Singletrack Magazine Issue 122: Vancouver’s Treasure Islands

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Two jet-setting friends discover they’ve overlooked gold on their doorstep.

Words Ryan Stuart Photography Ryan Creary

A morning beer is always harsh and rarely a good idea. It burns the throat. Bubbles up the nose. And usually comes back to haunt in some foul tasting form.

Morning Beer the trail is far more enjoyable. In fact, by the time I skid into the parking lot at its terminus, I’d love to down another. “That might be the best trail I’ve ever ridden,” I stammer in pleasant shock. Photographer Ryan Creary is equally blown away. “What an amazing trail,” he says, a big grin spreading across his face, eyes lighting up. “It was rough and tough, but also super flowy.”

We rode it almost by accident. As team Ryan and Ryan – me the writer, him the photographer – we’d worked together for a decade. During the winter we team up on assignments for ski magazines. During the summer it’s usually mountain biking. Typically we’re flying here and driving there, always far from home. But this time Creary has come to Vancouver Island, my home on the west coast of BC. About 300 miles long and mostly covered in mountains and forest, it’s well known for mountain biking; just about every town has a trail network that’s been featured in film clips or the famous BC Bike Race.

Island hopping.

Singletrack magazine issue 122

What a lot of people don’t know is that Vancouver Island does not stand in isolation. Off the east coast are plenty of smaller islands. On a few of these islands off islands and, in some cases, islands off islands off islands, are even more trails. As a rule, the networks are smaller, with an old school feeling, and the communities are quaint and eclectic, exactly what you’d expect from places that take two or three ferries to reach.

I live within a day trip of all these trail networks, yet have never wandered out of my bubble to ride them. Creary’s visit is a perfect excuse to explore my backyard, starting with Quadra Island, which sits across a channel of ocean water from the town of Campbell River and is home to Morning Beer. 

Creary and I, along with his girlfriend Christy, start out on a recommended loop around Quadra’s classics, Jack Rabbit to Seven Sins to Deadfish. Almost all singletrack, it flows together smoothly, rolling along through big trees, onto an old roadbed, up a beautiful climb of tight switchbacks, through punchy sections and mellow grades to a rocky ridgeline. Wide with big corners, lined in spots with rocks pulled from the earth, it was obvious someone had spent a lot of time working the dirt here, but with plenty of sticks and ferns on the trail it was also obvious traffic wasn’t an issue – we didn’t see another person over the two-hour ride. 

At the top of Seven Sins we stand on an exposed bluff. We can see both sides of Quadra Island, all the forest in-between, a mountain rising above and not a sign of humans anywhere. Not even a cell signal. We linger in the evening light, before dropping our seat posts and opening the shocks. Deadfish is the trail everyone who rides Quadra inevitably does and loves. I immediately see why. From the viewpoint it tumbles down beside a cliff, hugging rock, dropping down chunky sections, climbing back up to another nice view. Here and there are big Douglas firs and sections of slickrock. After a few minutes of rocky riding the trail leaves the bluffs behind and descends into a cool forest, an umbrella of branches shading an understory of ferns. With the change to forest comes a change of trail. We are soon railing in perfect loam. The knobs on my tyres dig into the dark soil. Berms smooth out the corners and there’s plenty of swinging left and right, darting and bobbing, flowing and popping between two-foot wide trees, around ferns and past huckleberry bushes heavy with red berries. The trail keeps picking up pace with more and more flow. Then it’s over. Too soon. Too soon.

Island popping.

With time and daylight to spare and hungry for more of the same, Morning Beer looks like a perfect 30-minute extension. We turn around and ride back up Deadfish. It’s almost as much fun going the wrong way. At a junction we turn and climb some more where snug switchbacks lead to another small summit. And then it’s down, but not fall line. Each plunge off a chunk of rock ends in a perfect roll out and up onto another feature. We rattle down a series of rock steps, coast across a flat and then, with two pedal strokes, onto another plateau. Someone has spent a lot of time stacking and placing rocks, bridging features. On slickrock sections it’s choose your own adventure before we funnel towards another feature.

After a few minutes the trail banks left down a 40-foot section of rock, rolls into dirt and then pushes up onto another slab. Slowly the steepness and length of the slabs get longer and each time a short, nearly effortless climb sets us up for the next feature. It goes on and on like this – down, down, up, down, down, up – and then it gets better. 

We drop off a chunk of rock into a gully and then swoop up the other side on more rock. Like skiing a half pipe we drop in, roll up, drop in, roll up four or five times. It all wobbles along that perfect line between in control and about to bail. Adrenaline courses but never explodes. It’s all doable, but takes concentration. Finally, the trail spits us out right at my car. The three of us are speechless for a moment, absorbing just how good it was. And then we can’t stop talking, reliving every drop, every constructed roll that fed into the next hand-built feature. On this perfect summer evening Morning Beer was just what the doctor ordered and it’s a reminder that sometimes exploring your own backyard is more rewarding than flying across the country or over an ocean.

Organic roots.

Morning Beer is an anomaly on Quadra. That’s what Sam Whittingham, the unofficial spokesperson for the island’s trails, tells me. He grew up on Quadra before leaving to pursue a riding career. He raced track bikes for a while and then switched to human-powered speed records in recumbent bikes cloaked in carbon fibre shells. For a while he dominated the competition and set records, none more noteworthy than in 2009 when he became the first person to break the deci-mach barrier. In the desert of Nevada he pedalled a bike from zero to one-tenth the speed of sound, 82.33 miles per hour. By then he’d moved back to Quadra and opened a hand-built bike business, Naked Bikes. He’s won awards for that too: in 2008 he won People’s Choice and Best in Show at the North American Hand-built Bike Show. None other than Lance Armstrong bought the winning bike.

When he returned to Quadra there were no dedicated mountain bike trails. At first he and a few other fat tyre loving locals tweaked existing hiking trails to make them rideable. Then they started to add connectors to smooth out loops. Eventually it was completely new stuff. A tight crew of five builders did almost all the work and it was mostly organic. 

“Someone would come up with an idea for a trail and casually mention it to the rest of us,” Whittingham says. “Usually we’d all be on board and start to help out.” Whittingham says the trail building is challenging, but rewarding. The dirt tends to be thin and rocky, the forest is rooty. “I call it flow-gnar,” he says. “None of it is really smooth, but our style is to keep it all approachable.”

The trail network focuses around Morte Lake and Chinese Mountains, a hiking and rock climbing area. “It’s pretty unique having all that recreation in one place,” he notes. There’s not a ton of elevation to play with so the trails tend to be bidirectional and not too steep, sucking out as much distance for every foot of drop as they possibly can.

King of beer.

Morning Beer breaks a lot of these trends. It was built by Sam Wright, who isn’t one of the regular builders. He finished the trail before showing the locals. And it’s directional. It is also brilliant.

“After the first time we rode it we all bowed down at Sam’s feet,” says Whittingham. “You are the king.”

What stood out to Whittingham was Sam’s amazing use of grade. “It’s a crazy combo of flow and technical, pucker factor and conservation of momentum,” he gushes praise. “It only drops about 400 feet but it feels like three times that.” Now when the rest of the trail builders come across a tough spot they ask ‘What would Sam do?’.

Slow brewed.

Beyond trails like Morning Beer and Deadfish, what really makes riding on these small islands is the culture. If Vancouver Island is two degrees mellower than the mainland, Quadra is six. No one is in a rush, unless they’re late for the ferry. Baristas in the coffee shops take time for small talk before steaming the milk. The teller at the grocery store apologises for the two-person line-up. In their car or between shops at the ‘mall’ everyone meanders at a pace that says ‘What’s the rush?’. Even for a lifestyle devotee like me it takes a little while to adjust and slow down. But once I hit Quadra Island time it’s like a deep breath.

Gabriola Island has a similar feel. This island sits just offshore from Nanaimo, the second most populous city on Vancouver Island. Gabriola is the same size as Manhattan, but with only 4,500 people. About ten of them ride mountain bikes. To make the most of the trail network spread around the island it helps to have a local show you the way. Bryan McRae, the man behind Gabriola Mountain Biking – a website that is not a business, just an invitation – is typical of the island mindset. McRae doesn’t guide rides, but if it works out he’ll happily show anyone around. 

“Our trails are a call back to the 1990s,” he says. “It’s traditional singletrack riding of yesterday. It’s not your typical riding. It keeps you on your toes.”

McRae is athletic, easy going – one would even say super-mellow – and rides a single speed. With little elevation change but lots of short ups and downs, the trails are perfectly suited to gearless riding. We roll through grassy meadows, around old growth firs three feet thick, and twist through shady stands. One trail follows the ocean, the Vancouver skyline appearing in the distance. Sections of trail link with doubletrack or short road rides and McRae insists he rides here three times a week and never gets bored.

There are plans to promote the area, but it’s not popular with everyone on the island. Like many backwater paradises, preserving the vibe is more important than anything. A popular T-shirt on the island says: “Welcome to Gabriola. Whatever it is, we’re against it.”

Local trails for local people.

It’s not the only place that doesn’t want to embrace outsiders. On Salt Spring Island, the bike shop crew seemed almost reluctant to tell us where to ride. One of the biggest and most populous of the Gulf Islands, a collection of rocks near Vancouver Island’s southern end, Salt Spring is a bedroom to the city of Victoria. It’s busier than the other islands and so the residents have more fear of losing what makes it special.

As it turns out, the riding is worth keeping secret. On the north end of Salt Spring a trail network climbs through open meadows studded with Arbutus, a colourful hardwood tree. There are views of the ocean and sandstone-like rock formations and a pretty forest of fir and fern. It’s impressive variety crammed into a small area. It’s also so different from what I ride at home, just a couple of hours away. I’m starting to wonder what else I’m missing with my homebody riding ways. I soon discover that even within sight of my house the riding is dramatically different than the trails I normally pedal.

Hornby Island is the closest of the islands to where I live, at least as a drone flies, but it takes two ferries from Vancouver Island to get to. All in it takes as long to reach as getting to Quadra or Gabriola. But it’s worth it. Tribune Bay on Hornby’s south side is one of the nicest beaches in BC – long, flat white sand and mostly protected in a park. When the tide comes in on a hot day, the warm sand heats the water to perfection. The rest of the coastline is all cliffs and eroded sandstone formations. Wineries, bakeries and pubs dominate the economy. In the rain shadow of the island mountains it’s dryer and warmer here too.

Welcome home.

Where Quadra, Gabriola and Salt Spring are a bit indifferent to visitors, on Hornby the locals embrace them. Hornby is a destination – tourism is their main industry. They love visitors, especially mountain bikers. A bike trail parallels the main road and a park protects a big chunk of the island. Mount Geoffrey sits in the middle of it and mountain bike trails cascade down its flank towards Tribune Bay.

Going down is where the glory is on Hornby, but for me it’s the going up that makes me sit a little taller in my saddle. I’ve ridden onto the ferry and from where it docks on the west side I pedal up a side road, climbing steeply. Ten minutes later I’m on the trail, winding through open forest on a bench to a cliff edge where I can look straight down at the ferry motoring off for another round. The easy grade heads south, slowly climbing through small meadows and stands of trees swaying and whispering in the sea breeze. Eagles and vultures circle high overhead, riding thermals. The views across the water to Vancouver Island and the Island Alps keep getting better. 

Eventually the trail hairpins back on itself and the grade kicks back along a ridge towards the summit. It’s still rideable, but some of the pitches take everything I’ve got. I forget about the sheer drop to my left. I ignore the mountain and ocean views. I dig in and grind up. Just as my legs scream for mercy the climb eases and then I’m on the summit. An open view to the west reaches almost from Quadra to Gabriola, probably 100 miles apart. I can almost see my house among the tiny boxes hugging the shore of Vancouver Island.

My home is so close, but a world away. In a moment I’ll turn downhill and race down the smooth trails, swinging through the forest all the way to the ocean. I’ll strip off my sweaty gear for a salty, refreshing dip. I might even grab a taco before riding back to the ferry. But before I do all that I lean onto my handlebars and soak in the joy of riding somewhere new right in my own backyard.  

Gallery Extras

Because we never have room for all the images in the printed mag. Click any image to enlarge.

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