In a previous life, Singletrack’s art ed. Jorji was a bona fide bike bum…
It all started on a drunken Christmas night out at my old work. We were having problems recruiting a specialist consultant, so my boss suggested enticing someone up from London with a three-month sabbatical option. The rest of us agreed that was a fantastic idea, and thanked him very much for giving us the same entitlement (which he hadn’t of course anticipated!). And so the seed was sewn in a drunken haze in an underground bar in snowy Edinburgh.
Being in my early 30s, the prospect of a summer ‘off’ was exciting, yet tinged with slight trepidation. Three months of no salary and at that point no holiday fund set aside, with a mortgage and bills and loan payments and other bank account-dwindling rubbish still to pay. Sensible head said ‘hmm, probably not’, whilst adventure head said ‘hell yeah’. So a bit of inner decision-making turmoil ensued, but it wasn’t long before sensible head was overruled.
Being the one in the office with the least ‘responsibilities’ (apart from the bank account-dwindling rubbish – but pah!), I was the first to take up the sabbatical offer and quickly set about planning my summer away. Initially I was all set to head over to the Alps and be a mountain bike chalet girl (well – technically woman!). Having a place to live and earning the meagre £50/week would at least offset having no real income for the summer. This soon however evolved into an exuberant summer in British Columbia, as friends of mine were moving over and persuaded me that joining them would be amazing. And of course – they were right!
So throwing all caution to the wind, I found tenants for my flat for the summer, saved like mad, took out a new credit card (this was a once in a lifetime trip remember!) and booked some flights.
I arrived in Vancouver on 20th June 2012. I’d pre-arranged a ride-share, which is a common way of navigating the vast distances there. We should do it more here in the UK too, as fuel costs and carbon guilt are shared. It did mean getting into a van with a total stranger for a six-hour drive into the wilderness though, hmm – maybe that’s why! My friends were living in Nelson, a town in eastern B.C, and Paul was taking me most of the way. As it happened he was also a mountain biker and we quickly settled into that comfortable chat that complete biking strangers seem able to. We arrived at our destination late, so I ended up camping with him and his friend. Camping with two strangers, in the middle of nowhere (and if you’ve been to Canada you can fully appreciate what ‘the middle of nowhere’ is!) would be inconceivable here in the UK. But it just felt normal then and there – and a very special introduction to Canada. Campfire, local beers, the wilderness, swapping stories – I’ll never forget that night.
It was amazing to catch up with familiar faces when I arrived in Nelson, I’d not seen Kris and Mark for months. Though we were technically homeless for the first few days, which coincided with the wettest spring B.C. had experienced for years, our spirits weren’t dampened, though our belongings were while we camped through violent and electrifying storms. It took a few days to really comprehend this was it – this wasn’t a short holiday, I was genuinely a free agent for the summer. Sensible head’s worries soon melted away. We found a house-sitting stint, which solved the homeless problem – and began our love affair with the stunning Slocan Valley. Living in near-paradise, in an idyllic cottage, looking after two gorgeous dogs – we made life-long friends with the owners. The rains still hammered down though, as my bike lay abandoned in the shed.
When the rains finally stopped and the first glances of sunlight appeared through the steely clouds, we jumped straight on the bikes and started exploring Nelson’s trails. Now I naively had taken over a 120mm trail bike, which was more than adequate for the riding I’d done in Scotland. Turns out there isn’t so much gentle riding in Nelson – s’all about the big stuff. Luckily one thing that is cheaper in Canada, relative to here (there are very few) is second hand bikes. I found myself a beat-up, old downhill rig and set about tackling the trails with some decent suspension.
Mountain biking in B.C. is very different to here. Whilst there are the world renowned bike parks scattered throughout the state, beyond that there are vast networks of incredible trails built by local riders. Financed by themselves and fuelled by their own enthusiasm and passion for riding, it’s the norm for groups of riders to get together and build. One or two evenings per week during the summer months, these dedicated folk forgo riding whilst they steadily break through the bush and slowly, several metres at a time, create singletrack. Working with natural features and understanding how to drain trails properly, they beautifully craft trails, jumps and ‘North Shore’ woodwork. The trails are generally accessible from logging roads, which are mostly open for public use – though 4x4s are a must. Maps are available from local bike shops, or sometimes hanging in bars – you get to hear about the new, as yet unmapped trails. As long as you respect their handiwork (and hopefully spend a few dollars on a map), the builders are more than happy to share their trails with you.
Bonus Easter Egg Vouchers!
I spent a couple of months living in the Nelson area, during which I got to grips with riding some pretty hairy trails (picking up some nifty scars on the way), found myself working on a magazine (OK, I gave in to sensible head a little bit), discovered river floating (on inflatables, drinking beer, for several kilometres, sigh) and developed a bit of bear fear. Don’t get me wrong, bears are incredible creatures – but should you find yourself alone on a trail over there, their possible presence makes you ride that bit faster. Oh and wild camping in B.C., make sure you don’t get too drunk – as you might drop the odd bit of food which is perfect temptation for the odd inquisitive grizzly. That was my birthday night…another night I’ll never forget, feet away from a grizzly, through canvas… brrrr.
I spent the last month on the road with some other friends that flew out, Chris and Gav. Having spent the previous summer travelling round B.C., they knew the cream of the best trails. They also handily owned a 4×4, which they’d left with friends in Vancouver for the winter. We toured all over, meeting the friendliest crew ever in Silverstar, moving on to stay with them and sample their trails in Rossland, to riding the best trail on the planet in Revelstoke (I reckon – Sale Mountain, amazing), to unexpected awesomeness in Salmon Arm, to the dazzling downhill lights of Whistler, to fun in Kelowna, Lake Lousie, Fernie, Golden – too much to mention. We explored bike parks, remote trails, stayed on folks’ floors, stayed in the ‘womb’ (their ’70s, dog-vomit smelling tent!). We washed in recreation centres, lakes, rivers. We had bonfires most nights, we drank beer every night. We were officially bike bums. We met some incredible people, were blown away by their generosity, openness and infectious enthusiasm for riding bikes.
And as with everything, the more fun you have – the quicker the time slips away. Before I knew it, we were back in Vancouver – waiting for our flight back to Scotland.
I arrived home to a massive credit card bill, a couple of weeks of terrible holiday blues and redundancy (economic downturn related I hasten to add!). And I won’t lie, coming home was grim after an epic summer of fun and freedom. Sensible head was saying ‘told you so’ – but it knew. It knew there was no way I couldn’t have grabbed that opportunity by the horns. I will never forget last summer, it was ultimate freedom and possibly the final adventure before ‘growing up’.
So my words to anybody going through the inner head turmoil of ‘should I, shouldn’t I’: you should. I’m not condoning reckless abandonment of responsibilities – but if you’re lucky enough to have such an opportunity, all those sensible head hassles can be sorted and credit cards can be paid off. Mine is now, and I’ve banked a headful of incredible memories to boot.