Tonja and Hans Moser and their friends have a different version of socializing than most Juneau residents. Along with small talk, gossip and a fair amount of friendly jibes at one another, their get-togethers involve mud, sweat and rock-hopping.
"We go mountain biking instead of going to the movies," Tonja Moser said. "That's our date - going mountain biking."
Mountain biking for some Juneau residents is much more than hopping on a bike with fat tires and heading down a gravel road. It can be an intense, technically difficult sport that is rewarding for bikers who practice on a regular basis, the Mosers said.
"For me it's like I kind of forget that I'm exercising," said Tonja Moser, who has mountain biked in Juneau for 15 years. "You focus on the technical aspects, the group dynamic. The more I do it, the more I want to do it."
The Mosers and their friends often bike on what they call the "Gute Loop," named after a biking friend of theirs, Jim Gute, who now lives in Wyoming. Not quite a loop, the ride starts on the unpaved path that parallels the Brotherhood Bridge Trail, continues on the Dredge Lake Trail system, onto the nature loop at the Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center, then up the East Glacier Trail.
Sometimes the riders complete the East Glacier Trail loop and retrace their steps from there. Most of the time, they just ride up to the first lookout over the glacier and turn around there, Tonja Moser said.
Other rides around Juneau include Perseverance Trail, which until about 12 years ago was off-limits to bikers, Treadwell Ditch Trail, Montana Creek Trail and West Glacier Trail.
Easy trails for beginners are the Brotherhood Bridge Trail and, if the biker is in fairly good shape but learning the technical aspects of biking, Perseverance.
All of the trails managed by the city are open to bikers, said Bob Grochow, park superintendent for Juneau.
State-run trails, including Mount Juneau, Mount Roberts and the Granite Creek Basin, are closed to bikers, said Mike Eberhardt, Southeast area park superintendent for the state Division of Parks and Outdoor Recreation. Perseverance is the lone state-operated trail open to mountain biking.
"You can use it as long as you yield to the pedestrian traffic," Eberhardt said. "That's pretty much the big issue: how the two interact, whether they're compatible or not. And the mountain bikers are usually the controlling influence as to whether they're compatible or not."
Since the state opened Perseverance to bikers about seven years ago, there have been no major conflicts on the trail, he said.
"Basically, if we have problems, the public is pretty well-informed about it. They know who the bikers are and they report them," he said. "The bike shops know the rules, and it works out pretty well."
Most of the U.S. Forest Service trails in Juneau are open to mountain bikers, said Forest Service staffer Marc Scholten. The only trail completely closed to bikers is the paved Photo Point Trail that leads about 200 feet from the glacier visitors center towards the glacier.
Scholten also recommends bikers dismount and walk on portions of the East Glacier Trail, which has high pedestrian use.
The Forest Service has no specific rules for mountain bikers, but Scholten advises caution.
"If you force somebody off the trail and they get injured, they could file a suit against you," he said. "You need to slow down for blind corners, slow down on really steep downhills, and use a bell or your voice to let people know you're coming."
An avid mountain biker, Scholten recommends biking the Dredge Lakes Trail system. The system offers trails for all levels of biking ability, and has more miles than most other trails in town.
"You can ride there for a couple of hours without doing the same trails," he said.
Most Juneau trails consist of portions that are suitable for biking and portions that require walking, or sometimes carrying, a bike.
"The first time I rode the Treadwell Ditch Trail I was on a solid front and back bike (without shocks), and I think I rode a third of it, walked a third, and probably carried my bike for the other third," Scholten said.
Mountain bikes with shocks, which cost more than bikes without shocks, allow riders to maneuver over rocks and roots without all the bumps and jars of a regular bike.
Getting better at biking, like anything else, involves practice, said Hans Moser, who owns Road and Mountain Gears, a local bike repair and parts shop, with his wife.
"It helps to ride with somebody better than you," he said. "And also to have patience. A lot of people get frustrated and give up."
Mona Yarnall, who has been mountain biking for about a month, bikes with a group of women every Wednesday evening. She started to train for the Klondike Road Relay, a foot race between Skagway and Whitehorse in early September.
"It's fun," Yarnall said. "It can be challenging at times - I tend to fall more than anybody else in the group. ... I get bruised, but that's a part of the learning process."
She said the group motivates her to ride more frequently and helps hone her skills.
"The biggest thing for me is the technical aspect," she said. "I wanted to become more proficient technically."
Most people who buy high-quality mountain bikes locally go to Glacier Cycles on Glacier Highway near the Juneau Airport. Fred Meyer, Costco and some other stores also sell mountain-style bikes.
Glacier Cycles sells a bike suitable for most beginners for $350, said Tim Travis, a mechanic and salesman at the store.
"It's a 24-speed, front suspension, real comfortable all-around bike," Travis said. "If you go to our higher end, a full-suspension bike can go up to $3,000. One of the guys who works here rides a $4,000 bike ... It's basically a motorcycle that you pedal."
The Juneau Freewheelers organizes about five mountain bike races a year. The Web site for the organization is www.juneau.com/freewheel/.