Mountain Biking

Mountain bike and hiking trail opens by Plymouth. So begins the new Marshall County parks. – South Bend Tribune

Emily and Eric Howard’s 3-year-old wants to come ride the new trail with them just south of Plymouth, barely a week after its Memorial Day grand opening. Loving that spirit — but sorry kiddo, also being realistic — the Plymouth couple places their two young kids with the babysitter and sneaks their own mountain bikes out to the new 2.9 miles of dirt.

As they finish late Friday afternoon, Jason Palmateer of Walkerton stops between mountain biking laps and, like them, comments, “It’s just nice to have something local.”

Runners and hikers, too, have discovered they can stomp it in reverse order, though it was built for pedaling through switchbacks, twists and surprising elevation changes.

“Every time I’m out there, I see new people,” says volunteer and trail conceiver Brandon Calhoun, who testifies that the closest mountain bike trails to his home are more than a half-hour’s drive away.

A destination? Well, the Mill Pond Trail may pose a long trip for others in Michiana who enjoy closer access to longer, more developed mountain bike trails. But this may pair well as a dual adventure. It’s just a half mile from a boat ramp onto Mill Pond, where you could paddle a chain of four lakes with a mix of homes and natural shorelines. Or it could easily be a stop along the way to Culver’s large and popular Lake Maxinkuckee.

Thanks to volunteers, the Mill Pond Trail is also a free jump start to a brand new Marshall County parks department. Although all of its neighbors to the north have one, this county has lacked a county parks department — a need that came to light through Indiana’s Stellar Communities program to boost and grow small communities. So, county officials formed a parks board of five volunteers more than a year ago.

Meanwhile, Calhoun was mushroom hunting in spring 2020 when he spied a mowed, 2-track path into some woods. His mountain-biking eyes widened. With a quick look at online maps, he found it was county property. Later that week, he read about the new parks board, then pitched the idea of a wooded trail at the first parks board meeting. He tapped a local riding buddy of 20 years, Jeff Houin, and invited a volunteer from the Northern Indiana Mountain Bike Association to take a look and tell them, “Do we have something here?”

After all, Houin recalls riding the school bus past these 35 acres of woods, always assuming it to be a “swampy area by the woods.”

“I told him (Calhoun) that he was crazy,” Houin recalls. “I didn’t realize there was so much elevation change. I’m glad I was wrong.”

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Indeed, it had the right soils for firm riding and varying elevations to make it intriguing. By fall, the parks board formed a trail committee and gave its blessing for the new trail. Learning as they went about trail building, Calhoun and Houin pulled in Rich Zeigler, who’d helped with much different mountain bike trails on Pennsylvania’s rocky terrain. They started to mark their route. As promised, they would do all of the building and fundraising.

The county had bought the woods in 1953. In recent decades, an experienced forester has managed a selective timber harvesting program. The forester, who retired a few years ago, showed that it’s possible to yield more money from smart timber sales, held every 15 years, than from leasing land for farming, says Adam Thada, the parks board’s trails committee point person, who also works as an ecologist for the Poor Handmaids of Jesus Christ, an order of Catholic nuns based in Donaldson, here in Marshall County.

Thada says the trail fits a real need but is also “low impact” and “well thought out.”

The length may be modest, but it’s worth circling through more than once, suited to basic and intermediate skills. Enter under a string of multi-colored flags and find one of the more than 60 trail markings — that’s a lot, but the brown signs do a nice job of eliminating any confusion with crossing trails. They’re marked for both bikers and trail runners/walkers, who go in the opposite direction.

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The trail soon leads to an S-curved switchback through a clearing under a powerline – a downhill swoop where you’d either brake or, if confident, let speed propel you back into the woods. You will roll over or jump from a ramp made with soil. You’ll ride over an 80-foot “boardwalk” that volunteers had to build over mucky soil (Zeigler says a recent rain taught them how drainage can mess with a trail).

You’ll pass through a stand of pine trees with a few low, white native wildflowers that may be the June-July bloomer known as white avens. You’ll squeeze through a “V” formation in a tree. You can opt to ride a narrow flat edge chopped into a log. You can also opt to roll along a short pump track or swish through the quick turns of the so-called “Bobsled.”

Like any new trail, it needs more riding and hiking to smooth it out.

Volunteers do plan to expand, hoping to add up to a couple of miles of trail. When fall comes, they plan to scope out an expansion into woods across the powerline. Houin says they hope to turn one trail, to be known as “The Chairlift,” as a hub where you could climb to a high point, then pick one of a few descents for different skill levels.

Parking is on grass that a neighbor mows in the powerline clearing, with room for about 20 cars. An Eagle Scout plans to build a trail kiosk, he says.

So far, volunteers have done all of the labor. They raised $1,400 for the trails signs and secured lumber that a contractor donated for the boardwalk.

Now, Thada says, this new parks board – lacking any staff, programs or budget for now — must see which other public desires to pursue. Notably, they include possibly relocating and restoring a cabin from the 1800s, along with improving boat access to the Yellow River. Surveyed residents ranked trails as the county’s top park-related need.

Aside from the Mill Pond woods, the parks board also oversees the 76-acre Marshall County Memorial Forest, now without any trails, north of Culver. The parks board recently finished a 5-year master plan that will open up the chance for state grants.

For now, the windfall of Mill Pond volunteers are proving that the trail was worth it — and wanted.

Plymouth trail

Directions: The Mill Pond trail is at 12511 Rose Road, Plymouth. From South Bend, take U.S. 31 just south of Plymouth. Turn west on 13th Road. After 6.4 miles, turn right on Rose Road. Just past a campground, follow a left turn and immediately look for a powerline clearing in woods on the right. There isn’t a sign, but turn early onto the grass and drive up to parking on grass. Look for the trailhead sign. No, there isn’t a potty.

Mill Pond boat ramp: From the mountain bike trail, follow Rose Road further to the west and north for a half mile. It’s a basic concrete ramp. You can paddle Mill Pond and use channels to connect to the north to Kreighbaum Lake and to the east to Cook and Holem lakes.

Facebook: Find trail updates at “TrailsatMillPond.”

Marshall County parks board: Link to its webpage and master plan in this column online.

Outdoor activities

Night rides: LaPorte hosts the first of three summer night bike rides Friday at the Dennis F. Smith Amphitheater in Fox Park, 116 W. McClung Road. Cost is $20-$30. Check in at 8 p.m. CDT. Register at https://bit.ly/3g5R5LZ.

Music under stars: Listen to the percussion and vocals of Dede Alder and the violin and viola of Josh Holcomb outside at 8 p.m. Friday at T.K. Lawless County Park, 15122 Monkey Run St., Vandalia. Then stargaze until midnight with guidance at this dark-sky park. In case of rain or clouds, the event will shift to Saturday. Admission is $2-$3. Donations accepted for the music.

Follow the South Bend Tribune’s Outdoor Adventures columnist Joseph Dits on Facebook at SBTOutdoorAdventures.