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72 Hours: Fernie

Three days in Eastern British Columbia's hidden singletrack sanctuary


“I think I’m going to sui it,” Dylan Siggers yells down through a dirt cloud stirred by his wife, Sophie Perrault, and his towering friend, Nakoda Mason, nicknamed ‘Chompy.’ A moment later he bursts mid-air through a golden halo as if it’s a stadium rock show. When he touches back down, a solid 40 feet past the wedge that spat him 10 feet into the air, the dust settles, and at least one thing becomes clear: Fernie, British Columbia has produced some wild riders.

But, for reasons I can’t quite place, this old mining hub in the province’s southeast corner had never been on my riding radar before this past summer. It’s planted so close to Montana and Alberta, it almost seems to belong to them instead of B.C. The handsome brick town had always felt a world away, and certainly a ski destination more than a bike one. That’s probably because, in the minds of mountain bikers, B.C. is more synonymous with the Pacific Northwest’s loamy forests than the dry and crumbly Canadian Rockies, another 11 hours inland. That myopia, though, has allowed Fernie’s trails network to remain one of the most untrammelled in all of B.C., with an expansive and natural character all its own.

“In the winter there are a lot of international people, in the summer it hasn’t gotten to that point yet,” Perrault tells me as we regroup in the loose steeps—ones that don’t get blown out by the millions of people on the Coast. With roughly 400 sanctioned trails across eight riding zones, plus a uniquely natural-style bike park overlooking town, Fernie is one of the most quietly diverse and densely trailed places to ride a bike in B.C.

Photographer Bruno Long and I have front row seats to a show that starts on Three Kings, a steep jump trail in the “Shuttle Zone,” officially dubbed Morrissey Ridge. Trails like Dopamine, 48 Hours and Dirt Diggler—which features ludicrous chutes made out of actual coal—have confoundingly gone unmined by the majority of the riding world. Save for a sly league of easterners from Calgary, Alberta, two-and-a-half hours away, Fernie remains a regional secret.

“There are way more trails in Fernie than Revelstoke,” chimes in Luke Stevens, a friend accompanying Long and I from our home haunt to Fernie, where Stevens grew up part-time. The 5,200-person town serves as a de-facto weekend community for Calgarians, such as Stevens used to be before moving to Revelstoke, B.C., to work as a ski guide. Before that, he grew up riding bikes here with Siggers, a born and bred Fernieite, on weekends. But today their styles couldn’t be more different. The latter has a glued-to-the-ground downhiller’s panache from having been reared by the Canadian downhill team, while the former (who doubles as a pro skier in the winter), grew up dirt jumping and “noodling around.” His trail bike is set up to do bar spins, which he still catches flak for.

“Adults are stupid,” the 27-year-old Siggers quickly answers whenever it comes up.

He’s right. His setup works just fine as he and Stevens use impressively opposing techniques that work equally well down a line that’s as vertical and rowdy as it gets. In their minds, Fernie’s two-wheeled heritage is a cross-section of downhilling and dirt jumping. Then there’s Mason and Perrault, who are right in the middle of that spectrum with whippy techniques that blend honed handling with loose playfulness in dirt they’ve learned to drift and hook up in at will over the years.

One of the most reliable things about Fernie between the months of June and August is that it’ll be hot and sunny. It underscores the locale’s curious climatic character: While the greater mountain chain here is notoriously parched and cold, the Lizard subrange of the Canadian Rockies sits in a temperate belt where it scorches three months a year. It makes it a berm-slapping paradise, hidden in old-growth trees, draped off sharp, stern peaks.

And like any true mountain bike paradise, once you’re in downtown Fernie, there’s no need to get back in the car to go ride. Trails surround the town in every direction and are all accessible by bike.

“Every mountain you see from town has a mountain bike trail on it,” Chompy says as we move over to Swine Flu, an aptly named old-school ribbon of gold masterfully sketched onto Mount Proctor, with contemporary berms shoring up its corners. “The unique thing about Fernie is that almost all the trails are singletrack climbs and descents,” he explains. “There are no boring, long roads.”

Every mountain you see from town has a mountain bike trail on it

Swine Flu’s remarkably humane 30-minute climb rewards riders with an expansive view of the valley, and then a swooping and shaded descent back to town. After grabbing burritos from the Luchadora Burrito Co. (an extension of Nevados, a mind-melting tapas restaurant) and a sugar top-up from Happy Cow Ice Cream, there’s still Ridgemont, Montane, Castle Mountain, Mount Fernie, Fernie Ridge, and Mount Fernie Provincial Park to tackle. It’s shaping up to be a long weekend…

“When it’s hot out you ride the provincial park, because it’s got the best canopy,” Stevens explains as we make our way to the opposite side of the valley. This is where all the old growth that was spared by a massive wildfire early in the 20th century is now protected by the provincial government, serviced by a campground, and laced with trails. The fan favorite is Project 9, or P9, which has an at-times-punchy climb, then drops into a swerving and braided speedway that feels like you’re outrunning stormtroopers on the forest moon of Endor.

Project 9 is beloved enough to have a beer named for it by the Fernie Brewing Company, whose tasting room will likewise buy you a beer if you can ride P9, Hypervent (which feels like it sounds), and Swine Flu all in one day: a lofty but not untenable goal. You’d have to make sure not to get distracted by the likes New Goat and Black Forest, though, adjacent to the provincial park. The first creeps through ancient, giant trees and devil’s club in deep, grippy trenches, while the second flows all but straight through a dark brushwork with roots spread out like veins across the ground.

Fernie, above all else, is beautifully and decidedly unrefined—a welcome antithesis to the manicured and overproduced works being served up by many trail networks these days. If Squamish’s Half Nelson was a preppy kid, P9 would be the punk rocker giving it a wedgie—with the rest of Fernie’s trails cheering it on. That vibe even holds true in the bike park at Fernie Alpine Resort, where a small number of machine-built trails are eclipsed by the complex thread work of barrelling and rough ones quilted into the evergreen mountainside we visit on day two.

“Everyone forgets to ride the bike park,” Siggers says. “It’s really fun and unique, it’s not like bike park-style riding, it’s like singletrack aggressive riding with a chairlift.”

Lower TNT and Binlogdin prove to be the more flowing of which, despite still not being flow trails. Natural flow, it’s an old concept that feels novel now. Meanwhile, Kodiak Karnage and Cats Pyjamas offer terrifying insight into what it’s like for your brakes to be totally useless. If you have problems with commitment, these trails will sort you out.

It’s really fun and unique, it’s not like bike park-style riding, it’s like singletrack aggressive riding with a chairlift.

“There are also rides for everyone,” Perrault insists, and her 9-year-old nephew, Théo Favreau, joins us on a few laps to prove her right. Natural doesn’t have to mean hard, even though it helps that Perrault herself rides like a Jedi.

By the time the chairlift stops spinning, there’s an impressive dirt jump scene happening downtown. A solid progression of jumps lies stacked between the skate park and aquatic center for anyone to use. It’s a public amenity few towns this size are risk-tolerant enough to have, but here it’s birthed a yearly festival, and a population of particularly aerial riders.

“We always dirt jumped as kids, and that’s what we thought was the most important thing about biking,”Siggers says in between eye-widening whips, flips, and spins with his friend Matt Dennis, whom everyone calls ‘Aussie.’ It’s a scene that brings together pre-teens and dudes in their 40s alike, and holds the central gravity that the rest of Fernie’s riding orbits around. It’s the most common place to finish the day, with the sun sinking behind the former industrial town’s historical western skyline.

We always dirt jumped as kids, and that’s what we thought was the most important thing about biking

Days are long in the summer but morning comes quick, even with the social reprieve the pandemic brings. Normally we’d be tempted to stay out all night at places like the Brickhouse, with the explosion of live music the town offers. Our host Siggers, with freshly coiffed pink hair, is in three bands himself, and attests to Fernie’s reputation for a rich and inviting nightlife. There are also normally plenty of events and summer markets to distract you from your bike, including world-class fly fishing. Simply lazing down the Elk River on a hot summer day in a floaty is another excellent option.

The charming town full of life, wealth of riding, and impossibly good weather should have this place blown right out. But somehow it isn’t.

“We’re in a corner of B.C. that’s not super easy to get to from everywhere,” Siggers posits. “I have tons of friends from Kamloops that have never come here. We’re just kind of far out of the way in terms of, if you’re going to go to the Coast to do a bike trip, it’s not super easy to come here. We’re kind of hidden.”

As it continues to hold true, the best things often are.

Photos: Bruno Long

 

 

 

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[Thank you to Snow Valley Lodging and Tourism Fernie]