Chapter 1: The Senior Architects
Dave and I pile into the truck with Al and Terry and minutes later are trundling our way up a mountain back-road. We are well supplied for a day out trail building. Back packs, spare clothing, lunches, water, and a few shovels. The rest of the earth moving implements lie far above us, on their yet-unnamed trail project. After half an hour, we are higher above the charming mountain town of Cumberland then I’ve yet been.
Al and Terry have that sweet calmness to them that comes with age. These guys are both 67 years old, and are as committed and addicted to creating new trails as anyone. They speak quietly of their love of being out here, rain or shine, building trails together. In the six years or so since they got serious, they have buttressed their names into the forests with hits such as ‘Bear Buns’ and ‘Thirsty Beaver,’ which have become standards Cumberland’s reputation rests on. Al and Terry have been generating works of art, investing more than 100 days per year into their passion. They speak of the vast swath of terrain above town with loving affection.
We hike up an old overgrown logging road that will be cleared out to serve as the climb up to the top of their new trail. As we gain elevation, the forest begins to thin and we have almost reached sup-alpine. The air is cool and smells strongly of the gnarled Yellow Cedar trees that project from the rocky bluffs in their windswept strangle hold on life. Al and Terry point out landmarks for us. Their knowledge of the network is encyclopedic, and they direct our gaze across the wide expanse of green to a distant bulge in the land above Comox Lake. “That’s the top of Queso over there, Curt and Mario are pushing more trail above too so that will be even bigger than riding from the top up here.” Dave and I can only laugh at the significance of this. There are two hugely massive trails being built, spreading towards either boundary of this colossal trail system. Far below, the main street of Cumberland is burrowed into the base of these mountains, warm coffee shops and the illustrious Waverley Bar awaiting those who descend these trails.
Al pushes through the brush to retrieve our utensils: pulaskis, rakes, and a heavy duty, very well used looking brush saw. Terry dons a hard hat and earmuffs and wades into the thicket, the brush saw creating a hullabaloo in the stillness of the forest. Dave, Al and I begin creating single-track, whacking away at the tough undergrowth, trying to reach the mineral soil that lies below. It is a rocky landscape up here, and future tires will be traveling over more granite than dirt. The task is to trace a ride-able route through these earthly outcroppings. The sheer effort is substantial, and as the sweat drips, I feel nothing but appreciation for these two fine old gentleman who have been bitten by the trail building bug so deeply.
Chapter 2: The Pleasure of Earning Your Turns
I roll away from downtown in the potent light of early morning. Within ten seconds I have already hit the dirt, and pedal onward and upwards into the maze. As I pass through a clear-cut, it is obvious that today is going to be a scorcher. The gravely surface of the logging road is crunchy beneath my tires, and I veer onto a trail at my earliest chance, eager to escape the sun, already searing. English folk singer Johnny Flynn plays for me through earbuds, and with the sweat dripping from my brow I am almost blinded, and become absorbed in my own little world. My pedal strokes carry me away, and this early morning sojourn gives me a feeling of owning the world. This ride will take a couple of hours, but I will return to town and it will still be early morning. The pain in my legs is softened by that feeling of accomplishment, of getting out here. The accessibility of Cumberland’s trails plays a huge part in escalating motivation to ride, because it’s so easy to do it here. There is a quaint, pleasant town, and immediately adjacent, is a forest that extends for miles before breaking against the uprising of the Beaufort Mountain Range. That is the beauty of this place, and that is why I’m here now, breathing heavily, hurting, but content. Passing the entrances of trails I have frequented before, I shun them now for a higher destination.
I gingerly carry my bike over a hodgepodge of boulders, a creek trickling below and between them. I slip, and my foot is submerged, but I don’t care. This is summertime riding, and moisture is a welcome thing. I carry on, the trail traversing the edge of a small mountain lake. It begins to climb steeply, some sections barely make-able and enriched by the challenge of their harrowing uphill switchbacks. I pause little, sweat buckets, and suck back water. The top is reached, but I know that many climbs still await. This is a true mountain bike trail I have chosen, built by Mario and Curt, locals who construct trails that cascade and surge throughout the topography, using downs to justify ups, and ups to create significant and blissful downs. I carry speed where I can but am beginning to submit to fatigue. Bumps began to feel like chasms and I stop to adjust my backpack, and my legs tremble a little.
I really begin to fall apart as the trail carries on, and there is no grace left, only clumsiness. But I don’t crash, I slow down, and relish the setting. It’s six- thirty in the morning, the sky above is smooth as silk, and to my left I catch a glimpse of cool blue water far below. I concentrate on the trail, the dusty surface slippery. I rekindle some flow and flash downwards, dust billowing around me. A few minutes later, I am chest deep in Comox Lake, my bike ditched on the sand a few feet from the water. A friendly fella ambles over from his RV, and offers me a cup of coffee. I smile to myself at the excellence of the moment and take him up on it. He returns a minute later and wades ankle deep to pass me a steaming mug.
Chapter 3: Our Ride with Dan
Darren Berrecloth texts me. He says he’s in Australia but his buddy Dan is staying at his house in Parksville and is looking to ride, can I take him out and show him around? I call the guy up and we agree to meet up the next day in Cumberland for some riding. I pick up Dave in Nanaimo on the way and we meet this Dan character downtown. Right away I recognize him to be English Enduro World Series racer Dan Atherton, and as we got ready to ride I admit I was a little star-struck. We ended up touring the mountains for five hours, riding two big loops with a nice break downtown to eat sandwiches and drink double Americanos at the Wandering Moose, one of my two favorite main street eateries.
It’s always a rush to meet one of your heroes, and Dan exudes self-assurance. As we rode, we chatted about our lives, and I got the feeling that he lives a disciplined lifestyle focused on being the best he can be. The funny thing was, he kept wanting to follow me down the trails. He said he wanted to chase the local (not that I’m much of a Cumberland local) and gave me the compliment of the season when he told me that I was ‘flat out.’ This boosted my confidence and I said to myself, “If I’m showing bloody Dan Atherton around these trails I might as well try and do it at his pace!”
After lunch we headed up Nikkei Mountain which is on the far-left boundary of Cumberland’s trail network. The trail from the top, Rhizome, is one I hadn’t yet ridden. Dave beckoned for us to drop in first. Dan fist bumped me, smiled, and finally took the lead. He yelled “flat out,” and I knew the chase was on. I summoned all my trail karma and jumped on his rear wheel, determined to keep up. For a thrilling few minutes, we stampeded down the trail, sprinting from corner to corner, smashing through rough stuff. Each unknown section of trail surprised us with bumps and humps and sudden sharp corners, but didn’t do much to slow us down.
Chapter 4: Ice is Nice
It’s so cold. Buck-minus and the middle of February. The snow gods have failed to dump much in the way of white stuff and Cumberland’s trails are wide open and good to go apart from being cooler than a Polar Bear’s toenails. Dave, Martin, Emilie, and I crunch through frosted earth, our tires breaking through the noisiest riding surface that exists. Puddles are frozen sheets and most don’t even splinter under our weight. The trails run fast and we pedal hard against the chill, our passage shaking frost from cedar bridge slats. The beauty of Vancouver Island riding is apparent in this moment. It is truly possible to ride year round.
The acoustics of winter-bound riding are unfamiliar. There is the shattering of frozen dirt. The crack of ice busting. The icy ground sounds different beneath the tires, and it rolls fast. With grip like Velcro it becomes a game to try and get the tires to break free. The dusty two wheeled drifts of summertime are impossible, and the forgiving mushy soil of spring is replaced by a rock hard rolling surface. We pause to rub our hands together and watch our breath steam in the frigid air. Emilie’s attitude is as rosy as her frozen cheeks and she expresses her love for living in Cumberland. She rejoices in the proximity of the outdoors, all the rad young couples flocking to town, the nightlife, the community feeling. We roll back into town and order hot drinks at the Wandering Moose, huddling around their warmth. Dave and I are thankful to return to hot showers and warm clothes at the Riding Fool Hostel, just up the street from the coffee shop.
Chapter 5: The Joy of Community
We are a bike gang, assembled outside the Riding Fool Hostel, gear spread all over the pavement. Someone runs to Dodge City Cycles, conveniently located in the same building as the hostel, and returns with spare tubes for the day. A couple bikes remain rider-less, their owners missing, but inevitably 'getting coffee at either the Moose or Tarbell’s.' Andreas walks out onto the main street, and waves his arms, calling the AWOL rider’s names. Finally, after much herding of cats, we are speeding into the backcountry. Our leaders for the day are some of Cumberland’s chieftains, Jeremy Grasby and Martin Ready. Jeremy owns the Riding Fool Hostel and Martin runs Island Mountain Rides, a guiding service focused on central Vancouver Island’s endless riding options.
As we climb, Martin enlightens me on his modus operandi for pillaging the charms of nearby Hornby Island’s trails. He houses his clients in a top shelf water front home on Denman Island, and my imagination soars with his words. Every riding area has its Jedi, and Martin and Jeremy are those high grade wizards of local knowledge. Dave and I assembled this posse with the goal of a ‘three peaks’ ride, conquering each major high point of Cumberland’s trails in a single day. The collective that gathered by osmosis is of the finest order and we make our way to the high point where Dave and I helped Al and Terry do some trail building months ago. It has been named ‘Grunt and Grind,’ but the surprise comes when we drop off the peak in a direction opposite to that of the trail we worked on. The trails keep popping up in Cumberland at a prodigious rate.
‘Furtherburger’ turns out to be another opus of Curt and Mario’s, and I latch onto Mario’s rear wheel and follow the artist down his latest work. We pop out at the entrance of ‘Queso Grande,’ my early morning summer route from almost a year ago. At the top, Geoff Gulevich and I joke and jostle and Andreas’s unwavering happiness escalates the feeling of comradeship. The gnarl of Stratchcona’s mountains stretches as far as we can see, and Comox Lake beckons from far below. The downward dash begins and on an awkward root riddled roll down Martin stacks hard. The group rallies around him as he shakes it off, grimacing. All is ok and the rush begins again, boys upon bikes bouncing and trouncing much single-track. I fall in behind Geoff and of course he is jumping over rough sections, making the trail his bitch. The Jedi awareness of Martin and Jeremy spreads out to the others and we are banded together, rolling over the land at a high rate of speed. We descend onto Tarbell’s café like a pack of wolves, emptying their stock and ordering everything on the menu. The first loop is complete, but mammoth expanses of terrain await.
As we coast down Main Street, headed back to the trails, the vibe is good. We will climb to our second peak, descend incredible routes carved into the forests above this marvel of a mountain town, and do it all over again a third time, finishing on Nikkei, where Dan Atherton showed Dave and I what aggressive riding is all about. The day will carry onwards and our legs will diminish and the hours will pass by. The fun will be enhanced by a feeling of accomplishment, by the reaping of the thousands of volunteer hours of the many who have created and care for this trail network like the precious resource it is. And when the ride is done, we’ll stash our bikes in the Riding Fool and walk across the street to the Waverley Hotel and order burgers named after the trails we have just ridden. We will raise our glasses to toast our big day, and again for Jeremy, Al, Terry, Mario, Curt, Martin and the countless others who have united to make this town and its trails so outstanding. We will drink and tell tall tales, and the light will fade over the town of Cumberland.
Riley McIntosh is a mountain biker from Maple Bay on Vancouver Island. After a decade of living in Nelson, he returned home to the land of year round riding conditions. He loves meeting new people and exploring fresh trails, which the Characters series helps him do. Riley sincerely hopes the readers of Pinkbike enjoy Characters and would like to thank everyone involved for their participation.
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