Awesome Downhill Mountain-Biking in British Columbia

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Jun 21, 2016

by GUY WILKINSON, Writer

British Columbia’s wild interior is known as mountain biker’s paradise – around the Kamloops, you can ride rainforest in the morning and desert in the afternoon.

Monique Vek was 40 when she decided to take up mountain biking. It was an inauspicious start. First, she broke two bones in her right hand, shearing off one side of her knuckle, while flying downhill past a fir tree. Then at a bike park, a high-impact crash resulted in a broken nose and fractured jaw that sent her straight to the emergency ward. A month later she bought her first bike.

I meet Vek at Harper Mountain Terrain Park, 20 minutes from Kamloops in British Columbia’s interior. Dressed in a fleece and baseball cap, her blonde hair tied back, she may not fulfil the extreme sports stereotype but there’s an affable self-confidence that’s unmistakable. Along with her partner, Jim Flux – the two have been running a successful tour business for the past six years – we load her collection of downhill mountain bikes onto the back of a six-litre four-wheel-drive ute and tear up the mountain.

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En route, I’m anxious; this is big terrain and I have no desire to replicate Vek’s painful learning curve. But the second my tyres hit the dirt, everything changes. Weaving at high speed down a series of mountain paths, my front wheel bouncing effortlessly over rocky outcrops and twisted tree roots, I’m entirely lost in the moment. Crisp alpine air burns the back of my throat, soft autumn sun casts rays of light between towering ferns and the sudden rush of adrenaline annihilates any of life’s trivial concerns. 

I’ve come to Kamloops to explore Canada’s lesser-known region of interior British Columbia. Situated at the confluence of the two branches of the Thompson River, this area has long been known as a winter sports wonderland. But come spring, when the snow melts, lush valleys and serrated mountain faces reveal a mountain biker’s paradise.

Widely regarded as the number-one mountain-biking destination in Canada after Whistler, Kamloops has more than 1000 hectares of public cross-country trails suited to riders of all abilities. And while most locals will sling their own bikes in the back of a pick-up, it’s easy for travellers to rent from town or join an outfit such as Vek’s, which offers anything from half-day tours to fully guided multiple-day excursions.

Having successfully tackled a section of the Unicorn race trail – a rugged downhill bike path cutting through woodland – we congregate around a fire, cracking chilled beers from the Esky while Flux throws a few snags on a barbecue. Caked in mud, soaked with sweat and dressed in more protective gear than Russell Crowe in Gladiator, I’ve never been happier. “You can ride rainforest in the morning and desert in the afternoon,” says Flux when I ask why the region is such a hit with mountain bikers. “You could ride this mountain for four or five days and never ride the same line twice.”

Winding up Vek’s half-day tour, we say farewell over a few rounds at The Noble Pig – Kamloops’ best-loved microbrewery – pairing damn fine brews with hearty dishes such as mac ’n’ cheese and bison bolognese. It’s everything a rider needs.

But Kamloops is just one of many biking hotspots around here. World-famous Whistler is only a four-hour drive away. SilverStar Bike Park is about half that time. And less than an hour north-east is Sun Peaks, Canada’s second-largest ski resort after Whistler.

Sun Peaks is quiet when I arrive and while it lacks the conviviality of the winter season, the hotel rates are a fraction of the cost. With close to 800 metres of lift-accessed vertical terrain, Sun Peaks Bike Park has long been considered “cloud nine” for downhill bikers but increasingly there are more varied options and nearly 40 distinct trails have been developed in recent years.

It’s also an area steeped in history. At McGillivray Lake Outpost, I meet Kevin Tessier, a former adventure kayak river guide turned tour operator. Since 1999, Tessier has run Voyageur Canoe Tours, an outfit dedicated to the history of the First Nations people as well as the infamous fur trade wars, a complex series of battles that took place sporadically from the mid-1500s through to the 20th century.

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It’s late afternoon when we step into our wooden canoe, a precise replica of those used by voyageurs centuries ago. As we paddle out, the air is still and fresh. Tessier tells us of the long and bloody battle between the Hudson’s Bay Company and the North West Company that culminated in shocking skirmishes and, ultimately, a reluctant merger. His haunting story is punctuated by the call of a bird of prey and the sound of our paddles carving the water.

McGillivray is by no means the only lake in this region and next we head to Shuswap, about 80 kilometres east. Our gateway is Salmon Arm, a forestry town midway between Vancouver and Calgary on the Trans-Canada Highway. From the wharf at Sicamous – a channel between Shuswap Lake and Mara Lake – we’ve chartered a houseboat. Initially, I’m sceptical – the whole thing seems prosaic – but it’s soon clear this boat is anything but ordinary. Built over three levels, with 10 private bedrooms, a fully stocked kitchen and bar, gas fireplaces and a 10-person hot tub on the roof, it’s a vessel fit for an oil sheik. Split between a group, it’s surprisingly economical.

Pulling out of Sicamous, where a network of wooden wharfs and moored boats are framed by a mountainous backdrop, the channel soon opens to reveal the midnight-blue expanse of Shuswap Lake. Enveloped by undulant, forested banks, Shuswap is the centre point of a vast network of streams and rivers spanning 25,000 square kilometres.

We’re here in autumn when there are far fewer boats on the lake – it’s busiest in summer – and with acres of hemlock, spruce and pine framing 1000 kilometres of shoreline, it’s the kind of place that offers a genuine escape. There’s still plenty to do, though, including wineries, golf courses and hiking trails, as well as snowmobiling, snowshoeing and skiing in winter.

But autumn is all about mountain biking. At Herald Provincial Park, a 15-kilometre boat trip from Sicamous, I team up with Clint Smith, a 75-year-old retired school principal, his friend, Corrine Atkinson, and her dog, Roxy, a vaguely unhinged border collie that eyes me with a cock-headed squint I find strangely unnerving. Given the pair could conceivably be my parents, I’m expecting a gentle excursion but in Canada I’m beginning to learn that age is merely a state of mind. 

It’s pouring by the time we hit the Reinecker Creek trails, a 20-kilometre loop made up of a mix of wide-open forested paths and a technical single track – a purpose-built mountain-bike trail about the width of a bike. Huffing my way up a steep two-kilometre incline, we begin rolling at breakneck pace down a ragged stone trail riddled with tree roots made slippery by the rain.

The route is incredibly scenic, periodically slicing an erratic path through dense woodland with a steep drop-off to one side. With Roxy running rampant beside us, at one point I’m forced to slam on the brakes when she darts across my path, sending me clean over the handlebars and into the bushes. Though the ride is undeniably testing, it’s the most fun you can have on two wheels. I’m soaked and slicked with mud when I return to the boat – so it’s straight into the hot tub. With dusk settling in, sharp spits of rain pepper my face as a low mist hangs above the treetops. In the sky, two eagles hover in a graceful dance.

The Thompson Shuswap region requires a little more endeavour than other parts of Canada. You’ll need to look beyond the obvious, work up a sweat, maybe even get a little bike grease on your hands. It may never have the panache or prestige of Whistler, Vancouver or Montréal. But perhaps it should. 

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