Picture this: You're walking on a lovely wooded trail in Elgin.
Suddenly, a bicyclist appears out of nowhere and whizzes past you. You're startled half to death.
"Bicyclists!" you mumble with righteous indignation. "They think they own the trail!"
Or, how about this? You're the one on the bike seat, cruising along a beautiful trail in Aurora. There's a group of people ahead of you, lined four abreast across the trail, chatting as they saunter along.
You ring your bike bell and politely announce your approach. They don't seem to hear you. You repeat, a bit louder this time, "Bike on your left." With a start they all jump and scatter like bowling pins -- most of them falling to the left. The only way to avoid them is to wheel your bike into the mud on the side of the trail.
"Walkers!" you mutter as you right yourself on your bike. "They think they own the trail!"
Now shift from bike seat to saddle. You're an equestrian out for a ride on a grassy forest preserve trail in Campton Hills. A pack of cross-country runners is approaching fast from the rear. These are men on a mission, young shirtless guys, hellbent on clocking miles. They barrel along the trail en masse, leaving you little time -- or room -- to maneuver your jittery steed out of the way.
"Runners!" you complain with teeth clenched. "They think they own the trail!"
The scene in its many variations is played out over and over again on trails throughout Kane County. The cast of characters is as varied as the people (and animals) that use the trails -- bird-watchers and bicyclists, horseback riders and dog walkers, cross-country skiers and in-line skaters, you name it.
The catch in these scenarios is that the protagonists and antagonists are interchangeable. In the walker's mind, the bicyclist is the bad guy. It the cyclist's mind, the walkers are the problem. To the equestrian, the runners are hogging the trail. To the runners, the equestrian is in the way. Every trail user believes she has the right of way, and it's always the other guy who's at fault.
The truth of the matter is that no one owns the trail, because the trails belong to everyone.
It's time for some trail basics, beginning with a bit of history.
A bit of history
The trail system in Kane County had modest beginnings when the forest preserves were established early in the last century. Johnson's Mound, Tyler Creek, and Elburn were the first three forest preserves purchased in the late 1920s, and at that time, there was no trail system at all. Trails were foot paths in forest preserves made by the locals who frequented the woods, wildlife game trails through fields, and horse trails through pastures.
Fast forward to the mid-1960s when the national Rails to Trails movement began, an initiative to convert railroad lines to recreational trails. This movement, along with the growing popularity of bicycling in the 1970s, led to the demand for more and better trails. Jogging was also a fast-growing trend, and hiking and bird-watching surged as popular pastimes. All these trends contributed to the evolution of a regional trail system connecting forest preserves and other green spaces in Kane County and neighboring counties.
The trails today
Today, the trail system in Kane County comprises 72 linear miles of multiple-use trails, according to Mike Holan, the Forest Preserve District of Kane County's Director of Operations. Another 100-plus miles of "interior" trails, Holan said, wind through forest preserves. More trails are incorporated in the trail system as new forest preserve properties are acquired.
Not only do Kane County residents take pride and pleasure in the trails, but visitors come from far and wide to bike, hike and enjoy the beauty of the scenery.
With the increase in use, however, comes the potential for conflict. Indeed, some phone calls and emails sent to the Forest Preserve District communicate the frustration of trail users whose enjoyment has been compromised by the behavior of others.
Most of the conflicts can be avoided with an understanding of the purpose of the trails. The regional trails in Kane County are multiple-use trails, with an emphasis on multiple.
"They're not just bike trails, or horse trails, or walking or running trails," explained the forest preserve District's director of public safety, Mike Gilloffo.
No single use trumps another. With that in mind, we would all benefit from a good dose of manners a la Emily Post, the late paragon of etiquette. Were Emily to strap on a bike helmet and hit the trails in Kane County, she would soon have admonishments for us all.
The most basic tenet of etiquette, on the trail or in the dining room, Emily would surely say, is courtesy.
Being courteous is not just being polite; it also means being considerate of others. Remember that the bicyclist is riding the trail to have a good time, the bird-watcher is strolling the path to view wildlife, and the mom with the stroller is taking the kids out for an enjoyable experience in nature. Consider the needs and desires of other users, and behave as if their reason for being there is as important as yours. Because it is.
One way to show consideration of others is to announce your presence as you approach people on the trail -- no matter if you're on bike, on skis or on foot. Don't assume that the other person can hear the click of your derailleur, the sound of your footsteps or the swoosh of your skis. Let others know you're coming if they can't see you.
When you announce your approach, use a friendly tone of voice. "Bike on your left," with the ding of a bike bell, is usually sufficient. Shouting "ON YOUR LEFT!" as if there were a three-alarm fire is counterproductive. It often produces the pedestrian bowling-pin effect, scattering people across the trail. This only worsens the situation for everyone involved (including you).
Remove the ear buds
The flip side of announcing your presence is that you have to be able to hear others on the trail. Wearing ear buds is not conducive to hearing others. That's kind of the point, eh, kids? But as ear buds envelop you in your own personal world, they also diminish your awareness of your surroundings. With the volume cranked up, chances are you won't hear anyone approaching you, regardless of a bell, a friendly greeting or a fog horn. So, for safety's sake, leave the ear buds in the car or at home. Besides, who needs all that electronic noise when there's a natural symphony to enjoy?
Yield to others
Being considerate also involves yielding to others. Yield whenever, wherever and however it seems safe to do so. Equestrians, yield to pedestrians. Bicyclists, yield to horses. Dog walkers, yield to others -- and keep your leashed, four-legged companion under control at all times.
Here's an extension of the yielding rule: If another trail user is yielding to you, pass her on the left, just as you do when driving.
And give plenty of room as you pass. You never know if the child weaving on his bicycle is going to lose his precarious balance as you pass, and you can't tell if the puppy on leash is going to decide to play predator with that chipmunk on the other side of the trail.
Next in the school of trail etiquette is this: Speed matters. Nice and easy does it. The trails are not designed for the Tour de France, and there are no medals awaiting the fast and furious on the trails. Only first aid kits.
The old maxim "Leave it as clean as you found it," and its corollary, "Leave it better than you found it," are part of the etiquette paradigm. For those who are careless with goo packets and granola bars, remember: No one's mom is coming after hours to clean up. Pack it in, pack it out. After all, if a person can start on the trail carrying a full 16-ounce water bottle, chances are he's strong enough to carry it when it's empty. And if there's room in a day pack for a full pop can, there's surely room for an empty, crushed pop can.
Recycling containers and garbage cans are placed by parking lots in forest preserves. Use them. This is not only trail etiquette -- it's earth etiquette.
The bottom line is that Kane County's wonderful trail system exists for everyone to enjoy. Whether bicycling or pushing a stroller, toting binoculars or ski poles, be courteous, be considerate, and follow the basic rules.
Emily's watching from the great trailhead in the sky.
For maps of the trails in Kane County, visit kaneforest.com/recreation/trails/maps/
Valerie Blaine is a naturalist and a runner who loves the challenge of a good hill trail, the peace of a path along the river, and the inspiration of the trails throughout Kane County. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.