One moment it's rain. The next it's snow. The wipers on photographer Ryan Creary's truck chase but barely keep up. Their metronome squeegee is the only sound in the car. It's day five of our road trip along British Columbia's Yellowhead Highway. The unseasonably cold weather has just taken a turn for the nasty, soaking our stoke with it. We're both ready to turn around, take a rest day. But then we pull into the parking lot at the bottom of Boer Mountain.
At least 15 people are waiting for us. There's a kid on 20-inch mountain bike. A few couples. A dad and his daughter. A family of five. Everyone is smiling and laughing. It's the shittiest day of the year but the riders of Burns Lake don't care. And that says a lot about how this town in the middle of nowhere has inspired almost all the mountain bike development in northern B.C.
Wherever we stop to ride along the Yellowhead, I ask the locals about the impetus for building trails. The answer is always roughly the same: "If Burns Lake can do it…"
In 2003, Pat Dube and Kevin Derksen, both employed by the school district, decided they were going to turn Burns Lake into a world-class mountain bike destination and community.
"It was a grandiose plan," admits Pat, from the driver seat of the mountain bike club's shuttle van. "I didn't think we'd get to where we are now."
Building off an initial $10,000 grant, they've now invested $2 million into a trail network. It's Canada's first IMBA ride center. More than 60 miles of trails spill off Boer Mountain and wind around nearby ridges. There is a Jay Hoots-designed bike park and a $100,000 wall ride, built by high schoolers as part of a skills development program. There are now 200 people in the mountain bike club, a First Nations mountain bike program introducing youth to the sport and a high school mountain bike club.
"It rivals hockey in popularity," says Cam Stewart, a 16-year-old ripper and member of the club. "Where else in Canada can you say that?"
He tells me that as we wait for the group to catch up. After Dube dropped us off at the summit we slipped and slid down the snowy upper mountain. Boer starts steep and then quickly mellows out. Once we're off the technical upper mountain we slowly pick up speed. Soon the snow's gone and we're on the nearly non-stop procession of berms and tables of When Pig's Fly, one of Burn's Lake's signature trails.
We ride as a big group and the trail accommodates the range of interests and abilities. Cam hits every jump with aggression. His little brother Dylan wheelies and whoops over ever bump. Patti Dube takes it easy and rolls everything.
One of the things that stands out about Burns Lake is this inclusive, community-oriented attitude. It's reflected in how they got the trails built: "It's a small town," explains Patti. "Whatever we needed, someone on the board could do it or knew someone who could." It’s also apparent in the trails themselves: a mix of everything from a flat gravel path around the lake to the technical rock work and punchy climbs of Slaughterhouse. The roughly 5,000 people living here maintain 60 miles of trail: an average of 25 people show up for the weekly Wednesday night maintenance party. It adds up to about 2,000 hours a year. "They don't know any different," says Pat. "It's always been part of the mountain bike culture."
Despite the snow at the summit, Pat insists we ride Pigasus, a black diamond that switchbacks off the summit. We inch our way down, carefully navigating the hairpins, always conscious that a mistake could mean landing on the guy one switchback below. A few turns in he points out a corner that looks like masons labored for days, carefully stacking 6 feet of rock. A little later it’s the telephone pole they manhandled to bridge two chunks of trail separated by a vertical rock slab. Every section of trail seems to have a story. There's pride here. It permeates the experience.
When it's time for us to leave Burns Lake it's still sleeting, but we don't want to go. After two rides we've barely touched the trail network. There's an epic singletrack adventure that climbs to the summit and around the backside. On another trail, firefighters built a 1,000 yards of woodwork. There are long rock slabs and big jumps. But I'm mostly upset about missing the whiskey stash.
Somewhere hidden on the Razorback trail is a bottle and glasses just waiting for thirsty riders. Pat tells us there's a faux stash out there too. This little quirky reward is one more thing that makes Burns Lake the standard that all other northern B.C. mountain bike clubs aspire to become.
"Our secret is that we don't know any different," says Pat. "We just built the bike destination that we dreamed of riding."
Trails: All the information on the trails, the Big Pig Bike Festival and more about riding at Burns Lake is at burnslaketrails.ca.
Stay: The Kager Lake rec site campground is free and right in the middle of the trail network.
Coffee: Hit the New Leaf Café for excellent coffee and a pre-ride breakfast.
Beer: Grab a drink at the Office Pub & Grill. The pub food is solid, too. officepubbl.com
Food: Several options in town, including excellent Indian at Tandoori Bliss.
Bike shop: Burnt Bikes is the local shop and a great source for beta.