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Outdoor recreation surges at Tahoe amid delays in trail maintenance

Claire McArthur
Tahoe Daily Tribune
Mountain bikers riding the Powerline Trail this week in South Lake Tahoe.
Bill Rozak / Tahoe Daily Tribune

Back in early spring, Cowork Tahoe co-owner David Orr was excited to have earned his avalanche safety certification and hit the backcountry, especially since the resorts had shut down their operations as COVID-19 cases began cropping up around the country.

“It made my family nervous having me out there, and if something did happen, there’s no way to keep your distance during a rescue operation, so I stopped,” said Orr. “In a big way, all of this has impacted how much risk we take. You stick to doing things that you’re comfortable with and not likely to get stranded or injured or need a rescue.”

It’s a sentiment that’s carried over into mountain biking season for Orr, who has noticed a huge increase in people out using the trails.

“From what I can tell, there’s probably 10 times more people on the trails than normal because everybody wants to go outside since we’re all stuck indoors. A lot more people are getting into mountain biking, too,” noted Orr, adding that, in his experience, people have been respectful about moving over to ensure a six-foot buffer when passing.

It’s an observation that’s supported by data from across the country, with sales of bicycles and related services nearly doubling in March compared with the same period last year, according to the market research company N.P.D. Group.

And for the most part, the uptick in outdoor activities is a trend that healthcare experts support during the pandemic. According to Dr. Kandra Yee, Chief of COVID-19 Operations and Medical Director of the Emergency Department at Barton Health, if proper social distancing is practiced, outdoor recreation “poses a relatively low risk of COVID-19 exposure.” “Even outdoors, a person’s risk of exposure to COVID-19 increases if you remain in close physical contact with people for prolonged periods of time,” she warned. “Stay six feet apart from other people and avoid crowded areas.”

Despite this surge in outdoor recreation, the organizations normally out performing maintenance and new construction on the basin’s trail system have experienced setbacks due to the current crisis.

The Tahoe Rim Trail Association recently made the difficult decision to cancel all of its guided hikes and youth programs this summer, and in accordance with the U.S. Forest Service Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit’s restrictions, the association is not performing trail maintenance until the end of June.

“In the beginning we were hopeful that we would be able to have somewhat of a normal summer, but it’s clear that it’s not going to be normal — it’s going to be heavily affected by the new realities we’re facing,” said Chris Bender, deputy director of TRTA. Even when TRTA is able to bring back volunteer work days, they will be on a much smaller scale in order to ensure social distancing. As a result, projects like rehabbing and rerouting sections of the Tahoe Rim Trail near Marlette Lake, Echo Summit and Watson Lake have been delayed.

“Bear with us if you have an experience where you are walking along the trail and have to step over blown down trees every five feet and rock walls that need repair,” said Bender. “There’s nothing that TRTA and its volunteers want to be doing right now more than getting out on the trail and fixing those issues. As soon as it’s safe and prudent to do so, we will be out there.”

Tahoe Area Mountain Biking Association is facing similar setbacks with its trails projects, but they still hope to hold many of their community rides later this summer.

The Tahoe Mountain Bike Fest has been delayed from June 20 – 21 to July 25 – 26, Rose to Toads is still on track for Sept. 6, and the Corral Night Ride is scheduled for Oct. 10.

“We had a number of our big early season work days scheduled that all had to be canceled or postponed. Our current timeline is we’ll resume basic trail maintenance towards the end of June, working on signage, clearing trails, fixing erosion issues, and cutting downed trees,” explained Patrick Parsel, TAMBA trails coordinator. “We’re really hoping in July to get back to some of our bigger projects but with much, much smaller groups, and we’re not going to have the big public work days that we’d normally have and known for.” TAMBA hopes to get a professional crew started on some of their bigger projects later this summer, including the construction of a 2.1-mile trail connecting the Angora Lakes parking area to the Glen Alpine trailhead parking area near Lily Lake.

“We know that during this stressful time there is nothing better than getting out doors and exercising, so we don’t want to discourage that but we want people to do it responsibly. We need to be good stewards of our public lands,” added Parsel.

It’s a sentiment echoed by the Tahoe Climbing Coalition, which for the first two months of the pandemic, advised its members not to go out and climb.

“Currently, we are telling people to be prepared for your plans to not work. Be prepared to show up at a crag, there’s 10 people there, and it’s too impacted and you need to leave,” explained Jen Dawn, TCC board member. They are still asking members to not take unnecessary risks when climbing, added Dawn, and generally local climbers are avoiding popular South Shore spots like Pie Shop and Eagle Falls. Under guidance from the Forest Service, the coalition has postponed their annual cleanup at Eagle Falls, where just last year they cleaned up and packed out roughly 370 pounds of trash.

“This is really going to be our new reality moving forward at least for another year or so,” said Dawn, “so go out prepared, stay close to home, pack everything out, be really conscious of your physical distancing and respect other people’s choices for that.”


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