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Photo of a dirt-biker
Hell on Wheels

by Jack Hope

A new wave of bigger, faster machines is driving Americans from the wilderness.

At 8 a.m. on a November Saturday, it's silent enough in Ohio's Wayne National Forest that Larry Steinbrink and I can hear falling oak leaves as they settle to the forest floor. Alongside the dirt trail leading us up a hardwood ridge, a woodpecker hammers methodically on the trunk of an ancient beech tree. Once we cross the ridge top we can hear the murmur of Purdum Creek somewhere below us as it spills over a sandstone ledge.

"This is the way a forest ought to sound," says 71-year-old Steinbrink, a lifelong outdoorsman from nearby Carbon Hill. "But let's just wait here and see what happens. In a little while it'll be a totally different place."

Within 10 or 12 minutes, just as Steinbrink predicts, there's a strange series of burbling and popping noises from the bottom of the eroded half-mile trail we've just ascended. At first it sounds to me like the death throes of a giant automatic coffeemaker. But the distant burbles and pops quickly become the ever-louder snarls and blats of internal combustion engines as a group of off-road recreational vehicles (ORVs) begin their charge up the steep switchback trail.

First to appear, dirt and gravel flying from beneath their rear wheels, blue smoke streaming from their tailpipes, are a trio of goggled, helmeted "dirt bikers" wearing padded, body-length, leather-and-nylon racing outfits. As the motorcyclists climb the trail, the roar of their two-cycle engines fills the steep-sided valley. They leap their 250-pound machines over clumps of exposed hardwood roots, sink almost out of sight as they grind through the three-foot-deep ruts of the switchback turns, then accelerate fiercely on the straightaways, splatting mud onto the tree trunks and onto the riders who follow them.

Less than 50 yards behind, five all-terrain vehicles (ATVs) rumble up the slope. They're chunkier (about 500 pounds), slightly slower, and far less graceful than the dirt bikes. But these machines -- America's favorite off-road vehicles -- have four-wheel drive and impressive climbing ability. Three of the ATV riders stay on the trail. Two leave it (illegally), speeding 80 yards off into the forest in search of a new, more challenging route up the ridge. They dive into a gully and churn axle-deep through the wet soil in its bottom, whipping it into the consistency of pancake batter. They whoop exuberantly as they dash up its far side, then pivot and run back through the gully a second and third time. Zigzagging swiftly upslope, they spray earth and leaves eight feet into the air. Near the top, they gun their engines up a short, impossibly steep rise. Their tires grip, tearing out small chunks of moss and soil. Then they sprint another 15 feet to rejoin the main trail.

When they overtake Steinbrink and me at the crest of the ridge, the mud-splattered riders are clearly surprised to see human beings on foot. Behind goggles their eyes make quick, startled movements, but they skillfully swerve their front wheels to avoid clipping us on the narrow trail as they flash by at 30 miles an hour.

Then they're gone, disappearing around a downhill turn into Purdum Hollow. In their wake there's a mixed smell of oil and gasoline. My ears don't seem to be ringing, but for one reason or another, the sounds and the silence of the forest momentarily vanish. Before the noise of their engines fades, we hear another pack of ORVs at the foot of the trail, revving up.

"I used to love comin' here," Steinbrink says, planting his sassafras walking stick ahead of him as we proceed along the trail. "If I came in early, I'd always see a deer or a partridge, maybe even a fox. If there were other hikers around you'd never hear them, even in dry leaves. You could spend the whole day in these woods and imagine you were the first person ever to see them. But now the Forest Service has built trails for the vehicles and they've turned it into a racetrack. The ground is all tore up and there's oil and beer cans layin' around. It isn't a forest anymore. As soon as I hear the first of those engines, I know I'm not gonna see or hear anything natural the rest of the day."

Raised during the Depression on a subsistence farm just down the road from here, Steinbrink has spent his life in intimate contact with the 236,000-acre Wayne National Forest. As a boy, he fished in its creeks, hunted gray squirrels in its beech groves, and, as a volunteer from Carbon Hill High School, fought forest fires and planted pine seedlings on its hillsides. He's harvested firewood and mushrooms and yellowroot in the forest, run his coonhounds, searched out wild bee trees, and, over 60 years, explored virtually all of its hollows and ridges.

But during the last decade or so, Steinbrink says, he's been forced to surrender many of his favorite haunts to the off-road recreational vehicles. "There's five times as many of them as there were 10 years ago. They just blaze their own trails wherever they want. When I see them up in Possum Holler I say, 'Hey, you guys are a good mile from any legal ORV trail!' But they just give me the finger. The Forest Service can't stop them, and there's no place I can go to get away from them."

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Jack Hope, a freelance writer living in New York, is the author of two books, A River For the Living and Yukon.

Photo: Ted Wood

OnEarth. Spring 2004
Copyright 2004 by the Natural Resources Defense Council