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Road Trip: Trail Riding is a Thrill at Freedom Park

"Shotgun" TTF at Freedom Park.

“Shotgun” TTF at Freedom Park.

Looking to get out of Richmond for a day of outstanding trail riding? Williamsburg isn’t far away and Freedom Park is a great place to ride a mountain bike.

Located in the James City County suburbs west of Williamsburg, heavily-wooded Freedom Park covers more than 600 acres. It features more than 20 miles of fantastic mountain bike trails, approximately two miles of multiuse trails, including a one-mile ADA accessible paved trail, and multiple historical sites.

The single track trails are designed, built and maintained by the Eastern Virginia Mountain Bike Association. They are excellent. On my visit, I had time for about 10 miles of trail riding and I was super impressed with the lines, flow, sustainability and varying degrees of difficulty among the five main trails. For an older, more established trail, there were plenty of tree roots and ruts, but very few damp spots as the single-track popped up and down ravines and through the trees. There was an abundance of fallen pine needles covering the trail, but the sight lines were clear and the path was well-worn, so there was little doubt about where the trail up ahead.

Trailhead for Trail C at Freedom Park.

Trailhead for Trail C at Freedom Park.

It took me a little while to decipher the trail map, but once I got the hang of it, the park is incredibly well organized and marked (my compliments to EVMBA, great work!). There are five main trails, labeled Trail A (4.5 miles), Trail B (1.7 miles), Trail C (4.5 miles), Trail D (5 miles), and Trail E (3.7 miles). There are also two short beginner trails, Bunny Trail and Living Forest. The multiuse trails help connect several sections of trail — and provide a chance to catch your breath and recuperate before the next big ride.

I spent time on A and B before taking a spin around Trail C, which is the park’s tricked-out amusement park fun ride. While it is an amazingly fun ride, I valued my safety too much to take on the majority of Technical Trail Features (TTFs) on that run. The park’s trail map [.PDF] shows a total of 27 TTFs on Trail C, and from my cautious perspective, only about 10 of those were within my desired risk range. All of the TTFs have bail options, so no need to attack them without scouting by way of the easy route first.

The TTFs begin with two series of gap jumps that were quite intimidating upon first glance. “Shotgun” is a long ramp with a big drop. I would love to watch (from a safe distance) someone attempt that jump. Others like the “Log Ness Monster” (a long, curved skinny) and “Monster Bridge” looked like the opposite of what my conservative skill set allows. Even sets of teeters, drops and smaller skinnys had me repeating “NOPE” over and over to myself.

Don’t get me wrong, I’ve seen riders take on and survive plenty of TTFs. I’m only opposed to them for my own preservation. If TTFs are what you crave, Freedom Park’s Trail C course is amazing.

Though I saw no signage declaring this, the trails are designed to flow one direction. I rode Trail A backwards for a bit on accident and none of the signs pointed in my direction. Riders would miss every feature on Trail C if you rode it in reverse, so stick with following the trailheads and trail direction.

I was happy to see a handful of families riding together. The children riding with their parents looked to be between 10-15 years old — what a perfect time to instill confidence in trail riding and the importance of a lifetime of fitness. There are trails easy enough for beginners at Freedom Park.

I saw several runners, dog walkers, and a handful of hikers that day too, though I’d say the majority of the users were on mountain bikes. The majority of the vehicles in the parking lot had bike racks and mounts, a tell-tale sign that you’re at a prime trail riding destination.

Overall, my experience at Freedom Park was worth the wait. I’ve been craving a trip to ride in Williamsburg for a long time. My family normally visits Colonial Williamsburg, Jamestown, Yorktown and Busch Gardens/Water Country USA when we make the trip down east from Richmond. I’m tempted to let them drop me off at Freedom Park next time we plan an amusement park trip so I can get in a couple of hours on the bike — I much prefer the ups and downs of trail riding to rollercoasters.

James City County closes the trails to bikes during inclement weather to prevent trail degradation. Call (757) 259-4022 to check trails status.

Freedom Park is located at 5537 Centerville Road, Williamsburg, VA 23188. The park is about 50 miles from downtown Richmond (55 if you bike on the Virginia Capital Trail, a tougher accomplishment on a mountain bike). Check the James City County website for more information.

While you are there, Freedom Park is home to the GoApe Treetop Adventure Course and Treetop Junior Course. According to the county website, participants can explore the park “from an otherwise unobtainable vantage point while navigating through the treetops using zip lines, obstacles and tarzan swings.” For more information and fees, please visit goape.com or call (800) 971-8271.

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Richmond Trails Forum to Address City’s Growing Outdoors Network

Virginia High School Mountain Biking event at Forest Hill Park, April 19, 2016.Virginia High School Mountain Biking event at Forest Hill Park, April 19, 2016.

Virginia High School Mountain Biking event at Forest Hill Park, April 19, 2016.

Richmond offers plenty of recreational choices for anyone who wants to get outdoors. Its network of trails is extremely popular and has helped bring several beneficial economic events to Richmond, including Dominion Riverrock, XTERRA and more.

The oldest, the Buttermilk Trail, has been a part of the James River Park since the early 1980s. But the city did not commit to building trails that could officially accommodate mountain bikers until the late 1990s.

The popularity of those early trails prompted the JRPS to appoint its first trails manager in 2003 (Nathan Burrell). Citizens helped to push for more trails and volunteers did much of the work. But for all the people out riding trails in Richmond, park usage statistics show that mountain bikes are in the minority. According to numbers provided by the city’s parks department, walkers and runners outnumber mountain bikers three to one on the Buttermilk Trail. Only one in four users on North Bank is a biker.

“Everything we do is an effort to manage the growing number of people going out on the trails,” said Mike Burton, the city’s trails manager since 2013. “Even though they are the minority users, mountain bikes are always on our mind as we plan trail work.”

Burton said all of the JRPS and trail crew staffers are trail users and mountain bikers, which helps illustrate their dedication and determination to continue to maintain the popular trails network. He said the majority of the work they do is done to just keep the trails open.

The city maintains more than 42 miles of trail, including single track, connector roads, and trails entering parks. This includes more than 20 miles of trail in the James River Park at North Bank (opened 2005), Belle Isle (1999), Ancarrow’s Landing (Poop Loop trail, 2014), Pony Pasture, The Wetlands, and Huguenot Flatwater. The crew maintains trail in other city parks, including Forest Hill (rebuilt 2009), Byrd (Dogwood Dell, 2011), Powhite (1995-99), Larus (2005), and Bryan.

“We are known for having a challenging network of trails in the center of an urban area,” said Burrell, who is now the James River Park manager. “We offer a wide range of skill sets throughout the trail system.”

Burrell said building a facility like the skills park on Belle Isle (which opened in 2012) was an effort to offer a more beginner-friendly training area for new and young riders. The trail crew has also been working to introduce more trail that caters to different types of riders.

“You could spend your life building technical trails, but we only have a staff of two,” Burton said, referring to Andrew Alli, the other full time trail crew staffer. “Every time we add new trail, we also add more maintenance, and there is so much demand for the trails we have now.”

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Richmond Trails ForumFor those interested in learning more and giving their input about the trails network, the city will host a forum Wednesday, Feb. 1, from 7-8:30 p.m. at The Carillon in Byrd Park. Hosted by the City of Richmond and the James River Park trail crew, the event is expected to be an open discussion about the Richmond trails network.

Representatives from the mountain bike, trail runners, and hiking groups are scheduled to be on the panel. The forum will be moderated by Brantley Tyndall, community outreach coordinator for Richmond Sports Backers’ Bike Walk RVA. Topics will include:

A Q&A session will allow the public to voice their ideas & concerns. In advance of the forum, submit your questions.

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rvaMORE volunteers work at Poop Loop.

RVAMORE volunteers work at Poop Loop.

The trails crew is constantly looking for ways to add new trails, but as the network increases, maintenance also increases, which creates the need for more help from volunteer groups, like RVAMORE and the James River Hikers.

In 2016, the trail system received nearly 1,500 documented hours from volunteer groups, a figure that Burton said was very low because the hours for many projects were not tallied. Project managers occasionally forget to share signup sheets or volunteers forget to sign in, missing a chance to document their efforts.

Without volunteers, Burrell said Richmond’s trails network would not exist. For 2016, the parks department used $22 per hour to calculate the value of volunteer time (less than a national figure of $23.56). Often a volunteer project would include a member of the park staff and anywhere from five to 20 volunteers, depending on the work needed to accomplish.

Other projects earned more than 4,900 hours for park maintenance and another 2,850 from long-term volunteers and interns. All totaled, the park counted 9,270 volunteer hours, which equates to about 4.85 permanent employees (considering the average permanent employee works approximately 2,000 hours per year), according to parks department documentation.

“Our job is to be stewards of the land,” Burton said. “Most trail work includes preventing erosion and making it more sustainable.” Once the crew works on a section of trail, the hope is to avoid having to revisit the site to continue to make repairs.

Burrell said the three key factors to trail sustainability include: environmental (immediate and long-term impact to surroundings); economic (cost of the trail work); and social (which involves many factors, including removing poor sight lines, tight trail corridors, dangerous junctions — anywhere trail users could get hurt from collisions).

That often means that can’t justify building technical features and alternate expert trails in the city network because mountain bikes are still the minority users in the park. Where necessary, there are a few sections of trail where hikers and bikers are separated, such as in Buttermilk Heights (including the area near the stone porch switchback), the Netherwood Quarry (east of 42nd Street, includes a ramp for bikes or stairs for hikers), and another on the North Bank Trail.

Burrell said the crew tends to choose permanent materials when they do build new trail features. “We try use the existing materials within the park as much as we can. Rock features play into the natural features of an adventure recreation park. We have a finite amount of land to work with and we have to manage it as best we can.”

DISCLAIMER: Phil Riggan is a member of rvaMORE and other volunteer groups in the city.

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A Wealth of Great Trail Riding at Hanover’s Poor Farm Park

This past weekend, I finally made it back to western Hanover County’s Poor Farm Park. It had been more than 5 years since my last visit and I’ve been craving a mountain bike ride in those challenging hills and ravines, located less than 5 miles from Ashland.

Poor Farm Park in Hanover County

Poor Farm Park in Hanover County

I loved it. I had a smile on my face for most of the ride — it is that kind of fun. The short sections of trails are all packed so tight among the hardwoods and along the streams at Poor Farm that there are few chances to catch your breath and take a break.

The one known drawback for most people accustomed to Poor Farm is that the trails are not marked — as in not marked at all. I didn’t see a map posted in the park and there doesn’t appear to be maps available online (please correct me if that is wrong).

Poor Farm Park in Hanover County

Poor Farm Park in Hanover County

The time away from the park riding more a more organized trail network — like Pocahontas State Park — perhaps had me a little too regimented in my riding. As soon as I started riding Poor Farm, flashbacks of being lost during previous rides quickly reminded me that I needed to stay alert to where I was and where I was going (especially since there was an abundance of fallen leaves hiding the trail in certain areas).

Once I became somewhat re-accustomed the confusion of the trails, the fun really began. Maybe it is for the best that there are no rules to how to ride the trails. I was lucky that there weren’t many other riders, which allowed me to explore and ride at my own pace, meandering through the woods with my mountain bike.

It wasn’t physically easy. I rode about 12 miles, but it felt more like twice that amount due to all work required to bike this park. The technical aspects of the trails network ensure that riders cannot relax and take their eyes off the trail for long. Climbs, switchbacks, rocks, roots, logs, tight paths between trees, creek crossings, narrow bridges, etc., are lurking everywhere. And I loved it.

Pine forest trail at Poor Farm Park in Hanover County

Pine forest trail at Poor Farm Park in Hanover County

One part of the trails that I didn’t remember from before was a series of quick turns through a stand of young pine trees in the northeast part of the trail network. That dense stand of thin trees is growing very tight to the trail and the visual through the narrow corridor is quite pleasing.

The only part of the trail system that is flat (besides the trail along Stagg Creek — a personal favorite because I love that creek) is the southernmost portion of the trails, known appropriately as “The Flats.” During this visit, I rode that part of the park more than I have in the past because I needed a break from the challenge of riding up and down the hills. That area is still great for beginners and young riders.

Though I tried, I still didn’t ride every section of the trails at Poor Farm Park. According to the Richmond Outside destination page for Poor Farm Park, there are more than 10 miles of trails in the network. That number might be accurate if you consider that there are trails everywhere — it is up to the user to figure out how to best connect them for an enjoyable visit.

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Mountain Bikers Ride to Support rvaMORE During Annual Tour de Fall Line

Mountain biker rides trails at Larus Park during RVA MORE's Tour de Fall Line.More than 140 mountain bikers took to Richmond’s great trails network during rvaMORE’s third annual Tour de Fall Line on Saturday. The event began and ended at Stone Brewing Co.’s headquarters in Fulton Bottom and included distances of 14, 28 and 50 miles.

Ride organizer Garry Whelan was happy the event brought so many riders despite no advertising and spreading the word mainly through social media and through the mountain biking community.

Riders donated $45 each to support the event, which is a fundraiser for rvaMORE, the volunteer trail-building group that helps build and maintain many of the trails in the Richmond area. All proceeds are re-invested into the trails.

The ride passed through roadways and a number of trails in Richmond’s parks, including the James River Park System, Forest Hill, Ancarrow’s Landing, Dogwood Dell, Powhite, Pony Pasture and Larus.
Tour de Fall Line water stop at Larus Park.

 

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Feeling froggy? Try an MTB road trip

 

A good place to start any MTB trip in the Harrisonburg area.

The recent honor of Best Town Ever from Outside Magazine should have come as no surprise to those outdoors-minded folks here in Richmond. Whether it’s on the river or the trail, Richmond offers some of the most convenient outdoor recreation in the southeast region. Richmonders are also geographically fortunate enough to live only two hours from both the ocean and the mountains. In order for me to keep ‘the mountain’ in mountain biking, I think it is critical to escape to the high peaks every once in a while. There are many places within just 2 hours of Richmond to get your big mountain fix. Recently my buddy Ryan and I ventured off to an ol’ familiar playground in the George Washington National Forest for some much needed outdoor experience.

The primary goal of our trip was to achieve maximum enjoyment through riding our bikes. Residually, this trip became an outlet for connecting the mind, body, and soul by being immersed in the outdoors. Seems pretty simple…right?  Well, we left out of Richmond only to get pulled over after being on the road for ten minutes…not a good start to the trip.  We were determined not to let this spoil our mood and soldiered on to Harrisonburg.

After a short two hours in the car, we arrived at Shenandoah Bicycle Company http://www.shenandoahbicycle.com/to talk shop with some locals and pick up a supplementary ride map they sell for $10. I highly recommend stopping in to SBC and getting the ‘skinny’ on the local trail network. The staff is very familiar with the trails in the area and can point you in the right direction to suit your riding style. We became increasingly anxious for a ride before the sun went down so we headed out to Hone Quarry Campsite.  This site is easy to locate and has about a dozen established campsites for a small fee. This would be our home for the next three days. There are also a few other camp grounds in the area that are just a short drive from Harrisonburg. Check out Todd Lake and North River Campgrounds as well for other options.  Both are located in the North River Ranger District and more primitive camping is also available throughout the area. 

Sweet rock garden

Once camp was set up and gear was unpacked, we grabbed the bikes and headed out for a “quick” evening ride.  We choose to ride a trail new to us called Narrowback Ridge which consisted of a mix of technical singletrack, fast fire roads, and undulating, wooded doubletrack.  The ride supplement we picked up at Shenandoah Bike Shop clearly outlines each ride in detail to ensure that you don’t get lost and you kind of know what you are getting into. The nine-mile “warm up” trail took us almost three hours to tackle and proved to be a bit of a wakeup call. It’s easy to forget just how challenging, steep, fast, and exhausting these trails can be when you don’t ride them often. The payoff is that these are some of the most fun trails in the state! With the adrenaline raging, we headed back to camp before night fall to cook up some dinner and enjoy some post ride beverages.

Day two started with a fresh brewed press of coffee and a huge sausage, potato, and onion omelet. Temperatures were above normal, and we were anxious to get out on the trail again. The first run of the day was 13 miles of Timber Ridge into Wolf Ridge and we had a history with this trail. About a year earlier, this trail had dished out a beating on us and our bikes resulting in eight flat tires and two seriously bruised egos. We ended up having to zip tie a tire that wouldn’t stay seated on the rim in order to get off the mountain before night fell. Needless to say it was time for some redemption with this run and we were ready.

This trail offers such a variety of terrain making it one of the gems in this area. You start at the top of Reddish Knob with 360 degree views and beauty that is awe inspiring. The trail drops off the fire road into a very narrow, off-camber section of trail with bowling ball size rocks. Next up are a few fast and rocky chutes that lead into a giant rock garden that opens up to the valley below.  The next few miles are filled with technical saddle work ending in some ‘hike a bike’ uphills before dropping you into the first trail intersection at breakneck speed. The bottom of the trail is called Wolf Ridge and it has recently had a facelift thanks to the Shenandoah Valley Bicycle Coalition http://www.svbcoalition.org/.

It’s not just mountain bikers that enjoy the GW national forest.

This section of trail is pure mountain biking bliss!  It is a veritable roller coaster of big berms, water bar rollers, s-turns, and fun around every corner that lasts for almost 6 miles…think Forest Hill Park on the side of a mountain with no climbing. Once at the bottom we could hardly contain our excitement from all the adrenaline pumping. We had just ripped this trail and conquered a demon that had haunted us for over a year.

The most interesting part about this particular run was that we are here just one week after the Derecho that blew through Virginia. The remnants of the storm stopped our flow too frequently due to downed trees and limbs. We decided to do as much trail work as was humanly possible with my trusty 14 inch Felco handsaw. By the time we reached the bottom we had cleared close to 15 different downed obstacles blocking the trail. After a quick lunch, we decided to hit this same trail one more time so we could enjoy all the trail clearing we did…AMAZING!  Heading back to camp exhausted and satisfied we cooked up some chicken stir fry and sat by the fire sharing old ghost stories and exalting in the day’s ride. The next morning we broke down camp and set out for one last ride on Trimble Mountain to completely destroy our atrophied muscles. 

The adventure wasn’t over yet! We ended up stopping on interstate 81 to change a tire that blew out on our car while other cars zipped by…not fun!  However, the rest of the drive home gave us both a chance to reminisce on the weekend and the reason why we visit places like the George Washington National Forest. When you are completely enveloped by nature you are at peace. There is a calm and focus that seems innate when you are able to forget your troubles and leave the world behind you. There are no traffic jams, cell phones, or deadlines. There is just you, your bike, and the mountain. The ability to regain clarity through outdoor experience is a therapy that is impossible to imitate. I will always return to the higher elevations to seek out new adventures and big mountain riding. However,  I often remind myself how fortunate I am to have places like the James River Park and Pocahontas State Park to find this type of outdoor solace right here at home. 

Thanks for taking the time to read this column.  Now, go out and ride!!!

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Pedal Power picks up where Rowlett’s left off

A few months ago, Rowlett’s bicycle shop, near the corner of Staples Mill and Broad, closed its doors for good. Today another bike shop goes into the same space. Pedal Power had been a Mechanicsville-based shop, now it’ll add a Richmond location. The doors open at 10 a.m. this morning, and shoppers can expect sales and deals all weekend long — 10% of all new bikes and 20% off all parts and accessories. In addition, Pedal Power, like Coqui Cyclery on Forest Hill Ave., will carry Giant bicycles. If you visit this weekend, you can enter to win a Giant mountain bike (no word on the model).

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Riverside Outfitters to open a booth at Brown’s Island

Riverside Outfitters, which runs guided raft trips on the James River, will open an outpost on Brown’s Island on June 15 that will rent mountain bikes, sit-on-top kayaks and stand up paddleboards. See the full details in my story today in the Richmond Times-Dispatch. (more…)

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Belle Isle bike skills park update

Saturday was the last volunteer day at the Belle Isle bike skills park. The work remaining is mostly finishing touches to be done by Nathan Burrell and the trail crew. I’ve already talked to two different dads who’ve had their kids on bikes at the park, and they both raved. Here are some pics taken Saturday by RichmondOutside.com contributor Dave Kern.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Feeling lucky to have RaMORE

Skid steer at work on the Belle Isle Bike Skills Park

“Do you feel lucky, punk?”

Although this line was immortalized in a classic Dirty Harry movie, I often wonder if Richmond’s outdoor community asks themselves this question. I think most local outdoor enthusiasts would agree they feel pretty lucky to live in a city where opportunities abound right in the heart of our urban core. In most cities mountain bikers, trail runners, and hikers have to commute to get to any suitable terrain for their activity of choice.  Fortunately, Richmond trail enthusiasts have the ability to drive into the city for arguably the best trail opportunities in central Virginia.  These opportunities wouldn’t be possible without organizations like Richmond Mid-Atlantic Off-Road Enthusiasts (a.k.a. RaMORE).

MORE, the parent organization to RaMORE, is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization based in Northern Virginia/District of Columbia that was formed in 1992. Together, the two organizations represent thousands of mountain bikers and maintain over 115 miles of urban trail in the Richmond and D.C. areaa.  Richmond-MORE started in 2004 and is committed to environmentally sound and socially responsible mountain biking, facilitating recreational trail cycling, educating the public about the sport of mountain biking, maintaining local trails, and advocating for increased multi-use trail access.        

I recently sat down with Greg Rollins, president of RaMORE, who shared some of his insight into the history and accomplishments of MORE over the years. 

“In 2004, JROC (James River Outdoor Coalition) spearheaded the effort to bring multi-use trails to the area,” Rollins remembers.  “This idea was fully embraced by Ralph White (JRPS Park Manager) and J.R. Pope (former Director of Parks and Recreation). These two men really helped to establish the vision of these initial trail efforts.”

Nathan Burrell (pictured) has been instrumental in the development of Richmond's trail system.

In recent years, city trails manager Nathan Burrell has galvanized the efforts to expand and enhance trail opportunities in our city. With the help of weekend volunteers, Burrell and MORE have made the trails in the James River Park a destination for riding. The Northbank Trail was originally put in to give the annual XTERRA off-road triathlon series a platform for a complete race loop. A fairly newer trail re-route in Forest Hill Park has created some additional fun within the park. Most recently, the Dogwood Dell section of trail (including the first hiking-specific trail) was completed, which revitalized an untapped area of green space in the city.  These additional trails have also served to expand the rider experience near the James River Park.

Most notable is the excitement around the upcoming Belle Isle Skills Park.  This project was endorsed and recommended by Mayor Dwight Jones’ Bicycle and Pedestrian Commission. This amazing opportunity comes about with a collaboration of area volunteer groups, including JROC, City of Richmond Trails Division, James River Park System, IMBA (International Mountain Bicycling Association) and RaMORE. The skills park will offer a great facility for beginning and intermediate riders to learn the skills needed to be safe and successful on a mountain bike.  It will also serve as a training ground for riders wanting to experience the almost 18 miles of technical trails in and around the James River Park. 

“The progress is beyond my expectations” noted Rollins.  “Everyone has really teamed together to make it happen and it showcases the true spirit of the area riding community”.  The skills park will hopefully be completed by Memorial Day for all to enjoy.

The positivity behind these projects is evident in the spirit of the RaMORE trail-building volunteers and organizers as well as all supporters of these trail endeavors. All of the progress has a secondary impact on our city that many might not realize. The positive nature of these projects establishes positive users of the trails and pushes out the bad users. The supporters and volunteers of RaMORE are the ones leading the charge into making Richmond a Mecca for trail riding.

“We currently have between 15-40 volunteers show up each time we have a trail work day” Rollins said, further validating the commitment to our great city and it’s trail opportunities. 

So do I feel lucky to have these trails to ride?…ABSOLUTELY! Now go out and RIDE!!!

 To become a supporter of RaMORE please go to the website and click on the ‘Membership’ link.  Also, if you would like to come out and volunteer at the skills park, this Saturday and Sunday (May 12-13) would be a great time to start.  More details are available on the RaMORE website

 

 

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Richmond MORE working on North Bank Saturday

From Richmond MORE: (more…)

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