Story and photos by Brad Andrew
The mountain bike trail builder is a unique breed. The trail builder leads a life of labor that garners little acknowledgement. It is a life lived in forest shadows, a life no one ever starts down intentionally. The builder’s path doesn’t start with a shovel in hand, it starts with both hands firmly grasped on the handlebars.
Most mountain bikers are content to follow the winding single track laid out before them, never seeking the unknown outside. A few ride to the trail’s end and don’t stop. They imagine what could be beyond. They know the only way to get there is to build their own path – take a dead end and make it a fresh start. And so it is out of necessity that a trail builder is born.
Trail builders are abundant in Bellingham, home to the mountain bike mecca known as Galbraith Mountain. Galbraith is an intricate network of trails built by some of the finest trail building hands on the West Coast. Local builders have helped put Bellingham on the map in the mountain bike world. The industry has also noticed, and companies have moved in to call Bellingham home.
Now, destination resorts are seeking out local trail builders for their knowledge and ability to read a mountain’s topography and envision how a trail should flow down it.
In the Selkirk Mountains of British Columbia, a timber-framed building sits beneath massive mountains. The structure stands alone, looking low-key and unassuming from the outside. But inside are giant cedar beams, elegant slate and an entryway that opens to a great room with a massive wood-burning fireplace adorned with ornate rock work reaching toward the ceiling some 25 feet above. This is Retallack Lodge.
Retallack Lodge was founded in 1998 as a winter destination for skiers and boarders with snowcat-served terrain. In 2011, the lodge introduced mountain biking to create a year-round business. But in order to attract riders, it needed an extensive trail network. Lacking the corporate financing of most lift-accessed mountain bike destinations, Retallack turned to a grassroots approach to trail building. Interns and locals came in and built trails, many just for a chance to roll on their creations. This organic and somewhat familial approach remains a constant at Retallack. Each trail in the network is a direct representation of its builders; each has a unique style, flow and character.
During the summer of 2014, Freehub Magazine, a Bellingham-based mountain bike publication, along with a crew of Bellingham trail builders supported by trail building/clothing company Treelines Northwest, partook in a Retallack project that reached for the top of 8,235-foot Reco Peak.
Mike Kinrade, the current visionary behind mountain bike operations at the lodge, had the grandiose idea to build a trail that would run from the jagged summit all the way to the lodge, nearly 6,000 feet below.
It was a massive undertaking. Just getting to the work site was a daunting task – every day the crew slogged uphill to continue digging and working their way back down. In the end, what was once a manifestation of the mind became a reality and the Peak to Creek trail was born. This trail, along with a video series produced by Freehub chronicling the project, helped cement Retallack’s spot on the map as a premier mountain bike destination. The work didn’t stop there and the trail network on Retallack’s 1.5-million-acre tenure continues to grow.
Last summer, Kinrade invited members of the original Treelines crew back to Retallack to build a new trail. In late July, I joined their crew of eight seasoned trail builders and we hit the road from Bellingham. Nine hours and one truck breakdown later we arrived at Retallack ready to dig.
For the next four days we spent 10 hours a day on the hill building a new section of trail through rocky subalpine terrain. With Kinrade in charge, our crew plus a few lodge staffers and interns made 15. Fifteen people with one common goal can make quick work of a new trail.
Kinrade flagged the path before we arrived and led the way, with lodge guide Brian Malley and his crew clearing brush and small trees. We followed behind in waves, roughing in, benching, cribbing, screening, hauling and tamping out the trail. The dirt in the Selkirks is a little different from the soft golden soil of northwestern Washington. We spent a significant time searching the woods for dirt stashes to haul to the trail. We even resorted to screening rocky dirt to extrude every last drop of pure brown gold out of the ground.
In the end, the trail blended with the surrounding terrain and looked like it was meant to be there. Kinrade focuses on building trails with as little impact as possible. While roughing out the trail’s path, we would set aside sod clumps, which we later replanted on the downside of berms to help stabilize the soil and prevent erosion. This approach leads to natural-looking trails. By the end of four days we had put in over 600 man-hours to build the new section of trail dubbed “Heavy Meadow.”
Our valiant efforts were rewarded on the fifth day, when we awoke to blue skies and a shiny helicopter waiting to fly us to the top of Reco Peak to experience the best of Retallack Lodge.
After five minutes of whirring rotors we were sitting on the summit of the majestic peak. A few minutes later, the heli dropped off a custom rack full of mountain bikes. At the top we all took a moment to reflect upon our week and soak in the sheer beauty of the location.
Then we hit the trail for a long ride down. The trail is fast and flowing with breathtaking exposure. The singletrack trail guided us down, flowing like a roller coaster cut into the side of a mountain. It is mountain biking at its finest.
For more info on Retallack Lodge, visit www.retallack.com x
Brad Andrew is a Bellingham based freelance action sports photographer. He spends his winters chasing the snow looking for the perfect spot to make the perfect image. He is a husband, father and a student of life.