Fallen Trees and Trail Maintenance
Some Musts for Mountain Bikers
By David McMahon
When a tree falls in the woods, whether or not anyone hears it, the result is often a dead tree trunk laying across a trail. The usual response of an earnest trail user is to cut all the way through the log at either side of the trail, remove the severed section between the cuts, and return the trail to its original status. This is some peopleís version of trail maintenance. Wrong, Chainsawbreath!
Trail maintenance means installing water bars and such.
Cutting out the section of the log across the trail has a number of negative effects.
First of all, this maneuver ruins a perfectly good water bar evolved into place by Mother Nature.
Secondly, removing this section of the log reopens this trail to its original boring, ordinary, mundane, run-of-the-trail state.
Thirdly, with the log gone again mountain bikers will be back to speeding down the trail. Faster mountain bikers swing wide on the outside of turns and take "straight-cuts" on the insides of turns. Worst of all, speeding mountain bikers have to slow down at some point. All too frequently mountain bikers ignore what mountain bike magazines tell them, ignore what they should have learned in physics class, and skid their back tire to slow down. One effect of skidding tires is that the biker does not slow down as quickly as if the biker did not skid the tires. Another effect, an environmentally sinful effect, is that skidding tires, given time and a downpour or two, leads to ruts down the trail.
Thatís the bad news. The good news is that there are four better and cooler things to do than just cutting out the log!
First, leave the log as it is. If the log is less than eight inches in diameter, most mountain bikers can ride over it. Easy! (Even if it is more than 8 inches thick, many riders can still ride over the log by using their front big chain ring to claw over the log.)
Second, make a detour trail around it. A detour trail puts three new turns in the trail which makes it more interesting. A detour also lengthens the trail, stretching out the out. Detour trails are particularly useful if the top of the tree with all of its branches landed across the trail. Fun.
Widening a trail is bad, but creating a detour is OK. A detour even improves the trail if the detour dips downhill and then back up to the original trail, or goes uphill and back down to the original trail. Even if this elevation change is small, the detour will have created a "broad-based dip." A broad-based dip does the same thing as a water bar, but it lasts longer. During the next thunderstorm water will drain off the trail at the low point of the dip. It is this storm water that runs down undrained trails and erodes them. And this occurs when bikers are not out riding on the trial, and over time, so most riders do not notice.
Third, notch the log. If the log is too big around for most folks to ride over, and if a detour will not work, then OK, cut it, but donít cut all the way through the log. Cut a notch in the log deep and wide enough for mountain bikes to get up, over and through whatís left of the log. Whatís left of the log is a natural water bar, and riding over and through the notch is fun and slows bikers. Cool! (Be sure that the notch you leave is at least 16 inches wide so bikers donít catch a pedal on the edge and take a bad tumble.)
Fourth, make a ramp over the log. Pile smaller logs on either side the log that is blocking the trail. This creates a ramp effect up to the top of the big log and down the other side. Or use big rocks for the ramps. Fun again! (It is a good idea to put pegs in the ground to keep the outermost log from rolling out from under the pile, and maybe daub some mud on top the logs to hold them.)
So donít just cut downed trees out of the trail. Leave them, detour around them, notch them or ramp them. Doing one of these things, or combinations of these things, to a log that has fallen across the trail has a number of salutary effects that are good for the trail, cool and/or fun.
First, there is now a water bar or dip on a trail that did not have enough water diversion features before the log fell. And no trails really have enough water diversion features.
Second, the trail is now a more interesting ride. Instead of the previously existing straight shot, there is now a new and interesting obstacle to negotiate. Since the basis of the obstacle was created by mother nature and not mass production, it is always going to be a little different from every other obstacle. This makes the trail even more interesting. A little creativity on the angle, structure, materials, entry, exit etc., and the passage is more interesting still.
Third, mountain bikers have to go slower to negotiate the obstacle. This is good for the trail. It has the additional effect of making the ride last longer!
Last, and not least, you have had fun playing in the dirt! There is a side of all of us that likes a legitimate excuse to play in the mud and to cut and gash wood with a chain saw! If you have been creative you also have left a lasting personal artistic or engineering statement on the trail complete with bragging rights.
[The pictures accompanying this article are some prodigious examples of suggested fallen log treatment that have been created in Kanawha State Forest near Charleston, West Virginia. Top those!]
A word on safety. No doubt using a chain saw for these tasks makes the work go much more quickly, once youíve lugged the darnn thing (and extra gas, and donít forget that chain tightening wrench) with you to the spot. Faster work means more work.
But beware. Logging is THE most dangerous occupation in this country. More dangerous than coal mining, explosives manufacturing, demolition or anything. Chainsaws are part of the reason.
Using a chain saw in the woods is not like cutting firewood in your back yard. The log is big and very heavy. It may be sprung and let go when you sever it (which you really shouldnít do anyway if you are cutting a notch! Right?) The log may be holding back other trees, or bending saplings to the ground, and these will get you big time if they let go when the log moves. An innocuous limb you cut off the log may have been just the thing that was keeping that log from rolling down the hill Ė onto you.
"Widow makers," as loggers call them, are deadliest of all. The falling tree could have left a limb broken hanging from another tree over your head. Or, as the tree fell it could have weakened a nearby tree or branch. These can come crashing down if a breeze kicks up, or if the neighboring tree gets shaken by your work. Even a helmet is no protection if "widow maker" falls on you.
Other risky factors arise because you are in the woods instead of your back yard. You will be standing on slippery, uneven, briary ground. In order to work around obstacles you will be tempted to work off balance, awkwardly, with your head over the cut, one handed or otherwise improperly Ė more so as you get tired and anxious to complete the job.
David McMahon is a former backpacker and white water paddler, now avid mountainbiker. He makes his living working as a. lawyer for low income people. He gives of his time and energy to do volunteer trail maintenance in Kanawha State Forest.