September 6, 2021

Rewind | The Secret Society of Trail Builders

Somewhere on Canada’s Sunshine Coast, there exists a group of mythical Kiwi trail builders, their existence shrouded in mystery. A bike shop owner located in British Columbia’s Sea-to-Sky Corridor might encounter one rushing through on his way back to this isolated location, with orders to have a fork rebuilt in two days, and “I need it to ride home from work” the only specifics given. 

Actually, it isn’t that much of a mystery and a few details can be squeezed out of the aforementioned trail builders when pressed, but there’s a need for strict confidentiality about locations and the client for whom the trails are being built. What I can tell you is that there are fifteen of us: one Brit, a Scot, two Canadians, and twelve Kiwis, all working on a remotely-located collection of trails that have been a culmination of six years’ hard graft. It’s a relic of the legendary company NZ Trail Solutions run by Jeff Carter and James ‘Dodzy’ Dodds, which at one point employed over two hundred mainly Kiwi trail builders around the world. Dodzy was working out here a week before his tragic passing, and a cowboy hat he owned hangs on a trail named in his honour: Two Wheel Legend. 

A number of reputable riders have come through, and riding the tracks will tell
you why; the highest trails begin at 1100 metres, and the network consists of black diamonds littered with double blacks, as well as secret trail-builder-only
pro lines. The trails are a test of skill, made more difficult by the fact that they form the commute home from work; nailing a steep slab line is twice as hard
after a day swinging the pick. 

trail building

The riding season here is only four months, and seasons change quickly in BC. I arrived in March with snow down to sea level and an average temperature of 0 degrees, not long after watching the Christchurch Adventure Park burn down following a two-month dry spell. Fast-forward five months, and I have a feeling of déjà vu with a record number of wildfires burning in BC and work at the property called off due to fire risk. We came back in September to find ourselves in a right-place-at-the-right-time scenario, fighting and putting out a burgeoning forest fire at 700 metres. The extreme conditions are all part of the novelty of the place.  

A parallel in the land of the long white cloud is the now-revered Wairoa Gorge, also built by NZ Trail Solutions, though Wairoa was made public, much to riders’ delight. The trails are similar in many regards, with the focus on steep tech and technical rock sections, albeit with a BC vibe, and including North Shore woodwork chucked in for good measure. 

Private bike parks, particularly through this employer, are numerous, allowing Kiwi trail builders a chance to build in new environments and hone skills they eventually bring back to their own communities. It might take a decade of volunteering to accumulate the same amount of experience acquired in a year of professional trail building. In New Zealand and Canada, a new public track proposal will need to go through local council and landowners, and might require funding and supplies. In a bike park, the focus is on pumping out new trail. A spec is given to which it must be built, opening up a rider’s skillset as they might be building features they wouldn’t necessarily build for themselves. 

It might seem strange to employ Kiwi trail builders so far from home, and that we are here is thanks to the NZ Trail Solutions era—why mess with a winning formula? There’s food and accommodation while working, good pay and the opportunity to live in a truly unique location; for New Zealanders, it’s a chance to enjoy the riding BC has to offer without having to save up a year’s earnings. After all, BC is widely considered to have given birth to modern mountain biking: Vancouver’s North Shore, with its technical rooty terrain, complex woodwork and general jankyness, Squamish with the best rock slabs in the world, Pemberton with its hero dirt and early-season access, and the jewel in the crown, Whistler. As a result, BC has seen many of the biggest names in mountain biking set their HQs up here. North Vancouver alone has given birth to Norco, Kona and Rocky Mountain, and that’s just the bike manufacturers. It’s a fantastic place to push the limits of what can be done on a bike. 

We work roughly two weeks on, two weeks off, allowing plenty of time for road trips and exploration. Achievements in our monthly holidays included heading up to Kicking Horse in Golden for a BC Cup and down to Utah to watch Rampage, though the main locations of play are Whistler and Squamish. I rented a flat in the Emerald Estates area of Whistler, with the notorious Gargamel trail in my backyard. My daily holiday routine was getting up at 8am, going for a two-hour trail ride, chilling out and having lunch, followed by laps at the bike park until closing time, then a few beers at Lost Lake with some of the other trail crew boys—the Whistler dream! 

But just as the Whistler rhythms begin to feel normal, we are heading back to work for another two-week stint in the Canadian outback. Our trail crew leader Matt Harris gives his take on our work life: “Our work days are at the mercy of the daylight hours. Our day begins with coffee, then a commute via boat to the trailhead from camp. We hike-a-bike up 1100 metres to the current build site, where a full day of pick swinging, bridge construction and dirt slinging keeps us busy. We take everything we need for the day on our backs. The end of day ritual is to pad up and rip the trails (roughly 40 minutes, 1100-metre elevation drop, eight to 12 kilometres) to the boat. By the time we arrive at camp for dinner, 12 hours have passed. Shower, dinner, sleep—rinse and repeat for two weeks.” A brutal regime, but when you have a crew stoked to be there and build trail together it couldn’t seem less like work. 

These trails and this place is something I will never forget. The bond we’ve formed as a crew is tangible; we’ll be friends for life, and our memories will be retold for years to come. I hope that one day everyone can enjoy this place as we have. Until then, it remains a mystery, a blank space on Trailforks that one day might be filled in with black lines.

trail building