One of the biggest impacts we make on a forest for the sake of enjoying it, is to build a trail through it. Of course other animals make trails too, but they’re intentional, utilitarian. Deer trails gently meander the contours of the landscape, to accomodate much stopping to browse along the way. Recreational trails, on the other hand, are like freeways through the forest, encouraging the hiker or biker to keep moving and effectively notice nothing but the trail itself. Unlike freeways or animal trails, recreational trails often don’t go anywhere in particular (except maybe to a waterfall or a view). Worse, they can damage the very landscape they allow us to appreciate.
I’ve hiked on a lot of trails in my life, including goodly portions of the Appalachian, Pacific Crest and Continental Divide. During my early 20’s, I alternated between going to school and working in the winter, and hiking long trails solo or with friends in the summer. I’ve enjoyed a few well-built trails – but more often cursed my luck, slogging sometimes for days in rutted muddy tracks (the Pacific Crest Trail is shared by horse packers and hikers). Or twisting my ankles on upturned plates of rock (long ridges of the Kittatiny on the AT in PA). I’ve helped build trails too, but never had the chance to design one of my own – until now.
This was the scene last winter near post #19, where the poorly placed trail is about to become a watercourse, again. The drainage channel in the center was the former trailbed; the interpretive message in the trail guide even says so. You can see post #19 in front of the Black walnut tree, still facing the trail-turned-drainage channel. Not exactly something to crow about, in my opinion.
It’s another bad trail placement decision, made many years back, that’s had such a damaging effect on this little forest. Apparently whoever planned the route some 20 years ago didn’t understand basic concepts of trail building…
…resulting in scenes such as this near post #16, where the trail plunges straight down the hill. Twenty years of erosion have taken their toll, and the soil continues to move downhill as evidenced by the layer on the bridge further down the trail.
This bridge was actually lifted and reset only about a year ago, after being nearly buried in displaced dirt. The moving water doesn’t just carry sediment, but also plant seeds, particularly the abundant invasive ones like Wintercreeper. Most of the worst Wintercreeper infestations in this forest started in a deposition area at the base of a trail.
But finally it was my turn to have a go at the trail problem – this past spring I got the green light to reroute a low section of the Red Maple Trail that consists of standing water and mud from November to May. I’d been planning the route for awhile, and tried to put into the design everything I learned all those years hiking good and bad trails.
The first and last rule of trailbuilding: give the water someplace to exit the trail. As much as possible I chose a route where the natural topography had a slight incline, reducing the disturbance of trailbed grading. The trail route traces the contour lines, more or less, allowing water to move across the trail and on downslope. At no point is the incline of the trail route so steep as to encourage drainage along the trailbed itself.
In the section above, the trail descends in a series of meandering switchbacks, to prevent movement of water along the trailbed. “Meander” is the key word, something I learned from biking and hiking on the best of trails – those designed for mountain bikes. These trails have to take such a beating that their construction has evolved to an art form, complete with it’s own terminology of drain dips, aprons, grade reversals and so on. Trail builders are advised to “surf the contour”, a maxim I took to heart on my little section of trail.
In the pic above, an old Bush Honeysuckle stump became the excuse for a bend in the trail.
Some people think switchbacks are for cutting, so a generous portion of brush and down limbs have been scattered as discouragement.
Last but not least, the brave scouts of Troop 317 and their leaders moved two heavy wooden bridges to their new locations…
…and dragged a big log across the old trail. The rehabilitation of the old trailbed is a great opportunity to plant native grasses and perennials – the subject of a future post.
Since this is a trail for meandering, I encourage you to take it slow and see the sights, like this mass of tiny fungi, topped by a lumpy purple one.
Or the curious horizontal gnawing on a trailside hackberry.
Frankly, I’m baffled by this – have the squirrels been taking lessons from porcupines?
Maybe you’ll see a leaf-mimic Katydid….
Or even a well camouflaged Box turtle.