Many First Nations communities in British Columbia are embracing the Aboriginal Youth Bike Program and developing new singletrack mountain bike trails with the goal of bringing kids together and getting them outdoors. Writer Susan Down shares the story of a similar program called Story Trails that’s finding success in the Cowichan Valley.

With picks, shovels and wheelbarrows, a small group of Cowichan Valley students on Vancouver Island is slowly building trails through the forest on Maple Mountain, near the small city of Duncan. Not only are the trails a boon to local mountain bikers and hikers, the project offers a chance for the students to find their own educational pathways.

First Nations kids build singletrack in Cowichan
From the carved totems of the trail’s entrance, to the cedar slats of Maple Mountain’s singletrack, Cowichan’s kids are giving back to the community kilometre by kilometre. Photos by Dave Silver.

The Story Trails program was launched in 2015 as an outdoor alternate school, a way to find success in a public-school system where just 54 per cent of local First Nations students graduated in 2014. Community partners are Hiiye’yu Lelum (House of Friendship) and the local school district, which plans to include Story Trails in the school district curriculum next year. The municipality of North Cowichan offered its municipal forest on Maple Mountain as the venue.

In the five-month program, students continue their studies while learning cultural and environmental lessons, as well as gaining teamwork and outdoor experience. First Nations elders join a circle time around the campfire to start the day. But the trailbuilding is the centrepiece, says program leader Riley McIntosh, who is passionate about outdoor education. “I believe trailbuilding is the perfect activity because it’s so fluid and adjustable,” he says. “They aren’t being told they have to nail something one inch apart all day.” The students are also assisting a master carver on a pair of totems for a new entrance at the trailhead.

McIntosh’s own boyhood was spent in Maple Bay, not far from where he works now. As a teenaged mountain biker, he created his own elaborate trails and curved bridges on the mountain. His artistry earned him a reputation and led to a job at the Whistler Bike Park and later to film work with Nelson, British Columbia’s Freeride Entertainment — a company known for some of action-sports’ most legendary footage — on location in Sweden, Chile, Utah, and British Columbia. He has also completed trailbuilding jobs in Andorra and Austria.

[The above video Shift has been a festival favourite this past year and tells the story of First Nations kids in Carcross, Yukon, building singletrack trails on the sacred Montana Mountain.] 

Additionally, McIntosh helped build some of the first trails at Retallack Lodge, near Nelson, after the lodge secured a commercial recreation tenure licence enabling them to trailbuild and guide clients on Crown land. The licence was a first in Canada for biking; previously the licences had only been available for backcountry skiing operations.

Story Trails not only helps students, but the program could have great benefits for the community, says McIntosh, who welcomed the third group of students this spring. He sees the trails becoming part of the Cowichan brand of recreational and cultural tourism that would be a boon to the local economy. “That’s something that people all over the world would take notice of,” he says.