It’s a given in the Pacific Northwest that odd, toxic things sprout from the forest floor at this time of year, but generally one expects them to be mushrooms. The 25 “no trespassing” signs that suddenly sprang up on North Vancouver’s Mount Seymour’s lower slopes in early October? Those were a complete surprise—and not a welcome one, as overnight 644 acres and more than 30 of the most highly acclaimed trails in the world became off limits to the hikers, dog walkers, trail runners, and mountain bikers who roam the famed North Shore.
Pandemonium ensued. Who posted the signs? Why were the trails being closed? Was this permanent? For weeks, the trail closures were the talk of the town—garnering headlines and screen time. As October ground to a halt, though, so did much of the controversy. The signs came down and outdoor lovers climbed back up Mount Seymour. But what happened in between is an interesting story in its own right.
NEW YORK WRAPPED IN GORE-TEX
Vancouver, the jewel of British Columbia, is a cosmopolitan city, to be sure, but also a city of outdoors lovers. Think New York City permanently swathed in a wool base layer and you get a sense of the place.
District of North Vancouver Councilman Mathew Bond summed it up well for the North Shore News in the aftermath of the trail closure. “Outdoor recreation on the North Shore is our lifestyle, it is why businesses locate here,” said Bond. “The trails are a very important part of our lifestyle.”
Three mountains dominate Vancouver’s skyline. From east to west run Mounts Seymour, Fromme, and Cyprus. Known collectively as the Shore, these steep and rugged mountains draw a wide range of devotees, of which mountain bikers are the most obvious. People began mountain biking on the shore in the early and mid `80s—taking a cue from what was happening down south in Marin County. A new and different type of mountain biking, however, soon evolved on the Shore (as reported in the inaugural issue of Adventure Journal quarterly, which you can pick up here).
A NEW KIND OF TRAIL
Wet, steep, and rocky in the extreme, the trails above Vancouver are an entirely different flavor of unforgiving. There, traditional mountain bikes and components snapped like so many twigs. Bikes and parts had to be burlier. Riders needed to be more daring. Trail builders also faced an unusual challenge in the form of 98 inches of rainfall each year. Sizable chunks of these forests are essentially bogs. Using fallen timber, they crafted log rides and ladder bridges to span those bogs and reduce their impact on the forest. While these bridges began as purely utilitarian trail features, they soon evolved into something more. Trail builders ratcheted up the difficulty level by making the wooden structures progressively skinnier and higher. And that was just the beginning.
The trails that sprang up on the Shore were unlike anything even imagined in the lower 48; they ran straight down massive boulders, they snaked up ladder bridges and teeter-totters that left the forest floor entirely and took riders up into the trees—as high as 20 feet off the ground. You had to see it to believe it. And that was the thing. The city officials and government agency types who managed the patchwork of properties that crisscross these mountains hadn’t actually seen the trails. The Shore’s trails were an open secret of sorts.
THE CHAINSAWS COME CALLING
By the time city officials and land managers caught wind of the booming trail network on the Shore, they were terrified by what they found. Somebody could die up there! That was the rationale for the District of West Vancouver’s 1999 decision to arm workers with chainsaws and send them onto Cypress Mountain to dismantle some of the best-known log rides, ladder bridges and trails. The event is known locally as the Chainsaw Massacre and it immediately spawned a backlash from mountain bikers. The riding community admitted that they hadn’t sought approval to build those trails, but also maintained that the trails in question were actually well designed and that the city’s response was an overreaction.
If this were a typical story about mountain bikes and trail access, it would have ended right there, in chainsaws and acrimony. But this story took a very different turn. Hundreds of mountain bikers showed up in City Hall and made their case and their pitch was compelling. Mountain biking, they argued, was not a crime. What’s more, they contended, mountain bikers were both the driving force for maintaining old trails and building new routes that were drawing all manner of visitors—and their dollars—to the North Shore. This wasn’t simply a case of adrenaline junkies looking to score a fix. This was as much a matter of eco-tourism. These radical trails, the riders argued, were an asset to the entire community.
The riders formed a trail advocacy organization—the North Shore Mountain Bike Association (or NSMBA) and in the years that followed that organization and the various municipalities and government agencies agreed to work together. Corporations such as Arc’teryx, the Bank of Montreal, Clif Bar and Rocky Mountain Bicycles (to name just a few) became official sponsors of NSMBA’s trail rehabilitation programs. The results are impressive.
The North Shore is still home to some of the most demanding trails on earth—trails earn names like “Severed Dick” for a reason—but thanks to the efforts of the NSMBA and hundreds of mountain biking volunteers, you can now also find a much wider variety of trails, including paths well suited to hikers, trail runners and anyone looking to get out into nature. What’s more, the acrimony that divides different trail users in so many places is, while not entirely absent, much less common here than in most urban areas.
A SLEEPING BEAR AWAKES
The North Shore has become an unlikely success story, which is why the community was stunned when those no trespassing signs popped up this October. Of the three mountains on the Shore, Mount Seymour is home to the widest range of sustainable trails. It’s the crowd pleaser, the golden child of trail advocacy.
“No one saw this coming. It was a total aberration,” says Mark Wood. As the North Shore Mountain Bike Association’s program manager, Wood is the guy tasked with managing trail building for the organization—he knows the mountain well.
“Those 644 acres are crucial for trail use,” says Wood. “Around 70 percent of the trails on Seymour go through that area.”
The reason the sudden trail closure caught everyone by surprise is that the owner of those 644 acres had remained so quiet for the better part of two decades that few people were even knew they owned this chunk of the Shore. The landowner is the Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC). CMHC purchased the Seymour property—what had once been a military rifle range—in 1968 for $1.8 million. The company has repeatedly attempted to turn those 644 acres of cedar (most recently valued at $150 million) into homes. The last time they tried to convert a portion of the forest into new housing, the company was denied by residents, the municipalities and, ultimately, the courts. That was nearly 20 years ago.
So, why did the CMHC suddenly take interest in the property again after all this time? Was there a particular trail building incident or accident on the property? When asked for this story, CMHC spokeswoman Karine LeBlanc said, “In 2016, safety concerns around unauthorized trail building on the land was noted which raised potential safety concerns and exposure to litigation. As the property is not a public space intended for recreation, CMHC installed updated signage around the perimeter as an immediate measure.”
It’s worth noting here that CMHC is based in Ottawa and, as many observers have noted, clearly hadn’t realized that its property had become a de facto public playground. They’ve since found out. As soon as the signs went up, CMHC was inundated with calls from the local politicians and everyone from professional dog walkers to trail running event organizers. No one in Vancouver was happy to find themselves classified as “trespassers” on what they thought were public lands.
On October 27th, CMHC representatives met with a room full of staff from B.C. Parks, the District of North Vancouver, metro Vancouver and the NSMBA. The end result? CMHC agreed to pull down the signs. The public is welcome again on those critical acres on Mount Seymour, with the clear understanding that the CMHC is not legally liable for any injuries that occur on its property.
“It may sound strange,” says NSMBA’s Mark Wood, “but something positive came out of all this. There’s dialogue opening up between CMHC and us trail users, that’s a good thing. We also just saw how powerful it is when so many different types of trail users unite behind a common message.”
Not long after the signs went down, I spoke to another person who is close to the matter, North Shore icon, Andrew Shandro.
“If they [CMHC] ever actually closed the trails and tried to enforce it, people would absolutely lose their minds,” he said.
Shandro would know; he was born and raised within riding distance of Seymour and is one of the professional riders who helped make the Shore famous. “As it was, everyone was up in arms,” says Shandro. “People move to the Shore because of the mountains behind us and the access to these trails. The idea that they could shut down those trails after all these years? No way.”
Photos courtesy Rocky Mountain Bicycles/Margus Riga. Top photo by Murray Foubister/Flickr