When Cliff Lamb moved to Revelstoke in 2003, he looked for places to go mountain biking near town. There weren’t as many trails around here then as there is now — a few around Williamson Lake, some trails at Mt. Macpherson, a couple on Mt. Mackenzie and one trail called Toaster behind the Revelstoke Railway Museum.
One day, Lamb discovered the Toaster trail, which found a way through the hill above the railway museum towards the Clearview Heights neighbourhood on CPR Hill.
“It was very difficult, it was very steep in sections, but to be honest with you, very few people could ride it,” he said. “It was an advanced trail and it was in disrepair.”
Lamb went about repairing the trail. He re-routed the trail to bypass some of the worst climbs and also make it walkable. He tried to follow natural terrain features to make it a friendlier trail for people to bike and hike.
“I thought it was close to Revelstoke and people should be able to go for a walk and ride their bikes too,” he said.
That work marked the start of the web-like network of trails that criss-cross CPR Hill, from Townley Street in the east to the railway museum in the west. It’s a 13-kilometre network of trails that has proven to be popular with hikers, joggers, dog walkers and mountain bikers, but also exists in a grey zone, straddling a mix of city and private property, and all of it built without any official sanctioning.
Lamb moved to Revelstoke from Victoria, where he was an avid mountain biker. The 46-year-old wears his hair in a short pony tail and works for CP Rail as a conductor.
His first work was on Toaster, then he started to work on trails at the eastern end of CPR Hill. He could see signs of old trails — one he learned was put in by the Stovel family, who own a property at the end of Cedar Street, and another scratched into the forest by some mountain bikers.
“I worked on that. I didn’t know it was private property, I assumed it was all crown land,” he told me.
He looked for signs of old trails, pieced together sections, built some bridges and slowly a trail network emerged between the railway museum and Townley Street.
“I thought to myself, ‘How can I be as polite and as careful as possible?’” he said. “If there are issues and the city comes along, the worst case scenario is the trail is closed and nature comes back in.”
As he would discover, the land wasn’t all city owned. A good chunk of it, especially at the eastern end is owned by private individuals and CP Rail.
Lamb has put together maps showing who owns what pieces of land, with the trails overlaid on top. According to the maps he showed me, there are six undeveloped lots on the eastern end of CPR Hill, divided by what would have been an extension of Cedar Street. I was unable to reach the land owners north of Cedar, but did speak to both land owners south of Cedar Street. CP Rail owns property in the area immediately adjacent to Track Street.
Virginia Thompson bought the two easternmost lots in 2005, with the idea of letting one of her sons build there. After exploring the lots — and realizing the cost to develop them — she decided it would be better to leave them undeveloped and turn them into a urban forest.
“My dream was to have some benches and to just have it as a walking, sitting place where people could go and commune with nature,” she said.
She considered looking for ways to protect the land — possibly by donating it to the city, or by placing a covenant on the land so it couldn’t be developed.
Then, one day, she went for a walk and found a number of bridges put in.
“I was taken aback because this was private property. Nobody asked me,” she said. “Then we began to see more and more trails being built and the understory being infringed and small trees being cut and garbage being left around.”
Laura Stovel, who’s family owns the lot at the end of Cedar Street, expressed similar misgivings about the trail development. Growing up, her family would use a trail through the area to reach what is now Townley Street — the one Lamb discovered.
“It was there my whole life. I don’t even know if it was dad who built it. It was just always there,” she told me. “The eastern access was a beautiful meadow and that’s where we used to play.”
The area was much wilder and animal sightings were common, especially bears. “I think this hive of trails has eroded a lot of the underbrush and the activity scares the animals,” she said. “There’s a lot fewer animals.”
Despite these misgivings, both Stovel and Thompson said they aren’t opposed to the trails — they just want them controlled, damage to the land minimized, and their liability limited.
Photo: Chris Selvig rides his bike around CPR Hill, with his dog Sandy chasing him. Photo by Alex Cooper/Revelstoke Times Review
As Cliff Lamb and I walked along the trails together, he pointed out remnants of past use of the area — bits of old bridges, signs of old trails, and debris left behind from development long forgotten. We pulled two metal bars out of the ground and walked over a pile of bricks that lay partly exposed under a section of trail.
The forest was wide open, with cedar trees forming a light canopy above and babbling creeks rushing down the hillside.
Our first stop was the jump line built on city land right next to the Townley Street entrance. The line starts with a wooden jump at the top of the hill, swerves through a series of berms before one final jump at the bottom. The line was built by a group of kids, much to Lamb’s chagrin. He looks at the heavy manipulation done to the land — notably a big hole that was dug to create the final jump — and shakes his head.
“This is a section I’m not really in favour of,” he said. “I’m not much of an expert on (jumps) at all. I don’t like to see it in here.”
Lamb sees himself as the caretaker of the trails. He built most of them and spends time maintaining them, though he notes many other people do volunteer maintenance now as well.
He had no trail building experience before coming to Revelstoke and, as he puts it, his aim was to create trails that minimized the impact on the land. He looked for areas that he thought could have been roads or trails in the past and built bridges using blowdown
He pointed to a wider path that led through the jump line. It could have been a skidder trail, he said.
“This whole hillside, this is exactly what I was looking for — these terrain features that required the least amount of manipulation,” he said.
As Lamb built his trails, other people also started building in the area — mostly kids, he said. They built the big jump line and other big stunts that Lamb tore down; you can see the remnants of some of them throughout the trail network.
Lamb feels a sense of ownership over the trails. He built them and maintains them, and wants to make sure they continue to exist. To do that, he needs to make sure the trails stay clean and don’t get out of control.
The jumps and other big features have him worried “I don’t want trails on private property to get too big or people to do their own thing and cut their own trail,” he said. “It’s a bit of a tenuous system.”
As we walked around, he pointed me to a section of trail at the edge of Virginia Thompson’s property. Some time ago, some people had built a wooden ramp that they had nailed into two trees. They left behind lots of nails and other garbage. It was this kind of work that had him worried, knowing that the big jumps and garbage are what would most upset the land owners.
“If it was possible to meet these kids, I’d like to show them the property line and ask them not to do anything on private property,” he said.
Laura Stovel said she was worried about the big jumps being built on private land, “Because if somebody gets hurt on somebody else’s land, it can be a serious thing.”
Word slowly came to Lamb that some of the land he was working on was privately owned. He met with Laura Stovel and Virginia Thompson, and with one other land owner. He has yet to hear from the fourth land owner, who owns the land at the northeast end of Cedar Street.
“As the old saying goes, ‘If it ain’t broke don’t fix,’” he said. “There hasn’t been any problems so I don’t want to contact him. I wait for them.”
The conversations with the land owners went well, Lamb told me (a sentiment Thompson agreed with). He explained to them what he was doing and, to address their liability concerns, pointed them to the Occupiers Liability Act. The act says that a land owner isn’t responsible for risks assumed by someone on their land, unless they deliberately undertook acts that risked a person’s safety.
A few years ago, at the urging of her insurance company, Thompson had private property and no trespassing signs posted at the entrances to her property. She had them put up as protection against liability, she said.
“I could take the bridges out,” she said. “I’ve considered that and I might have to if it got to that eventually, because of the liability.”
Still, as things stand, she doesn’t mind mountain biking on her property, as long as it doesn’t get too built up and it stays clean. Her main concern, she told me, is that the land not be developed, but she also wants to make sure she is not liable for any injuries. She also brought up the matter of compensation — right now she is paying taxes on land that other people use without permission.
She also wants to ensure the land stay clean and the understory not disturbed any more than it is. “The understory has been changed and compromised,” she said.
“I would be quite willing to sit down with the cycling club and the city and try to work something out,” she said. “I’d rather have cycling there than have development. It’s just a matter if we can work something out where there’s an easement in perpetuity.”
Stovel said her main concern is the amount of trail building that’s gone on, which in her view is excessive.
“He’s created this lovely network but I think there’s been so much trail building that its eroded the land and cut out the underbrush, which is important in any forest,” she said. “I think it’s too much but I commend him for all the hard work he’s put in.”
The CPR Hill trails have been on the agenda of the Revelstoke Cycling Association for several years. The trails have been mapped out and the city and private property owners consulted with, but progress towards a formal agreement has been slow.
“We had the request from the Revelstoke Cycling Association to see if we could see if we could somehow formalize the trails,” said Alan Mason, the city’s director of economic development. “The thought would be that it would be a good opportunity to promote trail riding in Revelstoke earlier in the year and probably later in the year when the other trails are unusable due to snow and what not.”
Keith McNab, the president of the Revelstoke Cycling Association, told me a few weeks ago that the hope is to legalize the trails on city property first, and then work with private property owners after that. The trails on the west side of CPR Hill, closer to the railway museum are almost entirely on city property, as are those closest to Townley Street in the east.
“I think the city should be recognizing them and sticking them on maps and handing them out at the visitor centre,” he said. “A lot of them start right at the railway museum.”
Cliff Lamb said he wants to make sure all property owners are on board before anything is done to actively promote the trails. Right now they are a local haven who’s existence has spread by word of mouth.
How the arrangement would look remains to be seen. Mason said the city has sought an opinion on liability issues from municipal risk management experts. One issue is what kind of standard the trails have been built to.
“That would be a consideration — are they safe for the public? And if they’re not, it’s difficult for us to promote them,” he said. “If they’re not safe and the city decides they want to promote them, who’s going to do the work to bring them up to standard?”
Mason said it’s doubtful the city would want to take on management of the trails, so that responsibility would likely fall to the Revelstoke Cycling Association.
Virginia Thompson expressed concern about the trails being actively promoted. She’s worried about the impact increased use would have on her property.
“Right now it’s local people who use it mostly. If they got on the tourism map too much, God help me how many people would be going through there,” she said. “That’s the downside of having the city involved of making it a tourism attraction. I don’t want a ton of people in there. The way it’s used now isn’t that heavy, and it’s local people, which I prefer.”
Laura Stovel would like to see an agreement reached that sees the forest restored as much as possible.
“What’s happening is good but the pendulum has to swing back,” she said. “I think the community and the mountain bike club, could have a role in re-introducing vegetation and putting some areas off limits. And I think the city has a role because it’s their land that’s the most degraded.”