The sprawling forest, dense tree canopies and narrow, rugged trails that attract mountain bikers to Murphy-Hanrehan Park Reserve in Savage also can create dangerous challenges for first responders, local officials said in recent weeks.

“Obviously, we have a lot of mountain bikers in the community, which we are happy to report because it’s a great park for health and wellness,” Savage Fire Chief Joel McColl said.

However, the activity brings risks that McColl said he hopes all park visitors are aware of. Incident data from the past five years show the fire department has been called to park rescues about two or three times annually, often for broken collar bones or lower extremities.

It’s a relatively low number, but the park is home to over 10 miles of narrow, dirt trails for off-road cyclists that can be difficult to navigate by foot. The trails are maintained by trail volunteers with the Minnesota Off-Road Cyclists organization.

Brandon Gallagher Watson serves on the group’s board.

“The risks are part of the sport,” he said. “The risk of mountain biking is partly what makes it fun and exciting, and most riders these days — if you’re going to be out by yourself — take safety as a serious consideration.”

One challenge, then another

McColl said mountain bikers are usually well-oriented with the park and able to give dispatch information about nearby trail markers. Each trail marker is best reached by a particular park access point. However, McColl said responders usually need to rely on cellphone pings to get to the general area of the injured person.

Having a map of trails might seem like a solution to these challenges, but McColl said that walking the trails while trying to follow a map is much harder than it might seem.

Reaching the injured person is the first challenge, but McColl said figuring out how to get the patient out of the woods safely is the hardest part.

“It’s very difficult to walk on that narrow path,” McColl said. “It’s very time-consuming and labor-intensive.”

He said the average person weighs around 175 pounds. Most injured individuals requiring 911 assistance need to be carried out on a backboard, but the trails are too narrow for first responders to walk on either side of the board.

“We also have to be extremely cautious that we don’t cause additional injuries while trying to maneuver up and down the hills,” he said.

The additional strain on the first responders means they must rotate as they make their way out of the woods. Sometimes, they walk around a quarter-mile carrying the backboard.

To aid in rescues, Three Rivers Park District, which owns Murphy-Hanrehan Park Reserve, keeps some specialized emergency equipment at stations within the park.

McColl said that fire personnel have occasionally experienced injuries to their backs and ankles, but no major injuries related to a rescue have been reported.

“We want to encourage everyone to utilize the trail systems and we want them to enjoy them, but they have to also understand when they are putting themselves into that situation that it’s not going to be an immediate response,” he said.

Minimal impact

Back when the trails were being designed, McColl said first responders requested the trails be made wide enough for all-terrain vehicles, but they were told that wide trails would defeat the purpose of mountain biking.

Single-track trails are designed for minimal environmental impact, Gallagher Watson said. The dirt strips that weave through the forest are roughly 12” inches wide.

One of the park’s single-track trails, known as the bird loop, is a great case study for how bikers and environmentalists work together, Gallagher Watson said.

The bird loop is lined with a tree species that attracts warblers during nesting season. Trail designers worked with an ornithologist to determine the timeframe of warbler activity. The trail is open seasonally and otherwise gated shut to avoid disrupting the bird’s migratory patterns.

“I would definitely not be into a sport that is destructive to the forest,” said Gallagher Watson, who works as an arborist.

Off-Road Cyclists member Brian Vaughn said ridges and loose rock at Murphy-Hanrehan make it one of the best mountain biking spots in the area. He said that new trails are often made by machines that strip the ground of its natural features.

“You want to keep the trail as narrow as possible,” he said. “The wider it gets, you have more erosion and you’re taking yourself away from the environment. A trail wide enough for an ATV means cutting down trees, moving stuff away, and it hurts the environment.”

Gallagher Watson carries a first aid kit and cellphone in his backpack and always lets his wife know where he’ll be biking. He said of the best ways for a rider to prevent serious injury is to ride at his or her skill level.

He said mountain bikers are apt to take more risks when riding in groups, but biking is usually a solitary activity, leading to more precautions.

McColl said park visitors should study the quickest paths out of the park and avoid going to the park alone. However, Gallagher Watson said the solitude of a solo ride through the woods is a major draw to the sport.

“You can show up and there will be 25 cars in the parking lot, and you don’t see another person on the trail,” he said. “It feels like you have the park to yourself.”

Vaughn tends to ride alone early in the morning but said there are certain features of the trail he won’t ride when he’s alone. The park’s wooden step-bridge and balance beam features, called skinnies, are built on the trails to test biker’s technical riding skills.

“There’s something about just being out in nature and not having to worry about the rest of the world,” Vaughn said.

Vaughn said that Murphy-Hanrehan is a great spot for mountain bikers up for a challenge, but built-in safety features called qualifiers help riders distinguish between beginner and advanced trails. Qualifiers are essentially obstacles that bikers need to cross to access advanced trails, which requires bikers to slow down and realize they are moving onto something new.

Gallagher Watson and Vaughn both say they’ve been injured from mountain biking crashes but have never needed 911 assistance. Even with a broken bone or cuts requiring stitches, they were able to get themselves out. McColl said that’s fortunately true for most injured park-goers.

Christine Schuster is a reporter for the Savage Pacer.

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