This is the story of two people who fell in love, first with each other, then with mountain bikes, and later with the trail center they would eventually oversee.
When Jeff Simcoe moved to Morgantown in 1996, he was assuredly not a mountain biker. If it didn’t have to do with kayaks or whitewater, Jeff wasn’t interested, that is, until he met a girl named Annie Morris.
At the time, Annie was a geology major at West Virginia University, the same school where Jeff studied environmental and natural resource economics. Annie was both studious and spontaneous, the perfect blend of serious pragmatism and unadulterated curiosity.
When Annie wasn’t studying, she was working at High Mountain Sports down the road in Oakland, Maryland. In 1998, a year after meeting Jeff, Annie bought her first mountain bike, a 26-inch Trek hardtail with rim brakes and toe cages. While trail systems like that at Bakers Ridge and Coopers Rock State Forest were closer, it was the rustic trails at Big Bear Lake Trail Center in Bruceton Mills that, quite simply, made Annie feel like a kid again.
“Every trail system has its own characteristics,” she says, “but Big Bear was the most fun. It’s magical there.”
Located in northern West Virginia within spitting distance of the Pennsylvania and Maryland state lines, Big Bear Lake Trail Center sits atop Big Bear Lake Camplands, a 5,000-acre RV park and campground that’s been family owned and operated since it opened in 1972. Around the time that Annie and Jeff first started riding at Big Bear, the trails were largely known by riders of a different breed: motorcyclists.
Throughout the 1980s, Big Bear was one of the venues for the infamous 100-mile motorcycle races that later formed the Grand National Cross Country (GNCC) series. Like the Blackwater 100 in nearby Davis, West Virginia, Big Bear’s technical, boggy terrain provided the optimal stage on which to test—and break—the country’s toughest riders. According to event coverage from the 1983 race, Big Bear’s “torturous conditions” the year prior had kept some of the best competitors from even returning to toe the line again.
That reputation eventually caught the attention of Laird Knight, godfather of the 24-hour mountain bike race series. From 2005 until 2009, Big Bear served as the West Virginia venue for Knight’s 24-hour race. After the last 24-hour race in 2009, Big Bear continued to host a number of smaller cross-country mountain bike races, including its hallmark 2×12 relay.
By then, Jeff and Annie had both received master’s degrees, tied the knot, and pursued jobs within their respective fields, but change was in the air. In 2009, after years of working as a research hydrologist for West Virginia University, Annie stepped away from academia to pursue art full-time. Little did she know that that same year would see the height of the Great Recession and the subprime mortgage crisis, which essentially ended Jeff’s career with a forest technology company.
In 2010, Jeff and Annie moved to Accident, Maryland, near Deep Creek Lake State Park in the western part of the state. At first, the two were scraping by solely on Annie’s income from art festivals. Jeff eventually landed a position as energy program manager with Downstream Strategies, an environmental consulting firm based in Morgantown. Every day, Jeff would commute an hour one-way to write grants, spearhead renewable energy projects, manage those initiatives, and support renewable energy policy efforts.
Which is to say that Jeff spent a lot of time sitting in a car and in front of a screen. While he was passionate about the work he was doing, after two years, he was starting to feel worn down.
“It’s a tough atmosphere in West Virginia if you’re working on greenspace renewable energy stuff,” says Jeff. “There’s a quick burnout cycle there. We were doing a lot of good work but it was like, are people really supportive of this? It felt like pushing water uphill a little bit.”
Jeff clearly needed a break, so in the summer of 2014, the Simcoes took a “staycation.” They traveled to the highest points in Pennsylvania, Maryland, and West Virginia, hiking and biking along the way. One of their last stops was Big Bear where they ran into Mark Schooley, General Manager of Big Bear Lake Camplands.
After the 24-hour mountain bike series ended, Big Bear had stumbled onto the radar of a new user group: trail runners. In 2013, Big Bear hosted its first Ragnar Trail Relay which brought in not only thousands of runners but their dollars, too. A mountain biker himself, Mark realized there was potential for the trails to bring in a lot more business to Big Bear, but he knew he couldn’t do it alone. He asked the Simcoes if they knew anyone looking for a job.
“Jeff was meant to be in the adventure sports industry,” says Annie. “That’s his calling. I pushed him to pursue that job and it’s been one of the best decisions that we’ve made.”
Big Bear’s Care Bears
As Big Bear Lake Trail Center Recreation Land Manager, Jeff maintains the property’s 50-mile trail system and curates community events and races for the center’s 10-month season. He’s almost like a dirt librarian: Caring for the old and schooling the new. The trails themselves are both an homage to Big Bear’s two-wheeled past and an ode to its future; Jeff can literally tell the age of each trail based on its soil content.
“All of the trails are kinda hand-built,” says Jeff. “There have been no machines used to build any of them. Most of them are your typical rake-and-ride, but we also have newer trails where we’ve gone out and found different features in the area and built the trail purposely to link those features together.”
The result is a seamless network of singletrack bedazzled with stately rock gardens and moss-covered boulderfields, a unique pairing that the Simcoes call “friendly technical.” Neither buff nor chunky, Big Bear embraces the best of both worlds, a savory cocktail of fast flow trail on the rocks.
“It looks intimidating but once you ride it, it’s a little easier than it looks,” says Jeff. “People have a good experience in that way that they feel like they’ve pushed their skills a little bit by riding harder trails than whatever they have where they live.”
“It’s one of my favorite places to ride ever,” adds Annie. “The trees and the rhododendron tunnels and the streams and the moss and the ferns that are as tall as I am; the property itself is just magical.”
In a way, the Simcoes have become the surrogate parents of Big Bear, though technically Jeff is the only Simcoe on Big Bear’s payroll. While Annie still works full-time as an artist, she’s always working registration at Big Bear events, designing logos and flyers, donating art for awards, and even making cookies for competitors. For Annie, being a part of the West Virginia mountain bike community is rewarding in more ways than one.
“I’ve seen growth in my own riding skills and personal extrovertedness and that’s been pretty great,” she says. “Things that were so far outside my comfort zone, both on the trail and in that role leading group rides, were so scary to me and now I do them all of the time. We have a really special community made of, overall, really high-level riders who also encourage all levels of riders, whether they’re badasses or beginners.”
Though no new trail miles are currently in the works, Jeff’s main goals are to improve the Big Bear experience and make mountain biking accessible and inclusive. Under Jeff’s care, Big Bear has added a pavilion and a stage as well as water infrastructure and equipment specifically for the trail system. In addition to Dirt Rag’s Dirt Fest, a three-day mountain biking festival that takes place on the property’s air strip, the Simcoes are closing out the 2019 riding season with the Big Bear Rider Appreciation Party (BBRAP) on Sunday, October 20. Unlike Dirt Fest WV, the BBRAP is free and features a series of no-drop group rides and a potluck feast.
Big Bear is easily accessed via I-68 and located within a two-hour radius of major metropolitan centers like Pittsburgh. But there’s no denying the fact that the trails are relatively removed from society—the closest cities are Deep Creek Lake, Maryland, and Morgantown, West Virginia, both of which are roughly 45 minutes away and in various stages of developing their own local trails. Still, says Jeff, it’s that isolation coupled with Big Bear’s unique trail flavor that makes its trails an important slice of the state tourism pie.
“People outside of West Virginia are now looking at West Virginia as a mountain bike destination and Big Bear is a part of that,” he says. “It seems like there is a lot more money available to hire a professional trail crew to come in and build trails that would have taken 10 or more years to get ridden in the way we’ve always done it. It brings in more diversity to the trail options in the area and I don’t see that as competing. I see that as a positive thing.”
Jess Daddio is a freelance multi-media journalist with a soft spot for West Virginia. When she’s not hunting down a story, she can usually be found slumming on her bike near her home base of Harrisonburg, VA.