fifty feet away a broken tree trunk provides a horizontal platform where a harrier perches, his gaze fixed directly on us.  I'm surprised he doesn't fly off, then notice the small squirrel his talon pins to the tree trunk.  We don't move, and after a minute the bird reaches down and resumes feeding.  His hooked beak clamps onto the animal and pulls a long, red strip taut, till it snaps free and it disappears down his gullet.  Within another few minutes the meat is gone and it silently flies off into the woods.   I look at my brother with eyebrows raised.  He smiles and gets his bike moving down the trail again.


The place smells.  The odor of dead fish and organic decay float on the breeze.  I dip my paddle into the still water and pull the kayak forward through the huge beaver pond.  Dead trees stick up through the swampy water here and there, drowned by the beavers habitat engineering.  Some areas are choked in yellow water lilies, with swarms of flies and mosquitoes flying into my face.  The whole place is just brimming with life - the air full of insects, tadpoles in the water along with bigger fish.  Frogs and songbirds fill the air with their calls.  A larger dead tree catches my attention with slow movement among the remnants of its branches and I paddle in that direction.  The breeze rustles the lilies, yet the sun is hot on my back as I draw closer.  I squint up into the branches, trying to figure out what it is that's hanging, slowly swinging in the breeze.  Suddenly it snaps into definition.  It's a dead great blue heron, mummified by the summer heat.  It hangs from one leg, with the foot caught in the fork of a dead branch.  I wonder how it got there - did it's foot get stuck somehow, or did it just die and fall into that fork?  The frogs go on endlessly and a crow calls from overhead.


The trail ahead is faint, just barely a trace through the woods.  It's not a people trail, you can tell that by the fact that if often ducks under low branches that I have to move aside in order to proceed.  The tree cover is mostly maple, and small bogs lay here and there.  As the trail passes near one I get a glimpse of movement and see a muskrat vanish beneath the still, black waters.  Songbirds provide a constant background chorus, with the murmur of leaves in the slight breeze behind them.  I continue on as the trail becomes too slight to follow, keeping a watchful eye for areas of poison ivy.  I slowly make my way towards where I know the main trail lies, and then suddenly stop.  Ahead of me stands a yard tall stump of a long dead sapling.  Atop the ragged broken trunk sits an owl chick, perfectly still.  It's about the size of a tennis ball, fuzzy and soft looking, and silently looks at me.  I look at the trees above, but see no sign of a nest or mother owl.  The baby owl stares at me.


Recent studies show that children are spending less time outdoors, with further decreases every year.  As the childhood obesity epidemic worsens, childhood health experts lament the lack of physical activities in the outdoors.  Recent studies show that American children on the average spend about 30 minutes per week of unstructured play time outdoors.  Studies also indicate that the amount of time spent by children outdoors in natural settings has drastically reduced, with many children getting basically zero exposure to the original natural environments  of their home areas.