Snow was still swirling on the imposing peaks above Montana’s Lake Como as Jeff Kern, president of the Bitterroot Backcountry Cyclists (BBC), geared up to lead a group ride on a network of ridge trails high above the lake.
“The trails we’ll be riding today are a lot more raw than the stuff we’re building on the south side of the lake,” Kern told me as we chatted beneath a shelter at the Three Sisters Group Site in the Lake Como Recreation Area with other members of the BBC.
Temperatures down near the lake were hovering in the low 40s, and only a handful of BBC members had shown up for the previous night’s campout and the morning’s subsequent group ride — which would be followed by trail work on the “Kern’s Turns” trails later in the day.
Used unofficially and with a slight air of reverence by all members of the BBC, the name “Kern’s Turns” refers to a network of mountain biking trails on the south side of Lake Como that Kern and a dedicated crew of volunteers have been meticulously developing for the better part of a decade. The United States Forest Service refers to these new trails as the “Bunkhouse Trail System.”
Later that afternoon, we’d all shoulder McLeods and Pulaskis and head out to the south side to “butter up” some of the newest trails in the Kern’s Turns system after the ravages of a long winter and a few postholing horse hooves had taken their collective tolls. But for now, we were headed for a steep ridge just north of the lake.
As Kern had alluded to earlier that morning, the trails on the north side of Lake Como—Jenny Ridge and Lick Creek—are raw, but they’re great fun, even for a rider of my severely limited skill set.
More than a few times, I was forced to watch idly as the more competent BBC members carved their way up steep inclines that, for me, required a full dismount and a pride-swallowing hike to the top.
For most of the ride, though, I remained firmly planted in the saddle, and at one point I looked up to a breathtaking view of Lake Como framed by the towering El Capitan, which rises to 9,924 feet above sea level.
Lake Como lies on the southern end of Montana’s Bitterroot Valley. Roughly 90 miles long, this broad valley is bisected by the trout-rich waters of the Bitterroot River. A craggy impasse known as the Bitterroot Range juts above its western edge while the forested foothills and snow-capped knobs of the Sapphire Mountains roll off to the east. From the nearby town of Hamilton, an hour drive up Highway 93 leads to Missoula, Montana.
As we approached the lookout on Jenny Ridge, I was enlightened, by other members of the BBC, about the nuances of the Bitterroot Valley’s mountain biking scene.
“Mountain biking opportunities are a little harder to come by here in the Bitterroot than in other parts of the West,” a BBC member who’d participated in the previous night’s campout tells me as we pause to admire sweeping views of the Bitterroot and Sapphire ranges. “We have great riding, but a lot of it is technical, and you’re going to be sharing a lot of stuff with the horse folks. Trails specifically designed for mountain biking were all but nonexistent before we started on Kern’s Turns.”
Kern and his crew first proposed the new trails to the Forest Service back in 2013. Since then they’ve installed a series of intermediate-level stacked loops complete with exciting descents and carefully placed berms that wind through some twenty miles of pine-studded forest. It’s the only purpose-built mountain biking trail system along the Highway 93 corridor, which runs from the Idaho border near Lost Horse Pass all the way to Missoula.
“It’s required a lot of work,” Kern said. “Before we ever broke ground on the trails, we had to work very closely with the Forest Service to get approval. There’s been a lot of behind-the-scenes work done to secure funding, but we’re finally closing in on it. We only have about four miles left to build.”
Much of the funding that Kern and other members of the BBC were able to secure has come through state-awarded recreation grants like the Montana Trail Stewardship Grant Program. Grant funding like this recently helped the BBC enlist the trail building services of a small excavating company out of nearby Darby, Montana.
“Before we had the excavator we were doing everything from scratch,” Kern said. “The excavator helped move things along, but there’s still a lot of smoothing and finishing that has to be done after the excavator puts in a new stretch of trail.”
After the morning’s ride on the north side of the lake, we head south to a stretch of Kern’s Turns called the Waddell Creek Trail. This is where the ingenuity and dedication of Kern and the other volunteers really began to shine.
At the trailhead for Waddell Creek, Kern opened the back hatch of his Subaru to reveal a wide array of trail building implements. One by one, the BBC members happily hoisted the hefty tools and fanned out for points along the trail.
I shadowed a member named Josh as he began raking out post holes left by horse hooves with the confidence of someone who’d performed the task many times before. Josh sunk his own personal McLeod into the soil and lamented the damage that horses tend to do to newly built trails like the stretch of Waddell we were working on.
“Sometimes I think the horse people ride these trails without even knowing that we just put them in, and that we’re working all the time to clean them up and smooth them out,” Josh tells me. “What can you do? All of these trails are multi-use, and they have a right to be here too. I think it’ll get better once the trails settle and the dirt gets more compacted.”
As I continue to clumsily wield my own McLeod, Kern’s wife, Jessica, appears to tell us that a new berm is being built further up the trail. I head that way, joining Jess and the BBC members in a search for boulders that we’ll eventually use to buttress the outside edge of the newly built berm.
“Back before the trails were ever built, I would come out here with Jeff, and he’d point to this or that area where he envisioned a trail going through,” Jess told me, as a group of us prepared to transport a large boulder to the distant berm with a sturdy rock sling. “I could never do that. I just couldn’t picture the best placement for a trail that didn’t exist yet, but Jeff has a real knack for it.”
Once we’d nested the boulder into the side of the new berm and concealed it with several bucketloads of fresh dirt, the day’s work was done. The Waddell Creek Trail was now smooth and buttery, the seamless transition provided by the new berm looked inviting, and I found myself growing eager for a return trip—once the dirt settles of course—to try my hand at Kern’s Turns.
More profound than the creation of a new feature on a brand new trail system in a setting as compelling as the Bitterroot Valley, though, was the sense of collective accomplishment that permeated the BBC membership as they walked back to the trailhead. There is an undeniable sense of ownership one obtains after investing time and physical effort into a project such as this, and these folks have spent untold hours swinging Pulaskis and McLeods, hauling five-gallon buckets full of dirt and rock, and hoisting boulders up and down hillsides in an effort to bring Kern’s Turns to fruition.
According to Kern, the trail work will probably never come to a full stop. There will always be spots that need smoothing, new berms that need building, and a need for subtle refinements that future rides will undoubtedly reveal.
“We’re always looking for ways to improve the trails,” he said. “But for now, we’re pretty proud of the progress we’ve made. It’s going to be a great asset for the whole community.”