Haida Gwaii mountain biking gets in gear

Benson Hilgemann flies down part of the Honna Loop trails that he and fellow mountain bikers are building a short ride west of Queen Charlotte in what old-timers might know as the “burn zone.” With about 2.5 km of trail built so far on well-drained skidder roads, Hilgemann hopes the Honna Loop will inspire new and experienced mountain bikers to join a new Haida Gwaii mountain bike society this March. (Andrew Hudson/Haida Gwaii Observer)Benson Hilgemann flies down part of the Honna Loop trails that he and fellow mountain bikers are building a short ride west of Queen Charlotte in what old-timers might know as the “burn zone.” With about 2.5 km of trail built so far on well-drained skidder roads, Hilgemann hopes the Honna Loop will inspire new and experienced mountain bikers to join a new Haida Gwaii mountain bike society this March. (Andrew Hudson/Haida Gwaii Observer)
(Andrew Hudson/Haida Gwaii Observer)(Andrew Hudson/Haida Gwaii Observer)
By using old log-skidder roads, Hilgemann said much of the trail work can be done with hand tools. (Andrew Hudson/Haida Gwaii Observer)By using old log-skidder roads, Hilgemann said much of the trail work can be done with hand tools. (Andrew Hudson/Haida Gwaii Observer)
(Andrew Hudson/Haida Gwaii Observer)(Andrew Hudson/Haida Gwaii Observer)
A map shows the extent of the Honna Loop trails, which feature a figure-eight loop and a connecting trail to the Village of Queen Charlotte that is still in the works. (Benson Hilgemann)A map shows the extent of the Honna Loop trails, which feature a figure-eight loop and a connecting trail to the Village of Queen Charlotte that is still in the works. (Benson Hilgemann)

The frost was gone, but the iced puddles on Mac Blo Road were still crunchy when Benson Hilgemann set out from Queen Charlotte last Saturday morning.

After a short drive, Hilgemann stopped at the base of an old skidder road and walked into the woods with a couple things to keep warm: a mountain bike and a rake.

Together with Bill Broadhead, who he grew up riding BMX bikes with at the Q.C. skate park, Hilgemann has turned some overgrown skidder roads east of the Honna River into what they hope will be a set of lasting mountain-bike trails.

“This is where the fun part starts,” Hilgemann said as he came to the top of a hill.

Branching off from a larger skidder that is wide enough for riders to cycle side-by-side, Hilgemann pointed to a rolling single-track section where he and Broadhead dug in small jumps and berms for rounding corners at speed.

Hilgemann hadn’t worked on the trails since the Dec. 15 windstorm that gusted 161 km/h at Cumshewa Head and toppled dozens of trees everywhere else.

But aside from a few alder branches across the widest section, most of the trails under the canopy were just about ready to ride. Unlike Mac Blo Road, the well-drained trails were puddle-free.

Wearing a helmet and a grin, Hilgemann flew down the single track, caught air off a jump, then rolled around a corner berm with ease.

“Flow is what we want to build for this trail — lots of corners like this so you can keep your speed up,” he said later.

“It’s a pretty amazing feeling.”

Hilgemann got into road and BMX bikes growing up on Haida Gwaii, but got his first mountain bike in Kelowna, which has about 800 mountain bike trails nearby.

A bicycle mechanic, Hilgemann also did a cycle tour from Kelowna to San Fransisco — a three-month ride he started one October when most campsites along the way were empty.

“I love that way of travelling, being self-contained,” Hilgemann said.

“You’re very out there — to all the elements, all the people. You’re very vulnerable, but at the same time, you’re very free.”

While they would love to ride a super challenging, double-black diamond trail on Haida Gwaii some day, Hilgemann and Broadhead designed the Honna Loop trails as “blues” — medium-difficulty trails where all the steepest sections are optional so that they’re inviting to beginners and intermediate riders.

“I’d like to start with a youth program at the high school, and get kids coming out,” Hilgemann said.

“It’s all just starting to build up. Hopefully in the spring we can start to explore that.”

In the first week of March, Hilgemann, Broadhead and fellow mountain biker Nick Ames will host what will likely be the first official meeting of the Haida Gwaii Mountain Bike Society.

Speaking before Queen Charlotte council late last year, Hilgemann pointed out how northern B.C. mountain biking has evolved from unsanctioned, volunteer-built trails to well-coordinated, sustainable trail systems such as the Boer Mountain trails outside Burns Lake.

Designed to International Mountain Bike Association standards, the Boer Mountain trails have sparked a local club with over 230 members and a First Nations youth team. The trails also draw hundreds of tourists to Burns Lake for contests and sold-out summer cycling camps (in summer, the main trail spits dusty riders out to a lake with a swimming dock and campsites).

Terrace, Smithers, Houston, the Xat’sull First Nation and the Simpcw First Nation have also developed trails in recent years, adding more northern B.C. destinations for some of the quarter million riders who live or visit each year.

Thinking about the big picture, Hilgemann would one day like to see Haida Gwaii host a mountain bike race on a northwest circuit. There is already some interest in developing trails near Masset and Sandspit, too.

In Queen Charlotte, Hilgemann said guides could take visitors on cycling day tours that go from the village out to Kagan Bay and then up to the trails, including a new one a little higher in the Tarundl watershed that would lead to a treeless hill with an epic view over Skidegate Inlet.

Speaking with local forestry staff, Hilgemann said the slopes where they’ve built trails so far do not have known archaeological sites, nor any upcoming logging plans — the hope is to protect them as a future recreation site much like Spirit Lake Trail.

“There’s so much here, you’ve just got to put in the time,” said Hilgemann, pointed out that he and Broadhead are mainly clearing up existing skidder roads, and they do most of their work with rakes, shovels, and a hand saw.

Once the society gets off the ground and they have a few more riders on board, Hilgemann imagines hosting races on the Honna Loop trails this summer, complete with an opening-day barbecue. Updates will go up on the Haida Gwaii Mountain Bike Society Facebook page.

“This is the single most rewarding thing you can do,” Hilgemann said.

“I feel really happy just being able to build trails and share them — to ride them myself, but also with my friends to get people stoked on mountain biking.”

Queen Charlotte

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