Aaron Hutchins grew up an outdoorsy boy in Frederiksted in the 1970s. He started mountain biking as a kid when his freestyle bike was stolen and the folks at a Connecticut bike shop suggested a dirt bike.
“Perfect for the islands, that was their spin,” said Hutchins.
Hutchins was 10. He and his younger brother both returned to St. Croix with mountain bikes. Hutchins took up the sport in earnest while attending Drexel University in the early ’90s.
Carrying his love of nature to Philadelphia, Hutchins, who earned a bachelor’s degree in engineering at Drexel, biked whenever he could. He also hiked, camped, and worked in a bicycle store.
“It was like an extension of growing up here. I was always outside, playing in the wilderness,” said Hutchins. “I craved getting away from the urban setting.”
Degree in hand and bike in tow, Hutchins came home in 1997 and banded with St. Croix mountain bikers Jamie Bate, Mike McQueston, John Riggs and Jamie Keys.
“We built trails, incorporating existing ones – like the cattle trails and historic road cuts – with little to no earthworks ever,” he said. “We cut back tan tan, kasha, and guinea grass with hand tools.”
The group formed the now defunct Caribbean Cup Mountain Biker Series and raced on seven islands in seven months each year.
“I still have some of the T-shirts,” Hutchins said.
Although those early bikers disbanded and moved in various directions, they reconvene almost annually, often in California. In June 2017, they met on St. Croix and biked Jack’s and Isaac’s Bays along with the northwestern hills above Frederiksted.
You still see Hutchins on the trails every Sunday. When not riding for his own enjoyment, he conducts clinics or leads informative tours for cruise passengers. Following Mike McQueston’s lead with St. Croix Bike and Tours years ago, Hutchins opened Freedom City Cycles in 2008 and operates it as a shore excursion business with his wife, Olga. They call it Bike St. Croix and have won the Trip Advisor’s five-star Certificate of Excellence.
Founder of Virgin Islands Trail Alliance – VITAL – and an owner of Leatherback Brewery, Hutchins encourages everyone to get outside.
“St. Croix is a huge and beautiful green gem with no true trail system,” he said.
Hutchins and his fellow mountain bikers set out to remedy that. In 2016, they created VITAL, a 501c3 non-profit trail alliance run on a voluntary basis.
The timing was right. St. Croix’s community efforts to promote eco-tourism and to improve access to nature for locals and visitors pointed to a mindset in which VITAL would flourish.
Hutchins’ knowledge of the Crucian landscape, as well as his previous work experiences with DPNR and The Nature Conservancy, has helped facilitate VITAL’s aims.
“I want to get the younger generation involved,” he said.
Two years ago, Hutchins ran a one-year after-school mountain bike program through Good Hope Country Day School. Sixteen students, grades five through eight, covered 1,000 miles of turf along Scenic Road and through the hills on the island’s northwestern end.
“The kids were all thrilled in the beginning; then some became challenged. Many attacked it with full joy,” he said.
They still ask Hutchins to lead them on rides, he said.
Next, Hutchins and the Trail Alliance came up with the idea to build a trail on the school’s campus. He submitted a proposal for funding to the Department of Agriculture’s Urban and Community Forestry Program, and, after a few tweaks, the DOA approved it. Good Hope Country Day School received the award, and VITAL won primary implementation.
He and Win Welsh put together and taught a half-semester high school elective in trail design, layout, and flagging, using the standards put forth by the International Mountain Biking Association.
Although Hurricane Maria slowed the works, VITAL has now constructed a one-mile, multi-modal forest trail on the Good Hope Country Day School campus, where students can hike, walk, bike or bushwhack cross country. Trail Blazers, a middle school elective for community service run by Jane Coles, helps VITAL maintain the trail.
The GHCDS nature trail is not yet available for public use.
“It’s all about getting out and having fun on this beautiful island,” Hutchins said.
Meanwhile, Alma Winkfield of the Sundial Park project in Tulipan Welcome and Barbara Walsh with the Spring Gut Road project joined forces with VITAL. As initiatives merged, the organization broadened its scope to include paved pathways and green spaces as well as bike paths. VITAL now focuses on multi-use pathways: sidewalks, bike lanes and dirt trails.
“We are bringing the relevant parties together to address longstanding challenges and needs. And we are bringing solutions,” Hutchins said.
His counsel: get out there, enjoy nature and be a good steward.