By Becky Lomax
Published in the Whitefish Pilot on February 5, 2014
At the Beaver Lakes Trailhead, Greg Gunderson and David Noftsinger mount new signs on the kiosk. As Jacks-of-all-trades for the Whitefish Trail, the pair don different hats as lead planners, designers, managers, and partner coordinators. They bushwhack to plot trail routes, and they shovel dirt.
Their design work has yielded more than 25 miles of trail for walkers, runners, mountain bikers, and equestrians. Some stretches appeal to families with young tots while other paths challenge bikers with banked turns and rollers.
Since the trail’s early planning days, Gunderson and Noftsinger have sunk their fingers in the dirt. But they met years ago as camp counselors in Minnesota. While Noftsinger migrated to Whitefish after growing up in the steel belt of northeast Ohio, Gunderson returned to his Flathead Valley roots. “The Flathead, with its strong magnetic attraction, pulled me back after college,” Gunderson confesses.
With a penchant for wielding a chainsaw, Gunderson sought to manage forests and lured in Noftsinger with the bait of running a chainsaw in the woods every day. They started up Forestoration, a company that seeks to enhance forest health, wildlife habitat, and recreational opportunities through land use planning and landscape design. In short, they create ways for people to interact with the environment.
Gunderson and Noftsinger now serve as the glue to bind multiple partners into managing and building the Whitefish Trail. They work with Whitefish Legacy Partners, City of Whitefish, Department of Natural Resources and Conservation, US Forest Service, and private landowners to coordinate rights to install the trail.
Their trail designing starts with pioneering the woods. They go where no trails exist, combing through brush or cliffs for the best route. “We microsite every five feet of trail to find the sweet spot for everyone,” Noftsinger explains. “It’s at the nexus of art and science.” That attention to detail carves trails around forest gifts: a centuries-old larch, a lichen-crusted boulder, a patch of yellow arrowleaf balsamroot, or a moss and mushroom garden.
The two agree on their favorite trail section—Swift Creek. Noftsinger adores the “magical forest” of massive shade-producing larch, ponderosa, and spruce. For Gunderson, Swift Creek reminds him of Glacier National Park with its old growth conifers and gushing river.
The design difficulty entails satisfying all user groups who have varied travel modes. “We lay one ribbon across the landscape, but it has to appeal to horse riders, grandparents walking with grandkids, and bikers,” describes Gunderson. Each group uses the trail in divergent manners. Amblers explore more slowly than exercise walkers, runners less fast than mountain bikers. “You’re either up or down and at different speeds with different trajectories,” Noftsinger adds. Those differences demand inclusive designs.
As trail users themselves, Gunderson and Noftsinger run, walk, and bike the paths to feel what works and what doesn’t. That intimate, foot-on-dirt approach aids their design work, which has evolved since the first trail segments on Lion Mountain. “Because the trail is a multi-year project, we can study how people use the trails and make design tweaks,” says Gunderson.
Future portions of the Whitefish Trail pose design hurdles, including creeks and railroad tracks. Currently, they are piecing together the Swift Creek to Big Mountain segment, which demands crossing Hellroaring Creek and working with multiple land managers including the USFS, DNRC, and Stoltze, as well as private landowners.
Despite their trail design skills, both men pass praise on to the terrain. Noftsinger credits the landscape with producing enjoyable results: “In a way, we’re just connecting the dots because the forest provides such cool spots.”