Creating New Trails and Stories at the End of the Road in Atlin

By Patrick Lucas –

“We’ve struck gold!” I hear a voice shout out, and then it is quickly followed by another: “This is it. This is the money spot, boys.”

Lake Atlin

Lake Atlin from the top of Pillman Hill, overlooking the Fairweather Range. Photo: Patrick Lucas

I come out of the trees on a ridge over-looking Atlin Lake in northwestern British Columbia, the lands of the Taku River Tlingit, to find my good friends and trail building aficionados, Thomas Schoen and Justin Darbyshire both standing with their arms outstretched, framing the wild and spectacular scene below us like artists extolling the setting for their next masterpiece. Atlin Lake. Its ethereal mix of teal green and steel blue waters stretch out to either end of the horizon framed by the dark greens of birch and hemlock and interspersed with ribbons of poplar and alder, bright orange and yellow canopies shimmering in the cool autumn air. On the far side of the lake the massive peaks of the Fairweather Range rise, their snow flecked granite peaks glistening in the late afternoon sun.

“This is exactly what riders and hikers are looking for,” Thomas notes.

“We build a nice dirt berm corner right here,” Justin adds. “People will come from all over the world to have their picture taken with this view in the background.

I step forward and immediately understand what they are visualizing. Framed between two tall birch trees is a perfect slice of immaculate photographic perfection. A slice of Atlin Lake, its perfectly still waters mirroring broad valleys and towering mountains. A narrow branch of the lake snaking back behind Teresa Island. Following Thomas and Justin’s excited gestures, I can envision a large banked berm corner rising out of the dirt, the perfect spot for riders to capture images of themselves as they fly past.

Atlin Lake

Patrick Lucas riding in Carcross, Yukon, on an example of the kind of photo-ready berm corner the team envisions for Atlin. Photo: Justin Darbyshire

The three of us had spent the previous four and a half days hiking and scrambling up Pillman Hill, a small mountain overlooking the town of Atlin. It is the final stop on the road and gateway to the wilderness that separates British Columbia from Alaska and the Pacific Ocean. This place has a history of men disembarking upon its shores in search of gold and fortune, though we have been searching for a different kind of rush: the creation of new trails and world-class riding experiences.

Mountain bike recreation can bring significant benefits for rural communities by attracting new residents and generating new economic activity and investment while enhancing community health and resilience. First Nations throughout BC are looking to trails and mountain biking to connect youth to the land, generate employment opportunities, and through which to assert their Indigenous Rights and Title. Mountain biking has already provided a huge boost to the nearby communities of Carcross and Whitehorse in the Yukon. The Tlingit and the people of Atlin are keen to come together and capitalize on these opportunities.

With the support of Recreation Sites and Trails BC, we were invited to survey and layout a network of trails and to realize the hopes and vision of the community. Trail planning and design is a process closer to an artistic expression; it is storytelling with dirt. Allowing the land and forests to guide us, we teased narrative arcs through thick stands of spruce, hemlock, and birch. Embarking from the Como Lake Recreation site, we stitched a climbing line up the mountain’s southern slopes, weaving and twisting along pathways long tread by deer and bear, creating an ideal track that will also serve as a fast and flowy descent for adaptive riders. We crafted a playful alignment along a rocky ridgeline, weaving in and out of the forest to reveal breathtaking views of Atlin Lake and the mountains beyond.

Where the ridgeline ends and there are no options but to drop down a steep slope into the valley below, I watched in awe as Thomas and Justin, in a moment of inspired artistic flourish, concocted a dramatic vision of a downhill line that would take a rider on a thrill descent over massive wooden features, skyberms, and drops, through a series of rock gardens, along the shores of a pristine mountain lake, and then winding down through bright poplar groves back to shore of Como Lake.

Exhausted, covered in bug bites, mud, cuts, and scrapes, we stood together looking out over the lake, excited for the artistic creation we’ve etched across the face of the mountain in footsteps and survey tape. We are honoured by the opportunity to give expression tothe vision and hopes of the Tlingit and the people of Atlin and the next chapter in their story as the community at the end of the road.

Patrick Lucas is a mountain biker, writer, storyteller, community planner, and the founder of the Aboriginal Youth Mountain Bike Program. When he’s not stuck at his computer he can be found wandering the trails throughout BC.

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