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A Week on Vancouver Island

Posted on Apr 09, 2019 by Robin Munshaw

Winners of Mountain Biking BC’s “Bikes and Beer” contest learn about Vancouver Island time and what makes it tick. 

Words and photos by Robin Munshaw

Day 1: Taking our time on the drive up the east coast of Vancouver Island, we got to know Rachael and Aaron as they went through the later stages of climate shock. “It was snowing this morning in Calgary”, Aaron tells us, looking intently at the rain pounding on the windshield. Rachel has entered the Mountain Biking BC “Bikes and Beer” contest every year since its inception. This year she decided to enter Aaron’s name and, karma rewarding the good deed, he won. Though they live in Alberta, the two winners were no strangers to BC, though they hadn’t spent much time on the coast. “We ride in the Kootenays a lot – Kicking Horse, Mount Seven, Panorama”. With direct flights from Calgary to Comox and Nanaimo, it ended up being faster for them to fly to Vancouver Island than to drive to Golden where they usually ride. We’ve come to Vancouver Island to spend a week exploring one of the densest regions of trail networks in BC. Our first stop in Campbell River was a great place to begin the journey. James Durand, founder of Swicked Bikes, met us at the shop and took us to a quick lap on Radar Hill so that Aaron and Rachael could get acquainted with their new Rocky Mountain bikes, on loan from Endless Biking. After a few wet trails, we rolled back to Swicked to get dry and swap stories over a pint at Beach Fire Brewing.

Day 2: We awoke early for our first full day on the bikes and jumped on the ferry to Quadra Island, just a few minutes across the water from Campbell River, and met Sam Whittingham of Naked Cycles, and local shredder Dre. Sam built his first hand-made steel bike frame in 1998, and his bikes have gone on to earn many awards and reverence in the bike community. Working with each purchaser individually, he fits every length and angle to suit their specific needs and riding style. He gave us a tour of his shop at his childhood home, then we saddled up rode onto the trails meandering into the bush right from his shop door. We knew that the trails on Quadra were relentless (“They’ll tear the legs off you” we were warned), so we were ready for an epic pedal. What we weren’t ready for were the carpets of prehistoric green blanketing the island. Sword ferns reaching up to eye-level were dwarfed by devil’s club towering over our heads. Lush blankets of moss gave way to lichen-drenched rock outcrops looking out over the rolling island. The trails here demanded we earn every pedal stroke, but the interest on that investment was some of the most stunning forest we’d ridden through. The soft white of the overcast day filtered through the canopy, lulling us with the promise of breaking weather until suddenly the skies opened up and we were truly riding the “Wet Coast”. Drops the size of toonies thundered down on the landscape. Once we were completely saturated and there was no wetter to get, the giggles started coming out and the whole crew was hopping their bikes into puddles trying to splash each other the whole way back to the shop. A dry change of clothes and a pile of the freshest fish and chips the world can offer at the Heriot Bay Pub helped to ease the shattered legs before hopping back to Vancouver Island and heading down the coast to Cumberland for the night.

Day 3: We woke to the sound of rain pounding the roof of the Riding Fool Hostel, a bike-focused establishment within a stone’s toss of the trails in Cumberland. We hid from the weather with a long breakfast at 4 Quarters, snugly appreciating a rainy Sunday in Cumberland with Sam and Dre, who we found by chance enjoying a coffee before a race they had come across the water for that day. Steeling ourselves, we donned rain gear and drove up into the thick clouds capping Mount Washington. Erica Spizawka met us at the lodge to give us a tour of the mountain. “I might be a bit slow – I’m not a downhill rider” she says, telling us of her new-found love for the more pedal-oriented side of the sport on flatter trails. We quickly laughed off that disclaimer as she led us down through twisting berms, flowy jumps, and mud-soaked roots. Splashing her way down the mountain in ever-deepening puddles, Erica’s position as a beginner mountain-biker instructor was obviously based on enjoyment and not a limitation of skill, and we struggled to keep pace. The weather tossed and turned restlessly, one moment pelting us with rain, another chilling us with a light fog, others giving warmth with a brief beam of sun. Through the day we wound up and down beside the course of the Stevie Smith Open DH championships, the sounds of cow-bells and Brett Tippie’s cackling laugh echoing from the announcer’s loud-speaker through the mist-shrouded trees. Even on the wettest day, racers had gathered from around the world to speed from top to bottom of Mt. Washington in a race that several riders simply described as “survival”. Roots and rocks and mud were the flavor of the day, and we spent our time bouncing from the warmth of the lodge to the slopes to giggle our way down the slopes without the stress of a timer. Hosing ourselves and our bikes of at the end of the day marked the limit of everyone’s tolerance for cold and wet, so we headed to Cumberland Brewing for hot eats and cold pints to soothe the hands.

Day 4: Martin, Kevin, and Andrew, our local guides for the day, met us at the door of the Riding Fool Hostel and we pedaled out onto the trails. Cruising through the community forest beside town, Kevin tells us about the success the community has had in negotiating the purchase of the land from local forestry operators. “We have made two huge land transactions and are working on a third” he tells us – land that now belongs to and is managed by the community of Cumberland. We bask in the first sunshine we’ve seen in days – the trails slowly drain and begin to dry, leaving dirt the perfect consistency. As we climb slowly up the mountain-side, we see a surprising number of riders out enjoying the trails midday on a Monday. “Our network supports a huge riding community” Kevin tells me. The combined area holds some 60,000 residents, so despite Cumberland’s modest population, their trail network sees a disproportionate number of riders. Martin, a local bike guide, has been operating in the area for a decade. I ask him how many countries have been represented by his clients in that time, and he laughs. “I’ve got that data somewhere, but a lot.” Community leaders in the region have seen a huge increase in destination travelers coming to ride Vancouver Island’s infamous trails. Over years of work, they’ve built the community and the trails they wanted to see, creating a resource for everyone. After a beautiful climb punctuated by views out over the town and outlying islands, we started down the tacky dirt. Puddles still lingering from the previous days’ rains kept us on our toes, but we quickly settled into sinuous ribbons of Island single-track. Slowly our shoes began to dry. At the end of our tour of Cumberland Forest and the surrounding trails, we coasted right to the patio of Biblio Taco for a quick bite, then loaded up for a shuttle run on Forbidden Plateau. With an almost sub-alpine feel at the start, the trail meandered from open, lichen-covered rock outcrops and spindly cedar forests into deep, lush ravines guarded by sheer walls of dripping moss and ferns. For those more interested in the descending side of the sport, Forbidden delivers the goods. Rolling back into the parking lot for libations and fresh clothes, we chatted with a couple women that popped out of the bush right behind us. We asked them if they ride every trail in the network in a single season. “Oh God no. A couple people do, but not many” they replied, laughing. This small town may seem sleepy when you’re trying to find anything open on a Sunday morning, but it hosts one of the most ambitious and industrious trail-building communities by population in the region. A month spent here riding every day would barely scratch the surface. After a full day on the trails, we cruised down to the ferry terminal and made the short jaunt over to Denman Island for the night.

Day 5: We woke on Denman to orange sunlight spilling over the horizon under a cloudless sky. With the promise of our first fully dry day, we were out the door quickly for the short pedal to the Hornby Island Ferry. As we made the brief crossing, we took in the profile of the island. Like a long, low wedge, the island’s trails meander casually up the elevation before dropping more down the steeper aspects, making the ascents casual and the descents fast and furious. Pedalling up along the island’s bluffs, we barely noticed that we were climbing. Lush green forests and smooth winding singletrack were punctuated by mossy viewpoints everywhere you could want to take a break. Our pace was pretty casual up to the peak, taking in every view we came across. The descents were of the type that a beginner and expert rider can enjoy equally in different ways. The trails were, narrow, smooth, and ran fast through forests smothered in green moss. With a few of the choicest trails under our belts, we headed to Forage for an amazing lunch crafted by Jamara in the kitchen. Our full bellies meant we had no option but to trundle down to Tribune Bay to take in some sun on the white-sand beach and digest our lunches with a float in Hornby’s clear waters. By the time our ferry departure was approaching, we had a bit of energy again, and pedaled into the island’s roadside trails to make our way back. Taking a cue from Martin’s grins and sudden bursts of speed, we followed him into what he described as “some of the best turns on the island”. Along the roadside, the commuter trail follows the contours of the islands dips and hills, creating a twisty ribbon of singletrack that you can ride as fast as you can pedal. Our pelaton would burst laughing and gasping from the bush momentarily onto the road, just to disappear back into the forest again when the path dipped away from the pavement. It was 10km from Tribune Bay to the ferry, but between the commuter path and foraging roadside for apples, the island disappeared beneath our wheels in no time at all. Back on Denman we packed our bags and headed south to Chemainus for a good night’s sleep.

Day 6: Our sixth day dawned sunny again, and we met Matt Grossnickle, the shop manager of Duncan’s Cycle Therapy, at the trailhead of Tzouhalem. A brand new parking lot for the trail network means mountain bikers now have a place to gather instead of parking down along the residential streets, he tells us. Infrastructure like this goes a long way to formally recognizing the sport and making it more accessible, a community goal that we are finding through the region. Winding our way up through the maze of singletrack, the forest opened up around us and let the morning sun filter through to light our way. The mountain is set aside as a “working forest”, Matt tells us. Though logging does still occur, forestry is managed in cooperation with recreation and conservation goals, giving the community a voice in development and use. This stewardship has produced trail networks in the area that are world-class and draw international races and recreationists to the region. After taking in the viewpoint at the summit, we dropped into the trail Double D, which winds its way down the mountain like a roller coaster of dirt. We grabbed a quick lunch at Garage Café in Duncan, then headed off to Maple Mountain to see one of the area’s gems: Story Trail. This climb trail was built by local Coast Salish First Nations youth, and welcomes riders to the coastal rainforest through a totem pole arch as they leave the parking lot. Contouring gently up the mountain, dark green seas of sword ferns slowly gave way to orange groves of arbutus trees. We took in the view at the summit and dove back into the leaf litter of the open arbutus, threading our way down mossy rock faces and open forests. Back in town, we recovered our energy with the hospitality of Riot Brewing and Sawmill TapHouse, and retired with weary legs and full bellies.

Day 7: The next morning, we met locals Dave Silver and Bill McClane in Nanaimo. Both riders have been long-time builders in the area, so the day promised to be a special one. Leading us through some of their favorite trails, it’s easy to see why Nanaimo is such a draw – the trails elegantly flip back and forth between smooth, high-speed jumps and corners, and technical roots and rocks that let a rider find a good flow, but keeps them on their toes the whole way. Like many trail networks in the area, we pass by intersection after intersection on the trails, giving us the briefest glimpse of the complexity of the trail network and the vast number of hours that have been invested by builders here. As much fun as the riding in this area is, it takes a local guide to tell you the history and stories behind the features and trails in any area. Hiring a guide for even a single day gives riders a much deeper appreciation for the experience than simply exploring the trails on one’s own.

That afternoon, we hopped on the ferry to Gabriola Island, just offshore of Nanaimo and met Brian McCrae for a quick tour of the island’s trails. “Narrow bars are the name of the game here” he tells us, smiling at our wide bikes. Riding a single-speed hardtail, Brian has refined the perfect bike for the island. It’s smooth, trails have no extended climbs, and the salal and coast undergrowth crowd the trails into narrow tunnels of green. We ask about his missing gears and he laughs at how many derailleurs have been ripped off by hidden sticks in the salal that grabs at you from both sides of the trail. “Keep it simple” he says, and leads us into the labyrinthine trails. Winding our way through the lush hallways of leaves, we discover the character of the island: fairy doors and small cairns of art litter the woods. Along the way we break into a clearing around a giant tree, a ring worn into the ground around its base. “You have to ride 3 times around the mulberry tree!” Brian yells, and we all file in, trying to get as many bikes in the circle as possible, giggling and bumping into each other. Owls swooped over our heads and watched us quizzically from the branches above. What the trails on Gabriola Island lack in steep descents and modern mountain bike appeal, they make up for in hypnotic “Alice-in-Wonderland” mystique and beauty. They wind relentlessly through the brush, hypnotizing you into a sweeping dance of turns and swish of bush against your legs. We retreated to the Surf Lodge and Pub for a cold pint as darkness set in, still swaying with the rhythm of the island.

Day 8: Back on Vancouver Island, we woke early to be greeted by dark cloud overhead. We pulled our damp shoes onto sore feet for what looked to be a wet final day of the trip. Winding our way up to Doumont, one of Nanaimo’s local trail networks, the rain faded away and we entered the clouds. Silent misty forests passed by the windows until a lone figure appeared out of the desolate fog – Dana Wacker, our guide for the day, stood smiling roadside as we pulled up, the weather doing not a damn thing to dampen her spirits. “We’re going to head up to the summit and hit some gnarlier stuff, then it’ll be smooth and fast the rest of the way!” she calls out as she leads us into the mist. Winding our way upwards, Doumont’s famous trail network earns its reputation of beauty. The climbing trail leads up through open mossy forests at a leisurely pace that keeps the heart rate up but not enough to discourage conversation. Dana tells us about her involvement in the bike community, listing off an impressive resumé of advocacy. “When I first came here, I fell in love with the place” she says. Like so many others on Vancouver Island, all it took was a single visit and Dana made the choice to live here and get involved in the community. As we began to descend A.S.O.P. from the summit of Doumont, it’s easy to see why so many people never leave Vancouver Island and the surrounding islands once they explore these woods. Dense mist compresses our world into a single ribbon of trail winding its way through the fog. Trees and rock faces appear before us like specters and blend back into the whiteness behind us. Every now and then, a wayward sunbeam sneaks through and reminds us of the world outside, but we mostly forget anything else exists as we make our way down the twisting, playful trails. Moss and ferns and mist quickly dampen all sound, and even the muffled echos of our shouts and laughs as we move down the trail network seem to come from some other world. Breaking down below the fog, we came back to reality just in time to hop onto one of Doumont’s new signature trails, Finer China. The trail is an endless chain of high-speed rollers, berms, and jumps that gives beginners confidence and challenging expert riders to leave the ground as much as possible. Pumping through the trail’s meticulously shaped contours, our legs quickly began to burn with exhaustion, the penalty of a week’s worth of riding without a break. Just in time but all-too soon, we explode out into the parking lot, and suddenly the trip is over. We peel over-used biking gear from abused bodies and pile into the Endless Biking van for the final shuttle back to the ferry. It’s amazing to sit here and think that in the past week, we only scratched the surface of the riding opportunities within a single hour’s drive of the ferry or the airport. The leg-shattering technical climbs of Quadra Island, the quaint island life threaded with smooth, fast singletrack of Hornby, the endless community forests of Cumberland – every area has a different appeal, community, and aesthetic, and all close enough to see several in a day. Sitting in the terminal at the end of our journey as the ferry unloads, overwhelmed by the communities and experiences we packed into 8 days, we watch car after car with racks full of bikes pulling off the ferry to explore these interlinked communities, their adventures just beginning.

Mountain Biking BC would like to thank the following organizations for their generous support:

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