By RICK STEELHAMMER
When Tracy Toler moved to Nitro four years ago, he had no idea he would soon be spending much of his spare time blazing new trails to support outdoor recreation in his adopted Kanawha County town.
But the transformation began to take shape shortly after the professional photographer discovered that city-owned Ridenour Lake and the 43 acres of forested hills surrounding it were located less than a half-mile from his home.
"I'm a mountain biker and I like to find rides I can take with my two daughters," Toler said. "It's so nice to be able to ride from home to Ridenour without having to take the time and effort to load the bikes on the car. Having a park like this only a half-mile away from downtown is one of the great things about living in Nitro."
While the park scored high grades for convenience and lakeshore scenery in Toler's book, its trail system was in need of improvement.
"When I first started spending time at Ridenour, a half-mile trail behind the lake was all that was there," he said.
After seeking permission from city officials, Toler, working on his own, added about a mile of parallel trail on a slope above the existing pathway, and connected the ends to form a 1.5-mile-long loop.
"It gave the trail runners who were using the trail a way to stay in the woods and not have to travel back and forth along the same route," Toler said. He then got permission to build a system of connected trails for biking and hiking on a slope behind the parking area for the lake trail and Ridenour's "Central Bark" dog park.
Toler, who by then had become a member of the Nitro Development Authority, and Nitro Parks and Recreation Director Jim Caudill began enlisting volunteers to help build the trail. The Friends of Ridenour Facebook page was created last year to post photos of trail progress, alert volunteers to future projects and inform park users of upcoming events. The Friends of Ridenour now has more than 1,300 followers. The new trail system began to grow rapidly.
"As soon as we would finish a section of trail, people would start using it," Toler said. "I have yet to put up a trail sign. We have four miles of new trail about 75 percent finished, and should have a total of five miles completed this year."
In April, Toler, representing the Friends of Ridenour, sought and received approval from Nitro City Council to build a bike skills park in a section of flat land near the dog park. The project, now underway, involves mostly volunteer labor and about $8,500 worth of high-grade fill and shaping dirt, professionally made signs, landscaping services, security camera monitors and lighting.
"One part of the park is a skill climb involving obstacles of increasing difficulty for mountain bikers to learn how to take a safe lines in crossing," Toler said. "A second part is a pump track - a system of banked turns and terrain features the riders can travel without pedaling by learning to push their weight up and down at the right times. The third part is a small jump area, where riders can learn to go over jumps 2 to 5 feet high."
Toler said the Kanawha Valley Wildcats, a National Interscholastic Cycling Association-sanctioned team of middle to high school students from schools in Kanawha and Putnam counties, are helping to build the skills park and are using Ridenour's new trail system for practice sessions.
"We'll have the skills course ready this summer," Toler said, who predicted the development and nearby trail system would bring riders from across the region to Nitro and Ridenour.
"Tracy has a big vision for what Nitro could be, starting with the improvements at Ridenour Lake he has planned," said Nitro Development Authority Director Kim Reed. "He worked for months on his own, using his own money, time and tools to show what could be done to create trails."
Nitro needs safe walking areas for people to use to get in touch with nature and develop healthier lifestyles, and activities for people to take part in with their families, Reed said.
"Tracy knows how to make that happen, and the people of Nitro are better off because of what he is doing," she said. "He's at the forefront of community development in Nitro."
Reach Rick Steelhammer at email@example.com, 304-348-5169 or follow @rsteelhammer on Twitter.