Transylvania County has the highest concentration of professional trail builders on the east coast. That says a lot about the area, and why these people choose to call this place home. All five contractors that live in the county are members of the Professional Trail Builders Association (PTBA), the organization chartered with sustaining the canons of acceptable trail building techniques. Many techniques for trail building have been developed here, and in a temperate rain forest with more users than any other national forest in the country, it’s easy to put these techniques to the test.
Last year, volunteers led by some of these contractors conducted a road-to-trail conversion on Lower Black Mountain trail. The trail had become wide, and water was running down the trail. Efforts to control speed were also priority, as the trail is very popular with all user groups year round. Working together with volunteers on community projects is not uncommon for these professional trail builders, all of whom play a vital role in preserving the health of our natural resources and the cycling community.
Todd Branham has done a lot for the cycling scene in Brevard. As the promoter and founder of Blue Ridge Adventures, his race series includes The Off-Road Assault on Mount Mitchell and the Pisgah Stage Race. In addition to bringing international attention to Transylvania County as a cycling destination, he also is part owner in a trail contracting company, Long Cane Trails.
Long Cane Trails has designed and built trails on the Bracken Mountain Preserve on city property in Brevard, done countless hours of volunteer trail work in DuPont and Pisgah National Forest and built miles of private property trails in and around the county. Branham and his partner are also responsible for the design and construction of one of the most popular trail systems in the southeast, the Forks Area Trail System (FATS) near Augusta, Ga. Some of the trails he designed and built in DuPont are the Turkey Knob Trail, Cascade Trail and Micajah Trail.
His “hobby” of putting on races has grown into a full-blown event production company with a state-of-the art laser timing system that rivals major race production companies. Now he spends about half his time working on promoting races, and the other half designing, bidding, and building trails. Somewhere in there he gets to ride.
“For me, for what I’m doing, this is the center hub of it all. A lot of people move to Asheville, but this is where it’s happening, that’s what brought me here,” he said.
Woody Keen has been working on trails perhaps longer than anyone in the crew listed here. He started doing trail work to gain access to rock climbing areas in the ‘80s, then began volunteering his labor on trails when he became interested in mountain biking. Eventually he found himself leading trail projects, including National Trails Day in 1986, during which they repaired a section of the Mountains to Sea trail near Boone.
Like the other trail advocates who live in Transylvania, what inspired Keen and his wife to move to Brevard from the Boone area was that they wanted to be closer to better mountain biking. Keen started Trail Dynamics, a trail contracting company, and has been involved in the scene ever since.
Trail Dynamics, which Keen operated with former business partner Ed Sutton, has been influential in about 80 percent of the trails in DuPont State Forest, and led most of the volunteer efforts. They did most of the design work as well, and built Gateway Bike Park in Travelers Rest, S.C. Keen spent many hours working with Upstate SORBA and the Greenville Parks and Recreation department.
Keen sold his half of Trail Dynamics to Sutton in 2013. Keen now owns Trail Wisdom, a trail consultation and safety management company, and is a strong advocate for trail system sustainability.
“I’m realizing that I affect trails more in the consulting than the building,” he said. “The bicycle has evolved pretty quickly, and the bike has allowed us to develop riding skills. In trail design, we’re playing catch up with the exponential growth of rider’s capabilities.
“We need some of the money going into advertising Transylvania County to go into sustaining some of the recreation opportunities that bring people here in the first place. The impact in the last ten years with exploded visitation is unbelievable.”
A fixture on the mountain bike scene and a man well loved and respected up and down the east coast. He and his family, Noelle, Henry and Bergen moved to Brevard 12 years ago by way of Columbia, S.C. As owner and operator of Headwaters Environmental, his trail building company often gets subcontracted to do work on our public lands, including the most recent “Big Dig” project, a community effort to revamp Lower Black Mountain Trail.
“The community that we found when we got here reinforced the decision that we made. Ninety percent of my friends are from doing trail work and riding mountain bikes. We came for the trails and stayed for the people.”
The middle section of Squirrel Gap and all of Laurel Mountain trails are his favorites. “The texture is still in the ground,” he said. “One hundred years of erosion has left the best part of those trails. I like rideable hiking trails, that’s what I’d like to build, that’s what the kids want to ride.
“My boys, Henry and Bergen, have been doing trail work since they were tiny. At home, they could choose between doing trail work on the back yard trails or doing house work.” His family has a pretty amazing system of hand cut trail as a result of his enthusiasm.
Currently, Shrimper has a few different projects going on, including the re-route of Lower Trace Ridge trail in North Mills River, a private trail in Cedar Mountain, and two more miles at Pleasant Ridge park in Upstate, S.C.
Ed Sutton’s story is similar to that of many other PTBA members in Brevard. He wanted to move here to be closer to the trails, and raise a family in an environment surrounded by like-minded people. He and his wife Sophia own Trail Dynamics, which he co-owned with Keen until he bought him out a few years ago.
It was never Sutton’s intention to start a trail construction company. As a mountain biker, he began volunteering on trails when he moved to Brevard, which evolved into a professional work. His original plan was just to do trail work on the side, but the satisfaction he gets from his work, and the quantity of work he’s found, have exceeded his expectations.
Trail Dynamics did the first professional trail project in DuPont, when they worked on the Corn Mill Shoals Trail, then Ridgeline, Reasonover Trail, Mine Mountain and Laurel Ridge. When evaluating a trail, Sutton relies on his wife and son’s opinions. Rudy, 15, has been riding mountain bikes since he was five.
“He’s my number one test rider and he’s learning to become a trail builder too. If it’s going to be a family trail I try and get his impression, and then get my wife’s perspective. Seeing what they’re looking to get out of a trail has broadened my knowledge a lot, and it helps me to improve my product.
“My philosophy is to build trails that get families together, to turn off their computers, video games and TV’s. That’s our goal ultimately, to get people outside and get them to fall in love with mountain biking.”
“The thing about Brevard is there’s so much variety,” says Valerie Naylor, who moved here from Florida about 10 years ago. She had originally come here with the intention of staying, but found herself financially burdened and unable to find full time work. When she was offered a position in Florida as a trails coordinator, she returned, but she never forgot the mountains and was always trying to get back to Brevard. While she was in Florida, she helped build the Vortex Freeride Area in Santos, a popular mountain biking destination.
She was able to come back after she was offered a job working with Keen and Sutton for Trail Dynamics, and with the experience in Florida combined with what she learned at Trail Dynamics, she has branched out on her own. Now self-employed, Naylor’s trail building company is VNTS, short for Valerie Naylor, Trail Specialist, and she is working on a project for a mountain bike club in Knoxville, Tenn. She says she does a variety of things from machine operation to trail planning and design, to instructional classes and volunteer management.
Back in Brevard full-time, Naylor now serves on the Board of Friends of DuPont, and Board of Directors for Friends of Ecusta Trail.
“I feel really fortunate to be where I am, and to have a job that I love and work with some really cool people. We’re all on the same page. The advocacy is really important to me,” said Naylor.