The tale of how Montana Mountain in Carcross, Yukon, became world-famous for mountain biking does not feature a flashy ad campaign, expensive public-relations team, or big marketing budget—no marketing budget at all, really. “It’s funny, it’s such a small-town story,” says Jane Koepke, the founder of Singletrack to Success, a program through which Carcross/Tagish First Nation (CTFN) youth built some 65 kilometres of trails on Montana Mountain over 10 years.
The quality of the network and the unique nature of the program led to international media coverage in publications including Outside and Forbes. No official figures are kept on the number of riders Montana attracts each year, but a report by Koepke in 2013 estimated the total at between 3,000 and 3,500. Those numbers are certainly higher now, perhaps 4,000 in 2019, she says, adding that Montana attracts experienced riders who are drawn to the rugged, challenging terrain—“the types of trails that helped make the tiny mountain famous,” she says. “Small-‘f’-in-a-very-small-world famous.”
But when asked about her strategy for getting the word out, though, Koepke laughs: “The truth is it was super grassroots.”
Back in 2005, Koepke, a planner and long-time mountain biker and trail builder, wrote a report for the Cycling Association of Yukon that examined the potential for mountain-bike tourism in the territory. The 51-page document outlined the Yukon’s appeals and challenges, described the mountain-bike scene in southern destinations, and listed recommendations to prepare for such tourism.
Through a focus group Koepke held, she met Janet Lee-Sheriff, then a contract consultant at CTFN. Lee-Sheriff was working on the development of a resort in Carcross, but what the community needed first was a tourism product to draw visitors. “We saw that a resort needed a lot of different types of product, but having activities that were compatible with the community, out on the land, was important,” Lee-Sheriff says. Mountain biking fit the bill.
A year after Koepke finished her report, Singletrack to Success was born—though the resort never materialized. “For some reason, I was looking at those recommendations [from my report] a few years back, and it was pretty funny how a lot of them kind of came to pass,” Koepke says. “It’s not like anybody pinned that report up on their wall and said, ‘We gotta make this happen.’”
Both Koepke and her husband, Derek Crowe, are well-connected in the mountain-biking world, though they weren’t actively trying to market Montana. As they began working on the trails with the Carcross youth, word started to spread. In Koepke’s memory, the first bit of outside media coverage came from NSMB.com in Vancouver. “B.C. was, and still is, such a focal point in the mountain-biking world that B.C.-based media can really help put a place on the map,” Koepke says.
In 2007, a six-page feature in Mountain Biking UK called the Yukon “mountain biking’s next Mecca,” and included photos shot by Crowe. Former Canadian Olympic cyclist Andreas Hestler and national downhill champ Mike Jones wrote of Montana: “the riding we did here was some of the best we have done anywhere in the world.”
The attention didn’t stop there. In 2011, Montana’s Mountain Hero trail received an “Epic” designation from the International Mountain Bicycling Association—the fifth trail in Canada to get it. In 2013, Outside named Whitehorse and Carcross the biking destination of the year. Then Yukon filmmaker Kelly Milner’s 2016 documentary Shift, about the youth building the trails, toured the world.
It all just sort of… happened, though Koepke and Crowe’s connections certainly helped. “It happened in a way that maybe would be less feasible now,” Koepke says. “But was still feasible back then because mountain biking was a much smaller world… The sport wasn’t nearly as mainstream as it is now.” Before social media, word of mouth was how it was. “That’s kind of how mountain-biking marketing really used to work,” Koepke continues. “And now it’s a lot splashier, it’s a much bigger industry, there’s a ton of destinations duking it out.”