Underexposed is a self-shot and produced series by Pivot Cycles athlete Brice Shirbach dedicated to showcasing trail advocacy and stewardship while exploring a variety of trails in unfamiliar places. Join Brice as he explores the personal motivations behind the effort that goes into mountain bike advocacy while sampling the trails they work so hard for.Words: Brice Shirbach
My first visit to the Warfield Trails of Charlemont came on the heels of a quick trip to Vermont. My good friend and photographer extraordinaire, Katie Lozancich, was keen to show me some of the trails available on the other side of the Deerfield River opposite Thunder Mountain Bike Park. Thunder has long been recognized as one of the more progressive and complete bike parks in all of North America, with its intoxicating mix of natural tech and pristine flow, as well as some of the largest freeride bike park features outside of British Columbia. It’s a destination through and through, and has cast quite a large shadow across the rest of the Charlemont and the Berkshire Mountains of Western Mass, so when Katie suggested I stop by on my way home from Vermont, I was incredibly curious about what I’d find across from the esteemed mountain playground.
Driving south from the route 100 corridor of Vermont and across the state line into Massachusetts is, well, actually quite lovely. The Green Mountains are synonymous with the Green Mountain State of Vermont (I know…duh.), however, they don’t just end because of some imaginary lines we decided to draw on a map hundreds of years ago. The very same physiographic subrange of the Appalachians actually travels from as far south as Connecticut to as far north as Quebec. Crossing into Western Massachusetts from Vermont means crossing from the Green Mountains to the Berkshire Mountains. Same mountains, different names.
Charlemont itself is situated along the Deerfield River on the border of Franklin and Berkshire Counties. The town of less than 1,200 is about 6 miles south of the Vermont line, accessed primarily by the Mohawk Trail, also known as Route 2, and is 45 miles northwest of Springfield, MA and 106 miles northwest of "Beantown".
My first impressions were that of familiarity. I spend so much of my time in Vermont, and never stopped to really consider how western Mass is effectively an extension of a landscape I’ve come to love over the years. The rolling landscape is dotted with farms and buildings that appear to date as far back as the 19th century. The Warfield Inn is a town staple, situated on 540 acres overlooking the Deerfield River and Berkshire East Resort. Throughout those 540 acres you’ll find a network of progressive all mountain trails aptly called the Warfield Trails, and that’s where I discovered for myself just how brilliant this place was. The Warfield trail network utilizes just over 700 vertical feet of relief spread out among the property and delivers some of the loamiest, technical, and brilliant trails in all of New England. I found myself somewhat shocked by how much fun I was having here. The trails throughout the Warfield property are hand built and showcase the region’s amazing dirt and natural terrain in a manner appropriate for intermediate riders and up. High speeds, a variety of cambers, natural hits, and several rock slabs make for an unforgettable rip through the northern hardwood forests of the Berkshires.
Both the Warfield property as well as Berkshire East Resort are owned by Jon Schaefer and his family, with Jon also founding the local trail association, Deerfield River Trails. While the trails found throughout the Warfield Property as well as nearby Hawley State Forest have been around for decades, it would be the 2015 opening of Thunder Mountain Bike Park that would serve as the catalyst for a comprehensive vision of what mountain biking could really look like for Charlemont and the rest of the Berkshires.
“Anybody can go build a trail,” he says when I asked him about the marriage of the bike park and the existing trails. “It takes time, vision, and diligence to maintain it and turn it into a network. We are blessed with the Hawley State Forest, which is located right at the top of Thunder Mountain, and we’re just now making the connectors to the forest. You have 40 miles of rolling terrain without much climbing. You have the Warfield House here, which is a bit more progressive and enduro-ish style of riding. Beyond that there are more opportunities. We estimate that there may be 65 miles or so of trails throughout the town outside of the bike park. The network is there, so now it’s about infrastructure. Signs, parking, and accessibility. Is the community itself ready to give visitors the experience they’re coming here for? Everybody wants to be Kingdom Trails, but there’s a lot of work that goes into that. You need to have the support around the trails in order to make it work. That just takes a lot of time and belief.”
From what I have seen of Charlemont, the belief is there. The terrain throughout Western Mass and the Berkshire Mountains is very much out of most outdoor lovers’ dreams, with abundant white water, rock climbing, skiing, paddling, and bike opportunities around every corner, and a growing number of businesses and volunteers seem more than ready to anchor Charlemont’s identity to those outdoor pursuits. Mountain biking might be a few decades in already, but over the next couple of years I wouldn’t be surprised to see it at the top of the heap for the sleepy mountain community when it comes to the social and economic fabric of the region.
“We’re really into the second generation of ‘true believers’ of the trail system around here,” Jon says with a knowing smile. “And once those folks really wrap their heads around it, I think you’ll see it take off even more.”