Less than a dozen miles from the epicenter of Baltimore's nationally known chaos–344 homicides in 2015, riots, dirt-bike gangs–there is absolute peace. White-tailed deer run gracefully, Canada geese waddle at the water's edge and pileated woodpeckers drum on trees. The hum of the Baltimore Beltway is 3 miles away, but it doesn't penetrate the 5,600 acres of dense forest surrounding Loch Raven Reservoir, the drinking water supply for people in Baltimore and its surrounding counties. For mountain bikers living in and north of the City of Baltimore, it's the closest and most convenient rural escape, a sanctuary for local pros like Marla Streb, who rides there from her home, and six-time 24-hour Solo World Champion Chris Eatough, who trained at Loch Raven when he lived in nearby Fallston, Maryland.
Trail quality and layout varies from insufferably steep, rocky and root-laden to fast and flowing with long downhill switchbacks. In the spring and summer, several sections are postcard perfect, like a strand of brown yarn dropped into a bed of green groundcover. Other parts look and feel like they haven't been maintained since The Harding Administration. In fact, building foundations from that era are still visible because small towns like Warren, Sweet Air and Bosley were sunk in the interest of the water project. What has evolved over the last century is a spiderweb of dirt chutes and spurs jutting off the main forest roads leading down to the water's edge or to scenic points of view. Navigating the trails is like reading a "Choose Your Own Adventure" novel–those unfamiliar with the layout will end up confused or lost, but knowledgeable riders can string together infinite possibilities. It's easy to see why Eatough trained at Loch Raven; 6 miles of riding can yield 1,000 feet of elevation gain on land that ranges from 100 feet above sea level to barely over 500 feet.
In 2010, the Mid-Atlantic Off-Road Enthusiasts (MORE) surveyed the land and found 60 miles of service roads and singletrack. Officially, however, the only legal mountain biking is on approximately 12 miles of dilapidated, rough and eroded fire roads broken into four unconnected sections. Despite endorsements from two world champions, riding on Baltimore's reservoir property has long been a contentious topic–it's a debate that has outlasted the careers of mayors, directors, spokespersons and reporters, and has exasperated the efforts of hundreds of volunteers. Understanding the reasons for this requires some rewinding. In 2009, the Environmental Police Division, whose objective is to protect the water supply at Loch Raven, started ticketing mountain bikers for riding illegal trails. The officers cited a 1998 agreement between the city's Department of Public Works (managers of the property) and the Maryland Association of Mountain Bike Operators (now part of MORE). That plan followed a 1995 comprehensive review of watershed regulations, which limited riding to the 12 miles of doubletrack.
The geographical position of the land and water is as confusing as the politics. The reservoir sits in Baltimore County, yet it is owned by the city. The mountain bike community won the support of county council members, as well as a state senator and a judge between 2009 and 2012, but those leaders don't have jurisdiction over city property. The public works department, or DPW, argues that silt and sediment in the reservoir caused by erosion and runoff negatively impacts the water supply. DPW, however, has never made an attempt to close the shoreline routes or the illegal access routes to repair the 100-foot riparian buffer zone adjacent to the water.
The DPW doesn't officially recognize trails other than the fire roads but hikers, runners and anglers are not cited. "If you want to argue that we have to do everything possible to save the water then great, do everything possible," said Joe Traill, owner of Joe's Bike Shop in Baltimore's Mt. Washington neighborhood. "But singling out mountain bikers is not doing everything possible." Traill and his partner, Katie Gore, said when ticketing started–at $60 a pop–Joe's noticed a drop in mountain bike business. Those who wanted better riding opportunities fled to two Maryland state parks: Gunpowder Falls and Patapsco Valley.
Mountain bikers haven't given up, though, and in March 2015, it seemed like they had made a major breakthrough. Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, with DPW director Rudy Chow at her side, announced an agreement to facilitate mountain biking around the reservoir. REI, which has a store less than 3 miles away, awarded MORE a $16,000 grant to use at Loch Raven. But the announcement created confusion because many believed all the trails were instantly legal. They were not. More enforcement ensued. The police reported 45 'contacts' with illegal mountain bikers in 2015 and 41 through the first half of 2016.
The one-year stewardship agreement tasked MORE with acquiring easements from private property owners whose land borders the reservoir in order to route existing trails around drainage gullies and impassable ravines. The original agreement expired in March, and even though a new deal is currently being negotiated, progress looks to have stalled. The REI money is still in MORE's account and no new legal trail has been added to official maps. MORE's new executive director, Steve DonTigny, remains hopeful. Shortly after he took the position in April, he explored the property with DPW officials. "We have conditions that we need to meet," DonTigny said. "We've got to do some community outreach, rider education and learn how we can get through to [the city] and make them realize our impact is minimal and they're getting a lot of labor out of the deal and improving their asset."
Despite the squabbling, mountain biking rolls on at Loch Raven.
The trails are a throwback to riding three decades ago. The baby head-sized rocks eat rims, the short, punchy climbs break chains and the steep descents are magnets for endos. "It's a horrible experience," said Gary Lessner, who has been riding at Loch Raven since 1990. He laughs but he's partly serious. Lessner started the Loch Raven Mountain Bikers Facebook group and leads a weekly post-work ride of up to a dozen colleagues and friends. He recently watched one new rider struggle on a fire road. "The path was so worn out it's hazardous, but this area is beautiful and it's simply the most convenient for us."
Riders who moan about the over-sanitization of trails would be in heaven at the reservoir because the only thing flowing there is water over the dam. Most of the more than 60 miles of singletrack and service road would never be built again. The 12 officially legal miles are the roughest, most eroded terrain in the trail system and MORE doesn't have the authority to remove downed trees or repair eroded sections. A pass through the Raven makes one an expert in steeplechase riding.
But Loch Raven remains the most important and closest riding area for residents of Baltimore County, as it sits central to a population of more than 830,000 residents. If the property were to be completely shut down, Lessner, who works five minutes from one of the trailheads, says, "It would be pretty devastating. I don't know how else to explain that."
Traill and Gore of Joe's Bike Shop are still optimistic. They have to be – Joe's uses the reservoir to host bike demos, group rides and summer camps, and any decision about its future affects their business. They both learned to mountain bike at Loch Raven and the battle over access almost makes Gore weep because she knows what could be lost if the parties can't find common ground: "Hours and hours of the most awesome trails ever."