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Medicine Wheel Trail Advocates build trails through building relationships

Crashing off a mountain bike hurts.

Crashing off a shiny, carbon-frame Borealis Bikes loaner, in front of a bunch of guys you first met about an hour earlier, hurts and is embarrassing.

Luckily for this first-time mountain biker, these guys, who run Medicine Wheel Trail Advocates, are some of the nicest and most encouraging folks I've met recently. And the 3.5-mile route on which they've taken me — which includes the 1.2-mile Chamberlain Trail extension that Medicine Wheel just finished building about a month ago — offers gorgeous views of Cheyenne Cañon, Gold Camp Reservoir and the city. This morning, the trailhead, found just past Starsmore Discovery Center, glistens with fresh powder.

Sites like Chamberlain make for the most noticeable components of Medicine Wheel's raison d'etre. But as social chair Jesse Parker says, "We do a lot of invisible work."

From regular trail maintenance to education and outreach, this all-volunteer organization keeps busy. Perhaps the greatest behind-the-scenes job, though, is building and maintaining relationships with land management agencies. Very little of the work the 23-year-old nonprofit does could happen without support from the U.S. Forest Service, Colorado State Parks and the Colorado Springs and El Paso County parks departments.

For example, the hands-on-shovels part of constructing the Chamberlain extension took about two months from start to finish, says Doug Bursnall, of Medicine Wheel's trails committee. But it took over two years to get from initial proposal to that point.

"I hope that we can build up to more trails per year, but essentially there's only a certain amount you can do," he explains. "The parks department has to OK all of the trails that we do. We have to walk them a number of times, to make sure it meets their requirements. Have wildlife studies done, all that sort of stuff, and that piece takes a long time."

While you may be unfamiliar with the Medicine Wheel name and the Chamberlain Trail, you probably have heard of one of the group's other recent projects: Stephanie's Trail, at the top of Bear Creek, under Gold Camp Road; Palmer Trail, part of the Section 16 loop; or Spring Creek, connecting Barr Trail to Jones Park and Cheyenne Cañon. Over the years they've worked in Cheyenne Mountain State Park, Bear Creek Park, Cheyenne Cañon, Stratton Open Space, Ute Valley Park and Red Rock Canyon.

Medicine Wheel advocacy committee's Allen Beauchamp says the nonprofit started as "a rag-tag group of mountain bikers that just wanted to give back." That means, as Bursnall says, "improving trail access for all groups" — evident on our Chamberlain ride by the number of runners and dog-walkers out on the cold, but sun-streaked day, enjoying the views (and stopping to ask about the crazy-huge tires on our fat bikes).

Medicine Wheel also frequently improves land sustainability, by extending the trail network legitimately where people have been hiking or biking against the rules. "In the case of the Chamberlain Trail," Bursnall explains, "there was an old unused road that's been there for probably a century that didn't go anywhere."

As people used that road, nearby spots were taking a hit. Medicine Wheel stepped in to help mitigate before more damage could happen.

Trail builds always generate big news for the group, but other big news came this spring when Medicine Wheel was approved as a Rocky Mountain Region chapter of the International Mountain Biking Association — the only affiliate in Southern Colorado.

Previously, all project money came from direct fundraising. Now Medicine Wheel is a part of the advocacy organization's 30,000-strong membership network. Local individuals who join IMBA become dual members with Medicine Wheel, and, notes Bursnall, those membership dollars "go directly into building trails in the Pikes Peak region. So the money we raise is feet of trail on the ground."

And more money is good all around. Particularly considering how the group does its work.

"Stephanie's and Spring Creek were done entirely by hand," explains Bursnall, a process that takes hundreds of volunteer hours. With Chamberlain, Medicine Wheel was able to start the process with volunteers who cleared the corridors of trees and brush, and then bring in a mechanical contractor to move 99 percent of the dirt. Volunteers came back in after to tidy up the work the contractor did.

"The nice thing about that," says Bursnall, "is that it involves the local community ... they get ownership of the trail because they worked on it, but they don't have to wait all season long for the trail to be finished. It's hard to get volunteers to commit to that — everybody here likes to go skiing or biking or hiking.

"Raising money through programs like Indy Give!" he continues, "[allows us] to hire a contractor ... but by using volunteers for a lot of the manual labor still, we can bring that price down by more than half so that we can get really good value for the money we spend on the trails."

  • Medicine Wheel Trail Advocates build trails through building relationships

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