Outdoor Indiana Magazine - July / August 2008
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TEAM WORK MAKES STATE A HANDLEBAR HEAVEN
By Marty Benson
Photography by John Maxwell
Indianapolis’ Mike Hufhand travels the country selling medical devices for a living.
A few years ago he realized another sales job was necessary—for life, or at least the pursuit-of-happiness part of it, during his times at home.
As much as possible during his sojourns, he mountain biked. Every time he returned after an out-of-state trip that included time in the saddle, he was disappointed because of the few quality places to ride. His fellow in-state cyclists, a few of whom had made sporadic appeals to the DNR on the subject, shared that feeling.
Pondering that problem, Hufhand, now 44 years old, reflected on the differences between those states and his state.
“I knew we had places that would be good,” he said, “but also knew that any time I went to a place that had great trail access and a lot of trails, it was because they had a well organized group of mountain bikers.
“We weren’t organized. A group like the DNR is not going to work with a bunch of individuals, nor should they.”
Mountain bikers are generally a social lot, so the task of organizing wasn’t daunting.
“I don’t think you could find a nicer group of people,” said Dave Powers, a heating and air conditioning sales manager from Whiteland, who took up the sport in 2004. “Sometimes you don’t find that (when you start a new activity as an outsider).”
Sheer effort, plus the help of the International Mountain Bicycling Association (IMBA), begat HMBA, the Hoosier Mountain Bike Association, in 2000. Both acronyms rhyme with “Simba.”
Left: Stewart sculpts the foundation, drainage and flow of a new park trail.
HMBA laid groundwork for alliances with landowner organizations, such as the DNR, while working to improve trails owned by other groups, such as those at Indianapolis’ Town Run.
In 2002, IMBA (imba.com) bestowed Indiana with a dubious distinction, saddling the state with the lowest of its grades for mountain biking. The report, according to Hufhand, was based on a number of factors such as trails access, quantity and quality. Coincidentally, that was the last time OI covered the sport in depth (May/June 2002).
Scraping the bottom of the barrel in anything wouldn’t normally be a positive, but it’s played a part in turning a frown into a grin on the faces of Hoosier mountain biking enthusiasts and others who now cross state lines to bicycle here.
“That (ranking) turned out to be a nice rallying cry for our group and for DNR,” Hufhand said. “Originally, neither group knew each other very well but by the time we got that rating, we did, and we were really ready to put things together.”
HMBA, seasoned at improving existing trails, approached the DNR for permission to start a new, high-quality project.
At the time, the only DNR opportunities to ride mountain bikes on trails, save for the pilot project at Roush Lake (then Huntington Lake) that was completed in 1995, were in state forests. Those trails were mostly makeshift roads. None were the type of purpose-built routes the cyclists sought.
John Bergman, assistant director of the DNR Division of State Parks and Reservoirs, who has been the DNR go-to for HMBA, said that DNR formed a mountain bike policy in ‘95, before he was involved with the subject, modeling it after the horse-trail policy. But that’s where progress stalled because of a lack of both cash and staff.
Enter the local club (hmba.org) which offered the somewhat skeptical DNR a gift.
“They said we’ll build you these multi-use trails at no charge,” Bergman said. “(They said they) had the expertise and the ability to do it.”
Right: Alex Harrington (left) of Nashville and Alex Stewart of Indianapolis shape a new trail to resist erosion, flow well and follow natural contours at Brown County State Park.
The know-how was based on attending several IMBA seminars around the country that Subaru stages, one of which was held at Harmonie State Park this April. This time DNR agreed.
“We offered up Brown County and Versailles (state parks) because we knew we had large tracts of land there that were relatively unused and had no trails systems,” Bergman said.
Some DNR types were wary.
“(Property managers) were reluctant to bring in another user group when they hadn’t had any experience with them,” Bergman said. “They said ‘we’re going to have all this erosion and all that kind of stuff’ and ‘I’m not quite sure about this.’
“They wanted to make sure the trails were going to be built right and that these people could do what they said.”
Once the DNR signed off on trail locations, armies of HMBA volunteers came with their hand tools.
“HMBA is an outstanding TEAM of people, and that’s the strength of our group...our people,” Hufhand said.
The trust paid off. Now Versailles has nine miles of purpose-built trails mountain bikers can use. Brown County had 14 miles at OI’s print deadline, with more being built, thanks to a federal $150,000 Recreational Trails Program (RTP) grant awarded to HMBA last year. The DNR has been pleased with the results, to put it mildly.
“It’s been wonderful. It’s been fantastic. I don’t know that there are enough adjectives to throw at it,” Bergman said.
The DNR tossed more tangible praise HMBA’s direction in March, presenting the group a State Parks and Reservoirs Partnership Award.
HMBA not only backed up its words, it delivered more than promised. Mountain bikers not only have helped build trails, but also offered help in other areas.
“They’ve created new sources for our Friends groups,” Bergman said, referring to the local support groups that adopt some state parks and regularly provide volunteer help.
Left: (Back to front) Alex Stewart (Indianapolis), Charles Shindler (Nashville) and Jonathan Juillerat (Brownsburg) test a section of hillside trail armored with native stone at Brown County State Park.
Not just for bikers
Although the mountain bikers had self-interest in mind when carving the trails at the two state parks, hikers have reaped rewards, too. Bergman said the purpose-built, multi-use facilities are the state’s highest-quality hiking trails.
“If you want to go and have the best hiking experience in Indiana right now, I’d say go and walk the mountain bike trails at Brown County State Park,” he said. “They are spectacular.”
That’s music to HMBA’s ears.
“We don’t build trails, we build experiences,” Hufhand said. “That’s what we base our trails plans upon.”
Hiking is not only an activity on the new trails, but also a prep tool. Alex Stewart, who is in charge of HMBA trails development, said he put about 150 miles on his boots over four months in Brown County, searching for routes that would direct cyclists to attractive places in the park. During one of those walks with Doug Baird, property manager of the 15,766-acre park, at his side, Stewart showed the DNR veteran a dry waterfall with about a 20-foot spill.
“He had not seen it before,” Stewart said. “He said, ‘Thanks for showing me my park.’”
Hufhand said hikers will also love the trail view at Hesitation Point, which he said is second to none in the state.
Stewart, a 38-year-old who runs a small real estate company in Indianapolis, said hikers and mountain bikers have much in common, despite an inaccurate picture often painted of the latter by the extreme-sports-loving media, which might spook some hikers.
“It’s not like we’re the Mountain Dew boys flying down a hill out of control,” Stewart said. “We are hikers on wheels. We’re no different than hikers. It’s an experience of being one with the forest, a Zen type of feeling, much like people get when cross country skiing.”
Bergman said the proper trails design helps protect those who prefer traveling afoot to on two wheels.
“You really can’t go very fast on a mountain bike unless you’re going downhill,” he said. “You have to worry about what’s around the next corner. Mountain bikers encourage hikers to use the trails. We haven’t heard any complaints (from hikers about bikers) that I know of.”
Right: A year-old Brown County State Park trail blends into the forest.
These multi-purpose trails, built by mountain bikers, have won over some who had early reservations.
“Before I was exposed to mountain biking, I had no particular use for it, and no desire to have trails built in Brown County,” Baird said. “(I’ve found out that mountain bikers) seem more willing (than some other groups) to support their own activity by working to build and maintain what they have rather than expecting the park to provide facilities for them to use.”
Stewart said that’s part of the bikers’ philosophy.
“People adopt these trails as if they are their own,” he said. “As a comparison, it’s a lot like surfers or skiers. The trails are very important to the riders.”
Avid rider Brad Hill, a 46-year-old custom home builder and Carmel resident, said he’s a big fan of the new trails, particularly the new ones in state parks.
“They are head and shoulders above the old,” Hill said. “They are a totally different animal. They are technical (not difficult to ride, but difficult to ride fast), fun, well maintained and take minimal maintenance.”
Work is underway at Harmonie State Park, with 12 to 15 miles expected to open in 2010. Other state parks that appear ready to move beyond the talking stage are Fort Harrison and O’Bannon Woods, each of which pose different sorts of challenges, as well as plenty of potential.
Bergman said the National Park Service still technically owns the Fort Harrison land, so it would have to approve any plans before work started. He said that site surveys have been done. Extensive work is planned if approved.
“We want to rebuild and redesign the whole trail system there,” Bergman said. “(The project) will probably go pretty quickly because we have a large corps of people here to do the work—if they got started this fall, they could probably have 3-4 miles ready by spring.”
Completion would add high-quality mountain biking to the immediate Indianapolis area, something Hufhand said is sorely lacking in most metro areas in the state.
Adding trails at O’Bannon Woods would address similar concerns near Louisville and tap into a property that has mountain biker mouths watering.
“O’Bannon has great potential because of the sheer amount of acreage,” Hufhand said. “When you add Harrison-Crawford State Forest (which abuts the park), there’s nothing else like it in Indiana. It’s got 500 feet of elevation, lots of rock and big boulders.”
Volunteers have not been as plentiful at O’Bannon, so HMBA has received permission to make the existing adventure trail more bike-able to spur interest.
Bergman said other possibilities are Charlestown State Park and the Trine State Recreation Area at Pokagon State Park. He said DNR appreciates the HMBA support but realizes that depending on volunteers, as reliable as they are, probably won’t meet future needs.
“If we really want to have a viable trails system in some of these properties like O’Bannon, if we want to have them in a hurry, we’re probably going to have to use some of our own financial resources,” he said.
Indiana’s come eons from that F on its IMBA report card. Not only is it passing, it’s become, dare we say, a destination.
“I’ve read the message boards and I’ve heard some people say that right now we have the best mountain biking in the Midwest in Indiana,” Stewart said.
But, as a well-traveled rider himself he’s quick to qualify that statement.
“There are some things you can’t get here,” he said. “If you go to North Carolina, you get 2,000- to 3,000-foot elevation changes and you can’t get that here, but we’ve got something over them, too.”
That something is that the trails are designed for their end use, which is not as common as you might think.
“Our trails are purpose-built, aligned just right and maintained to give you the proper flow, which helps you get lost in the moment,” Stewart said. “A lot of other trails are old logging roads or hunting trails. They’re fun but they don’t take full advantage of all the interesting details.”
Brian Holzhausen, owner and director of the Do Indiana Off-road (DINO) mountain bike racing series, is a big fan of the workmanship of the new trails.
“It’s an art that they’ve mastered, to sculpt the contours, create a trail that flows very well, uses the elevation changes, is sustainable and won’t erode over time,” he said.
Although there will always be some advantages to riding out of state, Hufhand said he hopes that in 10 years, Indiana will offer enough opportunities to keep most Hoosier mountain bikers home while pursuing their brand of happiness.
“Rather than taking the time to drive all the way somewhere else, (mountain bikers) will be able to go to a place like Brown County, stay the entire weekend and have a first class mountain biking experience rather than spending so much time in the car.”
Left: Trail workers test the flow and function of a trail segment at Brown County State Park. The park's new purpose-built biking/hiking paths are among the state's highest quality trails.
|DNR MOUNTAIN BIKING SITES||NO. OF MILES|
|Brown County State Park||14|
|Clark State Forest
Clark State Forest, 2 trails
|Deam Lake State
Recreation Area, Trail 3
Pike State Forest, 5 trails
State Forest, Horse Trail 2
|Martin State Forest||6.8|
|Potato Creek State Park||6.7|
|Spring Mill State Park||3|
|Versailles State Park||9|
FOR NON DNR PLACES TO RIDE IN INDIANA,