How Political Waters Seed Trail Growth in Southern B.C.
The Columbia Basin Trust, born through compensation to communities displaced by dams in the 1950s and 1960s, is helping to create some of B.C.'s best trail networks
Up on Frisby Ridge near Revelstoke, British Columbia, patches of snow clung to the shaded gullies like white spots on a velvet-green carpet. Wildflowers were set to explode in the meadows. It was mid-July, and this out-and-back alpine singletrack epic had only just officially opened for the season. Mountain caribou dictated the terms. Wildlife managers had determined that by July, this critically endangered species would have moved on to greener pastures for the season. Now the mountain bikers were here. It took time for my legs to wake up as we ascended through a plantation forest at first and then into old subalpine trees. But soon I was energized, as much by the alpine flow as I was by the view. Where the trail arcs through a meadow, a Columbia River Valley panorama unfolded. Water and trails—they flow and course through the landscape like slaves to gravity. In their own unique ways, both have the power to shape communities and lives. And in British Columbia’s Columbia River Basin, the politics of water and the growth of a mountain biking empire are joined like a tire to a rim.
My knobby tires left speckled imprints in the trail surface, still soft and moist. This dirt, and the reason we were riding here in the alpine, has much to do with what happened in the 1950s and 60s along the tortured course of the Columbia River.
The river is shared by Canada and the U.S., in a sort of joint custody arrangement called the Columbia River Treaty. The river rises at its namesake lake near Canal Flats in southeastern British Columbia, then meanders northward past Golden, gathering force. By the time it swings back south near Mica Creek it is a glacier-fed powerhouse—literally.
Between Canada and the U.S., there are more than 60 dams in the Columbia River watershed, including 18 on the Columbia itself. In the name of electricity and irrigation, the Columbia River’s salmon population was decimated, and the lives and communities dependent on it were altered forever. For the longest time, it was considered a cost of doing business.
Then, in the early 1990s, communities impacted by the treaty started lobbying for compensation. It led to the formation of the Columbia Basin Trust (CBT), aimed at channelling some of the proceeds from electricity generation back into towns in this vast watershed for economic development, community projects, salmon restoration, and among many other initiatives, mountain biking infrastructure to the tune of millions of dollars over the years.
Last summer, my wife, two daughters and I hit the road to explore some of this legacy and to learn a little more about how communities like Revelstoke and Rossland have tapped this fund to build and grow their respective trail networks into riding destinations. And more recently, towns like Salmo and Nakusp , once one-horse logging towns, have also dipped into the CBT purse to help realize their mountain biking aspirations.
“The Frisby Ridge Trail really put Revelstoke on the map,” says Megan Tabor, president of the Revelstoke Cycling Association, about this trail that was first opened in 2010.
Five years ago, the club knocked on CBT’s door to help fund a Frisby Ridge extension and a connector to the Frisby DH trail. Tabor calls it a “full teriyaki” ride. The trust kicked in $110,000 toward the project. It wasn’t the first time CBT has supported development of Revy’s now vast trail network.
If Revelstoke’s network is maturing into middle age, then Nakusp is a youthful upstart. South of Revelstoke, tree stumps are like tombstones on the shoreline of the Arrow Lake Reservoir, which is fed by the Columbia. I met Nakusp locals Tristan Sinclair and Brent Wanstall at the Mount Abriel Recreation Site parking lot. Bikes are slung over the tailgate of Sinclair’s truck and we start shuttling up a steep forest road so dry it’s covered in powdery, nostril-choking dust. Ten minutes later, we unloaded the bikes and followed a spur road lined with dense alders. The cool of old forest drew us toward the entrance to Ride On, a marquee trail that descends more than 3,100 vertical feet of blue-square fun.
With a nod, Wanstall dropped in. We snaked through beautiful singletrack bench cut into the steep, forested mountainside. The switchbacks are tight and tenuous. Four turns in, I grab the brakes on a corner where a gap in the trees opens up to a view of Arrow Lake.
Sinclair and Wanstall are Nakusp boys to the core. The former is short and muscular, a compact frame that was no doubt put to good use as a Junior B hockey player. The latter is wiry and seems blessed with perpetual positivity. Following high school, he left his hometown for a few years to pursue a career in action filmmaking before returning to wrench on bikes and help manage the local bike shop.
Soon we branched onto Block Party, a black diamond trail reminiscent of Squamish’s Half Nelson, with monster table tops and berms taller than us.
Far below, Arrow Lake, a man-made reservoir, shined teal blue in the late afternoon sun. When they say water will be the oil of the future, you don’t have to convince people in Nakusp.
In 1968, the Hugh Keenleyside Dam near Castlegar was built. It was part of Canada’s obligation under the Columbia River Treaty to contain water for downstream electricity production in the U.S. But upstream north of the 49th parallel, people got screwed.
Some Nakusp locals are only a couple generations removed from relatives whose farms and livelihoods were expropriated from the fertile narrows between upper and lower Arrow Lakes to make way for water as it rose behind the dam. Residents were given a check for a non-negotiable amount along with orders to move out. Sixty years later, the wound is still open for some.
But one silver lining to this historical wrongdoing is the genesis of a mountain biking scene that both Sinclair and Wanstall vibrate with excitement to share. What this tight-knit group of riders and community builders has achieved in such a short time frame is nothing short of remarkable.
Since forming six years ago, NABS (Nakusp Area Biking Society) has gone from zero to hero. The club has raised roughly $2 million, including more than $600,000 from CBT alone. In that time, they secured a recreation tenure for Mt. Abriel just north of town and built a lakefront campground at the base of a 30-mile network of machine-built trails on the mountain. And now the club is turning its attention to building more black diamond offerings. It’s been a strategic and thoughtful approach of building accessible blue square trails first, then focusing on spicier stuff.
Sinclair was one of the original founders of NABS, even though he says he’s not into “that political stuff.” “My thinking was that we can’t keep building trails for free,” he says with a laugh. And he got his wish. Now, Sinclair is getting paid to build his dream trail, a double-black jump line on Mt. Abriel that he has unofficially named “Wo Jerry” (because that will be the reaction when people ride it, he says.)
Salmo is another Columbia Basin mountain biking upstart. We rolled to a stop one evening at the Salmo Ski Hill parking lot. A father and son loaded their bikes onto a pick-up and waved as they drove away. An old pair of skis leaned against the patrol shack. Snow safety signage was scattered around the day lodge haphazardly, as though staff just packed up their ski gear and hastily left on closing day. As we geared up, a woman with two young daughters emerged from the forest, swimming towels slung over their shoulders. They’d been cooling off in Erie Creek, a tributary of Salmo River.
The woman seemed excited to see us and asked where we were from. She looked at our kids and offered up some advice: “Take the climbing trail on the right called Sunset West, it’s a littler easier,” she said.
We pedaled across the parking lot and entered the woods climber’s right of a ski run that was overgrown with knee-high grass and huckleberry bushes. The grade was immediately punchy, but easy by Salmo standards, I suppose. When the trail traversed a ski run two-thirds up the climb, we stopped for a drink and to coax the kids higher with snacks. In the valley bottom, the Salmo River sparkled in the evening light on its journey toward the Pend d’Oreille River, and ultimately to join the waters of the Columbia.
The grassroots Salmo fat tire scene owes it genesis to Lisa Tedesco who moved to from Vernon this small town in 2011.
“When I arrived in Salmo there was one trail, Drifter, up at the ski hill. Unauthorized of course,” Tedesco says. “We were sitting around a fire one night having a few beers and got talking trails and how tired we were of driving elsewhere to ride.”
So, in 2013 Tedesco created an email address, and hung some posters advertising a meeting about trails. Twenty people showed up—hikers, bikers, walkers, and horseback riders. At the end of the meeting, they decided to organize and form the Salmo Valley Trail Society with, as it turned out, an all-female board and Tedesco as the founding executive director. They got to work right away. In 2014, the club hired Rossland-based D.I.G. Trail Design to build 500 yards of trail at the ski hill, using local kids as volunteer laborers. From this inaugural build, the network grew from, fueled by CBT grants approaching $100,000, along with other donors.
“CBT has also been supporting the society with capacity building and governance over the last year,” says Tedesco, who stepped down from the board in 2020 to let in new blood. “What started small grew quickly, and having professional support to figure out things like strategic planning, board roles, functions and structure has been huge for us.”
From the top of the ski hill, we chose True Blue. After a long, dry summer, the going is pretty dusty, but it’s a fast ride with lots of flow, big bermed corners and small, easy doubles. Dust hung listlessly in the air behind me as my wife and kids emerged from the forest at the end of the trail where it connects with Sunset East and leads down to the base area. From here, we could see the parking lot, still empty except for our RV. With this lovely small-town trail network all to ourselves, we opted to turn left for another lap, this time climbing the more difficult (but still green-rated) Sunset East.
CBT has also been supporting the society with capacity-building and governance over the last year. What started small grew quickly, and having professional support to figure out things like strategic planning, board roles, functions and structure has been huge for us.
Rossland, our next stop, is an hour’s drive west of Salmo. The next morning, we left the kids watching a video at our downtown Rossland RV campground and headed out early hoping to beat the intense summer heat. A short pedal delivered us to the Tamarack trailhead. The forest floor was matchstick dry, the branches of conifers drooped from heat exhaustion. We ascended with a steady cadence toward a ridgeline south of town.
Whenever I’m riding an unfamiliar zone, I like to go straight to the black and double-black trails to get a sense of the local standard. We headed to as classic, Whiskey on the Rocks, for no other reason than the name appealed to me.
From up high on Tamarack, we could barely discern the rooftops of Trail–the gritty industrial counterpart to Rossland’s quaint heritage alpine mining town vibe. The Columbia River swirls through Trail in big, creamy boils of water, passing the massive gothic-looking lead zinc smelter. It is the Columbia’s last Canadian stop before winding further to its confluence with the Pend d’Oreille River before it enters the U.S. From there it winds on for 150 miles, bending west to form the Oregon-Washington border, then pouring into the Pacific Ocean at the town of Astoria, Oregon.
Whiskey on the Rocks is a double black trail that leads into single diamond, Whiskey. As expected, it’s hard work, not unlike a tumbler of peaty whiskey. There are plenty of jarring rocks, steep rolls, hairpins and no-miss corners. A trail to be endured as much as it is to be enjoyed, but I loved it.
Rossland is at a unique stage in the trail network life cycle, the inverse of the Nakusp and Salmo experience. Rossland’s network was seeded decades ago when mountain biking was fringe, and unsanctioned trails were built to match the skills of the builder, which usually skewed toward masochistic gnar and tech. In other words, awesome trails in an old-school singletrack way, but not for everyone.
These days, much of the new trail builds around Rossland are focused on beginner- and family-friendly blue squares, like the shuttle-able flow trail that will parallel Highway 3B from Strawberry Pass to Red Mountain Resort. They’re filling gaps in the network to provide more opportunities for a broader range of riders.
Later that afternoon when it’s too hot to ride, I met up with Stewart Spooner in the shade of his backyard deck in upper Rossland. Spooner has been involved in mountain biking since the invention of the wheel, practically. He was first hired on as trail manager for the Kootenay Columbia Trails Society (KCTS) 20 years ago, then a part-time gig. The Aussie-born ski bum never imagined it becoming the full-time occupation that it is today.
As KCTS’s executive director, he manages fundraising, trailbuilding projects and maintenance on numerous trail systems that total more than 120 miles, while juggling his other job as a town councillor in Rossland.
“The Columbia Basin Trust has by far been our most regular source of funding,” Spooner tells me. “We’ve always looked at mountain biking as a community benefit, and I think that’s why we’ve been so successful.”
“The Columbia Basin Trust has by far been our most regular source of funding. We’ve always looked at mountain biking as a community benefit, and I think that’s why we’ve been so successful.”
The CBT, it turns out, gets mountain biking and the value it adds in getting people out on the trails and active, while also generating local employment for trailbuilders, maintenance crews, and service jobs. In the Columbia Basin, more and more, mountain biking is seen as a community-building endeavor. And then there’s two-wheeled tourism–it’s a real thing. As Shon Neufeld of Shon’s Bike, Ski, Stay, told me back in Nakusp, creating a proper trail network was a matter of survival for his store, the only bike shop in a town of 1,200 people. Now, the old-school local politicians, accustomed to thinking about community in terms of logging truck loads, are suddenly starting to notice all the mountain bikers in their little town on the shore of Arrow Lake.
Mountain Biking was decades away from being a sport when engineers started blasting rocks and building dams on the Columbia River 90 years ago. But now when someone flicks on a light switch in Vancouver, San Francisco and countless other cities, a few cents trickle back to trails in the Columbia River Basin. It’s a form of blood money perhaps, but at least some of it is hitting the ground where it counts, seeding more than a few road trips worth of mountain biking in southern B.C., and driving new economic growth to places stripped of opportunity in the name of progress.
“The Columbia Basin Trust is a great friend of the mountain biking community,” says Martin Littlejohn, executive director of the Mountain Bike Tourism Association.
It’s a friendship born from the murky politics of power and water. Around here they’re inextricably linked.