I grew up in Eastern hardwood forests. Collecting raspberries and blueberries in aluminum pots; searching for redspotted newts in dry creek beds. as a child, my time in the natural world was a given. I suppose it never occurred to me how easily those trails and forests might not have been there at all.
"People want a place in nature that is beautiful. They want a place to recreate and a place to exercise that is right out their back door," says Tracie Sanchez, lead organizer of the upcoming Georgia Trail Summit.
The inaugural trail summit taking place this month in Athens, Georgia will explore the development of trail systems and the preservation of green spaces based on four tracks: trail economics; community vision; trail planning, building and maintaining; and an open forum where participants choose the topics. Sanchez refers to this segment as the "un-conference."
The larger goal, however, is to organize like-minded folks in order to help realize a first-class trail system through Georgia. My goal, on the other hand, is always to find an excuse to go hiking. In order to better understand the role these "tracks" actually play, I spent a week exploring the regional rail trails, greenways and National forests that help illustrate each concept.
Trail economics refer to the fiscal benefits a trail can have on a community-property value or tourism revenue increases, for example. According to Sanchez the Silver Comet greenway in Georgia is a classic example.
Silver Comet is a paved trail system designed for hikers, bikers and horseback riders, beginning in Smyrna, Georgia and extending 61 miles to the Alabama stateline. It has had a substantial impact on many of the small southern towns through which it passes. Take Rockmart, for example, located 35 miles off I-75.
"The trail has brought in quite a bit of traffic locally and nationally," says Rockmart busin ess owner and member of the Chamber of Commerce, Jeri Purdy. Not only does the greenway attract cyclists from all over the state but each year the 3-day, 188-mile Silver Comet Longboard Skate Challenge passes through town. "It's put Rockmart on the worldwide skateboarding map," Purdy says. "It's brought people in that otherwise would have never even known Rockmart was here. Silver Comet has been like our own little interstate."
Her comparison is quite apropos. Silver Comet is designed like a miniature highway. There are stop signs and yield signs. There is a dotted yellow line down its center. Within minutes of my first afternoon on the trail, I learned the importance of staying in my lane. "Coming up on your left," a voice called from behind me. I turned in time to see a throng of cyclists approaching. Quickly, I jumped to the edge of the path and pulled my walking companion, Red Dog, to my side.
We passed many more cyclists and a handful of walkers as we continued down the trail. We passed railroad tracks, old train depots, creeks and park benches. One stretch of the path might be set against an industrial backdrop. Around the next bend we would find ourselves surrounded by thick forest.
"It is valuable to connect towns and communities," says Sanchez. "It is important to share knowledge. Connectivity is one of the chief goals of the summit."
Stringers Ridge, located on Chattanooga's North Shore, is a great success story in regards to community effort. The large forested ridgeline-once the projected site of 500 condominiums-is now an expansive urban wilderness park.
I went to explore Stringer's on a cool and overcast morning. I tied a scarf around my neck, leashed up Red Dog and started up an inclining dirt pathway, surrounded by young forest and freckled with trail markers. Some of the markers listed connecting trails. Others told the direction in which single track traffic was travelling that day. For example, on Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays hikers were allowed to enter. On Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays, cyclists were allowed to enter.
"We had to cast the vision for Stringer's Ridge pretty clearly," says Rick Wood, executive director for Chattanooga's Trust for Public Land. "We had to do our research. We checked habitats. We hired a company called Trail Dynamics who have a really good sense of coming together for different user groups and planning trails."
TPL sought to raise $2.4 million in an effort to preserve 37 acres, which might have been impossible if not for community backing. "The neighborhoods around Stringer's really got out and went to public meetings. They asked the right questions about traffic, storm water and time frame," says Wood. Ultimately, the funds were raised and the acreage was purchased. A private landowner even ended up donating an additional 55 acres from his adjacent property. Stringer's Ridge now encompasses 92 acres and 10 miles of multi-use, not to mention user-friendly, trails.
At the top of the trail, we came to a clearing. Red Dog stopped to sniff while I studied the large wooden trail map. I traced my finger to follow Hill City to Cherokee. Midway down the path, we came upon the deck-like overlook jutting out from the hillside. Far below sprawled the magnificent cityscape, the tiny buildings and bridges, the dark river and the distant blue-hued mountains cutting across the horizon.
"There's a great history in this city," says Wood. "I point to things like the Riverwalk and the Walnut Street Bridge. Those things weren't easy. It took years and years, but the city embraces it and the city loves it."
Plan it. Build it. Maintain it.
The final stage of developing a trail system is its engineering.
A trail really does need to be engineered to have the best chance of being sustained on its own," says Doug Byerly, recreation program manager and landscape architect for the Cherokee National Forest. These days, most trails are developed based on a stringent set of design parameters. These parameters dictate the survey, construction and maintenance of trail systems in regards to tread width, grade, clearing, turns and cross slope.
It may sound like a rather complex process to support a pastime that is all about the simple pleasures. But the goal is to design trails that require a minimal amount of upkeep. On Byerly's recommendation, I headed out to Cherokee National Forest near the idyllic Ocoee River where the welldesigned and relatively new Tanasi trail system stretches more than 20 miles.
I pulled off alongside Highway 64 at the Brush Creek trailhead. Brush Creek is a single tract trail designed for hikers and bikers. I started down the winding clay trail, dropping into mature forest. I spotted fresh bike tracks in a steep bend of the trail. Alongside the tracks were raised clay barriers-berms, I had learned they were called. Berms are an important component of a healthy trail as they support natural runoff.
An unhealthy trail, on the other hand, is prone to erosion which can turn into gullies. A little further down, Brush Creek trail opened up onto an old abandoned road. This, Byerly had explained, was an example of a poorly designed trail system.
"When you have a road bed and take a mountain bike or anything single tracking down its center, it cuts a trench. When water gets in there, there is no way to get it out," he explains. "You have to become a slave to poorly designed trails."
The pavement along the path was cracked and sprouting kneehigh weeds. Saplings leaned across the trail. If I hadn't been able to hear the trucks passing up on the highway, I could have easily imagined I was traversing a post-apocalyptic world. It was eerie. I turned and started back to my car.
Trail safety is an issue for some people. "They want to know if there will be lighting after dark. Funding is another issue for some communities," Sanchez says. She expects the Georgia Trail Summit open forum "track" to cover a wide range of trail-related issues. "Everything from whether to use mulch, gravel or asphalt to how to convert an old railway into a trail," she says. Details aside, the bottomline seems to be accessibility.
Rail trails are so wonderful because they can accommodate all ages and all abilities," says Kelly Pack, Trail Development Director for Rails-to-Trails Conservancy. Rail trails convert old railways into pedestrian pathways. They tend be long, flat and centralized in communities.
Wolftever Creek Greenway in Collegedale is a prime example. The trail begins in the backyard of Greenbriar Cove, an independent living community for seniors. It stretches past large pastures, dog parks, a sizeable playground and the Veteran's Memorial Park of Collegedale.
It was a chilly weekday morning when I set out to explore Wolftever, and I was surprised to find the trail already spotted with people. There were runners, cyclists and dog-walkers. Red Dog and I were in good company. We followed the trail beneath the highway then continued along the creek until it opened onto a picturesque reservoir edged with evergreens. An old-fashioned rusted bicycle was propped against a posted birdhouse. A sign hung around its handlebars that read "the past."
"Railroad corridors were once part of the strength of the community," says Pack. "A lot of that's been left vacant. Rail trails give us the ability to transform that space while still benefitting a community with historic preservation."
It is the big picture, after all, that is worth preserving: the blue skies, the green ridgeline, the cool water. Like a speckled newt darting beneath a stone-how easily it might be missed.
Georgia Trail Summit
When: April 11 & 12
Where: Classic Center, 300 N. Thomas St., Athens, Ga.
Tickets: Tickets for students and expert facilitators are available for $30. Tickets for government agencies, nonprofits or individuals are $60. The summit is open to any and all trail-users. To register visit georgiatrailsummit.com.