Originally published as “Trail Building 101” in South Carolina Woman in May 2010.
I spent a couple of days last month with a group of students from Coastal Carolina University (CCU) and the International Mountain Bike Association (IMBA) Trail Care Crew. We were building a new mountain bike trail in the Cox Ferry Lake Recreation Area located near the University. The entire event was planned, coordinated, and funded by Dr. Genevieve Marchand, a professor in Recreation and Sports Management at CCU.
Right away, I’m sure you probably have a couple of questions. Mountain biking in Horry County? I’ll admit that the term is a loose one. It’s true that there are no mountains in our area. A few hills and dips yes, but mountains no. I suppose you could call it off-road bicycling and be accurate. No matter what you call it, it’s great fun.
As for the Cox Ferry area, you may have no idea where it is. I didn’t until I sat down for the trail-building class. I’d like to think of it as one of the best kept secrets on the Grand Strand. Just a few miles off Highway 544 east of the University is the Cox Ferry Lake Recreation Area, which is a part of the larger Waccamaw National Wildlife Refuge (WNWR), which covers over 55,000 acres.
According to their website the WNWR was established in 1997 “to protect and manage diverse habitat components within an important coastal river ecosystem for the benefit of endangered and threatened species, freshwater and anadromous fish, migratory birds, and forest wildlife, including a wide array of plants and animals associated with bottomland hardwood habitats; and provide compatible wildlife-dependent recreational activities including hunting, fishing, wildlife observation, photography, and environmental education and interpretation for present and future generations.”
The Cox Ferry area is a large tract of land bordering the Waccamaw River and the lowland basin that abuts it. Currently there are already road sized trails running through the area that were established by the previous owners before it was sold to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. The trails are great for walking and riding already but don’t offer the technical aspects that a narrow mountain bike trail showcases.
Near the east entrance parking area we built a very tight trail with turns and twists that is great for mountain bikes. It’s about two feet wide and winds around the trees. The floor of the trail ranges from soft root mass, to sand, to a couple of slightly muddy sections. It’s a low-speed trail, but without lots of hills around, isn’t everything? Besides, as your skills grow, so will your speed on a technical trail.
The IMBA crew, consisting of husband and wife team of Chris and Leslie Kehmeier, was great. They hosted nearly a week’s worth of events and spent a lot of time scouting and prospecting the new trail location so that all we really had to do was go out and work on trail day. I attended a Thursday night class at CCU regarding setting up a mountain bike club. They did a very thorough job explaining all the great benefits of a club but also explained the realities and intricacies of running a club. I think a local club is a great idea, but I’m just not sure the outdoor recreation students at CCU are up to task or even willing. We would need some local support from a stable long-term source such as a group of fulltime locals or a bike shop.
Speaking of bike shops, only one local bike shop was represented all week, and I feel I need to give them a thumbs-up. Bicycles-N-Gear on Highway 501 in Myrtle Beach, SC sent Mark Priganc as their representative. Priganc is a long-time local and bicycling advocate. He is also a former adjunct professor in the Outdoor Recreation department at CCU, so he was a great fit with the students. He worked all day with us on the trail. Bicycles-N-Gear also donated water bottles for all the participants.
On trail day we spent the first half of the day at CCU learning how to actually build trails. It’s a lot harder than it looks to build a sustainable, land-friendly trail. The lessons learned go against all the local redneck traditions of just driving a four-wheel drive vehicle through the woods until a trail emerges that looks more like a scar on the land than something useful or enjoyable.
The Kehmeier’s worked hard all week and didn’t stop while we were building. They not only worked the tools, but also constantly walked up and down the trail checking our progress and offering tips and tricks to get things done right. Their job is not an easy one, but one that they enjoy immensely.
About their jobs, Leslie said, “We sold everything, quit our jobs, and took off. Now, every weekend is a new destination.”
It’s true. They travel to a new site every weekend to help build trails. After their visit here, they were headed up toward Asheville, NC. Luckily, Subaru is a huge sponsor for the IMBA program, so wearing out the car isn’t an issue. They are self-described vagabonds and love every minute of it. I felt envious.
I took my wife and kids out to the trail about a week after we built the first section. It still looks great and shows the tire tracks of a couple of users. We also walked several miles of the other trails out there. We ran into a couple of bikers and a few Coastal students out walking. My kids played jungle monkey on a couple of fallen trees. It almost felt out of place enjoying that much nature so close to Myrtle Beach that wasn’t beach or tourist-related.
I highly recommend that you check out the trails, whether it’s on two wheels or two feet. Just do me a favor, please don’t tell the tourists about it. Let’s keep this one to ourselves for a while as an escape from the traffic, neon lights, and beachwear stores.