Thursday, April 02, 2020

Bikes in the Backcountry: A Rider's Viewpoint

           I have a bum left ankle; actually, everything from the shin down. I was born with my left foot twisted, something they now know how to fix in infancy. Then, when I was in seventh grade, I broke my left ankle skiing, which required surgery to repair. Back around 2004, in two weeks’ time, I managed to sprain both sides of my left ankle which caused the arch in my left foot to collapse. Lastly, a couple of years ago I got a spiral fracture of my left fibula, falling down the stairs.

In 1993 I took up cycling as an adult, first mountain biking and then bicycle touring/travel, because although I enjoy walking, even with the aid of orthotics it can be painful for me. As a founding member of IMBA’s National Mountain Bike Patrol, a volunteer service organization modeled after the National Ski Patrol, I have observed with interest the ongoing debate about the place of mountain bikes in backcountry and wilderness areas. Because of my specific situation, I am sympathetic with those who advocate for increased access to particularly wilderness areas by those who ride mountain bikes. As a park ranger for twenty-six years, I also am very familiar with the damage that can occur from various types of backcountry travel. It goes without saying, that horse hooves, bike tires, and even hiking boots take a toll on the ground underneath them. On the other hand, mountain biking, which is only been a popular activity for about thirty-five years, has less of effect on trails that are built sustainably for the specific activity. If you go to Cuyuna Country State Recreation Area in central Minnesota or the Chequamegon Area Mountain Bike Association trails in Northwest Wisconsin, you will see less of an impact, because those trails are specifically built for MTB use.

Therein, I believe, lies the problem. Sustainable trails can bear mountain bike and hiking use quite admirably, but they have to be built to the specifications required to do so. Because of my physical limitations, a number of years ago I started using my touring bike to access backcountry fishing spots at Cuyuna. Later, I started using my mountain bike for the same thing in Chequamegon country. Then, in 2014 Quality Bicycle Products (QBP), the world’s largest bicycle-related company, introduced the Cogburn Outdoors CB4, a mountain bike with 4-inch-wide, low-pressure tires that is basically a human-powered ATV, marketed specifically to the outdoor sports user. The Cogburn has become my primary way of accessing non-wilderness backcountry away from the trailhead, or after the road ends.

Photo credit: Cogburn Outdoors
Much of the early publicity for the Cogburn revolved around hunters (and in some cases anglers) using the bike to access hunting areas away from the road and have your usage areas. In areas where this is possible, practical, and legal, it’s a great idea, and it worked very well. However, two things happened that had a pronounced effect on this use; misuse, and the advent of e-bikes. The first, misuse, while theoretically avoidable was also probably inevitable. Bikes ended up where they didn’t belong, not just Cogburns, but mountain bikes and others. The second, and probably the greater issue, was the adding of electric assist motors to fat bikes (mountain bikes with 4 inch or greater with tires) that were also marketed heavily to the outdoors user. The crux of the issue is that e-bikes, unlike their unassisted counterparts, are motorized vehicles. Most national and state forest and game management areas limit the use of motorized vehicles to designated roads and trails. Places that a mountain bike or fat bike and go legally, an e-bike cannot.

In 2017 QBP ended production of the Cogburn without much fanfare. The Cogburn was a niche bike, and with the growth of e-bikes and other marketing considerations, it became a rapidly dwindling niche. I still have mine, and always will. I’d love to get a couple more to have on hand to take my grandkids fishing, but right now that’s not in the cards, nor is there enough space in my garage to do so. I still ride in the backcountry, to access remote streams and lakes. Do I believe wilderness should be open to non-electric assisted mountain bikes? On a limited, case-by-case basis, yes, I do. To blanket state that all wilderness areas should be open to mountain bikes, absolutely not. Should wilderness designation be used to take away existing, legal mountain bike trails? Also, absolutely not. But I do believe there is a place, and a time for compromise. It pained me to see organizations that I am proudly a part of taking a rigid stance against bikes in the backcountry, particularly since Cogburn Outdoors was one of their early supporters.

To mountain bike users, I would say pick your battles wisely. There is a lot of backcountry (primitive, nonmotorized management areas, or “wild forest”) that is available for us to use. There is a state forest near me where ranger flagged me down while I was riding there one time, simply because he had never seen a mountain biker on that forest. Wisely use what you have available before you go looking for that which is not open. To those who are opposed to bicycle use in the backcountry, I would say that Montana is different from Minnesota is different from upstate New York. Look at things on a case-by-case basis rather than a blanket “NO!” To both sides I would say, look and work for an effective compromise.

And for those who would jump all over me for riding on “their trail”, first of all, no, it’s not. Secondarily, as one district ranger told me with regard to a certain national trail that crosses a first-class trout river, “there aren’t any ‘no bikes allowed’ signs on that trail.” Where there are, I won’t ride. Otherwise, I’ll see you out there.