The Bakery: The Three Universal Truths of Trail Building
Image and text by Danielle Baker
Spending some time in the forest with a man named Digger, a radio playing classic rock, and some hand tools taught me more about Buddhism that my Eastern Religion class ever did. Whether he knows it or not, Digger has achieved a spiritual understanding that the rest of the world is throwing money at yoga retreats to try and find.
Nothing is Lost in the Universe
A dead leaf turns into soil, a seed sprouts and becomes a new plant. An experience invested in a child can lead to the trail network that we enjoy today.
I found Digger working on the Baden Powell Trail, at the Stairs of Despair. Once hiking-only, it is now multiuse and serves as a common exit for many of the mountain biking trails on one of our local mountains. Almost fifty years ago Digger worked on this very trail as a Cub Scout with his mom. In the last thirty years he has taken that experience, along with his love for the outdoors, and built over thirty of the now famous North Shore trails.
Digger looks at mountainsides like Pablo Picasso looked at a fresh canvas, or perhaps due to the required secrecy, a Banksy reference is more appropriate here. He has no interest in machine-built trails or power tools, “machines make a mess.” Instead he carefully crafts his trails by hand, reading the landscape and building with respect to the existing environment. Everything has a place; nothing is lost. Everything that was there is still there. Ferns and other plants are relocated along the edges of the trails, and looking at a finished work makes you wonder how this trail seemed to evolve so organically in nature.
Digger is a minimalist when it comes to trail building. He builds everything by hand, believing that when you remove the ease of power tools you only build what is necessary. The ladders and bridges on his trails are only for sensitive sections, water bypasses, and steep grades. Avoiding excessive woodwork on trails also makes closing a trail more challenging, there is nothing to teardown.
Change is constant and attachment causes suffering. While there has been ground gained, the last thirty years have seen a lot of trails decommissioned. Decommissioned is a euphemism for years of hard work destroyed. Without notice or apology, trails have been torn down overnight, whitewashed. To live the life of a dedicated trail builder there has to be some acceptance that change is inevitable. On one of Digger’s first trails he found two months worth of hand built woodwork knocked over by hikers. Digger simply rebuilt it stronger and left a note. The note explained that the trail would not exist if he had not created it for mountain bikers, but that the hikers were welcome to use it. Peaceful resistance.
Change can be positive as well, the acceptance of mountain biking and support from land managers has become much more prevalent in recent years and we can only hope that this change will continue in the right direction. Until it is in writing however, the future of our trails is uncertain. With this continued threat hanging over them, the builders’ reward is the process of creations and time in the woods. They must live in the moment. It is inevitable that their secret trail will be discovered, people will ride it, and the loam will disappear. Even Digger who used to threaten new riders on his trails with broken pinky fingers if they divulge the location to others, now realizes the value in the masses. And we all know that half of North Vancouver wouldn’t be able to have tea with the Queen if he had followed through on his threats.
Law of Cause and Effect
Any action performed produces an equal and opposite reaction, this is karma. I had expected that Digger would be at the core of the ‘trails built by mountain bikers are only for mountain bikers’, or ‘the north shore trails are hard, deal with it’ attitude. The truth is that Digger works on a much bigger picture than that. He builds trails for people to use.
Digger’s philosophy is simply that if there are trails for everyone, then everyone will have a stake in protecting them. He believes in multiuse trails, beginner trails and expert trails, and he is putting the time in to make this happen in our back yard. This insight and these efforts are ensuring the likelihood of future trail networks. He surprised me in that he has been riding for over thirty years and he has not lost his ability to understand beginner riders and, most importantly, he wants to build for them. His dedication to mountain bikers of all levels is commendable and selfless.
I was inspired as I spent time with Digger on the trail watching him interact with everyone who passed. Bikers, trail runners, dog walkers, and hikers all said ‘thank you’ on their way by or stopped to chat and commend him on his work. If each of those people were inspired by his actions enough to say something, in the future we may see them out at trail days, building their own trails, or with their kids at a Cub Scout meeting.
The next time you are out riding think about the role you are playing in the preservation of our trails. We are all integral parts of the process and whether trails need to be built, maintained, or protected, we can all find a way to be involved. We create our own karma.