The four miles of trail that wind through Whipple Creek Regional Park’s 300 forested acres are popular with users of all stripes — equestrians, hikers, mountain bikers, dog walkers, search and rescue crews and cross-country runners, including from nearby Skyview High School.
Not all of those uses are compatible with each other — or with the trail system itself.
Horses and mountain bikes, in particular, take a toll on low-lying sections of the trails. Clay soils can turn into muddy bogs in the rainy season that can suck off a runner’s shoe or cause horses to pull tendons, slip and fall.
Clark County has no money to maintain the park’s trails. Funding for maintenance of Whipple Creek and all the county’s regional parks is the responsibility of state and federal agencies, and that funding has dried up in recent years.
“Eight years ago, we came in and mulched the entire site,” said Bill Bjerke, operations superintendent for parks and grounds maintenance at Clark County’s Department of Public Works. “It made sense to mulch the trails.”
The county bought the hog fuel for the mulch from wood recyclers for a dollar a cubic yard, Bjerke said. Workers applied it about three times, most recently about five years ago.
“If you do that every year, it stays pretty well maintained,” said Karen Trout, volunteer coordinator for Clark County Public Works. “But once you stop maintaining it, it decomposes.”
Enter a band of hardy volunteers from Clark County’s equine community, who since the summer of 2010 have been holding work parties to repair and resurface some of the worst spots on the trail.
At the end of September, they learned they had won a $3,200 grant from the American Quarter Horse Association and a farm equipment company. That will allow them to buy fine gravel and other raw materials for trail projects and also contribute to the construction of a small footbridge in the park, a project of a local Eagle Scout.
On Oct. 1, members of Backcountry Horsemen, the Washington Trail Riders Association, the Clark County Saddle Club and a new group called 40-Something Cowgirls converged on the park and spent all day with rakes and shovels repairing just one boggy trail junction where the mud was a foot deep.
“This was a lake of mud,” said volunteer Anita Will, showing off the newly resurfaced section. “We took out at least 12 cubic feet.”
For horseback riders, the preferred trail surface is a base layer of rock with a layer of wood mulch and very fine gravel on top. For the Oct. 1 trail work party, the county provided the gravel, waste from a rock crusher, free of charge.
“We are supplying the crusher waste,” Trout said. “But we can’t spend any more on this park.”
With so many different users sharing park trails, conflicts are bound to occur. Trails get churned up by horses’ hooves and mountain bike tires. A pit bull running loose spooks some horses. The park is seeing heavier use with hard economic times that have people looking for recreation opportunities closer to home, Bjerke said.
“I do hear about some of the mountain bikers cutting corners and trying to blaze their own trails,” he said. His responses are pretty much complaint-driven.
“I don’t have a problem with the hikers,” Will said. “I really don’t have a problem with the bikers if they slow down.”
She also acknowledges that ”because our horses do more damage, we have to do more work” at maintaining the park’s trails.
Will used to breed horses and still keeps three of her own on her two and a half acres in Brush Prairie. She says she prefers Whipple Creek to the county’s other main horse park, at Battle Ground Lake, where the ground is harder and the trails are muddier in the rainy season.
“Whipple Creek is a really good staging ground for young horses,” she said. “It has bridges, step-downs, some hairpin corners.“
One of the volunteers’ goals is to bring in gravel by pack mule for surfacing steep sections of the trail. Another is to build a manure station at the parking area at the south end of Northwest 21st Avenue, the main entrance to the park. A third is to build a log step system on a steep section of trail to give horses practice at navigating steps and also to keep the gravel in place. “It makes the trail more interesting than just a flat lane,” she said.
That, of course, would require permission from the county.
“We need more culverts, we need more gravel, we need more directional signs,” Will said.
Clark County equestrians’ major long-term goal is the establishment of a trail connecting Whipple Creek Park with the Clark County Fairgrounds to the east.
“It would actually turn Whipple Creek into a huge horse park,” with major competitions and overnight camping, Will said.
She knows the realization of that dream is years away. In the meantime, she hopes the volunteer efforts of Clark County equestrians, which date to 1970 or even earlier, will earn them good will with other park users.
“Without volunteers, this park would not be maintained,” she said. “We need a park we can ride in. There are thousands of horse owners here, but we only have two parks. Bicycles and people can go everywhere. If they come to Whipple Creek, they have to realize the road apples are there.”