Every weekend, thousands of Marylanders seeking respite from traffic congestion, thoughtless hordes and noisy neighborhoods strike out for the region's trails where they find more of the same.
In the Baltimore-Washington area, where work and play often are approached with equal intensity and single-mindedness, it's no wonder that conflicts arise over the use of green space.
Along the C&O; Canal towpath in Montgomery County a jogger pulled a gun on a growling, unleashed dog. At Sugarloaf Mountain in Frederick County, two hikers nearly came to blows over a parking space. On the Capital Crescent Trail near Washington, two riders on bicycles without headlights were injured when they collided head-on at night.
"For the most part, it's not intentional," said Officer Lauryn McNeill of the Maryland National Capital Park Police. "People get outside after a week of work and they're in their own little world. They just have their mind on what they have their mind on."
Officers and rangers who patrol the region's wooded paths are, by necessity, becoming arbiters of etiquette.
"I know it's weird in 1998 to have to ask people to be polite," McNeill said. "But that's what it takes."
Hoping to get a jump on a problem that increases in the summer, McNeill and other Park Police officers made their second weekend sweep of Montgomery County trails Saturday armed with a radar gun to persuade in-line skaters and bicyclists to keep their speeds below 25 mph. Police also preached safety and courtesy. Speeding gets you a $15 fine -- $30 if your bike is missing a bell.
"It's a case of you have several modes of transportation and you have many levels of ability sharing a path that's only so wide," explained McNeill.
The problem is exacerbated on the trails that use former rail beds, said Officer Jeff Adcock, who patrols on a mountain bike.
"They're straight, they're flat and they're fast," he said. "People start doing their own little time trial in their heads and they don't want to slow down."
Trouble occurs when a weekend warrior with visions of the Tour de France meets a teetering tyke on his or her first two-wheeler.
zTC Park Police officials are considering lowering the speed limit to 15 mph on weekends and holidays.
National Park Service Ranger Tom Nash and other rangers patrolling the C&O; Canal towpath have started giving $25 tickets to owners of unfettered Fidos that chase wildlife, walkers and horses, and sometimes drown when they chase sticks into the fast-moving Potomac River.
"People know the law because when they see us coming, they get out the leash and snap it on their dogs," Nash said. "We're seeing the same people over and over again."
Rangers will issue warnings first, but a second scolding will most likely mean a ticket, and repeat offenses could lead to a $5,000 fine.
In a recent letter to the National Park Service, a Potomac woman complained of dogs chasing goslings and her: "I've been charged by, and had to defend myself against, an unleashed, snarling dog whose owner shouted from 100 yards away, 'He won't hurt, he's just curious.' "
"Where you have very few people you get very few problems," Nash said. "But in these congested areas, a lot of people means a lot of conflict."
But all is not lost.
Volunteers in Montgomery County and on the 13-mile Baltimore & Annapolis Trail in Anne Arundel County report incidents to the police and conduct safety and education campaigns.
"Our volunteers are our good-will ambassadors," said B&A; Trail Ranger Bob Hicks. "We have a lot of people who use the trail every day and have an investment in its future."
On Saturday, yellow-shirted volunteers in Montgomery County like Chuck Helfer ran alongside joggers to give them safety pamphlets and stopped bicyclists to check helmets.
"When I'm jogging, I'm amazed at what the bikers do and when I'm biking, I'm amazed at what the joggers do," said Helfer. "We all believe we have the one true way to enjoy the outdoors."
Pub Date: 6/08/98