Upper Valley Trails Alliance Builds Accessible Trail in Milton Frye Nature Area
Written by Molly Shimko and published in the Norwich Times Summer 2023 Edition
With mud season having come to a close, it’s time to start hitting the trails! And one newly renovated trail that you may wish to choose is the accessible trail created by the Upper Valley Trails Alliance (UVTA) in the Milton Frye Nature Area next to the Marion Cross School.
Russell Hirschler, executive director of UVTA, says, “There’s been a big push over the last few years or so for putting in accessible trails for people with any kind of mobility issues, older people who just need more places to have a sure-footed kind of walk, or families with strollers and kids.”
UVTA, a regional organization based right here in Norwich that serves over 43 communities all throughout the Upper Valley, coordinated with the Marion Cross School and the Town of Norwich to create the new accessible trail, built on an existing trail.
Hirschler says, “In order to do any kind of trail, you need willing partners.” And in this case, Marion Cross School and the Town (which owns the conservation land but has a cooperative use agreement with the school district) were excited to be a part of this project and brought the idea to the UVTA, who are known as a leader in the field for creating affordable and accessible trails – especially near schools.
Hirschler is finding more and more accessible trails being installed near schools. “Schools are always trying to get their kids outside, especially during the time they were utilizing the outdoor classrooms to a tremendous extent,” he says. Not only was an easily traversable trail to an outdoor classroom important for all students, but with a recent influx of families to Norwich – some with children who have mobility issues – the accessible trail has been particularly vital.
The school district raised the money to create the trail and worked in tandem with the Town to bring the project through the Planning Board and Development Review Board phase. The permits were issued, and about a year and a half from the initial idea and site visit, the team was getting to work on creating the trail.
While the process to approve the trail took some time, the actual build took around a total of two weeks. “It’s a lot of moving rock,” Hirschler laughs.
The UVTA staff – a team of four including Hirschler – worked together to build this trail. In the summers, UVTA runs a program called the High School Trail Corps, which recruits and works with students from high schools all over the Upper Valley. However, as this was a fall build, this trail was a four-person project. “Oftentime, our small staff is scattered in every direction doing lots of different things, and this was one of the few trail projects where all four of us were out there working together. It was a really great team effort,” Hirschler says.
Part of that effort was to get the trail down before they had snow and frozen ground, which created a good team challenge, Hirschler says. Sure enough, the trail was completed just before the first snowfall in November of 2022. “We scraped the last bits of gravel off the edge of parking log, pulled our machines out of there, and then it snowed,” Hirschler recalls.
The accessible trail created by Hirschler and his team converted a dirt trail into what they call a “hardened trail” that has a stone dust or hard-pack on top. The trail is created with three layers. First is a base layer of course gravel that gets compacted down to make it tight. “With stones that are all angular and jagged, when you push them down next to each other, they lock in place,” Hirschler notes. Next comes a middle layer of geotextile cloth, which separates the bottom and top layer materials. The cloth keeps dirt and mud from coming into the upper layer of the trail and keeps weeds and other plant life down. Finally, a top layer of the aforementioned hard-pack. This is also compacted down, and the result is an easily navigable surface that is still permeable so water can run through it, unlike with asphalt or concrete where water runs off the surface.
In addition to a more easily traversable surface, an accessible trail must have limited slopes (the team aims to have slopes of 10% grade or less). The guidelines for these trails are similar to those found in the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Hirschler and his team have just recently been back to work on the trail this spring, having asked folks to primarily stay off the trail during mud season. As the trail is right next to downtown off of Main Street, they’re very excited to have people using the trail regularly. “There’s a sense of joy,” Hirschler says, “You build a trail that’s also accessible to a certain segment of the population – anyone who normally wouldn’t be able to go on a footpath with rocks and twigs, branches and roots, or that has uneven ground or is too steep, and then to see those persons using the trail with a smile on their face… To put these trails in place for people is a joy.”
On top of this, it’s always wonderful to see elementary school kids out in the woods in a wild area with lots of big trees and wildlife, Hirscher says.
While the building of the actual trail isn’t all that difficult, getting all the pieces together to be able to build them is much harder, Hirschler says. And the fact that more communities – such as the school district and the Town of Norwich – are investing in these trails is tremendous and shows the value in it.
Equitable access is one of the fundamental principles on which UVTA is built and guides their work: “No matter what kind of trail user you are and what physical abilities you have, there’s a trail for you somewhere close to home,” Hirschler emphasizes.
The investment in trails and recreation infrastructure that saw an upward trajectory during COVID has by no means slowed down, Hirschler says. The UVTA currently has lots of ongoing projects where they’re implementing the building techniques they’ve learned creating accessible trails. “With more heavy weather-related events – windstorms and rainstorms and all those kinds of climate-change related activities – the better and more sustainably you build the trail initially, the longer it’s going to last.”
The thing that makes Hirschler and the UVTA the most excited is the community investment in improving local trails: “We always say it’s great to have aspirations to hike in the Notches in the White Mountains or summit Mt. Mansfield or Camel’s Hump in the Greens, but really the most important trail is the one outside your back door or down your street. That’s the trail you’re going to use the most.”
UVTA is busy building and has no plans to slow down. Hirschler says, “We’re going to build trails and we’re going to get young kids and older people and anyone in between who needs helping getting into the woods to get out there.”