Mining for usable rocks is a skill that comes from practice.
I found that out on the morning of Oct. 28, an overcast Sunday on the trails of Hartland-Mount Work.
My initial job was to scale mossy hills adjacent to The Plunge, a stretch of intermediate single track in the mountain biking park, and dig out whatever free standing rocks I could move.
About two dozen of the South Island Mountain Bike Society’s 250 members came out to work on the trails that morning. It’s four hours of hard labour, honoured with a complimentary sandwich and the knowledge the park has been preserved for future users.
“A lot of these trails were originally adopted from hikers and motorbikes and they often follow a fall line,” said SIMBS trail director Chris Oman. “We target a number of areas at the beginning of the year and do as much as we can.”
The professional forester knows a thing or two about sustainable trails, and assesses the trail’s drainage as we stroll 100 metres along The Plunge. The enemy of trails isn’t riders, I learn – it’s water.
“The wetter trails erode and end up needing the most attention,” Oman said. “The better a trail can drain, the better it will hold up over time.”
Upwards of 100,000 visits are expected for 2012, he says. Most of those are in the summer when conditions are dry, but riders come year round, and the impact is noticeable.
With a pickaxe I loosen the sponge-like tree debris sitting atop a vulnerable section of the trail. The debris, which is new this autumn, is clumped three inches thick and dry, despite sitting below a pile of mud.
Oman rakes it out, ensuring the vulnerable areas of the trail are “outsloped.”
Maintenance is crucial to the sustainability of Hartland’s trails and Oman has led the construction and reconstruction of Hartland for six years. He’s been a part of work crews for 10.
“There are about 50 trails at Hartland and almost 20 per cent are sustainably built,” said SIMBS president Scott Mitchell.
Mitchell’s been the president for five years, about the same time Oman took over trail maintenance, and the two have benefitted from the guidance of the International Mountain Biking Association.
Not only did IMBA make groundbreaking inroads by establishing insurance policies for mountain biking clubs such as SIMBS, it led a global campaign of sustainable trail building. SIMBS abides by IMBA guidelines.
Representatives travel North America and have been to Hartland to work with SIMBS to teach sustatinable trail building. There’s even a mountain bike operations program offered by Capilano College’s Sechelt campus, with a focus entirely on trail building.
“It’s important to recognize that this is all a new school of thought, and is only about six years old,” Mitchell said.
Before Mitchell came aboard, the previous SIMBS leadership fought the rogue trail building and its general acceptance by the society.
SIMBS didn’t hold the trail maintenance permits it does now, nor was it the guardian of the Hartland-Mount Work trail system, as well as the sport of mountain biking on the south Island.
“We’re definitely in a better state than in the past,” Mitchell said. “The previous president was working to get trail maintenance and SIMBS going. It was very challenging and negative.”
Rogue building at Hartland is limited these days, whether it’s jumps or other riding structures, and SIMBS has strengthened its relationship with the Capital Regional District.
SIMBS is a proponent for seven riding sites from North Saanich to Cowichan, but Hartland is the preeminent destination, for now.
SIMBS also anticipates a new trail system at Sooke’s Harbourview Road, part of the massive Sea to Sea green belt, which was acquired by the CRD.
Harbourview is not officially open as a park yet and CRD has not permitted SIMBS or the Sooke Bike Club to perform any trail maintenance. But it’s all in the works, with SIMBS and SBC advocating for trail usage.
“People are riding and there’s been guerilla building, which is how a lot of trails start, whether it’s motorbikes or mountain bikes. We’ve participated in a lot of meetings and want to partner with CRD. Hopefully everybody gets what they want,” Mitchell said.
Just as Hartland has a bike wash station, washroom and secured storage shed for tools, so does Habourview Road.
Mitchell’s view of the future is similar to Squamish, which put city money into building the Full Nelson trail, open in 2012, which is world class and has become a tourist destination. “It’s an amazing example of a trail that brings people to the city.”
During my morning at Hartland, it took me about an hour to figure out which rocks were best to remove, and where to find them.
Most freestanding lumps on the floor of the rainforest landscape are actually loose rocks, covered with moss. I gently peel back the carpeted cover, remove the rock, and let the moss lay back down, unbroken. The rocks I place beside an eroding section of the trail. William Steele, a local bike mechanic, has filled a gap one metre deep and two metres long.
“The thing about a lot of this work is once you cover it with dirt, you can’t tell what we did,” Steele says.
A minute later a cyclist is the first to bomb down the section we rebuilt and she has no idea.
“That means we’ve done our job.”