The Joy of Undocumented Trails

On the weekend we were hiking near the Lime Kiln and came across a trail that I was unaware of. We had skied or snowshoed along this route but thought it was just a winter route. Both ends of it are fairly well hidden so it was a fluke that we found it without tracks in the snow.

That, and the fact that I was exploring some other undocumented trails behind Stittsville last week, got me thinking about undocumented trails.

So what are undocumented trails. Well the simplest definition is trails without maps, or at least without official maps.

An internet search could not find any maps of, or references to, the Stittsville trails that I explored so I feel confident in considering them to be undocumented.

The trail near the Lime Kiln fits that description as it is not on the NCC official trail map. Neither is the one kilometre technical trail that is known to mountain bikers as the Lime Kiln Trail, although it was on an earlier version of the NCC map as an unnamed trail. The NCC designates the wide trail from parking lot P10 to Richmond Road as the “Lime Kiln Trail”.

Personally, one of the biggest joys of undocumented trails, besides riding an unknown trail for the first time and not knowing what I will find, is documenting them. I have always had a thing about maps and the ability to actually become a map maker is really rewarding. So I have spent the last few biking seasons starting to map all the western greenbelt trails. It is currently a work in progress. I plan to move my maps to a new home and add trail descriptions and eventually photographs. Watch for an announcement in the next few weeks.

Undocumented trails tend to be unofficial trails that were not planned, or built by, any official entity but created by trail users.

An architect once proposed that when designing open spaces pathways should not be planned in advance. Rather the space should be left open for users to walk across and the users of the space will create paths where they are best suited. The designers would then build the pathways were the users have walked.

In many ways that principle can be applied to trails. Often the users know best. Certainly the greenbelt is full of unofficial user created trails and these are some of the best trails in the system. Surprisingly the National Capital Commission (NCC), known for being overly bureaucratic, does not appear to have made any effort to close such trails, even placing signposts on some in the Old Quarry area.

However, the City of Ottawa, during the South March Highlands (SMH) Management Plan process, has proposed that many of the existing “unofficial” trails in the SMH be closed as part of the process of legitimizing the trail system. As far as I know, none of the closures are for specific environmental reasons but more a matter of rationalizing the trail system.

If past experience is any indicator I think it will be difficult to convince users to stop using trails they have used for years. I suspect the city hopes that user groups that have been involved in the SMH management plan process will try to convince their members not to use the closed trails. It remains to be seen how they will respond. So far it appears that everyone, including the city, consultants and user groups have been acting in good faith during this process and I believe the city hopes users groups will feel they have enough “ownership” of the result to support it. The fact is that most trail users, whether they are hikers, mountain bikers, or cross country skiers do not belong to organized groups, and those that do are not necessarily going to do their groups bidding.

Perhaps the best policy for the city to pursue would be to leave the trail system the way it has naturally evolved except for measures to address specific environmental concerns or improve the sustainability of the trail system.

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