Mud splattered our shoes. Our hoes slipped easily into the soft, damp soil and scooped roots like cherries out of cake frosting.
Then those of us with hoes and rakes came to whack out the roots and straighten the soil. The swath was no wider than the length of our hoes.
Good tools made it easy. So did the sort of conversation that we'd normally delve into while riding side by side on the road -- when it's safe to do so. We yakked about the remaining snow in Michigan, the ski season that's lingered up there long into April and the bike season on the horizon.
It was a different way to hike. We followed the little orange flags that trail designers from the Northern Indiana Mountain Bike Association had used to mark the route. Woodpeckers knocked, and songbirds tweedled in the morning sun. We moved forward, happy to walk back every now and then to fetch tools and see the curves we'd carved.
There were clumps of grass, and NIMBA President John Marquardt told us not to worry about those, saying a machine could scalp them down.
He took me to see how he and fellow member Spencer Short, owner of the Pumpkinvine Cyclery bike shop in Middlebury, were redesigning another section of the future trail. They were grateful for spring flooding since it showed them where their originally planned route had turned into muck, swamp or stream -- and was sure to do that again each spring.
If mountain bikers rode through here, it would leave them stuck and muddy and, worse yet, would rip up the trail. The goal for any trail is to slice through the environment but don't harm anything around it. A good trail doesn't create a channel for precipitation to wash down from higher elevations. If it does, it erodes down to a crevasse. Designers are better off to have a trail snake side to side as it climbs a slope.
That's why, Marquardt says, they like to build trails in the spring. It points out their errors. And it's easier to see across the terrain since the brush hasn't yet leafed out. The only risk we faced was poison ivy. We couldn't tell where it was since we couldn't count its "leaves of three." So we wore gloves and long sleeves and used our tools. I'm sensitive to poison ivy, but I escaped any effect. The prior week, though, some volunteers had gotten a nasty rash.
Marquardt and Short plucked their orange flags out of the earth, tucked them under their arms and scouted out the slightly higher elevations, usually a few yards up from the water's lowest path. Marquardt walked ahead, scraping through brush to survey a new pathway as Short followed him with his eyes and he called out negotiations -- Here? No, there -- then made a decision and jammed flags back into the soil.
Volunteer Mark Byrum, who owns a small construction company in Elkhart, broke away from his team and met up with Marquardt at a proposed stream crossing where they'd have to build a bridge. Byrum looked down at least 8 feet to the water and felt queasy about the risk of cyclists falling. So, they took measurements, haggled over bridge materials, then looked at two lower spots and haggled some more. Marquardt would tell me a week later that they settled on a safe, low option.
Within three hours, almost a dozen volunteers had cleared a half mile of trail.
NIMBA originally thought it would take a full two years to build the six miles of trail the group has planned at Bonneyville. But a wealth of helpers this spring is moving it along faster than expected. Two weeks ago, Short and Marquardt figured that NIMBA could finish a 3.8-mile loop by this fall. But, after another good weekend with lots of help, Marquardt wonders if they could complete that loop this spring.
NIMBA will toil until May 25, then break for the summer since a lot of people get busy with summer and bike rides. NIMBA volunteers will return to work in the fall.
Then the (more) fun work will begin: They'll need mountain bikers to ride the trail to beat it down and make it nice and firm.
But it won't open until then. NIMBA will need to install trail signs, too. Be aware, though, that it will be just for mountain biking.
The park also boasts seven miles of hiking paths.
Help them out
- NIMBA will hold its next work sessions at Bonneyville from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. today, May 19 and May 25. Hot dogs are served afterward. Meet today at the lookout-tower picnic area. Take Indiana 120 east of Bristol by 2.5 miles, turn right on County Road 131 and turn left just after the mill, then right again on County Road 131 and look for the parking lot on the right.
NIMBA occasionally holds maintenance days on other mountain bike trails in the area, too. For updates and locations, go to http://nimba-bike.org and click on "workdays page."
- The KCV Cycling Club also needs help maintaining the nearly 10-mile mountain bike trail at Winona Lake near Warsaw. The club has penciled in June 1-8 for trail work. Most of it will be cleanup and repairs, though it also may involve building a small bypass around an eroded trail, said Greg Demopoulos, club vice president, who's the point person for the off-road trails. Specific times have yet to be set. Watch www.kcvcycling.org and the club Facebook page for updated schedules and work alerts. The club sometimes calls on helpers when a tree suddenly falls or a storm causes clutter or erosion, Demopoulos said. A crew recently fixed a bridge that had been washed out in the rain.
- The Outback Trail at Imagination Glen in Portage, Ind., holds monthly trail work days. It's always at 8 a.m. Central time on the Saturday nine days after the first Thursday of the month. Meet in the east parking lot. Look for work day announcements at the trail's Facebook page, and find a link to it with a map at the website www.outbacktrail.org.