November 30, 2006
by HEIDI WALTERS
On the cover: Gibson Mokler riding around.
ELL, NOW, THE FIRST THING I SHOULD PROBABLY SAY RIGHT OFF IS THAT CRANKY, long-gone, Mother-Earth-lovin' Ed might not approve of the trail his old nemesis, the Bureau of Land Management, is building down there in the King Range National Conservation Area. It's for mountain bikes. Fer cryin'out loud. Clanking, mechanical steers grinding their rubber knobbies into Gawd's green earth while their riders holler and whoop as they flash by in their over-styled skintights. People, he might grumble if he were alive, who probably wouldn't know a Doug fir if they crashed into it, or a slender madrone, and who might aim to squish those slow-mo banana slugs gliding dreamily across the forest floor. Pfft.
Or maybe I really don't know what he'd think. Maybe, health permitting, pride and prejudices shelved and the ol' truck broke down, ol' Ed would saddle up. And, dammit, I ride a mountain bike and I know darned well whether I've crashed into a fir or a tanoak. And I always try to avoid the dainty slugs.
Around and around I go, worrying about it. That new trail. Isn't it somewhat crass to feel entitled to a specialty trail, a new gash through the public's wild garden, just because we want it? And I know that the mountain biking industry's champion, IMBA -- the International Mountain Bicycling Association -- often joins up with the off-road-vehicle crowd to fight wilderness bills. That just sort of sits wrong with me. Not that this trail was going in any proposed wilderness it wasn't. It was going to be built just to the east of the newly designated King Range Wilderness.
But you know, I love riding my bicycle through the mountains, swift like a deer and almost as silent (except for the clanking, heavy breathing and grunts). The slow, painful beauty of the climb where you smell the trees and hear the creek water somewhere nearby and pray your legs and lungs hold out a few seconds longer. The green-brown blur of the descent, the feeling of chasing -- or being chased. I love it as much as hiking, for only slightly different reasons. A bicycle can take me high up or far in to where I can stop and sit on a rock or beside a thousand-year-old tree and gaze into the past, present and future all at once. But old roads used to be good enough for getting there.
That new trail. It doesn't even go anywhere. Just wanders through the woods in a big squirrely loop, point A to point A. Not that I actually mind that, going around and around. But ....
Ah, hell. The only way to conquer this circular thinking is to get out there and see, firsthand, what the good ol' BLM is up to. Maybe it isn't such a bad thing. Perhaps this trail they're building will not only be lovely, winding, lonesome, dangerous -- or at least thrilling -- and lead to amazing views, but will be but a minimal scratch through the forest. One a deer or a bear can trot along at night on its way to the next rendezvous.
A trail-building day for volunteers is coming up, and several members of the Bigfoot Bicycle Club are heading there for the weekend. I'll e-mail the club's president, Tim Daniels, and worry at him.
"[L]ET ME START BY TELLING you I share your concern for careful treatment of our planet," Daniels writes back. "We only get one, and it's already pretty buggered up with no sign of our easing up, other than the certainty of fossil fuels running out. If we were talking about true, pristine wilderness, I too would be against building any sort of recreational trails."
And then he lays out the reasons this trail is good: "The trails in the King Range are being built on land which has been previously logged. The practices in place when it was logged were hardly the `friendly' practices in use today. This land is far from being pristine, or wilderness. It's just remote."
Furthermore, he says, some of the trail is being built on old, decommissioned road beds. And, the BLM is using the latest techniques in trail-building, which reduce erosion and the need for maintenance.
"My final point," he writes, "is one to take to the bank. After the trails are completed, the lands will be protected better than they are now. Do you think for a second, after all the effort and toil we go through, we will just sit on our laurels if the BLM ever decides to lease out this tract for logging? This is a distinct possibility. The land where we are building the trails is outside the [proposed] wilderness area. Usage is subject to review.
"There is a battle of this nature going on at this very moment. The world-class mountain bike trails at the foot of the Book Cliffs in Fruita, Colorado are in danger of extinction. That's right, the BLM may be leasing parts of the tract for fuel development (gas and oil). The local cyclists, IMBA and other organizations are fighting this tooth and nail. It could get ugly. Though it really is self-serving, our precious Earth will prevail if the cyclists are successful. Sounds like a win-win situation to me."
Right:Joey Klein. Photo by Heidi Walters.
STAND ON THE FRESH-CUT path where it bends into a broadly curving switchback, plant the shovel into the raw dirt piled high in the bend's crook, scoop, lift, bail into buckets. Repeat. Grip two full buckets and stagger downhill to the other bend in the trail, where a band of cyclists and federal employees are building a stout rock-and-lumber wall to shore up the turn. Bound lightly back up the trail, shoulders and arms aching and heart euphoric from the labor. Shovel, grip, stagger back down. Repeat. Breathe. Rest. Gaze, intermittently, along the pretty curve of fresh-carved earth and then over at the other people toiling. A June day. Hot, maybe 90 degrees.
"You'll see," says Daniels, heaving more soil into the buckets. "There's nothing like the feeling of riding on a trail that you helped build."
In the early evening, a quick reconnoiter along the new path. Swoop along the curve, testing its arc and stability and fun quotient. Up, up, past the twisted monster tree, then thread through a manzanita patch onto the ridge. Suddenly, a glimpse of the ocean, far off.
Later in camp, while the BLM's King Range NCA outdoor recreation planner Scott Adams flips burgers for the volunteers, the cyclists gather in the waning light around a book propped open on the picnic table: "Trail Solutions: IMBA's Guide to Building Sweet Singletrack."
"It's pretty much the trail-builder's Bible," says Daniels. And soon, says Adams, one of the premiere IMBA trail-building gurus would be in the King Range supervising the work crews: Joey Klein, with whom Adams has been consulting since day one.
IN MID-OCTOBER I DRIVE BACK to the King Range: south on 101 from Eureka to Redway, west onto the Briceland/Shelter Cove Road and 22 more miles, then north onto King Peak Road. After six miles on the cratered, jittery dirt road, passing Tolkan Campground on the way, I see the white vans and trucks belonging to the BLM and California Conservation Corps. I park. A faint trail, overgrown by grass that's turned golden, drops from the roadside and I follow it.
The air is warm, soft: the napping-on-a-smooth-rock kind of heat. South Fork Bear Creek rustles down there in the thicket, where huge, bright yellow maple leaves glow amid the dark conifers and pale trunks of the tan oaks.
A wiry, tall, dark-haired man wearing a black T-shirt with "IMBA" written on it in white letters comes loping up the trail. It's Joey Klein, master bike trail builder, spreader of the faith of sustainable trails and joyful biking, coming to greet me. He's been down the fresh-churned trail aways all morning, coaching a crew of young CCC employees in the art of building a curve-hugging retaining wall from native rock and soil.
When Klein reaches me he turns and I follow him back down the trail. It follows the contours of the landscape and rises up and down in a never-ending series of grade reversals. It inspires an urge to run and jump. "This style of trail is called a rolling contour," Klein says. "When you kind of roll along the hillside. It's the most sustainable kind of trail." The idea with these gentle whoop-de-dos, he explains, is that rainwater will sheet off at the bottom of each shallow trough, instead of carving out a big channel like it would on a steep, straight trail -- such as a former logging skid road -- that follows the fall line. In the King Range, good erosion-control design is critical: Last winter, 157 inches of rain fell here. Plus, the undulations and natural twists slow riders down, while at the same time deceptively making the ride seem fast and tricky.
Left: Scott Adams. Photo by Heidi Walters.
"It's all about the flow," Klein says. "There's a really fine balance between keeping the rider on the trail and letting the water roll off. It's gonna be a ripping fun ride." After riding 15 miles of it, he adds, a bicyclist will feel like she's ridden 30.
The trail also is being designed to be most fun if you ride it in a clockwise direction, with exciting descents and gentle climbs -- although there will be some grades where you'll have to work, so it won't be boring. It'll roll through the King Range's frontcountry just east of the newly designated wilderness, roughly shadowing King Peak Road between Tolkan and Horse Mt. Campgrounds, then cross over South Fork Bear Creek. From there it will climb up onto Paradise Ridge, follow it, dart up the old route to Queen's Peak Mine -- a defunct molybdenum mine -- before descending through the woods, crossing the creek and wandering back toward Tolkan Campground. It could be up to 15 miles, for starters, although if future funding comes through the BLM may add on loops for what the trail designers call a "stacked-loop" system of around 30 miles.
Some of that trail will be hand-built, especially where it goes through bigger trees and less-disturbed areas. The stretch Klein is working on this particular morning with the CCC crew has been cut with a small dozer-like machine. It cuts a wide swath. But the machine makes sense in some places, says Klein, and is faster than hand tools. And though the trail starts out wide, it'll shrink over time to where it's narrower than a hiking path as cyclists pick a favored line and the vegetation creeps in.
"What I'm really happy about, about this trail, is this corridor was already here," says Klein. "It's already been disturbed. We're using two existing old corridors as main arteries. So this is really progressive. And the preferred use, the single direction -- it's very unique for our country and especially for California. It's completely designed to be a really fun experience, especially for mountain bikers."
KLEIN'S BEEN TRAVELING THE world practically nonstop for the past 10 or so years. Apparently the whole world's got mountain-biking fever.
"Most recently I was in Jerusalem," he says, trotting along the trail. "Before that, Tasmania. Every state and trail in Australia. Wales, Scotland, Canada. All the developing countries. I saw Israel turn around in a day. First they get into conservation, then they get into mountain biking. Costa Rica, Southeast Asia, Taiwan. I thought it was interesting working in Belfast, in Northern Ireland, where land managers have real issues. I mean, real issues. But mountain biking's huge there now. They wanted their kids back -- instead of sniffing glue. In British Columbia, mountain biking is an official high-school sport."
Everywhere he goes, Klein helps plan, design and build trails. He also teaches bike clubs and land managers how to build them. Not for free, of course. He was with the Subaru/IMBA Trail Care Crew for several years. Now, he works with the for-hire IMBA Trail Solutions.
He's seen some amazing things. "Riding with kangaroos, that's pretty neat -- running ahead in the trail," he says. But "one of the coolest things" that ever happened to him was in Reno. "It was in Keystone Canyon. The land manager wanted to get open-space, non-motorized [designation] and I'd given a special presentation for all these bigwigs -- city planners and so on. So we went out in the canyon, and I was trying to paint a picture of how it would be, and I was getting nothing, no response from these people. And all of a sudden these two golden eagles came up and hovered at the van window. I just started laughing."
The trail system was approved.
WE ROUND A CORNER AND THERE'S A young guy sitting on the ground surrounded by uprooted iris plants that have been rescued from the path of the trail-building equipment. He's pulling apart the bulbs.
A short distance beyond him, BLM employee Wayne Crauthers is backing a Bobcat up the trail. He swings it around and lowers its long, forked-bucket neck over the wall and starts pecking at a large boulder he and the crew have been wrassling with all morning. "We're building a retaining wall for our culvert," says Crauthers. "This is a little tributary to Bear Creek. After we get all the rock in we're going to plant it with iris."
Klein walks farther downtrail to check on the other half of the CCC crew, working closer to the creek, then returns. By now Crauthers has managed to pluck the boulder into the bucket, where it's precariously balanced.
"Talk to this rock," Crauthers says to Klein.
"Do I have to be a rock whisperer again?" answers Klein.
"It's misbehaving," says Crauthers. He starts up the Bobcat again and lowers the rock into the hole the CCC workers have prepared for it. It sits a moment, but before anyone can cheer it topples back down the slope.
Crauthers takes a break. "I remember last year -- on Wayne's World, a part of trail -- I blazed through it [on a bike], and the next day I saw a bear had been on it after me."
"We share it," says Klein. "The times of day we're here, the animals aren't. And mountain bikers, we don't linger here. On a bike, oftentimes we want to be in nature and see nature, but oftentimes it's about the ride."
Above, left to right: IMBA's Joey Klein, CCC's Daniel Roberts, BLM's Wayne Crauthers and CCC's Davis Wahl pose with the rock they've been battling all day.
SCOTT ADAMS COMES UP THE trail in his green King Range National Conservation Area T-shirt and tan pants, his face reddened by sun and exertion, his hair and beard gone white with the years. He looks happy, energetic. He'll be retiring in a few months, and this trail is his swan song to a 31-year career in public lands service, six of them on the King Range.
"In the '50s and '60s they were logging in here," he says. "There were logging roads everywhere. If you looked at an old aerial of this area, it looked like someone took spaghetti and threw it on it."
Adams is on his way up to the creek crossing, so I go along. Passing over a drainage that cuts under the trail, he shows me how they install black plastic fencing to keep silt from washing into the creek during construction.
"One of the things we really have to worry about is the salmon," Adams says. "Siltation is hard on salmon. And Bear Creek is a very important salmon spawning creek."
We arrive at the creek, lined with tall alders. Half a dozen young men and women from the Fortuna CCC are working with hand tools -- hacking away at the ground with pickax-like Pulaskis, or raking the dirt with McLeods. They look weary, close to grumpy.
"Last night they got raided by a bear," says Adams. "One kid's pack was stolen, and a tent was ripped into."
They've been working eight, 10-hour days, sometimes in blistering heat. Their supervisor this day, Kenneth McDonald, says he's "an old Corps member, from 20 years ago," and a firefighter, but he's never seen anything like this trail. "I didn't realize so much was entailed in a project like this," he says. "I didn't know there was a science to it, to protect the streams. It's so different -- which makes it more interesting than cutting a four-foot fire line."
The crew rests, some leaning against their tools and talking. Behind them, the creek breaks out into a succession of widening rings as waterskippers prick its surface. Leaves spin slowly through the air to land in the ripples and get swept downstream.
Nate Dobbins, in a green CCC hardhat that has "Moose" written on it in black ink, sits on a big weathered-white log, pours some Midnight Special from a red-and-white pouch onto a square of paper and rolls his smoke. Dobbins, 21, has been with the Fortuna CCC for two years. He moved up from Sacramento. "It's been pretty much the best thing that ever happened to me," he says. "It's a way to learn leadership. I love it. It gave me a place to go. It turned my life around."
Back in Sacramento, Dobbins' passion was "aggressive, street-style biking," he says. "I almost made the X Games qualifying rounds." But the mountains might have a greater pull now.
"If my dad knew about this place, he'd love it," Dobbins says. The name on his hat was his dad's nickname. "He passed away earlier this year -- and he passed on his $900 GT full-suspension mountain bike." Dobbins' hazel eyes gaze into the past. "He loved Lake Tahoe. He used to bike around Lake Tahoe a lot. Every August, we used to go for Hot August Nights and mountain biking."
WALKING BACK UP THE TRAIL, we pass through currents of warm and cold air, dried-grass and mint. The wind picks up as the sun drops lower. A woodpecker's clattery call breaks the silence. Adams wants to show me some handbuilt trail now. We hurry past the boulder-wranglers -- the rock's still winning -- and when we arrive at the parked cars Adams takes off in another direction. This trail section's skinnier and more twisty, and the trees grow close together in here. Adams narrates every bump and dip, each tricky turn that required patience and endless tinkering until they got it right. He pauses to pick up a broken branch and toss it to the side, looks around, then hurries on to point out more of the fine trail features before dusk completely envelops us.
OK, SO THIS IS A REALLY SWEET singletrack, indeed. Unobtrusive, pretty, sustainable. Fun. And, apparently, uncontested. The project went through an environmental assessment. All the "ologists," as Adams calls them, scoured the region and determined where the trail can and can't go depending on who is nesting where, and even the Sierra Club can't work up a lather over it.
In fact, all I hear is that this new trail is like some sort of beacon of hope in the tunnel of Bad Riding that is Humboldt County, where almost all the ridable land is private, usually off-limits (but some cyclists poach these lands anyway) and the roads unrelentingly straight-up steep. Ask Rocky Brashear, a bike racer and tireless bike trails advocate who has patiently coerced the city of Arcata to add more singletrack to the Community Forest trail system. Brashear was the first to start rounding up cyclists to help build the King Range trail once he heard about it, and later turned the volunteer work days organizing over to Tim Daniels.
"We have very little legal trails," Brashear says. He's kneeling outside Adventure's Edge in Arcata, where he works, painting strips of trim red the outdoor retailer shop is in the midst of a remodel. "So it's kind of frustrating when you're riding the Community Forest for seven years, and just going over and over the same trails. It gets kind of boring. We have lots of logging roads which go on forever, but they're just not as fun for mountain bikes. The fire and logging roads around here are ultra steep. Skid roads. They're not contoured."
These days, the best places for mountain bikers are in Colorado, Brashear says. "They have endless singletrack." Utah and Nevada, likewise. Even little Weaverville, just over the hill from Arcata a few hours, has more singletrack than here, he says: 50 miles, all legal. And with mountain biking being the second most popular activity on public lands after hiking, according to industry surveys, the pressure for trails isn't surprising.
"In the community forest, we have two singletracks -- Trail 10 and Trail 13 -- which amount to 300 yards of trail [the rest is roads]. You can cover the whole forest in two hours. And in a college town, with four shops that sell bikes -- and a lot of them mountain bikes -- that's kind of weird, you know. So, there's a lot of illegal riding trails." All told, Humboldt County has less than 10 miles of legal singletrack trails for bicycles.
Left: A sweet singletrack. Photo by Heidi Walters.
Brashear got so involved in trail advocacy that two years ago the Bigfoot Bicycle Club sent him to Washington. "[Congressman] Thompson had proposed wilderness, which is really great because wilderness designation preserves acreage indefinitely -- typically beautiful, scenic areas," says Brashear. "But one key part of the bill is it says mechanized use isn't allowed. That includes bicycles. But back when the Wilderness Act was passed  there weren't mountain bikes."
Brashear describes the experience as "awkward." "We were going there to fight against an environmental bill, to lobby for amendments to the bill for corridors through the Wilderness areas -- to keep certain trails open. Which is tough, because we were asking them to break up Wilderness areas that's a logistical nightmare. The whole trip was kind of crazy. And later I found out a lot of the trails we were fighting for weren't even being ridden."
But in the end, the cyclists were appeased. Instead of leaving trails open in the Wilderness to cyclists, the revised bill gave them additional acreage elsewhere on the North Coast. Money for trails also came in. "Thompson ended up doing really great stuff for us," says Brashear. "He understood that we're a legitimate user, and that possibly it might be profitable, with ecotourism. Somehow he got funding to provide new trails. And instead of saving trails no one cares about, we're building trails that everybody can use."
EVEN HIKERS THE ARCH-enemy, at one time, in the fast-paced history of mountain biking -- shouldn't have complaints about the new King Range trail. It's multi-use. But they probably won't want to hike on it anyway -- other trails closed to bikes already can take them up to King Peak or down to Black Sands Beach or to any number of equally satisfying locales.
One person who lived through the intense hiker-biker wars in Marin County, where mountain biking was born, is 34-year-old Vernon Felton. Felton works in public affairs at Humboldt State nowadays, but formerly was editor-in-chief of BIKE magazine. He also wrote most of the IMBA Trail Solutions book that the cyclists were ogling back in camp in the King Range this summer.
Felton started mountain biking in 1985, in the East Bay, just as the sport was launching big-time.
"The trail access issue was so contentious," he says. It's a rainy fall day, lunchtime, and he's sitting at his desk at HSU, thumbing through his trail book. "They had closed 80 percent of the trails -- mountain bikers were stopped from biking in Marin County before mountain biking even took off. They could only ride on fire roads. The problem is, it's really hard to go slow on a wide path, on a fire road. You go fast. Whereas, on a singletrack it's tight and narrow and it makes you go slower." So, caution to the hikers and horses who walked the roads.
It didn't help mountain bikers' image, says Felton, that "the sport became sort of Madison Avenue. It was the `Mountain Dew' era, with ads showing people tearing up Mother Earth. When, in reality, most riders weren't. Every trail user has a negative impact. There is not one type of trail use that is inherently more destructive than another."
Aside from a younger set and its stunt-driven free-riding style, "very few people are riding off trail," Felton says. "It's considered Neanderthal. Most mountain bikers are not the ones catching air. Most are people in their 30s and 40s, with kids."
They're the kind of people that the local chamber of commerce is trying to entice with mountain biking ads. Which is kind of funny, Felton says. "People come up here now, and there's nowhere to send them to ride. I'm not suggesting that all the trails be opened to mountain bikers. The issue is, mountain bikers will not travel far and wide for fire roads."
But they'll likely come for singletrack. Sustainable singletrack. "Singletrack is about walking lightly on the land," Felton says. "It looks like a deer trail, it blends in. And I'm a big fan of getting people to access their public lands."
I STILL WANT TO KNOW WHAT Ed Abbey would think. But he's dead. So I e-mail Steve Martin, Chair of HSU's Department of Environmental and Natural Resource Sciences and an Abbey-phile: "What would Abbey say about the BLM building a trail primarily (but not exclusively) for mountain bikes in the King Range?" Martin writes back:
"That's easy. He'd say, why the hell do you need to ride a goddamned bicycle through the forest? Get off that mechanized contraption and walk through the forest if you want to actually see and hear anything.
"I don't think he was a big fan of bicycles, and especially not when they were used instead of walking as part of a recreational experience. So I don't think he'd be an advocate for mountain biking and trails for mountain biking. It was just one of many ways that he was actually pretty traditional and conservative."
WELL, IT'S A MOOT QUESTION, anyway. One of the BLM's mandates is to provide opportunities for recreation. But at least, sitting here inside the BLM office in Arcata talking to staffer Bob Wick on a sunny early November day, I get the feeling that here on the North Coast the local office tries to balance that with other priorities.
"This office's niche is protecting and restoring old-growth and late-successional habitat," Wick says. "When mountain bikers wanted more access into Headwaters, we said `No, it's not the right place.'"
That said, the BLM in general has been kind to cyclists.
"Back around 1990, when mountain biking was just exploding on the public lands, a lot of public agencies were restricting mountain biking," Wick says. "Whereas the BLM was embracing it. We have larger tracts of land. We do have room to roam."
But he doesn't think the King Range trail will draw unbearable hordes of bicyclists.
"It'll get moderate use," he says. "It takes some work to get to. It's 45 minutes off of Highway 101. But that's the beauty of the North Coast -- and its curse."
THE NEW TRAIL, ONCE IT'S completed in about two more years, will likely get plenty of local use. The bike club will camp there, rising early to ride the next morning. The bike shops will send people there. And the South Fork High School mountain bike team -- the only high school mountain bike team in Humboldt -- will ride there. The team's already been checking out the sections of built trail, along with the dad of one of team's members, Gary Pritchard-Peterson. Pritchard-Peterson works for the BLM and has been working on the trail's design with Joey Klein and Scott Adams since its genesis.
"Gary," I ask, phoning him down at the BLM office in Whitethorn. "Why do you like mountain biking?"
"The physical activity and putting your head in a Zen-like space," he says. His coworkers had warned me he gets philosophical. "The challenge of rocks and logs. Being in the mountains. The exhilaration of the downhill -- it's more thrilling and it also puts you in that transcendental state of mind where you're not thinking of anything. It's like a lot of gravity sports, like skiing: The minutes seem like an hour and the hours seem like a minute. You just lose all track of time. It puts us in tune with our surroundings -- whether it's mountain biking or hiking. Human beings are travelers; we like to move through our environment. We like to get from point A to point B. And we also like to wander."
Around and around. Sounds all right to me.
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