Sharing the Trail
Hikers meet bikers on the Potawatomi
If you take a hike on the Potawatomi Trail in the Pinckney State Recreation Area, you'll see majestic trees, lovely wildflowers, twittering birds, skittish squirrels-and waves of mountain bikers approaching head-on. Such encounters are common on shared trials like the "Poto," a seventeen-mile dirt trail beloved by hikers since Boy Scouts built it back in the 1950s-and equally beloved by mountain bikers since their sport caught fire in the 1980s.
For more than two decades, hikers and bikers have uneasily shared the looped trail. They are supposed to travel in opposite directions, so that people on foot and on bicycles can better see and predict each other's movements. It represents one way that park officials and users have adapted to the realities of multiuse recreational resources.
But sharing the popular trail hasn't become any easier. Despite increasing efforts at cooperation, resentments still fester.
In a recent column that ran in the local weeklies, land conservation consultant Barry Lonik, an avid hiker, referred in passing to the Poto as having been "eroded by mountain bikes." That short reference fired up bike advocates. In one of many subsequent letters to the editor, Scott Chambers of Grand Rapids accused Lonik of having an "agenda to attack multiuse trails," and called him a "polarizing figure who has expressed his desire to eliminate cyclists' access to public land"-charges that Lonik calls "inaccurate and absurd."
For decades, tension has been building between mountain bikers on one hand and hikers and cross-country skiers on the other. Much of the disagreement has to do with physics: Do bike tires cause more wear and tear on trails than hiking boots and skis? Or is erosion mainly a result of rainwater pouring over badly designed trails, as the vocal mountain biking population claims?
The debate over environmental impact is real, but there seems to be more on the table-perhaps a desire by each group to hold on to small slices of disappearing wilderness for unfettered pursuit of the activity they love
Each side has its complaints. Hikers say it's unsettling to be suddenly confronted with a fast-moving bike on a narrow pathway. They say cyclists tear up the trail, exposing roots that create trip hazards. And some feel the packs of bicycles-and even the brightly colored jerseys of riders-spoil the serenity and beauty of a nature hike.
Bikers respond that they have an equal right to enjoy the wilderness. They say most cyclists are careful and courteous. They point out that poor trail design is the main reason for erosion. And they stress that they are working hard to build better trails for all users to enjoy.
Cyclists are accustomed to sharing the road. Bicycling magazine emphasizes its constituency's vulnerability by advising, with bitter irony, that the best way for motorists to "increase the odds of getting away with vehicular assault-or even manslaughter" is to bypass "pedestrians and other drivers and aim for a bicyclist."
It can be scary out on the street, and many bike lovers have understandably embraced wooded trails. Not only are they safer than roads, they're addictively empowering. Coursing like a deer past a blur of trees provides a kind of natural rush you can't get hiking.
The challenge on multiuse trails like the Poto is to let all visitors enjoy their respective activities while impinging as little as possible on one another. About 20 percent of Poto riders are members of the Michigan Mountain Biking Association, which encourages respect for hikers at every encounter. "The first rider calls out the number of riders coming," explains Marne Smiley, MMBA executive director. That lets hikers know how many cyclists to watch for in a party.
Yielding to whizzing bicycles makes some people on foot uncomfortable, but Pinckney Recreation Area park manager Jon LaBossiere says he knows of only one major accident on the Poto in recent years, and that was a deer-bike collision. He and fellow staffers deal not just with hikers, bikers, and skiers, but also hunters, equestrians, campers, and pets. For the most part, he believes, "everyone gets along pretty well." He recognizes that "since mountain bikers came on the scene, part of what's lost on the trails is the quiet." But he says multiuse trails in such a densely populated area as southern Michigan are a fair and reasonable way to share limited natural resources. He points out that hiking-only trails are available at Pinckney and other state parks.
Barry Lonik chooses to walk those trails at the times of year when bikes are out. "I like to have a quiet walk and not worry about being confronted with oncoming vehicles," he says. Dual use is not the experience he wants. He says he's "been hiking and skiing [the Potawatomi] for twenty-five years, since before mountain bikes discovered it." He regrets "that my favorite trail is not one I go on much of the year."
On some sections of the Poto, Lonik would like to see alternate routes for hiking and skiing only. He believes that some beautiful sections of trails in Pinckney have suffered from increased erosion over the time mountain bikers have used them. The Crooked Lake Trail, he says, has deteriorated for hikers and has become unskiable, due to steeper drops and exposed roots.
Mountain bikers from coast to coast deny that they accelerate trail erosion more than other users. The International Mountain Biking Association has amassed a dense body of literature to support its "equal impact" claims. And LaBossiere does not believe cyclists bear the brunt of responsibility for trail problems. He's looking forward to the results of a new trail study at Pinckney and hopes it may shed light on how to minimize tensions and environmental impacts in the future.
There are a few things everyone can agree on: that well-designed trails can benefit bikers and hikers alike, for example, and that the Poto was not built to support the use it gets now.
"It was built using the best information they had in the 1950s," says MMBA's Potawatomi Chapter president Bill Mayer (himself an expert trail designer, responsible in part for Ann Arbor's new Olson Park biking trails). "But back in those days there just weren't very many people out walking and certainly not biking on the trail."
MMBA asks its members to help keep trails open to mountain biking by riding in an environmentally sound manner. One campaign called "Is Your Name Mud?" asks members to monitor trail conditions and post signs and online alerts about areas too muddy to ride. Club members are regularly reminded not to give mountain bikers a bad name by riding on trails during the spring thaw, when erosion risk is highest.
LaBossiere says mountain biking groups have been extremely helpful in fixing parts of the Potawatomi Trail that had become nearly impassable. "They are major supporters of trail maintenance," he says. Along with Boy Scouts, they do more heavy work at the park than any other volunteer group.
"It's a massive undertaking, but we work on it a little at a time," LaBossiere says. He's not just talking about the pothole-patching-style fixes that leave unsightly gravel-filled gray plastic webbing sticking up from the dirt. He also points proudly to the meandering new Poto trail entrance built by MMBA volunteers to replace the older hillside entrance that had eroded into a steeply stepped incline.
Bill Mayer worked on the redesign of the entrance. He's pleased with the new lake view worked into the top of the rerouting. "We try to add something when we take something away," he says.
What they took away was valued mainly by the minority of mountain bikers who loved the off-the-charts challenge of the old entrance, which Mayer estimates could be negotiated by only about ten percent of the riders-the extreme devotees of the Poto legacy.
"Some people love bad design because it's a gas to ride on," says Mayer. "A trail designer could fix every section of the Poto, and the trail would lose its flavor." The newly built entrance ranks as an intermediate trail, he says.
By contrast, the 3.8-mile Sharon Mills County Park trail, which was recently built by MMBA members to be sustainable and erosion-resistant, is ranked as easy. "It should help bring beginners into the sport," Mayer hopes.
The Poto is actually less congested than it was five years ago, LaBossiere and Mayer agree, mainly because there are more local venues for mountain biking. The Island Lake trails in Brighton Recreation Area, in particular, are now considered among the Midwest's most popular. "Experienced riders will find these trails a great place to spin all out," the MMBA trail guide says. And because the trails were abandoned for years before the cyclists restored them, there are no longtime hikers like Barry Lonik to cringe at the pedal-powered traffic.
Nature trails can be appreciated by different types of users. But the experience is not necessary similar. To walk the Poto is to immerse yourself in its woodsy shelter, touching the trunks of trees and stepping gingerly over their roots, walking over fallen leaves and around tender trillium. If the sky darkens for a coming storm, you might hunker down, seek cover, wait it out.
On a bike, you'll feel more driven to beat a coming cloudburst. Adrenaline propels you up the next hill, even as the lightning forks between tall trunks overhead. Rain starts to slicken the trail and your grip on your handlebars. If you don't stop, it's because you know it's you and a machine against the elements-and you feel you can power the machine to take you to where you need to go.
Cyclists, skiers, and hikers all delight in their own ways to experience nature. Most people generally behave with good manners, LaBossiere says. "It's not unlike what happens driving, and everywhere else out there," he says. "People just have to respect others."
[Originally published in July, 2009.]