Leonie Sherman
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Usal Grasshopper connects cyclists to local history

By Leonie Sherman

Usal Hopper

Riders begin the Usal Hopper with a steep climb out of Usal Beach (Tibidabo Photography).

The Wrong Way

I thought it would be a shortcut.

After 500 miles of bike touring I stopped to visit an old friend in Arcata. We took off for Sinkyone Wilderness State Park, where we camped on a rolling meadow perched a few hundred feet above the pounding surf and wandered the ridges enchanted by birdsong. I thought I could resume my bike tour at Highway 1, but the ranger informed us that traveling Usal Ridge Road required a high clearance four wheel drive vehicle and a winch. I realized impassable to cars probably meant a joy ride for bikes. Getting to Highway 1 would either involve hours in a car or an adventure along an unknown 25 mile stretch of dirt road — not a difficult decision.

Usal Ridge Road skirts the eastern edge of one of California’s most remote state parks. Sinkyone Wilderness State Park is a five hour drive from the San Francisco Bay Area; the 36-mile drive from the nearest town takes over an hour and there’s no cell reception for 50 miles in any direction. After less than 20 minutes of riding on the rutted washed out road, my tires skidded out on a deep gash in the road and I had to toss my bike and hit the ground rolling to avoid injury. I realized if I got hurt it might be weeks before anyone found my moldering corpse. I pushed my bike a lot over the next 20 miles; it took about ten hours to reach Usal Beach Campground. I saw one vehicle.

Usal Hopper

Aerial view of the mist-cloaked Usal Forest (RFFI).

The Right Way

If I’d waited a few months before attempting my ridiculous shortcut, I would have encountered over a hundred cyclists camped out at Usal Beach, preparing for a grueling race the next day. Miguel Crawford, a Spanish language teacher and mountain biking phenom from Sonoma County, has convinced riders that the source of my agony is a rollicking good time. He’s mapped out three courses ranging from 30-60 miles, all of which include the Usal Ridge Road, and named them the Usal Hopper. Maybe on a mountain bike without a three day supply of camping gear it’s more fun. The 125 riders who participated last year obviously think so — this year’s second annual Usal Grasshopper, which will take place on October 12, 2019, already has 250 riders registered.

Crawford has been organizing Grasshopper races based out of Occidental and Sonoma for over two decades. He initially started the rides to challenge his mountain biking friends to get on the road and add distance, and his road biking friends to get off the paved roads and develop technical skills. “The Grasshoppers are an eclectic mixed terrain adventure idea designed to push people to their limit without pushing them over,” explains Crawford. “For the Usal Grasshopper, I like to have the big loop to challenge people, but the shortest route is the length of a really big mountain bike ride and involves over 4,000 feet of climbing. There is no little Grasshopper.”

He understands and caters to his crowd, though. “I don’t want to have a 170 mile event with a thirty percent completion rate. I want people to finish totally empty, but with a feeling of accomplishment. Ninety-nine percent of our riders finish the ride.”

Folks usually arrive in the evening Friday. Saturday is the big race day. The fastest riders finished the 60-mile loop in just under four hours last year, the slowest took just over eight. When everyone has returned to the campground at the end of the day, there’s a bonfire and talks by locals about the history of the land cyclists just rode through, followed the next day by a guided hike. “My goal as I do these new events is to connect people with places and each other,” explains Crawford. “The land is so much more than just a backdrop for your bike ride, you know?”

Usal Hopper

Event organizer Miguel Crawford briefs ride participants (Tibidabo Photography).

The Community Forest

In the case of the Usal Grasshopper, the land is mostly owned by Redwood Forest Foundation Incorporated (RFFI). “When riders are enjoying the pavement of Highway 1, everything to the north is RFFI property; when they’re on Usal Ridge Road everything to the east is RFFI property, and a big part of the ride is actually on our property,” explains RFFI Program Director Elias Henderson. “It’s basically a circumnavigation tour of RFFI land.”

RFFI is a locally owned non-profit community forest creating a new ethics of forestry. Born out of the timber wars in the late 80s and early 90s, they brought warring sides to a common table. “Some of our founders were Earth First!ers, some were mill owners and loggers,” explains Henderson. “Back in the day literally all the enviros were on one side of the table and all the industry folks on the other, just staring daggers at each other. Over the years they came to an understanding.” They realized they all wanted to acquire, protect, restore and manage land in the redwood region for the long term benefit of the communities who live there. In 2007 they secured a loan to purchase the 50,000 acre Usal Redwood Forest. “This was a rare opportunity to bring a huge swath of timberland under community control,” explains Henderson.

“Community forestry means we are committed to transparency,” says Henderson. They dedicate resources to restoration, educational programs and citizen science. A lot of their money comes from carbon sequestration, where they are paid to not cut trees as part of California’s cap and trade program. When they do cut trees they invite the community to survey and comment on their timber harvest plans. While the big timber companies of the past had board rooms in Georgia, Louisiana and Washington State, RFFI’s board room is in Fort Bragg. Henderson is proud that decisions are made by a community-based board of people instead of a model driven by quarterly profits.

He grew up in Fort Bragg and remembers the devastating impact of the mill closure in 2002. “That was a moment of economic reckoning, but it was the result of an ecological reckoning,” he explains. “Human and non-human communities can’t really be pulled apart. Tending to the ecology is necessary if you’re going to tend to the economy. Without a healthy economy the ecology will suffer, without a healthy ecology the economy will suffer. RFFI is really about a triple bottom line: ecology, economy and equity.”

Usal Hopper

Usal Hopper riders gather for a Sunday morning hike led by RFFI Program Director Elias Henderson and RFFI Forestry Technician Joaquin Quintana (Tibidabo Photography).

Part of RFFI’s stewardship involves getting as many people as possible to interact with their remote forest. “The Usal Grasshopper has been a tremendously rewarding partnership,” say Henderson. “It’s our largest event of the year and a chance to expose a lot of folks to new ideas about the history of the redwood region, conservation, how to put new forestry ethics into practice.” Last year they planted 300 trees to offset the carbon footprint of cyclists driving to get to the race; this year they’ll plant three per registered rider. “If you love mountain biking, this is a great chance for locals and visitors alike to get familiar with the property!”

Though he loves the forest and connecting people with the land in a meaningful way, it’s the origin story that keeps Henderson inspired during troubled times. “Politics today can feel so deeply divided and polarized, it can seem like there’s no way to bridge that divide. But that’s exactly how we felt 20 years ago.” An area that was once exploited by industry is now a place where communities are bringing resources under their own control. People that hated each other are working together towards a common goal. Henderson beams as he explains, “RFFI represents a genuine synthesis between the values and concerns of each side — and that gives me hope for how our entire society can move forward.”

Usal Hopper

Usal Hopper participants travel on over 20 miles of Usal Road from Founder’s Grove to Highway 1 (Tibidabo Photography).

Usal Hopper

Majestic Roosevelt elk (RFFI).

Usal Hopper