The builders: The art & design of trail building in Revelstoke

With the mountain bike movie Builder showing in Revelstoke on Thursday, we talked to local trail builders about their work

Jeff Acton from Little Big Works tears a tree stump while building a trail for the Revy Riders dirt bike club.

Jeff Acton sits in the box of his mini-excavator, bouncing it up and down, hammering at the ground around a big tree stump.

The stubborn tree planted itself in an old, overgrown road and it’s roots spread into the rocky bed. Now, it’s made for a big obstacle in a new trail the Revy Riders are developing as part of their network on the flank of Frisby Ridge.

I met Jeff Acton, who’s the main machine operator for Little Big Works, last week. With Builder, a mountain bike movie that focuses on trail building, screening this Thursday at the Roxy, I sought out local trail builders to hear their story.

Acton works for Little Big Works, the local business owned by Rob Parkin that does most of the trail building around Revelstoke. There’s a good chance you’ve experienced their work, whether it’s coasting down Flowdown at Mount Macpherson, cruising through the alpine on Frisby Ridge, or motoring around the Revy Riders network. Acton estimates they’ve built or fixed up close to 100 kilometres of trail in the Revelstoke area in the past seven or eight years.

Their goal is to build trails that are sustainable and fun to ride.

“The key to making a good trail is building a trail that will last,” Acton tells me. “Water is the key. You want to build a trail that will shed water.

“The layout guy is pretty key for that.”

The layout guy for the trail we were on was Joel Pirnke, who is used for most of the Revy Riders trail layout.

PHOTO: Joel Pirnke stands on a new trail called Pay Dirt in Smithers, B.C. ~ Photo contributed

Pirnke got his start trail building the old-fashioned way — building unsanctioned mountain bike trails around Revelstoke. As a teenager, he and his friends would go out and set up steep, technical lines in the woods. Rednecks Revenge, on Boulder Mountain, is his handiwork. He also volunteered on local trail crews who were doing sanctioned work.

“At the time Revelstoke didn’t have all that much for trail infrastructure,” he says. “There was only a few people riding bikes at that time.”

Eventually, his passion for trail building turned into a career. Around 2002, he joined a crew that helped build Rossland’s famous Seven Summits trail. “It snowballed from there,” he said.

Pirnke now owns and runs MTB Works and does trail building all over the province. He helped develop a trail plan for McBride, B.C., and was doing trail work in Smithers, B.C., when I reached him. Chris Pawlitsky, the president of the Revy Riders, goes to Pirnke for trail layout when he can.

“You’re always in search of that perfect line,” says Pirnke. “You look a lot at grades, you look a lot at forests, vegetations, ecosystems.”

As the layout guy, Pirnke will establish the trail corridor. Then a crew will come through and clear the right-of-way. Then Little Big Works comes in with its personnel to dig up the soil, remove roots and rocks, and smooth out the trail.

Acton will lead the way in his excavator and anywhere from one to six people will follow up, grooming the trail behind him. Today, Ben Rodd is doing that work. They generally have some flexibility within the corridor, so they can avoid really tricky sections or re-route a section if necessary.

Trail building has undergone a shift in Revelstoke over the years. When the Revelstoke Cycling Association got started, trails were largely hand-built by a team of volunteers. Lately, trails – both for mountain biking and dirt biking – are built to the International Mountain Biking Association standard.

“When we’re laying out a trail, we try to look for areas that are dryer, where there isn’t going to be a lot of water issues,” says Keith McNab, president of the RCA. “We try to build sustainable trails that are going to stand up over time.”

The main difference between dirt biking and mountain biking trails is that the former tend to be straighter because dirt bikers like to go faster. They also need better sightlines because of the speeds involved. Otherwise, the trail building techniques are pretty much the same.

PHOTO: Ben Rodd of Little Big Works smooths out a new dirt biking trail on Frisby Ridge. ~ Photo by Alex Cooper, Revelstoke Review

Acton’s favorite trail, from a builder’s perspective is Rowland’s Revenge, a 13-kilometre expert dirt biking trail. It climbs and descends steep, rocky lines, and it’s machine built. “It’s the first big expert trail that we built with a machine,” he says. “I know a lot of people didn’t think we could build it, but from a builder’s perspective it’s an example of what a machine can do.”

He cited Flowdown and Tantrum as favorites to ride — the former because of the speed, and the latter because of the technical challenge.

The trail we were on looked a lot like Flowdown. We walked the buffed out, nearly-complete sections, up to the bits Acton had just dug out. He got back in his excavator and hammered at the rock around the stump. Eventually he was able to wrestle it free. He hoisted it up, showed it to my camera then dumped it into the woods.

Trail building is a slow process – Acton works in metres – but in a few weeks he’ll have a new trail built for the Revy Riders.

What is the Martha Creek Makeover?

PHOTO: Broken bridges are a hazard for mountain bikers on the Martha Creek trail. ~ Photo by Alex Cooper Photography

The Martha Creek trail has seen better days. Built as a hiking trail in 1991, it was soon discovered by mountain bikers as an epic, nine-kilometre, 1,500-metre vertical descent from near the top of Sale Mountain to the valley below.

Unfortunately, the trail has worn down and hasn’t seen the necessary maintenance. Bridges are falling apart and some sections lack proper drainage. Meanwhile, the trail has grown in popularity and is regarded as one of the most epic mountain bike descents around, putting more and more pressure on the trail.

Enter the Martha Creek Makeover. Launched by Matt Yaki, the owner of Wandering Wheels, and Recreation Sites & Trails BC, the project seeks to rehabilitate the trail by fixing the bridges, and addressing water issues and erosion. The goal is to make the trail sustainable, while still maintaining its steep, technical  character.

To make this happen. Yaki is aiming to raise $30,000 to get a professional crew to lead the work. He has launched a crowdfunding campaign and sought out local sponsorship.

This Thursday, he will be showing the movie Builder at the Roxy Theatre. The movie looks at the people who build the trails, and also shows world class riders that make them look so good. There are two showings – an all ages one at 6:30 p.m. and a 19+ one at 9 p.m. Ticket are $15 for the early show and $20 for the late show.

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