Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Views On Singletrack

You might remember this image I posted about a week or so ago....
A while back I had a ride in the Green Belt. This is a strip of wooded land either side of Black Hawk Creek running Southeastward of Waterloo toward Hudson, Iowa. It is where I used to take long walks in the mid-80's and it is where I learned how to ride single track. I've seen the evolution/erosion of the shore line. I've seen full sections of the old trail disappear in to the water never to be seen again. I've seen poorly thought out maintenance and I've seen grand plans fail.

I don't mean to say I'm some sort of "expert" on singletrack by any means, but I know a lot about singletrack in the Greenbelt and how people treat it, use it, maintain it, and neglect it. My ride a while back brought many thoughts to the fore, and a recent trail group's Facebook thread reminded me of some other things. So, once again, I must post the following disclaimer before moving on with my thoughts.

NOTE: Large doses of "my opinion" will be handed out in gloppy dollops today. You've been forewarned.....

So, singletrack- that narrow dirt ribbon laced on either side by copious amounts of Nature. I tend to have a "narrow definition" of singletrack, (sorry for the pun), and much of what I see today in the woods isn't singletrack. Not by my definition. It is sanitized, contrived, not well thought out, and too easy. It has too much "man made" and not enough "natural". Much of the singletrack- so called- doesn't work with the area it is in, but against it, and the results are predictable.

About as close as it gets today to the classic, old school Green Belt single track.
The Green Belt, running as it does along Black Hawk Creek, is very susceptible to flooding and erosion these days. More so than ever. Much of this has been exacerbated by man's use of the agricultural landscape, draining of sloughs and other wet areas, and the run-off created by the increasing amount of paved areas. Back when the Green Belt trail was put in, for equestrian purposes, by the way, this wasn't the case. The trail was stable and pretty much unchanged for decades. It was a true, worn in single track when I "discovered" it in the 80's. There weren't any cyclists on it back then. Not many horses either. It was mostly a hiking trail and a place for those trying to get away from the attention of authority figures.

Then I got a mountain bike and I took it back in the Green Belt circa 1989-90. I rarely saw other cyclists here. There were still plenty of the original trails left, but even then I recall flooding that took out huge chunks of shoreline that used to have the trail on it. In fact, I nearly flew right into the creek on one ride when I came around a corner and poof! The trail was gone. Instead the single track ended about twenty feet above the creek in an exposed tangle of grassy roots. A hairy root ball sticking out into nothing. I stopped just in time.

It was also a given that you didn't ride the Green Belt back then without getting "high fived" by Nature. Tree branches slapped you in the face. Seven foot tall weeds lined parts of the trail, making the singletrack invisible for several yards. Nettles would scrape your legs and make your skin itch to high heaven. Waterloo Parks & Rec would mow once a year. This generally happened after the weeds and undergrowth matured, maybe early September. Late August in some years. You might not even get to ride back there some years in Summer, the vegetation was so thick.

This bandit trail in the Green Belt is a pretty good reminder of "how things used to be".
This was all part of the adventure for me. Weed whacking, back then, was a term I used to describe how myself and my bicycle would blaze a trail in the "Iowa Jungle". It wasn't about trail maintenance with a motorized gadget. It was minimal impact cycling and Nature ruled and did whatever she wanted to do. That was understood. We worked with that, not against it, back in those days. The singletrack was narrow, serpentine, and if it went through a muddy hole, so did you. Lensing out of the trail was unheard of back then.

Now days most of the Green Belt is wide enough for a dump truck and mowed on a regular basis. Some say that's better.....
The Flood of '93 wreaked havoc on the Green Belt. The City kind of abandoned the area for several years. Workarounds for flood damage were seemingly natural and often maintained and originally cleared by cyclists, who, along with hikers, were the main folks back there in those days. Then the 2008 flood did another number on the Green Belt, and everywhere else around here, and things radically changed after that.

The City brought in an end loader instead of the old, 4ft wide brush hog mower they used to use. Suddenly a clear cut mentality was being used to maintain the area. The single track was double tracked for a while. The big machines the City used were destroying what was once a wild area and turning it in to a grass highway, for all intents and purposes. Quads and motorcyclists started tearing up the place and I even saw pick-up trucks with fisherman driving up from the Southern terminus of the trail at one time a few years back. The City made it possible to drive back there due to the new, ultra-wide track they enforced on the Green Belt, so people did just that. We never saw that back when the single track was truly narrow.

The other thing that I see is how trail users want to "make things easier" all the time. If they see mud, they try to ride around it, lensing out the trail and making a little mud hole a great big one. Instead of getting off their bicycles or taking a few minutes of time, they walk and ride around fallen branches instead of clearing them off the trail. They'd rather burn in another line instead of maintaining the one that has been there for decades. I blame the super-wide mowing job the City does now. The users take the easier routes because they can. Nature is pushed further away, and it doesn't take much imagination to see that a paved trail mentality is starting to take hold of this part of Waterloo. Yeah....more run-off issues, more high maintenance costs, and more sanitized trail. Gah! I hope it never happens, but city governments seem to think paved Nature trails are an attraction for everyone.

Typical single track look that CVAST does these days.
Finally, there are those in the area, past and present, who felt that our "elevationally challenged" singletrack needed help and that "structures", stunts, and earthen berms would be the answer. What they did not, and many still do not, take in to account is that we have flood plain trails. These trails will always be susceptible to erosion and damage from flooding. What is more, wind damage is also a constant enemy to clear trails here. Accepting what you have, working with it, and not against it, is the best policy. I'm not against structured trail experiences, but we do not have the area suited for it. It is what it is. Why beat yourself up trying to turn it into something it isn't?

Now, I don't have all the answers, but I know that all across the nation, singletrack is getting less "natural" and more contrived.  I feel with the way things seem to be headed, we're taking away more than we need to be. There should be a better balance of the "natural" and the maintained. Getting dirty and having a brush with green things shouldn't be frowned upon. Singletrack should be narrow, not eight feet wide with a bare tread down the middle. Do we really need to build berms and structures, or should we learn how to ride the land as it lays? I'm not sure where the balance is there, but I see more "built" trails than I do trails that are so much a part of the landscape you barely notice it.


graveldoc said...

We have this nice little trail here at Lake Stockton, Missouri called the Lakeview Trail. It is the type of trail you're describing. The builders have done a nice job working with nature and following the flow of the land; not working against it. I feel pretty blessed to have it, even though I'm a pretty novice rider.

Smithhammer said...

I was just having this conversation mid-ride with a friend yesterday, after we had passed a section of trail that we ride all the time, and we noticed that a small log that used to lay across the trail (that was perfectly easy to ride/hop over) had been removed. There is a noticeable trend happening these days with sanitization and overly-manicured trails. Preserve the chunk and keep mountain biking real! Or, if you prefer to ride on sidewalks, there are plenty of those already....

teamdarb said...

Thank you, thank you- Stay on that soap box! I have the same views of single track, fake elevation, easy outs, and mowing. Here in the DC Metro area which include N.Va and MD it too has similar changes in place. It amazes me the number of people who ride from Pittsburg to DC on the GAP/C&O. The section from Cumberland south is single track, or it use to be for a distance. Now it is a wide pointless ramble of gigantic pot holes due to folks going around water. Even within the District is the Fort Circle trail which is less used thank goodness to passing through the hood. But where the city is gentrified the trail widens and is groomed over like a balding Cousin It. We have another trail the Connelly Cross County trail which goes from the Potomic river south to Lorton, Va. The portion nearest the river for 15-20 miles is even worse groomed, widened, pretty stone dust laid down to smooth the surface. This makes things less interesting to me. Then there's the other end of the spectrum. The fake trails! They are made for the YouTube, gopro, insta camera crowd. Plus they don't go anywhere but a loop! Today I suits find joy of the side of Four Mile Run trail, which runs from the historic Potomac Yards west along Four Mile River. There was a kid standing at the edge of real single track. I asked what's wrong. He said he was taking a photo to send for grooming request. I shook my head and rode in. He was worried about ticks and spiders. The poor kid was dressed in trendy cut off corduroy pant, sandals, no shirt, cloth gloves, but riding an over the top full suspension Trek Fuel.

75 miles south said...

I almost always enjoy your commentary on unpaved surface cycling, and disagree with a rare few...[heavy dose of my opinion coming in really hot] BUT this ~it was better way back when~ struck a negative chord, not because I disagree with anything specifically, it was just a rant without solution or reason.

Sure, some things are getting "softer" and trail sanitization is potentially taking [some of] the fun out of riding [some] trails, but is missing "high fives" really the complaint? Fewer facial scratches from thorny bushes trailside has to be a benefit, right? Have you asked the city if they would consider a narrower mower? Have you offered to mow the trail sides three times a summer with a narrower mower, so that the city could save their 8' brush-hog for other tasks?

As far as commentary about "burning" in a new line around windfall, sometimes that is an interesting solution which avoids "trail maintenance with a motorized gadget" which apparently irks you so much. New windfall can be just as dangerous as the eroded-disappearing-trail, but it seems you like danger without a solution (falling into the creek) but dislike danger with a quick ride around or new trail to a more hoppable/rideable part of the log. When you nearly dumped it into the creek, did you repair the trail to the way had been or did you find a workaround?

Trails ARE organic, and [still] DO change with the seasons, the days and the storms, and maybe your cynical take on change over decades is a good reminder to me how lucky I am to ride both LAMBA and ICORR trails in-town and out. Sure, there are definitely more man-made "features" on some trails than I would sometimes prefer, but some of those bridges allow riding when it would otherwise be impossible due to flooded conditions. Some of those skinnies and log-overs are there simply because it might otherwise be too smooth and polished.

Solutions sir, present solutions, not gripes.

Steve Fuller said...

It's always a tradeoff. A few years back, one of the major multi-use trails in the metro was modified and lengthened. The trail was built with machines, albeit machines were more of the walk behind variety. A lot of trail was built in a short amount of time, but those machines needed space wider than the singletrack to run, so the initial result was a nice bench cut trail with a lot of bare dirt on the downslope. Fast forward a couple of years. Hikers and riders of various experience levels have turned the bench cut into much wider trail with a rounded shoulder. The bench is no longer the most used line, and in some places grass has started to grow on the bench cut. I get why people want to use machinery to build trail. It's quick and if you can raise money, you can have someone else do the heavy lifting portion of the trail build. My experience with it in this case has not been positive.

We have another section of single track in town that was also machine built. It's on a hillside as well, but despite that, the design isn't the traditional bench cut. The issues on the previous trail are non-existent on this one. In this case the machine built trail has fared a lot better.

I'm not completely sure what the point of this rambling reply was, other than to say I agree with a lot of your points regarding the sanitization of singletrack.

teamdarb said...

The cool thing about having your own blog is that you can say what you would have to say. One doesn't have to say what others want. This blog isn't a discussion in search of resolution, but a journal of one person's experience. You know this. The demand for solution is unnecessary.

Guitar Ted said...

@75 miles south- Okay, I'll comment on your points one by one using your quotes. here goes....

" was just a rant without solution or reason. " Au contraire. Look at the other comments here. THAT was the reason for the post. To generate a conversation about singletrack. Even your own comment is evidence of this. I did not say that I had solutions. (Read the final thoughts I had in the post) I did that for a specific reason. YOUR single track may require different solutions than where I live. Make sense?

" Fewer facial scratches from thorny bushes trailside has to be a benefit, right? Have you asked the city if they would consider a narrower mower? Have you offered to mow the trail sides three times a summer with a narrower mower, so that the city could save their 8' brush-hog for other tasks?"

I say in the post that yes- "high fives" from Nature were accepted as reasonable fun back then. Not your cup-o-tea? That's fine. As for maintenance and offers to help, I could write a series of posts on all the things I've done, but that isn't the point here. Have I done trail maintenance? Yes. Still do. Am I in charge of Waterloo Parks & Rec? No, I am not.

"As far as commentary about "burning" in a new line around windfall....."

Here you miss the point. What I am talking about is where the tread of the trail is clearable, but no one bothers to do anything about it. (I do) Big trees and branches the City clears out, but they don't often do anything about broken off branches which, from experience,are easily moved aside by one man. However; this happens other places as well, and I've seen it happen. I've seen the results posted by trail managers on social media. So, the real point here is that this was brought up as a talking point for trails everywhere. Not just the Green Belt. As far as the last statement in that referenced paragraph, did you not read that I wrote that the trail was washed away? How then is it possible that you could suggest that I "repair the trail to the way had been"? Well, unless you didn't comprehend what I wrote. So, of course a "work around" was developed, or the trail would be no more. Obvious, no?

"Trails ARE organic, and [still] DO change with the seasons, the days and the storms...."

Again, obvious, and I've written the same several times here. I agree with that, but it has nothing to do with keeping single track single, necessarily.

You are lucky, by the way. I've ridden your trails and have enjoyed them. In fact, I have ridden there before LAMBA existed and I know an original ICORR member who shared with me the beginnings of those Sugarbottom trails and some of their history. Some of the better trails in the area are these very trails. The single track is pretty nice in those trail systems, in my humble opinion. Yes, you are lucky.....

So, solutions? They are different for Sugarbottom, Beverly Park, and the Green Belt. Different governing bodies, trail organizations, and user groups. Different situations that call for conversations, like the one I was trying to start here. Thanks for joining in.

And maybe sometime, if we ever meet, I can tell you about the solutions and efforts I have put in to keeping the Green Belt rideable since the early 90's. But that isn't what this post was about.

blooddoc23 said...

that's a great post!!

75 miles south said...

You don't need to convince me that you've done things to keep Waterloo and Cedar Falls trails open and flowing, but if you're buying the beer, I'll listen. About the best I do is move deadfall and derailleur grabbers from the trails I ride. If I can't move it and it looks rotten, I'll often give it a kick or two, hoping it fell because its rotten to the core, and not because of shallow root structure. I'm just saying that I think the lines sometime improve or become more technical [less sanitized] because of heavy deadfall.

I stand by my comment about eye-damaging face-whips and shoulder thorns. Those Fockers... (I actually have carried gardening pruners on rides just to clean up mulberry and locust shoots. As far as keeping single track single, I get that not all land managers are willing to go with a narrower mower, or to permit volunteers to do some of the mowing [with a narrower mower] but that struck me as a conversation that could/should have been had with Waterloo Parks & Rec...

I wasn't attacking you when you said the trail fell away, I was trying to compare your flood/erosion issues to when a 50" sycamore uproots and tips. You find a work around, move on and things change. Burning in a new line where it doesn't increase erosion or have other detrimental effects can really create a freshness in an old short course line.

I'll gladly have a beer or three with you, should the occasion arise.