National Forest Foundation

Riding Through the Forest with Leslie Kehmeier

Your National Forests Magazine

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Published in Summer/Fall 2020 Issue
By Hannah Featherman

Leslie Kehmeier isn’t really based out of anywhere. These days, she calls the open road—or trail—home. A self-proclaimed “adventure storyteller,” Leslie utilizes her camera lens to tell the stories of people and places from around the world.

She is avid mountain biker and has explored some of our National Forests’ newest and most epic trails. Whether from behind the wheel of her Sprinter van or on the seat of her bike, Leslie is constantly exploring new places and finding new stories to tell.

What is the source of your passion for the outdoors and travel?

My passion for the outdoors started early. My childhood home had a big backyard and I spent lots of time there exploring nature, helping with the garden and more. Every summer I went to my grandparent’s farm where the exploring was more connected to what I do now--being immersed in the outdoors without the confines of suburbia. I remember riding my Huffy BMX around the house and through corn and alfalfa fields every day. My grandmother would sometimes shriek at the sight of my sister and me with our dirt-crusted skin when we appeared for supper. My grandmother loved nature and birds as well as geography and travel. We used to pour over an old atlas as she recalled some of her stories driving across the country with my grandfather. The seeds planted in my childhood have continued to blossom throughout my life and were hugely impactful in what I do today.

Photo by Leslie Kehmeier

What are some of the challenges of photographing mountain biking on National Forests?

From a technical standpoint, the greatest challenge is shooting dense forests because of the light. On bright days the light and shadow can prove difficult to celebrate a particular zone the way it should be showcased. The other big challenge, something I really embrace, is finding ways to show the beauty and character that makes each National Forest special. It takes attention to detail to see past the perceived monotony of trees and dirt and create compelling images. The patience is always worth the effort.

You’ve traveled around the world, what makes our National Forests and public lands unique?

There’s a ruggedness and raw peacefulness that our public lands provide that’s unlike other places I have traveled in the world. That kind of wildness is unique—you can actually go to a place and not only feel solitude, but have it. There aren’t people everywhere on our National Forests and public lands. Elsewhere in the world, you will see at least a few people even in the most remote zones. I feel lucky that I live in a country where public lands have been designated and preserved with access for recreation. I cherish the fact that I can go to places and truly be on my own with real solitude and room to breathe.

Where are some of your favorite places to mountain bike on National Forests?

That’s a good question, and a tough one for me as I like everywhere I ride. Places that comes to mind right away are Oregon and Washington: Willamette National Forest around Oakridge and Mackenzie Bridge as well as the Gifford Pinchot National Forest near Mount St. Helens. But honestly, there are amazing trails in our National Forests all over the country.

I’m excited to keep discovering new-to-me areas, especially the long distance routes and the very natural and remote feeling trails. On my most recent trip, I was able to ride a section of Womble Trail in Arkansas and some backcountry feeling trails in the Winding Star Recreation Area in the Ouachita Mountains in Oklahoma. These are now my new favorite places to ride; they were experiences that blew my mind and got me excited to explore more in that part of the country.

How do you hope your photography helps share the opportunities available on our National Forests and public lands?

First, I hope my work inspires people to get outside, no matter what public lands they can visit. More specifically, I hope my work can celebrate National Forests across the United States, motivating people to travel to places they hadn’t otherwise thought about. There is so much beyond the handful of iconic places that always draw people. My recent travels through Arkansas and Oklahoma highlight what’s possible.

What tips for mountain biking would you give for beginners?

Prioritize fun! It’s a good time to be getting into mountain biking; there are trails in many communities across the U.S. And many of those places have mountain bike-optimized experiences that make learning the activity a hoot. Mountain biking is more than mashing pedals; it’s about getting outdoors, and as cliche as it sounds, connecting with nature. Be sure to enjoy the experience as you build skills to progress to other trails. Hit up mapping apps like MTB Project and TrailForks. They are really helping in finding places to ride, as well as trails that match your current skills.

Join Leslie on her travels and follow her on Instagram at @thewideeyedworld.

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