Monday, February 24, 2014

I Get Wilma Banned from Her Favorite Creek

I really stepped in something. Not sure what. But somehow I ended up getting Wilma and me banned from hiking on one of our favorite trails. Not only the two of us, but everyone else as well. I don't know what the whole story is, and I suspect I will never find out. But the horse trail at Kinnikinnick Creek Conservation Area (KCCA) is posted as being off limits to hikers as of about 11 A.M. on 2-6-14.

The horse trail at KCCA is IMO the nicest hiking trail in the BCCD system, maybe for all the surrounding counties as well. Wilma and I will both miss it. It has a lot of grade change, nice scenery, and some very nice creek access. They have plenty of other fine trails to hike on, but this one is especially nice.

This is an odd story and there does not seem to be a good way to tell it that is not confusing, because it is a confusing story.

First off - a request. Please do not contact the BCCD about this issue. Once a governmental entity chooses to do something like this public pressure against it tends to cause them to just dig their heels in. The near light speed response in the dead of winter to post some signs to close a trail to hikers that is snowed in and likely presently impassable to hikers, suggests there is something going on here that is not real obvious.

A pamphlet printed on yellow paper dated August of 1998 I have actually says this:
D. Equestrians shall: 
(1) Stay on designated trails only and stay to the right when passing oncoming users. 
(2) Slow to a walk on meeting other riders and hikers.
I am not sure where this pamphlet came from. I either got it onsite or it came with the trail maps they sent me. One might think that if hikers are banned from the horse trail that it would say so and not casually say that horses have to slow down on meeting hikers that should not be there.

There was an odd comment made on my blog once from someone named Jason. It is at the end of this blog post.
Jason said... I ride horseback routinely in this park. Unleashed dogs are a serious problem; horses spook easily. I personally witnessed an eighteen year old gal get hurt when she was tossed from her spooked horse. If you check the park rules, horse trails are for horses only and people trails are for people only.
I did check closely the next time I was there and there were no signs posted banning hiking on the horse trail. So, I just figured he was in error. In any case, Wilma is always leashed.

It is hard to tell this story in a coherent way because it is so bizarre, so I will just tell it chronologically.

My first time hiking the horse trail at KCCA was in October of 2010. Wilma and I walked from the horse parking area to the bridge over the creek and then up the road back to the horse parking area. No signs indicating the trail is off limits to hikers. In fact, the sign post at the trail head has a hiker symbol. This is a picture I took that day.
  photo oct2010kcca.jpg

Wilma and I hiked there on a number of occasions since then. No signs on the horse trail banning hikers. I would have noticed. Nothing posted at the information kiosk either. Again, something I take a look at when I go some place to hike.

Fast forward to February 3, of this year. For some reason, I feel the need to read the BCCD board minutes that are posted on their web site. It takes about 3 months for them to get posted typically. In the November 2013 minutes it mentioned the horse trail was in poor condition. I had not been out there since February of 2013 when I tried hiking in the snow on the hiking trail. It was a bit of a non-starter due to the downed trees but I had to park outside the gate and walk right by the horse trail trail head - nothing new in the way of signs that I recall, and believe me I would have recalled them.

I sent an email to an employee of the BCCD that I have corresponded with before. He seems like a decent guy. I mentioned it was too bad about the horse trail falling into disrepair and mentioned I enjoyed hiking on it. It was more of an off hand comment than anything else. Mostly the email was asking about improving hiker accessibility across the creek at the west end of the horse trail and maybe some kind of action on getting hiker access to the horse trail that currently extends from Roland Olsen Forest Preserve in Winnebago County to KCCA. My understanding is the horse trail from ROFP to KCCA is something the horse people arranged with the landowners.

On the 5th, I got a 2 page, single spaced PDF from this employee. In it there is a rather casual reference that "The equestrian trail is not intended for use as a hiking trail, and has been posted with signage to indicate hikers are not permitted on that route".

The rest of the document was full of interesting information about why they can't do anything in the creek regarding making it easier for hikers to cross it without getting permission from various governmental agencies, that he made it sound like was a long and expensive process, and probably is. Which I found a little unusual given that hikers are not allowed there anyway.

I sent him an email promising to look closer for the signs the next time I was out there.

The next day before I went to work, I sent him the picture from October of 2010 showing the hiker symbol on the trail head sign post. This was a little before 6.

I got a reply to the email at 7:40 saying he had stopped by KCCA and indeed there are no signs at the trail head banning hikers, and apologizing for any confusion. I expected this would be the end of it but at 11:40 I got an email from a different BCCD employee with these four pictures.

 photo unnamed4.jpg

 photo unnamed3.jpg

 photo unnamed2.jpg

 photo unnamed1.jpg

The email said this
As you pointed out those signs were missing again! However as of 11:00 AM 2/6/14 they are back up on the Horse trail at KCCA. Mr. [redacted] pointed out in his E-mail to you the reason for the change in types of use for this trail. Enclosed you will find the new pictures with the no hiking sign back on the posts at KCCA. I hope this clears up the confusion.
Somehow between 8 am and 11 am they managed to get a bunch of signs made and posted. Pretty impressive.

So why is the horse trail closed to hiking? One suggestion in one of the emails was that it was just designated for a specific use. Another suggested safety reasons, specifically mentioning that pedestrians and dogs can spook horses. However, the signs don't ban any dogs on the trails, just hikers. In fact, one time Wilma and I were on this trail and came across a group of 6 or 8 horses. They had an unleashed dog with them and he did not seem to be spooking the horses any. I don't remember specifically, but I think there is a actually a sign at the horse trail head directing dogs be leashed on the horse trail.

I have hiked in a number of places that have horse trails. Rock Cut State Park, Lowden-Miller State Forest, several forest preserves in Winnebago County, the horse areas in the Rockford Park District, and a conservation area in McHenry County. None of these are signed as banning hikers.

This incident is making me wonder if the horse people are trying to ban hiking on all horse trails. If so, we as hikers need to oppose this strongly. It is not the fault of hikers that poorly trained horses or horse riders have issues.

I sent emails to the following entities asking about their rules regarding hiking on horse trails: ILDNR, WIDNR, Winnebago County Forest Preserve District, McHenry County Conservation District, Lake County Forest Preserve District, and Cook County Forest Preserve District.

The Lake County Forest Preserve district web site indicates that "Some trails are completely dedicated to equestrian use", so maybe hikers are banned on the ones designated this way.

WIDNR reply. "The horse trails within the DNR system are not closed to hikers."
CCFPD reply. "Hikers are allowed on the “horse” trails, or what we refer to as “multi-use” trails."
WCFPD reply. "Yes, hikers can go on the equestrian trails."
MCCD reply. "There are no ordinances keeping hikers off horse trails."
LCFPD replied that some trails in two preserves are horse only, but the rest of the preserves are not that way. It was unclear from the reply if all the horse trails in those two preserves are off limits to hikers or just a single trail in each. They did not respond to my followup question.
No response at all from ILDNR as of 2-24-14.

ETA: I got a phone call from the public affairs person at LCFPD on 2-27-14. The followup question had been referred to her. She was helpful in explaining things better. She indicated they might make some changes to the trail maps to clear up any confusion.

So, it appears that if there is a safety issue, it is limited to this particular trail, although it seems unremarkable, other than being an unusually nice trail.

In the end, there is nothing I can do that will get this unfortunate decision changed, and the whole story of why it was made in the first place will likely remain a mystery to me.

What did I expect of my simple email? I really only expected a response along the lines of thank you for your comment, but we are too broke to do anything. And, given their continued protestations about their financial condition, I suspect this is actually the truth. But you never know unless you ask.

I figured the chance of getting access to the horse trail between KCCA and ROFP was an extreme long shot. That would cost real money and require cooperation with the WCFPD, the landowners, and the horse people, and that is a lot to ask for, and his reply suggested that as well.

I thought there was a better chance that a few rocks might show up in the creek bed down the road that would make it easier for me to cross. They have plenty of rocks.

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