Image resize threshold of 10 remote images has been reached. Please use fewer remote images.

Continuing saga of the Trail Ninja

[ Story by Dave Fitzpatrick / Photos by Joe Rykowski ]

Nobody ever sees a trailbuilder, at least not if they’re doing it right. Consider your favorite spot, be it DH, Freeride, XC, dirt jump, or skills-park. From the trailhead parking-lot to the trash-can you toss your post-ride beverage-container into, a dedicated trailbuilder—or more likely, numerous trailbuilders—had a hand in almost every aspect of your ride. Those perfect berms that flow from section to section? That surprising new rock-drop with the buttery landing? That flawless set of doubles with the rocket-launcher-lip? All thanks to trailbuilders.

trailbuilders at Stub Stewart State Park

And let’s not forget every log you didn’t find across the trail, those ruts that didn’t suck down your front wheel, that huge washout you didn’t have to portage around, the low-hanging limb that didn’t knock you ass-over-tea kettle, the visits to the emergency room you didn’t have to make…


Needless to say, most trails don’t begin with much more than some back-country bushwhacking and a fistful of flags.  And up until now, turning the tangles of rocks and vines into rideable lines meant back-breaking manual labor—clearing brush and deadfall, sawing limbs, digging stumps, levering rock, shoveling countless spadesful of soil, and packing in wheelbarrow upon wheelbarrow of gravel—all in some of the roughest, wettest, steepest, bug-and-poison oak-infested terrain in North America.

Far from following the landscape of least-resistance, the best trailbuilders seek out the strange, the challenging, the foreboding features avoided by traditional trail users. “It's rare when I find a perfectly laid line made by game,” explains NWTA Trail Ninja (Steward) Joe Rykowski. “They aren't mountain bikers, so they don't often go where I want to go.  And when those who don’t ride lay out lines, they don't make it flow how I'd like.”

For a taste of the what would be a very easy day for the average trailbuilder, spend a long weekend in your yard mowing, pruning, and weeding and then consider the man (and woman) hours it takes to carve a mile of trail through the average Pacific Northwest forest. And remember, it’s done in virtually the same manner such work has been performed since time immemorial. Aside from a few gas-powered conveniences and the occasional mini-excavator, the pick and the shovel remain the preferred tools of the trade, with the human spine providing the power.

“Every trailbuilder who isn’t insane dreams of a custom machine to do the heavy lifting, to sculpt that perfect line,” says Rykowski. In fact, since getting sucked in to the trailbuilding scene in 2004, Joe says he’s wished for just such a machine. But sadly, it didn’t exist.



Flash-forward to last weekend, June 4th, when the NWTA took possession of their new ST240, the very machine Rykowski and anyone else who’s ever spent a day laboring in the woods dreamt of. Riding on tracks like a bulldozer, with a quarry-rated bucket attached to a hydraulic arm capable of moving thousands of pounds of material in one swoop, the ST 240 resembles a larger construction machine, yet is designed to do everything it takes to build world-class trail. The tracks telescope from 24 to 36 inches. An auxiliary scraper blade sculpts, smooths, or removes material. A removable winch can be mounted in various points on the vehicle, stablizing operation in extreme angles while remote controls allow the operator to step off the machine and work from a safe distance of up to 150 feet.

ST240 Operator Training at Stub (6/10/2011)

With an intial cost of $80,000, the ST240 was paid for by an RTP grant spearheaded by Rykowski. Aside from seeing duty on NWTA Projects, the machine serves as the lynchpin for NWTA’s Trail Development Partnership Program, which allows local trailbuilding organizations to rent the machine on a daily or weekly basis. Though only in its infancy, the program is already in pilot with various partners, and will scale-up this fall.

ST240 in the woods

Aside from the obvious benefit of putting more trail on the ground much more quickly, the ST 240 will help reduce the realities of volunteer burnout (remember that back-breaking labor?), and allow much greater flexibility in platting new trails. Gone is the temptation to follow the path of least resistance. Now that the dream-machine is in place, trail can be carved virtually anywhere desired, which is good news for erosion control and environmental safeguards, not to mention riders everywhere, who will soon reap the benefits of riding terrain limited by the sheer magnitude of the labor involved in construction.

So look carefully in the months to come. What are already some amazing places to ride will be exponentially better, some as-of-yet places to ride will become a reality, and trailbuilders and their work will be anything but invisible. 

BONUS!  Want to see NWTA's new ST240 in action?  Check this short HD video shot during initial volunteer Operator training on 6/4-6/5:

Do more. Whine less.

Building trail is fun.  Also rewarding.

To those that are out there creating the trails we all love to ride, my helmet is off to you all.   I know it's just not me out there working trail projects under the NWTA banner or for other groups or just on my own...  It's been a long build season, and now I'm looking forward to the RIDE season.

Although with the ST240 machine in NWTA's arsenal now... my ride season is in jeopardy.   Building trails is FUNNER than riding them!

RTP needs your support...

Worth noting that it was the RTP grant fund that made it possible for NWTA to purchase an ST240...

Not sure if you got this action alert from IMBA or thru the NWTA alert message, but if you can spare 1 minute to fill out online form to show your support from the Recreation Trails Program grant fund which is part of Transportation bill which is being re-written...



Help IMBA Urge Senator Merkley to Support Funding for Biking Programs


Dear {You}, Funding for trails, walking and bicycling in America is in serious jeopardy.

As Congress ramps up efforts to pass a national transportation bill, some senators and representatives are pushing to eliminate the dedicated federal programs that support our nation's trail, walking and bicycling infrastructure. These programs currently receive less than two cents of every transportation dollar, yet have tremendous impacts on their communities.

Make no mistake: If we lose this battle, communities all around the country will find it extremely difficult, if not impossible, to build the trail systems they need.

Senator Merkley from your state of Oregon is on the Environment and Public Works Committee and has made clear that he supports trails, walking and bicycling. Now, his constituents—namely, you—must encourage him to take the next step.

Please sign your name here <;qid=2010595>  to the below constituent letter byMonday June 13: 

hats' off

My hats also off  (and sometimes hardhat with built-in faceshield and ear protection) to you hard-core dedicated men, women and children who bust ass in the cold/rain/snow all winter long chilled to the bone.  By sheer determinination and focus on the end-prize, you keep plugging away and volunteer your precious/valuable time.  You are under-appreciated.

And as for you... you holier-than-thou environmental-types who scoff at the idea of a baby-seal clubbing diesel-powered hydraulic machine of death tromping through your "pristine" forests; think of it this way.  This machine will do in one day what it takes 100 volunteers to accomplish in a month.  Think of just the carbon footprint left by the cars of all those volunteers driving from their homes in the portland area.  If the city of portland really cared about it's environmental impact, it would open up a large park within city limits to expanded mountain bike use and not force us to drive 30 miles to reach a decent trail network.

Peace out!  See you in the Forest!

That's quite a machine. Is it

That's quite a machine. Is it like a combination of bulldozers and wheel loaders? When riding on a new or refurbished trail, I'm always amazed by the low impact to the rest of the natural environment. There is often a fine line between wanting to be out in nature and imposing ourselves on what is a balanced environment. I would definitely think about moving to Portland if they had bike trails right in town. For the life I want to lead, it's just not practial at this point. One can hope!