Diggin COVID

By Ryan Kuhn
Photo Credit: Vince Boothe

People Are Digging Trails And I Dig That

I don’t “dig” COVID-19, but in the context of unbridled motivation, this pandemic has had an unpredictable and positive outcome: people are digging trails, and I dig that.

I have been building and maintaining trails for as long as I can remember, from the small rut track and plywood jump in my backyard as a kid to the freeride flow trails we love to fear. I have helped establish mountain bike trail societies in Golden and Kamloops, and I’ve served as a board member and president of the society in Rossland, British Columbia, where I live. This is all to say: I’m getting old.

The devastating impacts of the global pandemic are saddening, but one thing it has given us is time and isolation – two key ingredients to building mountain bike trails. In Rossland, the sheer number of people with passion and shovels in hand is remarkable. From digging trails out from snow to raking, sawing and packing berms, I’ve never seen anything like it. It’s amazingly awesome, but can also tend towards naivety.

The COVID Shift

Many mountain bike destinations have well organized volunteer societies that build trails and maintain extensive trail networks. Here, we have a full-time trail manager and a seasonal trail crew, sometimes two if trail funding opportunities are available. When the snow melts, they are the first out there with chainsaws, Pulaskis and Macleods. We rely on them to dutifully groom and open up the forests for our much-anticipated seasonal cycling shift.

However, this year was markedly different. Unemployment, self-isolation, working from home (and trail) – the number of enthusiasts out there with rolled up sleeves and dirt under fingernails has been startling. The enthusiasm is exciting to see, but it’s not always in the most beneficial or ethically sound manner.

Trail building has rules, written and unwritten. There’s generally accepted standards (for better or worse) and guidelines established by local landowner agreements, but this new found enthusiasm has meant a lot of people doing things their own way, and that’s not always a good thing. Sometimes unbridled enthusiasm can wrinkle relationships and risk the trails themselves.

Rules Worth Following

I will admit to not always playing by the rules. Until relatively recently, one of the only ways to get a trail built was to dig it and beg for forgiveness afterwards. But these days, government land managers are more amiable, private landowners have a new level of trust, and for the most part it’s possible to turn a dream line on the map into reality. So much so, that going “rogue” can be counterproductive.

I say this to bring attention to a few “rules” that are worth following for newly aspiring trail tweakers and freeride aficionados:

Don’t Modify Established Trails

Don’t significantly change or modify well-established trails. There’s of course the more recent concern around dumbing down trails, which I wholeheartedly agree with, but this is more to the rad-ifying of existing trails. Chances are, the trail was either purposely built by a professional crew or lovingly crafted by a group of volunteers with an intended experience. By carving a straight line through a chicane, reshaping jumps or berming up that old, interesting corner you love to nail but rarely do – these things alter the character of a trail. The point is, groom to your heart’s content, but carefully consider before altering someone else’s vision.

Get Approval

Renegade trails are no longer “cool.” With a little time and perseverance, it’s not hard to get approval to build a trail, at least not in BC. In fact, building illegal (and highly visible, duh) trails can actually compromise access to the network as it pisses off land managers and private owners. So either make sure it’s well out of the way or get involved with the local trail society and do it legit. For those who would say I’m a hypocrite, you’re right, but one that is excited we’re now in a time when mountain biking isn’t a crime.

Don’t Expect Beer

Trail building doesn’t get you beer. In my decades of digging in the woods, I’ve heard lots of compliments as people ride by. That’s nice. But trail building at heart is two-fold: the absolute passion and effort that goes into your experiential art and the joy of hearing people hoot and holler as they ride through the woods. In the end, it’s about self-fulfillment and other’s happiness, not kudos…I can count on one hand the number of thank-you beers I’ve been handed, and I’m ok with that.

Buy Them A Beer

This Covid thing stinks. But it has brought some unexpected positives, and trails are one of them. People are living and staying closer to home. They are reassessing what is truly important in life. They have a new passion for what they love and, for many in the mountains, it’s our trails. Naturally, when you have time and love, you want to give back. I applaud everyone who has headed into the woods with shovel in hand. Just remember the sore backs of the weirdos that made our trails too. And maybe buy them a beer.