On the Shoulders of Giants

The yearly traikl-work weekend at Mile Creek represents an unusual and long-standing partnership between horsepackers and cyclists, one that has created some of the best trails in the state. Clark Kinney hauls tools with packstock, while Tim Hokanson and Corey Biggers pedal (and push) towards snowline during the Summer of 2009.

On the Shoulders of Giants Advocacy in Action in Montana

Tucked in the western flank of the Henrys Lake Mountain Range, near the border of Montana and Idaho, the Mile Creek Trail threads enticingly up a narrow, densely timbered drainage.

In 8.5 miles, the beautiful ribbon of soil and stone ascends 3,300 feet, zigzagging through 53 well-crafted switchbacks toward the alpine terrain above. Known locally as “the Lionhead” for the range’s feline-esque profile, the Henrys are big country. Grizzly bears and fickle mountain weather are constant worries, and travel requires top-notch backcountry skills.

Climbing to nearly 10,000 feet, the views from the top of Mile Creek are incredible. West Yellowstone is 25 miles to the east, and the Gallatin, Teton and Centennial ranges fill the horizon. From the ridge, trails take off in every direction, all with sustained climbs and technical descents through spectacular and remote backcountry.

Yet on this July weekend, riders will most likely pass bikers and horse-packers loaded with tools, stopping to clear brush, cut fallen trees and dig the occasional drainage dip. These 49 individuals, who have journeyed from different parts of Montana, Idaho and Wyoming, are here to make a high-profile, heavy-sweat-equity statement. Their efforts are centered on a nearly 20-year-old conflict, a bittersweet story that delves into what types of recreation are appropriate on our public lands, and the value of bicyclists as conservation partners in defending these wild places.

To appreciate the significance of this year’s gathering at Mile Creek, we must step back a few decades to the Montana of the 1980s. In those days, virtually every bit of public land, unless a designated Wilderness area or National Park, was open to our quiet, human-powered exploration. Guidebooks and bike-specific maps did not exist, and the rare bit of trail beta was shared exclusively via word-of-mouth, requiring a metaphorical (and sometimes literal) secret handshake, instilling a spirit of exploration, camaraderie and respect in locals and visitors alike.

Through the 1990s into the new millennium, Montana’s mountain bikers spun into the woods generally unmolested by restrictive regulations or social angst. Initially, we pedaled over rough, technical terrain on rigid hardtails, climbing into the high country via trails that had been there for decades, some even built during the 1930s by the Civilian Conservation Corps. We spun granny gears up old jeep roads or mining tracks, finding inspiration and solitude in the wild places they accessed.

Not limited by the technology of the day, we were inspired by where our bikes could take us. Every ride had a sense of exploration, and road trips were an exercise in curiosity—pull out the gazetteer, pick a mountain range with intriguing landscape and some accompanying dirt roads, and ask, “Where does that go?”

Not every guess was a success. But, with a tiny population spread across millions of jaw-dropping acres, every trip was a guaranteed adventure.

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