As Norton’s trails coordinator, Fields is responsible for expanding and maintaining the city’s system of more than nine miles of trails ranging from Legion Park and the Flag Rock Recreation Area up to the city reservoir.
Fields said the current city trail map shows 9.1 miles of hiking and biking trails, but that will be growing this year. And, while technically a Forest Service trail separate from the city system, the approximately 16-mile Chief Benge Scout Trail has a trailhead about five minutes’ driving time above the reservoir trailhead.
Fields found himself in his job almost by accident, after a friend told him in 2010 about a trail project that City Councilman and outdoor recreation business owner Mark Caruso guided for some college students on the Lost Creek Trail leading from the Kentucky Avenue area toward the Flag Rock Recreation Area.
“(Caruso) was talking with one of my mountain bike buddies and the words ‘extreme mountain bike trail’ came out of his mouth,” Fields recalled. “And when he did, my buddy comes straight to me and goes, ‘Mark Caruso said ‘extreme mountain bike trail on the Flag Rock area.’ ”
Fields started thinking about trail opportunities after that conversation, but illness and recovery sidelined him until late fall that year.
“I had that thing still running through my brain, that I wanted to get out and take a good close look at that piece of land,” Fields said. “So that winter and spring I spent about 150 hours up here just all over this property scouting. And I put a PowerPoint presentation together and took it to City Council in May 2011. I was part of a bicycle club here at the time, and we said that the club would like to start building a trail on this piece of property and asked if we could build this one trail first: the Sugar Maple Trail. We would build it first and then come back to them and ask to move forward.”
What Fields thought was going to be a five- or six-month project took about three years. Finding enough volunteers to help with the work was a challenge, but Sugar Maple was completed.
“(City Manager Fred Ramey) probably realized I’m not easy to get rid of,” Fields said with a laugh. “I’m coming around and throwing all this spare time at it. He said, ‘I could probably give you a couple of months’ work,’ and I was out of work at the time and I said that’d be great.”
MAINTAINING AND BUILDING TRAILS
That two-month job expanded a few months at a time, and Fields has been at it full time for three years now.
The city trails project now has a mini-excavator and hauler-dumper, and Fields has kept busy the past three years writing and getting grants for AmeriCorps federal workers to maintain existing trails and start clearing new trail segments.
“The trail system here is basically set up as a stacked loop system,” Fields said as he explained the trailhead map at a kiosk just above the city reservoir’s boat ramp. While the Lost Creek and Sugar Maple trails began the system, the Lake Lake Show and Twisted Forest trails start at the reservoir parking lot and are the core of that stacked loop.
“You put the easiest trails at the core of the system. Sugar Maple is a green-level, novice-level trail that climbs into this main group. You can access the core group from the park or over here,” Fields said.
A series of switchbacks along Lake Lake Show gives hikers an easy grade down to the upper reservoir, Fields said, and helps with drainage and erosion control. Much of the route was covered with exposed pine tree roots, and Fields and workers built up the trail with dirt rather than cut roots and kill trees.
Building up the trail sections meant that retaining walls needed to be installed to keep those sections from wearing or washing away. Fields said the solution was simple and cheap.
“We’ve built a lot of stuff with this broken sidewalk concrete,” Fields said. “I’ve got a lot of retaining walls from it.”
Grants from Keep America Beautiful have helped fund three bridges, Fields said, and the AmeriCorps program provides seasonal labor for upkeep and new construction.
“Basically, what I do this time of year, I get the excavator and take it over to the project we’ll be working on this fall and rough in a bunch of stuff over there and try to have a bunch of stuff ready for them,” Fields said. “When they come, I’ll teach them how to do treadwork and backslope work, and we’ll do all the finish work on the trail and try to finish up a pretty good chunk of trail with them.”
Keeping the trail map updated with the expansion is an ongoing job.
“We’re working on a new print map right now that should be out pretty shortly. We’ve got this new one, and we also have one on the city’s website.”
Fields said Boy Scout Troop 301 from Coeburn has helped build map kiosks at the reservoir and Flag Rock through Eagle Scout projects.
MOUNTAIN BIKING OPPORTUNITIES
While the trail system offers plenty of hiking opportunities, Fields said mountain biking opportunities have driven much of the new trail construction. Much of the system is designed for mountain biking with banked curves.
Fields said he follows International Mountain Bike Association recommendations for trail difficulty and gradients.
“I build pretty much to their standards, and their standards say that a novice trail should be 3 feet wide and no unavoidable obstacles over 2 inches high,” Fields said. “It should have an average climbing grade of 5 percent or less and a maximum sustained grade of 10 percent. An intermediate trail should be at least 2 feet wide. It can have no unavoidable obstacles over 6 inches high and an average grade of 10 percent or less with a maximum sustained grade of 15 percent.
“It opens up the possibility of building trail in places that I couldn’t get a novice grade in because of trees you have to get around and whatever,” Fields added. “The more experienced bikers want to ride something that’s got a little more challenge to it.”
INTO THE FOREST
City officials are looking at several long-term opportunities to connect with U.S. Forest Service trails in the surrounding Jefferson National Forest and trail projects with Big Stone Gap and Appalachia. Fields said that connecting with Forest Service trails depends on developing partnerships.
“The Forest Service has lost a lot of money over the years. Their funding has been cut way back and their manpower, they’ve had to lay people off over the years too. So they really don’t have the manpower or money to maintain the trails they have now.”
Cooperation with the Clinch Coalition and Norton has started, Fields said, and the city has a memorandum of understanding to help out with some maintenance issues at the High Knob Recreation Area.
“Hopefully it fosters a good enough relationship with them so we can at least introduce some ideas they’ll think about,” Fields said. “Their trail inventory is such that, the general idea was that once you get to the capacity of that inventory, if you want to build a mile of trail, they’ve got to figure how to decommission a mile of trail that’s not getting much use somewhere.
“If you’ve got competent partners that are willing to take over management of something, it kind of gives you leeway to say, OK, maybe we can work with these partners and develop a little bit more.”
Fields said that could lead to connecting parts of the city trail network to those Forest Service trails.
“It would be amazing if we could have a piece of trail that would tie into the top of Benge’s Trail so you’d have a continuous trail basically from downtown Norton to Hanging Rock.”
BENGE IS THE BEST
Fields said the Chief Benge trail could help draw more tourism to the area if it connects to the city biking trails.
“I’ve ridden mountain bikes all over the country: Oregon, Utah, and all over the Southeast. I don’t think I’ve ever ridden a trail that I like any better than Benge’s,” Fields said. “It’s amazing on a mountain bike. If you’re a type of person that likes old, primitive-type trails that are narrow and rocky and roots and creek crossings and all that stuff, Benge’s is just golden. It’s a wonderful piece of trail. I kind of feel Benge’s taught me how to be a mountain biker.”
Fields said that first three years of volunteer work has turned into his dream job.
“It’s a whole lot of hard work in it, it’s very physically taxing, but at the same time I figure at my age if I want to stay in some halfway decent shape, I need to be doing a job that’s physically taxing,” Fields said. “It’s a good day to be out in the woods.”
For more information on the Norton trail system, visit http://www.nortonva.org/441/Trails.