Words: Andreas Hestler
Pics: David Silver
An island-hopping, mountain bike adventure to the lesser-known, northern Gulf Islands that lie between mainland Vancouver and Vancouver Island, British Columbia, Canada.
“Ahoy, Captain Pleasure Craft at your service,” quipped Connor Macleod as, donning his white fedora, he grabbed his surfboard and fishing tackle and began to clamber aboard our 30ft cabin cruiser, the Savage Beagle. “Permission to come aboard?” he requested. Reed Melton, our true captain and mentor of the sea, fired back: “Just lemme take her out for a quick spin, be right back.”
As is usually the case, each and every road trip has an inspiration, something that fires up the imagination of the trip coordinator, aka the ‘trip trail boss’. In this case, Dean Payne, ‘El Jefe’ of the BC Bike Race, had fallen hard for power boating at some point in the spring and had begun to map out a way to use his new pleasure craft, a 16ft, speedboat for some kind of water-bound road trip.
For me, it began two years ago in the midst of a 265km road race. Well, not really a race, but perhaps just a gentleman’s affair called The Victoria Gran Fondo. Sam Whitingham (always referred to as the ‘fastest man in the world’ (see sidebar below)) and I began an exchange of excuses as we caught up on life. You know, the type of excuses that begin on the start line about why you’re not fit, not ready, here for fun and not a real contender. At some point during this event our discussion continued over Sam’s list of excuses. He mentioned that he had recently attempted to ride all the singletrack in his backyard.
Sam lives on an island and from my understanding it’s a pretty small island. So I figure this is no excuse, but he goes on to tell me that after ten hours of solid trail riding – remember he is the fastest man in the world so his words cannot be taken lightly – he had not finished riding all the trails on Quadra Island! A few minutes pass as this percolates through my now glycogen-depleted brain. “Er, Sam, are you serious about that?” I queried – and filed this piece of info away like the golden nugget it was.
The synthesis of ideas between Dean and his boat and the golden nugget of information I had from Sam, swelled together like bruised knuckles and black eyes after a 20-man smash-up at the local pub. A few months later we still had some major grey areas to fill in, but this trip was about to become a reality.
The waters between Vancouver’s safe harbour (Burrard Inlet) and Vancouver Island – lying off the mainland coast – are treacherous and rough. The currents and tides that exist in this region of the Pacific Ocean, that move around and between the northern Gulf Islands, often play havoc with small watercraft. We knew we were in over our heads and would likely become a tabloid headline if we didn’t find some qualified assistance. It was then that we got in touch with Reed, our good buddy, a repeat offender at the BC Bike Race and a former professional Alaskan fisherman.
“Hallelujah!” Reed’s suggestion was a two-boat convoy: a big cabin cruiser for the open water and a little speedboat on trailer for fun times. Our final team member would be Dave Silver, our esteemed colleague and a renowned sports photographer.
First world (engine) troubles.
Fast forward to Reed testing out our Craigslist’s rental boat, the Savage Beagle, obtained from one of the strangest men in the world: Gord, a middle-aged, heavy smoking and chronically shirtless owner. While we moved gear and bikes towards the jetty, Reed took our barnacle-encrusted scow on her maiden voyage. He returned quickly from his inspection run and we started serious loading onto the poop deck. In between there was a constant back and forth between Gord and Reed about getting the boat ship-shape and ready for the water. The Savage Beagle was not in great shape and Reed had some serious misgivings about her seaworthiness.
With a little creative juggling, we would complete the mission.
No sooner had we parted ways, Dean and I with the truck and trailered boat and the boys aboard the Savage Beagle had weighed anchor into the busy Vancouver harbour, than engine trouble began. Adrift and powerless for the first time under the Lions Gate Bridge, then again moments later at Horseshoe Bay in the path of a large BC ferry, this re-occurring problem would sever our commitment to the two-boat plan. Though Reed our captain – now the mechanic – was up to the challenge at the beginning and did manage to guide her into safe harbour on the Sunshine Coast, it was her final destination and the extent of his willing abilities. For us it was onto Plan B.
A quick drive up and down the coast (50km each way) brought the crew back together. With a little creative juggling, we would complete the mission. We planned to tow our speedboat that would house the gear and bikes and we would beg, borrow, steal, pay or rent any other forms of water travel needed over the next week. “First world problems, eh?” said Dean. This became our mantra for the week. Realistically, keeping everything in perspective, the show would go on.
Sail before steam.
Pender Harbour to the north-west of Vancouver is a small community nestled at the foot of a huge green space on the Sunshine Coast. It feels like summer cottage country for boat people: one store, one cafe, a small hardware outlet and if you never turned off the highway you would never know this quaint harbour even existed. Our friend and local guide Rod met us in the afternoon for a short tour of the local trails. We hadn’t planned on this bonus round but given the circumstances with our rental boat, we needed to vent. Cougar, Elk, and Dry Feet are some of the trails that dot stage four of the BC Bike Race, a 65km point to point from Earls Cove to Sechelt.
These trails were just what the doctor ordered and we were happy to flow into them, shedding off our recent frustrations. Not super steep or overly technical, these trails were simply well made with a mountain bike in mind. Great handcrafted trails make for a pleasurable afternoon experience. We pedalled a brief 20km in an hour and a half with minimal vertical. (The options to go north and south on this stretch of green belt paralleling the highway are endless, but make sure you take a guide.) As with most small towns, everything closes early, so we barely made it back in time to grab dinner and a few road pops to keep our bodies fuelled for the many days of adventure ahead.
Our true island hopping experience began the next day on Nelson Island, just a stone’s throw west from Pender Harbour. Though it is all private land, the invite we received could not be turned down. One of Whistler’s earliest trail builders, ‘Binty’ has for some years been residing on the island during the summer months. Once a builder always a builder! Binty and his friends have slowly but surely worked their backyard into a playground of their own.
We met up with another couple of mutual friends to experience Binty’s summer project and were blown away by the style and variety they had carved into the land. Their style spoke clearly of hardtails and technical moves. This was old school Whistler, with its many thin exposed lines, rocky bluffs and tight, tight corners. The trails wound and turned between twisted red Arbutus trees and slickrock-like features. On this outing we rode numerous trails tallying nearly 13km of singletrack, but the locals guessed we experienced only about one-third to one-half of the total number of trails on the island – amazing!
As the day wore on, dark clouds began to roll in. If we didn’t hightail it home pretty soon the open Pacific would have its nasty way with our pleasure craft. By the time we had said farewell to Binty and loaded our bikes, the waves had already reached a state of mild bedlam and into this turbulence we pressed our little skiff. Rounding the point to begin our tack to homeport, a dot appeared leaving the island. As we motored further, the dot became Binty! Binty on his windsurf board veritably flew by us with his sail bent at 45 degrees; skipping across the waves with a debonair flick of the boom and a wave of his hand, he was gone from sight. We rollicked between the troughs, slapping off the peaks of the waves as we finally, nervously, arrived into safe harbour just as the sun went down.
The end of the Sunshine Coast.
We departed early the next morning heading for the ferry boat to Powell River and Lund – two very isolated communities at the far end of the Sunshine Coast. Our next stop, Cortes Island, would have to be reached by water taxi from Lund as this stretch of ocean would be too dangerous for a small speedboat. Earlier, we had worked with Sam to coordinate a meeting with the folks on Cortes. There is a very small but growing movement of mountain bikers on the island and they were planning to host their first race in a matter of weeks. They’d begun to build trails as a way to deter logging at the centre of the island and, as a consequence, the small core group had begun to grow.
Together they created a 17km loop that winds through a dense rain forest of fir trees; shredding repeatedly through vast carpets of moss, it uses the elevation to good effect and delivers the riders down to the waterfront – reminding us we are still on an island. We had the pleasure of riding with some awesome people, both men and women, both young and not so young.
The Quadra crew came over to check out the trail work and it felt like our little mission was uniting these two isolated communities. This visit was a real fly-by as the water taxi and Plan B had shortened our stay to no more than the allotted time. We were carted back to the dock in an old bread truck where we shook hands and slapped high-fives with our new riding friends on Cortes Island.
Back to Lund, the aluminum hull of the water taxi skipped along the waves and a fine salt mist sprayed our silly grins as we sat in the open back and soaked in the coastal beauty. The sun was setting and the strong vibrant colors of early evening were painting an already impressive landscape into something surreal. Truly Lund was the end of the road, the end of the Sunshine coast and of Highway 101.
“Have you have ever wondered what happens when the road ends? Sometimes there is a trailhead waiting and sometimes there’s a dock to continue the adventure by water.”
“We were on a mission and we were taking the islands by storm”
Early the next day we loaded up once again, and headed to the ferry at Powell River en route for Vancouver Island. From there we would catch yet another ferry, a very brief five-minute affair that would deliver us to our nirvana – Quadra Island. So far we had sampled some good stuff and the flavour had been diverse, yet Sam’s prophetic words still rang in my ears: “Ten hours of singletrack and I wasn’t even close to riding it all.” This two-year quest to arrive where endless hours of singletrack pleasure awaited us was about to be realised.
We pulled into Sam’s yard beside an old wooden farmhouse on a sprawling acreage. Across from the house was a barn clearly designated as the shop for his business: ‘Naked Bikes’. This had originally been his father’s wood shop but when he left for the city, Sam took over and it changed from wood to metal fabrication. Out back a well-used pump track dumped out of the forest right into the field beside our trailered boat.
There’s nothing like arriving at a shop filled with history: bikes, bike art and bike paraphernalia. We greeted Sam and his crew and got to perusing around the knick-knacks, jigs, tools, welding units, covered recumbent bikes, trophies and blueprints for custom bikes everywhere.
It was a smorgasbord of bike history, past and present. Dave snapped pictures, Connor shot video and we were all agog at the sheer volume of amassed stuff. Over lunch we got down to some serious chinwagging: about shirtless Gord, the failed boat adventure and all the goodies that were housed in the shop.
After digesting both the culture of Naked Bikes and our lunch, we suited up and the real adventure began. Leaving the farm, a thin trail headed up at a slight grade to where big towering fir trees provided a high canopy to the waxy, salal shrubs and towering green ferns below. The trail felt spongy under wheel, bedded in, but not broken in – like it was at that perfect place in a trail’s life before too many people have ridden it. This tough start to the day would later be one of its wicked highlights. At the end of the day returning back to the farm, we ripped at breakneck speed down this same ribbon of singletrack – a true home run. The style of riding here would be best characterised as burly cross-country, with a constant rolling nature and ‘power moves’ dotted here and there. Not knowing where to rest and where to keep speed we took turns doubled over, sucking in oxygen for all we were worth.
The Gulf Islands have a constant granite bluff-like characteristic and where there are dips between the bluffs there are lips, drops, snags and rocks. What was amazing about the miles of trails that we rode on Quadra is the endless blur of smoothed out bumps and edges. The bike community here had put forth a huge amount of labour to take out rough transitions and create more flow than I ever could have imagined. From one trail to the next the extent of the work was astounding. We climbed and descended on loops and grades that made sense to the mind of a mountain biker – buried treasure – nirvana indeed. Here on Quadra Island was a singletrack paradise. Exhausted but elated after a couple of awesome hours we headed back to HQ at Naked Bikes and quaffed copious amounts of beer through dinner and late into the night.
The morning dawned clear and bright, though our heads rang with the fog of fatigue and too many beers, another ride was in order. A short blast through the lush green forest over spectacular trails reminded me that we had barely scratched the surface of what Quadra had to offer and had us revved up for the final destination – Hornby Island.
Hornby Island is situated 80km south of Quadra Island on the west coast of Vancouver Island. It sits on the far side of Denman Island and takes two ferries to reach. We had rented a cabin on Denman and would use our pleasure craft to access the Hornby trails. Hornby has a rich 30-year history of mountain biking and an extensive and mature network of trails. They have hosted races on the Island since toe clips and rigid forks were the fashion. The Hornby Island Bike Fest began roughly in 1988 and continued as a local mainstay event in some form or shape until 2000. As with most events, the driving force – the local mountain bikers – eventually moved away but they left a legacy of superb trails, mapped, buffed and inspiring.
From the ferry terminal at Fords Cove the main road leads across the island, skirting a massive cliff that is Hornby Island’s distinguishing feature. Half a mile up, we turned right and began our climb to the ridge. The trail began within another mile and from then on it was simply heaven.
A long sustained singletrack climb at near perfect grade gently brought us up to the ridge and clear unobstructed views of the sea, Vancouver Island and snow capped Mount Aerosmith to the west [apparently it’s ‘Arrowsmith’, but who cares? – Rock Ed].
The trails then plunge down the other side of the island to the co-op, local cafe, bike shop, thriving marketplace and white sand beach of Tribune Bay. It is the back of this feature cliff that cups and holds the extensive trail network that descends to the far side of the island. We spent the afternoon ripping our favourite trails and soaking in the views from atop the cliff. Trails like Four Dead Aliens, No Horses, Spasm Chasm, Test Tube and Bench Trail comprise a multi-day adventure that will be sure to put a smile on any rider’s face. During the summer months the market and the local beaches are jam-packed with colourful locals and tourists alike. Akin perhaps to something out of the ‘60s or Ibiza, here you can still find some strong patchouli smells and a healthy hippy culture that once truly ruled the west coast of these small island sanctuaries.
On the last morning of our trip we awoke before dawn and took one last trip in the speedboat. On calm waters, under crystal skies and with endless beautiful views, we watched the sun rise and cast its warm summer rays across the disappearing wake of our boat. This trip was an amazing melting pot of how we experience travel and trail access. We wanted a road trip, but we wanted to do it differently and to see our west coast world from a new perspective – mission accomplished!
“The feeling of flying along the ground under your own power is still amazing to me.” No more apt words could better describe Sam Whitingham, known as the ‘fastest man in the world’. A true cyclist at heart, Sam is a bit of a cycling legend both locally and globally; he set the human-powered land speed record in 2006 and followed that up resetting it three more times. In 2009, riding the Varna Tempest, a streamliner recumbent bicycle, Sam recorded a speed of 133km/h (82.82mph) – that record still stands today. He is also the man behind the small, highly acclaimed, independent, hand-fabrication outfit Naked Bikes that operates out of his family home on Quadra Island.
Sam is down to earth, quick to smile and has a light-hearted playfulness to his bearing; he would not seem to be a man tempered with steel. He began riding his bike on the same path as many others but from there he continued to grow, push barriers and evolve his passion into something different. “I used to drag my tricycle, then my coaster cruiser, then my BMX, and finally my Rocky Mountain Hammer into the woods, before I even knew what proper MTB trails were. Somehow I just knew…”
Naked Bikes has been in business since 2004, operated from 2000-2004 as Forte and before that from inception in 1999 as Sam’s Cycleworks.
His historic record as the fastest man in the world is a glowing testament to the strong mind behind the machine. What’s more, there is the creativity that Sam crafts into each unique cycling product that comes out of Naked Bikes. “While I was wrenching bikes to get through university in Victoria in the 90s, I was working at Fairfield Cycles and they had a jig so the opportunity to experiment just presented itself. There were a few of us there that got right into it for a few years just figuring things out. I was always excited by the idea of racing and riding something that I had built myself.”
Naked Bikes has been in business since 2004, operated from 2000-2004 as Forte and before that from inception in 1999 as Sam’s Cycleworks. Naked Bikes has garnered some serious attention for his award-winning work displayed over the years at the North American Handmade Bicycle Show (NAHBS): Best in Show 2008, President’s Choice 2008, People’s Choice 2008, People’s Choice 2009, People’s Choice 2011, Gates Belt Drive Bike Design contest 2012, and Best Mountain Bike 2012.
While Sam is no longer chasing records, he continues to feed his cycling passion in other ways that inspire him. “This last year of 2012 is the first year I have not participated in any speed bike racing since 1991. I turned 40 this year and am ready for a change. This gave me more time to fully embrace my other passions like mountain bikes, trail building and such. I probably do WAY more riding now when I don’t feel like it has to be so specific. The riding scene for bike culture is really growing here and the lines between adventure, riding, racing and building are blurring together in a really beautiful way.”
- Island Mountain Rides: www.islandmountainrides.com
- Naked Bikes: timetogetnaked.com
- Trail Resources:
- Mountain Biking BC: mountainbikingbc.ca
- Sunshine Coast: www.sunshine-coast-trails.com
- Hornby Island: hornbyisland.com/activities/mountain-biking
- UROC: unitedridersofcumberland.com