By Craig Hill The News Tribune
TACOMA — Deep in Swan Creek Park’s Douglas fir forest is a new mountain bike trail with a meaningful name.
There are two ways to interpret the name, and both are right.
First, a good mountain biker on a good trail rarely bothers with the brakes. Second, it’s a reminder that not so long ago these woods could have been a set for the popular AMC drug drama “Breaking Bad.”
“The name represents that we’re kicking that kind of activity out of here,” said Joe Brady, natural resources manager for Metro Parks Tacoma.
In its place is Tacoma’s first official mountain bike trail system.
“It’s nice to finally have an area in the South Sound we can rally around,” said Silas Smith, a Tacoma mountain biker and trail volunteer. “And it’s not going anywhere.”
With the first of two phases complete on the 50-acre forest, Swan Creek Mountain Bike Trails consist of 1.5 miles of beginner trail, a half-mile of intermediate trail and a technical skill-building area.
“There is something there for everybody from little kids to full-grown rippers,” said Glenn Glover, director of the Evergreen Mountain Bike Alliance.
The way it was
Before Swan Creek, when Tacoma-area mountain bikers wanted to hit the trails, first they had to hit the road.
They’d travel to Olympia’s Capitol State Forest, to trails near Port Orchard or to Tiger Mountain on state Route 18.
Sure, they found places to ride in town. There were unofficial trails near Salmon Beach, China Lake and even Swan Creek Park. But they built features only to find them bulldozed or destroyed.
“We always wanted a legitimate place, but there was nothing,” Smith said.
Unorganized and saddled with a reputation in some circles for being dangerous and environmentally unfriendly, the mountain bikers faced a long, uphill pedal.
But during the last decade, things started to change, thanks, in large part, to a nonprofit group known as the Evergreen Mountain Bike Alliance.
Founded in 1989, the group for many years mostly helped maintain local trails, paying its dues and waiting for a day when landowners saw the benefit of their efforts.
In 2007, the organization still had just 1.5 employees.
In 2008, it finished its first bike park, Colonnade, a small patch of technical terrain under Interstate 5 between Seattle’s Eastlake and Capital Hill communities.
Colonnade started to change the way some people thought about mountain bikers as the sport displaced the drug deals and prostitution that used to frequent the area.
“It doesn’t solve the social ill,” Glover said, “But it returns the area to the community as a place where they can go and have fun safely.”
Colonnade was used in the 2011 documentary “Pedal-Driven” to illustrate the positive impact of building mountain bike parks. The documentary also highlighted the organization’s next big project, Issaquah’s Duthie Hill Bike Park, and showed how sustainable bike trails could blend nicely into a forest.
“Mountain bikers are environmentalists,” said Jeff Ostenson, a Wenatchee resident who produced the documentary. “They are about sustainability. They want to build trails that are still there after the storms. And I think that provides a huge environmental education for kids.”
Evergreen’s success stems not just from lobbying for, designing and building trails, Glover said, but remaining involved once the trails open.
Today, Evergreen has seven permanent employees and hires as many as three seasonal workers each year. It coordinates more than 7,000 volunteer hours from more than 500 people annually.
So, in 2011 when Metro Parks started drafting its master plan for Swan Creek, Brady knew exactly who he needed to call.
At 373 acres, Swan Creek is Tacoma’s second-largest park. The land around Swan Creek Canyon is co-owned by Metro Parks and Pierce County.
“300 acres near downtown in good ecological shape,” Brady said. “It’s an amazing opportunity.”
The park includes hiking trails and a community garden, but it was the 50-acre forest that showed potential for becoming Tacoma’s first mountain bike park.
And for all the work that’s been done to build the trails there in recent years, it seems more pristine than it used to be.
“Four years ago you could park out there and, almost like clockwork, you could see people going into the woods and doing transactions for what looked like drugs and who knows what else,” Brady said.
There were portable meth labs, signs of campfires, encampments and motorized vehicle use, he said.
Cleaning up the park would require an army of volunteers and thousands of hours of work.
Starved for a place to play, the local mountain bike community was happy to get its hands dirty.
Smith is one of an estimated 300 volunteers who worked on the Swan Creek Trails. He logged more than 1,000 hours, Brady said.
While he was initially intrigued by the project as a place to ride, he’s stayed motivated by a deeper purpose. There are schools— Lister Elementary School to the north and First Creek Middle School to the south— packed with kids he wants to give a safe place to play.
“The kids on the South Side need their own Point Defiance,” Smith said.
“Silas has my vote for volunteer of the year,” Brady said. “He’s not doing this for himself. He’s doing it for his kids and his grandkids and the kids (in the area). . He’s a classic Tacoma guy.”
The trails, designed by Evergreen’s Mike Westra, keep those kids in mind, Smith said.
“It’s not just for old men on $6,000 bikes,” Smith said. “It’s for kids on $100 Walmart bikes.”
The idea that the trails are for future generation of mountain bikers is also woven into the trail names. An intermediate technical trail was christened Joyride.
It’s named for Smith’s 8-year-old daughter, Joy.
If all goes well at Swan Creek, Metro Parks and Evergreen hope they can soon start building more trails in the forest.
“We’re just scratching the surface,” Brady said.
Westra said continuing to build is important to reach a critical mass where mountain bikers feel they have enough terrain at Swan Creek to keep them satisfied.
“We need to offer them a reason to keep coming back,” Brady said. “Otherwise it will slowly die on the vine.”
Smith said he and other Evergreen volunteers are ready to get working on the second phase.
“A lot of sweat equity has gone into getting to this point,” Smith said. “And we’re ready to keep pushing forward.”