The forested mountains outside Kila are, like much of the rest of Northwest Montana, beautiful and serene. Deer traverse the rolling peaks, bright flowers interrupt the green landscape in spring and are covered by feet of shimmering snow in winter.
It is a place where weary souls come to regenerate, where hikers unplug for a few quiet hours and hunters immerse themselves in the outdoors.
And it is a place where Bob Thomson, sometimes with his family, friends or fellow club members, and sometimes by himself, comes to do the same — except he does it in a Jeep with 40-inch tires.
“I’ve always liked getting out in the hills,” Thomson said. “I hunt, I fish; this is just an offshoot of that. There’s a lot of times I just like getting out and doing a drive and maybe go up on a hillside, have lunch, kick back for a while, look for wildlife.”
Thomson is the president of the Big Sky 4-Wheelers, a group of self-described “gear heads” who make use of off-highway vehicle (OHV) trails like the Blacktail-Wild Bill OHV Trail that covers 13 miles between Lakeside and Kila. The trail is the only one of its kind in Northwest Montana and is not just for meditating in the wilderness — it contains dozens of so-called challenge features that test the drivers and their vehicles to scale rocks, balance on logs and fight through ruggedly steep drops and climbs.
But driving an off-highway vehicle through the wilderness, an activity its practitioners call “wheeling,” should not invoke images of dune buggies roaring through the desert. On a recent drive through the Wild Bill section of the trail in one of this three Jeeps, Thomson never exceeded 10 miles per hour, and when club members get together for their monthly wheeling trips, they do so in a caravan of vehicles that slowly and carefully crawl through their terrain.
“In my mind it’s a finesse thing,” Thomson said of navigating obstacles with names like The Playground and The Coffin. “What I like to see is ‘can you make it through there without spinning a tire? Can you make it through without kicking out a rock?’ That’s where it’s interesting. It’s not a fast sport.”
Thomson has been the Big Sky 4-Wheelers president for just the last four years but has spent decades taking advantage of the OHV trail, first on an ATV as a youngster. Some members still ride ATVs or side-by-sides today, while others like Thomson take customized Jeeps or Toyotas that most spend hours tweaking to conquer all of the trail’s obstacles. That work, Thomson said, is a big part of the fun.
“Everybody starts out, ‘OK, what can I afford’ and then there’s the evolution of things,” he said. “I want to build something that will go up that obstacle that I haven’t been able to make it up, so then you build something bigger and tougher and stronger.”
The trail earned national OHV designation in 1979 and is located within the boundaries the Flathead National Forest. While the forest service retains oversight and possession of the trail, most of the maintenance is taken care of by a pair of local OHV groups, the Big Sky 4-Wheelers (Kalispell) and the Skyliners 4-by-4 Club (Polson). Thomson said his group regularly does brushing along the trail, removes fallen trees or other natural impediments, conducts weed mitigation and has, with the help of the forest service, installed trail maps and signs along the route.
“I think we have a strong relationship,” Beth Pargman, the Flathead National Forest’s acting recreation program manager, said. “We are very appreciative of the work they do, whether it’s cleaning up trash, the work on brushing the roads and they do their own patrolling of folks out there … I do like stressing how appreciative we are of the two groups’ help in keeping Wild Bill in high quality.”
The sense of appreciation goes both ways.
“We have other clubs come in from other areas and they say ‘How do you get this?’” Thomson said. “We’re very lucky that we have forest service rangers and people we do work with to be able to improve this and make the obstacles and do all the things that we do.”
Thomson is serious about preserving the beauty of the land — he stopped to pick up a handful of discarded cans while escorting a reporter through the area — and admitted that while, like every group, some bad apples will try and disobey the rules, the vast majority of users he sees are conscious of the environment around them.
The forest service monitors that, too, and a NEPA (National Environmental Policy Act) survey completed in 2012 found “no significant impact” to the area frequented by OHVs.
“The Forest is always looking to provide quality recreation opportunities, no matter what type of recreation it is,” Pargman said. “I think we have struck a good balance with the different types of recreation that we offer.”
The trails are open year-round, to both members and non-members. The Big Sky 4-Wheelers do hold a monthly ride, and their largest crowds come out in the winter months, when layers of deep snow add another level of difficulty to the obstacles. The group’s largest fundraiser, Snowbash, celebrated its 13th anniversary earlier this year and attracts OHVs from other clubs from throughout the state and beyond.
The Wild Bill OHV trailhead is located about seven miles off of U.S. Highway 2 near Kila. To access the trail in Lakeside, travel up Blacktail Road for about 12 miles from U.S. Highway 93. Motor vehicle use maps are available via the Flathead National Forest and a brochure on the Wild Bill OHV Trail is available at the Swan Lake Ranger District office in Bigfork.
The Big Sky 4-Wheelers are always looking for new members to join the club. Annual dues are $50 per family and the club meets on the first Monday of every month at the Pioneer School at the corner of Pioneer Road and Helena Flats Road in Kalispell. For more information, visit www.bigsky4wheelers.com.
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