Sometimes mountain biking culture takes root in the most unlikely places—like Carcross, Yukon.
In 1998, Vancouver Islander Wayne Roberts discovered his version of paradise on a visit to this desolate but beautifully situated northern community. Wedged on a sandy isthmus between Bennett Lake and Nares Lake, Carcross sits at the foot of Montana Mountain, a sprawling piece of geology littered with old mining trails. Roberts, a mountain biking aficionado, started brushing out old paths and building new ones—pioneering a mountain biking scene that has outgrown his expectations.
Last summer, I sampled the fruits of these efforts with a pair of avid Yukon cyclists, Paul Christensen and Anthony de Lorenzo.
After rallying at the trailhead parking lot, we granny gear up the Montana Mountain access road for 45 minutes before dropping into a gem called Nare’s View. It’s a swooping single track that whistles through thick forest and traverses rock bluffs with eye-popping views of the valley bottom lakes. After a 30-minute technical descent, we ride out onto the access road and begin climbing again, this time much higher into the subalpine of Montana Mountain. The marquee trail, the one that garners international cachet for Carcross, is Mountain Hero—an epic route that follows mining roads and trails from the alpine to the shores of Nares Lake. However, it’s a fair weather ride. Conditions dictating, we instead choose Creek Trail, where boardwalk sections lead through wetlands of stunted trees, then on to some ripping fast cross-country. Our disc brakes are smoking as we reach a flat bench of land just above Bennett Lake. But it isn’t over. The sun pokes through dark clouds as we tackle a punchy trail paralleling the historic White Pass and Yukon Railway line. Just a year old, the trail is still fresh and spongy under tire. Ten kilometres after leaving the McDonald Creek trailhead, we’re back in Carcross and knocking on the front door of Wayne Roberts’s house, a stone’s throw from Bennett Lake and a short walk across the railway bridge from “downtown” Carcross.
“I just fell in love with the Yukon and the riding potential. Now the potential is here,” says Roberts, as we sip Yukon Gold Pale Ale on his front deck. Roberts’s early efforts planted the seeds for a program dubbed Single Track to Success, launched in 2005 and aimed at inspiring Carcross/Tagish First Nations youth to get outside and build trails. Spearheaded by Derek Crowe and Jane Koepke, a pair of community minded riders who also saw potential in Montana Mountain, the goal of the initiative was to create, “a world class trail network to attract tourists,” and also to give local youth some healthy life skills.
“Two years ago, I saw a feature story about our trails in a Japanese magazine and that’s when I realized that we’ve made it,” says Justin Ferby, a Carcross/Tagish band member and CEO of the Carcross Tagish Management Corporation.
Ferby puts a cultural twist on the Nation’s modern embrace of mountain biking. Traditionally, he says his people presided over a network of trading routes cutting between the coast of southeast Alaska and the Yukon interior, the Chilkoot and Chilkat being the best known. Ferby says developing recreational trails to underpin a modern tourism economy is a natural extension of this traditional land use. He admits, though, to not having 100 per cent support from the band members—some are wary about this use of traditional territory. However, Ferby believes it’s a win for Carcross. The broader mountain biking world is certainly supportive, with an increasing number of out-of-territory riders putting Montana Mountain on their itineraries. Consequently, Yukon tour companies like Boreale Mountain Biking and Cabin Fever Adventures frequently lead clients on the trail network that now boasts more than 35 km of single-track, and will eventually total 75 km of trail.
Before the drive back to Whitehorse, we stop for a shot of espresso at Caribou Coffee, one of the businesses housed at Carcross Commons. This centre is a virtually brand-new collection of boutique retail store and cafes that owes its existence to the town’s ongoing transformation into a mountain bike tourism destination.
“Five years ago there was nothing in Carcross in terms of services,” Roberts says. “Now we’ve got the Carcross Commons and beer on tap at the bistro.”
This article originally appeared in our Summer 2015 issue.