Bikes, beaters, beers, and bears
DISCOVER AUTHENTIC MOUNTAIN BIKING IN THE EAST KOOTENAYS, BRITISH COLUMBIA
Imoved to the Columbia Valley in the East Kootenay region of British Columbia in September 2005. My partner and I were looking for a life outdoors – somewhere we could ski, bike, hike, golf, and climb everyday. We sold our furniture, said goodbye to city life and friends in Montreal, packed our four-door car to the brim, and headed for the unfamiliar town of Invermere. My bike was shipped shortly after, and within weeks, I got my first taste of mountain biking in the Canadian Rockies.
Mount Swansea is a popular riding spot only minutes from town, which accesses the Kootenay Rockies backcountry. Over the past 10 years, local riders have “shuttled” each other up and down an old logging road that switchbacks to the summit, accessing some of the best downhill mountain bike trails in the region. Equipped with full-face helmets, body armour, shin guards, and skate shoes, my new friends were waiting for me at the base of the mountain with a brown “beater” truck. The box already held five dual suspension downhill mountain bikes; carefully placed over a rug on the tailgate to protect the paint job (on the bikes!) from chipping.
Having nothing but my cross-country bike and an open-faced helmet, I wondered what the hell I’d gotten myself into as I loaded my bike into the back of the truck. I climbed into the cab with the driver and one other, while the remaining three climbed into the box with the six bikes and a black Lab; a typical scene in the Kootenays. I can still remember how fast my heart was beating as we slowly climbed up the twisting single lane road, dangerously giving way to trucks passing the other way.
From the top, we biked down the main trail, hitting 549 metres of moderately pitched fall-line riding with tight shallow canyons and some manmade stunts. The first two thirds of the trail are steep and technical, requiring advanced mountain biking skills. The pitch lessens at the 2K mark, which is easily accessed from the road and offers more intermediate options.
Needless to say, the trip down was much faster than the trip up. Reaching the base, I hobbled back to the truck and offered to shuttle the next lap, hoping to give my body a chance to recuperate. Having little downhill experience and no disk brakes, I went over the handle bars and face-first into the bush more times than I care to remember, but the thrill of the ride was well worth the bruises and sore muscles I awoke to the following day.
If you’re only in the valley for a few days or don’t have a vehicle to “shuttle”, I’d recommend lift-accessed downhill mountain biking, and I’ll get to that shortly, but before the summer season starts in June and after it ends in September, adrenaline-junkies looking for downhill trails have a number of options besides Swansea. About 30 minutes north, riders can access a system of trails off the backcountry roads of Steamboat Mountain. Continue driving to the town of Golden, and you’ll find Mount 7, an official system of downhill mountain bike trails, which increase in difficulty as you climb up. Either way, stop for a relaxing soak at the Radium Hot Springs Resort on your way back to base camp.
Shuttling trucks up and down old logging roads to access technical single track in the backcountry is only one biking option in the East Kootenays. During peak summer months, a number of ski resorts in the region offer liftaccessed mountain biking for riders of all abilities, including Panorama Mountain Village, Kicking Horse Mountain Resort, and Fernie Alpine Resort.
Along with world-renowned WhistlerBlackcomb, Panorama Mountain Village is joined with some of the world’s best parks as part of the Bike Parks of B.C. Set amongst the rugged mountain scenery of the Purcell Mountains, Panorama has a small village that offers a variety of lodging options with access to pools and hot tubs, restaurants, retail shops, and numerous activities, such as all-terrain vehicle tours, white water rafting, fly-fishing, hiking, and golfing. It’s also centrally located in
the Columbia Valley, so it’s the perfect base camp for exploring everything the region has to offer. If you’re not too fussy and don’t mind eating out, the cheapest accommodation is the Pine Inn. It’s basic accommodation with two beds and a coffee maker, but more importantly, it’s only steps from the chairlift! When travelling, I prefer to spend a couple of extra bucks on accommodation for the luxury of fully-equipped condominiums, and Panorama has plenty. Not only do I save money by cooking my own meals, but after a long day of riding, I do enjoy a comfy couch, a cold glass of beer, and a remote to surf the TV channels. But now to the riding…
I’ve tried all but one bike park in B.C., but Panorama is where I call home. It’s my mountain. It’s where I first learnt to ride and where I now prefer to ride. The bike park has 380 vertical metres of authentic mountain bike trails with natural features for all abilities. Notorious for its technical single track, the park also has wide cruisers for those new to the sport and varied intermediate terrain to boost confidence on steeps and stunts. With high-speed chairlift access, trails for all abilities, a drop park, a dirt jump park, a trials park, and a 4X, there’s plenty to keep any rider happy for days.
After meeting up with friends and throwing on my gear, I start with a warm-up run on the easier trails. The gentler grades and wide width of Let It Ride were designed with those “new to downhill” in mind, making it perfect for getting a feel for your bike. Turn it up a notch on Rocking Horse, a beginnerfriendly trail that switchbacks down the mountain. It features a combination of “in the woods” technical riding and “out in the open” bermed corners with gentle downgrades and some minor up hills.
When I’ve warmed up, I spend most of my day on technical single track runs, including my personal favourite: Lookout. It’s the perfect trail for progressing from easier to intermediate runs. The top half has some tight technical sections, which require precise manoeuvrings over rocks and roots. But after making your way over a gently sloping bridge, you’ll find the bottom half of the trail is much kinder. More technical single track can be found down Bazooka Joe and Quadzilla, along with various wood features and bridges that require a bit more commitment. For a fast and flowy ride around bermed corners and over small dirt jumps, try Stiffy and Mercy Me, two of the bike park’s newer trails. When you’ve mastered these runs, don’t miss the Hell’s Bells dirt jump trail that features table tops perfect for progressive improvement in jumping skills.
If I’m having a good day, I head for the advanced and expert trails. My newest achievement is Insanity, a fall-line trail that features intimidating technical steeps and a substantial rock garden. For years, this fast and technical trail was home to one of British Columbia’s Downhill Cup Races, until a few too many injuries forced the organizers to switch trails.
Expert riders looking for steeps can follow Insanity down to Punisher. This technical single track starts by coasting along the top of a ridge, offering beautiful views of the surrounding mountains and Greywolf Golf Course. But don’t be fooled! You’ll soon enter the forest, and from there on in, it’s all downhill! At the bottom of Punisher, head back onto Quadzilla or choose Cliffs of Insanity; about 10 metres of jagged rock with a drop to finish it off.
If man-made features are your thing, check out the almost 500 feet of skinnies on Dogtown, or try Crazytrain, Panorama’s signature fall-line run with advanced bridgework.
For more downhill action, visit nearby Kicking Horse Mountain Resort. But check your brakes before you go; 1158 vertical meters is a long way down.
When you’re hungry, check out the Eagles Eye Restaurant. Located at 2,350 meters, it’s the highest elevated restaurant in Canada. So treat yourself to a lunch with a view, as far as the eye can see. About 2 ½ hours southeast, Fernie Alpine resort has over forty trails, including cross country, downhill,
singletrack, and dual slalom trails with and without chairlift access. They offer wide machine-made flowing trails for beginner & intermediate riders or challenging steep and technical single track trails for advanced & expert riders, all of which flow through dense forests of tall pine trees.
Downhill mountain biking is not just for twenty something boys. It’s a growing sport that is now practiced by women, younger kids, and entire families. I still recall riding on Vancouver Island last summer, where I got my ass kicked by a fifty year-old woman that ripped down the trails like nobody’s business.
But if adrenalin-packed downhill mountain biking isn’t for you, the Columbia Valley has numerous crosscountry trails to explore from easy double-track dirt roads and lakeside loops to technical canyon-side single track and steep mountain climbs. Nearby Panorama Mountain Village, look up Bear Mountain, the Juniper Heights Trails, Lake Enid, and the Canyon Trails.
For a nice day-trip, try Baptiste Lake in Edgewater, Columbia Lake in Fairmont, or the intricate trail systems at either Nipika Mountain Resort or Blue Lake Centre.
An official map and classification of the Columbia Valley trail system does not yet exist as it was haphazardly built by local riders on crown land and private property. It’s pretty much all word of mouth around here, so when deciding where to go, sidle up to a local on the chairlift or at the bar and ask for some friendly advice and directions. Wherever you head, don’t forget water, food, a camera, some bear spray, and a friend. You’re heading into British Columbia’s wilderness, where the mountains are big, the forest is thick, and the wildlife is abundant.
For a good workout, my friends and I usually opt for a 2-hour loop called Along the Schlong. The trailhead is situated across from Lake Lillian, making it the perfect spot on hot summer days. The single track starts with a mix of shorts climbs and downhill sections up and over ridges in the forest. The land is sometimes used by local farmers as pasture, so we’re often surprised by the appearance of cattle (or evidence of cattle). There are a couple of killer uphill hauls, but the trail quickly awards our tired limbs with fast and flowy downhill sections that head to the canyon. The next segment of the ride is the highlight of the loop, as the trail weaves along the edge of the Toby Creek Canyon, sometimes edging surprisingly close to a 20 meter drop below.
The trail eventually hits a dead end, offering spectacular views of the neighbouring farmlands and impressive Canadian Rockies. From here, it turns on itself and heads back along the canyon. By this point, our legs are usually tired to the point of exhaustion. Each small climb becomes a mountain, but when the trail finally turns away from the canyon, we know it’s an easy fifteen minute ride back to the parking lot and the beer that awaits. After a quick dip, we reminisce about the ride and enjoy a cool can of Kokanee, one of our locally brewed lagers. Ah, the promise of a cold beer… Isn’t that what mountain biking is really about?
When I moved to the Columbia Valley in 2005, I quickly realized that pickup trucks are the norm and it is not uncommon for people to spend more on their bikes than they do on their ride.
Over the past three years, my partner and I have spent all our pocket money buying gear to enjoy everything the outdoors has to offer. We now have four pairs of skis, backcountry touring equipment, a snowmobile, climbing gear, a dirt bike, camping gear, two cross-country bikes, two downhill bikes, and our Golden Retriever, McKinley.
We’ve finally exchanged the city car for a two and a half ton 1995 Chevy Silverado with a 3-inch lift and we spend our weekends exploring our backyard. Life sure is sweet in the Kootenays!
(ABOVE) PRO-RIDER, MIKE HOPKINS, RACES DOWN THE 4X AT PANORAMA MOUNTAIN VILLAGE, MAKING IT LOOK EASY. FORTUNATELY FOR THE REST OF US, THE BIKE PARK HAS TRAILS FOR ALL ABILITIES. PHOTO BY: PETER MOYNES
(ABOVE) AFTER A FEW LAPS, YOU’LL BE HAPPY TO TAKE A TURN DRIVING. HOME TO PSYCHOSIS, “THE WORLD’S MOST DEMENTED DOWNHILL MOUNTAIN BIKE RACE”, MOUNT SEVEN WILL TAKE ITS TOLL ON YOUR BODY, I GUARANTEE!