Trail angels keep the Foothills trails in prime shape

I was riding my bike at the Eagle/Ada bike park and noticed ruts had recently been filled and a new berm had been built. Lots of folks probably walked or rode by without noticing it. Not only did I notice it, I appreciate the folks who did the work. That dirt didn’t move itself, someone, or a bunch of someones, did it.

They’re “trail angels,” a term that originated describing people who do good deeds for long-distance hikers on long trails, such as the Appalachia Trail or the Pacific Crest Trail. I think it also applies to people who work on Foothills trails.

They’re both professionals and volunteers, and some are a blend of the two because there probably isn’t a person on a trail crew who wasn’t a volunteer first.

The result is an amazing trail system in the Foothills and beyond that keeps getting better, and it requires a lot of effort to keep it that way. While a trail may seem about as low-tech as a sidewalk, it’s not.

A tan ribbon of dirt snaking across the landscape serves many functions. It gets us from point A to point B, whether on foot, bike, motorcycle or horseback, and often in an interesting way. How often do you find yourself walking a straight line in the Foothills? Not often. Part of that is the topography doesn’t allow it, but it’s also more interesting for a trail to meander across the landscape. If you’re on a bike, you really appreciate a well-designed trail. You can cruise along without braking hard or having to go straight up or down hill. You can see far enough ahead to spot other trail users, and you have plenty of time to slow down. You know there won’t be any unexpected hazards. It’s no accident when that happens, it’s good trail design.

A well-designed trail also sheds water so it won’t erode and turn a smooth single-track trail into a rutted, rocky mess. Even the best designed trail can get damaged from excessive use, neglect, or using it when wet.

A big rainstorm or other weather event can also damage a trail. While not a big problem in the Treasure Valley, windstorms can knock down trees and wreak havoc on forest trails. When any of those things happen, people are out fixing trails. Unlike a fresh coat of paint or freshly mowed grass, their work isn’t always obvious.

But you will likely notice a poorly designed or unmaintained trail. It’s an ankle twisting, teeth-rattling nightmare, and fortunately, there are few examples of them in the Foothills because of the work done to prevent it from happening.

Spring is a big time for trail maintenance, both by pros and volunteers, and there’s usually room for more folks to help out. Ridge to Rivers manages about 150 miles of trails with a full-time staff of four, four seasonal workers and one part timer. Their work last year was augmented by 2,900 hours of volunteer labor, which includes Ridge to Rivers’ trail ranger program.

The folks at Avimor had a trail day on Saturday, and more than 30 people showed up to help “spruce up” the trail system by making minor repairs, cutting back brush and fixing water bars, according to Marc Grubert, who helps manage the trail system there.

Avimor is an excellent example of the evolution of a trail system. It started out a collection of old double-track and cow trails, and is now a network of first-class singletrack trails built and maintained by volunteers, including the Southwest Idaho Mountain Bike Association, Broken Spoke Cycling and many others. Avimor is now working with Ada County and Ridge to Rivers on easements and improvements, such as signs and gates, with the goal of eventually linking Avimor’s trail system to trails managed by other agencies.

Cooperation between entities is critical because trails cross so many different land ownerships and jurisdictions. And speaking of cooperation, I am happy to report the long-awaited bridge across the Flow Trail at the Eagle/Ada bike park is being constructed and should be completed this weekend. There was a messy spat between the City of Eagle and Ada County, which stalled completion of the trail for nearly two years. It’s good to see that one in the rearview mirror, and people should be able to finally ride the entire Flow Trail.

The Foothills trail system is not unique in being shaped by volunteers. Horseback riding clubs, hiking clubs, motorcycle and ATV clubs regularly perform trail work on Forest Service and BLM trails, which has been especially important when the budgets for those agencies has diminished.

If you look at the big picture, demand for well-maintained trails is high and money to manage them typically flat or declining. Trails are often at the low end of the priority list for state and federal land management agencies.

Fortunately, lots of users have been willing to show up and help. If you use trails, consider joining any of the outfits when they do trail projects. You will gain a new appreciation for the work involved in keeping a trail system in great shape.

People interested in helping with Ridge to Rivers projects can contact Sam Roberts, sroberts@cityofboise.org, or call 921-0481. Most groups mentioned also list their trail projects on their websites, and I will post them in Idaho Outdoors and online at idahostatesman.com/outdoors when I hear about them.