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Feature - Trailblazers

History, passion, vision, chemistry and sweat going into resurrection of Sea to Sky Trail project

A few steps from Whistler’s well-beaten path are the roads that diverge into the woods. In fact, the woods are riddled with trails – bear corridors, old logging roads, hiking tracks, mountain-bike trails. A lifetime’s worth of exploring. The depth and dimensions of Whistler that aren’t visible from your vehicle bleed out like arteries into the wild green mountains. Nobody knows all the trails in Whistler. Or how they came to be.

Anyone can build a trail. You just need a chainsaw, shovel, pick and prybar; and you can go to it. Your productivity is going to be slow, unless you have a bobcat and mini excavator at your disposal. Not to mention that your renegade trail-building runs a few risks. You might be fined by the Crown, sued for trespassing; you might leave an area butchered, a mess of water runnels, eroding gullies, abandoned lumber.

To cut a good trail, a quality trail, you’ll need to do some groundwork. Topographic maps. Aerial photographs.

"Planning is a very important aspect," says master trailbuilder Ross Kirkwood. "First you look at your maps and take your best guess at the route you’d like to follow. Then you go out on the ground and prove it."

You’ll walk it out. Note obstacles. Look for the terrain features – viewpoints, fields of wildflowers, abandoned logging equipment, old stumps – which you’ll be looking to incorporate into the trail. You’ll burrow down, find the logging roadbed that’s been hidden for a hundred years. Seek out control points, like river crossings, minor cliffbands, low passes. Flag and reflag the route.

You’re more artist than slasher. Have a feel for the land, its curves, its flaws, its secrets.

"It’s a long process," says Don MacLaurin. MacLaurin has had his hand in creating the Whistler Interpretive Forest, the Musical Bumps Trail, the Russet Lake and Wedgemount huts, and was involved with the Sea to Sky Trail Society in its first incarnation in the ’90s. "You try to visualize what it’s going to look like. Good trailbuilding is as much an art-form as it is a technical ability."

Negotiating and promoting are MacLaurin’s strong points. His trailbuilding efforts over a 40 year residence in Whistler have combined the efforts of the Chamber of Commerce, the Ministry of Forests, the Resort Municipality of Whistler, the Rotary Club, the B.C. Federation of Mountaineering Clubs and Whistler Mountain.

Not everybody works so well at co-ordinating interest groups, collaborating with the powers-that-be. Which is why renegade trail building has flourished in Whistler.

"Most of the good trails have been built essentially by dedicated individuals who give their free time to hack and shovel and create the trail they want," says Mike Manheim, one of the "visionary hammerheads" behind the Sea to Sky Trail concept. "But the RMOW’s involvement in local trails is cutting edge. They’ve evolved in skill over the last five years tremendously, and what they’re doing now is really state of the art."

Keith Bennett, the RMOW’s Director of Park Operations, presides over a trail crew operation and a budget that reflects the municipality’s recognition that "Whistler" and "Recreation" are synonymous. Their budget accounts for the Lost Lake and Valley Trails, sub-alpine trails and the Interpretive Forest. With the establishment of a Bicycle Task Force, the municipality is also broadening its umbrella, to bring previously unofficial or "user-built" mountain biking trails into the fold.

Bennett notes: "There’s not so many underground trailbuilders any more. We have a certain saturation of trails, so people tend to add onto them, or fix up existing trails. The underground trailbuilders really arose because downhill free-riders had nowhere to go. The opening of the mountain bike park has taken a lot of pressure off the existing trails, and eliminated somewhat the demand to build straight-down-the-fall-line runs. WORCA and the RMOW discourage renegade trail building. We prefer people to put energy into maintaining what we have now, instead of building new ones."

Chris Markle is one "unofficial" trailbuilder who has received an official seal of approval.

Secret Trail was Markle’s personal initiative. He started it informally, while the municipality watched from the sidelines. Grant money for bike trails had been provided through a local developer, and a number of staff members within the municipality’s Parks Operations felt the trail meshed with RMOW goals. Secret Trail seemed like an ideal opportunity for local government, WORCA, private developers and renegade trail builders to collaborate. The end product would be a great new trail.

The RMOW articulated the standard the trail would be built to and secured the approvals with the Ministry of Forests to ensure the trail had legal status. The municipality’s contribution also includes building a bridge over Wedge Creek and sending in the troops for difficult technical sections. WORCA have assisted in fundraising. And Markle now has a summer trailbuilding job.

A good trail depends entirely on your audience. But the fundamentals are common. Bennett explains: "A good trail is built in such a way that it doesn’t erode. There’s flow. It incorporates technical features with flow, with good transitions. Trailbuilding is a skill that definitely comes with experience. A good trail also looks ahead to maintenance issues. If a trail exposes roots, the fine soil erodes, the roots become airborne and exposed. So a good trailbuilder would anticipate that, would put a boardwalk or ladder there, or pack dirt in."

You get a glimpse of the magnitude of building trails in this area taking a drive south along Highway 99. There’s a growling army of heavy machinery, now-you-see-them-now-you-don’t cliffs, rock crush, incessant noise, and the scuttle of traffic creeping past. It would be enough to stop you in your tracks if you weren’t worried about the blasting and rock-shot.

The improbability of Highway 99’s facelift only makes the task of the Canadian Pacific Rail surveyors , who laid the first trail north from Squamish more impressive. The 1873 survey of a proposed route to link the Pacific Ocean with then Fort Edmonton started at the head of Howe Sound with survey crews, mule pack trains and axe men. They cut a trail that was in fact the most direct route to the ocean, however, it traversed four major summits, mountain sides, rubble slides, deep ravines and swift rivers. Eric Johnson, an expert on the old Squamish-Pemberton trail, writes that "in places, (the trail cutters had) to bring the pack route 2,000 feet above the surveyed grade." The route was reported to require "excessively heavy work" and abandoned by the CPR as a rail line option. Several years later, Cariboo cattle ranchers agitated to have the survey trail upgraded to enable passage of their beef to market. Only one rancher made the trip and lost his shirt, his cattle arriving so emaciated as to be unsaleable.

There’s something of the pioneering purity of those early surveyors in Ross Kirkwood’s latest trailbuilding effort. Sugar Cube Rocks, just south of Function Junction was a two year epic and labour of love. With an emphasis on labour. The experience seems to have prompted a retirement from trailbuilding, though one suspects he’ll be lured back out, once time erases the memory of the 15 loads of gravel he wheeled in.

"It’s hard to have done so much work and not really be recognized for it," Kirkwood admits of his 20 years of trailbuilding in the region. "At times, I feel that no one really acknowledges what I have done, it feels a bit thankless. I don’t feel it was time wasted at all, but it would have been good to get paid for it. I love it. I had hoped to make a living from doing it. I’ve literally spent some 10,000 hours of trailbuilding."

So, with riches, fame and glory out of contention as your earthly rewards, what would motivate a person to devote themselves to such a task?

Kirkwood wryly attributes it to brain damage. Coupled with an eldest child’s "responsibility gene", and a recognition when he first started riding in late 1980 that there was some conflict between hiking and biking trail use, an innate sense that trails that ran across the fall line, undulating, twisting and turning, would be more fun to ride, more resilient to water damage.

In short, it’s passion.

"It’s an interesting social phenomenon," Councillor Gord McKeever says. "The number of man-hours is mind-numbing. They work like slaves, these trailbuilders."

Ironically, the technique of trailbuilding, for all its physical slog, is actually the easy part of bringing a trail into existence. Until your trail is on a map, it doesn’t officially exist. A trail with recognizable legal status, however, is protected.

McKeever notes that the Sea to Sky Trail, his current passion, exists on two levels. "On the ground, there are a lot of stretches of that trail that exist. But legally, none of it exists. I appreciate the satisfaction that comes from building the trail, but in a way, it’s like building sandcastles. The next high tide that comes could wash it all away."

It only makes sense to protect your legacy. And get the trail on the map.

There are various ways to do this, but they involve some serious hurdling. Serious enough that the first Sea to Sky Trail Society collapsed under the weight of its own ambition, the magnitude of its task, in the late 1990s.

"The Sea to Sky Trail enjoyed the highest approval rating of any capital project in Whistler in 1995-1996," says McKeever.

Perhaps that’s why as a canny businessman running for council in 2002 he revived the idea, incorporating it as part of his election platform.

"In the mid ’90s I had been involved in the Trail Society," McKeever says. "I tend to be very stubborn, and having embraced this as a good project, I always had it in the back of my mind to see it work. It was a small part of my election platform and it was my intention in the position of councillor to see if by using local governments we could do it. The difference between this time and before is the involvement of local government in driving it forward and in establishing the route in a local and permanent manner."

The concept is basic. To create a trail that runs the length of Sea to Sky country, from Squamish to D’arcy. A 3m by 160km park. Engineered to Forest Practice Code, and suitable for commuting on a bike loaded with panniers. The backbone to a trail network that riddles out from it like a nervous system. A trade route.

Everybody loves the concept. Who isn’t drawn in by the idea of jumping on your bike and riding along a great trail in the forest, away from the traffic and static of the village and highway. Away. Trails connect us to the environment, to history, to the region.

Mike Manheim, one of the original visionaries behind the Sea to Sky trail says, "One of the pleasures of this project is we’ve had quite enthusiastic support from everyone. It’s quite a feel-good project. It’s the rebirth of a great idea."

Tom Cole, a forester for Richmond Plywood, got involved with the Sea to Sky Trail Society because he had the planning skills to negotiate the then-new Forestry Practices Code.

"My role was to get it established and approved with status, to make the trail a main artery linking D’arcy and Squamish," Cole says. "I still drive by and see people riding the highway all loaded down with panniers, knowing that there’s just a beautiful single-track trail a few metres off the highway."

He largely accomplished his mission – a significant length of the trail, largely linking existing routes, has been "statused". There are problematic areas, particularly the Whistler-Pemberton stretch. But Cole doesn’t see them as insurmountable.

"This valley is run through with rivers, B.C. Hydro lines and easements, the railway, gaslines, the highway. It only makes sense to have an alternate travel route to move people," he says.

But the hurdles aren’t to be underestimated. A project of this magnitude risks death by committee (politics, ego or inertia), starvation of funds, suffocation by red tape. A trail of this kind can cost in at up to $40,000 per kilometre. The route needs to be laid out, the approvals put into place. Private property owners, and public entities like BC Rail and B.C. Hydro need to be pulled on board.

The inner circle of trail supporters have been part of this project for nearly a decade, from its glory days, through the fallow times, to its recent revival. Each of the corridor’s municipalities and the SLRD endorsed the Sea to Sky Trail when presented with it this summer, and designated officers and staff to be part of the steering committee that will relaunch it.

McKeever recognizes the vision necessary. "It will certainly be a multi-year proposal. Some trails take several generations to bring to conclusion."

You have to wait out unco-operative private landowners, using alternative routes in the meantime, waiting for the property to change hands, or the owner to come to their local council seeking some development rights.

"I’m not going to leave the project for any significant period of time. My intention is to be the catalyst," McKeever says.

Don MacLaurin believes what makes a committee like this successful in achieving its goals is a common vision, the necessary expertise, and the right combination of chemistry.

"You’ve got to have one person completely sold on the idea who’ll turn everyone on. But you need practical people as well. And the leader has to turn them on too," MacLaurin says.

Hopefully, McKeever knows what he’s in for. Because there’s no doubt that the Sea to Sky Trail is an idea whose time has come.