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Blazing Trails for Bikes

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photo by Matthew Augustine photo by Matthew Augustine

Schweitzer makes new improvements for mountain biking fans

In a homeland such as ours that boasts abundant water courses, big mountains and even bigger views, recreation meets its perfect match. However, keeping these resources close to how we found them can be a challenge; a fine line exists between outdoor recreation and protecting natural resources. It is possible to have both.

Schweitzer Mountain Resort is up to nearly 30 miles of mountain bike trails, seven miles of which are new this year. The trail crew has been busy working on the new trail as well as over a dozen new bridges and boardwalks. These features help mitigate erosion issues by avoiding direct contact with natural water courses. The ramped-up attention to trails at Schweitzer this summer has seen new miles of trails completed and lots of happy bikers.

“Mountain biking is starting to become an expectation for summer visitors; many of the Canadian resorts have been offering mountain biking for years and we wanted to be competitive with our neighbors to the north and have more variety for our regular summer guests,” says Schweitzer Rental and Retail Director Jon Harding. “Schweitzer also has a very passionate group of mountain biking employees that wanted to build more trails.”

When planning for new trails, there are lots of important factors to take into account.Harding cites the biggest considerations to be figuring who will ride the trail (i.e. beginner, intermediate, or advanced) and where it will be built.

“Because we are above the watershed, stormwater management is a big deal,” says Sean Mirus, who leads the trail crew.

Before the newest trail, Bear Grass, a “beginner downhill/intermediate cross-country” trail, was built this summer, each trail crew member spent a week in a classroom and the field learning Best Management Practices for trail building.

Harding completed the Panhandle Stormwater and Erosion Education Program last spring, a voluntary course aimed at preventing erosion, a costly problem that can shut down projects and adversely affect water resources.

“The SEEP class has been huge—more so in helping me to identify potential problem areas with runoff and soil types,” says Harding. “The wattle has become my friend. We used them some last year—but I did not know how to use them properly; the SEEP class fixed that.”

Best Management Practices on the Schweitzer bike trails include boardwalks, bridges, wattles, packed berms and plantings. The vegetation planted is a variety made especially for Schweitzer comprised of ryegrass, fescue, and clover. The seeds are covered in straw to hold the moisture in and help with germination. The plantings will help keep the soil in place, preserving the integrity of the trails.

“Our initial trail design itself is a BMP,” says Harding. “The majority of the Bear Grass trail has a five degree out-slope for water runoff along with grade reversals to help direct the runoff—this trail was redirected many times to avoid both sensitive terrain and extreme terrain.”

The Bear Grass trail was created to give new downhill riders a chance to get some good experience. It provides an easier alternative to the existing downhill trails for those who don’t want to ride the lift back down. That said, it’s not really a place for training wheels either.

Many of the trails have wooden bridges and boardwalks to avoid natural water courses. Not only are they ecologically responsible and aesthetically pleasing, these features are also quite fun to ride over.

“Boardwalks allow us to keep water courses and flow as they are—we don’t have to divert them,” says trail builder Matthew Augustine. “The streams get to stay in their natural state.” 

Trail building on Schweitzer is not without its challenges either. The steep terrain and dense vegetation make accessing the trail sites quite difficult.

“Schweitzer is such a rocky hill,” says Mirus. “Decomposing granite and heavy runoff make it a challenging terrain to build on—it goes from super wet and muddy to talcum powder dry.”

Harding and Mirus cite another valuable resource for trail planning and design—the International Mountain Biking Association. This organization was founded over thirty years ago to “bring out the best in mountain biking by encouraging low-impact riding, volunteer trailwork participation, cooperation among different trail user groups, grassroots advocacy and innovative trail management solutions.” They have a myriad of resources online (www.imba.com) as well as publications and guides for trail builders.

Downhill mountain biking is one of the nation’s fastest growing sports. Dual suspension bikes are designed to navigate and endure more challenging terrain. The bikes often have longer travel suspension and overall heavier duty components. Downhill bikers (a.k.a. “Freeriders”) tend to wear more protective gear and padding. The features on downhill trails are generally steeper and full of rock drops, elevated wooden structures, teeter-totters, deep berms and more jumps than cross-country trails.

Whistler/Blackcomb near Vancouver, B.C. seems to be the mountain biking Mecca, and a model for other resorts. For some time now, Whistler has had over 75,000 rider days in the summer months; 75 percent of that traffic is going for the lift-accessed downhill trails.

“Whistler is on a different level,” Mirus explains with a reverence reserved for only the most gung-ho trail builders. “They were the first ones in the resort industry to really embrace [mountain biking]; they are setting the benchmarks.”

The trails at Schweitzer are fun for bikers of all levels. If you’re not into the downhill scene, there are nearly 20 miles of cross-country trails to get your cardio going.

Every Wednesday evening during the month of August Schweitzer hosted the Twilight cross-country race series. The course changed weekly and threw in extra challenges—changing a tire, scaling the climbing wall, or even walking a tightrope or a hula-hoop obstacle course. 

Silver Mountain has been a formidable mountain biking destination for years, though this summer they scaled back their operating hours. Schweitzer, on the other hand, increased theirs, opening and running the lifts seven days a week all summer. They’ve yet to have a single day without bikes to hang picturesquely from the hooks on the Great Escape quad.

“Customer response has been fantastic; people seem super stoked,” says Mirus. “Now they want more!”

Schweitzer will stop running the lifts for the summer on Labor Day (September 7), so if you haven’t checked the downhill trails yet, you’ll have to wait until next season. Remember though, you can always peruse the dynamite cross-country trails. When you do make it up there, take a look around at the sweat and planning (and most likely some tears too) that went into crafting those nifty dirt-trodden trails. 

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Kate Wilson Kate Wilson Kate Wilson is the Project Coordinator for the Pend Oreille Basin Commission

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