Donovan Power breaks through a tangle of brush just off Marshall Canyon Road, ascending a steep, narrow dirt track. He occasionally steps over a downed log, the once-clean cut from a chainsaw worn from years of rain and snow. Forest growth presses in around us. I nearly trip over an exposed root and quietly thank myself for throwing on a pair of boots with good tread. Then a branch slaps my face as I struggle to gain my footing.
This certainly wouldn't be my first choice for a mountain bike trail.
After several more yards of steep grade, the forest gives way to clear-cut. The trail is much easier to spot here—a skinny track of exposed soil cutting down the mountain at a pitch that, were I riding down instead of climbing up, would probably turn my hair prematurely white. For speed demons, the appeal is obvious.
"Huh, looks like it's open," Power says. "Someone's been riding it. Or at least hiking."
We're at the base of Meow Mix, a freeride mountain bike trail that drops off a logging road above the west side of Marshall Creek. Power, an avid Missoula freerider, offered to take me out for a look at how extreme this side of the sport can be. Meow Mix was a legend in the local bike community 10 years ago. Adrenaline junkies came here for a wickedly challenging ride, one that tested brakes, reflexes and suspension. The U.S. Forest Service referred to it as a "hot spot" among freeriders in its 2009 annual report on the Rattlesnake National Wilderness and Recreation Area.
The agency's report also classified Meow Mix as a user created non-system trail. That's the long way of saying "illegal."
Freeride mountain biking has become an increasingly popular sport in the Missoula area over the past decade or so. Advancements in suspension technology have allowed for bikes specifically tailored to more "technical" terrain: steep slopes, jumps, rock drops and log ramps. But Missoula's legal trail system doesn't have much of that. The void is filled by an outlaw culture of freeriders bent on meeting their own demands, even if it means breaking the law.
It's not like they haven't tried to go the legal route before. Years ago, the nonprofit Mountain Bike Missoula pushed for a highly technical trail on Blue Mountain. To hear some tell it, they almost got there ... before the discussion fell apart.
The Lolo National Forest closed Meow Mix in 2005, downing trees over the trail and declaring it off-limits. Then they closed it again in 2008three times. Freeriders just kept reopening it. Finally, on the fourth go-round, forest officials brought in trail crews to mulch and seed Meow Mix. The agency's concerns over it, as with any illegal trail, varied from public safety and potential user conflict to erosion. The 2009 report encouraged rangers to continue monitoring the area on a regular basis.
After a slow, scenic ride up Road 55, Power stops at the top of Meow Mix. The hill drops sharply off the road. It's choked with pine. But there's nothing here to indicate any trail. Just a bunch of downed trees—big ones—piled on top of one another.
"You can't tell me that's better for the forest than a singletrack," Power says. "It's not like we're motorized."
Mouse, meet cat
Rusty Wilder has heard this tune before. As infrastructure and operations officer for the Lolo National Forest, he's well aware that there are scores of user groups out there vying for their share of public land. The tricky part for the Forest Service, he says, is making sure those uses don't conflict with one another.
"If you concentrate use, you can have uses that aren't necessarily compatible," Wilder explains. "If I were riding a horse, I might not feel that horseback riding and mountain biking were compatible in the same vicinity. If I had small children and was using a recreation area, I might not feel comfortable having those small children around an ATV area or a non-mechanized use such as bikes."