Volunteers work to improve trails at Clear Springs

from left, Zack McRaney, Janet Bishoff and John Gianbrone.

If you think riding a mountain bike on the hilly trails of Clear Springs Recreation Area is tough, imagine pushing a lawn mower down them. Or swinging a Kaiser blade. Or moving fallen trees.

That’s what volunteers have been doing lately on the Homochitto National Forest trail system.

Located west of Bude off Highway 84, the system used to include three trail loops: 11-mile Tally Creek, 10-mile Richardson Creek and 6-mile Mill Branch. But over the years the Forest Service shut down Tally and Mill Branch, citing a shortage of funds to maintain them, especially after wooden bridges rotted.

Enter Zack McRaney, 39, of Collins. He noticed comments about the trails on a Forest Service Facebook page and decided to get involved.

“I put it out there, got a lot of encouragement,” said McRaney, a mountain biker by hobby and petroleum land man by profession.

The first work day was in September. A dozen people put in over 60 man hours to clear seven miles of the Richardson Creek Trail.

McRaney held a second work day last Saturday. But the night before saw heavy rains locally, and elsewhere people had probably been up late watching Friday night football. Bottom line, only two others showed up: John Gianbrone of Napoleonville, La., and Janet Bishoff of Florence.

“I love this place. I love these trails,” said Gianbrone, 53, a mountain biker and school teacher.

Camping at Clear Springs Rec Area has been a family tradition for 20 years. The trail closings “hurt a lot,” he said.

He’d been doing some trail clearing on his own when he heard about McRaney’s effort.

“I do a lot of weed-eating,” Gianbrone said, referring to a swing blade. “I always come and do trail work myself.”

Bishoff, a hiker who is also a school teacher, saw McRaney’s notice after joining the Mississippi Hiking Club.

“It takes man hours to keep it up,” she said of the trail system.

McRaney reports progress at the Clear Springs Trail System — Homochitto National Forest Facebook page. He’s in the process of organizing an IMBA/SORBA chapter that would include Clear Springs, Mount Zion, Hattiesburg and Petal biking trails. Chapter status would make their efforts official and help in securing grants.

IMBA stands for International Mountain Bicycling Association. SORBA is Southern Off-Road Bicycle Association. Membership is $39 a year for individuals, $50 for families.

On Saturday, the trio showed up on a damp, chilly morning with a variety of hand tools plus a couple of self-propelled walk-behind mowers.

“Just a throwaway $100 push mower,” McRaney said of his.

Gianbrone’s was about the same.

McRaney and Gianbrone looked over maps to plan the morning’s work. About then, the Clear Springs campground hostess, “Miss Virginia,” rode up on a golf cart.

“These are wonderful people,” she said of the volunteers.

Miss Virginia, who doesn’t give out her last name, has been hostess here for six years. Born and raised in the Army, of which she is also a veteran, she’s “been everywhere twice,” she quipped.

“This is what the parks are supposed to be, not parking lots,” she said of Clear Springs.

“It is one of the best parks in the United States, and I’ve been to all of them.”

But the U.S. Forest Service can’t take care of everything on its own.

“We need volunteers, we really do,” she said. “Budgets are being cut and cut and cut.”

A car pulled up and John and Susan Thompson of Jackson emerged for a day-hike.

“These are great trails,” John said. “We camp at the campground over here.”

Susan pulled out her phone to show a photo of a large timber rattlesnake they ran across on one February hike.

“My dog and I walked right past it,” John said, noting the snake — which they left alone — had about a dozen rattles.

Enough chit-chat. Time to work.

Gianbrone set out alone for a stretch of Richardson not far from the trailhead.

McRaney and Bishoff took muddy gravel Forest Service roads around to connect with another stretch.

McRaney parked and they put on blaze orange vests. He manhandled his mower out of the truck while Bishoff grabbed a set of pruners.

Toting a red gas can in one hand, McRaney pushed the mower down a grassy lane a quarter mile through the woods before intersecting the trail.

A white oak tree had recently fallen across it, but McRaney won’t be able to use a chainsaw on national forest land until he gets certification, which he plans to do soon.

In the meantime he fired up the mower and set off down the trail cutting grass, while Bishoff followed picking up sticks.

Bishoff had this parting request: “Come enjoy the trail and mash it down, because we need foot traffic now.”

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