A small group of volunteers armed with clippers, weed-eaters, a chain saw and even a riding lawn mower gathered at the Kowomu Trail in Union Mills on a recent Sunday morning to work on three equestrian trails leading from the Kowomu Trail Road parking lot.
"We do this two times a year," said Jessica Dustin, who coordinated the April 27 cleanup for the Carroll County Equestrian Council. "We come to clean brush and tall weeds and fallen trees off the trails," she said, noting that a trail cleanup usually lasts about three hours.
"This winter has been bad," Dustin said. "We've seen a lot of damage to our trails."
The work on the Kowomu trails was one of many cleanups throughout the county on the equestrian council's ongoing schedule and they are always looking for volunteers.
"I want access to that land," said Carolyn Garber, who has been a member of the equestrian council since 1985 and is currently its secretary. "I enjoy being outside and being able to see things in nature in their natural setting, and if we don't keep the trails open and safe to get in and out those opportunities are lost. You see things on horseback when you are quietly riding that you just don't get to see otherwise. I love it. It's my backyard and I want to make sure everybody can enjoy it." She chuckled. "I'm begging for help where ever I can."
Shirlyn Evans-Ford came to the trail cleanup with friend Marilyn Cross and Cross' husband Paul. Evans-Ford said she and Marilyn Cross try to ride weekly and this is their favorite trail. "There are several stream crossings, wooded trails, open trails for trotting and cantering, varying terrain and hills good for conditioning the horses," she said. "We are extremely grateful for the proximity and quality of parks open for horseback riding in our county and want to be good stewards of the land that we are using."
"We use these trails and we want to help take care of them," Marilyn Cross said. Her husband does not ride, but supports his wife's hobby, so he came to help clear brush, too.
"He indulges me and he's a good sport," she said of why her husband came, tools in hand. "Happy wife, happy life," she said with a smile.
Dustin's husband Mike was there, too, mowing the picnic area and the field surrounding the parking lot.
"Many [horseback] riders clear problems from the trails whenever they're out on their regular rides," Jessica Dustin said. "There are a lot of unsung heroes that work out here on a weekly basis."
As the volunteers worked, a horse trailer pulled in, one of two that would arrive - two women meeting at the trail for a weekend ride.
"I didn't know there was a trail cleanup," Sharon Huskey said, "or I would have planned to help." While waiting for her friend Sharon Couch to arrive, she pitched in, clearing brush around the parking lot.
"It is beautiful, just wonderful that they come out and do this," Sharon Huskey said. "If nobody did this we would be fighting tall grass, ticks and brush. Now, I can ride instead of spending all my time trimming."
It wasn't long until Sharon Couch arrived to join her friend for a ride on a blue-sky day. "It means a lot to me that they do this," she said of the cleanup crew. "If it wasn't for them I wouldn't be able to ride and I try to get out here every weekend except for the winter."
A bit later both women unloaded their horses and headed down the trail. Sharon Huskey held up a pair of clippers as she went, vowing to clear any problems she found on the ride.
At day's end Marilyn Cross said they'd found the trails in better shape than she'd expected, but then she found out Mike and Jessica Dustin had come out earlier in the month with a skid loader and chain saws.
"We just pushed things off a bit more and trimmed off the eye pokers," Marilyn Cross said of their morning work.
Garber said they hold four or even five cleanups a year at the Morgan Run trail system. "The growth of the multiflora rose, brambles, briars and invasive species make it so we have to keep those trails mowed and trimmed to keep them from becoming single-track trails that are not safe," she said.
"We have walkers, birdwatchers, hunters and fishermen using our trails, too," Garber said, adding that some trail systems also see mountain bikers. "We are always trying to generate interest in the stewardship of these trails," she said. "The best way you can help is to pick a trail system that you love, come to a trail work day and make a difference."