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."
Wilder—himself a mountain biker—shies away from singling out any one user group at length. When asked about the problems raised by illegal mountain bike trails, he says the real concern is "unauthorized uses in general." Freeriders are just one consideration in a larger picture. Wilder is, however, much more specific about the damages that unauthorized use of federal land can cause. Public safety and protection of the resource are the Forests Service's top priorities in land management, he says. Users might not even be aware of the subtle ramifications of building a freeride bike trail, a dirt jump or a timber ramp. "Not everyone has a background in weeds or wildlife or fish," Wilder says, "so they look at things with a different point of view. Most people fundamentally respect the natural resource, and if they understand why something is a concern, they're going to be much more aware of how their activities affect those resources."
Boyd Hartwig, communications director of the Lolo, is quicker to address specific questions regarding the challenges rogue bike trails present for Forest Service staff. Trails such as Meow Mix, up Marshall Canyon, can require extensive rehabilitation to promote regrowth, Hartwig says. That comes only after the trails are closed and cleared of any man-made structures like jumps and bridges—obstacles not uncommon on more technical courses in the Missoula area.
A simple search for Missoula on Pinkbike.com turns up a number of examples of freeride trails, both legal and illegal.
"Generally, when [rangers] become aware of it, they go out and try to repair the resource damage, obliterate the user-made trail that's illegal," Hartwig says. "Sometimes the public reports those. We can't be everywhere all the time, so there might be some trails out there we don't know about."
Locating those trails is anything but easy. The freeriders who build and maintain them often do so in low-traffic areas and are reluctant to volunteer details to anyone beyond their fellow bikers. They'll even go so far as to mask the beginnings and ends of their trails, carrying their bikes for several yards to avoid detection. They play a cat-and-mouse game with federal officials, spending days if not weeks constructing a trail or freeride feature only to abandon it once it's discovered.
It can be frustrating for the Forest Service too, Hartwig says. Even as rangers and other staff tear out one trail, there's no doubt another is in the works.
"I was talking to Hilshey earlier," Hartwig says, referring to Recreation Program Manager Al Hilshey, who was unavailable to comment for this article. "He says they've actually seen a decrease since 2010."
That, or the mice are getting better at hiding.
The outlaw game
In May 2009, an agent with the Flathead National Forest discovered a set of hand tools on an illegal mountain bike trail on Crane Mountain, above the town of Ferndale. The agent confiscated the tools and left a business card in their place. The owner later called, confessing to having built the trail, which he called "Original Sin." His name was Ron Cron.
Cron's ultimate goal made headlines in local papers when the story broke last year. He sought to mimic a group of freeriders from Wyoming known as the Teton Freedom Riders, who had constructed and maintained illegal trails on the Bridger-Teton National Forest even as rangers struggled to shut them down. Their outlaw game against the Forest Service—which ultimately led to nonprofit incorporation and a collaborative partnership with the agency—was the subject of the 2009 documentary Freedom Riders. Cron believed if he built a trail and turned himself in, the Forest Service in western Montana would be forced to allow freeriders to continue riding.
Instead, the agency fined him $300 dollars.
Cron's relationship with the Forest Service didn't end there, however. He and other freeriders wound up working volunteer trail maintenance on a legal series of bike trails along Flathead Lake. Meanwhile, Cron continued to push for a network of trails on Crane Mountain, attempting to raise money despite clear indications from the Forest Service that such development wouldn't be approved anytime soon.
Keith Hammer followed all this closely. His conservation organization, the Swan View Coalition, went so far as to FOIA the action against Cron as well as emails between various officials. To Hammer, Cron's activities on Crane Mountain represent the potential threat this outlaw contingent presents to public land. "In the case of Crane Mountain, it's really good wildlife habitat," he says.
"Regarding the trail clearing that went on, Ron Cron basically said, 'All we did was cut open a bunch of game trails.' Well, those are game trails. ... Bears and elk and whatnot are trying to use those trails to get from point A to point B. Right there, off the bat, is the first impact to wildlife. Their trails are being taken over by what I call breakneck mountain biking."
Hammer also feels that the push to build rogue trails on Crane Mountain compounds existing problems with motorized use "in some of the exact same areas where the Forest Service has been trying to get a handle on unlawful use to begin with." Above all, the Swan View Coalition abhors the disregard for laws meant not only to protect public land but to uphold the public process for developing trails.
"The whole reason the law says you can't go out and just do this is there's supposed to be a planning process," Hammer says. "It just totally short-circuits the whole public planning process."
Hammer does believe the freeride mountain bike community deserves a place to recreate. "It's called Winter Sports Inc. on Big Mountain," he says. "It's already established there."
To see your work undone
Missoula Bike Source is slow on a recent Thursday morning. Owner Chris Larson sits behind the counter, chatting with the occasional customer that drifts in through the bike shop's Russell Street storefront, near Mount Avenue. The place has been open for just a few weeks, but Larson is no stranger to fellow bikers in the community. He worked as a manager at Big Sky Bikes for years. He's also ridden his fair share of technical terrain, both legal and illegal.
"The amount of people that are recreating at all these different trailheads and the different riding styles show that there is a pretty good percent of people these days that want to ride a certain way," Larson says. "The only way to do it and make it work right is have an area that's designated for us—not try to do the pirated trails, because that's not helping anyone."
After half an hour, we've come around to the subject of a solution. Larson is getting increasingly frustrated with every question. "God, this is just getting me so angry, talking about this," he says.
Over the past two decades, Larson has watched as attempts to establish legalized freeride trails fell apart. The bikers had the Lolo National Forest's ear once, about eight years back, he says, but the dialogue never seemed to go anywhere. "I think business owners of the bike shops need to get together, and all riders, whether it's the cross-country guys, the freeriders, the downhillers," he says. "We need to all sit down and explain all our points of view and have a clear understanding of everybody's wants. And listen to what people are saying."
I ask if Larson feels he's one of the guys to lead the charge. He shrugs, mentions he's got a family now, a business. He bought 20 acres in the Bitterroot and built dirt jumps for himself. He and a friend ride on private property, keeping the trail pretty much to themselves. "I just keep hidden these days," he says.
Part of Larson's attitude is born from a stockpile of frustration dating back to his years building and biking rogue trails. The amount of time it takes to build even a single feature is tough, he says. One jump could take an entire day, and coming back to see it torn down is a bummer. He feels that the freeride community, in its quest to find some sort of home, just gets vilified.
"We had this trail up in Pattee Canyon years ago," he recalls, "and we had a guy run out after us, taking pictures, trying to hit us, trying to knock us off our bikes. And that's okay? It's okay to have somebody freak out and get violent with us all over some trail we were building? How did that harm him?
"We didn't call any cops or anything," he adds, "because we felt like, 'Shit, we're to blame here.'"
It's a familiar habit among freeriders, always looking over their shoulders. Cris Winner started mountain biking around age 10. By 13, he was an outlaw, building trails and features on public land without authorization. He kept his activities mostly confined to a patch of city land near his house in the Rattlesnake Canyon, though as he got older he'd bike over to Meow Mix or hitch rides to outlying trails with folks who had driver's licenses. What Winner remembers most is the sense of being hunted.
"From the beginning you felt you were being bad when you were building or riding on areas that were public," he says. "At times, it was exciting to build and break the rules, when you're 13 and 14, but you have to dodge around this idea of 'Oh, we could get in trouble for building this jump.'"
Nowadays, Winner steers clear of illegal trails. He lives in Bozeman but returns to Missoula every summer to coach the Missoula Freeride Camp, the group he founded about five years ago. The camp, which caters to mountain bikers ages 10 to 17, avoids unauthorized areas, he says. Winner started the camp largely to keep the sport of freeriding alive among Missoula's youth. He says he only wishes those kids had more legal opportunities to hone their skills.
"We were always paranoid, the whole time, doing these activities. And I think forcing young people, adolescents, into states of paranoia about trying to pursue their passion yet not offering any opportunities to pursue it, that's a feeling I wish I'd never had."
If local mountain biker Matt Barnes can spur the conversation forward, there's a chance Winner's young freeriders won't have to be paranoid. Barnes is on Missoula's Open Space Advisory Committee and is working to re-incorporate the nonprofit Mountain Bike Missoula (MTB Missoula) to push for legalized freeride trails in the Missoula area. That group was successful in the past, spearheading projects like the Mo Z Trail on Mount Sentinel. But MTB Missoula fizzled over time, Barnes says, and they were never closely involved with the more extreme side of the sport. "Obviously," he says, "there's a need if people are going to that length to break the law to create those opportunities for themselves."
Barnes hopes to capitalize on the ever-growing popularity of mountain biking to not only meet the demands of freeriders but to better diversify Missoula's trail system, "from kids on training wheels to downhillers with full-face helmets and full-suspension bikes." Now is the time, Barnes says. There's momentum thanks to the fame of local pro riders like Sam Schultz and the establishment of the Missoula XC mountain bike course at Marshall Mountain last year. The next six months, he says, will be "pretty critical in seeing what sort of public interest we can generate."
MTB Missoula may just be the uniting force freeriders need to have their voices heard. If the group can foster patience among the more extreme members of the mountain bike community, Barnes feels the effort could be a boon for the whole town.
The real challenge comes in changing the prevailing mantra among freeriders that drives them to avoid red tape and build rogue trails in the first place: "It's easier to ask forgiveness than permission."
'Let us do it right'
Back at Missoula Bike Source, Larson's friend Nick walks in. The two get to talking about local freeriding. They've both traveled frequently to Washington, Utah and Canada, where agencies have embraced the mountain biking craze and set aside networks of trails with varying degrees of difficulty. Montana is just five to eight years behind that curve, Larson says. Nick equates it with the way snowboarding was 20 years ago, a sport with growing popularity but a slower pick-up in Montana than in more populous states.
"It's like being into sailboats and sailing but living a long ways from the ocean, or being into skiing and living in St. Louis," Nick says of freeriding in Montana in 2012.
"But here we're at the bases of five mountain ranges," Larson counters. "And we have great shops in this town, access to pretty awesome bikes. [And yet,] we gotta build our own shit or throw our bikes on our backs and hike up the side of something to get what we need."
The outlaw bikers, the rogue trails, the whole cat-and-mouse game, I say—is it possible all this has poisoned the well? Any future dialogue with the Forest Service about setting aside public land for freeriders could be colored by the fact that many within that community have taken matters into their own hands. I'd posed the same question to Winner, who said that, since the Forest Service has never really given freeriders a chance, there's blood on both parties' hands.
Larson admits he's seen some trashy trails around Missoula, though he says he himself has been careful in the past when selecting where he builds. "When I go up to some of these trails, all the wood is still left there, the tools are left out, the beer cans are laying there. Yeah, that just makes it harder for us."
Larson's frustration isn't limited to his own mountain biking pursuits. Opening Missoula Bike Source has underscored another problem he's noted for years: Without authorized freeride trails, there's no market in Missoula for some of the latest and greatest bike technology.
"A lot of the companies that I sell have a huge market of freeride and downhill bikes," Larson says. "I can't even sell them here. I can't floor them. I can special order them for people, and I do. But I can't dare have three or four downhill bikes on the floor, because they won't sell. That bugs me. It's a market I'd love to push, and it's growing."
Boyd Hartwig, of the Lolo National Forest, hears all these complaints loud and clear. He and Rusty Wilder encourage anyone with questions on the process to call their offices, to open up that dialogue once more. It's not that they wouldn't like to accommodate a user group with a strong voice, he says. It's that they and the user groups alike have to be aware of how that accommodation might fundamentally alter the landscape and change the forest experience for other users.
"Historically, the Forest Service has allowed sort of conventional uses: walking down the trail, taking your horse, driving your ATV on a road," Hartwig explains. "The mountain bikers who want a more challenging experience, they've taken it to the next step and said, 'That's not enough for us. We want to construct things. We want to build jumps and bridges,' or whatever. That takes us outside the bounds of what we're allowed to do."
As far as Larson, his buddy Nick and other bikers around Missoula are concerned, that model of conventional use on the Forest Service is hindering balanced recreation. It's public land, after all. "Don't we help pay taxes?" Larson says. "Isn't the Forest Service our land, too? They're supposed to be there to manage it for us. So why not let us have what we want and help them do it right?"