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August 31, 2006

Rubber-side Down

by BENNETT BARTHELEMY


Sometimes when I'm outside I enjoy flirting with the extreme edge of possibility. At other times, I am content just sitting comfortably at the edge of the continent, watching the darkness transform into vibrant color at dawn. Humboldt County provides lifetimes of opportunity for both activities, and this is my positive affirmation as an outdoor columnist. I hope it brings me some semblance of job security.

I want this new column to appeal to both the battle-scarred wilderness athlete and the fair-weather leisurist just beginning to engage the natural world on its own terms. And before you plug yourself into one of these categories, just remember you will be and have been both. It's all relative -- one man's nightmare is another woman's dream-adventure -- and it really comes down to perspective and experience, not mental instability.

One of the old literary transcendentalists said, "In wildness is the preservation of the world." He understood nature and human nature well enough to realize that wildness (wilderness) is one of the human species' integral need as a species -- our only chance to have an elevated quality of life along with any sort of hope for longevity. Isn't that how you interpret it? So, please, let's re-introduce the grizzly to Humboldt County already, and let's trade in the flat-screen plasma TV for a bit of non-vicarious living.

The subject this week: mountain biking.

I can already see the gleams in the eyes of all the trail-hungry freshman at HSU dying to muddy-up their shiny bikes, to launch over bars and donate blood to the spirits of the Arcata Community Forest. (Just remember to yield to horses and hikers, and to strap on a brain-bucket). My sanity, what's left of it, is due in large part to the near daily rides I took between classes in this under-appreciated and very local wonderland. But don't worry -- you won't need the latest titanium full-suspension dream bike, just some knobby tires and the will. You will reap rewards, I promise.

In the 1980s -- dating myself already! -- the visionary fathers (mothers?) of this sport battled up single-track trails on 40-pound one-speed cruisers and had a great time. Like my boss at the Wyoming BLM said years ago -- just before my quickly fading enthusiasm for what I saw as the Devil's work led me to quit -- "You have to pick your battles." So start small, if you must. The Community Forest's Trail #10, aka the California Trail (really a dirt road), is a good one -- easy to get to and just a scant couple miles, with mere snippets of elevation gain and loss. Then you can start adding other trails: #7, #2 ... Pretty soon you'll be pleasantly lost and in that revolutionary, meditational rhythm -- the riders' high. When it starts to get dark, just remember to keep heading downhill and you'll get funneled back out to civilization eventually.

Ever pedal around a blind corner into a herd of Roosevelt elk? It won't happen in the Community Forest. (I swear I saw a Bigfoot in there once, but it could have been a very quick and heavily dreaded illegal camper.) For the elk experience, you've got to head out to Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park.

My favorite ride in PCRSP is a 20-mile loop, about 1/3 of that on a paved road -- a good warm-up. The single-track from the Newton B. Drury scenic drive to Osagon Beach can be muddy after rains, and the puddles and minor creek crossings in winter to late spring along the Coastal Trail can rise above your pedals at the top of the stroke. But if you can handle soggy feet, you'll enjoy the bliss of nearly pristine old-growth redwood and coastal ecosystems. Pass the entrance kiosk at Gold Bluff Beach and head up the dirt road a few miles to a faint trail east that eventually connects back to the park visitor center and the scenic drive -- nothing too steep or too technical, but engagingly sublime the entire way. The ride's easier if you take it counter-clockwise.

There's elk o' plenty out that way, but be forewarned. Last year my friend Rose, who is about as stout as her namesake, found a herd at a bike-length and had to use her ride to parry a jumpy alpha male. They don't like fill-flash either. I was bluff-charged when I pulled my camera from my handlebar pouch and shot. They are beautiful megafauna but remember that fall is rut season, so they might be a touch more ornery and territorial. Keep a safe distance. Postcards are cost-effective and can also be a sound investment in long-term health.

Right and above: Local bike mechanic Brian Lee attacks.
Photos by Bennett Barthelemy .

So what if I want to buy a bike, tune my slick human-powered machine or join a riding club? Arcata delivers. There are probably more bike shops here on one street than there are in most towns (four). There are also some thrilling local races (cross-country=fun, downhill=insanity) as well. Group rides for all levels leave most Thursday evenings from Adventure's Edge in Arcata, but call first to be sure. HSU has its very own mountain biking team/club. And you're only cool if you commute to school, work and the laundromat on your mount. Just remember, the bike cops will love to bust you for blowing stop signs and drunk driving applies to bikes, too.

So spend more quality time pedaling the forests and beaches, where there are no signs you need to pay attention to (save the "closed to bikes" ones). On the old dirt roads and trails of Humboldt County, you can refresh your sense of wonder with the vertiginous megaflora of Sequoia sempervirens and Pseudotsuga menziesii. Ponder the evolutionary marvel of the ubiquitous banana slug. (They can control the stickiness of their slime to conquer the varied terrain they need to traverse -- wouldn't that be cool!). Pretty soon you will be showing off battle scars of your own, and becoming intimate friends with adrenaline, lactic acid and dehydration. Wear your wounds with pride and share your own epics unabashedly.

You have no excuses now. See you out there.

For those who want to dig in the dirt and help build trails, your big chance comes Sept. 7 through Sept. 11. International Mountain Bike Association (IMBA) reps will be here to build a new single-track trail in the Community Forest. For info, contact local mountain biking advocate Rocky Brashear via e-mail: rocanwave@yahoo.com

dingbat dingbat dingbat

Email Bennett Barthelemy at bennettbarthelem@hotmail.com,
or write in care of the Journal at 145 G St., Suite A, Arcata, 95521.


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