Building bridges for ATVsby Stephanie Hemphill, Minnesota Public Radio
It's that time of year, when we scramble to do all the chores we meant to do earlier in the summer. Paint the porch, edge the sidewalk -- whatever's on your list probably isn't quite as big as installing a 40 foot steel bridge on an ATV trail. That's what the Washington-Ramsey County Wheelers ATV Club is doing. They say it's their way of helping the environment.
Nemadji State Forest, Minn. — Alex Chester tosses a toolbox and a gas can in the back of his half-ton Chevy and drives slowly down an old logging road.
At least once a month during the summer, he comes here to the Nemadji State Forest, south of Duluth. He's the trail coordinator for the Washington-Ramsey County Wheelers, a Twin Cities ATV club. He's cajoled enough volunteers to join him this weekend to put the finishing touches on a bridge.
It's an unusual bridge: it started its life as a frame for a mobile home.
"These mobile home frames come with wheels and axels on them," he says. "And I could build it at home and then drag it up here."
The 40-foot structure sat on Chester's driveway all spring. He and some buddies welded extra support into the frame, and added rails on the sides.
Alex Chester is close to 60 years old. For the last 10 years he's been leading the club's trail work. But he's got heart problems and skin cancer. He says he needs to pull back from working on ATV trails and concentrate on his health. He's turning over leadership of the club to Mike Devine.
He stops to coordinate logistics with Devine, who spent the night in his camper near the trail.
The club has about a hundred members, who arrange rides and social events. They can muster 10 or 15 people to work on projects each month. Alex Chester loves it.
"It's just the payback," he says. "You get out there and you enjoy the sport, and somebody has to maintain it. I'm the one. My club is the club in this area."
There aren't many trails around the Twin Cities, so ATV clubs based in the metro area volunteer to work on trails further north.
Chester pulled the bridge from his driveway in Little Canada to a gravel road in the Nemadji State Forest. From there, DNR workers used a tractor to haul it in three miles further. They set it down over a steep stream bed about 10 feet deep and 20 feet wide.
Now two DNR workers and three club members are working together. They're installing timbers to stop erosion from the trail into the creek. They're leveling the approaches to the bridge. And they're building small fences to direct riders onto the bridge.
This is a grant-in-aid trail. That means the work is paid for by ATV registration fees and a small portion of the money collected in gas taxes.
The club members are getting $11.50 an hour for the time they put in. But in this club, they donate that money to the club to buy supplies and equipment.
The DNR is happy to have the help. Joe Alberio is a trails specialist working on trails in five state forests in Pine and Carlton counties.
He says the old wooden bridge that used to be here was sinking down into the stream banks. The approaches were too steep. Every time a dirt biker or four-wheeler drove across, it pushed dirt into the stream.
"This is permanent fix for this situation," he says. "We won't have the erosion like we had here before. And then also it's a safe crossing for the users."
There are nearly 70 ATV clubs around the state, and all of them take some responsibility for trail maintenance.
Joe Alberio says ATV riding is changing.
"I'm seeing more and more families out ATV-ing, seeing little ones on the smaller ATVs and dirt bikes," he says. "To me it's a different picture than I saw 20 years ago out in the forest."
He does wonder whether people will ride less as gas prices go up.
Alex Chester says the cost of gas won't stop him. His truck only gets ten miles to the gallon when he pulls his camper and four-wheelers north. But he says that's just part of the cost of having fun.
"You want to go and you've got to pay; that's it," he says.
Chester is proud of the work his club does. He says ATVers are motorized environmentalists.
"Because I like nature as much as the next person," he says. "And our club is heavily involved in doing environmental repairs, and making things right."
Chester says the new bridge will be here for a good long time. And anyone can use it -- not just four-wheelers, but hikers and hunters too.