Evidence of Trail Fairies is a photography project where I followed two trail builders for nine months as they built a new mountain bike trail from scratch. I made big prints of the photos and hung them up along the trail for everyone to see how the trail was built while they're using it.
Like most people, I probably haven’t done enough trail days. I’ve been to a few, and I learned a lot, but I’m usually pretty happy when the day is over and I can nurse my back and have a cold beer. I’m also vaguely aware that when I’m out on a trail day, a lot has been done prior to my arrival: lines have been flagged, problem areas have been identified, the proper kinds of wood and dirt have been located, and tools have been provided. I’m dimly aware, mostly thanks to the Internet, that there is a small group of trail builders who are always out there. They might do a few trail days, but mostly they’re out there working alone, and they’re often responsible for the raddest stuff that we all get to ride.
One day, I heard through the grapevine that my friends Martin and Penny, fresh off their revitalization of Severed Dick
on the North Shore of Vancouver, BC, were thinking about starting a new project — an entirely new trail. This seemed like the perfect opportunity to learn more about the sometimes-secretive world of trail building, and I asked them if I could tag along and take a few photos. To my surprise, they said yes. I think they were a little surprised that I followed through.
At first, I set out hoping that I could distill down why I think Martin and Penny worked so hard on this trail. After spending nine months in the woods with them, I don’t think I’m much closer to being able to answer that question. Mostly I’m just exhausted from trying to keep up with them, despite the fact that I was out there for only a fraction of the time they put in and all I had to do was push buttons on my camera. But even if I can’t tell you exactly why they did it, maybe I can show you a little of what they did.
In these photos I want to show the experience I observed of being a trail builder: appreciating the beauty of nature, caring for it, and being dwarfed by it. I want to show the feelings of friendship, of pride, of adventure, of teamwork, of mentorship, of exhaustion, and of loneliness that I saw. I want to show that a trail (or, this trail at least) is not some grand plan that unfolds, but rather a rough sketch that’s filled in, tested, and evolved as it’s built. And I want to show some of the special moments that happened along the way that not everyone gets to see.
I was inspired by Zoe Strauss and her project I-95 in which she photographed neighbourhoods in Philadelphia and displayed the resulting prints under a highway overpass for everyone to see.
After seeing her project I wanted to take this idea and use it in a slightly different way: since a lot of trail-building photography focuses on before and after, I thought it might be interesting to focus on “during” while at the same time the viewer is experiencing “after”.
So, I chose 20 photos and made big prints of them that we hung along the trails. I found a place that printed them with UV-resistant ink on a hard plastic material and then laminated them. It took some back-and-forth to make prints that are visible in the dim light of the forest. They’ll be there for about three months although I’m told they would survive about six. I also made some posters to place at trail intersections which have text that explains what the project is about, and maps to show where it begins and ends. I hired a graphic designer to make it all look much better than I could on my own.
We didn’t want to nail anything to live trees, so we got some rope and Martin made some thin cedar slats. We tied the slats to the trees and tied the prints to the slats. There were a few places where there wasn’t a suitable tree, and so Martin and Penny made some special easels for those prints.
Now that it’s out there, one thing I hope is that this project is able to shed some positive light on mountain biking. While 99.99999% of interactions between hikers and bikers range from fine to downright friendly, there’s been a handful around here that haven’t and unfortunately it’s been those which have been amplified by the media. So I hope that this project gives people something positive to talk about, and puts a friendly face on mountain biking for those outside our community.
And finally, I want to say that my goal isn’t to single out Martin and Penny. They’ve done great work, to be sure, but no more or less than hundreds of other dedicated trail builders around the world. But by showing the work they put in to create these trails, I hope I can encourage people to pay attention to the little touches their local builders have put into their local trails. Whether it’s well-placed drainage to keep the trail dry, rockwork to smooth the trail over undulations in the terrain, a corner that’s a little wider than normal to help you get around a tree, beefy construction of a bridge built to last, or greenery planted along the side to make it all beautiful, these touches might go unnoticed at times but they’re done lovingly by a small group of people who like building trails as much as we all like riding them.