“What do a grizzly bear and a limp d-ck have in common?”
the woman asks loudly through the window of her early-‘90s Bronco. She pauses to take a sip off the Rainier we had traded her for a can of Lucky Lager—the beer of Vancouver Island, her husband informs us.
The lights of the Nanaimo, BC ferry terminal are just a few hundred yards away, but this first introduction to Duncan, BC—or “Drunken Duncan,” as the couple refers to it, a mess of strip malls, gas stations and motels between Nanaimo and Victoria, and our destination for the weekend—is far too colorful to rush away from.
“We don’t know,” we admit. “What do they have in common?”
“You don’t want to f--k with either of ‘em!” she answers, bursting into hoarse laughter.
We had just been unofficially welcomed to the island, the birthplace and current home of Riley McIntosh, one of the world’s most legendary trail builders.
Riley McIntosh carries two French presses and four coffee mugs out onto his deck, stepping around jerry cans and jugs of bar oil, mud-covered polaskis and shovels, and a box of greasy chainsaw parts. Though only six miles from Duncan, the exhaust and stop lights seem a distant memory at Mcintosh’s home in the harbor-side hamlet of Maple Bay. From here, it’s a clear view across the bay’s calm waters to his parent’s house below Maple Mountain.
“I grew up in a family where we were always doing some sort of trail building,” McIntosh says. “It was a big part of the youth-group camps my dad used to run, and he always had these meditation paths in the yard; he likes to get all emo and do a lot of thinking.”
Thanks to an introduction to mountain biking from his friend’s older brother, it wasn’t long before the young McIntosh took advantage of the few empty, woody acres surrounding their house; by age 10 he already had a meticulously-maintained, two-kilometer loop around the property.
From that first modest path, McIntosh’s passion for biking and building continued to grow, and soon a certain locale that had been popping up in films and magazines caught his eye. The Whistler Bike Park had just opened two years earlier in 1998, and was already drawing legends like Wade Simmons to its loamy and lift-accessed slopes. McIntosh was inspired and more than a little obsessed, and he made a decision—he was Whistler-bound.
There are surprisingly few built features on the steep, raw path through the moss-drenched rocks and immense madrona trees near Maple Mountain—somewhat of a surprise, considering that many of McIntosh’s most notable creations look like M.C. Escher developed a sudden passion for logging. But as we push up the trail, the line suggests speed and flow, and while it lacks Whistler’s volume, there is a hint of A-Line’s power and Clown Shoe’s creativity—rightfully so, as his career as a trail builder would begin on the slopes under Fitzsimmons Chair.
“For a while I slept in the Boneyard slopestyle course, under this giant wooden feature called the Gyrobox, but everyone on the trail crew thought I had a place. I just wanted to be in Whistler and build.”
“I didn’t give a shit where I lived or what I ate,” he says, referring to his two summers working on the Whistler Bike Park trail crew. “For a while I slept in the Boneyard slopestyle course, under this giant wooden feature called the Gyrobox, but everyone on the trail crew thought I had a place. I just wanted to be in Whistler and build.”
While McIntosh’s skill and success were obvious in the jumps and wooden bridges he built at the bike park, they were decidedly less-so when it came to social ones in the village— apparently, growing up in a tiny island community didn’t lend itself well to total independence.
“I was super young and I burnt my bridges,” McIntosh says. “I split town without paying rent to my boss’s super close homies. Everyone was pissed, but I didn’t know. I’d didn’t have a driver’s license and had never shopped for myself. I may have grown up on the island, but I actually grew up in Whistler.”
The season over, McIntosh headed back to the island with the intention of attending the University of Victoria, but once again he was diverted—this time to Nelson, BC, inspired in part by some choice video segments and in part because, as he still didn’t have a driver’s license, he heard cars were unnecessary. He packed up his bike and, after a long Greyhound bus ride, found himself waiting on the steps for the little town’s hostel to open.
“The next thing I knew, I was pedaling higher in the mountains than I had ever been before,” he says. “It was mid-September, loaded with fall colors, and I was riding at 4,000 feet. The highest I’d ever been on a bike till then was something like 2,000 feet. I was blown away.”
In the autumn of 2005, McIntosh made the drive north from Nelson—where he was now living full-time and where he had bought an old Toyota 4Runner to accompany his Kona Stinky—to Meadow Creek, BC, to do some thinning at Selkirk Wilderness Skiing. Soon the lead guide, Jason Remple, challenged McIntosh to an unofficial test of wills—ride a local trail every day after work, rain, sleet, snow or shine. McIntosh doggedly succeeded, and his tenacity impressed Remple—when the logging was finished, McIntosh stayed on to run one of the operation’s snowcats. Combined with trail building back in Nelson, the job sparked an idea: that he could build trail full-time, and make a living doing so.
A Fiat-sized clump of moss falls 60 feet to thump on the stunt’s landing as the filmer rappels from the top of the cliff to get in position. Professional biker Graham Agassiz stands at the top of the in-run, a ladder of slats wedged between a broken snag and the bare granite face, waiting to get the okay from the dangling Sherpas Production’s filmer and the multiple photographers trained on the takeoff.
A shout comes down from the cameraman. Agassiz takes a single pedal, rolls past the snag to pop a perfect 360 onto the landing in the ferns 15 feet below. A chorus of cheers echoes through the woods.
Listening to the crew, it’s obvious that the jump is—as with most of McIntosh’s features—as much art as it is stunt, and his work is no stranger to magazine spreads and film segments. The summer after Selkirk, McIntosh started working with Freeride Entertainment, the makers of the New World Disorder films, a relationship that would continue for half a decade. But the position McIntosh had in mind wasn’t just helping film crews build the odd stunt and jump.
His vision was a bike park fashioned around same concept as a cat skiing operation—which meant that, just like any of those operations, McIntosh would need a government-issued commercial tenure license. The trouble was no one had ever applied for one with mountain bikes in mind, and instead of help he was met with frustrating skepticism from the government and blatant sabotage from farmers of the not-so-legal kind in the woods around Nelson.
“People wrote letters, cut the brake lines on my truck, combed over my past for screw ups, passed along rumors that I was some rich kid from Alberta,” he says. “It finally got to the point where I was pretty close to giving up, but I kept trying, working any job I could to pay the bills while I was building the trails, putting together the infrastructure and doing all the paperwork in my spare time.”
One of the main points of contention between McIntosh and the government—and there were many—was the paperwork, or lack thereof. Legally, any person submitting a tenure application is supposed to hear back—be it a yes or a no—in 60 days. McIntosh didn’t hear back for nearly four years.
“After 60 days had passed and I hadn’t gotten an answer, I said ‘screw it’ and just started,” he says. “I built this huge heli drop trail, a two-year effort and totally illegal—they were pissed, but anytime they got after me I would just say ‘you said 60 days. It’s your job to make a decision, and you haven’t said no.’”
The notoriety had both negative and positive consequences—the negative being McIntosh was probably the closest a mountain biker has ever been to Public Enemy Number One, the positive that things had gotten so vocal the government could no longer stall. They caved…with stipulations. He needed a backer with money and insurance—neither of which he could personally get. Retallack Lodge (for whom he had been driving snowcats during his winters), however, had both, and with the red tape cleared and his tenure approved they partnered with McIntosh. His dream of a Kootenay bike park had become a reality.
The next summer McIntosh spent every day at Retallack building trail, guaranteeing the operation’s reputation would stand out as world class. Now in its second full year, Retallack’s 1.5 million-acre tenure boasts a variety of trails, including the infamous, once-illegal, 9-mile, 5,500-foot heli-drop Powerslave.
But, at 29, McIntosh didn’t want all his eggs in the single basket of Retallack, and the idea of being 35 and surviving off logging or 50 and ice-trucking in the Northwest Territories was a less-than-savory one. It was time for McIntosh to bring his passion back home.
“Just look around and you can see the biggest thing Cowichan Valley has going for it,” McIntosh says, gesturing to the near-summer conditions surrounding us. We’re at the top of Mt. Tzoehulem, looking down on the sunny farms of Saltspring Island and the waters of the Strait of Georgia. It’s a stark contrast to the dark clouds hanging over the mainland. “Basically, this is the only year-round biking destination in Canada. Where else can you ride 2,000-foot descents in February? Considering that, it’s a ridiculously awesome opportunity.”
Balmy sunshine is great for any activity—be it biking or timber frame construction, which McIntosh now does for a living—but ideal weather hasn’t banished the bureaucratic frustrations haunting McIntosh’s attempts towards trail-building legitimacy. The problem is that most trails on public land—even the popular ones—are often technically illegal, and while the local government may know the trails are there, they ignore them because of the massive liability. It also means that any trail could be closed and torn down at any time, the builder slapped with anything from a warning to a hefty fine.
Enter the Cowichan Trail Stewards, created by McIntosh and five other Maple Bay mountain bikers to overcome that liability and get the government aboard—because with the government in, suddenly illegal trails become parks and community recreation resources. The Stewards purchased $5 million in general liability, drew up a proposal stating future objectives and setting regional trail standards, and, after eight months of refinement, the plan has finally been submitted to the District of North Cowichan.
“Now we just wait,” he says. “It could be a month, three years…who knows? It’s a different type of government here than in Nelson—municipal, not provincial, so they don’t have protocol for this type of thing.”
As for McIntosh’s final role with the Stewards, it depends on what parts, if any, of their proposed budget gets approved. That could range from the council being supportive but not providing any funds, which would make it purely volunteer, to them approving the whole thing—which would mean that McIntosh would finally have the living-wage trail building career he had dreamed up in the snowcat cab back at Selkirk Wilderness.
And if the process in Maple Bay fails completely? If the trail we spend the afternoon riding is deemed officially and permanently illegal? At this point, McIntosh has no problem ending the ride in the middle of the woods.
“I’m committed to never building illegally again, because it’s a waste of time for everyone,” he says. “Consider the amount of time and effort you put into building a trail an investment. Would you put money into something where you had no idea if you were getting a return? Of course not, and I’ve been investing in trails my whole life. Now I’m at a point where if it’s not legal and approved, I’m just going to quit. I’ll still ride, but I’ll be done with building.”
As the Cowichan sun fades and with our island-style ride behind us, we sit back at the Brigantine Pub’s pirate ship-themed bar and enjoy aprés-ride nachos, cheesy nourishment for the ferry trip home. As he finishes his tale, it becomes clear that McIntosh’s trails have taken him out and back again, both literally and figuratively. Whether it’s been with the best riders on the world’s biggest stunts or as a 10-year-old digging behind his house, what has mattered is there’s a bike in the woods every time, and all have been experiences that—grizzly bears and limp dicks aside—you don’t want to f--k with.