MTN Special Report: Crisis in the High Country.
When a hiker allegedly went rogue on Vancouver’s North Shore, the booby traps she’s charged with placing waylaid mountain bikers. How do we stop mere harassment from devolving to a blood sport on North America’s trails?
By Ryan Stuart | Photographs by Acme Co. Images
A mountain biker descends exposed granite, his body weight centered over the back tire. Braking a little too hard, his tires slide toward the mossy cedars at trail’s edge before a deft redirection rolls him back onto Pipeline, a classic backcountry trail on Vancouver’s North Shore. Here, stone ramps, log rides, and slatted wooden roller coasters interrupt famously convoluted singletrack reminiscent of a Rube Goldberg sketch. The rider eyes the horizon line, then slows for a quick dismount. He’s not scouting the steep drop. He’s looking for booby traps. This is no freerider out for a Saturday burn. The cyclist is a police officer on patrol.
The local Royal Canadian Mounted Police have fielded a bike unit to watch over neighborhood alleys and city parks since 1992. Only recently have they patrolled the 62 kilometers of multiuse trails on Mount Fromme, a busy North Shore network. Reports of debris and logs placed on trails to inconvenience bikers have trickled in for more than a decade. But in September 2014, the simmering tensions between hikers and mountain bikers finally boiled. This time there was no mistaking that the incidents were deliberate—logs and branches strategically placed at drops and corners on popular trails.
In response, two local bikers rigged up six infrared night vision cameras. Based on their footage, the police arrested Tina Kraal, a 64-year-old hiker, as she reemerged at a Mount Fromme trailhead early on January 4. Kraal now faces a December trial for a mischief charge. Her husband, Ronald Kraal, maintains she was only trying to slow mountain bikers. His 2005 letter to municipal officials suggests the motive: “…Every morning we walk on the once beautiful trails and try to destroy the structures raised by people who have a total disregard and disrespect for nature.”
A few weeks later, an argument broke out between a mountain biker and a woman hiker on another Fromme trail, which ended with the hiker poking the rider in the butt with a trekking pole. “There is definitely some tension in the woods,” says Richard De Jong of the North Vancouver police.
Across North America, most everyone plays nice, but as mountain biking booms a second time—sales are reportedly extremely healthy right now and trailheads from Vermont to California are bustling—the type of isolated conflict common in the early ’90s is rearing its ugly-ass head once more. “A recent dramatic increase in trail use, mostly by mountain bikers, is causing a capacity issue,” says Susan Rogers, the District Parks Superintendent for the Mount Fromme area. “Pinch points are emerging.”
Before the 1980s, hikers and horseback riders were the only real trail users. Then mountain bikers formed grassroots clubs and established the International Mountain Bicycling Association. Together, they advocated for access, and then invested 30 years worth of sweat and financial equity into thousands of miles of new and reclaimed trails. They also espouse a trail ethic that places the onus on bikers to yield to other user groups. How much that happens these days is difficult to say. But what’s clear is that mountain bikers volunteer to maintain trails more than any other user group. “The best way to achieve the spirit of our Rules of the Trail is to be courteous and respectful to everyone you meet,” says IMBA spokesperson Mark Eller. “Every pass is a unique personal interaction. Make eye contact and read body language.”
Today, many land managers and local politicians are mountain bikers too. Or if not, at least they recognize that mountain bikers are generally respectable citizens with a right to share public lands. But individuals can lag behind. “When you’ve invested a lot of time and money on trails, and then a new user group comes along and demands access, that’s going to put your nose out of place,” says Peter Olsen, Vice President of Programs & Government Relations at the American Hiking Society.
Anecdotal evidence suggests there’s a generational divide at play as well: the hiking crowd skews older and the younger set gravitates toward tires, not boots. And again, trails are only getting busier. According to the Outdoor Industry Association, between 2007 and 2013 trail running increased by 2.5 million participants, mountain biking gained almost 2 million users, and hiking increased from about 30 million to more than 34 million users. When these growing populations collide, bad things can happen. In 2013, British Columbia police warned riders to be cautious after a series of trip wires clotheslined bikers, including an eight-year-old girl. Near Ashland, Oregon, a psychiatrist pled guilty to assault in 2013 for setting trip wires and laying nails on downhill mountain bike trails. Colorado riders uncovered similar nail belts near Grand Junction, Colorado Springs, and Carbondale.
The hostilities, however, haven’t been exclusively targeted at mountain bikers. Before the latest incidents on the North Shore, a crude trap on Vancouver’s popular Grouse Grind trail snared a dog and jogger. Maybe the most shocking story comes from Portland’s Sandy Ridge Park, where a couple repeatedly threatened hikers, dog walkers, and bikers with pepper spray, a Taser, and finally a handgun. Road cyclists feel the rage too. In Colorado, carpet tacks have been found along popular routes. And in rural areas nationwide, drivers have modified diesel pickup trucks to blast clouds of soot as they pass riders. Anglers also face harassment. In Montana’s Bitterroot Valley, one landowner set up motion-activated sprinklers that spray water on fly fishers legally stalking the river. And on waterways that pass through private land in Colorado, sunken rebar can puncture rafts.
If all this sounds like all-out war, know that news outlets like to report on conflict. Conflict sells, baby. Taken in its entirety, though, the multiuse trail concept, yielding, and sharing roads has been a tremendous success. “Most people simply wave and pull off the trail, but they’re the silent majority,” says Mike McCormack, a mountain bike race director who lives in Eagle, Colorado. “I consider hikers like-minded stewards of the backcountry. We’re neighbors first, and label ourselves by our passions second.”
Canada’s national park system now considers mountain bikes essential. From the late 1990s through the mid-2000s, visitation declined across Parks Canada’s 44 national parks. Because user fees supply up to 20 percent of park budgets, the drop prompted a rethink. In 2010, Parks Canada decided to allow formerly outlawed activities, like paragliding and via ferrata. They also updated their mountain biking rules. For the first time since 1984, cross-country riding and even manmade features were allowed on prescribed trails. The change green-lights construction of bike-specific trails and opens formerly hiking-only trails to multipurpose use. Some of the time anyway: “Take a trail like the one to the Lake Agnes Tea House at Lake Louise,” says Ed Jager, director for visitor experience with Parks Canada. The route covers just over four miles and 1,100 vertical feet round trip—and ends at a rustic cabin on the water’s edge where tea and pie is served. “It would be fun to ride,” says Jager, “but it’s so busy it would be like bowling. In high-use areas, adding mountain biking just increases the possibility for conflict.”
But Parks Canada land managers also know hikers prefer the most direct route, while mountain bikers prioritize flow and fun. So new funding is set to rework trails for shared use. That means improved sight lines. Fast sections could be rerouted to slow riders. Still, integration is a long-term process. “Horseback riders and hikers have been interacting for ever. They understand each other,” says Jager. “It’s going to take time for mountain bikers to be accepted by other users. Until then mountain bikers need to be extra courteous.”
More evidence that the shared model actually works comes from Park City, Utah, which boasts more than 350 miles of trail. Hikers, runners, mountain bikers, and dog walkers account for more than 1.5 million user days per year there, and the nonprofit Mountain Trails helps manage about half of that network. When Executive Director Charlie Sturgis came on six years ago, he bathed in a daily deluge of nasty emails about negative trail interactions. Now, he gets almost none—which frees up time for a lunch ride.
“Topography or trail design is not the problem,” says Sturgis. “It’s a sense of entitlement to ride too fast, or not yield, or have a dog off-leash.” As a fix, Mountain Trails deployed an initiative called 10 Seconds of Kindness. Anyone who pedals or strolls off-road in Park City spots the signage, which reads: “Slow down, smile, and say hi!” Says Sturgis: “Beating people with rules just doesn’t work. Being polite goes a long way.”
Meanwhile, in East Burke, Vermont, the local Kingdom Trails Association reports things are so copacetic that when some college students recently came by to study local trail conflicts, they couldn’t find any. Key to that is a central trailhead—everyone parks at the visitor center. There, staffers get to communicate directly about the best routes for hikers or bikers, which distributes users across the network. The Kingdom Trails crew also takes a different approach on who yields to whom. “We ask everyone to yield, no matter who or where they are,” says Kingdom Trails Executive Director Tim Tierney. “Here, everyone’s equally responsible.”
Back on Vancouver’s North Shore, the mountain biker Cam McRae cautiously returned to Lower Skull, a Mount Fromme trail where Tina Kraal’s handiwork allegedly appeared. McRae was skittish for good reason: last year, he came around a blind corner and hit a log laying diagonally across a particularly steep and narrow section of the trail. Forced to ditch his bike, he landed on his back. “I was okay, but it could have been really bad,” he says.
Since Kraal’s arrest, the booby traps have stopped. McRae, the editor of Vancouver’s mountain bike website NSMB.com, thinks attitudes have changed too. “People have been making an extra effort to be more courteous,” he says. “We all just want access to the woods. Hikers, dog walkers, bikers—we’re all out here for the same reason.”
From the Early Summer 2015 issue.