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MTBers Making Tracks

From the Summer 2021 Issue

Trails are poppin' with Pend Oreille Pedalers

Volunteers celebrate completion of Solar Ecstasy, part of the Watershed Crest Trail, at “POP Point,” a 6,100 foot promontory on Uleda Ridge above the Little Sand Creek Watershed. (courtesy photo)

Twenty years ago, mountain bikers around Sandpoint found that areas they had been using for years had started to fill with houses and were shut down. Each summer seemed to bring new closures to familiar trails and trailheads. A decade ago, a popular approach to trails above town was literally excavated and carried away when the new highway bridge was built across the railroad at Dover.

But then the tide seemed to turn. A couple of generous landowners who were also enthusiastic cyclists made land available for public trails. The Pend Oreille Pedalers, the local biking club, built and maintained trails in what is now the Sherwood Forest section of the Syringa trail system. When Kaniksu Land Trust made the adjacent Pine Street Woods available to the public, POP built trails there too. Another section just becoming available is called VTT—an acronym for velo tout-terrain or “all-terrain bicycle,” the French term for a mountain bike. (The owners providing use of this land have enjoyed riding in France.)

In addition to these trails in the Syringa area, more trails opened up north of town. The city of Sandpoint warmed to the idea of a trail constructed around the crest of its Little Sand Creek watershed. It gave POP a license agreement to maintain trails in a 523-acre zone within the watershed as well, in what is now called the Lower Basin.

By the summer of 2020, the number of trails (and trail parties to work on them) seemed to explode. Not coincidentally, that was when POP hired its first paid staff member, Jason Welker. Since then, more grant funds for trail construction have flowed in from private and government sources, volunteers have worked weekly through the snow-free weeks of the year, and massively growing numbers of riders have taken to ever-increasing miles of trails. Welker points out that POP’s trail cameras recorded 1,950 mountain bikers over a 10-day period in July 2020 in the Lower Basin alone.

Coach Katie Bradish and participants in POP’s Youth Summer Mountain Bike Camp. (courtesy photo)

“When you have somebody leading the organization, you’re going to get a lot more done,” said Welker, guessing that having his funded position has shortened the timeline for getting trails built from 10 to 15 years down to two or three. “There’s so much pent up energy and excitement for something like this in Sandpoint.” POP’s membership has been growing rapidly, and members don’t just ride bikes—they build trails.

Last year, from April through October, nearly 200 different volunteers worked to build trails in the hills around Sandpoint. Work parties got together 32 Thursday nights in a row, as well as on several weekends. Trail construction was a great activity for social distancing.

The trails aren’t built entirely with human power. POP’s army of Thursday night volunteers first clears a corridor of branches and small trees. Then a micro-excavator scours out the initial tread: “A Kubota can do more in one hour than 15 volunteers can do in 10 hours,” Welker explained. After the tread is cut, the army returns to smooth out the surface, rake away rocks, and cut off protruding roots.

With such careful construction, some of the new trails POP built in Pine Street Woods last year are ideal for families, beginners, and elders. Kinsley Lieven (then age 5) and  sister Sloane (then age 3) started last summer able to ride just one time around the 1.5-mile meadow loop in PSW with their dad, and both were doing two loops by the end of the summer. Their neighbor, more than six decades their senior, found the new rockless, rootless, dropless Owl Trail was easy on her replaced left knee, reconstructed right foot, and deteriorating elbows. Meanwhile, the masses at other skill and ability levels could find more challenging terrain in the increasing number of trails in the wider Syringa system.

POP’s volunteers also worked on the long-dreamed-of Watershed Crest trail, extending it out on Uleda Ridge to a place they named POP Point, in an area known to Schweitzer side-country skiers as Solar Ecstasy. The next phase of work on this trail will extend it onto land managed by the federal Bureau of Land Management. “BLM is all for trails, but it’s complex,” said Welker. This is in part because work on BLM land will require an environmental study. Nevertheless, POP plans to complete the Crest trail by 2025, building about four miles a year as funds become available.

This summer’s projects include completion of a trail around the perimeter of PSW as well as construction of a beginner trail in VTT. Later in the summer, the action will shift to the Lower Basin, where increased use has brought conflicts between those riding (slowly) uphill and those riding (much faster) downhill. A new trail will be constructed to provide a gentler grade for those on the way up.

There are some who are a bit overwhelmed by all this activity, wondering if so many trails and so much use are actually good things. Welker responds that the trails serve to conserve the land. The economic activity generated by recreational use addresses the loss of tax revenues that might otherwise have come from logging or development. That activity is reflected in the business community’s support of POP: When Welker first put out a call for sponsors last summer, 28 local businesses signed up within a month. 

Ezra Stafford leads volunteers back to the parking lot for beers after a grueling evening of clearing corridor in Pine Street Woods. (courtesy photo)

Anyone looking for a way to spend their Thursday evenings could do a lot worse than volunteer on a POP trail crew. It’s good exercise, it can be socially distanced, and you’re out with a friendly group. And for kid members, POP will repeat its series of mountain-biking camps that were immensely popular last year, expanding them to include 32 participants weekly, up from 24 last summer.

Welker summed up reasons for the group’s achievements: “When you have opportunities to build trails, and you have committed volunteers, and you have a business community that supports it all, it’s a really successful recipe.” He added that runners and hikers, as well as cyclists, have been enthusiastic users and builders of trails. So it certainly appears that Sandpoint’s network of trails is going to continue to pop. 

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