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.
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.
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.
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: http://vimeo.com/24873943