For Bellingham guitar maker Dake Traphagen, a day destined to become life-altering began with a leisurely hike with his wife and dog.
For avid mountain biker Mike Lanham, that Saturday afternoon also must have seemed unexceptional: mounting his bike at his mobile home and embarking on a familiar route in the same place, on the Y Road Trail below Stewart Mountain.
Their unplanned encounter 2 1/2 years ago on that path would lead to a stabbing, criminal assault charges later reduced in a plea deal — and a passionate debate in the outdoors community about trail etiquette, particularly around Bellingham.
Among the few aspects all parties agree on is direction: Traphagen, his wife and dog, and two other companions were descending on a familiar trail; Lanham was pedaling up the same rutted path, built by Backcountry Horsemen.
Beyond that, accounts of what happened when the two collided on March 6, 2021, on the northeast side of Lake Whatcom, vary dramatically, interviews with participants show.
The altercation between the two men highlights long-simmering disputes over trail access for hikers, bikers, runners and horseback riders. As outdoor activities become more popular, trail planners face challenges to keep the peace, even in a town that celebrates its mountain-biking culture.
“Trail etiquette is a huge hot-button issue that I didn’t realize was here,” said Maggie Peach, the Whatcom County deputy prosecuting attorney who handled what would become a criminal case. “You could see there is a real divide in the community about how mountain bikers and hikers interact on trails.”
Violent clashes are unusual
Yet, frustrations rarely result in violence, leading to questions about what triggered the Y Road incident.
A clear narrative about what actually happened has remained elusive, largely because of intense and often-misleading social media discussions in the months after the encounter.
The two men recently agreed to discuss the incident in interviews for the first time as part of a Cascadia Daily News investigation. CDN’s reporting underscores that both men — and in Traphagen’s case, a group of supporters who say he was wrongfully charged — still harbor strong feelings.
The newspaper recently received a group email indicating Traphagen’s friends planned to use this story’s publication to encourage donations to a fund to help recoup his legal expenses — an effort unknown to CDN during the story’s reporting process.
Conflicting perspectives remain – as illustrated in the following accounts taken from more than 320 pages of court records, witness statements, a video shot by a bystander and the recollections of Traphagen and Lanham.
The hiker: ‘It was like a bomb went off’
Dake Traphagen felt feverish because of a recent COVID-19 vaccination on the late winter day.
Instead of completing a customary 5-mile loop, he and his wife headed down with two acquaintances they had met on the trail. One of the women, Lori Jo Erlichman, had worked in the Ferndale School District, like Traphagen’s wife, Gail.
Traphagen, now 72, lagged behind the three women on the descent because of the vaccine’s side effects.
A half mile from the parking lot at the Y Road trailhead, the hikers reached a split in the route around an island of small Douglas firs, ferns and a stump.
They chose to go to the left. As the first two hikers delicately stepped into a stream bed, Lanham appeared on his bike, shouting at them to move, they told Whatcom County Sheriff’s deputies. They said they had to skirt him as he accelerated through the narrow section.
“This guy came in, and it was like a bomb went off,” Traphagen recalled.
Gail Traphagen, who was recovering from a second hip surgery, said she jumped into the brush and injured her back to avoid a collision.
Then Lanham encountered Traphagen, a master luthier who has hiked and biked in Bellingham since the 1970s. Traphagen said he had nowhere to move in time to let Lanham pass.
The hikers say Lanham, 66 at the time of the incident and now 69, rammed into Traphagen, threw his bike to the side, then pinned the 5-foot-8, 155-pound Traphagen to the forest floor.
“I haven’t seen anything like that in Bellingham,” said Erlichman, a retired school nurse and experienced backcountry hiker. “When we went home, we thought the bike rider would get arrested.”
Traphagen said Lanham, who is 5-foot-9 and 155-pounds, held him down for about four minutes and eventually began choking him with his legs and knees. He said he ordered the biker to get up and warned him that he had a knife.
Gail Traphagen, who taught middle school for 32 years, said Lanham did not respond.
A struggle, and then a knife
Fearing for his life because of heart-related conditions, Dake Traphagen grabbed a spring-activated knife from the pocket of his fishing jacket.
According to an incident report, the spring-activated knife with a blade 3 1/2 to 4 inches long was illegal in Washington state, creating probable cause to arrest Traphagen for first-degree assault and possession of a concealed dangerous weapon.
Traphagen maintains the knife was purchased for sport use, not self defense. The weapons charge related to the knife eventually would be dropped.
A sheriff’s department incident report said Lanham suffered five stab wounds in the leg and arm during the scuffle. Traphagen said some of the cuts occurred while Lanham tried to wrest control of the knife.
A 1-minute, 3-second video of the altercation’s final moments, recorded by Erlichman and viewed by CDN, shows Lanham on top of Dake Traphagen as the women plead with him to get off.
It appears Lanham tries to get up but is heard saying he can’t rise because Gail Traphagen, a 5-4, 110-pound equestrian, has hold of his bike helmet.
The video shows the men struggling to control the knife as an unidentified woman says, “Put it away. Put it away.”
Lanham eventually got up. Then Gail Traphagen ordered him to stay put while she called authorities.
“He’s the one who pulled the knife,” Lanham is heard saying on the video, adding that his path was blocked.
“Then you move over to the side,” she says. “You do not have right-of-way.”
Signs at multi-use trailheads say bikers should yield to hikers, horses and runners. But common courtesy dictates moving when possible for anyone ascending a trail, outdoors experts say.
The video shows Gail Traphagen asking Lanham, “What is the matter with you? Riding right into him and then pushing him down?”
Lanham: “He stabbed me with a knife.”
Dake Traphagen: “Yeah, after you attacked me. That’s self-defense. You attacked me.”
Traphagen said the video exonerates him. Peach, the prosecutor, called it damning.
“It was not particularly consistent with his recitation of the incident to law enforcement, but it also was not consistent with the recitation of what he and his wife posted on social media later that day,” she said in an interview.
Traphagen said the video details only a fraction of the incident.
“He chose to run me down,” Traphagen said. “He chose to throw me to the ground. He chose to get on top of me. He chose not to get up.”
Traphagen said Lanham could have easily waited a few seconds to let the hikers pass.
“Or he could have gone to his left,” Traphagen said. “He just didn’t want to.”
Traphagen said he carries a knife for potential encounters with wildlife, saying he has been stalked by cougars, cornered by coyotes and followed by bears through a lifetime of wilderness adventures in California and Washington.
“The only thing that hasn’t ended peacefully is this biker,” he said.
The biker: ‘I am maimed’
Mike Lanham chose the same section as the four hikers because he said the trail to his left had too many roots to navigate.
“My goal is to stay on my bike,” Lanham said. “I knew it was a treacherous spot, and I needed to keep moving or end up in the mud.”
In a deposition, Lanham said he took the same trail at the same time every day and always rode alone.
The man who once competed in Ironman distance triathlons, ultra-marathons and long-distance swims blames Traphagen for the clash.
Lanham said Traphagen yelled, “No,” and planted his feet in front of him as he tried to pedal past.
The cyclist said he fell on Traphagen when the hiker grabbed the bike’s handlebars. Lanham said he lost his balance because he was clipped into his pedals.
Lanham told investigators that one of the hikers grabbed his helmet and restrained him from moving while he felt punching on his arm and leg. Lanham’s statement said he initially thought he had been tased but then saw a knife and realized he had been stabbed.
The prosecutor looked beyond the two men’s initial reactions.
“This man got stabbed for being rude,” Peach said.
After the fact, injury proves severe
After the stabbing, Lanham pedaled toward the parking lot as Erlichman followed him on foot while talking on the phone to authorities. As a nurse, she said she wanted to make sure Lanham was OK.
The mountain biker said he was in shock and went home instead of getting treatment and giving a statement to sheriff’s deputies.
He asked a neighbor for help after initially treating himself.
Later that night, emergency personnel airlifted Lanham to Seattle’s Harborview Medical Center to perform surgery on a severed ulnar nerve. The ulnar nerve helps a person move a forearm, hand and certain fingers.
“That knife blade went clear through my forearm, grazed the bone, went out the other side and cut the muscle,” Lanham said in an interview. “My forearm is disfigured. I am maimed. How he managed to cut the nerve and muscle and not get the artery is a miracle.”
The left-handed Lanham, who has a doctorate in materials engineering from the University of California, Santa Barbara, said he barely can use his dominant hand for opening jars, shaving, swimming and braking while cycling.
Lanham said he continues to run and ride in the forest behind his house, but not as much as he once did.
Fourteen months after the stabbing, a black bear with two cubs attacked Lanham as he ran in the Y Road forest on Aug. 3, 2022. Lanham said the bear punctured his left arm and clawed him in the groin. Wildlife officials fatally shot the sow later that evening.
Lanham, who moved to Bellingham in 2008, felt apprehensive about getting on the trail for a month.
“I really feel like I lost a decade after the last two years,” he said.
The aftermath: ‘The trail has been a sacred place’
In August, crews closed the route where the stabbing occurred as part of a Department of Natural Resources project to build a new 17-mile trail network. Workers altered the section in question for environmental reasons and not because of the stabbing.
But designers have planned new bike-only downhill trails to defuse user conflicts, said Chris Hankey, DNR Baker District manager.
The section where a stabbing occurred
2 ½ years ago has been altered by a DNR project to build a new trail network in the
Y Road vicinity.
Crews have closed the right section where Bellingham mountain biker Mike Lanham had an altercation with hiker Dake Traphagen.
Photo by Elliott Almond
Across the country, much of the friction on trails has involved mountain bikers since the sport took root in the 1970s. The discord is perhaps most notable a few miles from San Francisco in Marin County, where mountain biking unofficially started.
Over the years, chief ranger Don Wick of the Marin Municipal Water District has dealt with many confrontations involving bikers.
“It is those who are entitled,” he said. “This is my mountain. I need to do this. I don’t care who tells me not to, I am doing it.”
A lesson for the broader recreation community might be found here: Based largely on social media posts before the incident, prosecutors determined the Traphagens had a bias against mountain bikers.
Dake Traphagen denies it. He says the majority of bikers he meets are courteous. He said he and his wife never had problems on trails before Lanham, who they characterize as having a pattern of anger issues.
Lanham acknowledged in a deposition that he received counseling for anger after being charged in a physical altercation with a girlfriend decades ago in California and when convicted in 2006 of a gross misdemeanor for an incident after flunking out of nursing school at Walla Walla Community College.
Plea deal still roils
Gail Traphagen said her husband accepted a plea deal of third-degree felony assault partially for her benefit and also because juries are unpredictable.
“I was losing it,” said the humanities teacher who has played an active role in getting local greenways built for bikers and walkers.
Lanham persuaded prosecutors to reduce the charge, Peach said.
Lanham said he saw no benefit for Traphagen to go to prison for “some type of mental confusion and a bad decision” because he was upset with cyclists.
The plea agreement prohibits Traphagen — who served a month of home confinement in May — from going to the Y Road trails for five years. The men have a no-contact order until 2028, court records show. The parties also settled civil suits in July 2023.
Erlichman, who took the video, won’t walk the Y Road trails alone anymore because of the violence that day.
“The trail has always been that sacred space,” she said.
After pausing, Erlichman added, “But then, sometimes it is not.”
CDN outdoors columnist Elliott Almond is a former investigative reporter who worked for more than 50 years at the Los Angeles Times, The Seattle Times and The Mercury News of San Jose. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.