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Two Wheels And A Dream

Two Wheels And A Dream

How to build a world-class team of mountain bike trail-builders in a remote corner of the North
By Herb Mathisen
Jun 05
From the June Issue Issue

Clearing brush on the mountain was a lot better than hanging around the gas station. Joe deGraff, now 28, is only kind of joking when he thinks back to the summer gig he had 11 years ago. It was actually a dream job.

There wasn’t much going on at the time in Carcross, Yukon—a mountain town of 300 on the north end of Bennett Lake. If it wasn’t pouring rain, deGraff would set out to Montana Mountain with a young trail crew to spend his days opening up derelict 100-year-old wagon trails from the gold rush. “I don’t even know if [the job] was called a trail-builder, I think it was just sort of labour to go clear brush and dig in the dirt,” he says. “That’s kind of where it started.”

The Singletrack to Success program has come a long way since then. Today, Montana Mountain is home to a 65-kilometre-plus network of mountain bike trails, which prominent outdoor magazines Explore and Outside have heralded as some of the best riding in the world. More than 40 youth have had steady summer work building earthen berms and wooden ramps and for Joe deGraff, it’s become a career. After a couple of summers, he left to study trail-building and other mountain biking-related fields at Capilano University, north of Vancouver. He’s since done work for Carcross, the City of Whitehorse and started his own contracting business.

In the North, where young people often come to believe their only job options are in mining or government, this was something completely different. The beauty, deGraff says, is the program creates jobs people actually want to do. “On lucky days, every other Friday, maybe the last few hours of the day, everyone would go for a bike ride,” he says. It was rewarding to ride what had been built that week. “There were some pretty good days out there.”

Singletrack to Success was the brainchild of Jane Koepke, who grew up in Whitehorse and had her share of good days on the capital’s makeshift bike trails. “It was like your typical ad hoc [trail] network,” she says. “There were all these gems all over the place, but they didn’t always connect very well. You kind of had to be in the club to know where the trails were.”

When she travelled south, she noticed how well developed the trails were. She realized that while the Yukon promoted its outdoor utopia, it had little in the way of wilderness access or infrastructure once people got there. She soon quit a government job and got into wilderness tourism planning. Her first job was a market study to look at mountain bike tourism in the Yukon. Someone from the Carcross/Tagish First Nation got wind of it and approached her about bringing a world-class mountain bike event to Carcross. Koepke had to temper expectations—first, you need trails. Montana Mountain only had about five or six kilometres then.

Koepke pitched an early version of Singletrack to Success, but it went nowhere. The CTFN had just signed its land claim agreement, retaining control over 1,560-square-kilometres of land, including Montana Mountain. “The added irony was my father was involved with land claims for 25 years. He was the chief federal negotiator on many of the Yukon claims,” says Koepke. “They’d had to sit across from a Koepke for, I don’t know, six or seven years to get that piece of land and then here’s his daughter showing up. You wouldn’t blame them if they had the perception that she’s trying to take it back again.”

After the initial rebuke, Koepke was asked to try again. She spoke to elders on the land advisory committee, linking the legendary Tagish heritage of trail-building—with figures like Skookum Jim, the indomitable packer who established a route from tidewater into the Klondike—to this renewed way of opening up the land. That’s when deGraff and the first Carcross crew got to work.

And it’s by no means an easy job. They toil under the sun all day, swatting at bugs while pulling roots, cutting away branches with handsaws, hacking away at the ground with their signature Pulaski axes.

The crews have built a reputation as tireless workers—it’s something they take pride in. And the hard work isn’t lost on the tourists who stop and chat on their way down the mountain. “They’re meeting these people from all over the place, who are expressing their admiration and appreciation for what they’ve done, for their traditional territory, for what an amazing place they live in,” says Koepke. “And that’s pretty huge when you’re 12 years old and you’re from a small Yukon community like this.”

Montana Mountain was veteran crew-member Dominic Smith-Johns’ first job site. “I had my SIN number made out just for doing this job too.” At 18, he’s part of the second wave of trail-builders and he’ll be supervising a crew when school ends this spring. There’s a whole group of young people who watched their older cousins, brothers, sisters and friends go through the project, says Koepke. “They’re showing up now wanting to prove themselves. They want to prove that they’re worthy of that reputation, of being part of that.”

Around the time Singletrack to Success was really taking off in Carcross, the City of Whitehorse decided to begin connecting its routes, adding signage and generally stepping up the quality of its trails. The city hired on crewmembers, like deGraff, who cut their teeth in Carcross. (Crews from Whitehorse would later help on builds in Carcross.)

Now that Singletrack to Success is expanding to Dawson City and Haines Junction, experienced builders from Carcross will be playing mentorship roles. And the more communities it grows to will only add to the burgeoning profile of the Yukon as a mountain biking destination. “We’re not going to be competing for visitors,” says Koepke. “We’re going to be attracting, overall, more visitors and hopefully everybody will get a little piece of it.”

But the tourism draw is proving just a small part of the program’s success. “Let’s just say that suddenly the Yukon was no longer an affordable destination, those trails are still there for community benefit, for recreation,” Koepke says. “So it’s a win no matter what.” In small communities without much infrastructure, people often complain about bored youth getting into trouble. As Derek Crowe, Koepke’s husband and a partner in the program, says, “even skateboards need pavement”—and that’s in short supply across the North. And while it’s not easy for a bunch of kids to obtain and pour concrete, they can go clear brush and dig trails. “It kind of works just to grab a bunch of kids, put them in a van and go do something productive, and go ride down it later, and keep repeating,” says Crowe. “It just works.”