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The Pisgah Paradox

Kristian Jackson  /  January 31, 2022  /  10 Min Read  /  Mountain Biking

In North Carolina’s Pisgah National Forest, a collaboration between anglers and mountain bikers uses better trails to create healthier rivers.

With numerous sections eroded into waist-deep gullies, Schoolhouse Ridge is a good example of a bad trail. These sections are seen as a thrilling challenge by some local riders, but for land managers, they’re a massive headache. Trey Thomas digs in and holds during the final descent of the original Schoolhouse Ridge trail, which is scheduled to be rerouted in spring of 2022. Wilson Creek, Pisgah National Forest, North Carolina.

All photos by TJ Kearns

A series of logs hangs precariously over the edge of a muddy hole, forming a makeshift bridge across what used to be the trail alongside Grogan Creek. I watch my companions tiptoe past, gracefully navigating their bikes through the encroaching rhododendron, before following them across the greasy byway to the safety of solid ground.

Such “hike-a-bikes” are a routine part of mountain bike rides in North Carolina’s Pisgah National Forest, and our current route—Butter Gap—is no exception. The trail, which follows Grogan Creek from its source to the Davidson River some 700 vertical feet below, is popular with cyclists and hikers alike, as evidenced by the battered log steps and perennial ruts snaking around mudholes. Pushing up a particularly eroded section, I catch myself reminiscing about the first time I rode the trail in the late 1990s. “This all used to be dirt,” I say to no one in particular.

“The dirt’s long gone, brother,” J.E.B. Hall replies as he pushes his bike ahead of me. A local mountain biker, kayaker and fishing guide, J.E.B. literally wrote the book on fly fishing in Southern Appalachia. “Every rainstorm puts more of this trail into the creek. Sediment fills in the gaps between rocks, killing off the critters that scoot around underwater and warming up the stream.”

It’s a slow process, almost imperceptible to hikers and cyclists, but the cumulative effects are hardest on the most vulnerable species—wild brook trout, the Pisgah’s only native trout. “They need cold, clear, oxygen-rich water,” J.E.B. says.

It’s not just Butter Gap or Grogan Creek; many of the Pisgah’s trails are slipping out from under wheels and feet, turning some of its most iconic rides into potential threats to the forest’s watersheds. Faced with the closure of one such trail, a group of mountain bikers, anglers and land managers embarked on an effort to heal a river by building a better trail—and sparked a series of large-scale projects that could transform the area’s trails and help restore entire watersheds in the process.

The Pisgah Paradox

Always wet and always greasy. Parts of the Butter Gap trail, such as this notorious off-camber rock slab, remain muddy long after the rest of the trail has dried off, providing a messy challenge for riders—like J.E.B. Hall and Debbie Gillespie—and land managers alike.

I met J.E.B. and fellow fly-fishing guide Debbie Gillespie at what is probably the farthest place from wild native trout: the Bobby N. Setzer Fish Hatchery, which serves as a jumping-off point for a wide range of outdoor recreation in the forest.

Spanning half a million acres across the spine of the Southern Appalachians, the Pisgah National Forest’s reputation for steep, rugged backcountry trails has attracted mountain bikers since the emergence of the sport. The forest encompasses some of the highest terrain east of the Mississippi River, with summits reaching elevations over 6,000 feet. Riders must suffer through grueling climbs, then lick their wounds after torturous, ultra-technical descents—either enticing or terrifying, depending on your preferred level of masochism.

This renowned gnarliness has created a paradox: the same terrain for which the area is famous also makes the trails a sustainability conundrum. That’s because much of the Pisgah is technically a temperate rain forest. Brevard, a small town located at the Pisgah’s eastern edge and the area’s mountain bike hub, receives nearly 70 inches of precipitation each year; in 2020, it received over 96 inches. This prodigious rainfall, combined with the area’s ever-increasing popularity for outdoor recreation, has created a potent recipe for blown-out trails—think of a narrow gulley, scraped clean of dirt to the rocks and roots underneath, that feels more like a creek bed than a bike trail. 

It’s not a new problem. The forest—the first national forest in the Eastern US—was actually created to protect the area’s watersheds from mass erosion, floods and landslides brought on by industrial logging in the 1800s.

“We inherited the environmental problems the timber industry left behind,” says Lisa Jennings, recreation and trails program manager for the Grandfather District. Among those are the area’s “legacy trails,” historic pathways originally built for timber extraction. These trails make up only a portion of the 900 miles of singletrack within the forest but include some of its most iconic rides—like Butter Gap, Black Mountain and Avery Creek, all of which lie along old logging roads.

The Pisgah Paradox

“I like to say that trails solve problems,” says Lisa Jennings, manager of the Recreation and Trails Program for the Grandfather Ranger District of the Pisgah National Forest. Lisa spends much of her time collecting input from different user groups about problem trails in the area, to better inform how to rebuild them in a way that both solves environmental issues and provides a better experience for users like Shanna Powell and Trey Thomas.

Then there’s Schoolhouse Ridge. Located in the Pisgah’s Grandfather Ranger District, on a steep ridge above the historic logging community of Mortimer, Schoolhouse plummets 1,000 vertical feet down the path of least resistance to Wilson Creek. The final mile is a neck-deep gully eroded to the bones of the mountain.

“When I talk to people about Schoolhouse, I describe it as the textbook example of how bad a trail can become,” Lisa says. “And if a trail isn’t up to our environmental standards, then it needs to be shut down or changed.”

For a generation of cyclists, Schoolhouse embodied what riding in the Pisgah was all about: a harrowing technical descent that tested both bike-handling skills and mental fortitude. It was environmentally damaging, but the possibility of losing Schoolhouse—or having it replaced with a “tamer,” groomed trail—instantly put locals in what they saw as a lose-lose standoff with the US Forest Service. Then Lisa stepped in.

“Someone is always unhappy when you do trail work,” Lisa says. “There is a lot of pressure on the designers and on us to get it right. I want to honor the connection they have to the land. If you want technical features, let’s figure out how to build them sustainably.”

This was a welcome perspective for the Northwest North Carolina Mountain Bike Alliance, a trail advocacy club focused on the Grandfather District. Prior to the group’s formation, local mountain bikers had little interaction with the USFS; now, in conjunction with Lisa’s leadership, they began logging thousands of hours of volunteer work in the forest. Seeing this commitment, Lisa asked the Alliance, “What do you want to see our trails become?”

“We inherited the environmental problems the timber industry left behind.”

—Lisa Jennings

Their answer was the Mortimer Trails Project, a bold, collaborative effort between the USFS and Alliance to improve water quality by improving user experiences—or, more simply, to make better rivers by making better trails.

“We need the trails, and the Forest Service needs us,” says Paul Stahlschmidt, the Alliance’s trails coordinator. “Being able to tie all of this together is the real prize.”

“The Alliance has really put in the sweat equity and completed an amazing amount of work,” says Lisa. “But it’s the partnership we’ve developed that has made the difference.”

The Mortimer Trails Project will restore or replace several miles of unsustainable trails and build 10 miles of new trail to create a larger, connected system cradling multiple healthy watersheds. As the project gained traction, more community partners rolled up their sleeves and joined the efforts, including Trout Unlimited, the hiking group Friends of the Mountains-to-Sea, the NC Wildlife Resources Commission and Wild South, a wilderness advocacy organization. In late 2020 the Alliance began work on the project’s first new trail: Yancey Ridge.

The Pisgah Paradox

Portages should be reserved for kayakers, but it’s a familiar experience for Pisgah mountain bikers. Shanna Powell and Trey Thomas play pass-the-bike through a particularly eroded section of Schoolhouse Ridge.

Perched on a ridge west of Schoolhouse, Yancey also posed an erosion disaster; unlike Schoolhouse, however, Yancey was never an official trail, as the lower reaches sat on private property. The area is home to a large population of native brook trout, and in 2018, the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission (NCWRC) identified the eroding double-track that accesses upper Yancey as a restoration priority. Seeing an opportunity, Trout Unlimited wrote a grant to address the double-track’s sedimentation issues—and discovered the Alliance had its eyes on fixing the problems caused by the singletrack, as well.

“Where they point, we like to go,” says Andy Brown, the Southern Appalachian stream restoration manager for Trout Unlimited, referring to NCWRC. “In talking with Lisa, we saw there was this whole thing going on there we didn’t know about.”

Working with the USFS and funded through grants from Santa Cruz Bicycle’s PayDirt program and the federal Recreational Trails Program, the two groups orchestrated a top-to-bottom overhaul of 6 miles of singletrack and 3.5 miles of double-track for access, logging nearly 1,000 hours of volunteer work.

When the new Yancey Ridge, officially USFS Trail #259, opened in late 2021, upper Wilson Creek and its tributaries were a little clearer as a result. The Mortimer Project’s biggest victory, however, was widening the mountain bike community’s perspective beyond the dirt beneath their tires to encompass the landscape as a whole.

The Pisgah Paradox

n August 18, 2021, Tropical Storm Fred dumped as much as 12 inches of rain on the Pisgah National Forest, causing devastating floods along the Davidson River that knocked out bridges, downed trees and killed over two-thirds of the trout at the Bobby N. Setzer Fish Hatchery. Jon Angermeier, a graphic designer, bike shop manager and fly fisherman from Brevard, surveys a dead tree piled along the Davidson by the floods.

“I actually think mountain bikers have no concern about the impact of trails on a river,” Debbie says. “Maybe not no concern—maybe just clueless. It’s just not in their field of vision. I sure would have been if I hadn’t started fishing. It puts you in the environment more than mountain biking ever could. It’s about slowing down and paying attention.”

In the past few years, similar projects have emerged across the forest. Cantrell Creek Trail, in the Pisgah Ranger District northwest of Brevard, is another historic logging pathway. Over its 3-mile length, the original trail crossed its namesake waterway a total of nine times and even merged with the stream channel in places. It caused such heavy sedimentation in both the creek and upper stretches of Mill River that it led to a decline in the insect population, the main source of food for native brook trout, and was impacting one of the stream’s other rare inhabitants, the eastern hellbender salamander.

“We’re not redoing the trail because it’s eroding, but because the erosion is harming things in the river. It’s harming living creatures.”

J.E.B. Hall

In 2019, led by Trout Unlimited and the USFS, a coalition of private and nonprofit organizations—including some local mountain bike manufacturers—raised $150,000 to move the trail out of the waterway, stabilizing severe erosion zones and restoring Cantrell Creek to a clear-running, cold-water stream. The result was a win-win: better habitat for fish and a better experience for trail users.

“This is what has been missing from the environmental conversation,” J.E.B. says. “We’re not redoing the trail because it’s eroding, but because the erosion is harming things in the river. It’s harming living creatures.”

The most visible of these projects has been the overhaul of the Upper and Middle Black Mountain Trail. Situated just west of Brevard, Black Mountain is one of the forest’s most iconic trails, a showpiece of Pisgah gnar beloved by visitors and locals alike—and, thanks to that popularity, its steeper middle and upper sections were so eroded they’d become waist-deep, fall-line gullies in places. With each rainstorm, huge amounts of sediment washed into the streams below, including the Davidson River.

The trail needed to be closed, so in 2019 the Pisgah Area SORBA, the local chapter of the Southern Off-Road Bicycle Association, and the USFS partnered to reroute the entirety of Black Mountain’s upper and middle sections. The trail reopened in late 2021 and is just the first on a bucket list of Pisgah seeing serious maintenance—including the newly improved Avery Creek and Buckwheat Knob. Butter Gap is also scheduled for a major reroute, akin to the work done on Black Mountain.

“Pisgah is rowdy,” Debbie says. “Butter is one of my favorites, but I also know it is causing some of the most damage. I think more riders and more rain events are to blame, but those factors are impossible to change.”

Closing a trail, especially a legal one, can cause controversy, but in the Pisgah, changing a trail can be equally problematic. Some riders feel that any trail work removes some of a trail’s technical challenge: “Taming it down,” they say, is an evisceration of what makes Pisgah mountain biking what it is, even if that work is better for the Pisgah as a whole.

“They argue these new trails are killing the character of Pisgah,” J.E.B. says. “I think the challenge is to get those riders onboard with the fact that blown-out trails are bad for the ecosystem they are riding through, and that newer trails are put in place to help.”

The Pisgah Paradox

Debbie Gillespie leads J.E.B. Hall down a heavily eroded, root-filled section of Butter Gap on their way to the trailhead at Bobby N. Setzer Fish Hatchery. Debbie is a fly-fishing guide and former professional mountain biker based in Brevard, North Carolina, a background that’s given her a unique perspective on the relationship between trails and rivers.

Back on Butter Gap, J.E.B., Debbie and I finally reach the end of our hike-a-bike at the gap below Cedar Rock Mountain and point our machines downhill. It’s a guilty pleasure, skittering down 20 years of trail maintenance projects, all in various states of blown out and each contributing sediment to Grogan Creek and beyond. But we give in to gravity all the same, letting our bikes’ suspension suck up the roots and ruts ahead.

Farther down, the rhododendron grips into a tight corridor that feels more like a tube than trail. These “rhodo tunnels” are a classic Pisgah feature, and riding through one feels like racing a Star Wars speeder bike through the forests of Endor. Zooming through the tunnel, skipping over the trail issues, I ponder Debbie’s and J.E.B.’s sentiments about slowing down and wonder if I’m guilty of not truly paying attention to the right things.

“When people view a place as a venue for personal consumption, they overlook all the parts that make where they are what it is,” J.E.B. says. “If they looked at the bigger picture, they would ask, ‘How can we make the whole watershed more robust?’”

Finally, the faint glow of lights from the fish hatchery cuts through the darkness. Despite the blown-out trail, we’re all smiling when we reach the parking lot, and I am struck by the paradox of a good ride on a bad trail. “We want something rugged, something steep and fun,” Paul says, “but we need to stop the damage.”

For riders across the Pisgah, it’s not a choice between one or the other; done right, they’re both solutions. As Lisa puts it, “trails solve problems. I like to say we can achieve restoration through recreation.”

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