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Take time to explore our local backroads

Some of the best days mountain biking for me are exploration days. Pick a fire road. Any fire road. Ride up it and see where it takes you. You never know what — or who — you'll come across.

A couple weeks ago, I went out to the Illinois Valley on an unseasonably warm day. I drove far out into Takilma, a remote community right on the California border, and picked a road.

I began my climb up Forest Service Road 071, which ascends a hillside scorched in the 1987 Longwood fire. This conflagration was part of the larger Silver Complex, which scorched nearly 150,000 acres that year.

The environment is now home to tall, flourishing shrubs and bushy madrones that surround the throngs of snags and surviving old-growth. This provides for excellent views of the valley below during the climb, but also precious little protection from the sun.

In contrast with the stereotypically spindly cyclist, I have a relatively low surface-area-to-volume ratio, so I have trouble shedding excess heat. I found a rare spot of shade and stopped to take a drink and look around.

To my surprise, another biker rounded the corner behind me. I had not expected to see anyone in what I thought was an obscure area.

His name was Sam, and he told me he had grown up in Takilma and lived there all his life. There was some singletrack in the area, he said, but keeping it in rideable shape was a challenge.

"If you ride the trails around here," he said "You should help maintain them."

It had occurred to me before that I may be guilty of freeloading. Most trails don't have the luxury of being maintained by my tax dollars. Carry some hand clippers, Sam said; removing branches can do a lot to improve a trail.

Sam was clearly a more accomplished cyclist than me. While I continued plodding up the hill in my granny gear (the easiest one), Sam shifted to his second gear, stood up, and was out of sight within 20 seconds.

Later, after exploring behind some tank traps and following old roads until they petered out, I came across a portion of the Sanger Peak Trail off of FS-071 that appeared to have been impeccably maintained for mountain bikes. The normally rocky ground had been cleared and the towering undergrowth had been cut away to form a tunnel. A huge, charred log blocked the trail in one place, but someone had been thoughtful enough to put a plank on the uphill side of it.

Although it lasted only a couple minutes, this unexpected, flowing downhill trail made my day.

I'm not sure who had gone to the trouble of making such a great trail, but I'm tempted to thank Sam for it, if he practices what he preached. Unsung heroes who foster trails are what make this region such a great place to ride. Carry clippers on your ride or hike, and you can do your part.

Mail Tribune copy editor Forrest Roth can be reached at froth@mailtribune.com