Mountain biking is Gregg Pattison's passion. Whenever he can, the 45-year-old husband and father of two young daughters from Lakeville, Minnesota, commutes to his mechanical engineering job on a bike. His adventures have taken him to some of the best mountain biking trails in the country, both racing and riding for enjoyment in Colorado, Utah, Wisconsin, Michigan's Upper Peninsula, the Black Hills of South Dakota, and Minnesota.
But the highlight each year is biking the Maah Daah Hey Trail that is adjacent to both units of the Theodore Roosevelt National Park in the North Dakota Badlands. After learning about the trail in biking magazines in 2001, Pattison flew his 1945 taildragger Taylorcraft airplane to North Dakota to check it out. He flew the length of the trail in a reconnaissance mission to scope out the campgrounds, river crossings and terrain. A local rancher let him park his plane on his land, so he could enjoy some biking. Back home, he got together a dozen bike-riding friends for their first trip on the trail. This summer's June trip will be his eighth trip in the past seven years. The people in the group are mostly from the Minneapolis-St. Paul area, but others come from Manitoba and Texas. The trips average five days and include camping. But Pattison says they buy supplies locally and visit Medora each year.
The camaraderie of a group and the adventure of long back-to-back days of riding keep him on the mountain bike trails. The Maah Daah Hey stands out for him as a favorite destination for several reasons. "It has 100 miles of continuous single track trail, which is hard to find in the country. That, along with the beauty of the country and the wildlife are hard to match," says Pattison, who has ridden the entire trail many times.
In the journal he kept about last Maah Daah Hey adventure, Pattison tried to capture in words his passion for this trail:
For me, mountain biking the Maah Daah Hey trail is about adventure, enjoyment, and testing my physical being. It puts me in an environment with endless possibilities. God's vast earth lies all around. Wildlife is numerous. There are epic views, lush land and more nighttime stars than one can imagine. A personal epiphany of what really matters comes through camp fire camaraderie, the simple pleasure of good friends, food and drink, long days in the saddle covering distances beyond what the eye can see, the taste of endorphins after each long, hard climb and the thrill of a long twisting descent. I savor the joy of watching my buddies carve it up in front of me, looking at the next climb and then being up there and looking back across the numerous valleys between Elkhorn and Wannagan that were just crossed. I think, 'I was just over there, anything is possible, this is so beautiful. So Epic, just Epic!
Following are other excerpts from the journal he kept about last year's ride on the Maah Daah Hey:
Gregg Pattison's Journal
June 7-11, 2007
The Riders: Mike Birrenbach, Mike Gandolfo, Amber Brown, Cameron Byuere, Karl Oelhafen, Nicole Johnson, Stephanie Alcivar, Tom Alcivar, Gord Buhr, Craig Doell, Tom Quinn, and Gregg Pattison.
For two years, we've been skunked with bad weather or bad circumstances, but not this time. This was the biking trip one dreams about. Dry trail, strong legs, good friends, lush land, and lots of wildlife. We had a good time!
The low sun on an evening in the North Dakota Badlands is so beautiful. One evening, Tom and I were carving our way back to Camp Magpie through the long shadows from the sage and brush after a quick trip to check out the Ice Caves. This section of the trail has a couple hundred foot elevation drop in a few miles, which just beckons to be ridden hard.
The trail is familiar. I know her, and she knows me. She calls to me and says, 'Welcome back to Maah Daah Hey, your body is strong and your spirit is alive. I lay my single track trail before you. Ride it to your heart's content.'
I need no other calling that evening as we ride the trail back to camp. We bring up the speed, 16, 18, 20 m.p.h.; the big chain ring is all I'll need. The trail curves before me, I slice out this curve, then that, through countless blind corners, pre-leaning every turn with automatic effortless rhythm and flow. Through this whoop, then over that. Hop this, then that. Past petrified stumps, cactus, rock and cattle. I rise out of the saddle for a high-speed burst up each small rise, then over the top and spin it out. I glance down and see 25 mph on a trail one foot wide with no straight lines. She weaves her seductive magic on my brain. The details of her trail become a blur. It does not matter. All I see is what is far ahead, what is yet to be. What is about to be is already memorized in my subconscious as I slice it up.
I am levitating off the ground in a state of total Zen where the bike has disappeared beneath me; it has become an extension of my mind. I do not think about how my body moves the bike, or how the bike responds to the body, nor do I feel any physical thing. All I feel is the addictive adrenalin rush of the trail. During these moments, riding happens effortlessly, without conscious thought.
All of us in this year's group of a dozen have our own reason for being at the Maah Daah Hey. We each say what we want out of the trip, and we do our best to help each other achieve it. That is the joy of this trail.
Day 1 Anticipation
June 7, 2007
Spirits were high! Our Canadian friends, Gord and Craig, pulled an all-nighter and were the first ones to arrive and score some riding. They still swear they saw some feral pigs on the trail. Tom, Steph, Tom and I rode 20 miles, west from Magpie, through Devils Gap, to the Little Missouri River overlook and back. That trail is packed well and gorgeous. It was so wonderful to be back riding the Maah Daah Hey, a real nice warm-up ride for what is yet to come.
Day 2 The First Big Day
June 8, 2007
This day was all about the group. The hammerhead group rode from Camp Magpie 47 miles to the north end of the trail at CCC Camp. Others shuttled trucks to just ride about 20 miles of the most enjoyable portions of the trail like Bennett Creek, the infamous China Wall and the spectacular drop into Camp CCC.
There was a 400-foot descent dropping down from the grassland to Bennett Creek. Man, was that fun! Another awesome spot is the switch backs at Mile 83. It is so cool to be at the bottom and stare at Bennie's wall thinking, 'where is the trail? It is so steep.' The hammerheads took off north for 10 miles and by-passed the Teddy Roosevelt North Wilderness Unit by riding on Bennie Lange's ranch with his permission. Craig saw a cat (bobcat? mountain lion?) of some type 30 feet away. We joked that it was looking for the weakest biker as prey.
A 500-foot climb awaited us out of Corral Creek. Once on high ground, a 20 mph tail wind gave us great speed as we headed east four miles across the grasslands. Cattle are all around. The hammerheads were now out of water, the last gels were swallowed. The sun was getting lower and the air was cooling us into a chill. Water awaits us in the valley below. The other riders got shuttled around to meet us, and we shared the 500-foot awesome switch back descent into CCC Camp. We saw some really neat petrified rocks, blooming cactus, but no bison this year.
47 miles, 3100-4000 feet climbing, about 9 hours elapsed, 6-plus hours of saddle time. Temps were 70-80 F. Oh what a feeling! Thank you, chamois butter.
Day 3 Night Riding
June 9, 2007
We had been unable to ride the beautiful southern section since 2004 due to weather. This year it was ours. The group shuttled about 100 miles from Camp Magpie to Camp Wannagon because the Little Missouri River was too deep to drive through with the trucks. Half the group would ride 22 miles north from Wannagan to Elkhorn which is Teddy Roosevelt's old camp. Others would ride just some of the prettiest portions. This section from mile marker 17 to 40 is arguably the most rewarding sections of the trail with its 200 to 300-feet-deep valleys and ridges to ride. There are numerous places where you look across from one ridge to another and see your fellow riders. The climbs take effort, but the descents are great. The magic of this section is the reward at the top of the climb. One can look back a mile and see the trail on the opposing side of the valley and be rewarded with the silent satisfaction of ride well done. Great views are all around, all the time.
We found some burgers and an ice cream store on the truck ride back to camp. The other shuttle truck found a swimming hole filled with stocked fish. They cooled off with a dip. About 10 p.m. after a great supper and camp fire camaraderie, Tom, Gord, and I shuttled to the back side of Devils Gap for a one-hour night ride back to camp that stretched six miles with three major descents and two major climbs. We saw horses, a porcupine, and numerous cattle and suicidal bullfrogs sitting in the middle of the trail mesmerized by the battery lights on our bikes. The stars were so plentiful, the moon was not out. We'd stop along the trail and watch the satellites zip across the sky, see a falling star, and wonder when we'd run in to those feral pigs. A couple of us had powerful lights which you could bomb the downhills almost as fast as daytime. It was a rush. The air was still and cool. We were glad to be alive and experiencing life.
We all agreed that this simple night ride was wonderful, and a whole new way to ride the Maah Daah Hey. The trail during the day is all about macro panoramic views over vast distances, but at night, all you can see is the micro area in front of you. You carve up single track without the big picture of where you are or where you're going. It's just about what is directly ahead in your light - and those frogs.
30-plus miles, 3,500 foot climbing, 6 plus hours elapsed ride time, 4 hours shuttle time. Did I mention how much fun I'm having?
Day 4 The Love Affair
June 10, 2007
Three of the riders head home today, so some of the riders chose the really buffed ride out six miles to the ice caves and back in the a.m. Yes, there really is snow and ice in the bottom of these caves all year round. The trail is ridden more than others and is in good shape and fun.
The hammerheads shuttled south again and finished off the trail from Medora to Wannagon via the Buffalo Gap trail. We met other people, a rare thing in Maah Daah Hey. The most southern portion is ridden by horse a lot. Horses can get spooked from us bikers so we walk or stop until they've past. The most southern part is also very beautiful. However, the middle section is just about covering distance on the 15 miles of grassland.
There are some great sweeping hills with awesome views toward the north end where the Buffalo gap intersects the MDH trail and the prairie dog town is always fun to ride through. The ride ended with a neat descent, then with some killer climbs in 90 degree Farenheit heat. Of course, we are men with egos and nobody wants to be the last one to the top. It was a good hurt!
After long shuttle drive back to camp, my legs were still not content to sit. I decided to go for an evening ride until supper was ready.
Tom Quinn and I rode out six miles to check out the ice caves and back. That was the truly wonderful love story ride I wrote about at the beginning of this piece. Most people might not understand the Zen feeling that we felt on the ride back to camp. It's like the one golf shot in each round that keeps you coming back to play the game. We stopped on a ridge just before ending the ride, looked over God's green earth around Magpie Creek and said, "This is it, this moment will have to last us for another year. Let's not forget what a great time we've had."
Another night ride was in order. Mike B. and Amber lay on the hood of the shuttle truck at the top of Devils Gap and watched the endless stars as we rode away. It was 11 p.m. when we got back to camp. All was quiet and the grin on my face was huge.
40-plus miles, 3,200 feet climbing, 5-plus hrs ride time, 4 hours shuttle time. Did I mention how much fun I'm having?
Day 5 Good Bye
June 11, 2007
This is the day to say goodbye, pack up camp, and get in the last ride before driving the nine hours home. Craig, Gord, Tom and I took a spin out to Devils Gap again. Are you seeing a familiar theme here? Devils Gap is a favorite ride. We enjoyed our last ride for another year.
I do not want this trip to end, but the body is always humbled by the trail. Days like these are precious. We never can be sure what lies ahead. If tomorrow comes, it brings another day, another adventure, and if the weather, your bike and body are ready, more epic riding. You see, I am not afraid of dying, I am afraid of not living.
Long Live Long Rides!
Gord Buhr and Mike Birrenbach filmed the trip on DVD camcorders and are working on commercial movie clips on the Maah Daah Hey Trail. Buhr wrote a song entitled Regal to accompany his video. It can be heard at www.myspace.com/gordbuhr.
A 2006 book, The Maah Daah Hey Trail, Theodore Roosevelt National Park, and the Dakota Prairie Grasslands, by Hiram Rogers is available at www.johnsonbooks.com, 800-258-5830 The Maah Daah Hey Trail Association is a nonprofit volunteer organization dedicated to providing and maintaining a linear, non-motorized, sustainable, recreational trail system in southwest North Dakota in cooperation with the USDA Forest Service. For membership information or for a free Maah Daah Hey Trail Guide 2008, contact Jo Marie Kadrmas, the association's executive director, at email@example.com. It is also launching a Web site the beginning of summer atwww.mdhta.com.