With fire in my lungs, lead legs and sheens of sweat beneath my rain jacket, I rounded yet another corner of the climb trail. “This is the last big hill, I promise. I know I say that a lot…”
Jake Henderson’s words trailed off with a chuckle. “But the higher you climb, the better the views get.”
“If you can’t make this first turn, then you should turn around and go back the way we came, because it’s only going to get harder,” said Aaron Walmsley, just as we reached the top.
I adjusted my bike, swallowed hard… then let adrenaline and gravity do the rest.
Nestled along the Sea to Sky Highway between the Tantalus Mountain Range and the impressive Stawamus Chief lays Squamish. It isn’t a large town, but it is internationally known for its extensive network of bike trails.
In any given week, 75 per cent of the bikers who hit the trails are visitors to Squamish, as noted in the “Economic Impact of Mountain Biking in Squamish” report recently conducted by the Squamish Off-Road Cycling Association (SORCA). When compared to a similar study done in 2006, it appeared that trail traffic has more than quadrupled in the last seven years. SORCA sells an annual, non-mandatory trail pass for $15, where every cent goes toward trail building and maintenance, yet just less than half of the riders surveyed were aware of the pass program. As more biking fanatics flock to Squamish each year, some question how the town will ensure that its trails can be maintained while preserving the economic viability of the mountain biking community.
“[Trail upkeep] was 100 per cent volunteer work before SORCA,” said Dave Heisler, owner of Corsa Cycles in downtown Squamish and one of the original six SORCA members. SORCA has been running for more than a decade, but the trail passes were only recently introduced thanks to Barry Wood, an avid local mountain biker since 2001.
Wood originally came to Squamish to rock climb, but he soon started trail riding and building. He has been on the forefront for legitimate trail “authoring” ever since, and enjoys “building on top of lots of history.”
Before the SORCA pass program was implemented, the British Columbia Off Road Motorcycle Association (BCORMA) had a similar program of its own.
“BCORMA used province-wide trail passes as a form of income for the trails,” Wood explained, “and I thought, ‘Why can’t we take that model and apply it to trail passes for mountain bikes?’”
SORCA passes turn four years old this summer. But have they maintained their popularity? Al Ross from Tantalus Bike Shop pointed out that not everyone has the time to go volunteering on the trails, so the pass serves as their contribution.
Richard Dietel, an employee at Republic Bicycles in Brackendale, said interest in the passes has tapered off since their inception: “I’m not sure how and what we can do to get that level of interest back,” he says.
However, other members of the Squamish biking community see it differently. “As soon as people heard that SORCA passes were not mandatory, they started growing in popularity,” said Pat Cox, an employee at Corsa Cycles.
Jeremy Null, another employee at Tantalus, observed: “People seem super keen, and still want to give back.”
With a grin, he said that people “like to build, but not maintain trails. One guy can go out for an afternoon and build a good part of a trail, but it takes more than one guy to maintain it long term.”
One can ride pretty much year round in Squamish. “There are three major bike shops here, and they all do quite well,” Null noted. In the past four years, the population of mountain bikers has exploded in Squamish. There are lots of trail builders in town, all with different riding styles, which contributes to the diverse trail network and makes the town such a prime destination for off-road biking.
“The whole concept [of trail building] is a grey area,” Wood shrugged. Melissa Sheridan, five-year SORCA employee and director of the cross-country Toonie Races, elaborated: “Some trails are grandfathered in,” she said. “Applying for a section 57 with the provincial government offers trails protection from logging.”
The trail itself does not become a no-go zone, but section 57 holds those responsible for interfering with a sanctioned trail to either rebuild it or to give SORCA the money to replace it.
Terry Patterson, a dad, mountain biker, trail builder and Extra Foods employee, first built the black diamond trail Border Patrol nearly a decade ago with a friend, the late Bill Landry. “I finally went back for the first time in eight years to visit, and I was amazed by the number of people who use it, and for hiking as well.”
On this particular weekend, Patterson took his two children up to Border Patrol to help him spruce up the trail. “It’s something I want to do with them. My son’s only four, but I think it’s good to get out there and work on this together,” he said.
The trail network is worth much more than one may think.
“In dollars per meter, these trails are worth millions. They’re a piece of infrastructure,” Wood said. “The trails bring in as much as the [Squamish Valley Music Festival] in the summer,” Sheridan noted. “I think that’s around $8 million annually.”
The sum is large, and spread out over many facets: accommodations, restaurants, groceries and bike stores.
No wonder travellers tend to stick around in Squamish.
“I like the trail,” Patterson said, “It’s the cool thing for me, but for others? They’re looking at the green, the moss and how beautiful it is.”
Republic Bicycles employee Brandon Thomson agreed: “Nowhere else is there the amount of access [to nature] that we have here in Squamish.”
When asked what drew him to the trails, Null laughed and said “[mountain biking] is a healthy thing to do…. if I didn’t mountain bike, I’d be a grumpy man.”