October 25, 2015 Features & Images » Feature Story

Back to their roots — and rocks 

Annual MBTA symposium stresses connections between mountain bikers and First Nations

click to flip through (7) STORY BY DAN FALLOON - Back to their roots — and rocks Annual MBTA symposium stresses connections between mountain bikers and First Nations.
  • Story by Dan Falloon
  • Back to their roots — and rocks Annual MBTA symposium stresses connections between mountain bikers and First Nations.

As another strong season for mountain biking in Whistler comes to a close, many will almost immediately start dreaming about hopping on two wheels once again in 2016.

Whistler, in many ways, is a Mecca of mountain biking in the province, a fact that made Whistler Mountain Bike Park manager Brian Finestone a popular man at the recent Mountain Bike Tourism Association's (MBTA) symposium in Williams Lake.

At 8:30 on a Sunday morning, though they sip coffee, munch on granola and nibble at muffins, the roughly 165 attendees from 30 communities in B.C., Alberta, Ontario, North Carolina and Switzerland at the Cariboo Memorial Recreation Complex listen attentively as Finestone details the park's many successes and occasional failures. He stresses Whistler is a locale unlike any other. So, too, must these communities find and promote what makes them a must-see destination for those making their way to British Columbia to shred some lines.

But Finestone didn't make the five-hour drive just to present.

The bike park, which according to a Whistler Blackcomb spokesperson saw the number of riders "growing steadily" once again this year, is looking to constantly improve. At the symposium, Finestone describes how the park's numbers, which are not yet available for this season as they haven't been presented to shareholders, are starting to rise again after a period of stagnation from about 2006 to 2011.

With the park now in a "rejuvenation" phase, it is seeking the proverbial fountain of youth.

The future, one of the major trails of the symposium suggests, lies in connecting not only with one another, but with those who have been here the longest — the First Nations communities.

"The key topics, certainly, were collaboration and First Nations. It was really important to see. A lot of the other issues are just ongoing ones, but these are issues where we really have to stop just giving it lip-service and we have to start doing something significant to benefit a greater number of people as well as increase the number of experiences that are out there," MBTA executive director Martin Littlejohn says in an interview shortly after the conference's conclusion.

During the symposium, Finestone was one of the delegates most intrigued by how to make connections with First Nations communities. He says after the symposium he feels there are numerous untapped positives that could sprout from a partnership with local First Nations.

"If there's a way that we can connect Aboriginal tourism with mountain bike tourism — the two are so unique to British Columbia and are great reasons for people to come here — we can open up a dialogue and we can work with local First Nations and learn more from them, then that will benefit the land, that will benefit the culture and it will benefit Whistler Valley as a whole," Finestone says. "We just need to talk about it more. What else can we do together? What else can we collaborate with?

"They're an independent, proud group of people that are passionate about their land, which is what mountain bikers and First Nations are passionate about. We need to work together, take both passions, and create a deeper experience for people."

Pique spoke with those at the symposium as well as others whose stories were presented to see how the sport is growing in First Nations communities and where other opportunities may lie.

Trail blazers in the Yukon

Shane Wally acknowledges it would have been easy to never amount to much.

As a 16-year-old, the Carcross, Yukon resident was already experimenting with alcohol for want of better things to do.

At that time, in 2006, the Single Track to Success program was just beginning to take root in the community that now boasts roughly 450 residents.

Wally, now 25, credits the program for helping to keep him on the straight and narrow.

"I was a typical youth, I must say," says Wally, who is now also completing a carpentry apprenticeship. "I got into a little bit of trouble with drinking and everything just because of the small community.

"(The program) helped me out a lot, especially in summer, because when you're young and high school's out for summer, all you want to do is go out and raise a ruckus and go have some fun. When I accepted this job, every summer I was pretty much busy."

These days, Wally is one of two graduates of the program who has continued to work on trails. In fact, he's still involved with the program as trail crew leader, taking a new generation of youth up Montana Mountain — a place considered a spiritual spot for the Tagish people. The other graduate landed a job with Parks Canada working on the nearby Chilkoot Trail.

Jane Koepke, one of the program's founders, says while learning the practical skills to build up the paths are important, what she hopes all participants take with them is a strong connection to the earth, a positive attitude and willingness to rise up and face challenges.

"When you're 14 years old, especially if you're a First Nations youth, it's really important culturally to be out on the land," she says. "We get the kids young and we instil a pretty wicked work ethic in them. They work really, really hard. Some of them might want to continue in that kind of line of work throughout their adult life but others might want to move on to other things, so the foundation we're laying is the work ethic."

In the nine years it's operated, the program has created 65 summer jobs and developed 35 alumni from the program. All told, the builders have constructed roughly 65 kilometres of single track trail in the region and Koepke is exploring partnerships with local bike shops and guiding services to give the teens a well-rounded experience.

Getting the word out

Even without much advertising or public relations, the world is starting to know about what is developing in Carcross.

The number of visits to the region driven by mountain biking aren't overwhelming — Koepke estimates, there are roughly 3,000 to 3,500 visits to the area per year for the sport, and those numbers are boosted by a healthy parade of regulars — but the number was as big, fat and round as a tire a decade ago. Even though that number is only a few drops on a mountain full of them, as the community welcomes roughly 120,000 guests — primarily those taking day trips from Skagway on Alaskan cruises — it is progress.

"In the early days, when we did start building, there were handfuls of curious Whitehorse riders that would come out and who really enjoyed the trails," she said. "Now, when the trail crew goes to work — they work four days a week throughout the summer — they meet people from all over the world coming to enjoy the trails in Carcross."

Indeed, the past two summers, Wally says he's met the same European rider who makes a point of stopping in Carcross when traversing North America. To have someone come thousands of kilometres to experience what he helped build is "pretty cool," Wally says.

Koepke explains that in an economically depressed community divided by land claims, trying to recover from the lingering effects of residential schools and facing other social challenges, it was sometimes difficult for local youth to get a sense of what they could do well. The Single Track to Success program helped to bring some kind words to the community.

"Some of the folks that were regularly coming out to ride, and were so enthusiastic about the trails, were actually teachers back in Whitehorse. A lot of the older kids take the senior grades in Whitehorse, and they were just thrilled to get that affirmation from teachers and from adults. That wasn't something that they'd had before," she says.

Jeffrey Barrett, the new CEO of the Carcross/Tagish Management Corporation (the mountain's leaseholder) is a rider himself and says there's no place quite like it. When answering the interview call, Barrett says he only has a 10-minute window to chat, but the clock is forgotten as he starts to talk of the trail environment and the future.

"These are some of the coolest trails I've ever seen," he says. "I've spent a considerable amount of time travelling but I've never seen anything like it. The way they've integrated rock features and rock slabs and little trestles — some of it is just intense, you can't even really walk down it. In some places, you're so committed, you have to ride down."

Barrett adds there is also roughly 2.5 kilometres of boardwalk in the area's marshland complete with terrain changes.

The visitors who came through on day trips tend to be older and less likely to make a return trip at another point. Though mountain biking is a small part of Carcross' attraction, Barrett ultimately hopes those inclined to spend time outdoors will consider a return trip in the heart of winter to see the Northern Lights and for other activities.

"It's clear in the winter. The wind blows the fog away. And the other thing is it's really close to the White Pass, which has some of the best ski touring and snowmobiling in the country, if not the continent," he said. "There's good opportunities for winter tourism, it's just finding the right market, getting the accommodations piece going, and developing a little bit more infrastructure for it."

This would support year-round accommodation in the community and be a major step forward for the community's economic plan.

And while more people are coming to Carcross, Koepke is encouraged to see more of its young residents interested in seeing other parts of the world themselves.

"I don't think trails and mountain biking has fixed it all by any stretch, but the difference that I see now is that kids are proud to say that they come from Carcross. I don't know that was entirely the case before. We really started to notice that in the first or second year with the crew," she says. "Kids in Carcross talk a lot more about travelling and have curiosity about other places and have curiosity about adventure sports."

Laying claim

The Carcross/Tagish First Nation regained access to Montana Mountain after a successful land claim in 2005.

But a Supreme Court of Canada decision last year could further strengthen First Nations rights to the land.

In June 2014, the Tsilhqot'in National Government (TNG) won a lengthy and difficult challenge against the provincial government in the Supreme Court of Canada. The court granted the TNG title to roughly 1,700 square kilometres of land southwest of Williams Lake.

Chief Joe Alphonse, the TNG's Tribal Chairman, describes how the government sought to challenge for title as opposed to settling into the treaty negotiations. He described how important it was for the community to dig in its heels for more than just rights to the land, even if there were doubters within their ranks.

"The government must first seek the consent of the Tsilhqot'in people before interfering with Tsilhqot'in Aboriginal title lands," a document posted to the TNG official website after the decision explains. "If the government cannot obtain consent, then it cannot interfere with Tsilhqot'in Aboriginal title unless it can justify this infringement. The Court indicated that infringements of Aboriginal title will 'not be lightly justified.' This means it will be very difficult for the government to show that it has a good enough reason to step in and use the title land."

One of the most poignant moments of the symposium weekend came from Chief Alphonse, who was elected Chief of the Tl'etinqox-t'in Government in 2009 and Tribal Chairman of the TNG a year later. He spent most of his approximately 45 minutes detailing the history of his people, including speaking at length about the Chilcotin War of 1864. After the war, six chiefs were tried and hanged as murderers after being led to believe they would be attending peace talks. In 1993, the provincial government issued a formal apology for a laundry list of mistreatment toward the First Nation and last October, Premier Christy Clark called the chiefs heroes.

Chief Alphonse is a direct descendant of Chief Anaham, who was the Grand Chief of the Tsilhqot'in Nation in 1864. He explains that the events of 150 years ago still ripple in the community, but he stresses it's important to continue to rebuild trust.

"There are some members in our community that don't want to see anybody, period," he says, "but I wouldn't trade shoes with those people any day to have that view."

Explaining that experiences are more spiritual the higher the elevation, Chief Alphonse points to his people's history on the trails as a reason to preserve them and to even make them better.

"We don't want a trail to be forgotten about. The best way to use a trail is to use it and keep it open," he says. "When the wind fells trees and are obstructing the trails and somebody comes and clears it out, we're grateful for that."

Though there are liability issues that need to be worked out before any development proceeds, Chief Alphonse stressed that he would like to see more mountain biking coming to his community, Tl'etinqox-t'in, which is located 110 kilometres west of Williams Lake.

"In our territory, we have whatever type of terrain you want — you want the mountainous terrain, you want the swampy areas, you've got the grassland, you've got the sand dunes. I think we have a lot to offer. We're one of the best places to be in British Columbia," he says. "There's a lot of people locally that have done a lot of work to promote it and I strongly encourage it.

"We only ask that it's low-impact and they respect the land and let us know when and where... We'll help you design those trails and let you know which areas to avoid."

Planning properly

As a trail designer and planner, Daniel Scott of Whistler-based Alpine Bike Parks regularly has to bring several different sides to the table and find a solution that's agreeable for everyone.

Sometimes, he says, the stakeholders have already come together as trail associations or outdoor recreation associations with many potential hurdles already resolved. It's never a given, though, that local First Nations have been contacted when his involvement begins.

"It's imperative that the master-planning process is a collaborative process, not only with land management but with land-use stakeholders and the three levels of government, including First Nations," he says.

"It's become more and more relevant in the work that I do," he adds, noting two of the last three master-planning projects on which he's worked have included First Nations components. "Sometimes at the beginning of the project, or halfway through or near the end, were I to redo it, I would always engage First Nations. I would like to engage First Nations at the beginning of the project in that it reduces stress and lost productivity through renegotiation."

Scott echoes the concerns of Simpcw councillor Tom Eustache and Chief Alphonse in that in addition to the potential degradation of sacred sites, potential for non-relevant land uses can creep in and cause disruptions.

"They don't want partying and beer cans and shotgun shells," he says. "We don't want sacred sites such as burial grounds being left susceptible to archaeological finds or somebody removing those for profit — grave robberies, essentially. That was a big deal in Penticton."

Scott also explains some areas are considered sacred just because of their natural setting.

"They don't want a jump line going through a spot where they may have adolescent or young men or women go for a spiritual event or a coming-of-age ceremony," he says. "Those are certainly valid concerns."

Bringing some joy

In addition to building and creating job opportunities for youth, British Columbia can benefit simply by having more riders.

That's the ultimate goal for Aboriginal Youth Mountain Bike Program (AYMBP) founder Patrick Lucas.

Trail creation and upkeep, as well as bike maintenance, are key to helping make the program sustainable in roughly a dozen communities with which it's connected, but seeing the kids ride is what brings real joy.

Though its beginnings date back to 2010, the program is only in its third full year. Lucas admits that he and fellow director Thomas Schoen are still figuring out exactly what the program is all about. Even in that short timeframe, it's taken them to all corners of the province in an attempt to analyze what they can bring to each community.

Lucas is familiar with many of the centres he visits as he'd previously worked as a community planner, primarily with David Nairne and Associates, a position he recently left to focus on the AYMBP full-time.

"I'd been going to these communities for years talking about community planning, health, social development. They're always talking about their kids. They're really concerned about their kids getting involved with drugs and alcohol, suicides, diabetes," he says. "They have some really great ideas and they're doing some great stuff.

"I was in this community called Boothroyd (located roughly 75 kilometres north of Hope) and they brought it up to me. They said, 'We want to do something for our kids. They're riding all over the place. We can't leave a pile of dirt without them making some sort of stupid-looking jump out of it. They're doing it on the road and destroying fire hydrants. We don't want them to stop — we want them to keep doing it — as long as they're not destroying property or roads.' I just thought it sounded like a really fun idea.

"For a long time, I'd been doing all this work and no matter how much I felt like I was doing good work with them, I was always the outsider, the consultant. There's a big disconnect and that's not why I got into planning."

Lucas notes with so many challenging issues facing communities, much of his work as a planner led to some tense and tough times.

"There was yelling and screaming and crying," he says. "But I'll go in and do a trail-planning exercise and everybody's having a great time. The attitude and the energy is so different."

Progress at Lil'wat

Lucas' work has already started to make an impact in the Sea to Sky corridor.

On the same weekend as the symposium in Williams Lake, the Pemberton Valley Trails Association (PVTA), BC Aboriginal Youth Mountain Bike Program, Joyride Bike Parks and Lil'wat Nation teamed up to create a dirt jumps park in Mount Currie, just east of Pemberton.

Lucas says the discussions between the organizers had been ongoing for about two years, but some of the local youth, called the Rez Riders, caught wind of the talks and started lobbying local government to let the project happen.

"They were going into the councillors' office every week for the past two years and asking 'When are we going to do this?'" Lucas says.

During an early visit, he recalls joining the chief and some council members to see some of the work the kids had done. They had completed about 300 metres of track in the forest, but Lucas says it was decided to bring the riding closer to the community proper for safety reasons and to make it more easily accessible for youngsters.

"We walked through this ravine to a gravel pit through this patch of forest. They had this 300-metre section of a trail that they had built by themselves, jumps, scary-looking features, rotten wood. It was a disaster waiting to happen, but they had built all of it by themselves with a broken wheelbarrow and a shovel with no handle," he says. "(The chief and councillors) were blown away by the fact that these kids were out there building and doing stuff all by themselves. We wanted to support that."

Lucas notes there is a small park in the community, but it was "poorly designed" and the kids quickly grew tired of it.

"It's just an overgrown mess of weeds," he says. "We asked them 'Why did you stop using it?' They said 'The weeds were a problem and no one would help us clear it out.' They didn't have the support at that time and they were bored with it.

"If you're out in the woods, they're away from all their parents. They're out doing their own thing and they can have creativity. They can build the trails, and we're trying to tap into that."

PVTA director of trails Ian Kruger says involving Lil'wat youth has been part of the organization's mandate "for a while," and was thrilled to stop talking and get building.

On build day, Oct. 4, Kruger estimated 30 people in all came out to help with construction, including a half-dozen Lil'wat youngsters and a couple of Pemberton-areas kids.

Joyride staffers Justin Wyper and Will Clifford and trail builders Seb Kemp and Zander Strathearn helped to guide the volunteers throughout the day.

"Honestly, we got more done than I could ever have imagined," he says. "It's a set of four dirt jumps. There's a more advanced line and an easier line all sort of intertwined. If you imagine the dirt jumps that parallel the river there in Whistler, it's about half to two-thirds of one of those lines.

"One of the joys of working in this community, in the corridor, is we have an incredible level of talent when it comes to building. There's no way we would have created the project that we did without them."

The excitement was palpable as the young kids looked to get the project completed and the jumps ready for riding.

"A number of them really couldn't wait to get on their bikes and start hitting the dirt jumps," Kruger says.

Kruger and Lucas both see bigger projects for the community, with a flow trail and skills park among those items being considered.

Lucas hopes to see Lil'wat become more than just a success story, but become a happy norm for First Nations communities.

"There's this big gap. There are all these amazing trails that are being built. We have this amazing industry that's being developed and First Nations are not really part of it," he said. "There are riders out there. There are a few Aboriginal riders that are kicking ass. There are a few individual communities that are inspiring, but overall, it isn't happening."

A trail to reconciliation

No one is going to argue that creating a strong mountain bike culture is going to right all the wrongs in every First Nations community looking to strengthen itself.

But if planners and user groups reach out and seek to involve these communities when developing new trails, there can be benefits for all involved.

It's a realization that Littlejohn and the MBTA has only made relatively recently.

"2013 is when we really started to deal with the issue of working with First Nations. That's also started to get a few things going," Littlejohn says, noting the symposium helped Lucas' program gain traction, while connections with the Simpcw Nation were created. "Those types of initiatives are starting to happen and hopefully we're going to see more of them."

At the 2013 symposium in Sooke, the T'Souke First Nation settled a land claim for 60 hectares in the days leading up to the event. Riders wondered whether they'd be able to ride Broomhill, a popular site for the sport. Organizers invited Chief Gordon Planes to speak on a panel as a proactive step to bring the conversation forward.

"Reconciliation to a lot of people is a big, ethereal concept. It's meaningless to so many people," Lucas says. "This is a way to get that conversation going in a meaningful, accessible way for people and I find as an audience, they're very receptive.

"They know what it's like to have your favourite trail blocked and you're not allowed to go on there. What I always say is 'Times that by 10,000 years' and we might get a glimpse of what they're talking about' and a light goes on."

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