BURNSIDE - Opening day of the Anthracite Outdoor Adventure Area (AOAA) Saturday drew 173 riders, passengers and children.

"The comment we heard most was, 'We can't wait to come back,'" Jim Backes, chairman of the AOAA Authority, said shortly before the park's 7 p.m. closure.

That matched what most riders encountered by The News-Item had to say. The atmosphere was one of excitement and optimism, with compliments about the terrain and, simply, the chance to be riding at a new location.

Visitors from Pennsylvania were joined by off-road enthusiasts from four other states: Maryland, New Jersey, New York and Virginia.

The turnout was a comfortable one for the fledgling AOAA. It was enough to give confidence to the authority board members and volunteers, but not too large to overwhelm them as they work out the anticipated kinks.

58 annual passes

Fifty-eight annual passes were sold Saturday, adding

to 70 sold in advance of the opener.

Another 80 to 90 one- or two-day passes were sold Saturday, for a total of about 140 to 150 passes.

Saturday's sales generated more than $7,000 in revenue for the park, Backes said.

"We really didn't know what to expect, but we're happy with that," he said.

Rider injured

An ATV rider who crashed possibly suffered a broken bone. The rider was brought in from the trails by private vehicle and transported by AREA Services ambulance to a local hospital, Backes said.

Backes said some visitors noted that trail markings must be improved. It will be up to the AOAA to impress upon visitors that the higher the number on the trail, the further they are from the trailhead.

About 50 visitors were registered before the 9 a.m. opening. Others arrived steadily throughout the morning. The final guests were a father-son tandem from Annville who showed up at 5 p.m. to get some trail time before the closing.

Approximately 40 volunteers assisted with vehicle registration and parking. There were about 10 vendors set up in the parking lot, including off-road vehicle dealers and manufacturers, a local automotive dealer and food vendors.

The park is open from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. today.

'It's insane'

The AOAA is a 6,500-acre area that crosses into five different townships and has more than 300 miles of trails. Visitors are granted access to the park east of Route 125 south. An agreement with a private landowner allowing the same on the west hasn't yet been struck; however, guided tours continue on the west. Two such tours were held Saturday with riders grouped by vehicle class: ATV/UTV, dirt bike and full size.

"It's insane. I'm soaking wet," said Mickey Chunko, of Hazle Township.

Chunko and a friend, Nick Larock, of Sugarloaf, drove to the AOAA on BMW street-and-trail bikes. They jumped on Yamaha's demo ATVs available for ride. Chunko had ridden the west side, but never the east. It was the first trip to either side for Larock, who was impressed by the varied terrain: rocky trails, hills, sand and coal ash, puddles and long straightaways.

"You come out of the woods and there's a nice wide spot to get on the throttle," Larock said.

Both said they intended to buy an annual pass.

For the price, "You're foolish if you don't," Chunko said.

Past rider visits

Doug O'Connell, of Campbelltown, admitted it was "a little weird" to ride on land he'd long ridden for free. His friend, Shawn Cooper, of Middletown, half-jokingly asked an AOAA volunteer if they needed him to be a guide for the tours of the west side. Cooper said he had been riding on the land now dubbed the AOAA for about 25 years.

"It's a good cause and a step in the right direction," O'Connell said of the controlled environment.

Michael Wolfe, of Lebanon, had never ridden the AOAA before Saturday. He drove up a month ago to give it a look and returned for opening day with his 11-year-old grandson, Dominic. Both were riding dirt bikes.

"I don't want to take him to an uncontrolled setting," Wolfe said.

Jim Hacknauer, of Albany, N.Y., had been to the AOAA before. He noted that staying at a Schuylkill County hotel between the Coal Township park and the Rausch Creek Off-Road Park near Pine Grove allows enthusiasts to bounce between the two over the course of a weekend.

Out-of-town money

Mike Barbara, of Long Island, N.Y., drives a 1997 custom Jeep Wrangler. He and friends have driven ATV parks for years between Virginia and Vermont. Saturday was his fourth or fifth visit to the AOAA. He'd been here before for trail-cuttings and a Jeep Jamboree.

The size of the place is perhaps most impressive.

"You're not getting bored riding the same trail over and over," Barbara said.

He and a small group of other Jeep enthusiasts were staying at a hotel in Schuylkill County near the Walmart Distribution Center in the Highridge Business Park just off Interstate 81. He figured he'd spend about $800 locally between lodging, food and fuel.

"I think the most impressive part is the out-of-town money coming in," said David Crowl, member of the AOAA authority.

Local, county and state officials marked the opening of the park with a ribbon-cutting ceremony Friday that included representation from three state agencies. The park, on land owned by Northumberland County, has received $3.7 million thus far in state and federal grants. In addition to creation of more trails for off-highway vehicles at the AOAA, biking, hiking and equestrian trails are also scheduled for development.

It will be open for weekends and holidays this summer.