Trail stewards from California’s Lost Coast are eager to share their mountain bike paradise
by yuri hauswald | photography by scott markewitz
There’s an unusually cold bite to the ocean air, even for early February, as we load up for the day’s ride. It’s fitting that a decommissioned Dodge Ram van–one that used to haul kids to church camp–is now ferrying the cycling converted to the church of singletrack along this stunning stretch of jagged coastline 160 miles north of San Francisco, California.
This place is a mountain biker’s paradise, but at first glance you wouldn’t know it. For the most part, the 150-plus miles of single and doubletrack that stretch between the towns of Mendocino and Fort Bragg see little recreational use–and even less fanfare. One might assume that the locals want to keep to themselves this paradise, which spans the Jackson Demonstration State Forest, Woodlands State Park and Big River State Park. But this is not the case.
Our pedaling pastors for the day, Amy Wynn, owner of Mendocino Bike Sprite, and Nick Taylor, a local sculptor, are introducing us to the crew that has been primarily responsible for all the trail development and maintenance for the past 10 years. When I ask why more people don’t know about the riding in this area, Wynn replies with a chuckle, “It doesn’t help that even some of the locals get lost here.”
This reminds me of a saying among some Sonoma County bike shops that goes something like this: If you want to ride the singletrack of Fort Bragg and Mendocino, then you have to ride it with an old guy, because they’re the only ones who know it.
They also happen to be the only ones building and maintaining it. The sheer mileage of singletrack that exists between Mendocino and Fort Bragg might lead one to believe there’s a small army of riders chipping in on the trails. But there’s not. Currently, there are only seven of them, and out of that group, three or four are responsible for the lion’s share of the work. The average age of those trail sprites is 67.
At 48,652 acres, Jackson Demonstration State Forest (JDSF) is one of California’s crown jewels. Not only is it the state’s largest demonstration forest, it’s the most productive in terms of revenue and research. As a self-funded agency, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, or CAL FIRE, generates more than $3 million in logging revenue per year, which means that ‘forest management’ isn’t going away any time soon. Even JDSF’s official literature states that its three mandates as a demonstration forest are: forest management (code for logging), research (think watershed studies), and recreation (equestrian/ hiker/cyclist/outdoor recreationalist). The annual forest harvest produces, according to JDSF’s 2005 Environmental Impact Report, “10 to 15 million board feet, which in turn generates $4.3 million in local wages and $184,000 in local tax revenue.”
Cars slowly begin to fill the dirt lot. The day’s cast of characters includes everything from a computer programmer and construction contractor to a sculptor and a doctor. But they all consider themselves one thing: trail stewards. Jack Coulombe, 74, an ex-fireman and a World Senior Games champion in both cross-country and downhill, spent two years with Mendocino Bike Sprite guide Roo Harris using a GPS to map more than 150 miles of trail.
“There’s pride in handmade trails–a real sense of accomplishment,” Harris says. “The days of being outlaws are over. It’s time to work with the land managers to continue the maintenance and development of trails. It’s just too bad more people don’t know about them.”
Our group of 13 meanders like a Slinky out of the parking lot onto a trail called Parallel Action, a loamy roller coaster ride through glistening redwoods and Douglas fir trees. I realize I haven’t been around this much retro ill-fitting Lycra in a long time. In fact, I haven’t seen gators on someone, let alone a cyclist, since I skied in jeans as a kid in the late ‘70s, but, on this day, there are two people sporting them. Go figure: They’re riding a tandem, and tearing it up, too.
Myles Anderson is a fourth-generation logger whose family’s company, Anderson Logging, is one of the timber operators for JDSF. He meets our group at Ride Thru, a famous and favorite stretch of singletrack that rides through a massive old-growth redwood stump. Pink and yellow ribbons attached to trees flit in the coastal breeze and we are surrounded by blue spray painted hash marks. This trail is closed, and has been for a few months in preparation for a harvest.
The fact that Myles is with us is a huge step in the right direction when it comes to managing the relationship between two of JDSF’s mandates: timber management and recreation. That he is open to recommending changes to future harvest plans, taking into account the group’s concerns about certain marked trees, and offers to lead a post-harvest walk-through, is nothing short of astounding. We roll away encouraged, and hopeful, that sustainable logging can coexist with recreational use on JDSF land.
the green rush
Our train chugs through a tight, twisty, root-riddled system of trails, with lots of sharp elevation gains that require one’s full attention. We roll along some colorfully named stretches of dirt like Shit Hole and Beer Joint. I’d been hearing about Beer Joint for a few days now, so it had taken on an almost mythical, fountain-of-youth quality. After a fast traverse, the sound of brakes indicates we’ve found the spot. To my right lies a huge redwood stump that spans the entrance to a meadow of ferns and third-growth redwoods that are illuminated by the waning afternoon sun.
Chris Clutton, an arborist and the last person to build new trails with previous CAL FIRE management approval, removes a well-camouflaged piece of redwood bark from the base, and that’s when I fully appreciate the ‘Beer Joint’ name of the trail. From the cold confines of the stump, Chris extracts enough beer for everyone, and next to the beer I notice the fixings for the other part of this trail’s name.
After the ride, we stop at a local taquería and the man across the table from me has eyes that sparkle and a wrinkled face that beams every time he laughs, which is quite often. Stanley Miklose moved to Fort Bragg in 1974, opened Down Home Foods, an organic grocery store, and hasn’t left since. I ask about the changes he has seen. “When lumber giant Georgia-Pacific Corp. closed its Fort Bragg mill in 2002, it took away hundreds of jobs,” he recalls. Coupled with the fact that by the early 90s commercial fishing, which had been booming in the ‘60s and ‘70s, was faltering due to reduced fish stock and fickle industry prices, Fort Bragg’s economic outlook was bleak at best. People either left, or turned to other forms of employment, which ultimately ushered in a ‘Green Rush.’
There is an estimate that one in 10 homes in the Fort Bragg area has an indoor marijuana growing setup, with harvests split fifty-fifty between medicinal and recreational users. The Green Rush has also brought with it some unfortunate costs. Large illegal outdoor grows, mostly confined to the northeastern part of the county and run by armed cartels, destroy and pollute pristine habitats with trash and diesel fuel, and suck creeks and streams dry. Conversely, Stanley states: “Drug [marijuana] money helps sustain the local economy.” He would know. Just that day Down Home Foods saw more $100 bills than they had all week.
artifacts and old growth
At the end of Road 409, where the pavement becomes dirt, there’s a trailhead. If you aren’t paying attention, you’ll miss it, but that seems to be the case up here because there is little to no signage to help you navigate this sylvan labyrinth of singletrack. Joining us is Brian Astell, a pro Xterra racer, who has called this area home for the past 15 years. We duck into a dense curtain of second- and third-growth redwood, Douglas fir and hemlock, onto a carpet of redwood duff that transports us to a place that is reminiscent of a cross between Jurassic Park and The Lord of the Rings.
We twist and turn along Total Confusion, a trail that parallels Road 409, quickly gaining more speed, dipping and dodging through a verdant understory, pump tracking our way along undulating, smile-inducing singletrack. Trails like Gas Tank, Gas Cap and Boiler–all named for historic artifacts that were either found and removed or still remain on the trail–become a blur of winter foliage. They’re some of the most spectacular trails I’ve ever ridden.
We drop into Railroad Gulch, most of which was built by the Civilian Conservation Corps, flying past hillsides and through open meadows of iridescent ferns, until we come face to face with a rusted boiler sitting at the end of an abandoned narrow-gauge rail bed. As a sculptor, Nick admires the fine craftsmanship of the rivet work while telling us that the boiler used to power a logging winch called a steam donkey, a tool integral to the extraction of timber in the industry’s early days.
No ride in the Mendocino Woodlands is complete without visiting Big Tree. After a grunt along a ridgeline jeep trail, we find ourselves staring at the forest behemoth. At 188 feet tall and 1,300 years old, Big Tree is a hulking relic among second- and third-growth trees. It was hit by lightning, which probably saved it from being logged, and is one of the last old growths in the Coastal Range. We pay our respects to this elder and conclude with a contour-line plummet down Big Tree trail, which is one of the best descents in the whole system.
research and recreation
Pam Linstedt, a 24-year CAL FIRE veteran who has been managing JDSF for two years, sits across from me in a starched, dark-blue uniform, adorned with an assortment of official patches and lapel pins. Her uniform makes me nervous, but her disarming manner and sincere answers dissolve my jitters as we start to talk. Pam makes it clear that recreation as a commercial operation (i.e., Mendocino Bike Sprite or any other guiding company) is not part of the JDSF’s mandate, and there’s an explicit policy against it. When I misstate that timber management/logging is JDSF’s first mandate (which it is, according to JDSF’s official literature), Pam quickly clarifies that research is the forest’s No.1 goal.
However, logging brings in the real dollars. This poses a problem, because, as Pam says, “logging is never going to be pretty, and if you have people riding in these areas there are safety and perception issues.”
If people aren’t educated about how the forest is being managed sustainably, which often means that certain sections/trail systems are closed for selective harvesting, then their gut reaction is usually the feeling that logging is bad. That’s why Mendocino Coast Cyclists and JDSF are working together to educate users. Both understand the challenges they pose to each other, but they are also coming to the table to create solutions that allow for the coexistence of cyclists and loggers.
What does the future hold for this mountain biking paradise? Plenty.
“This area is just in its infancy as far as really developing trails,” said Sprite guide Harris. “The Fort Bragg business community and county politicians are very receptive to the idea of bringing more recreational users to this area.”