Modern trail design helped save Vermont Singletrack from flood damage

A pool of water sits on a stone on a trail in Brownsville, Vermont. Photo courtesy of Terry Livingston.

Just four weeks ago, a slow moving storm rolled into Vermont, dumping over nine inches of rain across the state. The torrential rainfall was equivalent to about two months’ worth of water, which poured into already saturated ground. Rivers flooded, roads were washed away, land slid and many homes and businesses were destroyed. Fortunately, there was only one confirmed fatality and, for mountain bikers, Vermont’s trail systems did not suffer the devastation that affected many residential areas and cities. As the waters receded, Vermont mountain bikers rallied to help local communities, and although the triage has been done, they are now addressing trail damage with focused work events and fundraising.

Vermont Mountain Bike Association (VMBA) Executive Director Nick Bennette wants mountain bikers to know that Vermont is open for riding and open for business.

Modern mountain bike trail design helped save trail

“The vast majority of the 900 miles of trails that the VMBA managers in the state have done quite well, mostly because of modern trail-building techniques and water management,” he says. Bennette understands that the priority for a disaster like this is community help. “People lost their homes, their businesses and their livelihoods. How do we support this?” The VMBA directed messages soon after to support local cleanup efforts and fund local or state efforts, such as the VT Flood Response & Recovery Fund 2023, which was able to raise millions of dollars to support individuals and businesses.

“Pathways are important,” he says, “but in the first few weeks we wanted to make sure we weren’t stealing the spotlight from the response.” Now that FEMA has declared a disaster and the community’s needs are being met, VMBA will host events and fundraise for its own storm relief and strengthen grant committees. “Ten of our 29 chapters have a significant loss, and we want to make sure we’re meeting their needs,” says Bennette.

VMBA chapters hardest hit by the storm – including those based in Ludlow, Montpelier, Barre, Waterbury, Richmond and Jamaica – agree that professionally designed and constructed trails at higher elevations fared better.

Jill Olson, Chapter President for the Montpelier Area Mountain Bike (MAMBA) chapter says, “Our trails are really fine. We have a small singletrack system that was recently completed just outside of town. They were built to shed water and they did. The trails that were in rough shape are the oldest multi-use trails that have been in the park for a while.” Olson’s reaction to the images of downtown Montpellier being navigated by canoe or kayak was that it made the flood seem “strange,” while the reality of the aftermath was horrific. “What floods really look like are mountains and mountains of trash. Everyone’s stuff is just out on the street.”

Photo courtesy of Jill Olson

Olson says MAMBA and the local mountain biking community focused volunteer efforts downtown, especially their bike shop, Onion River Outdoors, which was completely destroyed along with every other business. “For Montpellier, it’s less about the trails and more about the bike shop and the community that goes with it. We didn’t call for volunteers, people just showed up to help clean up.”

Resilient, creative business owners relocated to sell salvaged stock at the Saturday Farmer’s Market, which was also moved to higher ground while downtown was renovated.

“It’s a close-knit community, Olson says. “Mountain bikers have a very personal relationship with the bike shop, so this is personal. That’s why there’s so much energy to help them get back on their feet.” MAMBA plans to stick to their regular schedule. “Recreation is part of our recovery as a community. We will drive our local system and have a workday route as planned.”

“Our trail network was largely spared when it came to catastrophic flooding because most of our trails are at a decent elevation,” says Darius Long, board member and co-chair of the Summer Trails Committee for the Ascutney Trails Association.

“Given the excessive rainfall this summer, we have experienced a lot of wash-off, dirt removal from our trails, as well as water retention and mud from supersaturation. Our new skills park took about $3,100 in damage, but with timely work by our trail construction contractor, Powder Horn Trail Co., and many volunteers, we were able to open over 90% of our network to Flow State MTB Festival last weekend. We are very proud and grateful to our volunteers who helped make this possible.”

Photo courtesy of Nick Mahood

Nick Mahood is a board member of the Woodstock Area Mountain Bike Association (WAMBA) and director of the Woodstock Inn’s Nordic Ski and Summer Outdoor Centers. Works with WAMBA to oversee maintenance of mountain bike trails on resort property. He says while the trails were wet enough to be closed for several days, they did well. WAMBA mobilized volunteers to remove downed trees, fix drainage and repair sidewalks. However, almost all of the culverts on Mount Peg’s ski trails have failed. This affects single track connectivity on the mountain as repairs may take two months. While the trails are drivable, temporary route changes are necessary.

More moisture means even more damage

As with the rest of the country, bad weather is hovering over areas, and it’s still raining excessively in Vermont. The Ridgeline Outdoor Collective (ROC) in the heart of the Green Mountains has three trail networks. Executive Director Angus McCusker says continued storms and rain in Vermont are compounding the disaster.

“The soil is extremely saturated, so a strong storm can do a lot of damage. Just last Thursday night we received 2-5″ of rain, causing mudslides and road closures. We are constantly assessing and cleaning up after storms this summer.” McCusker says local volunteers have “stepped into high gear to restore our trails online,” logging 100+ hours in July. “For a small but hard-working crew of trail managers, that’s a lot for the summer, when we generally don’t do much trail work.”

According to Bennette, only about 40% of the VMBA’s natural surface trails saw significant impacts from the storm, but the constant rain isn’t helping. He estimates the total VMBA damage is worth about $50,000. Past experience with catastrophic weather encouraged the VMBA to design it. Several years ago, a terrible windstorm destroyed Stowe’s popular Cady Hill trail system. The cleanup of hundreds of downed trees cost a significant amount and led VMBA leadership to establish a Major Storm Recovery Fund. While the fund only had about $15,000 in early July, it provides immediate relief for events like flooding. He adds, “People can donate directly to this fund on our website, and we can quickly use those dollars to get the trail networks up and running.”

Bennette says the current message across the state, from outdoor and tourism businesses to the VMBA and other management organizations, is one: “Vermont is still very open. Many of our trails are open and drive well. The last thing we want is for people to cancel their trips during our peak season. The caveat is that it is important to be extra careful when visiting. We have a route conditions page. The idea is “learn before you go”…. Ask yourself, “Is it open where I am going? Are they ready for visitors?’ But understand that most of the state is in pretty good shape.”

Volunteers interested in trail restoration should find organized trail days on the VMBA events calendar (and posted by chapter) rather than just appearing on your favorite trail system.

“There’s always a demand, but every chapter will need hands-on cleaning help for the next few weeks,” says Bennette. “This will go a long way in getting everything up and running as quickly as possible.”

How to help:

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