What it Takes to Open the Keweenaw’s Singletrack Trails

Posted on April 9th, 2021

One of the most common questions we receive each spring is “When do the Keweenaw’s summer trails open?” From trail managers to motel operators to the team here at Keweenaw.info, it’s a question we hear often in the runup to our beautiful summer season.  We’re pumped that everyone is so excited!  A lot more work goes into opening things up than waiting for the calendar to roll over to Spring.  Here’s a taste of what it takes to open the Keweenaw’s non-motorized trails.

The Hardest Part: Patience.

The biggest factor dictating when our trails might open is, you guessed it, the weather!  We love to brag about how much snow we get here in the Keweenaw, but one thing we don’t share is that snow tends to stick around for a loooong time.  It’s not unheard of to have snow on our trails into Memorial Day weekend when we’re planning to kick off Experience the Keweenaw.  There’s not much that can be done except to rake the snow around and break out the hair dryers.

For trail systems that groom for snowbiking, the wait may be even longer.  Marc Norton, chief trail elf at the Swedetown Trails Club, laments that the compacted snow on some of their singletrack takes 2-3 weeks longer to melt!  Michigan Tech Trails Operations Coordinator Brian Isaksson uses this time to tune up his equipment for the coming season.  Dull tools won’t help anybody.

Break Out the Chainsaws

Heavy snows and ferocious winter winds take their toll on our forests.  If given the chance, a tree will always choose to fall across a trail, never alongside.  Researchers at Michigan Tech are still trying to figure that one out.  To tackle the inevitable mess, volunteers hike every trail in search of trees and branches to clear.  It’s telling that when people show up to volunteer days, the most common tool they bring is a chainsaw.  Everyone in the Keweenaw is equipped for this challenge!  Despite having dozens of miles of trail to clear (some still snow-covered), volunteers make quick work of the downfall.

Windblown tree crosses singletrack trail.

Several large trees block the lower part of Paul’s Plunge in Copper Harbor. Help!

We ❤️ Leaf Blowers

With the larger debris out of the way, the next step is to clear away the leaves, pine needles, and small sticks.  This helps give hikers and mountain bikers more traction without a pile of acorns or slippery leaves underfoot.  Debris-free trails also retain far less moisture.  That means fewer puddles for dogs to get soaked in.  For shorter trails or people who love a workout, raking is one option.  Most of our volunteers prefer to use leaf blowers, though.  Not only does the work get done much quicker, you feel like a superhero wearing a jetpack while you do it.  

Volunteer uses leafblower to clear singletrack trail

There’s nothing more satisfying than sending six months of leaves and pine needles flying. Almost ready to ride now!

A Little More Patience…

The best things in life are worth waiting for, and great trails are no exception.  Although the trails are now clear of downed trees and piles of leaves, we have to wait a little longer for them to fully dry out.  Singletrack trails in the Keweenaw are usually robust, but after the spring thaw even the toughest temporarily turn to muck.  It’s important to heed closures during this time because damage to the trail in spring will have long-term consequences throughout the summer.  A few warm, breezy days and those muddy trails will be dry in no time.

Nate Laakonen and the volunteer team at Maasto Hiihto & Churning Rapids use this time to identify areas that take the longest time to dry out.  They’ll target drainage improvements for those spots so next year the trails dry more quickly and can be used that much sooner.  Of course, every trail system has many sections which could be better.  Volunteers do their best to identify the biggest problems on the most frequently used trails, saving the rest for later.

Volunteer raking snow off singletrack trail.

When the weather stays snowy, the bikers get desperate.

How’s 2021 Shaping Up?

We knew you’d ask!  While it’s still a little early to put an official opening date down, it’s likely going to be earlier than usual unless winter makes a fast return.  The Keweenaw didn’t get nearly as much snow this winter as we normally do, which means we can get out to start clearing trail sooner.  Stay tuned!

How Can You Help?

The Copper Harbor Trails Club, Swedetown Trails Club, Söké Trails, and Keweenaw Nordic Ski Club (they manage the Maasto/Churning singletrack too!) all rely on volunteers to help clear their trails each spring.  Even the Michigan Tech Trails will be organizing volunteer workdays this spring!  If you’re local or want to make a trip to the Keweenaw to lend a hand, we’d appreciate the help. You can even make it a workcation. Be on the lookout for workday dates as the spring approaches.  

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Nathan (aka Nathan Invincible) is an adventuring conservationist that photographs everything. He’s spent the last 15 years exploring the Western U.P., crisscrossing the region “working” for the likes of the Copper Harbor Trails Club, Finlandia University, and other organizations to improve recreational opportunities for everyone. His favorite season is when you can breathe without inhaling a dozen mosquitoes.

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