Five things the East Kootenay Rockies taught me…

Words by Seb Kemp
Photos by Grant Robinson

The following summarizes a ten-day road trip around the East Kootenay region of Beautiful British Columbia (it says it on the license plates but it’s not a false promise). The circuitous route that we took started in Calgary and ended in Calgary, and is totally replicable for any mountain bike rider that finds themselves with ten days to enjoy. This is not a pro-only, media-funded ride for the one-percent who want to ‘thrust into the back country to pioneer a route that’s only been dreamed about by the five people lucky enough to be funded to go on this expedition”. Nope, this is a trip throughout a region that has mountain vistas on lock, amazing trails coming out of its hoo-ha, and all the required amenities that BC towns are famous for: good hospitality, a few good restaurants, a singular committed barista who is battling the numerous Tim Horton’s locations in town, and probably a Canadian Tire.

Mountains and forests, not the only things beautiful British Columbia has going for it, but there is a lot of them.

The ten-days I spent in the East Kootenays located on the western slopes of the Canadian Rockies were not enough and I wasn’t expecting to start looking at real estate listings while I was there, but I did. As someone “lucky” enough to live in Whistler and spend his life traveling the globe riding his bike I was thoroughly stunned by the East Kootenays and bamboozled why the coastal region of BC gets all the attention when the inland portion of the province has more than its fair share of incredible living, riding and backdrops.

A fair bit of window time and a bit of map time.

Lesson One: It shouldn’t take a slap to the face to tell you’ve not gone far enough.

Somewhere into the second third of Golden’s T4 trail I found myself on the rosy-cheeked end of a stinging, open handed, slap to the face. Now, let’s be clear I’m not utilizing some metaphorical literary device to grab your attention in this critical introductory paragraph.

The nice bit of T4. The gentle bit with the good views after the hikeabike and before the savagery begins.

Nor was it because the savagery of the trail struck me. Yes, the ridge line we were riding along not only offered an almost uninterrupted view of the valley floor some very easily tumbled 1000m (3000 feet) either side of me and also that the trail had shifted modes from fun-and-playful-downhill to murderously-rocky-and-ferocious-freefall.

No, I awarded myself an actual face palm.

That’s right. I slapped myself. Palm meet face, face meet palm.

Why? Because I couldn’t believe I’d been daft enough to not find myself in the East Kootenays before.

This was taken just minutes before I stopped to administer myself with a healthy dose of knuckle sandwich. You can nearly see the town of Golden below us in this photo.

Think of British Columbia and as a mountain biker your brain is likely to start doing an image search that consists of front page hits of Whistler’s A-Line, Top Of The World trail, Crankworx, and Garfinkel’s nightclub. Or perhaps you think of the North Shore’s wooden skinnies, relentless roots and rock. And that’s because we’ve been conditioned by the loudhailers and cheerleaders on the West Coast of BC to immediately think of the left side of the province whenever bikes are mentioned. However, the crazy thing is every town in BC has amazing riding. It’s pretty bizarre actually, I’ve yet to find a town that doesn’t have it’s own network of amazing trails or an amazing network of trails.

We visited the East Kootenays to see how the other half (of BC) lives. The answer: not bad, not bad at all. Kicking Horse Mountain Resort bike park.

So when that pink, mushy, super computer between your ears flashes up images of alpine vistas, big mountains, lots and lots of trees, riotous dusty routes, deep, dark, dank mysteries, dauntingly expansive trail networks and singletrack that falls from the clouds to the lakeshores, all these images are probably tagged as Whistler or North Van or Sunshine Coast or Nelson or Kamloops, anywhere relatively West. But there’s a lot more to the beautiful province of British Columbia than these places.

So when I finally got around to road tripping and riding throughout the East Kootenays last summer I was made to face up to the fact that I’d been missing out for not doing so sooner.

That’s the Purcells right there. Well, some of it. Those mountains go on for a long way and there’s not much there to make you or I feel comfortable.

Pressed between the Rockies and the Purcell Mountain ranges lies a string of incredible mountain towns that host some of BC’s very best mountain biking. The area provides everything a mountain biker is looking for: endless singletrack options, developed bike parks, wilderness trails, adventure opportunities and well-catered trail centres.

Golden, BC, for example, is a real nugget (no pun intended) in the deep seam of British Columbia’s treasures (OK, maybe the pun was intended) and was where we started the riding for our 14-day road trip. We started in Calgary and drove through Banff National Park (taking in the scenery here is a trip in itself) and made Golden our first stop. It was supposed to be only a fleeting, 48-hour stop but we extended that portion because a) we wanted to b) we could, so there.

Here’s more of T4…because it’s awesome.

Lesson Two: Look for the bare necessities, the simple bare necessities. Forget about your trouble and your strife.

As I’ve already pointed out earlier, our first ride of the road trip was down T4, a trail that was somewhat pioneered by a bunch of grizzly bear hunting ski patrollers. Legend has it that when Boo, a grizzly bear that lives in the Kicking Horse Mountain Resort Grizzly Bear Refuge – don’t worry, it’s all above board, he’s an orphan that was rescued and raised in the world’s largest enclosure – got the scent of a woman (bear) and broke free, the ski patrollers were enlisted to find him and bring him back. While flying around the area in a helicopter trying to spot him, some of the bike-minded patrollers spied a ridge line from the resort that would link back to the town, some 1800m (6000ft) below. It also just so happened that some trail building tools – shovels, picks and rakes – fell out of the helicopter.

Whoops.

Where’s the bear? There’s the bear! Where? Over there! Big Boo, sitting on a bed of branches that hides a deer carcass he’s been saving for special occasions.

Later, while doing their civic duty to go pick up the littered apparatus the patrollers strolled back down the ridgeline they’d earlier spied and low and behold, a trail magically appeared! Hallelujah!

To access T4 you have to upload on the Kicking Horse Mountain Resort gondola to get to the peak. It’s worth doing some laps in the bike park and taking in the trails there before dropping into T4, but give yourself lots and lots of time, daylight and snacks to ride down because it’s not any ordinary trail. T4 links into LSD and then Canyon Creek Trail if you want to make the most of the descent.

Here’s Shane Kroeger, local ski guide, shredder of bikes and nice guy. He seems pretty mild mannered but he’s an animal on the bike.

And wow what a trail. Just wow!

There’s a ton of other trails in Golden (the areas are called Moonraker, Mountain Shadows and Mount Seven) with a huge amount of variety from XC thigh burners to DH barn burners. In the days that followed we tried to get around as much as we could, but there wasn’t enough time. We know this because as we were packing the truck, a local rider strolled up to us interested as to where we’d been riding and when we’d told him all the great trails we’d ridden he discouragingly said, ‘Oh…that’s cool but you should have ridden [insert numerous trail names we hadn’t even noticed on the maps we’d read], they’re amazing!’

This trail is in a bike park. Yup, behind that ridge is a big-beautiful-thigh-saving gondola that drops you off right within a stunning landscape. Kicking Horse Mountain Resort.

That’s when the “Wow!” turns to “How?”

 

Lesson Three: Getting in hot water isn’t always such a bad thing

The north-south corridor carved by the Southern Rocky Mountain Trench is a big crack in the earth’s crust that formed as the crust stretched after compression of the Insular Superterrane collision about 60 million years ago. It is here, around the southeastern region of BC that the largest river flowing into the Pacific in North America, the Columbia River, finds it’s way to the border from Canada to USA. This magnificent ribbon of fresh water curls throughout BC before reaching across Washington and then Oregon before it strikes the Pacific. Between Golden and Invermere, where the Rocky Mountains to the east and the Purcell Mountains to the west stand like two great armed forces squaring up to one another, the river slows enough to form what is known as the Columbia Wetlands. Theses wetlands are a 15,000 hectare treasure that acts as habit and travellers motel to many creatures and species, including thousands of birds, fish, reptiles, and amphibians. It also provides range for hundreds of elk and deer, moose, wolf, cougar, coyote, river otter and grizzly bears.

The Columbia Wetlands.

But the species that really lays out its towel by the motel pool and calls this place its own is the mosquito.

 

There’s nowhere to hide from these critters, so just keep riding and riding and they can’t keep up.
Radium Hot Springs, where all the creatures from all the jungles gather.

Fortunately, the East Kootenay region is full of places where mosquitoes don’t like to hang out. Hot springs tend not to attract mosquitoes, but they do attract human beings. Developed hot springs like Radium Hot Springs between Invermere and Golden are bubbling cauldrons of humanity. It’s not very natural, but it is cheap, simple, easy to find, and gives you plenty to think about. Still worth stopping off for. On the other end of the spectrum are the more natural, harder-to-find, off-the-beaten-path hot springs which aren’t so hard to find now Google knows the answer to everything.

We stopped at as many hot springs as we could (find) during our road trip. It was a nice way to break up the driving and sooth our bodies from all the riding mileage.

Jason Simpson, manger of the Panorama Bike Park high up in the alpine where the bugs aren’t so fierce.

Lesson Four: There’s being hopeless and then there’s Hopeful.

Is the Hopeful Creek Trail in Panorama Resort, BC in my top five trails in all of BC?

Yes.

Hopeful Creek trail…right, I know!
That’s what I learned, and if any one thing I’ve written here teaches anyone anything then I hope it’s at least this: Go ride Hopeful Creek Trail. It’s amazing.
There’s more to Panorama Bike Park than Hopeful Creek. The trails in the park are a riot, the pubs and restaurants are good, and there’s even an enormous hot tub at the base of the chairlift.

Lesson Five: It’s not about dumbing down, it’s about smartening up

(This lesson could also be called An argument for dumbed down trails: Why Lazy Lizard Trail might be the best green-rated trail I’ve ever ridden.)

Ian Shopland of Straightline Skis and Bikes, the local go-to bike shop in town, on Hyperventilation trail.

We were certainly pushing our luck. I had a firm grip on the bars and trying not to touch my brakes. And I knew Grant was doing the same because I could hear him breathing down my neck, trying to block-pass me on every turn, buzzing my tire if I wimped out and dragged my brakes, and heckling me to go faster, even though I felt like I couldn’t possibly go any faster without certain implosion.

It wouldn’t have been the smartest thing to ride this fast down the trail at any other time of the day – there’s barely a moment of my life when I am actually smart, so at least I’m consistent – but we knew no one would still be out on the trail that late at night unless they had lights, so we would have seen them coming. We’d had so much fun riding Slunt, another one of the many exquisite descents that Fernie (should) be know for, that we wanted more, even though the sun had ducked behind the mountains and the available light for navigation in the forest was fading fast. Despite all rational thought we’d climbed up Lazy Lizard and then turned around to do a warp speed run down it. Well, it felt like warp speed in the grey light that precedes total blackout. But in reality it was probably more like brisk speed.

Slunt trail passes through a patch of cedar stumps that give you some idea of how enormous those old trees were.

Still, we hooted and hollered and by the time we got back to the car it felt like we were young again. I’ve never had so much fun on a green trail.

The next day we went back to Lazy Lizard to see the trail with another perspective entirely. I mean, the second time around we could see where we’re going. However, the biggest shift was that we were seeing it through the eyes of a child because we were accompanied by Ben and Nyah, son and daughter of Ian and Kim Shopland of Straight-line Bikes and Skis in Fernie.

To gorp is to simply lose the use of ones face to the extent that passersby will ask if you need assistance. Island Lake Lodge, totally gorp worthy.

We shuttled up to Island Lake Lodge were I gorped at the view like it was my first day on Earth (in my defense it is absolutely gorp worthy). Once my jaw had been reattached and the drool mopped from my shoes we headed off down the trail. It starts mellow, continues mellow and ends, well, pretty mellow. But saying that doesn’t really do the trail enough justice. It romps and frolics through old growth cedar, wriggling around but always heading in somewhat the right direction for fun. You barely need to pedal or brake, but it’s not like it’s a passenger ride because the more you get in the grove the more it comes alive. It has no jumps, no real berms, there’s barely a root or rock in it, and it’s about as steep as a table and was made by a man in a machine. All these things might sound rather ‘meh’ to some people but actually it’s utterly ‘mwah!’

Lazy lizard might be the best trail I’ve ever ridden because Ben and Nyah were having a blast, and I was having a riot following them. Even though I’ve been riding for twice as long as they’ve been alive and they’re relatively new to the popular pastime of mountain cycling we could share the same trail and have the same kind of enjoyment. It’s the kind of trail that’s fun for nearly anyone with a pulse and the capacity to smile.

Nyah, Ben and Kim Shopland (foreground to background) all having fun, just in their own ways.

It’s so damn good because the kids who ride it get hooked on biking and because of that they’ll be ripping double blacks before they’re dating. Those who bemoan these kinds of trails will be out classed by these kids in no time. The technical double black trails that the old guys lament the “loss” of will be trumped by the kinds of trails and riding that these kids imagine and create in the near future. Just because a green trail is laid out in the woods, doesn’t mean a black trail somewhere else disappears. What it means is that when someone wants to share the joy of riding a trail with a child, trails like Lazy Lizard will be there to tap into the source of fun and keep the spring of bubbling energy alive. It’s a gateway to a lifetime of biking and a reminder why biking became life.

Fernie, not just any mountain town.

Fernie is another one of those low-key BC towns that boast more amazing singletrack than the whole of Britain possesses (I’m a Brit by birth and temperament so I can confidently say that), incredible amounts of snow in the winter, great mountainous terrain, and a very friendly and down-to-earth citizenry. What it also boasts, which most BC uber-mountain towns don’t is some great restaurants. Nevados is one of the few places in the world I’ll eat anything that grew up in the ocean even though the restaurant is an age away from salt water. It’s that good.

 

Lesson Six (bonus): the backyard is the backcountry, and the backcountry is the backyard

Where to start? At the beginning. You can’t really go wrong in beautiful British Columbia.
BC is a big old place (the province is bigger than all of the US states except for Alaska) and there’s a lot that feels very remote and far away. It’s possible to go in search of secrets and find your own treasures far away from where anyone else is doing so. It’s possible to get lost in the expanse of this big, beautiful land. However, wherever people have congregated in BC has also resulted in amazing networks of trails and backcountry access that can take you just beyond the backyard and make you feel like you’re making a voyage of discovery into the unknown. However, you don’t have to be Bear Grylls or a highly funded professional mountain biker to do so. It’s all there, right out the backdoor and the locals are usually friendly enough to have the (metaphorical, but sometimes literal) barbecue on for when you return.
The endless summer.

The East Kootenays has the best of all worlds mushed together so you can feel like you’re living lost but ready to get a good coffee, a warm hotel room and a nice meal at the end of the day.

 

Know your way, Trailforks is a powerful app that does more than present you with a map of every trail you’ll ever need.

I couldn’t summarize this incredible experience anymore than I’ve done so without basically turning it into page upon page of expletives and exclamation marks, but to find out more about how to head to the East Kootenay’s to have your own backyard adventure then click this link