Celebrating National Public Lands Day with COMBA

On Saturday, September 26, thousands of workers rolled up their sleeves to participate in National Public Lands Day. Chances are, you were one of them.

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More than 175,000 volunteers registered this year for the event that was first launched by a group of only 700 in 1994. Today there are 2,100 work sites across the country, making it the nation’s largest single-day volunteer effort for public lands. And this year, REI asked me to lend a hand.

National Public Lands Day

Crew members prepare their tools. Photo by Bryan Rowe.

Figuring Out How to Volunteer

Public service, for me, is a no-brainer. But sometimes (all right, most of the time) it’s hard to fit it in around actually enjoying my local trails. Other priorities seem to get in the way, like skidding down the newly rebuilt section of trail in Boulder Canyon, or launching off the brand new rollers on Hall Ranch. And even when I do remember, “Hey, someone like me probably helped build these trails,” figuring out how to get involved can be sort of overwhelming.

Here in the front range of Colorado, there is a plethora of nonprofits. The International Mountain Bicycling Association (IMBA) supports two local chapters: the Colorado Mountain Bike Association (COMBA) and the Boulder Mountainbike Alliance (BMA), and there are too many other non-mountain-bike-specific groups to name. The options can be intimidating. Luckily for me, I’d been invited to spend a day on the trail with COMBA.

National Public Lands Day

Patrick Bull gives us the game plan for the day. Photo by Bryan Rowe.

No Bear Selfies, Please

The official adopter of the first section of the 486-mile Colorado Trail, COMBA is sponsored by REI and a host of local companies. Our rendezvous point on Saturday morning was the Waterton Canyon Trailhead in Littleton, Colorado, where Patrick Bull, COMBA board of directors member and trails committee leader, was waiting to open the locked gate. Waterton Canyon has been closed since late August thanks to trail users engaging in reckless behavior with the local wildlife—as in, trying to take selfies with bears. With a permit to access the trailhead, our group of 25 volunteers was allowed entrance for the day.

National Public Lands Day

Imagining how our new line will ride. Photo by Bryan Rowe.

The Circle of Death

Fueling up on mini-muffins, we clambered into several cars and trucked up to an intersection of the Colorado Trail. After a quick safety talk on the tools we would be using (including an enlightening explanation of the “circle of death” swing-zone), we were off. We hiked a mile up a steep incline, keeping an eye out for bears, and arrived at our destination: a rutted, 100-yard section of trail that had become a route for water runoff due to poor planning and even poorer soil. Our group leader explained the objective, and we were left to our own devices (shovels, pick mattocks and McLeod rake/hoes) to create a new line through the native grass. The work was hot, dusty and difficult. But the process of shaping a trail exactly the way I wanted it to flow was the best distraction––along with the promise of ice-cold beer waiting at the trailhead.

National Public Lands Day

Jason Bertolacci reaps the benefits of a hard day’s work. Photo by Bryan Rowe.

Free Hotdogs and Priorities

“Building trails makes you a better rider,” explains Jason Bertolacci, executive director of COMBA. “When you get behind the bars you’ll ride the trail with new eyes–looking for the creative lines and features you had missed before.” If for no other reason than improving your skills, lending a hand should be a priority for everyone who uses public lands. Besides, did I mention there are free hotdogs?

National Public Lands Day

Patrick Bull mans the grill. Photo by Bryan Rowe.

Just in time for the barbecue, our rerouted trail ended up coming together with all the appropriate dips and turns it would need not just to be fun, but effective and sustainable. As for me, I’ll be returning to the Colorado Trail to ride my line and see how it holds up. I plan to make a habit of giving back on a yearly basis, too, because it’s a priority.

Learn more about REI Stewardship and get involved.