LONELY VAL­LEY

DESOLATION IN A RE­MOTE COR­NER OF THE SIERRA NE­VADA

Bike (USA) - - Contents - BY KURT GEN­SHEIMER • PHO­TOG­RA­PHY BY AB­NER KING­MAN

Two friends, one former Nordic coach and a lim­it­less play­ground of gran­ite. Not all dreams are de­ferred two hours south of Ta­hoe.

The worn-out gears in my head turned, try­ing to make sense of what Dy­lan Renn said about his child­hood Sierra Ne­vada play­ground of Bear Val­ley, Cal­i­for­nia. Sand­wiched be­tween a vol­canic ridge to the west and a mas­sive gran­ite for­ma­tion to the east, Bear Val­ley is a glacially carved canyon in the heart of a ge­o­logic tran­si­tion, with the val­ley it­self a lush meadow that stays green and bril­liant with wild­flow­ers well into fall, es­pe­cially af­ter a big win­ter. This dy­namic zone makes rid­ing Bear Val­ley like eat­ing a layer cake; there’s varied good­ness all the way through. Above tree­line, there’s a dust­ing of loose vol­canic soil, giv­ing way to a sa­vory mix of de­com­posed gran­ite and dirt in the trees, fol­lowed by thick, rich loam, and fin­ish­ing with a hard foun­da­tion of gran­ite slab.

Even­tu­ally I fig­ured out the crux of Renn’s com­ment. There used to be a lot of trails in Bear Val­ley, but af­ter years of shrink­ing pop­u­la­tion and no­body us­ing them, there’re more trails that used to ex­ist here than there are now. There’s still about 35 miles of in­ter­con­nected sin­gle­track, but what Bear Val­ley lacks in quan­tity, it more than makes up for in qual­ity.

Lo­cated two hours south of

Lake Ta­hoe in Alpine County, the small­est county by pop­u­la­tion in Cal­i­for­nia, there isn’t much go­ing on these days in Bear Val­ley. Lo­cals joke that you can sit in the mid­dle of High­way 4 and drink a beer without get­ting run over, but it hasn’t al­ways been this way. From the late 1960s un­til the early 1980s, Bear Val­ley was a win­ter play­ground for celebri­ties in­clud­ing Clint East­wood, Lloyd Bridges and Robert Con­rad. Thanks to the vi­brant ski com­mu­nity here, Bear Val­ley at­tracted more than 300 year-round res­i­dents who wanted to es­cape more crowded slopes around Lake Ta­hoe. Renn and his life­long best friend, Ryan Oddo, grew up as neigh­bors in Bear Val­ley, raised by par­ents who were avid skiers.

As chil­dren, Renn and Oddo ben­e­fited from Bear Val­ley’s boom days, liv­ing in an out­door paradise where ad­ven­ture and ex­plo­ration await in every di­rec­tion. They both went to the now-shut­tered el­e­men­tary school, and par­tied in high school at houses that now sit empty most of the year. Aside from some tales the boys like to tell, there’s very lit­tle ev­i­dence left of the boom days in Bear Val­ley.

So why does Bear Val­ley strug­gle, es­pe­cially when it’s only a three-hour drive from ma­jor pop­u­la­tion cen­ters like San Jose? Lo­cals say Bear Val­ley is still too re­mote with too few ser­vices. Oth­ers point a fin­ger at nu­mer­ous in­vest­ment cor­po­ra­tions that have mis­man­aged the re­sort over the past 15 years. Mul­ti­ple years of drought have hurt ski op­er­a­tions and there’s been no lift in­fra­struc­ture for moun­tain bik­ing, al­though the re­sort just or­dered a new six-pack lift with bike racks.

Yet an­other ex­pla­na­tion can be found in the lobby of the Bear Val­ley Lodge.

Built in 1967, the lodge is a gor­geous piece of alpine ar­chi­tec­ture with an open-ceil­ing lobby more than five sto­ries high and a fire­place made from slabs of gran­ite cut from a nearby meadow. At the foot of the fire­place is a piece with sev­eral grind­ing holes used by the orig­i­nal res­i­dents of Bear Val­ley, the Washo Tribe. Leg­end goes that when the rock was cut and placed in the lodge, it cursed the re­sort.

I asked about this leg­end when I met the owner of Bear Val­ley Ad­ven­ture Com­pany, Paul Petersen, a wiry, bright-eyed man in his mid-50s with the vi­va­cious soul of some­one 20 years younger. He shook his head and gave a chuckle.

“I don’t know about that, but here’s what I do know: You can come up to Bear Val­ley on the Fourth of July and get a room at the lodge without even hav­ing a reser­va­tion. Try that any­where in Ta­hoe.”

This is the para­dox of Bear Val­ley. While many re­sorts would con­sider am­ple ac­com­mo­da­tions on the busiest sum­mer weekend of the year a curse, folks like Petersen, a fix­ture of the lo­cal com­mu­nity, see it as an advantage that sets Bear Val­ley apart from other des­ti­na­tions in the greater Ta­hoe area.

“Not many people live up here any­more be­cause it isn’t an easy place to make it,” says Petersen, who, along with his wife, also man­ages three con­do­minium as­so­ci­a­tions and vol­un­teers for se­vearl non­prof­its. “There aren’t a lot of good jobs left and the win­ters can be bru­tally long. Most folks who used to live up here have moved down to Arnold or Mur­phys.”

Petersen ar­rived in Bear Val­ley when he was 17 years old, be­came a ski in­struc­tor dur­ing the celebrity days of the re­sort and has re­mained ever since. He’s been in Bear Val­ley longer than Renn and Oddo have been alive. In fact, Petersen was the boys’ Nordic ski coach when the kids were in el­e­men­tary school. Later on, they both worked for Petersen as moun­tain bike guides.

Al­though Oddo is now an en­gi­neer, Renn stuck to his knobby-tire roots, and owns a moun­tain bike skills coach­ing busi­ness in Truc­kee. But one thing the two still have in com­mon is trail­build­ing. The cen­ter­piece of their work is a trail called Od­denn (pro­nounced Odin af­ter the Norse god), a clever mashup of Renn and Oddo’s last names. Sep­a­rated into two sec­tions above and be­low High­way 207, Od­denn is the up­per part of the trail, with the lower sec­tion known as The Ring. Rid­ing Od­denn to The Ring is a 1,600-ver­ti­cal-foot de­scent made up of gran­ite rock drops, tech­ni­cal rock gar­dens, loamy high-speed cor­ners and vir­gin dirt; the day we rode it, the only tire tracks we saw were our own. The trail fin­ishes with a half-mile-long, 300-ver­ti­cal-foot drop on a mas­sive play­ground of gran­ite slick­rock into the park­ing lot of the vil­lage. Od­denn also offers stun­ning vis­tas of the 5,000-foot-deep, glacially carved Mokelumne Canyon, one of the deep­est canyons in North Amer­ica.

Ac­cess to The Ring is from the west side of High­way 207. When build­ing the trail, Renn and Oddo came across a num­ber of fire rings and what looked to be a vol­ley­ball ran­domly lay­ing nearby in a pile of logs.

“Turns out it was a hu­man skull,” says

“There are more trails that aren’t here that were here than there are here now.”

Renn. “There was a skier who went miss­ing the pre­vi­ous win­ter and there was a re­ward for find­ing her. We thought we were gonna be rich, but it ended up be­ing an­other person. We didn’t get the re­ward, but the Forest Ser­vice did ap­prove and adopt our trail.”

Bee Gulch is an­other trail about a half-mile north­east of Od­denn, that de­scends to Lake Alpine. Bee Gulch starts out on a nar­row, loose trailbed drop­ping ag­gres­sively through a sparsely treed, vol­canic slope rich with wild­flow­ers, with sweep­ing south views of the Dar­danelles tow­er­ing over Spicer Mead­ows Reser­voir. At tree­line, Bee Gulch gets tech­ni­cal, with nu­mer­ous awk­wardly placed rocks ready to smash a de­railleur. Upon reach­ing Lake Alpine, rid­ers can loop around the south side of the lake and take Emi­grant Trail all the way back into Bear Val­ley.

As good as the trails are in Bear Val­ley, the ele­phant in the room is the thou­sands of acres of fed­eral Wilder­ness lim­it­ing back­coun­try rid­ing op­por­tu­ni­ties. Bear Val­ley is sur­rounded by the Carson-Ice­burg and Mokelumne Wilder­ness areas, a frus­trat­ing fact for lo­cals who’ve been moun­tain bik­ing here since the 1980s.

“Some of the bound­aries were drawn poorly,” says Petersen. “In the Carson-Ice­burg, there’s a trail par­al­lel­ing High­way 4 to the south link­ing Mos­quito Lake to Lake Alpine. It’s a ter­rific con­nec­tor trail, an easy shut­tle and would be ideal for moun­tain bik­ing, but part of it is just barely over the Wilder­ness line.”

For many years Petersen has been the one with the most to lose in re­gards to Wilder­ness and trail ac­cess around Bear Val­ley. He’s lived here longer than al­most any­one and has owned a busi­ness for decades that re­lies largely on moun­tain bik­ing in the sum­mer. While he’s done an out­stand­ing job work­ing with fed­eral land man­age­ment to ex­pand trail ac­cess and pro­mote the area, it’s pretty clear that he needs help to take Bear Val­ley to the next level.

En­ter Mike Cooke, a Bay Area res­i­dent who owns a va­ca­tion home in Sky High Ranch a few miles west of Bear Val­ley. Last year, Cooke and a few friends started the Bear Val­ley Trail Stew­ard­ship, a non­profit to lay the foun­da­tion for a trails re­nais­sance in the Bear Val­ley area. Just by shak­ing his big leath­ery paw, it’s clear that Cooke is a trail­builder. He also seems to have Bay Area con­nec­tions to folks will­ing to in­vest se­ri­ous money into trail­build­ing, a unique sit­u­a­tion that most other re­mote des­ti­na­tions strug­gle des­per­ately to find. Only a year in ex­is­tence, BVTS has al­ready made head­way with fed­eral land man­agers, strik­ing mul­ti­ple agree­ments for trail main­te­nance and new sys­tem trails.

“Our big­gest chal­lenge isn’t find­ing money, it’s find­ing people who want to live up here year-round and get the work done,” said Petersen. “Hav­ing Mike’s en­ergy and en­thu­si­asm is en­cour­ag­ing. I would love to see Bear Val­ley re­turn to what it was when I first moved here: a thriv­ing year-round com­mu­nity of folks who love the out­doors.”

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