When it comes to mountain biking, I am bold, but not reckless. I love going downhill really fast, exploring new trails and trying to keep up with my more skillful friends. Fortunately, I haven't suffered any broken bones or concussions, but I know that danger is inherent in my sport.
As a result, during my 20 years of riding in Santa Cruz County and beyond, I've had my share of bruises and scrapes. I've even crashed face-first into a patch of poison oak after missing a turn -- that was ugly.
Yet there is one activity related to mountain biking that makes me shake in my cleated cycling shoes. My biggest fat tire fear is summed up in two little words: trail building.
I can easily see how trail building is a noble pursuit. Helping construct trails that will eventually be used by hikers, bikers and equestrians is a civic-minded activity and a positive way to encourage healthy outdoor recreation. Some people even claim it's fun!
Nevertheless, the thought of creating the trails that I love riding always made me shudder. Every time I considered doing trail work, images of a chain gang popped into my mind. Who would possibly volunteer for this punishment, much less on a glorious sunny day when one could be doing something enjoyable, like riding a bike?
While many cycling friends generously donated their time and muscle power to the cause, I managed to dodge the seemingly odious task for years. I told my fellow mountain bikers that I was exempt because I served the bike community in other ways (like writing this cycling column!)
My closest brush with trail work came two years ago during a group mountain bike trip to Lake Tahoe. Lured by a long weekend of riding in the Sierras, I figured I could chip in and do one day of heavy labor. When I crashed my bike and announced I was unable to participate, a good friend wasn't sympathetic:
"Why are you here if you aren't going to do trail work?" she demanded.
The criticism stung and, at last, I took action.
I finally made my trail work debut in Santa Cruz County last Saturday, when I joined a group of 25 volunteers to work on portions of the Pogonip Multi-Use Trail, a new trail connecting the U-Con Trail to Golf Club Drive, Highway 9 and the levee trail.
On a sunny Saturday morning, the kind I usually reserve for mountain biking, our group munched on free snacks (bonus!) and awaited instructions from our ringleader, Drew Perkins, a City of Santa Cruz park maintenance aide.
With a background in forestry and hydrology, Perkins has been involved with the trail design since the project was announced two years ago. He has overseen many of the 2,000 volunteer hours that have been devoted since the trail construction started.
During our group introductions, I surveyed the other volunteers. There was a handful of students from Prunedale attending as part of their 4-H service, seasoned trail workers and also other newbies like me. One was Lucian Couzens, 7, who worked alongside his dad, Azul Couzens, a brand manager at Bell Bikes. Easton-Bell Sports is one of a variety of businesses (not all associated with the bike industry) that is sponsoring trail work.
Perkins gave a thorough safety talk before we got started and my ears perked up at the possible dangers. Potential hazards included poison oak, yellow jackets and trash from trespassers. The biggest concern, stressed Perkins, was ourselves -- that we not accidentally whack each other with our sharp tools while we were working.
I came equipped in layers of work clothes and my own sturdy gloves; tools were supplied along with pastries, bagels and coffee to jump-start us. Maybe this wasn't going to be so bad after all.
It was time to tackle our mission, which Perkins described as both "opening up an area near Red Creek" and "re-routing Fern Trail." What that really meant, I had no idea.
We hiked to our destination, which is deliberately not well-marked because it is not yet open. I liked that doing trail work gave me a sneak preview. Some volunteers schlepped with tools in hand, while others pushed wheel barrows full of tools. I confess that my pal Tim Park hauled my tools so I could snap photos.
The forest was indeed photo-worthy: Towering redwoods opened into sun-dappled clearings. The trail gently dipped and rolled -- it's specifically designed to appeal to beginner cyclists. I could hardly ask for a more beautiful work space, and I felt excited as I thought about how happy the public will be to enjoy such a lovely new nature trail.
"Building a trail is a lot of work, way more than I could have possibly imagined," said Park, who estimates he has logged more than 160 hours of volunteer trail building, dedicating time on weeknights and weekends.
I laughed nervously at this insight.
When we arrived at our designated spot, I got to work shoveling dirt, raking muck (officially called "organic material") and trying to follow directions. When I was confused by the mechanics of building a "bench," "berm," or "drainage," I was offered a helpful translation, like: "See that pine-needle stuff there? Rake that downwards three feet." Aha, got it!
To my relief, no one complained when I needed to take a break to rest my tired back muscles or questioned my ability to grasp the lingo of trail design on my first time out.
I even found myself laughing a lot, especially when fellow trail worker Jessica Klodnicki, also of Easton-Bell Sports, had second thoughts about my taking a picture of her moving a heavy load of dirt.
"I'm not sure I want my husband to know I can do this kind of manual labor," she joked before relenting.
Somehow, my three hours of trail "work" flew by. It was with a proud sense of solidarity that our group returned to the trailhead near Highway 9 to devour the pizzas provided (bonus!). We were no chain gang, just a tired bunch of volunteers who had made a big difference in just a few hours.
"Most people take trails for granted," Perkins said, "but someone built them and someone takes care of them."
At last, I had joined the ranks of trail builders. All those years I had imagined trail work was so horrible, when, in fact, it turned out to be both fun and fulfilling. I had made new friends, avoided both real and imaginary hazards and discovered a type of full-body workout that puts CrossFit to shame. Plus, any sports psychologist would be proud that I have resolved my deeper fears and changed my motto from: "I will build it wrong" and "I am not strong enough" to "This is fun" and "I can't wait to do it again!"
The next trail work day for the Pogonip is scheduled for Sunday, Dec. 2. Soon after, the trail will be officially named "The Emma McCrary Trail," in honor of the late pioneer trail builder who lived in Santa Cruz County. For more information, visit www.mbosc.org.
Karen Kefauver is a freelance writer who covers sports and travel and is based in Santa Cruz. Her Spin City column is a monthly feature in the Sentinel. Contact her at www.karenkefauver.com or firstname.lastname@example.org.