Pink streamers and sparkly paint aren’t too girly for the 17 young ladies, some only 9-years-old, who line up atop a mountain bike trail.
One girl squeals in excitement as she rolls over the jump, while another grins and gets a foot of air before plunking back onto the dirt. It’s the last day of mountain bike camp at Duthie Hill Park, but the ride is still exciting.
Mountain biking is growing, but even quicker among women, says Kat Sweet, who taught several youth camps at Duthie this summer.
The park, formed by a network of trails, is perfect for classes. The region could use a few more, if anything, to give kids something to do, she says. “It’s keeping then out of trouble.”
The vision for more parks like Duthie isn’t far from the minds of bike enthusiasts, who envision something similar in Issaquah. Banned from most hiking trails, bikers are also seizing opportunities to build multi-use trails in state forests.
While tensions are still high between hikers and bikers, the mountain bike community has grown in stature and power. Now even hiking clubs are beginning to recognize that bikers need more trail to ride.
However, this won’t keep the Issaquah Alps Trails Club from putting its foot down on the latest proposal for Issaquah’s Park Pointe.
Fight for trails
Once a whitewater kayaker, Glenn Glover quit his favorite sport after too many injuries made it impossible for him to sit in his boat.
A friend suggested he try mountain bikes. Having raced in the dirt as a kid, mountain biking was more of a rediscovery.
Glover, now the executive director of the Evergreen Mountain Bike Alliance, doesn’t even remember his first ride, but he does know that he was hooked in 1995.
By then most of the hiking trails along I-90 had been closed to mountain bikes. Evergreen is still fighting for trails to ride.
The sport moved off the fringe in the late ’80s, about the same time hikers began taking up issue with motor bikes. The two got swept into one bag, and hiking groups successfully pushed state agencies to ban bikes from most trails, Glover said.
After seeing access close at trail after trail, mountain bikers formed Evergreen, once called the Back Country Bicycle Trails Club, in 1989 and began to fight the changes.
Today about 12 of the 80 miles of trail on Tiger Mountain allow bikes, perhaps the largest trail victory of the time.
Once the reactionary underdogs, Evergreen has grown up in numbers – it now has 6,000 followers – and renewed purpose.
Evergreen spearheaded the development of two large-scale mountain bike parks, Duthie and The I-5 Colonnade, a skills park under the freeway in Seattle. It leads so many trail projects, it has three crew directors on staff.
“The momentum is on the side of mountain biking,” Glover said.
When conservationists wanted help promoting the expansion of the Alpine Lakes Wilderness in the Cascade Mountains, they negotiated a deal with Evergreen so it would lobby for the expansion in Washington D.C., he said.
Even with new-found influence, hiking trails will never reopen to bikers, Glover says. It’s a political impossibility.
The only solution is to build trails, but that too has its setbacks.
A key stance of the Alps Club is to ensure that state money once afforded to hiking trails not be redirected toward ones for biking, said David Kappler, president of the Alps Club.
However, he says he’s not against new trails. He wrote a letter to help the Washington Department of Natural Resources win a grant that would help build trails at Raging River, a new forest along Rattlesnake Mountain. Some of those improvements would likely be for bikers.
He also supports better development on bike trails on East Tiger.
Perhaps if mountain bikers had more trail, fewer would illegally cross over to West Tiger, where all the hikers are, he said.
Not just hikers
On a sunny afternoon, Bob Bournique paced down Novelty Hill Road counting cars – 83 – all there for mountain biking.
Having just finished work, he wanted to ride the new Redmond hot spot with what seemed to be the rest of the mountain bike community. It was the mid-’90s, and the sport had just taken off.
Bournique, like many, doesn’t remember exactly how mountain bikes were banned from the park, but he did say it happened quickly with little thought from the Redmond City Council.
“It was a really ugly moment,” Bournique said.
When mountain bikers discovered Novelty Hill, well-worn paths had already been created by horses and motor bikes.
Mountain biking had just hit the mainstream, and riders were looking for a place to go.
Neighbors didn’t like how busy it got with bikers. They preferred the peaceful forest and private walking paths their homes once looked over, Bournique supposed.
The community went to City Hall to complain, saying mountain bikes were hurting the environment, he said. “They immediately said,‘no bikes.’ They kicked everyone out.”
It was the “darkest hour” of Evergreen’s history, Bournique said. “It was a real big wake-up call.”
Later the park was reopened to bikers, but their access is confined to one straight, 8-foot-wide gravel path, because “that’s what we like” he said sarcastically.
When the Issaquah Alps Trails Club pushed to ban bikes from Cougar Mountain, it was concerned about two major issues – safety and conservation, Kappler said.
While both sides clash over these points, some scientists are saying its all a matter of perspective.
Mountain bikers typically travel at a fast pace. So much so that Kappler doesn’t feel safe taking hiker groups on the Grand Ridge Trail, which is predominately used by bikers, because, “you never know when the bikes are going to be coming at you.”
But citing a 2006 study on the multi-use of Middlefork Trail, Glover challenged that perception of safety.
The study, conducted by a Central Washington University graduate student, suggested the perception of conflict between bikers and hikers was much higher than the reality.
It concluded that 90 percent of users had no safety concerns, had a high level of enjoyment, and a positive experience with bikers.
Both sides are enthusiastic about the environment, but the Alps Club’s passion couldn’t have been demonstrated more intensely than in a controversial column written by former president Steve Williams in December 2010.
“In total disdain for the environment, some bikers engage in what they call the ‘sport’ of free-riding – which is basically flinging themselves downhill anywhere through the woods where there is no trail at all,” he wrote. “They suit up in body armor for this, and brag about their injuries, but have no concern at all for plants, animals, ground-nesting birds, etc.”
Although not unfamiliar to Glover, these accusations about free riders are fundamentally wrong – there isn’t a mountain bike designed to ride off trail, he said.
Regardless, most mountain bikers ride cross country, and free riding makes a small percentage of the sport.
Environmental scientists have completed a number of studies on mountain bike impacts, but the results are a mixed bag, because each trail is different, said Mike Quinn, a scientist at the University of Calgary who released a study on the Canadian Rockies.
When it comes to conservation, a study should be done on the land in question before drawing any conclusions, he said.
However, in most cases erosion caused by bikers is pretty similar to hikers, and trails can be built to accommodate mixed use, he said.
The only major difference is that because mountain bikes are faster, they can spook animals into a fighting mode, as opposed to hikers, who approach slow enough for animals to choose flight.
Often people use scientific studies to support their own values. He’d prefer groups to figure out how they want to use a trail, and then work out if they’re compatible, instead of turning to studies.
Carolyn Hope, a parks planner for Redmond, glides her mountain bike down a steep boardwalk designed to scare beginners away from the trail.
She swoops between the trees, avoiding ferns hanging over parts of the trail, and flies off a narrow jump. Not all of the trails at Duthie were built for little girls camps.
“People want un-programmed recreation,” said Hope, also an instructor at Evergreen.
Several members of the Issaquah Mountain Bike Task Force have talked about someday building a place similar to Duthie at Park Pointe. It’s a forest behind Issaquah High School that the city just purchased in a complicated development rights deal that broke even.
Even the mention of the plan curls the toes of Kappler, Alps Club president.
The whole purpose of the Park Pointe deal was to conserve the land once destined for development.
Taxpayers didn’t spend $6 million to buy the property so the city could build a bike park, Kappler said. “There is no way.”
Bikers already have begun building rogue trails and jumps on the property, he added. “That kind of thing is unacceptable.”
Given the opposition from the Alps Club, the task force probably won’t recommend the city explore the option, said John Traeger, an Issaquah councilmember and avid mountain biker. “There’s been a lot of heated discussion on whether that should be included in the findings document or not.”
Instead, its September report will focus on moving along plans for a small skills park in the Highlands, he added.
At first the city considered giving Park Pointe to DNR, but it was too close to the city and recreation areas, said Doug McClelland, a DNR assistant region manager.
Whether conservation can include mountain bike trails and hiking paths is up for public discussion, he added.
“The greatest risk to our natural areas is not mountain bikes,” Glover said. “It’s not valuing (the forests) enough to protect them.”
Issaquah Reporter staff writer Celeste Gracey can be reached at 425-391-0363, ext. 5052.