Owasippe's newest development is trails, courtesy of local mountain bikers
As seen in the The Muskegon Chronicle - 12/7/11
By Lynn Moore
BLUE LAKE TWP. — A new course is being charted at the Owasippe Boy Scout reservation, one that some believe will reveal even more wonders of the 5,000-acre property and could jump start regional interest in it.
New multi-use trails are being developed there by mountain biking enthusiasts — the same bikers whose use had been restricted because of erosion problems on the sprawling Boy Scout camp area in Blue Lake Township.
When all is said and done, Owasippe could become a mecca for mountain bikers. "It's an absolutely incredible place," said Alex Stewart, a professional trail designer who is well respected among the mountain biking crowd. "It's too special a place not to have a world-class trail system."
Stewart is designing a new single-track trail system at Owasippe — one that can be used not only by mountain bikers, but also by hikers, trail runners and bird watchers. The West Michigan Mountain Biking Alliance and the West Michigan Coast Riders brought Stewart to Owasippe for five days this fall, where he gathered data for a 30-mile trail system and actually laid out a new trail that's about 2 ½ miles.
A group of bikers were invited to try out about one mile of new trail, located north of Owasippe's Reneker Family Camp, and there is hope that a longer portion will be opened up to the public in a grand opening next spring or summer.
The mountain bikers and Stewart were invited by the Owasippe Outdoor Education Center to do something about the property's eroding trails. The OOEC is working with the Chicago Area Council of Boy Scouts of America, which owns the Owasippe property, to manage the land during the 46 weeks of the year when it's not used for Boy Scouts summer camping.
Some were unhappy with the OOEC when it banned mountain bikers from the single-track trails last year because of concerns about erosion. But Stewart and others say closing the trails was "absolutely" the right decision. "That created a big uproar and everybody was upset about it," said Randy Knapp, who is the WMMBA's Owasippe trail coordinator. "They thought if everybody would just write nasty emails, they would open (the trails) back up.
"But closing the trails out there was the best thing that could ever have happened because it got the right people involved."
The trails were designed willy-nilly, without a lot of forethought. The result has been trails that allow rain water to flow straight down them, creating erosion and sand beds at the bottom of hills. When they're properly built, rain water will shed across trails whose gentle turns rain water can't follow, Knapp said.
Properly designed trails also take full advantage of terrain, of which Owasippe has plenty of variety.
Knapp, who's been riding at Owasippe since 1998, said he and Stewart walked 30 miles of Owasippe to plot where new trails could go.
"We saw areas I've never been before," Knapp said. "I felt like Lewis and Clark. I felt like I was really discovering something."
Mitch Dennison, development director for the OOEC, said he hasn't seen 80 percent of the Owasippe property, on which there once was 200 miles of trails. "My hope is we eventually reclaim a lot of that back," Dennison said. "There are areas out there that haven't been seen by most people."
The relationship between the OOEC and the mountain bikers, who have become experts at developing singe-track trails, is a "natural," Dennison said. "They had the energy and the relationships and we obviously have the property and the desire," he said. "We've been really impressed with what they've done."
Stewart said he is designing a "stacked loop" trail system, which ultimately would involve seven to 10 loops for abilities ranging from beginner to expert, each one to three miles. The trails will be "low density," meaning they won't take up a lot of property, he said.
The trails also will be located away from endangered plants and the habitat of endangered animals.
When fully developed, the trails will make Owasippe appear differently to hikers, skiers and others who use them, Stewart said. Current trails are unsustainable because of erosion, said Stewart, who plans to make them more "playful and interesting," with lots of ups and downs and turns.
"It's an absolutely incredible place," he said. "As a trail builder, you look at it as a canvas."
But developing Owasippe's full trail potential will take time and money. Stewart said it could take as long as 10 years to fully develop the trails. Costs of trail building vary widely, from $2 to $20 per linear foot, he said. In one day, five volunteers and a small trail building machine can construct anywhere from 50 feet to 1,000 feet of trail.
The mile of rerouted trail at Owasippe took a few days to map out and flag, and five hours for seven volunteers to build, Knapp said.
The WMBA is planning fundraisers to pay for the trail's development. Labor can be tapped from a large group of mountain-biking volunteers, in addition to the Boy Scouts themselves.
The idea is not without precedent. More than 2,000 Boy Scouts participated in the construction of new biking and hiking trails on national parkland in New River Gorge, W. Va., last summer. And, nationally, the Boy Scouts have developed a new initiative around mountain biking, Dennison said.
Alcoa recently donated $3,000 and 12 employees to join about another dozen volunteers for a trail work day at Owasippe. Only this time, the volunteers worked to return the abandoned section of trail to nature — a process that will be done with all of Owasippe's trails that are rerouted, Knapp said.
They raked over the trails, transplanted white pine trees and removed paint from trees that had been markers for the old trail, Knapp said. "In a year, no one will even know the old trail existed," he said.
• Donations to to Owasippe's trail restoration fund can be made by clicking on "ways to help" at the website for the Owasippe Outdoor Education Center, www.ooec.org
• To check out Alex Stewart's plans for the Owasippe trails, click on the photo galleries tab at his website, www.spectrumtraildesign.com
• For information about the West Michigan Mountain Bikers Alliance and opportunities to volunteer, visit www.wmmba.org
• Find out about Boy Scouts trail building in West Virginia at www.newriverwv.com