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Freewheeling

After years in the making, Kingdom Trails rules with mountain bikers looking for thrills, scenery, the scent of pines and, at the end, their badge of mud

By Stephen Jermanok
Globe Correspondent / August 16, 2009

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EAST BURKE, Vt. - Jake veered left off the road and, like a good dad, I followed his lead, riding on a soft dirt path in a forest rich with the smell of pine. A right turn on the trail, Coronary Bypass, and we were soon flying downhill on a gem of a narrow run, banking corners and bouncing over roots as the path snaked back and forth through a pocket of trees. Less than 30 minutes into our mountain biking jaunt, we were covered in sweat and that perfect Vermont souvenir, mud.

“I think I like this better than skiing,’’ yelled my 12-year-old son as he became a blur through the woods.

In 1997, I had a magazine assignment to preview a network of mountain biking trails being created in the northeast corner of Vermont. Biking with one of the route’s designers, Jeff Hale, and his golden retriever, I quickly saw the potential for an off-road biking route through this rural part of the state. On a spongy mat of trails dusted with pine needles, we cruised past century-old barns and small, dilapidated sugar shacks lost in the countryside. Yet, even though the scenery was pure Currier and Ives, the trails felt very raw, as evidenced by the mud bog we ended up in, sludge up to our knees.

Today, Kingdom Trails is the preeminent mountain biking route in the Northeast, a 150-mile circuit of former farming roads and slender singletracks that climb and dip with the countryside. According to the Kingdom Trails Association, there were over 32,000 daily visits in 2008, and judging from the license plates we saw in the parking lot, bikers come from all over the Northeast and Quebec.

“It’s like a Six Flags for mountain bikers,’’ says Kevin Corcino, 36, of Sutton, Mass., noting that the biking is so good he’s been known to drive the three hours up to the Northeast Kingdom, bike to his heart’s content, then make the return trip home the same day.

The network might extend deeper into the state now that surrounding farmers, once hesitant to donate land, are jumping on the biking bandwagon.

“Landowners come to us to put trails on their land, knowing that it’s good for the local economy,’’ says Tim Tierney, executive director of the association, in his headquarters just behind the country store in East Burke. Tierney tells Jake, a novice at the sport, to warm up at the local pump track behind East Burke Sports. The store’s owner, John Worth, was another local instrumental in putting the Kingdom Trails on the map. As Jake gets his bike legs on by catching air on the large mounds of dirt, Tierney and I go over a detailed route for the day.

We park our car up the hill at the Inn at Mountain View Farm, once the home of Elmer Darling. At the turn-of-last-century, Darling came to East Burke from New York, where he had accumulated wealth as a hotel owner, to become a gentleman farmer. He created immense barns to house his prized Jersey herd, Morgan horses, pigs, creamery, and carriages. Today, these freshly painted red barns form a stark contrast with the green pastures, and serving as a gateway to the pastoral landscape we were about to see up close.

After trying our hand at Harp and Coronary Bypass, we veered right at Pastore Point Loop and were soon high on a bluff above the West Branch of the Passumpsic River. We climbed uphill on a wider trail and soon found ourselves atop a ridge riding though a meadow of yellow wildflowers past older barns on the backside of Mountain View Farm. A right turn on Today’s Tour led us on another steep singletrack, with sweeping turns down the hillside to the shores of the river. This is where we had the chance to bike our favorite trail of the weekend, Webs.

“We call it ‘Star Wars,’ ’’ says another biker, “because it feels like you’re on a spacecraft whipping through tall buildings.’’ Indeed, Webs is a glorious downhill run on a soft trail hidden in a forest of tall pines. You can’t help but yelp for joy, as you curve in and out of the trees, feeling like NASCAR racer Jeff Gordon, but on two wheels. The trail is far too short, though, and you’ll end up trying it again and again like we did.

We ended the day with the horses, donkeys, and a pig at The Wildflower Inn, our lodging for the night. The next morning we got energized with a hearty breakfast of blueberry pancakes and fresh Vermont maple syrup, hopped on the bikes, and rode across the street to Heaven’s Bench. Atop a green hilltop, with glorious vistas toward the slopes of Mount Burke, stood a small bench, the perfect place for a break if we hadn’t started our day five minutes prior.

On we went rolling over pasture, through a thicket of tall birch trees surrounded by a maze of maple sugar lines. Jake wanted to try Webs once more so we crossed the road again and headed down to the river. As exciting as it was to see the trails become a rousing success, it was far more thrilling to finally share my passion for a sport I adore with Jake. Seeing him bank those turns with confidence and climb the tough hills, smelling the sweet pine and listening to only his grunts and the sounds of the birds, I felt gratified that I could pass this gift on.

The skies turned overcast and it started to drizzle as we snaked between a blanket of moss and skirted by beaver dams. Soon we were looking at a steep embankment that led swiftly to a lone wooden plank onto a bridge that crossed a river. With my lack of balance, I knew there was no way I would ever stay upright if I tried to bike across that two-by-four, so I jumped off the bike and walked.

“You wimp!’’ screamed Jake, already on the opposite shore. I laughed, knowing full well that the baton had been properly accepted.

Stephen Jermanok can be reached at farandaway@comcast.net.

If You Go

Kingdom Trails Association East Burke
802-626-0737
www.kingdomtrails.org
Day passes $10 adults, $5 ages 8-15. Passes and maps available at the association’s storefront on Route 114.

East Burke Sports Route 114
802-626-3215
www.eastburkesports.com
Rentals from $20/half day.

The Wildflower Inn 2059 Darling Hill Road
Lyndonville
800-627-8310
www.wildflowerinn.com
Doubles from $123, including breakfast.

Inn at Mountain View Farm 3383 Darling Hill Road
East Burke
800-572-4509
www.innmtnview.com
Rooms from $175, including breakfast.

River Garden Café 427 Route 114, East Burke
802-626-3514
www.rivergardencafe.com
Great salads, sandwiches, burgers, nachos. Lunch items start at $7.