Birth of a Trail: The design, construction and final touches on Paul Douglas Preserve mountain biking course
No prior mountain biking trail, rogue or otherwise, existed in the Paul Douglas Preserve before construction began. In cooperation with the Forest Preserves of Cook County (FPCC), the Chicago Area Mountain Bikers designed a directional trail -- travel in one direction only -- with direction alternating based on day of the week.
Starting with a clean slate, CAMBr North Trail Coordinator Mike Godfrey remarked, "We wanted to create a beginner-friendly system that families with younger kids can enjoy," but also "a progressive trail system, with sections that provide increasing difficulty."
A one-mile trail in the preserve's southwest corner awaits younger bikers, those just learning the sport, riding BMX, gravel or mountain bikes. Other loops, totaling 12 miles, offer bigger, more technical challenges for experienced riders.
Birth means labor
Volunteers began trail construction at Paul Douglas in July 2021, using common garden tools: Loppers, rakes, pole trimmers and shovels.
They also swung heavy-duty hand tools named after two early 1900s U.S. Forest Service Rangers who invented them to fight forest fires. A two-headed "Pulaski" combines an ax and pick. A "McLeod" combines a heavy-tined rake and hoe.
Power tool certification also began in July for those experienced volunteers wielding chain saws and brush cutters, or driving mud buggies and the Bobcat.
According to Executive Director Mike Angus, CAMBr raised about $75,000 for tools and other capital purchases plus a secure storage container on site.
Funds also covered volunteer workday expenses including water and crew lunches. Contributions came from CAMBr members, private and corporate donors and bike shops.
While most belonged to CAMBr, volunteers included high school groups, biking and running groups and even corporate volunteers. About 25 core members plus 100 more volunteers built over 13 miles of trails. In 2021, they logged over 1,600 hours, another 2,400 in 2022.
Some had gained experience building trails at Palos or Raceway Woods. Others were newcomers, but all were welcomed.
"If we didn't know an individual's skill set, we'd start them off with rakes and loppers," explains Mike Lenz, CAMBr North Region director.
According to Lenz, typical weekend workdays ran 8 a.m. to noon. Following trail flags, crews removed brush, felled trees and lopped overhanging branches.
Cleared vegetation was normally hauled off to more wooded areas. Larger pieces helped demarcate the trail edges.
Wet low-lying sections required different size rock for trail reinforcement. Larger stone formed a base, with mid-size stone layered next, then topped with finer gravel. No surface tamping was done for soil compaction.
As trail sections were finished, riders would test it out and naturally compact the surface through use.
As crews built trails, they hauled any garbage they uncovered out of the preserve -- broken glass, foreign objects and general trash.
Left behind, sharp items puncture tires; unsightly litter detracts from a user's trail experience. Volunteers even disposed of trash found away from trail development at an abandoned homestead.
CAMBr initially built the three west side loops along Huntington Road, about eight miles total, extending from Algonquin Road south to Central Road.
"We believed that the west side was just a little more achievable terrain, a little more straightforward in design, though some challenges existed," said Godfrey. West loops were completed that December.
From January to March 2022, CAMBr groomed the trail for winter riding. Spring 2022, however, brought flooding in the southwest section, requiring additional gravel to repair.
That April, the first design of the six-mile southeast loop was done. Construction began in June and was completed prior to the October trail opening.
"CAMBr pushed really hard to finish the southeast prior to the ribbon cutting," Godfrey observes. A couple 12-hour workdays were required with special efforts devoted to designing/building a creek bridge.
FPCC staff was involved in this effort as well. They signed off on the design of the bridge structure, which spanned 25-26 feet. They also assisted in hauling construction materials to the site: synthetic railroad ties, two large steel I-beams, and deck planking.
Expected completion of a northeast loop this spring will add another five miles of trail. That section requires a similar, though shorter, bridge and another 400 hours of labor. Completion estimates are subject to weather and volunteer availability. When finished, the trail system, with its five loops, will offer 18 miles of mountain biking trail.
The first 13 miles are currently open to both bikers and hikers. Like all trails associated with CAMBr, Paul Douglas's current trail condition is posted on the CAMBr website. Users should check conditions before arriving so as to minimize trail damage.
While not a statutory requirement, CAMBr wanted the Hoffman Estates Fire Department firefighters/paramedics to be aware of the trail in case an injured user needed removal.
After the trail was built, but before it officially opened, fire and police department staff, including Fire Chief Alan Wax and Police Chief Kasia Cawley, walked the west trail section.
"We basically consider the new trail part of our fire department's jurisdiction like any other facility or area from where anyone could call 911," Chief Wax said. "We will go into new buildings to check on access and layout. We approached the trail like any other new facility in our community."
Unlike a school with room numbers and exits clearly identified, the trail is mostly hidden from street view and even from the paved perimeter trail. Unlike hallway linoleum, its terrain is contoured to challenge mountain bikers.
"Our biggest concern was identifying where a person is on the trail if the individual is in trouble," Wax said. Signage was key.
Having tramped the shortest trail myself, I was impressed with the posted map signage plus numerous numbered trail markers identifying one's location. Paramedics armed with the same maps can determine just where to access the 911 caller based on the closest trail marker.
Besides hiking the trail, responders reviewed a topographical flyover map to identify any concerns.
They practiced accessing the trail using their brush truck, an all-terrain vehicle equipped for remote rescue and firefighting. It can reach distant spots, provide hose and limited water for extinguishing out-of-the-way fires, and transport a stretchered patient.
As for accessibility, Chief Wax commended CAMBr on its extensive trail experience.
"They realize where access should be, balancing that with how the terrain looks to build the trail," said Chief Wax.
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Coming this summer: Mountain biking races at Paul Douglas Preserve's new trails
Dick Pond Athletics will kick off an Aug. 13 running race on the southeastern five-mile loop at Paul Douglas Preserve in Hoffman Estates, according to Brent Runzel, employee and racing enthusiast. Proceeds from the company's 2022 Carl Hansen Woods race were donated to the trail's development.
Wayne Haworth, buyer and company racing team coordinator, spoke on behalf of runners at the trail's October ribbon-cutting, thanking Chicago Area Mountain Bikers and the Forest Preserves of Cook County for their dedicated efforts.
Haworth hopes race exposure at Paul Douglas will encourage more runners to support other trail building efforts. "The running community in general takes the trails for granted, so we would like to see more involvement in their creation."
According to CAMBr North Trail Coordinator Mike Godfrey, a three-race series is planned this summer culminating Aug. 20 at Paul Douglas. A July 16 event at Raceway Woods near Carpentersville launches the series, with an Aug. 6 race at the Palos Forest Preserve. Visit www.bikesignup.com/cambr for details.