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Blazing the Trail

They toss around 2-ton boulders and fight paving with a passion.


They decide to pry the boulder from its resting spot, where it would wobble under a hiker's boot, and heave it to the side. "That'll make a nice step down there," says Barry Dixon. The men sweep small rocks into the gaps and wipe the beaded sweat from their foreheads.

The Missing Link trail is now a foot longer.

It'll take a while for the path to stretch its full quarter-mile length, from the Belle Isle footbridge to Reedy Creek and the Manchester Climbing Wall. Workers have to push through the tangled woods and break through huge boulders on the riverbank, some of them car-sized.

And when the Link trail is done, sometime this summer, there are other trails waiting to be built, says James River Park Manager Ralph White.

Under his guidance, a coalition of volunteers is extending the Buttermilk Trail a quarter-mile west of the Boulevard Bridge and carving out a half-mile path from that bridge to the 42nd Street parking lot. And then there's the three-year plan to run a trail along the river from the Boulevard Bridge all the way to the Powhite Parkway, along the Powhite Creek to the toll plaza at Forest Hill.

All this work is performed entirely by volunteers. Most of them are members of the James River Outdoor Coalition, an organization founded by kayakers, bikers and hikers five years ago to protect and improve the James River Park. Members meet monthly and spend at least one Saturday morning per month working outside.

The James River Park's 550 acres are already veined with trodden paths, many of which end abruptly in a tangle of thorns or a chain-link fence. Why do we need more?

Well, White explains, right now people are trespassing on the railroad tracks to reach areas of the park inaccessible by trails. That's dangerous and illegal, he says. So foot by foot, stone by stone, the new trails are stretching outward.

"What we've done is provide a scenic route," White says, then pauses. "I say 'we' — that's pretty grand. I haven't done anything. The city hasn't done anything."

The James River Park System's annual budget totals $18,000, or about $33 per acre, and the money goes fast. White says the recent construction of a bicycle access path from the riverside trail to the easternmost concrete tower cost $2,500, for example.

As a result, the work of the volunteers' coalition is vital. The roster of JROC projects sounds like an overly ambitious Eagle Scout's to-do list: installing birdhouses along the river, clearing undergrowth, building concrete steps and ramps for kayakers, painting, fencing, planting. "We can come in with the manpower and the funds, and get stuff done," says Greg Velzy, JROC's president.

But, White says, the group's impact goes far beyond doing odd jobs. "They have a lot to do with how the park develops," he says, by informing him, and the city, what park users really want.

Several times in the past, city officials suggested less-than-brilliant additions to the park, White says, like a revolving restaurant on Belle Isle, or a pizza stand in the Pony Pasture section. Luckily, he says, these ideas were abandoned. "These are things," he adds, "that would've been awful."

Instead, White looks to JROC to tell him what users need. The big one now — besides the new trails — are places kayakers can legally disembark. "As much as the city talks about this great white-water resource, downtown there's no place to take out," Velzy says.

Security guards at the Reynolds Aluminum plant property downtown and Dominion Resources give kayakers a hard time when they attempt to bring their crafts out of the water, Velzy says. In November, JROC constructed a takeout for boaters along Tredegar Street, just downstream from the Lee Bridge, as well as other takeouts at Mayo Island and North 14th Street.

Now they've turned their attention to trail-building. By the summer, White says, the Missing Link should be complete.

"It's going to make a very nice walk," he says, adding the caveat, "It's not going to be joggable this year." Or any year, perhaps. The trail's not meant to become a wide paved ribbon like the path around Belle Isle, but to remain rugged, White explains. The goal, according to Velzy, is to "at least get it to the point where you're not risking twisting your ankles."

It's not there yet, the volunteers can attest. "Wait a minute," Gunn says, looking at a rock they've just moved. "That sucker don't look right and I don't like it." He pauses and adds, "Do a little dance, Barry." Dixon stomps on it, but the stone stays set.

Gunn's caution is well-deserved, he finds out. As the workers begin to dislodge the next bathtub-sized boulder, the rock Gunn stands on gives way. With a resounding crash, the whole hillside tumbles into the stagnant, oil-slicked water below. Gunn goes along with it, sliding on his back in the rusty mud.

His friends rush to see if he's OK and see Gunn struggling to his feet, apparently unharmed. For a moment they are silent — what if? — and then break into relieved laughter.

Such are the perils of working with enthusiastic volunteers, White knows, but the volunteers are careful and thus far no one's been hurt. "They're having fun," he says. "And, you know, it's empowering. … Rarely do you get the chance to really impact the world."

Ummm, sure, the volunteers say. "We're also doing this because it's too low to boat," Dixon says, watching the current and shaking his head. As soon as the water rises, he insists, he'll be spending Saturdays out in his kayak, not laboring on land.

Don't believe him, White warns. "They say that. They say that. But look at what they've done." S

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