Trail work: Discovering the satisfactions on Tiger

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When we think about doing trail work, our first impulse tends to be, “Any time we spend working on a trail could alternatively be spent riding on a trail.” And guess which we’d rather do.

But over the years I’ve learned that trail maintenance has its upside. It’s convivial — you get to spend time with great people. It’s good karma — you get the satisfaction of knowing you’re contributing to something worthwhile. And it’s not as thankless as it might seem. Any riders passing by are generous with praise and gratitude. Their guilt is your good vibe.

So it was on Sunday, when a gang from Evergreen Mountain Bike Alliance tackled the ever problematic (read “besotted”) Preston Railroad Grade for some spring cleaning. Any trail takes a beating over the winter. But Preston’s multiple drainages, rocky underpinnings, erosion-plagued switchbacks and overused legacy add up to make it truly a thing of wonder.

Brian Jones being laid up after back surgery, our fearless leader turned out to be Mire Levy, joined by Tim Banning, Doug Ernst and Glenn Glover. We rode up the fire road in Mire’s Honda PU and soon were on the trail scouting out opportunities. Before the first big switchback, the trail held a lot of little stuff, isolated rivulets and puddles where silting had blocked exit paths off the trail. Below the switchback, things got serious. I rode Preston at the beginning of the month and was amazed at what good shape it was in. But May 2009 has been brutally wet, with more than 150 percent its average rainfall by mid-month!

We split up, with Tim and Glenn taking on the lower trail and heavy lifting. Mire, Doug and I were left with a ton of little projects, which went quickly and well. I had to leave early but we’d made great progress after just a couple of hours of work. It helps to have the right tools: picks, rock rakes, shovels. In most cases it was a matter of moving mud (which is heavy and highly uncooperative) off the trail so water could escape to a culvert or ditch.

There are differing philosophies of trail maintenance, and Mire pointed out how officialdom that once was culvert-smitten now doesn’t recommend pipe smaller than 18 inches diameter. It clogs up too easily. Better to divert and channel water away. Yes, the surface will plug up again, but at least it’s easily evacuated. A sealed culvert, on the other hand, is a life to clear.

Doug wryly observed that two trail crews working independently, with differing philosophies, could easily result in a scenario where one puts in ditches and diversions and depressions, only to be followed by a second crew that fills everything back in.

That was not the case with our stalwart quintet. Here is a Before and After.

Before: Standing water in the middle of the trail
Before: Standing water in the middle of the trail
Ten minutes later: Water gone, trail drying
Ten minutes later: Water gone, trail drying

The following day, Monday, I rode Preston to take advantage of our work. It was amazing how dry the former trouble spots were. In some places I had to do double-takes just to make sure it was where I thought it was. Lots remains to be done. The further down you go, the more of a mess Preston is. In some ways the task on Preston is classically Sisyphian. The only saving grace is that the alternative — neglect — would be so much worse. Thanks Mire and all, for a day well spent! Now get out ‘n ride!

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