Mountain Mumbles

Members of Teton Valley Sprockids work at a trail day at the Driggs Bike Park on Monday. They’re volunteers, not elves.

When I started mountain biking I had no idea how trails were made, and honestly, I didn’t really care. I just sort of assumed that trails were a natural part of the mountains and forests, like streams or ridgelines. The fun stuff, like jumps, had obviously been built by someone, and I tore up my parents’ yard trying to build my own, but I never gave much thought to all the parts that you’re actually riding on — the singletrack, the tread.

It wasn’t until I moved to the Tetons that I started to appreciate what it takes from a community to make good mountain bike trails happen. I was out for a quick after-work ride, zoned out, riding mellow singletrack, when I blasted around a corner and ran into a group of people with McLeods and Pulaskis, chipping away at the trail. Before I could collect myself and keep riding somebody invited me to help out with this “trail day.”

I was confused. I’d built mountain bike trails before, but none of them had been strictly legal, and as such we’d had to be a little sneaky with how and when we worked on them. Hike in to the new jump line a different way every time, do most of our work in the spring and fall when not too many other folks were out recreating. I couldn’t imagine building trails as part of an organized effort.

But here were 30 or so people, many of them in matching shirts, working on a bike trail at 5:30 p.m. Monday. So I leaned my bike against a tree and tried to help. It turns out my renegade trail-building days didn’t give me much to work off of. I had a strong background figuring out where to put jumps, and how big to make them, but I’d never built a trail long enough or permanent enough to have to worry about things like how they shed water or drain. So instead of shaping booters, I spent that afternoon learning how to “think like water” and clear trail drains.

Since then I’ve gotten into the swing of trail days. I’m on the email list, so I’m not surprised when I come around a corner and find a bunch of folks digging instead of riding. I’ve also come to appreciate good, maintained trails, mostly by riding a bunch of terrible, overgrown ones.

Here in the Tetons we’re blessed with a huge number of great trails. It seems like there’s a new section of singletrack completed at Grand Targhee every week, and crews from nonprofits leave a string of fun new singletrack behind them wherever they go. It’s a little magical how often we get to go ride new trails that have just been completed.

But good bike trails don’t just magically come from nowhere, even if it feels like they do. Often, around here, they originate with a long conversation with the Forest Service and any other invested parties. Routes are approved and taped, maybe there’s a paid trail crew involved, and almost always there are a few public trail days when everyday bikers, hikers and equestrians can show up to help hand-finish a trail. Without that process, and that community involvement, we don’t get new trails.

And beyond that, on already existing trails, maintenance doesn’t happen by itself. The Forest Service doesn’t have a magical army of trail elves that pops out of the woods and clean up whenever a tree falls across the trail. There’s no crew working to fill braking bumps and horse tracks. Instead, it’s up to us, the users, to supplement what paid organizations we do have. Move the trees and branches that you can. Call in the big ones, or carry a saw. At the very least, kick those big loose rocks out of the drains.

Show up at trail days and put a little time back into the network you love. Do you ride your bike instead of going to the gym? Consider throwing a gym-fee-size donation to a local trail organization. Every foot of singletrack we ride is there because somebody put in the time with a machine or a shovel.

Everybody wants to ride new trails. We’re all hungry to connect new loops, and experience new singletrack. But we’re not entitled to it, and at the end of the day, we need to empower ourselves if we want to keep riding.

Cy Whitling writes every other week on living and playing in the mountains. Contact him via columnists@jhnewsandguide.com.

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