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Mountain Do

On the slopes above Carcross, Yukon, bike trails are bringing local histories full circle

By Mark Koepke

Photo by Jane Koepke
Corporal Paul Zechel of the Carcross RCMP takes a break from his duties, including volunteer work with the young trail crew, to enjoy some new singletrack.
No sooner do I roll into town than I receive a promotion. Before today, I've donated a few hours of unskilled labour to a new trail network overlooking the scenic gem of Carcross, Yukon. Apparently, my "work" experience now qualifies me to become a crew leader as two dozen volunteers - a mix of local residents and Whitehorse mountain bikers - rally to assist a project team that has been labouring for three months.

Of course, family connections may also account for my rapid advancement. My 32-year-old sister, Jane, is the hands-on project coordinator who organized this late September work party by dangling the lure of riding pristine singletrack - trails just wide enough for one bike - in the Carcross/Tagish First Nation's traditional territory.

"Singletrack is what powder snow is to skiers," she likes to say.

This may explain why my five-person crew isn't deterred by the bite of crisp autumn air, nor the frosting of snow in the alpine, as we pack tools on the final leg to our assignment. Just days before, the project team cleared the spongy route that leads us up the lower reaches of Montana Mountain, through fragrant stands of balsam fir and pine, to the top of a soon-to-be trail at 3,000 feet. Here, our mission is described: we'll retrace our steps down the slope, creating a ride-able track over topsoil, scattered boulders and slabs of exposed rock.

Our reward requires no description.

Soon, I make my first management decision: to demote myself. It's not because a fellow volunteer has taken to gleefully addressing me as "Il Duce." It's the realization that the leader's primary responsibility - to choose a line down the galloping right-of-way - should go to someone less inclined to steer it away from the very features that could put the name of this mountain, if not the ground itself, on the lips of countless mountain bikers. I'm saddled with cowardice, and I freely admit it.

Over the next few hours, our crew slowly adds to the 18 kilometers of trail that will be completed during this first construction season for the project known as Carcross Singletrack to Success. The long-term plan is to build more than 55 kilometers of trails across the sprawling expanse of Montana Mountain, whose 7,233-foot summit is shielded from our view by lower peaks and broad plateaus. As we'll learn, this is no ordinary mountain.

According to a legend of the Carcross/Tagish First Nation people, Montana is one of four mountains from which the Game Mother, who gave birth to all the animals, hung a hammock for her creations. The landform looms large above the windblasted dunes where Bennett Lake, slivering from the end of the Chilkoot Trail along the mountain's western base, finally pinches into Nares Lake. Long before the Klondike Gold Rush put this spot on the map as Carcross - short for Caribou Crossing - it was a seasonal hunting ground and way point on an ancient aboriginal trading route from the Yukon's interior to the Alaskan coast.

Beyond its cultural significance for the Carcross/Tagish First Nation people, Montana Mountain has historical importance as the focus of a silver rush in 1905 and 1906. While unbridled optimism about the region's growth ultimately proved as empty as the mines themselves, the Windy Arm Stampede - named for the short limb of Tagish Lake that curls out of Nares and down Montana's eastern flank - left a heritage that lays, quite literally, in ruins all over the mountain.

"You couldn't find a more ideal location to put a trail system," Jane says. "Not only do you have phenomenal scenery, a fascinating history, and a road for access, but the terrain itself offers challenge and variety that's perfect for mountain biking."

Photo by Jane Koepke
Joe de Graff, Sam Lindsey, Edward Gordon and Shane Wally tackle a huge boulder blocking a new trail.
One of the initial inspirations for the trail network came from a few young Carcross/Tagish people who wanted to indulge their enthusiasm for the emerging sport. The idea then appealed to the newly self-governing Carcross/Tagish First Nation not only as a way to encourage health and wellness among local youth, but as a means to promote economic development that is consistent with the values and traditions of its almost 600 members.

Once Jane entered the picture, armed with extensive research on mountain bike tourism, plus the hands-on experience to develop world-class singletrack, the project was launched with $75,000 in financial support from the Yukon government.

"This is a First Nation that was making a living from trails only a century ago," Jane observes. "Their ancestors were guides and packers on the Chilkoot Trail and made a very good living at the time. A hundred years later, things are kind of coming full circle. They're choosing to go in this direction because it's kind of their roots. So, it's an inspiring story."

If all goes according to plan, the First Nation's tradition of being connected to the land and deriving a living from trails will soon enjoy a new incarnation through sports like mountain biking - and the tourists it will attract to the area.

"Trails-for-tourism initiatives have been undertaken all over the world and, in some cases, have transformed struggling rural economies into tourism success stories," Jane says. "Singletrack trails in particular have won favour with communities wanting to build sustainable tourism industries with relatively little impact on the land."

Happily, the First Nation's economic and environmental goals intersect with the adrenaline-charged interests of Yukon's diehard mountain bikers. At every spot where our volunteer crew wields axes and rakes against the roots, stumps, rocks, moss and dirt that lie between us and singletrack ecstasy, we're helping the Carcross/Tagish First Nation reinforce the link between its past and future.

As I battle a tree root the size of a wrestler's bicep, I realize that today's efforts also represent a sweaty baptism into another storied tradition. At the height of the Windy Arm silver stampede, crews supervised by the real Sam McGee - not the fictional version immortalized in Robert Service's poem - were building pack trails and wagon roads clear across this mountain to support the frenzied pace of mining development. In some small way, our exertions make us the inheritors of their impressive legacy.

Photo by Jane Koepke
Whitehorse riders Molly Jenny, Kaori Torigai and Skye Newnham lend a hand or six to the construction effort.
But just as McGee's name stands out among the many trailblazers who toiled on this ground, names more deserving than ours will populate the newest chapters of trail building history. Foremost among them will be Joe de Graff, Shane Wally, Sam Lindsey, Spencer Clark, Felicia Gordon, Megan Holosko, and Corey Atlin, who came together from Carcross, Whitehorse and points between to form a cross-cultural youth crew. The record will also reserve prominent places for Carcross/Tagish First Nation elder and crew supervisor Edward Gordon, chainsaw maestro Ryan Keizer, trail specialist Wayne Roberts, and photographer-turned-volunteer dynamo Derek Crowe.

After our work party has packed up and headed for home, a skeleton crew including 18-year-olds Joe and Spencer will spend three more days on the mountain, gamely confronting routine challenges that haven't changed in a century. The fact that the summer's efforts have reclaimed sections of original trails from overgrowth and reincarnated them as recreational singletrack only strengthens Joe's sense of connection to his historical predecessors.

"If they saw what was going on today, they'd be pretty impressed because their trails, they were growing in and getting lost, just naturally lost, and they're getting completely restored," he'll tell me later. "They pretty much did half our work for us."

And yet, an important distinction must be made between pioneer trail builders and those who continue their work. Back then, the goal was to lay down the steadiest, smoothest, least-obstructed grade humanly possible. Joe and his cohorts will have none of that. Neither will my crewmates.

As quitting time approaches, we come across a boulder that looks like a rock mattress propped on end and sunk partway into the slope. The path of least resistance would be a simple bypass, but-

"Well, you knoooooow," someone says, "I think this would be fun to ride across…."

Photo by Jane Koepke
The author gets pumped for a day of chopping, digging and rooting around.
The crew is suddenly all over the job, while I'm all over a smoked meat sandwich scavenged from my pack. I watch the guys scrape off the narrow ledge on top of the rock, rake an inviting entrance, and sculpt a banked exit into the earth on the other side. It's the spirit of playful youth, as much as the spirit of Sam McGee, in action before my eyes.

A German dog musher from the nearby community of Tagish puts the finishing touches on this masterpiece. A new convert to the technical side of mountain biking, he stands on the ledge and gives the feature a cautious appraisal.

"I am thinking I will not be driving on this," he finally announces.

But soon, somebody else certainly will. Perhaps many. By the end of the day, other features and other trails across this slope will be tread with exhilaration-again and again and again, and once more, for good measure.

If building trails is an adventure story, riding will be the sequel none of us wants to miss.

© Mark Koepke

Mark Koepke is a Yukon writer who lives in Whitehorse. He writes a regular magazine column called Yukonography and co-produces Smells Like Yukon for CBC Radio. A version of this story was first published in the March/April 2007 issue of above&beyond magazine.