ON THE TRAIL TO VIRTUE

January 02, 2004 12:00 am
SIGNS MARK TRAILS:Nic Daniels (left) and Corey Jonas rest for a moment before pedaling down one of the dozens of marked trails at BLM's Virtue Flat off-highway vehicle area east of Baker City. Volunteers and BLM workers installed about 50 signs earlier this year. (Baker City Herald photo).
SIGNS MARK TRAILS:Nic Daniels (left) and Corey Jonas rest for a moment before pedaling down one of the dozens of marked trails at BLM's Virtue Flat off-highway vehicle area east of Baker City. Volunteers and BLM workers installed about 50 signs earlier this year. (Baker City Herald photo).

By Jayson Jacoby

For The Observer

BAKER CITY — Nic Daniels and Corey Jonas are hurtling at hair-mussing speed down a Virtue Flat cow trail, their lives — or at least their exposed skin — depending on a pair of two-inch-wide knobby tires.

Sagebrush limbs, sun-bleached to the gray-white pallor of discarded bone, intrude on the trail at just the right height to yank a foot off a pedal.

Then Jonas sees the fence.

The inanimate metal seems harmless.

But to Jonas the fence exudes malevolence, lurking ahead like a viper coiled in ambush.

"Man, I hate that thing," Jonas says.

He glares at the four strands of barbed wire while he and Daniels rest, legs straddling the aluminum frames of their full-suspension mountain bikes.

For about a quarter-mile the path, which in places is scarcely wider than the tires, parallels the fence.

And only a trifling gap, perhaps the span of a magpie's wings, separates path from fence.

They're so close that a rider need not possess an especially vivid imagination to picture a strand snagging a sleeve or an elbow.

"One time I was riding here," Jonas says, "and if I'd been wearing one more shirt I would have been toast."

Then he glares again at the fence, as if disgusted by its very proximity.

Its rust-red barbs gleam against the dull backdrop of a slate-colored, late autumn overcast.

The barbs look quite sharp.

Tussle with those stilettoes at 20 mph, and the house odds are that within an hour you'll be wearing a paper gown and listening to a doctor discuss deep puncture wounds and permanent scars.

Yet as Jonas and Daniels resume their ride, they pedal at the same brisk pace as before, chains rushing round the gears and producing the pleasant metallic moan of well-oiled metal parts.

The serpentine trails here at the Virtue Flat Off-Highway Vehicle area, about five miles east of Baker City, entice cyclists to tiptoe along that Triscuit-thin ledge that separates the merely foolhardy velocities from those that hold the promise of compound fractures and pain-pill prescriptions.

Daniels, 24, and Jonas, 23, both Baker City residents, relish their rides along that ledge.

"Why don't we do this more often?" Daniels asks during another brief break.

The answer is that they will do this more often, now that the Bureau of Land Management, which manages this 3,500-acre swath of sage-studded knolls and sandy gullies, has installed dozens of new trail signs and printed a new map.

Signs help plot routes

Jonas and Daniels said the signs and map will help mountain bikers plot routes through the labyrinth of roads and trails that tires, hooves and boots have incised into Virtue Flat's desert landscape over many decades.

The pair also appreciate that now they can give coherent directions to friends who aren't familiar with Virtue Flat's bewildering maze of trails.

"Before, you just had to tell people, ‘Turn right at this cow trail or that cow trail'," Daniels said.

But the benefits of BLM's cartographic efforts won't accrue to mountain bikers alone.

In fact, far more people ride motorcycles and other gas-powered vehicles at Virtue Flat than pedal bicycles, said Polly Gribskov, who works at BLM's Baker City office.

Most of the 19 volunteers who teamed with BLM workers to install the signs on National Public Lands Day, Sept. 20, are off-roaders of the motorized variety, Gribskov said.

The volunteers, who ranged in age from 3 to 80 and traveled from as far away as Washington and Idaho, also installed a new bulletin board and hauled away 203 tires and a ton of other trash, she said.

Dick Briscoe, a Baker City ATV rider, said he volunteered to help at Virtue Flat even though he never has ridden there.

"I'm more into the mountains, the timbered country," he said. "But it was a good day — a lot of fun."

Briscoe represented the local Good Sam Club, a group of recreational vehicle enthusiasts.

The new map, copies of which are available for free at the bulletin board near the main parking area at Virtue Flat off Ruckles Creek Road, addresses the complaint BLM workers hear most often from riders, Gribskov said.

"The need for maps and any kind of information we can provide is the resounding comment we've heard from all types of users," she said. "A lot of them are not local, and they're not familiar with the area."

Getting along, motors or not

Although mountain bikes sometimes fare poorly when they compete for trail space with much heavier and much faster motorcycles and four-wheelers, Gribskov said conflicts between those with motors and those without rarely occur at Virtue Flat.

"Right now I think they're co-existing peacefully for the most part," she said.

Jonas and Daniels agree.

They said the motorcyclists they've encountered rode both courteously and safely.

The relations between types of riders is one Tyler Brown of Baker City has seen from both perspectives.

Brown, 36, rides both motorcycles and mountain bikes at Virtue Flat. He kick-started his very first mini-motorcycle at Virtue Flat in the mid-1970s.

"I pretty much grew up out there," he said.

Like Jonas and Daniels, Brown believes Virtue Flat is big enough to accommodate riders of all sorts, whether they're powered by an internal combustion engine or by their own lungs and legs.

"I don't think I've seen anyone have a conflict," Brown said.

Not an intentional one, anyway.

Brown recalls an accident in which a motorcyclist collided with a mountain biker who was riding on the same trail, but in the opposite direction.

Yet even that painful encounter ended with handshakes rather than haymakers.

The motorcyclist in that case actually gave the bruised biker a ride back to the parking area, Brown said.

He thinks BLM could help to prevent such crashes by encouraging riders to travel in the same direction.

Overall, though, Brown agrees with Daniels and Jonas that the new signs and map will not only encourage riders to explore all 3,500 acres, but make it easier for them do so without feeling they need to drop a bread crumb every few feet.

"A lot of people are afraid to venture out too far because they don't know where the boundaries are," Brown said. "They don't know how many trails are actually out there."

Gribskov said those boundaries — which mark the border between public and private property — are crucial.

She said BLM officials installed the signs not only to help orient riders, but also to ensure they respect those property boundaries.

Watch where you ride — and aim

At Virtue Flat a more pressing problem than motorcycles and mountain bikes sharing the same narrow trails is the popularity of target shooting and hunting, Gribskov said.

Although BLM officials have not proposed to restrict guns in the riding area, Gribskov urges shooters to be particularly careful about where they point their weapons.

The OHV area's undulating topography — the flat part of Virtue Flat is elsewhere — can easily hide a rider who might be in the line of fire, she said.

Although no accidents have been reported, Brown said he tries to make himself conspicuous when he hears the report from a rifle or pistol.

"One person out there shooting recklessly can endanger a lot of people," he said.