Early history of the trail and Michelle Estates
The John Jay Community trail history goes back to late 1970’s and early 1980’s. Mark Patek was on the Lewisboro Conservation Advisory Council (CAC) in the 1970’s when first Lewisboro trails committee was established as a responsibility of the CAC.
Boy Scout leaders including Les Elam and Norm Feige (who had an engineering business in Katonah) and other scout leaders had mapped out a trail (really a way to hike) from Goldens Bridge to Vista via John Jay High School, Lewisboro Town Park and Pound Ridge Reservation. The scout leaders got permission from homeowners for a once a year hike which usually included camping overnight in Pound Ridge Reservation or at the top of the Town Park.
As the leader of the first trails committee, Mark Patek worked with Fred Cowles to use Norm Feige’s maps — which were mainly property zoning maps with trails drawn on them — to gather information about open spaces and trail possibilities and easements. Norm also used large aerial photos taken every 10 years which were available from Westchester County. This is before Google earth and the ready availability of satellite imagery.
Norm’s son Eric Feige attended John Jay High School and became a cross country runner. Eric cleared his own trail from his home on Ridgefield Avenue to the high school and ran to school from there. (Mark’s note: Eric Feige was an Eagle Scout who went to West Point and was on their orienteering team. He is a former member of the Alaska House of Representatives http://www.akleg.gov/basis/mbr_bio.asp?id=704.) Eric remembers the trails behind the high school well. “When I started on the cross country team in 1975 the lower fields [now called the pit field] didn’t exist — there were just trails. By the 1976 season the woods had been cleared and practice fields for the football team had been created.”
The CAC tried to get formal approvals from owners to establish a permanent trail. The CAC was successful in obtaining a trail license from Mrs. Lambert who was the owner of the land which later was sold and became Michele Estates. The Lambert house is the big farmhouse just north of JJHS where the road goes into Michele Estates. The name of the main road of Michelle Estates, Lambert Ridge, bears her family name.
By 1986, the Michele Estates development was laid out and was beginning to be built. Norm Feige, who had become chairman of the CAC, along with CAC members Jim Nordgren and Dan Welsh, managed to obtain the trail easements in Michele Estates for the town during the planning process. This was tremendous foresight. Even though the trails were not built for over 25 years, the easement was permanent.
2012-2015 “The Beginning”
The recent story of the John Jay Community Trail — as it has come to be — began in the Summer of 2012. Mark Patek, still a South Salem resident and now chairperson of the Lewisboro CAC working with the Lewisboro Open Space and Preserves Advisory Committee (OSPAC), was retiring and moving away from Lewisboro.
Over the years CAC and OSPAC had worked on many projects large and small in Lewisboro. One of the largest projects undertaken was the Open Space Inventory. CAC members Ed Wickersham, George Scott, and others worked to get a comprehensive listing of the open spaces in Lewisboro. Some of these inventoried properties later became parks like the Leon Levy Preserve, while others involved trail easements and obtaining development rights to properties in order to preserve them in their natural state.
Mark took the projects he was involved with and split them into pieces to be given out to the members of CAC and OSPAC after he moved. Cross River resident Mark Gordon got the boxed up archive that included the Michelle Estates open space information.
The town had envisioned developing trails through the Michelle Estates HOA on the multiple parcels of land which were available via deeded right. In developing an open space inventory for Lewisboro in 2000, Mark and members of CAC and OSPAC were aware of these parcels and the town rights to use them. But no trails had been developed to date.
When Mark Gordon came home with the box from Mark Patek in 2012, his son David Gordon — who was then a sophomore (Class of 2015) at John Jay High School — looked through the materials and took an interest in creating a trail system in Michelle Estates where he lived.
Originally David’s idea was to create a trail system on the Michelle Estates HOA property since it was available and had an established but unused town easement for trails. The question was how can they make it happen — who do they talk with in the homeowners association and in the town. Conversations with Michelle Estates, OSPAC, and the town began. David got involved as a student member of OSPAC. He started to survey the land and map it out on the ground, but there was always a question about how far he could take it on his own and how to make it a permanent amenity.
As this was happening David was getting more involved with the John Jay Cross Country team. He was seeing other trail systems and race courses at other local high schools as he competed in meets throughout the league and section. David got the idea to link the easternmost (and largest) easement of the five HOA parcels in the Michelle Estates open space inventory to the John Jay Campus. This made sense since they were contiguous properties. The only visible boundary on the ground was a 200 year old stone wall in a few spots in the woods.
If an official link were to happen, then school district support was critical. The trail could be much longer and would no longer begin and end solely in Michelle Estates — it would have multiple connections throughout Cross River.
In the Fall of 2012 David told Coach Tom Nohilly about his idea and he started getting the Athletics Department, the KLSD Administration and KLSD School Board involved by presenting at meetings and continuing as a student member of OSPAC.
The initial idea was to leverage the town’s Michelle Estates easement into the overall John Jay Campus trail. This grew into a larger more holistic project idea – one that could potentially connect Route 35, Four Winds Hospital, the Orchard Square Shopping Center, Ward Pound Ridge Reservation, The Meadows, the John Jay Campus, and of course Michelle Estates. The possibility of even going further was raised — connecting the Momsen Preserve (across 121 from the school) and the Mt Holly Preserve via other new and existing easements.
The John Jay Cross Country athletes realized that a new trail system would not only be usable for training purposes, it could also be used to hold home meets at the campus.
The work involved became larger and larger as the project grew in scope. This also made the scope of approvals needed even larger. There were multiple jurisdictions (wetlands, state, local, army corps of engineers), two property owners (Katonah Lewisboro School District and Michelle Estates Homeowners Association) and one easement holder (Town of Lewisboro).
Dan Welsh was on the Lewisboro Town Board. He was — and still is — the OSPAC committee liaison and was very aware of open space and preserves in town. Dan helped navigate tricky parts of the early phase involving coordinating between Michelle Estates HOA, KLSD, and Town of Lewisboro. He also helped get other agencies involved between the state wetlands (DEC), town wetlands consultant, the school engineering firm, town engineering consultants (Kellard Sessions), the town planning department, plus the Army Corps of Engineers.
Legal and political considerations played a part as well, causing the project to be refocused into areas that the school district could reasonably manage. The wide initial scope of the project was narrowed down to include only the school land and the Michelle Estates east parcel. This reduced the number of parties involved to only three: KLSD, Michelle Estates HOA, and the Town of Lewisboro.
Other pieces may come back in later phases — but the prime focus clearly became the contiguous parcels. Dan Welsh rallied the town board — gaining unanimous support from Town Supervisor Peter Parsons, and town board members Frank Kelly, John Pappalardo, and Peter DeLucia.
As this was happening, the John Jay Cross Country team athletes including David Gordon, Liam Hackett ‘15, and Eion Nohilly ‘16 explored hills and trails through the forest looking for the best trail routes that would satisfy the distance requirements of a course while at the same time having minimal impact on the sensitive wetlands the trails were traversing. They found traces of trails criss-crossing the forest — but much of the area was heavily overgrown with invasive Japanese barberry patches and other thorny plants.
David took the lead and spent a lot of time mapping the contours of the land via GPS and setting out likely trail pathways for the team’s Cross Country course. The athletes along with Coaches Tom Nohilly and Paul Saloom worked on setting up rustic bridges across the river.
They created a trail loop that added over two miles to the existing small John Jay trail system. Other students and parents were enlisted in various “Trail Clearing Days” where the team cut a swathe of trail through the undergrowth and removed dead trees from the pathways.
By 2014 the legal and engineering questions were front and center. The Katonah Lewisboro School District applied to officially become designated lead agency for the project. This would allow them to apply for any permits from the DEC, DEP, Army Corps of Engineers, the Town of Lewisboro, and the County of Westchester on behalf of all property and easement owners. Getting this designation would greatly simplify the paperwork aspect of the project. Only one entity, the KLSD — rather than three different ones — would speak on behalf of the project.
By Spring of 2015, after a year-long effort, this paperwork process was completed. Permits were granted for all activities and the project was ready to move forward. Unfortunately since so much time had passed nearly all of the students who had begun the project and knew the most about it were headed off to college in the Fall of 2015. Work temporarily paused and trails that were cleared started to grow in again in spots.
2015 Startup capital and trail clearing
The school district continued pushing forward with the planning aspect of the project. The engineering firm Kellard Sessions formalized the first version of the trail map and some of the future work locations in a GIS drawing overlaid on satellite imagery. The school architect drew up preliminary bridge plans for crossing the river that splits the school property in half.
Major donations of $5,000 each came in from the Page and the Hackett families, kickstarting the purchase of building materials and hardware essential to the first two big bridges set to cross the river. Bob Hackett, in his capacity as John Jay Boosters Club Vice President, raised more designated funds via the annual Booster Club Golf Outing.
But the momentum gathered by the students who started the project needed to be transferred to the next generation of athletes. In addition, some of the requirements for the trail were changing as the team and Katonah Lewisboro Athletic Department learned more about newer NYSPHAA cross country course requirements. The purchased lumber and materials sat at the entrance to the newly cut trail on the Pit Field for months without activity.
2016 “New Requirements”
Plans to host John Jay Cross Country meets using the yet-to-be-fully-connected trail system meant the bridges had to be at least six feet wide and sturdy enough to handle a crowd of swift cross-country runners bounding over them. In addition, the school added a sensible requirement — all structures (boardwalks and bridges) had to be wide enough and strong enough to handle the school’s Gator utility vehicle in case an injured runner had to be evacuated from the course.
Goldens Bridge resident Mike Surdej, who was a member of OSPAC and had worked on the project during 2014 and 2015, was an experienced trail project coordinator. Mike stepped up to take on a more active coordination role in 2016. Mike was on board when the bridge building requirements of the project became more complex and helped to redesign the river bank foundation structures to raise their level an additional foot above the waterline. Based on his experience he also advised moving the foundations back from the river banks to control inevitable erosion. He also strengthened the design to be able to hold at least 20 two hundred pound runners at once.
Mike’s enthusiasm and his connections to other experienced volunteers proved invaluable and injected the project with new life. Coach Tom Nohilly and Coach Paul Saloom rallied the athletes for weekend and summer sessions of trail clearing, foundation digging, building, and decking. By combining these two groups, the project was reignited in the summer and fall of 2016.
2017 “Construction Begins”
The foundations were dug (4′ deep x 4′ wide x 8′ long) for the first bridge in the summer and fall of 2016. But work paused with the onset of winter.
In the summer of 2017 progress was restarted with the goal of finishing Bridge 1 before a scheduled John Jay Middle School modified cross country team meet October 4, 2017. Deadlines tend to focus activity — and it did in this case.
The foundations were filled in with a crushed stone bed inside of a tough geotech plastic fabric mesh wrap since concrete was not permitted in this New York State DEC designated wetland area.
The foundations were built up on top of the rock beds and joined by 26-foot long 6×14 glu-lam beams spanning the river. The large beams purchased in 2016 were brought down by teams of students who used an ancient rope carrying technique to spread the weight out among around thirty individuals.
Halfway through the Bridge 1 building process, the Katonah-Lewisboro Athletic Department gave head volunteers access to the gator utility vehicle in order to speed up the materials transport. This proved critical to the improved efficiency and success of the effort for Bridge 1 and greatly increased the speed of the Bridge 2 and all subsequent building projects.
The first big bridge proved to be a huge learning challenge. It was completed on time for the meet date. Unfortunately the meet was postponed for unrelated reasons and never rescheduled. This means to date — into early 2020 — there has not been an official John Jay Cross Country meet held on the trails.
Bridge #1 — which was the first permanent structure built on the John Jay Community Trail — was complete. It served as a template for all activity moving forward for all of the later build sites.
2018 “Bridge Two and the JJ Trail Race”
The Fall 2017 building effort reignited the athlete and community volunteer interest in the community trail project.
Conversations between parents, students, and volunteers during the Fall 2017 construction led to the idea of hosting a 5k trail race on the new trail system as a combined fundraiser for the remainder of the course building and for the John Jay Boosters Club organization to raise money to support John Jay Athletics in general.
The existing course at the time wasn’t anywhere near the standards of a high school cross country race course — but since it was a complete trail circuit it could easily host a Trail Race. Runners of trail races are a hardy bunch and are used to tracking through mud and adverse conditions on courses. The first JJTrail Race promised both in abundance.
The only caveat was that Bridge #2 — nearly twice as long as the first — had to be completed to connect the John Jay Trail’s “Wetland Loop Trail” before the race could happen.
The race date of April 15, 2018 was chosen to be after that year’s KLSD spring break and before the John Jay Track & Field team had any competitions scheduled for the spring season. The deadline of mid-April seemed very doable in the Fall when volunteers committed to it.
Others were not as optimistic right away. It took a bit of convincing and a serious leap of faith for the Katonah Lewisboro Administration and the Katonah Lewisboro Athletic Department to sign off on hosting the inaugural race. To their credit, they ultimately did approve the event.
The deadline again focused the attention of the volunteers and donors who teamed up to span the river a second time. The foundations had been dug already in the Fall of 2017 and work began in earnest starting early February 2018.
After building work began, the expected and unexpected challenges came one after the other. After a relatively mild winter, there were a half-dozen late season (late February through late March) snow storms and chilly weather was abundant. There was even a very late season snow storm 11 days before the race on April 4th. Nevertheless, the volunteers persisted.
Work continued quickly with large groups of volunteers out during the week and every weekend. Materials were acquired as fast as money was donated through a special donations account set up by the John Jay Boosters Club for the Cross Country Trail building.
The Bridge #2 span was completed at dusk on April 14, 2018 by the light of cell phones illuminating drills as they fastened sections of plywood to the bridge deck the night before the inaugural JJTrail 5k race.
The race went off without a hitch and attracted 150 runners to the first-time event. In addition to the donations collected for the trail building effort, the race raised over $3,500 for the John Jay Boosters Club general fund which is used to support athletics across the school district.
The second bridge was nearly twice the length of the first bridge and logistically more complicated since it was farther down the trail and required all workers and materials to be transported or walked down to the site each work session. With the knowledge gained from the first bridge, the volunteers were much more efficient. It also helped to have a big public deadline to focus attention and work.
Mike’s bridge design changes made when he first joined as chief volunteer engineer in 2016 were shown to be essential when the trail experienced a very heavy storm the evening of April 15 through the morning of April 16, 2018 which just happened to be the evening and day after the inaugural JJTrail race. The storm dumped 8-10 inches of rain on a watershed already saturated with seemingly endless snow and winter storms.
The river level rose by 24 inches in 12 hours, spreading through the floodplain and the wetlands. The new bridges not only held up, they were unscathed by the massive flooding.
Due to the massive effort put forth in the winter and spring of 2018, many of the volunteers had to pull back their volunteer efforts for a few months. The project was on hold until late Fall 2018.
During the fall and winter of 2018, Mike Surdej, Rob Cummings, Jim Berenson, Tim Farrow, and other volunteers took surveys through the wetlands in order to document and plan the upcoming Spring 2019 building push for the boardwalks that would soon dot the trail way.
2019 – “Boardwalk Empire”
The October 2018 and February 2019 survey photos show many washouts and iced over portions of the trail that would have to be crossed with boardwalks. Since these boardwalks were designed to be driven over — in addition to run and hiked over — they needed stable ramps and unshakeable foundations.
The initial engineering and survey work in 2014-2015 was done during a dry season and the number and length of boardwalks needed was greatly underestimated.
Having been on site for over two years, the volunteers had noted and photographed the trail during wet and dry periods — so there was a significant improvement hands-on in site knowledge. The combined surveys showed that eight, nine, or even ten boardwalks would be needed, depending on how many were to be connected to each other. Plus there was need for one more “big bridge” over the south campus ravine that would complete the building in the trail system.
On April 7, 2019 – before the “Summer of Boardwalks” effort commenced — the second annual John Jay Community Trail 5k Trail Race was held. Race organizers added two additional events to broaden its appeal: a 4k “Jay Walk” and a 200m “Kids Jay Dash” which brought walkers, hikers, and kids into the growing community event. The fundraising started up again in the late winter and spring of 2019 — and the new funds enabled the big 2019 push for the boardwalk construction.
Starting in May 2019 the volunteer crew began the first boardwalk. They were helped by four John Jay Class of 2019 members who were working as interns with the New York-New Jersey Trail Conference. Three weeks later the first boardwalk was done and the volunteers moved on to the next site.
Boardwalk #2 proved to be the smallest of the structures and was completed in two weeks. Starting on the site of boardwalk #3 and #4, which were adjacent to each other, volunteers quickly decided to combine these two different structures into a single “megaboardwalk” that would ultimately reach 75 feet in length.
Since the sites of boardwalk #6 and boardwalk #5 were closer to the John Jay Middle School trailhead, volunteers changed their focus to building those two before completing the “megaboardwalk” since it would be easier to bring materials to the site of the megaboardwalk once boardwalks 6 & 5 were complete — and the gator could ferry materials and tools to the work site.
In the meantime, other essential trail work was underway on other spots of the trail. The foundation holes for Bridge #3 “The Championship Bridge” were begun in July 2019. The Frog Hollow boardwalk between the JJMS field and “The Pit” field was completed in early September 2019 in time for the JJXC time trials, which was the first official school event held on the course. The wetlands “Causeway Boardwalk” between the Bridge 1 and Bridge 2 site was next to get a boardwalk. The 66’ long Causeway – the second longest boardwalk on the trail system – was completed in October 2019.
After the seven boardwalks were complete on the “wetlands loop,” JJTrail Volunteers turned their full attention to the site of Bridge #3.
This bridge had been rechristened “The Championship Bridge” after a successful matching gift donation effort led by families from the Graduating Class of 2019. The Championship Bridge would bear the team names for the championship teams from John Jay Cross Country over the years. In addition, individual athlete names would be added as a part of the bridge — with plenty of room for future athletes to be added on as more champions were forged.
For the championship bridge construction, the rivers edge foundation holes proved difficult to excavate, taking many volunteer work sessions over a months-long period. Some of the complications included extensive root systems plus extraction of multiple quarter-ton boulders in order to create the necessary four-feet deep holes on either site of the riverbank.
After such a long period of digging effort by dozens of volunteers, it only took a comparatively short time to line the holes with geotech fabric and fill them up with crushed stone for the 4’x4’x8’ foundation.
Over the next few work sessions, volunteers assembled the 8×8 foundation crib structure and leveled the foundations across the 28 foot span.
Members of the John Jay Wilderness Class teamed up to move and place the large 6”x14” 28’ long beams across the foundation span. Volunteers then completed the attachment of the main beams to the foundation blocks as the 2019 end of year holidays approached.
2020 – A vision of the Future
The Championship Bridge construction is continuing through the winter of 2020 with ramps, decking and drainage control work.
After the Championship Bridge, the final building project needed for the trail is the “Final Link Boardwalk” close to the John Jay Contest Track & Field. It spans a section of drainage “rip-rap” that can’t simply be covered with soil and/or wood chips since it is designed as a drainage feature for the retention pond below the contest field. Any soil added would simply be an obstruction to that primary purpose. A boardwalk will allow the trail and the drainage feature to coexist peacefully.
The volunteers have also begun to undertake a geographically accurate trail map and pre-work for signage installation.
We envision that the Championship Bridge will have the team names, accomplishments, team years, and individual names of athletes who competed and won at the highest levels of cross country competition (county, section, and state championships). There will be plenty of room for more names to be added to the championship bridge in the future.
The annual John Jay Community Races will return for a third year on April 19, 2020 and will feature a 5k trail race, a 4k Jay Walk, and a 200m Kids Jay Dash.
The night before the 3rd annual race Saturday April 18, 2020, we have plans for a GRAND OPENING CEREMONY to officially cut the ribbon for the community trail system.
All students, athletes, alumni, parents, community volunteers, administration, coaching staff, boosters club members, sponsors, runners, and officials will be invited to the event.
Once the JJTrail is complete and fully constructed, it will be up to the Katonah Lewisboro Athletics Department and the John Jay Cross Country team coaches to organize the first official home meet on the new course. Our JJTrail Volunteer team stands ready to assist in any way we can to facilitate that.
Some additional information and resources
John Jay Community Trail Map
Additional historical notes and photos
Flooding around Bridge #2 on April 16, 2018 – no bridges washed away in this significant rainfall which brought water levels up 24 inches on the river. (photo & video by Rob Cummings)
Community and student volunteers have done all of the labor on the project so the only cost has been materials.
Some workdays are focused on specific tasks and need only a handful of volunteers. Other workdays are “all hands on deck” and the call goes out far and wide to the team and town volunteers.
One example of an “all hands on deck” work day was moving the 750-pound beams by hand down to the work sites. First batch of four was moved in the Summer of 2016 to the site of Bridge 1. In December 2017, members of the Track & Field team did a rope carry of the beam from “the pit” field through the trail to the Bridge #2 site a quarter mile away.
Volunteers took hold of a rope snaked underneath the beam and walked the beams into the staging area near the bridge location. It was a true example of many hands making light work.
We accomplished this feat for the third time in August 2019 moving the beams to the work site for Bridge #3 – the Championship Bridge. Work there began July 2019 and we are currently working on the ramp foundations and will be extending decking across the span in the winter of 2019-20.
In addition to the trail system entrances from the schools, there are also access points from Orchard Square Shopping Center, Michelle Estates, and The Meadows.
The trail is open to the community and is becoming a well-used amenity for residents and visitors.
If the video above is not visible, check the site directly here: https://leathermansloop.smugmug.com/OtherEvents/2019/John-Jay-Trail-Building/Video-version-1/i-hzqTPpN/A
More photos and video from the trail building can be found here: