True Spokesman - The Art and Science of Woody Keene
I’m gripping my bars at the threshold of a hallowed place, ready to ride with Woody Keen.
We’re in DuPont State Recreational Forest outside of Brevard, NC, a forest full of sculpted trails and a beacon for mountain bikers. Woody’s six-foot-two frame fits his Kona 29er well. Clipping in, Woody says through his grey goatee, “I want to show you where it all began for me.” We cycle through a kid’s skills area at the edge of the forest, the forest he helped save from a private developer’s multi-millionaire, gated-community-mansion wet dream.
The white pines glow with a brightness I don’t remember from my last visit, and as we come closer we see why. “A clearcut,” Woody says. “An effin’ clearcut right next to the kid’s trail.” We stand at the edge amongst the sap-bleeding stumps.
The path to Woody’s legacy started among a similar clear cut, a raw patch of torn ground through the nearby Pisgah National Forest. Back in the early ‘90s Woody led his first trail project there, rerouting a section of trail decimated by the timber extraction and accompanying road construction. “We’re still fighting that battle,” he says, “the battle over what a forest is for. Too often people see forests as creating products like timber instead of products like recreation. Recreation is a far better product.”
The 55-year-old Woody is no stranger to outdoor recreation. Head climber for the North Carolina Outward Bound School; ski instructor for High South Nordic Guides; founder and president of Misty Mountain Threadworks; Kona sales rep; IMBA Board of Directors; president of the Professional Trail Builders Association; founder and president of Trail Dynamics; founder, principal, and chief cook and bottle washer at Trail Wisdom, LLC…Woody’s resume is as impressive and sizeable as an old-growth cedar. “The outdoors is my life,” Woody says. “I am who I am as a person due to all the great time I have spent outdoors.”
By the time Woody flunked out of his senior year of high school, he had been rock climbing for five years. It was the 1970s and climbers were rare in general; a teenager pioneering what would become classic routes was unheard of. After Woody returned to finish high school, he skipped graduation to attend a National Outdoor Leadership School course in Washington state’s North Cascades, eventually dirt-bagging his way to Yosemite Valley in the summer of ’78. He returned to NC that fall with 35 cents in his pocket and stoked on all things climbing, whether it was teaching others or designing and building his own harnesses. From the late ‘70s to the mid ‘80s, Woody continued to build his outdoor resume, graduating from Appalachian State University (living some of the time out of his truck) with an outdoor recreation degree. Next it was five years working at the North Carolina Outward Bound School (NCOBS), where he invented the Fudge Harness, the product that would establish Misty Mountain Threadworks’ reputation in the climbing community. And Woody was just getting started.
While working for NCOBS, a fellow staffer gave Woody a mountain bike he had won in a race. Like his journey into climbing, this was a time when few people were riding mountain bikes in North Carolina and little information existed riding locations. So, in usual Woody fashion, he and his wife JoJo poured over topo maps for roads and trails and went out most every weekend. Their mini-expeditions became somewhat of a local legend—and, despite often bordering on suffer-fests, resulted in many of the area’s now-classic routes. “When we called folks on the phone about going riding, they wanted to know if it was one of our exploration rides or someplace we had been before,” Woody says. “Not many folks were up for our exploring rides. We got lost a lot and had many an epic.”
There were difficulties besides limited information; land managers, unfamiliar with mountain bikes, had yet to consider trail management, let alone bikers’ relationship to the trails themselves. “Back then, there were not a lot of rules, regulations, or policies on where to ride and not to ride,” Woody says. “Nothing was officially open to bikes, but likewise nothing was officially closed to bikes.”
During those early years, something sparked in Woody that led to a direction change, from simply a biking pioneer to a spokesman for the biking community. An outdoorsman and environmental and recreation advocate from his early years (his “legal” name is William, but high school friends called him Woody because he “Gave a hoot and did not pollute,” as Woodsy the Owl told kids in the ‘70s), Woody changed from speaking out to taking action. He campaigned to keep Howard’s Knob in Boone, NC open to climbing, a lost fight but one that resulted in the formation of the High Country Land Conservancy. He campaigned with some success to limit logging on the state’s public lands. And in 2000, he helped lead the charge to wrangle the DuPont property out of the death grip of developers and into the hands of the citizens of North Carolina.
“Back then, there were not a lot of rules, regulations, or policies on where to ride and not to ride,” Woody says. “Nothing was officially open to bikes, but likewise nothing was officially closed to bikes.”
As he began looking at trails, his environmental activism combined with a designer’s brain to offer a unique outlet for his resistance to logging and passion for recreation. “If you are at all awake when riding on trails,” Woody says, “you will notice pretty quickly that most were not designed for biking but are instead old timber extraction routes. I became hungry for knowledge on better trail design, but at that time that knowledge was not readily available. I read what I could, and tried to educate myself.”
And with the same genius and innovation he brought to climbing, Woody began delving into the art and science of trails.
Back in DuPont, Woody and I cycle through a series of purpose-built trails, dirt showcases of engineering: rolling grade dips, rock armoring, berms and multiple lines. Woody’s former company Trail Dynamics (he recently sold his shares to partner Ed Sutton) is responsible for many of the paths now enjoyed by riders, runners, hikers and equestrians. Woody’s newest section in the system, built alongside a crew of volunteers, is a long, stone-reinforced path, anchored by locust-log deadmen up a particularly steep hill. “Appalachian Armoring,” Woody calls it, one of the numerous techniques he’s invented—this particular one prevents what would otherwise be an erosion nightmare. Today it’s covered in snow, but the attention to detail is still obvious. And beautiful. “When I design a trail, I want it to fit in and be respectful of the great landscapes,” Woody says. “It’s funny, but there is a correlation between designing a trail to fit the landscape and designing a climbing harness to fit the human body. There is that side that is science, but we don’t want it to look overly engineered; we want to showcase the artistic side as well.”
In the early ‘90s in the Boone area, Woody met Bill Devendorf. At the time, Devendorf—70 years old and retired from a career with the Army in military intelligence—was swinging tools for the National Park Service. In the ‘30s, Devendorf built trails for the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) in western North Carolina. Thoughtful, sustainable and hand-built, many of which still exist across the country, despite being over 80 years old, CCC trails were as much works of art as pathways through the mountains. Realizing he was in the presence of a master, Woody absorbed all he could from Devendorf, and in turn hooked him on mountain biking. As much as Woody learned from Devendort, it was his work ethic and their shared rides that left a lasting impression. “Bill was a bad ass,” says Woody. “Even in his 70s, Bill would outwork much younger volunteers.”
While Bill taught Woody and Jojo the art and beauty of hand-built trails, anyone who has swung a Pulaski into the painfully thick, rhododendron-covered mountains of North Carolina also knows how miserable their construction can be. Woody knew there had to be a better way. Pulling inspiration from IMBA’s first Trail Care Crew and their experiments with machine-assisted trail construction, in 2000 Woody applied for and received a Recreational Trails Program grant to buy a walk-behind Toro Dingo for the local club—and ushered in both a trail-building renaissance and one of the most controversial civil wars the area’s mountain community had ever seen.
As mini-excavators growled along new trails in the western North Carolina mountains, a John-Henry size controversy began to unfold. Mountain bikers complained of trails being “IMBA-tized.” Dumbed down. Authenticity ruined. But at the same time few people were giving up their Saturday ride to swing a Pulaski, and debates raged on Internet forums and bike shops throughout the area. “You hear some folks complain about using machines for trail building,” Woody says, “but those complaints usually come from folks who have never swung a trail tool and they don’t know how hard this work is. And often their favorite ‘singletrack’ is an overgrown, machine-built logging road.”
Woody, however, wanted to settle the debate and organized “Trail Guru” gatherings in DuPont to prove machines could build better trails. “I invited IMBA folks and some of the best builders in the southeast and we would camp out, test machines and build new trail,” he says. “One year the event attracted 20 builders with 17 machines. Excavators, walk-behinds, tracked carriers were all tested and these gatherings resulted in a refinement of which tool fit for what job—and helped polish IMBA’s biblical Trail Solutions book.”
After years working for Kona, Woody eventually left the company to start Trail Dynamics with Ed Sutton. Through the early 2000s, the machine-based trail building company led the way in surrounding areas such as DuPont, Pisgah and Bent Creek—but their resume also included trails of all kinds in 20-plus states, two Canadian provinces, Scotland, Grand Cayman and Jamaica. Woody was also an early preacher of multiple-line trails, technical features, pump tracks and bike parks. Combined with his past advocacy and experience, this made him somewhat of a controversial legend in the world of trail building; dropping his name in some circles reveals secret handshakes and inside connections. In other circles, it might trigger an apocalyptic trail debate. “Either way, he is an original,” says Goose Kearse, current president and part owner of Misty Mountain, “an entrepreneur, a visionary strategist, a tireless environmental activist and a synergistic force for humanity recreating in our natural world.”
Woody understands his reputation as somewhat of a dividing figure. You can’t have been in the game as long as he has, can’t be as passionate and as driven and expect to be anything otherwise. “I have been called a lot of things, and outspoken is likely one of them,” says Woody. “I have never been satisfied with status quo. That is why I got into climbing harness design and why I got into the trail building as a volunteer and then a professional. I wanted to make change, to make things better.”
Today Woody is semi-retired. He, JoJo and their cat Pumpkin migrate annually between North Carolina and Bend, OR. But given his work ethic, “retired” is a relative term. His newest venture, Trail Wisdom, focuses on trail education, risk management and large-scale planning, and he is no less outspoken, purposeful and fired up about all things trails. “Woody is passionate about everything he does,” his wife JoJo says. “He is the most observant human I have ever met—he sees details in everything that most others miss. He studies the land, but also really observes how people interact with the trail they are on. Now that he is semi-retired, he is back to doing tons of volunteer trail work again. I will hear him yell out ‘Jo, I am out the door to go see my mistress’ and he is off again over to DuPont to work on a flag line or figure out a solution for a trail problem he saw last week.”
If there’s one thing that Woody’s passionate about it’s “getting off your ass.” He says with new clubs and IMBA chapters popping up all over the place, it’s easier to get involved than ever. It’s a movement that is making a difference on both the local and national levels, and it’s a movement in which everyone can contribute—if they’re willing to take action. “Find a club and go to a meeting,” he says. “Find out about workdays and go volunteer. Clubs need many skills sets these days, not just trail work and digging in the dirt. There is need for organizing social events, grant writing, social media pushes, website creation and updates, and much more. Go find your local club and let them know your skill set and how you can help.”
As important as advocacy, preservation and construction is to Woody, so is bringing the simple joy and wonder of riding a bike through the woods—the very things that have guided his entire life—to as many people as possible, whether they’re seven or 70, bad ass or beginner. “I want to get kids on trails and out in the woods,” Woody continues. “I don’t have children, but I do remember what an influence being in the woods had on my youth. We need more women and families involved. We need trails that get people into mountain biking because it is fun from the beginning, not just fun when you build up strong skills to be able to ride gnarly stuff. Being in the woods is a great thing, no matter what end of the difficulty scale you are able to ride.
“Perhaps that viewpoint and being outspoken about such has put me at odds at times with the top end of our sport,” he says, “and I am OK with that.”