Trail blazers: Class teaches design, construction and maintenence of recreation trailsBy

By Greg Lovell
LaCross Tribune


Building a quality trail involves much more than choosing beginning and ending points and thrashing a path between the two.

The “Freddy Krueger” method of trail-building is not just disorganized, it’s destructive. Erosion, landscape degradation and many needless hours of trail repair are sure to follow.

Enter Mike Riter, owner of Trail Design Specialists and a trail educator.

Riter’s Trail Master Certification Class teaches people how to design, construct, and maintain trails and how to lead crews to effectively and safely do the same.

Working in partnership with the Silent Sports Group, formerly Human Powered Trails, Riter has conducted his class in La Crosse each of the last four years.

Both parties hope to continue educating about trail-building and promoting trail use in general.

“They’re thinking that this could be as much an educational center as it could be a place for silent sport-type activities,” Riter said of the Silent Sports Group’s vision for the Coulee Region.

Riter finished his latest course offering two weeks ago.

A four-day experience covering trail design, trail construction, trail maintenance, and crew leading, the course combines morning classroom instruction with afternoon work in the field.

This year, participants rolled up their sleeves and applied their skills by carving out a new trail in Hixon Forest.

Riter gears his class to the needs of the participants and the groups they often represent, which range from local clubs to federal land agencies.

He aims to address a group’s needs, concerns and prior knowledge so they can perform successful trail work on their own.

Protecting the environment is a major theme throughout Riter’s work.

“I teach people how to build trails, but it’s more than that. We talk about the environmental aspect of it, we talk about protecting the resources that we have access to …. I’m trying to instill an environmental ethic in these groups as well,” he said.

Haphazard or “rogue” trail-building has been a problem since cavemen started chiseling their way through dinosaur country, but times have changed.

Whereas trail-builders of the past often showed little regard for the environmental effects of trails, current builders take a more calculated approach.

Riter said trail technology has greatly improved over the last 15 years and trails are now built in a way that avoids harming the land.

“Erosion is the No. 1 issue,” Riter said.

Erosion due to poor trail design degrades the land in an unnatural way, requires more maintenance work and impacts the surrounding environment as eroded land gets deposited elsewhere.

Sustainable trails offer an alternative.

A sustainable trail is designed in a way that allows water to flow across the trail at right angles instead of along it.

When water finds a way to run along a trail, the trail becomes like a water slide, and significant erosion is guaranteed to result.

Riter mentioned that trail construction “can actually be done so that the trail doesn’t erode any faster than the hillside around it.”

To prevent long-term trail problems, sustainable trail builders take a proactive approach, giving thoughtful consideration to trail design, trail placement, natural forces, and user impact.

Rest assured that residents of the La Crosse area will be enjoying quality local trails for years to come.

Riter himself is impressed with the region and believes it possesses all of the ingredients for outstanding trails.

“Unlike a lot of Wisconsin, it (La Crosse region) has a decent amount of terrain and a fair amount of elevation, so you’ve got the hills, you’ve got the bluffs, you’ve got the river, you have all these great views, and that makes for exciting trails,” Riter said.

“La Crosse is a fun place to be. It’s a neat area. It really is.”

For people interested in getting started in trail work, volunteering with local groups is the best way to learn, gain experience, and have fun.

Who knows? Maybe you will be a part of the next great trail in the area.