Welcome to the new Pinkbike series, ''Characters,'' where Riley McIntosh delves into the lives and personalities of trail builders and anyone else he finds interesting. Riley has sought out builders and industry folk from all over British Columbia to learn more about who they are, what's happening in their respective areas, and why they do what they do.
Bill has been a valuable asset in developing trails in Prince George, as he has leveraged his extensive Vancouver Island trail building experience while improving Pidherny's trails. He has continuously upped the stoke level by building some of the largest wooden features in the area (one which is 23 feet lip-to-landing, for reference) using all rough-sawn lumber from local (dead) pine trees. Bill has been one of my go-to people for discussion and consultation when planning and executing trail improvements. He also maintains a pretty solid beard, which earns you a lot of respect the higher north you go in British Columbia. - Liam Baker, Pidherny Director, Prince George Cycling Club
Bob's Yer Uncle is a unique trail. Dumont is well known for natural terrain cross country style riding, but Bill has put together something special. It's full of amazing flow and well built features like drops, and big wood frames filled in with dirt to create gap jumps and berms. Whenever I'm out for an all mountain smash up in the Dumont riding zone, I like to pedal for a couple hours on the other trails then finish with a rip down Bob's. A solid way to finish my ride with a grin! - Steve Smith, Nanaimo, BC
I finally had the opportunity to make my way up to Bob's Your Uncle, by this time it was nearly completed and looked amazing! After hiking to the top I truly appreciated all the effort they'd put in over the last couple years of building it. Then I got to drop in. Rock ride, berm, another berm, drop, gap, wall ride and whoop dee do's, this trail has it all. It took quite some time to wipe that shit eating grin off my face. So much fun! - Dylan Tremblay, Errington, BC
Bill and I have never been comfortable with the 9 to 5. We were raised to get up in the morning with a purpose; to work until the job was done, not until it's time to clock-out. As is usually the case with siblings, Bill and I didn't always get along. We worked it out eventually, though. In the end, it seems that taking the values that we were raised with and with Bill applying those values to his biking and me applying them to the equestrian world, we have both met with success. It's funny that he does the equivalent level of scary tracks out in the woods with his bikes that I have done with horses out on cross-country - and, if anything, we started getting closer by swapping tales of injuries sustained in our favorite sports! I think we're pretty even on that account. To call Bill a workhorse is perfect: that's exactly what he is. I've been out digging trail with him late in the evening with our headlamps on and the snow coming down. He has such a sense of pride, although he won't always show it, in completing these personal projects and I admire him for doing the things he loves the most with such purpose and focus. - Ginny Casey, Nanaimo, BC
I grew up on a small farm in Qualicum Beach on Vancouver Island but have lived in Nanaimo on and off for the last 11 years and Prince George in the summers for the last 8. Time flies because apparently I’m already 30 years old!
What kind of family are you from? Does that play a big role in being an outdoorsy person?
My family was definitely a big influence on me becoming an outdoorsy person. My dad worked in forestry and my mom and sister were out in the barn with the horses. We didn’t have cable TV, just rabbit ears with three fuzzy channels, which made the X-Files and Star Trek difficult to watch. Summers were full of family camping trips in and around the Island so I saw a lot of it from an early age. My days at home were spent out in the back forty. I would build tree forts with sketchy zip lines, ride my bike around the back roads, and farm the pond for critters, all with very little supervision. I had an animal skeleton collection that my mom actively encouraged where we would attempt to piece them back together after the ant hill had their way with them, in the name of science, clearly. My dad had always worked outdoors and when I graduated it seemed natural that I should do the same, that’s simply where men worked!
You are sort of a multi-zone trail builder, both in Nanaimo and Prince George, what is the reason for that?
About eight years ago I decided to take up fire fighting with the BC Ministry of Forests, which through sheer dumb luck landed me on a crew in Prince George. I had already been building trails on the Island before then so it was natural to continue. It took me a while but slowly as I met all the local players I became involved in that scene as well. Biking was a part of my life on the Island that I was determined to bring with me to Prince George. With fire fighting, the season generally runs from April until October. So I spend my summers in Prince George and then return to Nanaimo to enjoy the mild Vancouver Island winter.
You have spent six years working on your trail ‘Bob’s Your Uncle’, why has it been such a long process? Special care? Huge projects? Massive builds?
I can never bring myself to build something half assed. If it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing it well enough to put your name to. Every tweak and improvement on ‘Bob’s’ always starts as “it’ll be easy and quick” and balloons out of scale and proportion. Jumps get bigger, berms get wider, and the labor required increases exponentially. A simple idea to re-route the trail last winter to remedy a drainage issue became 14 days of building to complete, but also resulted in one of the trails signature, and biggest features. The understory of coastal forests is predominantly coastal salal and other brush that takes a lot of effort to remove on its own. I’ve always been jealous of places like Kamloops where sometimes even a rake and shovel are unnecessary.
Have you done most of your trail building alone?
Most certainly not, a great many people have lent their time and effort to help complete a wide assortment of trail projects I’ve cooked up. I often put my brother in law to work, and he doesn’t even ride a mountain bike. Bob’s itself was started as a joint project between myself and my friend Pete. It was always to be a place we could call our own, to build what we needed to challenge ourselves as riders. Thankfully many other people identified with what we were trying to accomplish and helped us along the way.
You have been building trails for a long time, has your riding ability changed a lot over the years? How does that affect your trails?
The concept for Bob’s was definitely influenced from the riding we were doing in the Interior of BC. On the Island we have lots of technical trails covered with roots and rocks. But the Interior brought a wide-open speed and scale that was intoxicating. We wanted the big berms and big booters of Kamloops in our own backyard so we could ride them year round. Bob’s in particular literally represents the evolution of our riding, as it has improved, so has the shape and style of the trail to challenge it accordingly. I still can’t moto-whip worth a damn though.
What changes have your trails developed over time? For example using different materials, different tools, etc?
I used to build a lot of wooden features, but the heavy moisture we experience on the coast pushed a transition to use of dirt wherever possible. I thought I understood grades and drainage, but it wasn’t until I picked up the IMBA Trail Solutions book that I started to truly grasp the concept and implement it properly. You start to take erosion pretty seriously when it destroys your trails. My toolbox hasn’t changed much, with a pulaski, shovel, wheelbarrow and a chainsaw you can build nearly anything. You can get a lot done with an excavator, but I’m not very skilled at the controls yet. I like to build trail that will stand the test of time, hence all the peeled logs done by hand with drawknives to slow their decay. It’s definitely a learning process; you truly do have to fail to learn what works and what doesn’t.
What fuels your desire to trail build?
I build to challenge myself as a rider to create the trails that I want to ride. Creatively speaking, trail building has become this bizarre intersection of creating something you can physically travel on using a bicycle, and then sharing it if you choose with a wide audience using photography and video. Seeing what others have created gets me stoked for sure. Also, I can’t bring myself to be a gym rat. I would much rather be “bush fit” and have a trail to show for it afterwards. Once I’ve stood somewhere and seen the final product in my mind’s eye, I have to build it.
Have you had any bad experiences with getting in trouble, trails cut down, hikers mad at you, etc?
I’ve been pretty lucky on the trouble front. I’ve never had anything cut down, though on a particularly dark day I was part of a crew that cut down an elaborate wooden stunt trail. Even though I understood why, I’ve always felt bad about that. I’m pretty careful about what and where I build, I don’t alter existing lines unless I get permission from the original builder. It’s hard for hikers to argue with you when you built the trail specifically for bicycles. Most hikers I encounter are excited to see other people out in the bush enjoying the day just like they are.
Which other builders do you look up to? What influences you?
It seems you can’t throw a rock in the Northwest without hitting an amazing trail builder. I love the ones with their own recognizable style. Andrew Mcintosh, Digger, Gravity Logic, The Coastal Crew, their work is unmistakable. Builders with big ambitions, like you, Mr Mcintosh, are a huge inspiration. Aesthetics are a big influence, the trail has to flow, but I like it to look awesome on film as well.
So your brother in law builds with you? Is that you way of asserting yourself upon the guy who your sister chose?
I think it has more to do with him being an easy going Irishman, but you raise a good point. Subconsciously there could be something more going on there. Actually, I haven’t had him out in a while; he’s been working hard at his real world job. Coordinating help is pretty tricky. It’s a hard sell convincing someone to spend an entire week working up in the bush with you even if they do ride bikes. Good thing he’s family!
So you peel the bark off all your logs? What kind of wood is it? How do you do itand why?
I peel all my logs using large drawknives. On the Coast we use cedar and fir, in the Interior it’s mostly pine. Once you develop a technique it doesn’t take too long, but it’s definitely an added step. When you remove the bark it makes it difficult for rot/fungus/critters to grow on the outside because there’s no easy layer for them to get started in, so in theory it increases the longevity of the wood. Western Red Cedar in particular contains “Thujaplicins” which is a natural fungicide, and it’s concentrated in the outer cambium layer. I have a couple structures where I used cedar and experimented in leaving the bark on to see if it holds up longer.
What were you saying about being on a crew destroying a trail? What was that all about?
When I was a student at Vancouver Island University, I worked occasionally on the University Woodlot; it’s a paid student position. The Woodlot contains a large concentration of trails and is quite a popular spot. One day, management staff discovered an elaborate North Shore style freeride line and decided they wanted it cut down and burned, liability issues and such. I won’t ever forget the moment when the builder of the trail came crashing through the bush at us, I had a chainsaw in my hands and I was still nervous. We became acquainted that day and I actually build trail with him now, but I’m still waiting for the shovel to the head every time I turn my back on him. I’m fairly certain his forgiveness is an elaborate ruse and he’s just waiting for the right moment to make me disappear…
What is the story behind your trail name, ‘Bob’s Yer Uncle’?
I wanted to name the trail “Dark Flow”, after the astrophysical phenomenon. But when Pete told me that he wanted to name it after a very close uncle named Bob who had recently passed, it was hard to argue with. The only stipulation was that I got to name the next trail we built together.
It must be interesting working as a government-funded ministry of forest wild-land fighter but also being an illegal trail builder? Is there a mix up of ethics in there? Or how does it work out?
If anything it’s an advantage. I can write proposals and work from within the Ministry to get our crews out on work time to maintain and build legal trails in Prince George, and people take me somewhat seriously because I’m already involved in the trails on some level. While I do have a couple illegal lines around (as I’ve found most builders do), I’m involved in legal ones as well. It’s something you don’t really get skilled at until you go do it, and until recently there hasn’t been an easy legal way to gain that experience. There are many amazing builders out there that got their skills from constructing trails on crown and private land. While everyone points fingers at each other, all those illegal trails are being established and ridden. I built illegally because initially it was my only option, now that there are others, I am pursuing those avenues. Certain projects are really only achievable with legal permission, like large Whistler style jump trails that require more planning, larger areas and heavy machinery to construct. Trails like that set in larger recreation site networks were not really possible 15 years ago, now bike parks are popping up all over. It’s a very exciting time to be a rider in BC.
What issues with the state of trail building in BC frustrate you?
Trail building in BC is shifting into a more legal stance, which I believe is a necessary change if we want to continue to be regarded as a mountain biking destination. However, as we’ve seen so far, the growing pains can be difficult and many grey areas still remain. I think there’s a certain rebellious nature to heading up into the bush and doing whatever you want as well. Suddenly handing trail builders paperwork and telling them they have to ask permission and submit a plan first isn’t going to sit well with some people and that’s understandable. For some the outside-the-norm “extreme” (if you will) nature of mountain biking is a big part of why they participate, making everything legal on paper might not be something they’re interested in. You’ll never eliminate illegal building completely; it’s all about bringing those people together to accomplish something bigger than they could do on their own.
Do you see some solutions to make the situation better in BC for people like yourself who are super keen to trail build?
First and foremost, get involved with your local bike club. They are likely a small group of people being buried under a mountain of work and they could really use your help. The more people you can get together under a club, the greater chance you will have of being taken seriously by the local land managers. Attend their sanctioned trail building sessions and learn the proper way to construct trails, put your energy and effort into something that is going to last.
So what is the scene like in Prince George?
Prince George has a small scene of really great people working incredibly hard to develop what they have into something truly great. There’s not a ton of trails, but what’s there is pretty damn fun and there’s a little bit of everything. It’s a smaller more closely knit group of riders where everyone knows each other, the kind of place with a party at the shop every Friday night. As a bonus it’s close to much more amazing Interior British Columbia biking, you’re smack in the middle of Williams Lake, Burns Lake and Smithers. I love lift access bike parks as much as the next rider, but there are incredible trails up in that neck of the woods. I have chosen Smithers over Whistler on a couple occasions…
What is the story with Pidherny, what is that place all about?
Pidherny is one of the local trail spots in Prince George to go for a pedal. Through the volunteer efforts of the local bike club they got it sanctioned as an official recreation site for non-motorized users. All trails are currently being upgraded to the Whistler standards which meant it lost some of the wood stunts. But plans call for some wicked flowy trails with large features that I’m looking forward to being involved in this summer, hopefully with our local Ministry of Forests crews.
Some of your favorite Prince George folk are Liam Baker and Megan Broswick, tell me about them?
When I first started working there in the summers and was trying to break into the local scene, nobody took me seriously until I was associated with Megan and Liam. Were it not for a chance encounter at Whistler we might have never have become friends. They were definitely the ‘connectors’ who invited me out on rides, road trips and introduced me to everyone. You can pretty much show up at their house with your bike on the weekend and there will be a ride happening at that very moment to join in on. I am usually really busy and away on fires, so sometimes I feel like I only ride with them in the spring and fall. If you see a group of bikers camped out at the trailhead, it’s probably the PG crew on a road-trip. Come say hello, we likely have way too much beer.
How do the scenes in Nanaimo and Prince George compare? Some really well known riders grew up there, guys like Tyler Morland, Kenny Smith, and Kyle Norbraten, do you ever run into them?
In Prince George everyone is very keen to get out building and riding at all times because when the snow hits, the bikes get put away until spring. Nanaimo in contrast is more relaxed, being able to ride year round seems to remove that urgent need to get out super frequently. Only in BC could you grow up in PG and end up in a group called “The Coastal Crew,” it’s awesome. Kyle Norbraten’s intro in Kranked 8 cracks me up, that entire Coastal Crew sequence is one of my favorites. When they were in town shooting for ‘’From The Inside Out’’ there was buzz among the local riding community about the train gap, but I’ve never actually run into them, see their trucks at the trailheads on occasion though.
So you said you started ‘Bob’s Your Uncle’ with a guy named Pete? Where is he? What’s he all about?
Bob’s is the story of how Pete and I became friends in a way. We both wanted to build the same style of trail, ironically in the exact same spot. (I pulled down some ribbon to lay mine in which may or may not have been his, haha.) We built the majority of Bob’s together in the winters I had off and were even roommates for a couple months. Two summers ago Pete had an accident that left him in a wheelchair. He is now learning to deal with many new things in his day to day. It is a major life change that you can’t be prepared for. But he is coping well and continuing to stay active with wheelchair rugby and sit skiing, which is very exciting.
You said you have spent some time on the controls of an excavator? Was that for building trails? Where was that?
I haven’t been behind the controls of an excavator for about 15 years. When I was a kid my dad would fly me into the logging camp he was working at on the weekends. I would often move equipment around the roads and attempted to get a handle on their operation by digging holes or moving rocks and logs. Not sure I would trust my 10 year old son to sneak a million dollar log loader under live power lines, but my dad did!
What about bikes? What kind of bike do you ride? What is your dream bike? Have the fancy new bikes changed the way you build trails in any way?
I have a Devinci Wilson for DH, a ‘frankenbike’ Devinci Frantik that was built out of spare parts my friends had in their garages that’s probably my favorite, and a Marin San Quentin single speed hardtail born the same way. I don’t know that I have a ‘dream’ bike; I don’t really lust after new parts or frames, though lately I’ve become interested in getting something a little more pedal-ly. It has to handle the beating of coming back downhill and getting airborne though, which is something I’ve yet to really find. I ride beefier components because I got tired of breaking lighter ones. Fancy new bikes haven’t changed the way I build trails; it’s just made riding them easier and more forgiving.
Have you ever met Character #1, Thomas Schoen? Any stories about him? I met him once briefly on the “builders only” ride on his Williams Lake trail ‘Snakes & Ladders’ just before it officially opened. I just happened to show up at the trailhead when they were leaving. Those friendly locals wouldn’t take no for an answer! Halfway down they had a fire pit with food and beer waiting, it was really awesome to meet all those people in that atmosphere. You can tell when you are hanging out with Thomas that he is one of those special people in BC who live to improve the riding scene, have fun, and improve the sport.
Dave Silver came out to shoot photos with you for this interview, who is he? What is he all about? Where else can we see his work?
Dave Silver is a fantastic local photographer who shoots all manner of outdoor life and sport as well as his commercial contracts. It sounds cliché but we’d been looking for a project to do together for some time, so it was fun to finally shoot with him. He even brought out his baby daughter in the childpack and shot most of these photos with her on his back! You can see more of his work at davesilverphotography.com.
I find it interesting that two of the very most famous mountain bikers in the entire world live on Vancouver Island - Steve Smith and Darren Berrecloth. With all the traveling difficulties brought on by the ferries, why do you think those guys have remained on Vancouver Island? Any thoughts?
I’ve never understood how ferry travel bothers non-Islanders. I love kicking back on the ferry for two hours with a book and tunes. You have a snack, a nap, and boom, you’re in Vancouver. I’ll trade a ferry ride for two hours behind the wheel any day. Maybe you have to grow up here. Vancouver Island has a certain something that you won’t find anywhere else.
Any good stories about Darren Berrecloth? Did you know him growing up?
I didn’t know him growing up, but one of my cousins was friends with him. I’d hear the occasional wacky adventure story over the dinner table. I’ve built with him a couple times, but he’s a pretty busy dude.
You just helped Kona Bikes do a film shoot with Sherpas Cinema, where you lowered Leo from Sherpas off a huge cliff with some fancy rope work… where did you get those skills?
While I was in University I didn’t have much time or money for biking, so I picked up indoor rock climbing as an activity. Naturally it led to outdoor climbing and over time I picked up some basic rope skills. There’s nothing quite like being up in the mountains, I’m looking forward to doing a bit of mountaineering this spring in between bike trips. Working with Sherpas was a great experience; those guys really know their stuff. I can’t wait to see how that shot turns out!
What does the future hold for you? Will trail building always just be a hobby, or do you want it to turn into something more?
They say you should find someone to pay you to do the things you do for free. I would love to build trails for a living. The logistics of doing so are complicated but by no means impossible. Money isn’t everything and I would live quite happily as a professional dirt bag trail builder. But then again, flying helicopters for a living would be pretty damn cool too.
Thanks Bill for taking the time to be part of ''Characters.'' Our goal with Characters is to bring the BC community even closer by sharing the stories of our family of riders and builders. Any last words?
Thanks for having me Riley! I’m looking forward to reading the future Character pieces; I love the concept of “Characters.” Hope to see everyone out on the trails this summer!