"At a business, the bottom line is profit," Knight says. "At Kingdom Trails, the bottom line are the trails
. That’s what makes it so awesome." We were discussing the day over some Vermont brews, having just completed almost six hours of riding when he said that. It was such a simple truth. It was also incredibly profound. It was my final day after almost a week in East Burke and I was feeling rather overwhelmed by the impact the people and experiences had on me over the past six days. Consequently, for the first time on any of these East Bound and Down adventures, I wasn't ready to go home. Knight Ide was one of many folks I had the distinct pleasure of getting to know and was a part of perhaps the most impressive community I have yet had the privilege to visit.
The Northeast Kingdom of Vermont is a stunning part of the United States. Deciduous and evergreen forests cover the mountains, with tiny and picturesque towns nestled almost too perfectly in their valleys below. By early autumn, the Green Mountain State glows with a bit more of a red and gold hue as the air begins to clear and the views begin to expand. As you work your way north of Lyndonville on route 114, you'll see the mountain before you see the town. Burke Mountain rises over 3200 feet above sea level and just over 2200 feet from the road. Shortly thereafter, you'll see the bikes. They're on top of cars, hanging off of the back of truck beds, propped against virtually every building in town. They come in all shapes and sizes; from fully rigid single speeds to hardtails and 6" trail bikes to dual crown park rigs and they're all there for the same thing: the Kingdom Trails.
East Burke, VT holds a tremendous amount of value for mountain bikers the world over. There are over 100 miles of trails to ride in and around town in addition to one of the country's best bike parks looming high above the community. The Kingdom Trails Association is world renowned for its trail design and advocacy. Oh, and the views around these parts are endless. But if I'm being honest, none of those factors are what truly set it apart from the scores of other fantastic mountain bike destinations the world over. There are indeed other places with loads of singletrack, great trail crews and amazing views. The real value of East Burke lies in the people who call it home.
In The Beginning...
|At Kingdom Trails, the bottom line are the trails. That's what makes it so awesome. - Knight Ide|
...there was a ski resort. That should come as no surprise, as the ski industry was essentially built in Vermont. Burke Mountain has seen several owners come and go over the years, and throughout its sometimes delicate existence the mountain would bring weekend warriors during the winter months to East Burke. For decades, that was it for this place. Skiers on the weekends and not a whole lot else. There was an extensive Nordic trail system as well, but with so many alpine and Nordic options between here and the major markets, much of that traffic was heavily filtered by the time it reached East Burke. However, in 1988 one of those skiers was feeling inclined to try something a bit out of the ordinary.
In November of 1988, East Burke Sports opened up operations in town. It was initially opened as a ski shop, but owner John Worth, who had spent time in Europe operating bicycle tours, wanted to have something to do when the snow wasn't flying. "This shop [East Burke Sports] was opened as a ski shop. We weren’t sure what we were going to do during the summer," says John. "This was 1988 and mountain biking was so new. No one had them. But my friends and I were looking for places to ride and in the back of my mind, I knew that if we were going to start selling mountain bikes, we were going to have to have some trails to ride them on."
John and some of his friends began to explore the Nordic systems that were well established East Burke. It wouldn't take long for them to grew weary of those tracks and before singletrack was even a word, John and company began to rake, dig and design trails that they wanted to ride on. This would be the beginning of what is now one of the most legendary trail networks in the country. John would spend virtually all of his free time building trails and it wouldn't take long for word to spread of the rapidly growing network. He had permission to work on only 50% of the land he was using and grew nervous of the volume of people coming into town to ride them. Fortunately for John and the generations of riders that would inevitably follow, a man named Doug Kitchel caught wind of the trails and had a plan. "Doug Kitchel used to be the owner of Burke Mountain Resort and was an old politician that everyone loved," John recalls. "He was in his seventies at the time and comes up to me and says, 'Hey, I hear you have this awesome trail system that everyone wants to ride. How can we make it legitimate and step it up?' At the time I wasn't sure. I only had permission for maybe half of it. Some of it I wasn’t too worried about but other parts I wasn’t sure whose land I was on. At first I was worried about landowners shutting us down but he wanted to go and get all of the permissions for me. He went door-to-door and spoke with every landowner and no one said no
In 1994, the Kingdom Trails Association was formed. Doug Kitchel helped put together the original board of directors, which included himself, John Worth, some of the landowners, a lawyer and a bookkeeper. The lawyer helped them acquire their 501(c)3 in-kind. The landowners who were a part of the board owned inns and farms and were happy to have their respective properties be a part of this operation. Eventually, John would leave the board of directors to become the first paid employee of the Kingdom Trails Association as the trails manager and designer. In 1996, the KTA developed the first trail map of the area. New, key staffers were brought on board over the coming years including Tim Tierney as the executive director and CJ Scott as a trail builder and eventual trails manager. By the early 2000's, the Kingdom Trails were a bonafide destination for mountain bikers far and wide.
|I was worried about landowners shutting us down but [Doug Kitchel] wanted to go and get all of the permissions for me. So he did. He went door-to-door and spoke with every landowner and nobody said no. - John Worth|
...are rather great. The big irony of the Kingdom Trails is that as famous as they are, they're decidedly very un-East Coast in their presentation. While much of this part of the world is known for its rocky, tight and technical riding, most of what you'll find in and around East Burke [with the exception of Burke Bike Park] is unbelievably flowy and devoid of what many would consider East Coast-styled stuff. "One thing we have going is our unique geology," John explains. "Darling Hill was this glacial lake. It formed these sandy eskers with virtually no rocks. There’s really nice dirt and drainage."
CJ Scott came aboard KTA as an intern after graduating from nearby Lyndon State College in 2002 with a degree in adventure based programming. He would eventually take a paid position as a trail builder alongside John Worth before taking over as trail manager in 2007. "It would be John and I doing the majority of the trail work with the help of a healthy volunteer base," CJ tells me. "We didn’t have any machines or ATV’s. None of us had a chain saw. We’d hollow out fallen trees for our wooden features. Then it slowly began to grow." KTA began to accrue a paid group of trail builders that CJ would oversee and has seen that crew grow to 9 people by 2014. In addition to the added manpower, they've acquired ATVs, pickup trucks, chainsaws and other mechanized trail tools. So many acquisitions, in fact, that they are outgrowing their storage space. But all of these additions have only helped them develop and design trails that have become a cornerstone for anyone looking for flow trail templates.
"10 years ago it was open up a corridor, rake and run and ride it," CJ notes. "Now our style of building is a bit more skilled. We work with the lay of the land; try to incorporate natural hips and berms. We don’t have very many rocks or roots here. The soil is beautiful to work with. It’s perfect for shaping and building." It's not just the dirt either. When snow starts to fall, people have begun to find new ways to appreciate East Burke's offerings outside of the downhill and Nordic ski options. "Whenever snow starts to fly is when we maintain our winter operations. It gives this town one more thing; when people get off of the mountain and maybe the downhill skiing or Nordic stuff isn’t that great, we’ve got our fat biking and it’s going to be awesome. It’s still pretty young, this is only our third winter of legitimately maintaining 20 miles of groomed fat bike singletrack. So it’s only going to continue to grow and bring people in. I don’t know if we’re ever going to see the same number of riders as we see in the summertime, but I wouldn’t be surprised if we start seeing a considerable amount of riders here in the winter just for the fat biking."
Knight Ide, a lifelong resident of the Northeast Kingdom and veteran freerider, has a hard time drumming up the will to ride in other places. "These guys are out there constantly dialing the trails and changing them up. There's older stuff getting revamped which is just as good as getting new stuff in. It’s hard to pull yourself away from a place where the trails are so good and the scene is so good." Knight is often sub-contracted by KTA for assistance with trail work and design and is responsible for many of the most popular downhill and freeride trails at Burke Bike Park. He also runs IdeRide, a company offering trail building, guiding and all inclusive Mountain Bike Adventure Packages for people traveling to the region. "A few years into it I just started traveling a lot for riding and that really opened my eyes to just how good we had it here. It also opened my eyes to what we didn’t have here but could
. A lot of what we didn’t have at that point was the downhill and freeride stuff." So he nudged a few people and alongside CJ and several others, developed some of the most well known downhill trails on the East Coast, including J-Bar, Freeride, Knightslayer and others. "Everyone worked together to bring this place to where it is now. A lot of little pieces came together."
"We, the People."
|I just liked the kind of riding we had here, the really fast and smooth riding. So we tried to make that our trademark. From the beginning we always wanted them to be fast and feel like you were skiing. - John Worth|
Ok, here's the thing that really sets this town and these trails apart. Often times, when you're planning a trip to go ride somewhere, the trails you intend to ride are likely on public land or privately owned bike parks. Think about how secretive you have to be when you're on trails that aren't public. It's tenuous business riding on private property, isn't it? We live in an increasingly litigious world where everyone is afraid of what might happen if things go wrong and that's magnified when mountain bikes get involved. David Dwyer is one of over 60 private
landowners whose private
properties combine to make up 90% of the land the Kingdom Trails are built on. "The funny thing is, I didn’t really think that these guys pushed it on us or approached us with a sales pitch per se." David says. "They didn’t have to. They already had a product that was good enough and people along the ridge said: “Yeah, use my land.”
"I don’t think it would happen in very many other places." he says. "I have sons-in-law that live over in Maine and I asked them if they could pull this off over there. 'No.' 'Never.' People and communities are too gated up. Once the ocean is involved, they’re worried about blocking views and this and that. They’ve tried a few times here and there. But what if somebody gets hurt? What if somebody sues? What if, what if, what if? I think these guys [KTA] have been great because it’s been hands-off and I think that probably most people want to be on Kingdom Trails. Folks are calling them asking if they can build on their property."
The community's embrace of the Kingdom Trails goes beyond their desire to be a part of the trail network itself. The trails and all that they bring to town are now seen as the
driving force for the community and local economy. East Burke, VT has truly become a mountain biker's dream town. Not only are the trails amazing and not only are the locals opening up their parcels for more and more trails to be built on, but the town now sees mountain biking as an integral component for the greater good. "When I first came on board, we were a bonus." says KTA Executive Director, Tim Tierney. "Now we’re an expectation. It was only 5 or 6 years ago when that transition took place. We had to change how we did business and handled the trails when it rained. We just can’t close them. We’re now a commercial expectation."
Carrie Tomcyzk owns and operates Village Sports Shop, a business that has been in her family for several generations. She's had the opportunity to witness firsthand the positive impact mountain biking has had on the region. "We have watched Burke Mountain change owners 11 different times. They have always had problems and questions which has been compounded with the affect climate change has had on the ski industry. Initially, skiing was the recreational pot that fed the shop and the area. And then mountain biking came and it’s been steady and growing and has brought in all of these people. It’s not even weather dependent now with trail design. It’s been amazing for this town. It's just so positive."
Businesses and job opportunities are now being created because of what the trails have done for the region. Places like Mike's Tiki Bar, which shares a parking lot with the Kingdom Trails Association and offers riders the chance to shower and change with two outdoor showers before settling in for a sizable selection of beverage options and are open only for the mountain bike season. The Vermont Food Truck Company can be found parked right next to the bar, offering patrons dinner and snack options. Then there are people like Jessi and Eric Hudson, who own and operate The Kingdom Farm Lodge. The couple converted several structures on the farm that has been in Jessi's family since the early 1900's into lodging for mountain bikers. Technically speaking it's open to anyone, but as avid riders themselves, they wanted to build a place where mountain bikers would feel at home. They left the floor unfinished so people would feel ok about walking around inside with their cleats on and rolling their bikes around. They set up a bike wash right next to the bathrooms. There's a tool stand and kit as well as a blown up trail map right at the entrance. "You know, as a kid, this was an extremely tiny town with not a lot going on," Jessi recalls. "There were some people who came from Massachusetts to ski in the winter, but there weren’t really any tourists in the summer to speak of. Now it’s amazing to drive through East Burke and just see all of the riders. They’re in the stores, the restaurants, etc. I just see a wonderful group of people. They’re happy, kind, respectful...it’s just a great sport and community. Plus, this is a way for me to have a job and be able to mountain bike all of the time. "
At the top of Darling Hill Road you'll find the Wildflower Inn, converted into a B&B operation from a farm back in 1984. It's owner, Jim O'Reilly, is also one of the private landowners and has been with KTA from the onset. He too has adapted to the influx of mountain bike traffic, incorporating a bike storage and wash station into his operations while also allowing guests to complete their checkout process, ride all day and still have a place to shower before embarking on their journey home. He, like everyone else, sees the trails as a bit of a savior for the region's economy. "I would definitely say that mountain biking is the driving force for our town. The village and the hills here are always buzzing with bikers. Summers now beat winters here." According to him, once the dust settled after the recession, there was a distinct change in his market. "Our original guests were baby-boomers and their families. They used to come in and just sit back and relax," he says with a smile. "Now, mountain bikers come and they’re super active and always looking to do something fun."
Onward and Upward
|The trail users are always thanking us too. If it comes up that I'm a landowner they're often very thankful. I like to tell them that I had no choice or these guys would kick my ass! - David Dwyer|
It feels good to spend time in a place like East Burke. I have my favorite trails for sure, namely Moose Alley and any of the three T's [Tap n Die, Troll Stroll and Tody's Tour]. The views are truly stunning in virtually every direction. The air is clear. And of course, surrounding yourself with like-minded travelers and residents is always a good idea. There's just something about this place that is hard to explain. Maybe it's the combination of all of those factors. But I think that it may have more to do with the sense that this place is kind of one big, perfectly serendipitous accident. East Burke has been one of the top mountain bike destinations for quite a few years now. There was certainly some luck involved in having the right people in place here during mountain biking's infancy. But thankfully those people were willing to put a lot of work into developing an infrastructure, both on the trails and less tangibly within the community, that would allow the simple act of riding bikes in the woods to become an overwhelming positive force for the people who live and visit this place. East Burke is home to over 60 individuals who are happy to let riders enjoy the trails that wind throughout their land. Those very people reside in a place that happens to have some of the best geological factors assisting in the design of an iconic network of trails.
Lilias Ide, Knight's younger sister and the Operations Manager for KTA, was born just a few minutes north of East Burke but spent several years adventuring in places like Wyoming, Oregon, California and even Alaska. She would often visit home during those years and took note of the transformation taking place in the region and immediately saw the direct correlation it shared with mountain biking. "I remember living in Portland and whenever I’d come home to visit I’d start to see this place getting cooler and cooler and thinking that something really good was starting to happen here," she says. For her, it's not just how far East Burke has come, but the continued growth and cultivation of the scene here is really important to her as well. "It's exciting to be a part of Kingdom Trails and a community that we’re actually building. I feel like I have seen a lot of growth and development over the last 5 years. The big thing that comes to mind is the lifestyle change we’ve seen in the local community. Locals see all of these people come here to ride bikes and as a result we're seeing more and more of them getting out on their bikes too."
Ultimately, riding your bike should make you feel good. When you ride on the Kingdom Trails, you're going to feel good. You can bring any bike you want to East Burke as there is most certainly terrain for everyone. You're also going to meet some amazing folks. People who are happy you're there and are willing to open up their community to you. There's a lesson to be learned here; a template more communities will hopefully utilize in the future. Bikes have the power to do a lot of good. Don't take my word for it, take it from David Dwyer, East Burke resident and a part of the most impressive collection of people you will ever meet. "Right now, there are no benefits to being one of the landowners other than knowing that you’re doing something great for the community. It makes you feel good and lets you know that you can
do something positive. The people who come here are generally good and happy and they’re going to come back for a long, long time."Planning a trip to East Burke sometime? Here are some recommendations...For Food and Drink
:Mike's Tiki Bar and the Vermont Food Truck Company
Grab a breakfast burrito and some coffee at the Northeast Kingdom Country StoreBike Shops
:East Burke SportsThe Village Sport ShopLodging
:Wildflower InnThe Kingdom Farm LodgeIde Ride House Rental and Tours
For trail passes and more information, check out the Kingdom Trails Association
There is plenty of DH and Freeride glory to be found at Burke Bike Park
David Dwyer makes some sweet t-shirts. Check out Roll A Fat One