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ON THE SCENE: Designing and maintaining woodland trails

Josh Wilson doing some trail work (Photo provided)

An essential contribution to a hiker’s enjoyment of the Adirondacks is the quality of the trail. Is it steep, filled with mudholes and rocks? Does it seem over-used, or is it relatively easy to pass along on our way to our destination?

While for a hiker, a trail is often a means to an end, such as reaching the summit of Cascade, but to a mountain biker, the trail’s character is usually the primary draw.

On Wednesday, Jan. 13, what it takes to create a pleasurable hiking or biking trail was the focus of the Lake Placid-North Elba Historical Society’s opening winter lecture, “Trail Building Then & Now,” led by Tony Goodwin and Josh Wilson.

For nearly 60 years, Goodwin has been designing, building and more often repairing Adirondack trails as the founder and leader of the Adirondack Ski Touring Council and long-time director of the Ausable Club-based Adirondack Trail Improvement Society. For people living outside Keene, Goodwin is perhaps best known as an author of books such as the Adirondack Mountain Club’s “High Peaks Trails” and as the founder of the Jackrabbit Trail, a ski trail that now stretches from Paul Smiths to Keene.

“There is a satisfaction in have done something that people will appreciate,” said Goodwin. “My father (Jim Goodwin) admitted that his pleasure in making trails was, in part, ego because he just liked to see people using something that he could create. That’s pretty much the same with me. To go out and ski on the Jack Rabbit Trail and see people out there enjoying it means that I did something right.”

Tony Goodwin (Photo provided)

In 2015, Wilson, who had been serving on the board of ASTC since 2012, took over the leadership of ASTC, merging it with the Barkeaters Trail Alliance. Though an avid backcountry skier up until then, Wilson’s primary focus had been advocating for policies that addressed local, state and national bicycling issues. In 2009, he helped found BETA to expand mountain biking access in our region.

BETA’s shift from advocacy to trail construction deepened in the effort to develop Wilmington as a mountain bike center working closely with the state Adirondack Park Agency, state Department of Environmental Conservation and town officials, such as the late Wilmington town Supervisor Randy Preston.

In 2017, Preston said of Wilson’s work, “BETA has been outstanding to work with — donating hundreds upon hundreds of hours each year. You cannot drive by the trailhead for the Flume Trails, or the Beaver Brook (Hardy Road) Trails any time of the year and not have people enjoying themselves. It has brought very positive economics to Wilmington.”

Goodwin opened the lecture by sharing a brief history of trail making and how we here in the Adirondacks got a late start compared to the White Mountains. This is not to imply that native peoples did not have their trails through the Adirondacks or scale the mountains as they certainly did. What they didn’t do was cut paths through the woods for countless visitors to follow nor foster unmaintained herd paths to the tops of various peaks.

The first recorded ascent of Mount Marcy was in 1837, nearly 200 years after the first climb up New Hampshire’s Mount Washington. In 1819, the first path up Mount Washington was marked, and not until 1861 was the first trail up Marcy set, mostly by blazes on the sides of trees. In contrast to trails in the White Mountains, which are often laid on an upward diagonal across a slope, Adirondack trails tend to be laid in a beeline towards the top with derivations made when cliffs and other features blocked that approach.

An outcome of the initial Adirondack approach to laying out trails is that hikers’ boots wore off the protective ground cover, and vulnerable soils washed away. The result was an often wet, boulder-strewn path apparent on Cascade and many other popular trails. To avoid the rubble and mud, hikers then started walking along the edges resulting in ever-widening trails.

It wasn’t until a family hike in the White Mountains in the early 1960s that Goodwin experienced the more sustainable approach that he quickly adopted for his work with ATIS. While on the Randolph Trail, his father noted how different it was as it went across a slope instead of nearly straight up, and, as a result, it wasn’t very eroded. From then on, Goodwin tried to design trails that were as close to the Randolph method as possible, with his graduate experience working on the Rooster Comb Trail created by ATIS and the Adirondack Mountain Club.

Repairing and modifying existing or creating new sustainably designed trails is no easy task. There are five fundamental factors: cutting in and hardening the trails to create a fundamentally flat surface; maneuvering large boulders to form a staircase effect up steep slopes; using pressure-treated boards or hewed logs over water/marshy features; controlling water drainage to reduce erosion; and, perhaps the most challenging, building in elements that encourage people to stay on the trails.

“A problem with incorporating switchbacks is keeping people on the trail as they tend to take shortcuts,” said Goodwin. “You try to design and maintain it so people can’t see from one switchback to the other, so there isn’t the temptation to do it.”

On mountain bike trails, riders love features as they test and improve their abilities. So, while these trails are built to reduce erosion and keep riders on the trail, creating a well-designed, fun and educational experience is the essential draw.

“I’ve been mountain biking since high school, a good 25 years,” said Wilson. “It’s a fun way to enjoy the great outdoors. I relish all the different experiences a trail can provide. I love the challenge of it and evolving your skills over time. There’s always something else to learn.”

Wilson got hooked on trail work when BETA took on creating a mountain bike network for Wilmington. He came to love building, designing and maintaining trails and, like Goodwin, taking pleasure in seeing other people enjoy the results. He also loves using the trails he’s created.

“When it comes to mountain biking, the trail itself and the quality of the trail is so central to your experience,” said Wilson. “That’s why we try to keep our trails to a high standard because it takes just one bad experience for people to give up on it or go somewhere else.”

Goodwin and Wilson are great storytellers, and their presentation is rich in details as to what it takes to make a great trail. A full recording of their presentation is available on the Lake Placid-North Elba Historical Society’s website under Programs. Also, there you can register for their next online presentation, which will be quite lively, “Growing up in the Hotel Business,” held at 7 p.m. Feb. 10.

(Naj Wikoff lives in Keene Valley. He has been covering events for the Lake Placid News for more than 15 years.)