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Quest for the Holy Trail

The pursuit of perfection by the Sea to Sky's army of diggers

There are few moments more exciting for a mountain biker than riding a trail for the first time. The exhilarating mystery of what lays ahead; a sweeping g-force generating berm, a perfectly shaped kicker that boosts you through the air, the steep rock face that scares as much as it thrills you. Mountain bikers often yearn for that moment during their ride, that point in time when the trail, the bike and the rider are all seamlessly engaged. Sure, the nature that surrounds the rider is worth a look when climbing hills or stopping for a break to wait for your buddies, but when it's time to descend the riders' eyes are focused on little else but the trail before them.

While nature provides the canvas, it is the shovel-and-Pulaski-wielding soldiers of the trail building community that create the art. Mountain bike trail construction has come a long way over the years, just as mountain bikes have evolved from the early '70s "Klunkerz" that Gary Fisher, Tom Ritchey and their hippy friends rode down the fire roads of Mt Tamalpais in Marin Country, California. While drifting around flat gravel corners on pre-WWII, reinforced Schwinns was a hoot for these young pioneers, as the bike technology developed so too did the method and design of building trails to ride them on. Single track soon followed with bikers riding down narrow trails used by hikers and horseback riders, though the inevitable conflicts eventually had bikers kicked off Mt. Tam altogether. As mountain biking spread across the world, riders began to take the matter of insufficient and overcrowded trails into their own hands and set out into the forest bearing the tools to chop, dig and shape the soil to their own liking.

It was with this fervour that the early trail builders went to work in the hills of North Vancouver and, soon thereafter, Whistler. Gruff dudes like Dan Swanstrom, a carpenter who brought us a handful of Whistler westside classics like Danimal, Industrial Disease and A River Runs Through It. Swanstrom would toil tirelessly on crown land, building trails that are still standing in Whistler's expansive trail network. That was until the Forest Practices Code of British Columbia Act Section 102 was introduced in 1995. This amendment to the Forest Practices Code required the approval from a district manager for any ground disturbance, clearing of vegetation and construction of structures.

Swanstrom was interviewed by Pique back in 1995 a month after Section 102 was introduced, about the time he'd decided to pack it in as an "outlaw" trail builder.

"It's just not worth the risk, there are all these new rules in place and to tell you the truth my forté is building trail, not filling out proposals," he said.

This was at a point when trail builders were few and far between, about as rare as riders willing to volunteer their spare hours. Swanstrom used to hold trail workshops on Wednesday nights but said he had about 11 people show up over two years.

"It's about responsibility, if no one else wants to take any, I don't want to take it all," he said in the 1995 article.

Things have changed since 1995. Mountain biking has exploded worldwide and the freeride movement has shifted beyond spandex-clad cross country racing, spurred by B.C. pro riders such as Wade Simmons, Richie Schley and Brett Tippie. Whistler Mountain Bike Park has grown in popularity almost exponentially and has inspired bike parks to open in ski resorts all over the world. The Whistler Off Road Cycling Association (WORCA) now has over 1,500 members and has its own army of volunteers. There is an insatiable demand for more mountain bike trails, both in and out of the bike parks.

Going Rogue

Rogue building (when trails are constructed without anyone's permission) is how Whistler's world class trail network came to fruition and there are but a select few trails that have actually been recognized by either the provincial government or the International Mountain Bike Association (IMBA). Maintenance of already-established trails is managed (WORCA) consisting of a mainly volunteer workforce, but any new trail is generally a project undertaken by individuals without any official endorsement.The underground community of builders will often consult each other, but in many cases the building will move ahead regardless of opinions or objections from others.

Eric Barry has spent the last 23 years living here in the corridor and has been building trails in Whistler for 12 of those years. His portfolio includes the iconic Zappa Trails around Lost Lake as well as Cheap Thrills on the westside and that handy little connector linking the end of River Runs Through it to Rainbow Park. While his work on Zappa Trails had the recognition and the support of the municipality, he has spent many of his digging days on rogue projects.

"I think people want to do their own thing," said Barry.

"Some people go out and want recognition or glory, others just want to contribute to the community by building something. When I built Cheap Thrills I built it for myself, there was no communication with anyone else on how I could build it or what I should do, I just wanted to ride certain things, so I built it how I wanted it. I think it's always going to be like that."

Trail builders in Whistler don't seem to fear retribution through the Forest Practices Code. The biggest concern of WORCA is rogue builders infringing on private land. The inherent risks of mountain biking could open landowners up to liability if a rider hurts themselves on their land, regardless if the owner is aware of the trail or not.

"Keeping every metre (of trail) alive that we have, that is what WORCA has been doing mostly," said Jerome David, a Whistler-based trail builder and former Director of Trails at WORCA.

"I think down the road people are going to call 'whoa' on too much trail building intruding on people's land and that's going to establish a non-profit organization making fun stuff for people. The community is thriving on it, the sport is exploding, but nothing's official."

Down the highway in Squamish the issue of rogue building is all the more controversial as it affects a wider range of user groups, as well as government and industry having a stake in the land.

"It's more how we're perceived as a whole by everyone else," said Ted Tempany, who runs the one-man trail building venture Dream Wizards Ltd. Tempany (who has built many rogue trails himself in the past) was the mastermind behind the now flagship trail of Squamish, Half Nelson, which last year attracted over 60,000 riders.

"Mountain bikers have to stand back and realize that we're not the only ones here in Squamish. If you go out on your own, you're basically eroding the relationship that we have with the province and the owner of all these trees."

The relationship between the riding community (including its trail builders), the provincial government and BC Timber has been a long and challenging road, spearheaded by SORCA's government liaison Mike Nelson. The tireless effort he has contributed over the years to trail advocacy in Squamish was reason enough for Tempany to name Half Nelson after him.

"There's a couple of private blocks of land there now (on Diamond Head) that are a bit of a challenge," said Nelson.

"Logging on these lands is a real possibility."

With the future plans from BC Timber Supply to log the forest around Powersmart and Half Nelson, SORCA has managed to secure a buffer around the trails to keep them forested and will even receive a contribution of funds from stumpage fees by BC Timber to help establish trail connections.

"We talk to most of the big landowners on a monthly basis and we're meeting quarterly with BC Timber Supply," said Nelson.

"Five years ago we didn't talk to them at all except screaming at protests like Save the Plunge. They've really come around to recognizing that recreation is a valuable resource to the community and the province. They're a lot more receptive to preserving trails and rebuilding where they can."

Co-operation among user groups, government and industry has certainly taken a step forward in recent years with most parties agreeing to sit at the table and discuss issues before trail construction begins or trees get felled. But another recent progression has been the involvement of a corporate sponsor in assisting development of a community trail.

"Anthill (Films) approached me and said they wanted something local to shoot Brandon Semenuk for Strength in Numbers," said Tempany.

"I said I would love to help but I can't just go out and build anywhere like I used to, because I've developed so many relations with the province and stakeholders. There's a few lines on this hill that we have permission to build on and I asked if they would be interested in helping me start the next phase of Full Nelson."

By using a budget from Red Bull, one of Semenuk's sponsors a full crew of diggers from Anthill (and of course the usual amount of volunteer effort from Tempany) the trail for Semenuk's footage was built complete with pro level jumps and ridiculous wooden stunts. After the filming was completed, the stunts were taken down and the jumps were reduced so any advanced rider could use the trail. The only thing Red Bull asked for was a timber logo next to the bridges. And it isn't even red.

Dumbing down

Back in Whistler I'm sitting on a patio with David, the former WORCA Director of Trails, at the base of the Whistler Bike Park. Our conversation moves towards trail standards, to which IMBA have very clear guidelines on how to design and build mountain bike trails.

"Construction-wise IMBA standards are very relevant to us," he says.

"They have it nailed down to a tee to how to make a trail sustainable. From a technical level? No. We have a higher risk factor here in Whistler. Do we abide by IMBA standards from a safety standpoint? We try to but it's different. Because of the type of terrain that we have and the freeride style in the corridor we deviate from the safety. There's a little more gnar factor."

The bible for trail builders is a book titled Trail Solutions: IMBA's guide to building sweet singletrack. Every trail builder has either read this book or should read it, as it contains all the fundamentals for building sustainable trails. But terrain in Whistler (and the entire Sea to Sky corridor for that matter) requires a unique approach.

"Everybody has to take the best of what IMBA has and adapt it to the local terrain," says David.

"We're ahead of the game here, we don't really need IMBA because we have the community of trail builders, we have clubs that are bigger than IMBA has ever seen, we have the funds. We take their trail standards and mix them with what we do with our environment."

Whistler in particular is known for having a high percentage of descent trails, an inevitable characteristic given the steep walls of the mountains surrounding the valley. Many of the steep, old- school fall line descents are now eroded and unrideable, a product of ambitious rogue building from yesteryear. Trails now manage water flow and increased rider traffic with strategies such as punching the trail across the fall line (rather than following it) and armouring certain sections with rock under the soil. Zappa Trails is an excellent example of achieving long-term trail sustainability with more labour-intensive building methods including sections reinforced with concrete.

"We decided to build Lost Lake multi-directional and everything was built to IMBA standards on mineral soil, as opposed to riding on moss in the forest," said Barry.

"The length of the trails we were building per season were a lot shorter, but when I walk in in the spring and do trail assessments, there's not much to do in terms of repair and maintenance."

One of the issues many builders have with IMBA standards is the tendency to "dumb down" trails by removing technical trail features, thereby making the trail easier to ride. Whistler in particular has a very strong community of riders who want to preserve the challenging nature of the original trails.

"We know things change," says David.

"There is dumbing down of trails because the more people use something, the more it gets abused. We maintain it and that changes things. Often that makes it a little easier because in our environment of technical rocks and roots, it means things get loose and fall out, roots get cut out, we get more and more down to the dirt and it doesn't have as much technical aspect."

So the dumbing down isn't always intentional, but more as a strategy to keep the trail alive. The IMBA-listed epic Comfortably Numb has seen a lot less use over recent years, – it's almost too difficult for biking tourists and the locals don't really ride it anymore. The recent addition of Yummy Nummy shortens the approach and has boosted traffic back onto the last section of the trail.

"We are now back into Comfortably Numb and 'dumbing it down'," said David.

"I think we are making it better, making it usable for everybody. It's going to get easier over the years, we've gotten plenty of use out of it the way it was. I think it's an evolution of the whole matrix of the trails we have here."

The dumbing down doesn't need to be to the level of conforming with IMBA, but riders who think the trail modifications sacrilegious need to realize that around here it is often in the best interest of the trail and in turn, the riders themselves. For example, the retirement of decrepit wooden stunts from trails has been necessary not just because of the safety hazard of rotting wood, but because the North Shore style of riding on high skinnies just isn't as popular anymore. People want flow in their trails now, not static balance challenges. Some of the steep, fall-line trails have eroded to a point where the trail doesn't even exist in places, Ride Don't Slide being a prime example.

Respect the trail, and its builder

I'm riding up through the forest of Diamond Head in Squamish with Ted Tempany, who's taken this week off building after returning from a trail contract in Quesnel, B.C. His bike, a very fancy Trek Slash, looks like it just came out of the box.

"This is day four," says Ted, in a tone of disappointment. He bought his new bike around the opening of Full Nelson back in May and hasn't had much chance to enjoy it.

"It feels good to ride. Every day I'm in the excavator."

After 10 years of building trails in Squamish, Ted has managed to build Dream Wizards Events on the back of his volunteer digging efforts. But on top of all the back-breaking labour he contributes simply for the love of building, he needs fuel for his excavators and money to pay his crew if he wants them to stick around. He has recently been feeling pressure that the riding community expects new, buff trails but isn't willing to recognize how much personal investment goes into them.

"I paid my crew all last summer to work on the trails without budget and I don't think the riding community even realized. I think everybody just sees me and assumes I have budget. We did a lot of great work last summer and I kept my crew intact, but this spring I thought, why do it if people don't recognize what's happening?"

Make no mistake, Ted is very grateful for being able to do what he loves every day and the grants he has received from the province do help offset his costs, but he's not getting rich. On the contrary, Ted often struggles to break even.

"I've never really taken a paycheque. Any money in the company account gets reinvested into tools."

Ted has three excavators of various sizes, allowing him to save the backs of himself and his crew and increase productivity.

"It's one thing for me to donate my time, but for me to also pay my crew and run the machinery is a bit over the top. I guess I got carried away (last summer). A machine is one thing but having a crew behind you, you can get so much done and you can get addicted to that. The gains you are making are incredible."

Those gains, much to the builder's satisfaction, can take their toll on the body as well as the builder's bank account. Unlike the mountain bikers that enjoy his handiwork, most of Ted's injuries and ailments are spine-related, requiring regular trips to the chiropractor. His tall frame can barely fit in the mini-excavator, which will often travel over precarious terrain and move rocks and stumps that would just not be possible by hand. All of this in a days work, rain or shine, for the dedicated builder.

Holy man

The next time you ride an outstanding trail be sure to realize the blood, sweat and tears that have gone into shaping the earth for your enjoyment. And if you come across a crew of diggers hard at work, show your appreciation by thanking them and offering a few minutes of your help. It may be as little as moving some wood or packing out some trash, but the deed will not go unnoticed.

As Ted and I ride along the forestry road towards our next trail we start up a friendly conversation with a rider up for the day from Vancouver. Ted is much too humble to mention that he's mostly responsible for all the fun this guy has had all morning so I decide to let the visitor in on exactly who Ted is.

"You built Half Nelson? You're like the f-ing Jesus of mountain biking!"

Respect.




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