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Fans of one of Minnesota's premier mountain biking systems and recreation areas, on the edge of the Iron Range, have more to applaud.

On Wednesday the Cuyuna Country State Recreation Area in the Crosby-Ironton region northeast of Brainerd opened a long-anticipated expansion in its Sagamore Unit in Riverton that includes something never seen in a state park or recreation area: a trail built for cyclists with disabilities. It now is part of the mix of the other 55 miles of trail elsewhere in Cuyuna Country, which caters to every level of newcomer and daredevil on wheels. An estimated 320,000 people visited the recreation area in 2021, with 119,000 mountain bikers exploring its popular trails.

With about 15 more miles of trail overall, the facility could take pressure off a main trailhead and gathering area at Miner's Mountain Rally Center between Huntington and Pennington mine lakes in the South Mahnomen Unit near Crosby. By design, Sagamore has its own rally center with changing stations, a picnic area, water and an 80-vehicle parking lot. But it's the new 7.5-mile trail adapted for riders with disabilities that is the destination playground of sorts.

Its visionaries, builders and testers reflected on the addition's significance.

Aaron Hautala is a member and former president of the Cuyuna Lakes Mountain Bike Crew and has championed the mountain biking trail system from its start. He recalled when the idea of an adaptive trail first rose in 2014 as local planners and stakeholders met with representatives from the International Mountain Bicycling Association (IMBA) working on the master plan. Now it's reality.

"There needed to be a place for adaptive cyclists to call their own home," Hautala said of the message from IMBA. Hautala eventually wrote a grant proposal with the city of Riverton for the Sagamore project adapted trail. The state's Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation Board responded with $303,000. Another $2.8 million from the 2017 bonding bill and a Parks and Trails Legacy appropriation paid for the rally center, parking lot, a new family-friendly paved trail with views of Sagamore Mine Lake and other infrastructure.

Hautala said the mountain bike trail fit the bill on several levels: for example, friendlier hills and corners for riders and also space for hubs such as another rally center and close parking for adaptive cyclists.

"Sagamore was that fresh canvas, and it was developed first and foremost as, how does the adaptive trail become the anchored tenant and everything else is built off of that."

Sam Tabaka would say the build went well.

Tabaka brought a handcycle to test ride the early Sagamore trail last year before offering feedback to trail builders and project managers. He also brought knowledge as a paraplegic athlete and outdoors instructor. He and his wife, Tracy, have run the adaptive recreation programs for more than a decade in the Three Rivers Parks District.

Tabaka and a few others rode out and back along the trail, taking into account the trail's turns and width. Was it easy to maneuver? Were any parts of the cycle or cyclist touching trees or the trail's edge? Do the banked corners end with a flat bottom to make the ride easier to handle? All factors for the adaptive cyclists, some of whom are on three-wheeled bikes that demand a wide base for stability and safety. In general, adaptive trails need to be 36 inches or wider.

Steve Hennessy, a DNR Parks and Trails development consultant at the forefront of the Sagamore expansion, said feedback from Tabaka and others was critical. It helped inform planners, too, that the "first little piece" of adaptive trail they test-rode could cover more ground and have more features, he said. The original plan called for about 4 miles but builders cut and designed another 3 ½.

Tabaka said there is a thread running from Three Rivers' adaptive trails at Murphy-Hanrehan (Savage), Elm Creek (Maple Grove), and Carver (Victoria) park reserves up to the Sagamore Unit and even some other initiatives in places such as Duluth.

"You want it to be inclusive," he said. "I think they are accomplishing that with [Sagamore]."

Like any cyclists, those with disabilities will approve of other areas to ride and explore, Tabaka added.

"It is really nice because if you are mountain biking you have your home trail, but it is nice to have options to pack up and ride somewhere else. That is what this is going to allow."

Hautala and Tabaka both said the Sagamore trail has universal appeal and is meant as an entry point for all comers and all ages to feel comfortable.

"This adds the ability for a larger percentage of the population to do, and I think they will desperately love it and want more of it, immediately," Hautala said. "You'll see more of it in state parks, I am willing to bet."

Hennessy, who like Hautala and Tabaka was on hand at an onsite DNR event Wednesday to officially open the unit, said it was rewarding to see enthusiastic visitors take delight in the long-planned project.

"It was great to celebrate. [The unit] was one of the capstone projects in a suite of efforts at Cuyuna the last several years," he added. "This was a big one."