Tales about trails with the Trail SpinnersDec 01, 2023 11:52AM ● By Tricia Hoadley
This is a story about an excavator named Diggy, a rock and dirt hauler named Dumpy and a Bobcat named Pushy. It is also a story about the creation of a pump track – a thrilling circuit for mountain bikers – that involved 70 tons of stone dust, 45 tons of clay and 300 volunteer hours to create. Overall, it is a story about the Trail Spinners – dozens of volunteers who for three decades have created, maintained and improved miles of off-road trails in Delaware, Maryland and Pennsylvania.
Yes, members of the Trail Spinners enjoy riding on these trails, too.
When members were asked at a recent meeting at Wooden Wheels, a bike shop north of Newark, what was most important to know about the group, the answer was fast and clear: They provide incalculable values to everyone. “We love everyone who loves the outdoors,” said Caleb Meredith.
“It’s a lot of work,” said Ken Robinson, who with Brent Biddle and Steve Kopf in 1992 founded the Delaware Valley Mountain Bike Association. The Trail Spinners were founded in 1993.
“Our main concern was that many of the off-road trails in the area were in danger of being closed to mountain bikers, thought to be irresponsible destroyers of nature,” Robinson wrote on the history page of Trailspinners.org. “We decided that one of the ways to improve the public perception of off-road cycling was to volunteer our help in improving and maintaining the trails in the local parks.”
Their first project was in Iron Hill Park, south of Newark, where they drained, filled and narrowed mud holes; erected barricades to keep ATVs off trails; and removed the trash from the pond.
Their second involved building a log bridge and maintaining trails at the Carpenter Recreation Area in White Clay Creek State Park. They hit their stride in their third, in 1993: Planning and constructing trails in the Middle Run Valley Natural Area. Over the years, they’ve created most of Middle Run’s 13 trails – with evocative names like the Corkscrew and Double Horseshoe – and that pump track.
Middle Run, Fair Hill and Susquehanna
The Trail Spinners today focus on Middle Run, 37 miles of trails on 850 acres northeast of Newark; Fair Hill Natural Resources Management Area, 64 miles of trails on 5,656 acres in Cecil County; and Susquehanna State Park, 18 miles on 2,753 acres in Harford County. They started working in Fair Hill in the mid-1990s when new manager Ed Walls was tasked with opening it up beyond equestrians. “Prior to this, Fair Hill was largely un-mowed, unmaintained and barely rideable,” the history said. “Within a few years, Fair Hill had become a destination for mountain bikers in the Mid-Atlantic.”
And with 200 members in the tri-state area, their work reaches into other natural areas, too.
It is sweaty work, even with the construction equipment they have acquired, and so they are eager to increase their membership, with the $50 membership supporting the club and its projects, and the International Mountain Biking Association.
The exciting stuff is creating trails and building bridges.
The important, day-to-day responsibilities involve drainage and trimming, said Ken Cox, a member since 1997. The Newark area is clayey, and wet clay easily forms ruts. “Eventually it feels like you’re riding on a rumble strip,” he said. So a big, recurring job involves keeping water off the trails and reconfiguring the landscape so it drains more easily.
Those rumble strips are even worse when 1,500-pound horses share the trails, Robinson said, so they’ve convinced Fair Hill’s managers to separate trail uses.
“The majority of the trails we work on are packed earth (in our case, mostly the white kaolin clay everything around here is named after), and the curse and blessing of that surface means a trail can be re-naturalized easily by breaking up the soil and dragging some brush over it,” Cox added. “A year or two later it would be hard to tell that the trail was ever there. While a gravel or asphalt trail would require a lot less maintenance, it would make a much more permanent change to the land and give park users an experience that wasn’t as close to nature. Those narrow dirt trails also happen to be the most fun to ride mountain bikes on, so the ecological aspect dovetails nicely into what we do for fun.”
The trimming includes anything that’s growing into the trails, particularly invasive plants. “Anyone can just take hand-trimmers out and improve trails,” Lauri Webber said.
Have mountain bike, have fun
Mountain biking is something of a lifestyle. Robinson bought his house near the Judge Morris Estate because of the potential the site offered for biking. There weren’t any trails, so he built them. Chris Shaw, who handles the club’s social media, bought his house near Fair Hill for the same reason.
Club members have become good at networking. One reason is that the areas they ride in are run by multiple jurisdictions (municipal, county, state) with differing rules and staffing. “With a property like Middle Run which has no rangers or day-to-day park staff, having a well-maintained trail system is essential to the health of the property,” Cox said. “Good trails attract recreational users, which push out people who might want to do less-than-legal or destructive things in secret. It also makes it harder for an open green space to be repurposed or developed.”
Another important connection involves what other people can provide, including Boy Scouts looking for service projects and University of Delaware engineering students who designed bridgework, Robinson said. Peter Brakhage, UD’s resident technical director, used his skills to design another bridge, and Trail Spinners used the UD scene shop after hours to cut and partially assemble it.
And then there’s Tri-State Bird Rescue, which had just emptied a shipping container in Middle Run when the Trail Spinners were looking to buy one to store Diggy, Dumpy, Pushy and the rest of their equipment. Ownership changed, and they didn’t even have to move it.
And they dream. Wouldn’t it nicer if there were better, safer connections for people on two wheels or their own feet between all those natural areas? And how about creating hyper-intense sites like the Patapsco and Phoenixville bike parks, the latter boasting rollers, double rollers, berms, bridges, kickers, a whale tail and a wall ride.