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Hug a Trail Troll

If you ride public trails, you've likely met one. Perhaps the most misunderstood, underappreciated character in your local trail organization, the Trail Troll walks a fine line. This person positions themselves as vitally important to the efforts of the group, while at the same time behaving and interacting in ways that sour the experience of being in the forest.

The vicious cycle of giving all they possibly can to the trails, and alienating themselves in the process is both tragic and predictable.


As a former President of a trail association, and a board member going on 15 years, I've watched friends, and fellow volunteers slowly devolve into Troll status many times over the years. It's as sad as it is preventable.


Seeing the patterns that repeat themselves, organizers that notice are put in a difficult position. Stopping the cycle takes a strong, organized, and compassionate group of people to save the community loads of time and trauma. It takes a dedicated, long-term approach to keep the most passionate volunteer from becoming the next Trail Troll.


So how can you identify a Trail Troll?


The first tip-off is their demeanor. They'll be working the trail when you ride by, and make a sarcastic comment like;

"Sure would be nice to have some help around here,"

or

"Our next build day is this next weekend if you want to help out."


At first, it's subtle. A thin veil of guilt pulled over an opportunity to help out. The callout, for not being there by their side, makes a trail user feel slightly guilty for not "putting in the time" as the Troll does. At first, these comments served to people just riding the trails, do little damage, but they do get into the psyche of the trail user, leaving a bad taste after the ride is over.


After a few encounters the Troll becomes more bold with their sarcasm.


"I'm out here every week, sweating and bleeding for this place so that you can have somewhere to ride. The least you can do is carry this piece of lumber up to the work site for me."


"There's four of you, if you all drop your bikes and help, we can get this PT 4x10 down to the work site in one go, so I don't have to cut it into pieces."


"If you're not gonna show up to a build day, the least you could do is...."


As time progresses, the Troll gets more bitter and more bold with the comments, until nobody wants to be around them because they're such a downer. Attendance to trail work days peeters out, as locals avoid interaction and encounters with the Troll. Eventually, the usage of the trails begins to reflect the general disdain and avoidance by local riders who are at this point getting tired of being belittled. Wanting to avoid the Troll, people who would be attending trail workdays instead take it upon themselves to bring their own tools, or find some on-site, and work on the trails under the radar of the association. Riders, feeling the pressure, avoid the areas they know the Troll will be, and find other places to enjoy their mountain bikes.


The Troll, recognizing that people are avoiding them, begins to give more, usually in the form of personal resources. It is in this way, that they bolster their defenses. If the Troll has donated X amount of personal resources to the collective good, then how dare anybody say anything negative about them? It's pretty hard to criticize someone for their behavior when they have been overly generous, without being viewed as an asshole. How dare anyone call out the Troll for driving people away when they've given so much?

It is by giving all they can, and arguably more than they should or need to, that they entrench and anchor themselves in place. Once they have established themselves as the "Most dedicated," they can say and do as they please, without having to worry about being challenged.

I remember getting a phone call from a friend who was at one point, a "Regular suspect" at our local trails, and had decided that he couldn't take it any longer.

"I'm done man, I can't go back there. I don't want to run into him."

Another time, a fellow trail builder painted an image in my memory of a dark cloud hanging over the mountain whenever a certain individual was on the hill doing trail work.


The cost of this toxic energy is a classic catch-22 situation. The more contact this person has with the community, the more likely user engagement and trail use will decline. However, because the Troll is so dedicated and feels responsible for the state of the trails, operations keep slogging on, often with some great work getting done.


So if work is still getting done, and the community can still use the resource, then is there a problem?


Exodus

I have witnessed, on a few occasions, a mass exodus of community members due to conflict between the trail organization and the Troll. This usually occurs when a Troll is removed from a position, or denied an opportunity, and as a result, their tribe follows them as they storm away.


The small band of followers that often group around a Troll may spend almost as much time and personal energy as the Troll. Despite their loyalty, these individuals are reasonable people and are routinely called upon to reason with the Troll on behalf of the association. However, when it comes down to it their tribe will likely walk when and if the Troll is removed by the Board of Directors.


When this exodus happens, the association is left to fill the positions all at once, an often impossible task. The burden of keeping up the trails then falls on the few people still around and morally invested.


Liability

When leading volunteers, the Troll will ask unreasonable things of other volunteers that are unsafe, overly strenuous, and risky. I've seen backs thrown out, and lumber dropped on heads as a direct result of unreasonable efforts encouraged by the Troll. Granted, trail building is a somewhat risky endeavor, especially when chainsaws and structures are involved, and not everyone takes the use of PPE seriously. What I'm trying to capture here is situations where the person in charge is a bully, doesn't consider the risks of pushing people to their limits, and the safety of the volunteers becomes compromised as a result.


Sustainability

The most influential factor in the sustainability of a trail is usage. If a trail doesn't get used, it will be taken back by the forest.

Imagine you're out for the first time in weeks, climbing up your local route, and you round the corner to see the Troll, sitting by his loaded wheelbarrow. You climb past, and wave, and before you are out of earshot, the Troll grunts sarcastically "Thanks for the help!!"

You are just out for a ride and now you feel like a jerk.

This is not the energy that makes people want to get involved and help the efforts of the trail organization. The opposite usually is true, it makes people think of where else they can go to avoid such encounters.

Tires on dirt are what keep trails open, more than anything else. And if your tires are going elsewhere, the sustainability will suffer.


So how do we, as a community, foster an environment that keeps dedicated volunteers from devolving into Trolls?


First of all, don't stop going to the trails. It may be tough to stick it out, but your tires will help keep trails open if you go and ride your bike on said trails. You may feel guilty, like you have a responsibility to give back, to do your part, to give the trail builders a hand. Let me tell you, you don't have any responsibility in that department. That is why the association exists, and involvement is appreciated, but if all you can or want to manage is riding, then, by all means, do it and don't feel bad.


Secondly, be direct and honest with others when you encounter or endure unacceptable behavior, especially the person whom you have the issue with. If you feel belittled, bullied, antagonized, or bothered by a person who represents an organization, you probably aren't the first one. Standing up for yourself will help others that come after you.

Avoiding the Troll, and telling other people about the problem will further alienate them, and make the whole situation worse.

Don't tell the Troll you'll come to the next build session and then ghost. This will make the Troll extremely bitter. If you don't want to come to a work party because the Troll and their tribe are always leading the work, send this feedback via email to the board of directors, privately. They need to hear it.

If you notice a Troll is sad or angry-looking, say thank you, and offer them a hug for their pain and suffering. Despite their gruff attitude and general grumpiness, they are people too, and most of the time they just want someone to recognize that they are giving a lot of themselves to take care of the trails that you are riding.


An offer to take a picture of them with their work and showcase them on your social media page can also be an effective olive branch.


Whatever you do, consider what they've given when they seem a bit grumpy and act with compassion rather than resentment. If you can do that, you just might save the Troll and everyone around them a lot of grief.








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