On the micro scale, I’m chasing TC Bray down Sticks 'n Stones. Roller-coastering through the woods, we skid off small rock drops, carve through gravelly corners and punch up short climbs. On the macro scale, we bench across the flank of Mount Harry Davis, angling at that perfect pitch that demands just an occasional touch of the brakes.
Every now and then, the pine and poplar trees fall back to reveal an expansive view over the town of Houston—hemmed in by three mountain ranges. At one clearing, Bray pulls over and our posse regroups. Besides photographer Ryan Creary and me, there's Ben Lance, president of the high school mountain bike club, who ditched math class to ride with us; Lo Bachand, a wildland firefighter who lives here half the year; and Bray, who knows the woods like he's lived here his whole life, which he almost has. This represents about a third of the mountain bike community.
Houston's trails weren't built by hand by an avid local bike community or with the goal of attracting tourists. Like several of the small towns we visit and ride on our Yellowhead Highway road trip, Houston invested in mountain biking so people would stop moving away.
"The town's changed a lot since I was a kid," says Bray, looking over a landscape dominated by forestry and mining. "It's a resource town and we're in a long bust. It used to be twice as big. The more we shrink, the more we're overlooked, the more people don't want to live here."
When the local mountain bike society started building trails in 2014, most of the town's doctors, nurses, pharmacists and teachers commuted from bigger, busier Smithers, British Columbia, an hour west on the highway. There wasn't even a grocery store in town.
It's not a unique problem in the north, says Joel McKay, CEO of Northern Development Initiative Trust, a major funder of trail development throughout northern B.C. A lot of the industry—logging mostly—that built these towns has consolidated, downsized or shut down, taking big chunks of the population with them. And there is the changing lifestyle focus.
"One of the biggest challenges across northern B.C. is attracting and retaining professions," says McKay. "Today professionals are choosing where to live and then finding a job. It used to be the opposite. We're competing with other towns in the north but even more with southern B.C."
Small, remote towns are a hard sell, but build some mountain bike trails and the narrative changes. All of a sudden they're affordable outdoor meccas.
Take McBride, a small town between Valemount and Prince George. Snowmobiling put it on the map in winter, but it's basically a gas stop during the summer. There's little else to do in town besides explore the backroads. It was to entice a few more tourists to stop and professionals to stay that the town council decided to invest in trails. They convinced a local teacher to spearhead the project in the community forest on the mountainside above town. So far, Ingrid Stengler, the teacher-turned-fundraiser-and-organizer extraordinaire has secured $300,000 in grants that the local society has invested into 16 miles of trails.
"We've basically built our own bike park for the 13 people who ride in town," laughs Stengler.
We connect with her on a sunny evening, the second day of our trip. She crushes us on the long climb, freshly hacked into the hill with a machine, to the top of the trail network. And then down through an eclectic mix of rough and wild singletrack and flowing fun. "We learned as we went," admits Stengler. It was time well spent. We end the ride on All In, McBride’s brand new jump and berm line. It's an immaculate piece of modern trailbuilding.
A couple days later we roll into Vanderhoof to ride with Jason Barr. Almost single-handedly, he fundraised and built a trail network in a park right in town. And now he's building a mountain biking community around it, including a high school race team he also coaches. The trails have a cross-country feeling with a few fun freeride lines plunging downhill. It’s the perfect place to spend an hour working up a sweat.
Vanderhoof, like McBride and Houston, look at the trails like they do the community skating rink, playground or pool.
"Everyone loves pools," says McKay. "But pools have to pay taxes. There's lots of maintenance and other costs. Mountain bike trails are cheaper to build and free to run. The mountain bike society typically maintains them, there are no taxes, and little impact on the landscape. They're more sustainable and attractive for many small communities."
Back in Houston, trailbuilding is working. The grocery store is open again, so is the pharmacy. A couple teachers and doctors moved to town. No one is sure of a direct correlation to the trails, but they didn't hurt. Local kids are riding. One even had a birthday party on the trails.
Houston is still down on its luck, but that hasn't stopped its trailbuilding. The newest addition is Padawan, a green trail named after the beginner Jedis in Star Wars. With no history of riding in town, it might be the most important trail in the network.
We ride Padawan on lap two. It's the kind of trail anyone can ride—wide, smooth, swinging back and forth through the forest, berms making the corners a little easier and lots of little jumps to boost, roll inadvertently or anything in between. Our small group rides it top to bottom without stopping. We all roll onto the shuttle road, muddy, smiling and in agreement: we'd take Padawan over a pool any day.
Trails: Stop at Pawsome Adventure and Sport for trail info and the chance to hook up with a shuttle.
Stay: Camp for free at Silverthorne Lake Rec Site just out of town.
Coffee: Brewstir's Cafe serves good coffee and soups and is right around the corner from Pawsome Adventure.
Beer: The best spot for burgers and beer is Happy Jacks Restaurant and Bar.
Trails: All the news on what's new and conditions are kept at McBride Mountain Trails.
Stay: Right below the trails is the Beaverview RV Park and Campground or stay for free and spot spawning salmon in the fall at the Beaver River Recreation Site, a short drive away.
Coffee: Get your java fix, snack on homemade treats, catch up on local gossip, and buy a souvenir at Welcome Home in downtown McBride.
Beer: The Gigglin' Grizzly Neighbourhood Pub is the place to rehydrate and refill in McBride.
Trails: Jason Barr updates trail conditions on Trail Forks.
Stay: There's free camping, great swimming and a wicked rope swing at Hogsback Lake Rec Site.
Coffee: Hit the Drive Thru for a brew on the go.
Food: Grab a seat on the patio and try the BLT at Scotts Grille & Pizzeria.
Beer: The best place to get a pint in town, and excellent food too, is The Reid Bar and Grill.
Previous stops along the Yellowhead Highway: