I am many things — a redhead, a book snob, a lead foot — but I am not a navigatrix of any great skill.
When I go mountain biking, I make sure to ride with people who know where they’re going. I stay at the back of the pack and let them focus on which trails to take, while I focus on not falling on my face. It’s generally worked out pretty well so far, except that if I ever want to ride by myself, I am limited to pedaling around my neighborhood.
Lucky for me, a year ago Local Motion, Northern Vermont’s bicycle and pedestrian advocacy organization, launched Trail Finder, an online map service that allows directionally challenged folks who like the outdoors to hit the trails with confidence.
Trail Finder is a searchable database of every public trail in Chittenden County. The drop-down menus on the website allow users to search trails by activity or town; each entry features a satellite map of the trail with handy icons for points of interest such as fire towers and Port-O-Lets.
Over the past two years, volunteers walked, skied or rode the trails with GPS devices to map them for Local Motion. The result is a comprehensive body of info that is user friendly and designed to help take the stress out of navigating.
I decided to put this new resource to the test with a casual mountain-bike ride on some trails I’d never explored before. I chose Indian Brook Park in Essex, which features seven miles of routes especially popular with the canine crowd. On a cloudless, sunny weekday morning, no fewer than a half-dozen dogs were swimming in the area of the reservoir where dogs are prohibited from swimming.
Here’s what Trail Finder has to say about Indian Brook:
Indian Brook Reservoir is enjoyed by families and dog walkers, making it a popular weekend destination. Mountain bikers enjoy the trails when there is less traffic early in the morning or evenings on weekdays. Please be courteous to all trail users.
I like to think I have the trail p’s-&-q’s thing down pretty well, so all I had to do was get to the trails. Following the directions provided by Trail Finder, my riding companion, Becca, and I ended up at the park’s lower parking lot.
Trail Finder informed me that access to the park required purchase of a pass, and that said pass should be purchased at the Essex town offices. But by the time we reached the park, I had selectively forgotten about this regulation, and we ended up using the trails illegally.
After I’d set up my bike and slathered myself with SPF 50, we were ready to hit the trails. Our mission was to find the Overlook Point and take beautiful, albeit obviously amateur, photos. (Regardless of the outdoor activity, it always seems to be about reaching the view.)
Before the ride, I pulled up the Trail Finder on my BlackBerry so we could follow the directions turn by turn. It would have worked better on an iPhone, but since I am neither hip nor nerdy enough to have one of those gizmos, the BlackBerry had to do. If you have a GPS device, you can download the Trail Finder program to it and dispense with the phone.
Squinting at the map on the 4-square-inch BlackBerry screen, I concluded we should head out on the trails to the east of the reservoir. Then, to get to the lookout/awesome picture-taking area, it looked like we’d take a trail that jogged to the right and up a hill.
I kept telling Becca to keep her eyes peeled for a trail that zipped off to the right. We rode over rooty little single-track sections and between some jagged rock fields, but the sparkling reservoir always stayed on our left, meaning we weren’t anywhere near the lookout point.
Once we realized we had probably already passed the trailhead that led to the vista, we decided to continue our tootle around the lake. And by tootling I mean falling over multiple times. Not my riding companion, just me. Me getting stuck on a log; me hitting a stump; me not extricating myself from my pedals in time to avert a crash to the forest floor.
At an intersection, we decided to consult the BlackBerry. As we stared at the screen, I cursed myself for not tucking a magnifying glass in my CamelBak. This is when awesome technology doesn’t seem quite so awesome anymore.
We continued around the reservoir on a shaded, well-maintained multiuse trail. As we rode, I was tempted to join the dogs paddling in the water, but remembered I was on company time and swimming wasn’t part of the assignment. Plus, wet bike shorts feel sort of like a soggy diaper.
It didn’t take long for the two of us to round the res. Upon ending up back in the parking lot, we decided to take another crack at finding the lookout. I was going to get my scenic photo if it killed me.
We consulted Trail Finder and, after some major techno wizardry on my part, obtained a slightly larger map where we could just about make out the words. We determined that the trail to the lookout point began before the boat launch, and headed in the direction that looked right from the digital map.
We must have passed the trailhead four times looking for it. Finally, we spotted it and cranked our way through some boggy parts into a gradual climb. What a victory for two cartographically clueless kids.
The climb wasn’t bad, but as the description on Trail Finder notes, it wasn’t for beginners, either. We muscled our bikes over gnarly roots and rock slabs, feeling confident we were on the right track. That photo would be mine.
Soon the climb became more of a chore than a fun pedal in the woods. About every 50 feet we seemed to encounter another tree that had been blown down on the trail. Every dismount meant another opportunity for mosquitos to nosh on my delicate skin.
This little sliver of single track was begging for some TLC.
We had to bushwhack parts of the ride, which can be tolerable when one believes the destination will be worth it. But bushwhacking quickly loses its novelty when one begins to doubt the destination even exists.
After a substantial climb, the trail dipped downhill. I do know my ups from my downs, and this could not be the way to the storied overlook view of Malletts Bay.
My partner in crime and I consulted. If we continued to bushwhack, there was a good chance I’d catch malaria, since we’d be passing through a mosquito shantytown. If we turned back, we’d be closer to lunch. We chose the latter.
We headed back down the trail, stopping to dismount nearly every few feet to heave our bikes over the toppled trees. If that trail were clear of debris, it would be a trip to bomb down.
In the parking lot, we reflected on our failed mission. Trail Finder had gotten us to the trailheads and showed us where we were supposed to go, but somewhere there was a breakdown. I’m thinking it was on our end.
Local Motion will soon be unveiling trail databases for Addison and Grand Isle counties, along with adding more interactive features to Trail Finder. Those supplements will greatly help trail users find new spots at which to hike, bike or ski. Plus, the ability to comment on the Trail Finder site lets users see what real people really think of the trails.
Now, if only they’d add a hand-holding feature for turned-around people like me, Trail Finder would be the perfect guide.