Mountain bikers have swarmed into a niche originally carved by motorcyclists.
Canfield Mountain, a forested knob topped by several radio communications towers just north of Coeur d’Alene, is gaining notoriety as one of the best mountain bike trail systems in the Inland Northwest.
“It’s like a ski area designed especially for bikes,” said Bob Eagan, a Coeur d’Alene veterinarian and Canfield trails advocate.
In the late 1950s, when Tote Gotes and Honda trail bikes first came on the market, young motorhead thrillseekers pioneered routes straight up Canfield Mountain’s slopes.
These renegade trails quickly began eroding into dangerous ruts and deep gullies.
“When I first started mountain biking at Canfield in the early ‘80s, getting up the mountain was about 90 percent walking,” Eagan said. “The trails were brutally steep. It was an exercise in survival.”
But in 1988, the Nettleton timber sale gave the Idaho Panhandle National Forests a chance to earmark funds to upgrade Canfield from a sore spot to 33 miles of voluptuous biking trails.
“The trails are designed for motorcycles and bikes, but mountain bikes have become the predominant use,” said Jack Durell, Fernan District ranger.
“These trails are perfect for bikes. They’re so close to town, bikers can rally together and ride through city streets to the trails.
“Motorcyclists were going all over the place creating problems with erosion and disturbance to adjacent private property,” he said. “We knew we had a problem as well as an opportunity. Rather than try to stop recreational use, we chose the positive approach of a marked trail system to channel use in the right directions.”
The Forest Service tapped $15,000 from the timber sale under a provision that requires loggers to compensate for impacts they have on recreation.
Another $40,000 was acquired from Idaho’s off-road-vehicle fund, which comes primarily from ORV licensing.
The Forest Services kicked in another $30,000 from its own trail funding budget.
By 1993, the Forest Service was building designed trails to link the best of the existing trails into loops and circuits.
“Once we marked the trails and put up signs, a wide range of riders began to come,” Durell said.
Intermediate riders may find the five miles of newly constructed trails to be the most enjoyable on the mountain, including Trails 8, D, A and portions of 10.
But hard-core cyclists may prefer the original trails, which were routed by grit and gravity.
Canfield is unique in the region for several reasons. It’s the only trail system of its size designed specifically for motorcycles and mountain bikes. It’s also the first area in the Panhandle to use rubber flaps for water erosion control.
Traditional trail erosion deterrents involve wood posts imbedded across the trail to divert water. But to a biker, these water bars are dangerous wheel-grabbing speed bumps.
The rubber flaps divert water while allowing bikers to ride over them with little interference.
Andy Boggs heads the Forest Service crews that are still working to reseed old trails and restore stream crossings.
“Our biggest job in preserving the trails is keeping out the four-wheel-drives,” he said. “We’re hauling in a lot of boulders for that.”
Now that Canfield is gaining a following, users are monitoring the trail system and reporting abuses, Boggs said.
“The Forest Service can help get the trails up and running, but users will have to do much of the maintenance because our budgets are declining,” Boggs said.
The Panhandle Trail Riders Association has been a big help in trail maintenance, Durell said.
Mountain bikers have no similar organization, much to Eagan’s chagrin.
“Mountain bikers and dirt bikers are similar in a lot of ways,” he said. “They’re both rugged individualists that don’t care much for organization. But mountain bikers are even harder to get together.”
Even at Canfield, this can be a problem.
“The Forest Service is no Evil Empire, but some of us are really upset about their plans to cut a 100-foot fire break along Trail 28,” said Eagan.
Trail 28, which doesn’t even appear on the Forest Service’s slick new Canfield Mountain trail map, is what Eagan calls “the extreme of the extreme routes.”
The route follows Trail 1 from the radio towers and plunges down a ridge.
“The Forest Service tends to build the generic, handicapped-accessible wonderful trails that get boring to ride,” Eagan said. “Right now the mix is pretty good, but if they cut that timber and reroute that trail, they’ll eliminate an important part of the trail system for aggressive riders.”
In the next breath, however, Eagan was all praise for the Forest Service.
“It’s a little like a naval destroyer in that it’s big and slow to turn,” he said. “But I’ve biked trails from Canada to Moab, Utah, and people can’t believe what a good working relationship we have with the Forest Service. In most places, mountain bikers are getting kicked off trails.”
Mark Beattie of Vertical Earth bike shop in Coeur d’Alene has had some success in organizing mountain bikers to work on the trails.
“We have lots of good mountain biking places, like Farragut State Park, Schweitzer, Silver Mountain and Lookout Pass,” he said. “But Canfield is No. 1. It’s worth working for.”
Said Eagan, “The Forest Service has bent over backwards trying to work with mountain bikers. But we’re hard to find. There’s no defined source to deal with. This hurts us.”