Happy Trails

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The Mad River Riders and other stakeholders are spurring a mountain biking revolution in the Valley. 

I eagerly pedaled my mountain bike under the hardwood canopy of the Green Mountain National Forest at the Blueberry Lake trail network in Warren. This cloverleaf-shaped network was one of the more refreshing places to be on a steamy Memorial Day. My friend and I were following a colorful trio of twelve-year-old boys up the switchbacks of the Lenord’s Loop trail. The five of us weren’t alone in starting the holiday on trails and ending with a dip in the adjacent pristine lake. The diversity of other riders that day—from a two-year-old child balancing a Strider bike along the Tootsie Roll trail to a retired professional downhill racer flowing through Suki’s Alley—clearly illustrated the accessibility of these woods to a wide variety of ages and abilities.

I marveled at the brilliantly built trail network. By appearance, the smooth berms and wide corridors gave off an impression of easy riding; however, the undulating trails were deceptively arduous. Trailside wildflowers, including jack-in-the-pulpit and red trillium, provided me a welcome distraction from the taxing climbs. Observing the crumbling rock wall boundaries of a former farm pasture turned my thoughts to the land’s human history. I noticed natural features that had thoughtfully been turned into trailside amenities, such as a rock “bench.” My sightseeing ended when the trail dipped into a descent. I happily followed the boys as they pumped berms and sprang from trailside boulders. 

The popular trail network at Blueberry Lake didn’t happen overnight, and it took the proverbial village. Holly Knox, the trails and recreation coordinator for the Green Mountain National Forest, explained that the project would not have happened without local, town, and regional support. The Forest Service conducted field trips with local officials and interested members of the public, but “without a partner that was willing to adopt the trail system . . . we likely would have walked away,” she admitted. 

The Mad River Riders, a thirty-year-old recreation organization that manages more than forty-five miles of multi-use trails for biking, hiking, skiing, and snowshoeing in the Valley, stepped forward to work with the Forest Service on leading many aspects of the project. “When an organization can provide a unified voice to the Forest Service, we are able to be more effective and efficient at addressing their needs,” Knox said. The Mad River Riders are, she continued, “a phenomenal partner . . . in seeking funds, designing new trails, completing maintenance, and resolving local issues.” 

Knox described a process that began well before the designation of a trail system for the parcel in 2011. “Public feedback had highlighted a lack of beginner and intermediate trails in the Mad River Valley, and it was a goal from the start to help fill that void,” she said. 

Another goal was to maintain the ecological integrity of the area; to that end, the Forest Service and the Mad River Riders brought in the professional trail-building legends Hardy Avery of Sustainable Trailworks and Brooke Scatchard of Sinuosity. Avery’s and Scatchard’s reputations for trail design across Vermont have made them household names. Both apply guidelines from the International Mountain Bike Association, a national advocacy, education, access, and trail-building organization, such as building contour trails to minimize tread erosion and avoiding the fall line or flat areas to ensure proper water drainage. These standards not only ensure sustainability, but they also make the trail ridable for beginner and intermediate riders while still enjoyable for advanced riders. This “has kept people coming back,” said Knox. “It is a small trail network, but people are willing to travel here to introduce new riders [to the sport] or to enjoy a change of pace from the steep, technically difficult trails that exist in many areas of Vermont.” These new trails have inspired a whole new generation of riders in the Valley. “I can’t count the number of young or new riders I meet who talk about learning to ride at Blueberry Lake,” Knox said.

The iconic Lareau Farm sprawls along Route 100, marked by cultivated fields on the Mad River and a smattering of historic buildings including a barn, farmhouse inn, outdoor shelter, and the famous American Flatbread restaurant. Beyond cords of firewood stacked at the edge of the forest, a mounted bike wheel marks a trailhead, hinting at the unusual nature of this working farm. 

The trailhead is the access point to the Revolution trail, a multi-use corridor built in 2012 and 2013 through a model partnership between American Flatbread, the Featherbed Inn, the Dana Forest Farm, and the Mad River Riders. The project fulfilled a multidimensional vision by adding an intermediate-level trail to the mostly expert-level trail network in the Valley. The new trails also link a business located at the bottom of the Valley to isolated trails on state land situated high on the hillside.

Clay Westbrook, the president of American Flatbread, said the working farm was a natural partner. Part of their business approach “is to attract people to the farm by offering recreation or experiential visits.” Hosting a family-friendly trailhead was one way to do that. Although it’s too early to measure the financial impact on the business, Westbrook said that early indications point to increased inn reservations and diners. “The positive benefits certainly outweigh any possible concerns.” 

It is clear that the longtime owners of the Lareau Farm and founders of American Flatbread, George Schenk and his wife (also named George), are involved for reasons that go well beyond expanding their own patron base. Westbrook reflected the Schenks’ community philosophy in explaining that a vibrant trail network has untapped potential for leveraging economic vitality across the Valley. “Weddings and skiing are great for the economy, but we have to diversify” the reasons people visit, he said. He pointed out the opportunity to attract new community members who have the flexibility to work from home or are looking for places to which they can relocate their business. “There is a whole generation that is influenced by recreational amenities . . . in deciding where they want to live and raise a family.”

Early in May, I met up with John Atkinson, executive director of the Mad River Riders (and Sugarbush photographer and snow reporter), in the American Flatbread parking lot. As we biked up the Revolution trail, he acknowledged that the trail was intentionally named for the marked effect the project had in expanding trail access for various abilities, as well as in forging model partnerships.

Echoing Knox’s point about the dearth of trails for beginners and intermediates, Atkinson told me that if you wound back the clock a few years, you’d find that nearly all the trails in the Valley had a reputation as “hard to find, follow, and ride.” Landowners were drawn to the community approach of opening up more types of terrain to more types of riders. Atkinson described how the popular concept attracted enough donations and in-kind contributions, including volunteer labor and equipment, to expeditiously build the trail. Today, Lareau Farm’s Revolution is one of the most popular trails in the Valley for bikers and walkers, second only to Blueberry Lake. 

Near the top of the trail, we stopped at a junction and Atkinson pointed out a rough path cut through thick ferns. The positive response to the Revolution trail had reenergized conversations with private landowners and spurred an improved trail-planning process with public land managers. I was looking at the early construction phase of two new trails, aptly named Evolution and Evolution Phase II to symbolize progression on many levels. The Evolution trails will provide a key link between Revolution and other popular intermediate and expert trails in Camel’s Hump State Forest, such as Enchanted Forest and Cyclone, eliminating an unpopular climb up Dana Hill Road. 

The relationships between mountain bikers and public land managers haven’t always been so strong. According to Atkinson, 1999 marked a turning point for trail access. The catalyst was trail closings in Phen Basin, part of Camel’s Hump State Park, which shut down access to trails that mountain bikers had been using without permission. Atkinson described the situation as a “wake-up call that trails could be lost if we weren’t involved.” Although it had always been a goal to gain official access to protected lands, “it was Phen Basin that started the process of how we propose to build and maintain trails, particularly on public land,” he said. The Mad River Riders successfully worked with the state on reinstating access to mountain biking in Phen Basin. (Today, one of the expert-level trails in the basin, Chain Gang, is a rider favorite, and major reroutes to improve the trail were started in 2015.)

The next big step came in 2006, when the Vermont Mountain Bike Association (VMBA) received official recognition by the state of Vermont as “trail stewards,” which meant that the statewide organization and its regional chapters could be potential partners with public land managers in the building and maintaining of local trails. This included trail permissions for the Mad River Riders, as an association chapter, making mountain biking a designated recreational use on an existing network within the Howe Block of Camel’s Hump, in addition to the trails in Phen Basin.

“We had spent years building and maintaining trails on state lands . . . and could prove we had the knowledge, community, and the capacity to be legitimate,” Atkinson explained. “We could point to these official permissions on public land, which made talking to other public land managers—as well as private landowners—about projects much easier.”

Jason Nerenberg, the Essex District stewardship forester for the Vermont Department of Forests, Parks and Recreation, pointed to the cooperative relationship between his agency and mountain bikers as one that has ended up benefiting the landscape. “Mountain bikers know the trails better than we do and are our eyes and ears,” he said. “By calling attention to something, more work gets done. And they have energy to do a lot of maintenance.” 

Many considerations go into building and maintaining trails, but Nerenberg described a process in which everyone puts their heads together to figure out the best approach. The state’s interdisciplinary district stewardship teams make sure that projects avoid sensitive areas, such as those that are prone to erosion, or home to endangered species or unique habitat features. The state trail crews work with the Mad River Riders and the Vermont Youth Conservation Corps in aspects of design and construction. “If we can address our primary [ecological and regulatory] concerns, while at the same time making a trail more ridable and fun by adding a [natural] feature here or there, we are hitting it all,” Nerenberg said.

Nerenberg is optimistic about another generation of trail development in Phen Basin that could connect to other parts of the Valley’s network. The long-range management plan for Camel’s Hump State Park is pending approval. “The Mad River Riders have an extensive vision for trails” in the park, Nerenberg said. “If they are designed in the right place with consideration for other values”—like water quality and wildlife—“we apply for recreation grants . . . and start building.” 

Adam Greshin, the co-owner of Sugarbush Resort and a Vermont state representative, told me that when he and his wife purchased land in Warren that included trails by Eurich Pond, one of the first calls he received was from a group of mountain bikers. They were curious, he said, about “our intentions for allowing mountain biking . . . which we fully supported.” 

Over the last eleven years, Greshin has witnessed firsthand how much the mountain bike scene has evolved. He cited a key trend that he feels bodes well for the Valley’s future: an embracing of public access and trail building on private land. “Vermont has a long history of people using private property for recreation purposes,” he told me, but “landowners across the state are increasingly posting their land, essentially taking it out of public use.” In the Valley, though, he has seen a “slow but noticeable reversal in this trend,” due to a “demonstration by recreation users” that they can responsibly ride on private land “as well as the general sense that recreation is important to the community and the state.”

Land conservation organizations are also playing a role in securing recreational access to trails. After longtime landowner Skip Tenney donated his 280-acre hill farm in Fayston, the Vermont Land Trust brought in a new farmer to steward the revival of agricultural activity and the protection of productive forestland and ecological resources. As part of the conservation package of the land, the trust engaged several partners, such as the Catamount Trail Association, the Mad River Path Association, and the Mad River Riders, to enhance vital links in the local recreational trail network, including by rerouting Techie—a popular expert-level trail—and the Catamount Trail to better-suited locations, as well as by identifying a future site for a small parking lot on Marble Hill Road, which can be used to access the network. 

“When we consider an opportunity to conserve a working farm or forest, we strive to balance many objectives which are important to Vermonters, including wildlife habitat and water-quality protection, local food production, sustainable forestry, and, certainly, recreational access to land,” said Liza Walker, the Mad River Valley director for the Vermont Land Trust. “The presence of local partners, such as the Mad River Path Association and the Mad River Riders—who can design, build, and manage the trails and respond to the needs of the landowners—is absolutely essential to the success of this effort.”

Another conservation project in 2016 has created excitement among trail users. The Trust for Public Land purchased 2,085 acres in Duxbury and is transferring it to the state of Vermont as an addition to Camel’s Hump State Park. The property—known as the Dowsville Headwaters, a tributary of the Mad River—includes areas that have long been frequented by mountain bikers and other recreationists. Plans are under way to secure new access to these trails as part of the state park from Dowsville Road, Ward Hill Road, and Sharpshooter Road. 

The multi-tier partnerships—between nonprofit organizations, the Forest Service, and the towns of Fayston, Warren, Waitsfield, Moretown, and Duxbury, as well as other key entities—drive the vision, negotiations, and logistics behind these trail networks. However, financing the purchase, development, and maintenance is also critical to success. Foundations are key, such as the Winthrop H. Smith Family Foundation, which supported the projects at Blueberry Lake and in Dowsville. Other funding sources from the Forest Service, Recreational Trail Program grants, the Mad River Valley Recreation District, the Mad River Valley Rotary, and private donations have paid for everything from professional trail builders and staff time to signage and free programs for kids and women riders. As Atkinson put it, “It’s one thing to build a trail network, but it’s another thing to take care of it over time. We need to think about the long-term capacity and funding needs of the system.”

Matt Klein, president of the Mad River Riders, sees the stars aligning for the next decade of multi-use trail development in the Valley and across the state. He described a short-term focus on building “connector” trails. “We plan to link the Blueberry Lake trails to Warren Village and then the rest of the Valley. We want the Revolution and Evolution trails to lead riders all the way up to Sugarbush.” Although the trails at Sugarbush are mostly gravity oriented, requiring downhill bikes and a trail pass, popular intermediate cross-country trails encircle the resort, allowing riders to utilize resort amenities.
 
According to Klein, longer trail options could attract tourists to stay and eat in the Valley, thereby benefiting the economy. Additionally, more options make the area “a place for locals to get into the sport or work on bike-handling skills on any given day,” boosting community health. “It’s already noticeable this year how many more bikes you see on cars and how many kids you see on bikes.” 

These ambitions are not so far-fetched. Klein pointed to the Mad River Riders’ track record in doubling trail miles between 2006 and 2016, and their relationships with more than three dozen landowners and land managers, connections that are based on trust and mutual respect. Membership in the Mad River Riders encompasses more than 200 bikers and hikers, and collaboration with local trail stewards and other associations is leading to creative ideas for working together to best serve the community. 

Project locations already abut trail networks in neighboring communities, which Klein believes will lead to increased cohesiveness with VMBA chapters and networks in Waterbury, Duxbury, Northfield, Hinesburg, Huntington, and Stowe. Like the Mad River Riders, other VMBA chapters, including the Stowe Mountain Bike Club and the Waterbury Area Trails Alliance, are forging ahead with numerous trail projects, with public and private landowner relationships and sustainability trail design at the core.

Back at the intersection of the Evolution trail, Atkinson pivoted his bike to face back down Revolution as he exuded enthusiasm for what he sees as abounding opportunity. “We are helping lead the way in terms of access to the four main types of land in Vermont—national forest, state forest, town forest, and private land. We’ve developed a successful relationship with all these landowners and land managers.” Atkinson’s rationale for why trails are good for the community is convincing: “They are a sustainable public resource that is free, always open, high-quality, and accessible for all abilities, offering health, educational, and economic benefits to the community.” Atkinson and I began our descent, training our eyes ahead on the unfolding switchbacks and roller coaster–like undulations. We found balance points over the pedals as we navigated sturdy bridges and shallow stream crossings. Exiting the forest, we rolled past the staked bike wheel to stop in the American Flatbread parking lot, grins on our faces. One thing was clear: there is plenty of momentum for the future of mountain biking both in the Valley and across Vermont.


Brooke Scatchard excavating a new trail


VYCC is an important partner in the process of trail building.

THE VERMONT MOUNTAIN BIKING FESTIVAL COMES TO SUGARBUSH

This past July, the Vermont Mountain Bike Association (VMBA) brought its annual festival to Sugarbush. True to form, the festival was an amalgamation of activities, from vendor bike demos, to clinics, group-led rides, downhill mountain biking, activities for kids, food, and live music. 

VMBA’s vision behind the event is to bring riders together while showcasing model mountain biking trails and work by mountain biking chapters around the state. Matt Klein, president of the Mad River Riders, sees the festival as a great way to let more riders know about the Mad River Valley’s growing trail system. Riders got a chance to try out the “wider, flow trails that more people can ride comfortably, as well as the surrounding expert-level trails on more rugged terrain.” 

But more importantly, he sees the festival as a chance for mountain bikers to get together to have fun. “We wanted people to learn the trails and appreciate the natural beauty of this place that we call our backyard and enjoy every day,” he said. Adam Greshin, the co-owner of Sugarbush, agreed that the festival was a “way to broadcast to the riding community, that the Mad River Valley is a point on the map that they should consider. Now that we have more variety to offer in our trail system, we hope riders see this as a unique destination that deserves their attention.” (The 2017 VMBA festival is planned for July 21–23 at Mt. Ellen.)