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.
Thomas Schoen (47), a native of Germany, immigrated to BC in 1993 where he established the award winning Xats’ull Heritage Village as one of BC’s premier Native Tourism sites. He restored and successfully operated two businesses in Barkerville Historic Town: The St. George Hotel and McMahon’s Confectionery. In May of 2007, Thomas’ life changed completely when he bought his first DH bike, an old Balfa BB7. He started building mountain bike specific trails with an emphasis on large wooden TTF’s. He sold his businesses and started building trails full-time since 2009. In 2011/12 he designed, planned, and built Williams Lake’s new signature trail: Snakes & Ladders. Thomas has been involved in the Arts & Culture Sector and is currently the Executive Director for the Central Interior Regional Arts Council (part-time). He is a director on the board of The Williams Lake Cycling Club and the Cariboo Mountain Bike Consortium and served as the president of the Wells & Area Trails Society.
|Living in the redneck heartland, it's been a great experience working on trail projects with Tom. His Euro roots bring precision into all aspects of the work, there is no close enough - he goes all out for perfect. And now others will benefit from the bar being raised, plus he loves good beer. - Mark (Shreddi) Savard|
|This past season my hometown Williams Lake B.C got a new trail called Snakes & Ladders, which Thomas was in charge of building. I was invited out by Thomas during the construction of the trail, whenever I had time. I was blown away by the craftsmanship and quality of the trail building when I finally got to check it out.. It's pretty rad having a guy with so much drive and passion for trail building in my hometown. Thanks Thomas!!! - James Doerfling| So you grew up in Germany? Tell us about that:
|Thomas (First Journey Consulting) has repeatedly shown the benefits of working closely with Land Managers and fully understands the requirements to ensure all stakeholders are accounted for and has taken this message even further by educating user groups that it leads to a more efficient project if you identify and deal with the issues up front, instead of putting out fires as you go. This is made evident in the detailed plans that have been submitted to our program, which fully outlined exactly what was to be undertaken in the field setting. - Desi Cheverie (Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations - District Recreation Officer - Central Cariboo)|
Yes, I grew up in a small rural community in the foothills of the Bavarian Alps. I was raised by my grandparents in a super outdoorsy environment, we were always hiking in the mountains, sailing, kayaking, cycling, that sort of stuff. I think I picked up my love for nature and outdoor type of sports through that upbringing. What did you do in Germany before moving to Canada? What led to the move?
After college I left for a while and travelled through Europe on my motorbike. I wasn’t sure what my path was and where life would take me. After returning to my hometown I apprenticed as an electrician. I’ve added another apprenticeship after that as a cabinetmaker and worked odd jobs to finance long trips to North America. I visited BC first on a paragliding trip from Seattle to Anchorage. Funny to think back now, some of the areas I’m riding now, I paraglided decades ago (i.e.: Savona and Kamloops). Eventually Germany became too small for me, if that makes sense. I needed more freedom and nature, campfires, open space, less people, less regulations. So in 1994 I made the big move and came to the Williams Lake area. Pure coincidence I ended up in the Interior, I had a friend here and stayed at his place to get started. You live outside of Williams Lake, in a fairly remote place. What's that like?
I do and I love it. I built a small house and I have my workshop where I can do what I want. Fire up a chainsaw, weld, have a campfire, put up a zip line and now build trails and stunts. That’s really what I came here for. I’m connected to the outside world via satellite internet and feel I have the best of both worlds: remoteness and access to work, information, and communication. You pay a price for living in the bush, I drive a lot and life is more expensive but for now it’s where I want to be. So you owned a couple businesses in Wells/Barkerville? Tell us about that:
My immigration process was long and tedious, primarily because I came with very little money. I was able to establish a business relationship with a First Nations band in BC and developed a native heritage village. I physically built the place and it became a successful tourism destination. This lead to more consulting work in the tourism industry and eventually the largest historic site in the west approached me about opening an 1880’s style bed and breakfast in Barkerville. I restored an old building and turned it into a seven room B&B. Strange years, living six months of the year in an 1880’s lifestyle. I wore a costume for 16 hours a day and when I had no guests I was the only person in this ghost town with 100+ buildings. It was a trip! Later on I also ran a candy store in Barkerville. And then you got a mountain bike. What happened, how did that come about?
Here’s where all you Pinkbike readers will think I’m nuts. I wanted to get into biking and found a used bike online in Prince George. I liked what I saw and ended up with an older Balfa BB7. Trust me, I had no clue what I bought. I had no concept of a downhill bike vs. cross country. I just wondered why it was so hard to pedal up a hill. I rode that bike around for a few months before I had to take it to my local bike shop. When Mark “Shreddie” Savard, the owner of Red Shred’s in Williams Lake saw the bike he had a good laugh, sat me down for a beer and a talk and taught me a few things about biking. It all took off from there. I was hooked, bought a decent bike and started building trails. What were the trails in Williams Lake like to learn on?
They seemed fine for me, I had nothing to compare them to, but fell in love with the Fox Mountain network in Williams Lake. It took me a while to realize just how blessed I am to have such incredible trails right here at home. It seems like you got into building trails quite quickly, did someone introduce you to building or did you just start doing it?
Yes, you guys did. Pinkbike and the trail building forum contributors. I checked out pictures, asked questions and started building stunts. I love chainsaw work and started by strictly building wooden structures. I have a strong connection to the arts and always wanted to build stunts that look pleasing to the eye and have some sort of an artistic touch. A small logo carved, a nicely curved log, just something a little extra. The dirt work came later when I started hanging out with the Williams Lake builders and when Shreddi took me out to teach me a thing or two. I became obsessed with building and it’s all I wanted to do. It doesn’t get any better - you’re outside and you’re creative, the landscape is a blank canvas and the trail becomes your artwork. How and when did you start considering that you could make work for yourself trail building? Was a trail contract up for grabs and it just worked out, or what?
I knew this is what I wanted to do as soon as I started building trails. I used my volunteer experience and the trails I’ve built at my house for reference to bid on my first contract. I was thrilled I got it and started building the business from there. It’s definitely a bit of a chicken and egg situation. You need some experience and not just as a builder but as a businessperson, but how do you gain that without getting contracts? So tell me about the Williams Lake Bike Club? What’s the story there? Who is involved?
We have a strong club in Williams Lake, with Shawn Lewis as our president. The WLCC puts in roughly 4000 hours of volunteer labor per year. The club has strong ties to the Cariboo Mountain Bike Consortium and is also getting lots of love from the City of Williams Lake. Politicians are recognizing the economic value and impact of mountain biking. Let me throw this out here to my comrades all over BC: guys, get involved in your local bike clubs, strength is in membership numbers. We are not a fringe group of adrenalin junkies. The more the clubs get recognized, the better for all of us. Tell me about Snakes and Ladders? Did you get a contract with the bike club to rebuild the trail?
Snakes was a long-term project spearheaded by Mark Savard, the local bike club and the Cariboo Mountain Bike Consortium
. I was the successful bidder on the development phase plan and then later the construction contract. The contracts were split up and came from the Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations and the Cariboo Mountain Bike Consortium. In year one of the project we asked the local riders what it is that they want. A brand new line, a rebuild of an old trail or maybe a combination? What type of stunts, what trail rating, etc. This stakeholder input determined our proposal and we went from there. Overwhelmingly the ridership wanted a combination of old-school skinnies (build to our current standard), an xc climbing line and a brand new, fast, big-bike line. What we got is a 7km long trail that is fun on a variety of bikes and can be accessed at various points. It ties in well with the existing trail system. Funding for the trail was limited and we needed to get volunteers on board to work with the professional crew. In addition, the bike club took on one section as a volunteer contribution to the overall project. What are your favorite things about trail building? What would you say you specialize in?
Wooden TTF’s (Technical Trail Features) for sure. I like clean-built wooden structures. The bigger, the better. I work with both rough-cut lumber from a local sawmill or I like cutting my own lumber on site if trees are available. Bridges are always fun and really building anything and everything that’s challenging and a bit out of the ordinary is my favorite. Who is on your build crew, or do you do it all yourself?
Depends on the contract, for sure. I hire local youth to help out with general labor and I enjoy that a lot. The kids are so stoked about building and talk about bikes and riding all day long. Love it!
Then I have Chris Masters on my crew, he built a great trail ‘Backdoor’ in 2011; a Williams Lake must-ride trail. My main builder is Gus Vollmer, an amazing rider and expert trail builder. Gus knows what he’s doing and we have the same vision when it comes to trails. Gus grew up in a very remote location, started trail building as a kid and never stopped building. He moved to Williams Lake for the riding and the bike scene but travels all over BC to ride and snowboard. What about special equipment? What are you most essential tools?
Chainsaws (a number of large saws for ripping planks and falling and a small carving saw for detail work) and hand tools for me. I’m always amazed with how little equipment I can get away with. I like to bring a small pick, a quality rake and a McLeod for most days. I use a generator and power tools to build larger structures with dimensional lumber, very much like carpentry work. So how has trail building influenced your riding, or vice versa? What kind of bike are you riding now?
I bought a Transition TR 250 in late 2012. It’s the perfect bike for me and a great bike for our Williams Lake trails. I love it! I switched from a Demo 8, which was overkill for my riding style… I’m old and slow. The TR feels so light and boosted my skill level up a notch. It’s easier to pedal and I ride it on trails I would never have taken the Demo out on. I also ride a Specialized Enduro with a Hammerschmidt. Really like the set-up and never understood why I don’t see more of the Hammerschmidt being in use. What's with the suspension bridge you guys built? It looks amazing, what went into building it? Obviously the trail needed to cross some kind of gorge? I assume you guys used some come-alongs, winches, etc?
The suspension bridge came out of a need for a crossing, you’re right. We couldn’t build a regular bridge, the span was just too much. If we went lower in the gully we would have lost the flow of that section so we needed to get creative. At first we thought it’s not doable with our resources but we started looking into it and approached the Ministry to get approval for the structure. We brought an arborist to the site to examine the trees we would use for anchoring the bridge and talked to an engineer about cable size and to get input on our design idea. We used ½” and ¼” galvanized aircraft cable for our main runs and protected the trees with thick ¾” rubber from a conveyor belt. It only took two come-alongs to get the right tension and we could adjust the tension once the bridge was finished. All the 4”x4” cross-support beams were pre-drilled, so site assembly was easy. Once we had the cables in place, it was just a matter of working on a section at a time to push it out towards the other end. Safe and quick. The weight of the bridge is held by the upper cables, with the lower ¼” cables providing extra support and stopping the bridge from swaying. Turns out it was the best project all summer, it went up so quick and was so rewarding to build. I hiked back up to the truck at the end of the day to get my bike, I couldn’t wait to check it out and see if it works. And it worked! What type of jurisdiction do most of the Williams Lake trails fall into? Ministry of Forests? How is the relationship with them?
In 2010 the Williams Lake Cycling Club signed a trail agreement with the Ministry of Tourism, Culture and the Arts (MTCA). The agreement manages the legally established network of Mountain Bike trails, as one of eight pilot project areas in the Province. It’s fantastic; it protects our riding areas and trails can be signed as non-motorized. Under the agreement the local club is in charge of managing the network. For example, we go out and inspect the TTF’s yearly (for missing or loose boards, broken supports, etc) and provide a very detailed annual trail report. This report identifies what needs to be done and what are the priorities. I realize not everyone is stoked about the administrative work involved with this kind of process. There’s a group of riders/builders in every community that is opposed to a more structured approach. With my German background I just feel so blessed of what we can do here in BC if we work together with other users and the province. I’d hate to lose this freedom. I think the big issues for the volunteer trail builders is the fact they have to deal with regulations and schedules. I understand that as a volunteer I don’t want to be restricted too much. If builder so-and-so wakes up on a Sunday morning with this kick-ass idea of a roadgap on XY trail, he wants to grab his saw, his tools, and head out and build the stunt. If he had to propose the idea to a club committee, submit GPS data and maybe even a drawing, he loses interest. We need to find a solution, not discourage volunteers, and work within boundaries. Not easy and a challenge for us in Williams Lake, but we’re working on it. What about your trail building company? Tell me about that? What do you offer?
Flowy, fun mountain bike trails for all level of riders with an emphasis on quality TTF’s. Structures like bridges, wall-rides, wooden berms, tables, and funky old-school skinny lines with an artistic flair. Long ladder bridges with multiple lines for all levels of riding skills. I also offer consulting services and am heavy into administrative stuff. I write grant proposals, do stakeholder consultations for trail development and so on. Everything that has to do with a legal trail from the planning stage to government approval to construction. So James Doerfling has spent some time trail building with you? What is it like having the influence of such a powerful and well-traveled rider? What does he bring to the table?
Yeah, James came along to build with my crew and me whenever he was in town and had spare time. He’s such a humble, cool dude and it’s always fun having him out with us. For me it’s inspiring to be on a ride with him and just watch him do what he does best… and that’s also where our building philosophy comes in. Building trails that are fun for the Doerflings and Berrecloths out there, but also ride-able for an intermediate biker like myself. It gets people stoked to see James hitting a road gap while they are on a fun, flowy ride-around and we all share the same trail. My kind of trail. Tell me about a particularly challenging section of trail and how you overcame it?
Definitely the sections that have erosion issues. We had to come down a steep, dry hill and I knew this part would get rutted out quick and cause long-term problems. We decided to carry in heavy concrete paving blocks. The kind you would use for a driveway. Trust me, it wasn’t fun carrying them in and digging a trench to get them level with the ground, but the result looks great and it will last.
Not something you would expect on a non bike-park trail. What does the future hold for the Williams Lake riding area?
The city and the province invested heavily in mountain biking and this investment is paying off. The investment came in the form of a $100,000 skills bike park, kiosks, event support, Pinkbike advertising, and trade show funding. Williams Lake has the only bike club with a formal partnership between the club and the province. This partnership agreement covers one of the largest trail networks in BC and helps us now with ongoing maintenance and in the development of new trails. Would you say Williams Lake offers very diverse riding? Or is it more of a gravity zone?
Williams Lake has trails for every riding style. We have long, super scenic XC trails (i.e. Box Trail). Gnarly DH trails on Fox Mountain, Westsyde, or Dessous Mountain, AM style trails and lots and lots of stunts all over the networks. Over 200km of single track trails are within the city limits, another 100km within a half hour drive from town, and we have the largest skills bike park in the interior. In addition to the trails we have an awesome bike shop (Red Shred’s) and just a great bike culture. If you roll into town with your bikes on your vehicle, you instantly feel like part of the community. There are riders everywhere, you see people shuttling and everyone is super friendly. Tell me about the Cariboo Mountain Bike Consortium? Who is behind that? What is It's purpose?
The consortium was formed in the spring of 2010 by a group of business owners from 100 Mile House, Williams Lake, Quesnel and Wells. The goal is to grow the economic impact of mountain biking and to support and grow a vibrant mountain bike culture throughout the region. The group formed out of a common recognition that the economy of the region is going through a period of transition and that there was a real need for solid economic diversification initiatives. The CMBC is managed by Justin Calof, with a group of directors. In phase 1 the CMBC developed the website: ridethecariboo.ca
with video and photography components and also developed the work plans for future years. With phase 2 the group started getting more hands on with coordinating regional events, creating business partnerships and coordinating marketing. In addition CMBC provides help with administrative tasks, grant proposals, government liaison and general club support. CMBC sponsors riders (James Doerfling, Cory Brunelle) and holds contracts with Solos Productions and John Wellburn photography. It’s also important to measure the outcome of all these initiatives through economic impact studies, trail counters, media coverage, just to name a few. What is your goal with First Journey Trails?
Very simple, get more work and build a lot of trails that riders get stoked on in the coming years. You are a highly skilled individual, so when you aren't trail building are you doing odd jobs as an electrician? Or do you whip up a set of custom cabinets for the odd client? Are your journeyman tickets legal in Canada or how does that work?
I found I have to do a variety of jobs to make a living and yes, I do some electrical work or carpentry from time to time. I never bothered to get my tickets for Canada, as it’s not the career I’m interested in pursuing. I have been involved in the arts and culture industry for years and hold a part-time position as the Executive Director for the Central Interior Regional Arts Council. It is an administrative position and I’m assisting about 15 Community Arts Councils with funding applications, exhibitions, member services and other administrative stuff. My hours are super flexible and that’s what makes it work with my trail building business. Is First Journey Trails aiming to work primarily in the Cariboo Region of BC or are you willing to work all over BC, or Canada for that matter?
The past five years all my contracts have been in the interior, but I’d be happy to travel all over the place to build trails. I realize I have to in order to stay busy, but I also want to spread out a bit. What about back home in Germany? Wouldn't it make sense to take your knowledge back to Europe with you to push the scene there? Would bike parks in Germany/Austria be interested in your services?
Certainly an option! One of the builders I look up to is Erik Burgon. Erik owns ‘Bikeparkitect’, a trail building company that works all over Europe. He’s from BC and we’ve been in contact over the years, maybe we’ll take on a joint-project one of these days. How is the relationship between the Williams Lake Bike Club and the local native community? What band is it? Are any of the trails within their reserve lands?
Mark Savard has been fostering the relationship with various bands in our region. It's been a highlight for me working with the native bands on bike rodeos, group rides, building bike parks on the reserves with the band and youth. Various trail incentives benefit the whole community and will have tourism benefits for the bands moving forward. Things like re-routing a trail to move away from known archaeological sites has helped gain trust (eg. Sites of Cultural Significance such as middens, former village sites, etc). I had a native teenager on my crew last summer for a while and he got stoked about riding. What about other stakeholders to the land? Have there been any problems between other users such as dirt bikers, bird watchers, environmentalists, hikers, etc.?
No trouble from organized groups but we do get rogue moto punks tearing up sensitive MTB trails. We established a good relationship with the local moto club and the naturalists love the bike trails, so does the running club. I know not everyone thinks like that, but I’m stoked when I see a group of hikers on the trails. The more users, the better our chances for a more widespread support of building more trails. Tell me about Wells for a minute, is there good riding there? What's it like?
Wells is a small mountain village in a beautiful setting. There are tons of trails in the Wells/Barkerville area that are more multi-user trails than strictly MTB trails. In the winter they are used by xc skiers and snowshoers and in the summer by hikers and riders. The trails are unique, as most of them are reclaimed old mining trails, many of them constructed before BC was a province. Lots of history and scenic views, cabins, old mining equipment, that sort of thing. Once you get into the alpine its truly amazing. Tons of good pictures and articles about Wells
. What do you think about the environmental impact of your trails? Would you say they disturb the land in a major way?
Undeniable, there is impact on the land. No matter how sensitively we build or how carefully we approach a project, there will be some impact, but we have to see it in comparison to other land users. We build a narrow ribbon that runs through the land and connect point A to point B. We don’t clear-cut or impact huge areas. It’s important to me to create access to land that we want to protect. If people have no access, they don’t know what we could lose. In that sense a trail becomes a tool for raising environmental awareness. Can you give me any words on what your interpretation of the concept of ‘Trail building as a way to preserve and protect our lands' might mean?
I think it all comes down to raising awareness and educating land users. Let’s face it, you don’t become a trail builder if you don’t have an appreciation for nature and the outdoors. You become a steward of the land that you work on. You develop a strong sense of protecting that land. We need trails to access the land in order to become familiar with what it is that we want and need to protect. There is growing recognition that our problems as a culture come from our increasing separation from the natural habitats that have sustained us. Trail building is one way to help overcome this separation, to get people out into the natural world and away from distractions. Do you think that one day trails could be viewed by the lawmakers as more than just a bunch of routes in the woods and more of a highly valued 'Community Recreation Resource?'
Absolutely! It’s happening now in select communities and it’s a growing trend. Communities are doing economic impact studies that show the value of trails on many levels. In Williams Lake, Mayor Cook says: “Mountain Bike tourism has the great potential to attract even more visitors and economic activity as we move forward.” Justin Calof, Executive Director of the Cariboo Mountain Bike Consortium states: “As we all attempt to diversify the regional economy in the wake of the mountain pine beetle (ed. Note: The Mountain Pine Beetle has very negatively affected the forestry industry in central and northern BC), mountain biking will be an increasingly important sector to attract new visitors and retain workers.” What does the future hold for Thomas Schoen?
Oh man, if I only knew. Right now, I’m hoping a lot of building and riding. My goal is to grow my company and get my name out. I have a great partner, Beth and an amazing group of friends… that makes me feel all warm and fuzzy and not worry too much.
Thanks Thomas, we at Pinkbike are very glad you are working so hard in the Williams Lake area to develop the sport we love. See you on the trails!
Thomas' website: firstjourneytrails.com
Thomas on Pinkbike: CaribooYJEconomic Impact ArticleRiding Photos:
(Courtesy of the Cariboo Mountain Bike Consortium )Rider
: James DoerflingTrail
: Snakes & LaddersTom’s headshot
: Leah Selk