RTC's Trailblazer Society: Experiencing the Impact of Trails

Posted 12/11/14 by Orhan Belding in Building Trails

On the Walkway Over the Hudson: RTC staff members Orhan Belding and Katie Harris with Fred Schaeffer, Bill Steinhaus and a group of RTC Trailblazers. | Photo by Fred Schaeffer

It’s a fall Sunday morning, and the sunlight is sifting through the clouds and hills above the Hudson River in Poughkeepsie, N.Y. My colleague and I are standing with several members of RTC’s Trailblazer Society, listening to 2013 Rail-Trail Champion Fred Schaeffer give a rich history of the now famous Walkway Over the Hudson, which we’re standing on.

From atop a park bench, he leads us through a daring story of how, before the renovation, he and his son would venture out across the spindly trestles and crumbling lumber of the then-abandoned Poughkeepsie Bridge to experience the incredible view. This was before the walkway existed. Now, years later, thanks to Fred’s vision and dedicated organizing, the dilapidation is gone—replaced by a solid concrete decking—and the beautiful steel cantilever span and incredible view are safely open to the public.

In Baltimore, Md.'s Druid Hill Park, RTC's Jim Brown talks about the connectivity of the local trail system with a Trailblazer group. | Photo by Rails-to-Trails Conservancy/Orhan Belding

As manager of RTC’s Trailblazer Society (TBS), I’ve gotten to experience several truly special moments like this—and I’m always moved by the personal stories of triumph I hear. TBS members are a special group of leading supporters at RTC, and invitations to Trailblazer bicycle rides are a special benefit that enables them to see firsthand the impact they help make possible.

Rides are hosted several times a year around the country to spotlight outstanding trails and emerging routes, and the people who create them. How does a trail go from vision to reality? What are the roadblocks along the way? How are my membership dollars helping? Trailblazer rides answer these questions and more by bringing in local trail advocates like Schaeffer, who discuss the histories of these pathways and how they have become ingrained in their community.  

On that beautiful fall day, our group covered three outstanding segments of trail in the Hudson Valley, but what made this outing really special was the “peek behind the curtain” of the trail-building process—the politics, activism, choices on materials, community responses and local impact.

We heard from Bill Steinhaus, Dutchess County executive during the development of both the Walkway and adjoining Dutchess County Rail Trail. Talking of the Dutchess, Steinhaus shared how a route once planned to be a road became the active trail that has boosted property values and quality of life. We also connected with founders of the neighboring Hudson Valley Rail Trail (located west of the Walkway in Ulster County), Ray and Claire Constantino, about how their trail was funded largely by a fortuitous real estate opportunity, and brought eagerly anticipated recreational and transportation options for locals and many visitors. And we saw how the rail-trail sparked more local pride and preservation of its heritage, being among the first to visit the newly restored Hopewell Depot at the trail's end.

The experience provided deep connections to the work that went into creating these rail-trails and an understanding of RTC’s role in these projects and their future.

Trailblazer rides are one of RTC’s key programs for connecting our leading supporters to the planning, creativity, dedication, resources and people behind landmark trails around the country. Past rides include an exploration of some of the Circuit’s urban segments in Philadelphia, Pa., a bike cruise through the growing El Rio Trail in Boca Raton, Fla., and a trip to explore the new connections for the urban trail network in Baltimore, Md.

Rides for 2015 are listed here.

It’s a privilege to be able to visit these sites and hear from local activists who drive and maintain such valuable routes. These trails are a legacy for the individuals who fought for them, the communities that use them daily and the generous, forward-thinking folks who support this work financially. We hope our members feel that in every mile. I hope we’ll have a chance to visit a trail near you soon.

If you are interested in learning more about RTC’s Trailblazer Society, please visit RTC’s Trailblazer Society Web page or email Orhan Belding at orhan@railstotrails.org.

comments powered by Disqus