Trail Blazers

River Rats create works of natural art for all to enjoy in Cumberland’s trails…

What do you get if you combine an air traffic controller, a flight engineer, a dentist, a farmer, and a soil scientist?  You get a Thirsty Beaver, a Soggy Biscuit, a Potluck, a Crafty Butcher, and some Bear Buns—all mountain bike trails in Cumberland and all hand-crafted by this group of men, also known as the River Rats.

The River Rats, composed of Al Munday, Terry Lewis, John Simard, Andy Quin, and John Wall, met years ago through their shared love of running.  Though they initially ran on roads, they soon discovered that trail running was more interesting.  They tried to get other running friends from the Comox Valley Road Runners to join them on the trails, but most thought the roots and rough terrain would lead to injuries.  So they decided to form a sub group that exclusively ran on trails, calling themselves the River Rats.

During an interview over a pitcher of beer at the Waverly Pub, Munday describes how the River Rats came up with their name:  “On one of our many runs along the Puntledge River we saw a river rat scurry away on the trail in front of us.  He wasn’t having any trouble navigating the roots and rocks.  So we decided that instead of running with the road runners, we should run with the river rats.”

The trails above Cumberland became one of their favorite places to run, but in 2006 a severe wind storm came through that brought down hundreds of trees.  It was clear to the River Rats that there was a lot of work to be done to get the trails back into shape.  So they got out their shovels and their chainsaws and they began the job of trail restoration.

Spanker was the first trail they repaired, as almost the entire trail was covered in fallen trees.  Some trees were easily cut and moved off the trail but some were too dangerous to move.  The sheer number of fallen trees had created a situation where cutting one log could create a dangerous cascade.   The River Rats discussed the problem and decided to construct an A-frame over a particularly dangerous log pile.  That A-frame and the repair of the trail was their baptism into trail building, as they realized it was good fun to work on trails together.  They soon moved from repair to creation—and they haven’t stopped since.

Bear Buns was the first trail completely built by the River Rats.  While searching for an area to build a trail they noticed a strip of trees that ran parallel to Perseverance Creek.  Since it was a riparian reserve, the Rats were confident it would never be logged, so it seemed like a good spot for a trail.  It wasn’t long before they got to work.

Though Bear Buns is the River Rats’ first trail it’s also a testament to their talents, for the trail is absolutely fantastic.  The path skirts towering trees and winds through thick salal and fern.  The views of the creek and the valley are breathtaking, especially when the fireweed is in bloom.  Furthermore, since the trail follows the creek, the sound of the rushing water is always there to keep you company—and to keep you cool in the summer months.  But it’s not just the geography that makes Bear Buns an interesting trail, for the smooth and fast trail includes an A-frame, two short and curvy boardwalks and one boardwalk that hugs the side of a steep slope.

According to the River Rats, the name of the trail happened because of an incident involving a bear and some cinnamon buns.  “On one of our first days building the trail, we brought some Cumberland Bakery cinnamon buns up with us,” recalls Munday with a chuckle.  “They were in my backpack along with some juice boxes and we stowed everything in what we considered to be a safe spot.  After a couple hours of trail building we went back to fetch the pack and found it ripped open and all the buns gone.  That bear even sucked all the juice from the juice boxes!”

Despite their rumbling stomachs they had a good laugh about the bear who feasted on their lunch.  So they decided to name the trail Bear Buns to commemorate the hungry bear with a taste for cinnamon buns.

Bear Buns was the first of many trails.  Specifically, the River Rats have nearly 10 trails to their name, which add up to more than 12 kilometres of trail length—and they aren’t done yet.  In fact, right now they’re working on an addition to a trail they completed just a few months ago, called Potluck.  Their highest trail yet, Upper Potluck, as it will be called, will include a curved bridge over a creek, a switchback section, and a crossing of upper Trent River (low water only).

As you can imagine, building a mountain bike trail isn’t easy.  Before the River Rats even start to dig they spend hours walking an area, bushwhacking and scouring the landscape to get a sense of what sort of line the trail should take and what features should be included.  For example, on one of their newest trails, christened That Dam Trail because it skirts Allen Lake Dam, John Simard found a huge fallen log while bushwhacking through the woods.  When Simard saw the log he knew it was a feature that needed to be included in the trail—so the Rats made sure the trail went in that direction.  Now That Dam Trail has a 90-foot long log ride that challenges even the most seasoned of riders.

During the building process the River Rats also have to consider factors such as water drainage, erosion, steepness and soil quality.  Though they now have years of experience under their belts, the first few trails were built upon a steep learning curve.  “We made a few mistakes in the beginning,” admits Terry Lewis, “but we learned from them and subsequent trails got better and easier.”

Even so, sometimes the job of building a new trail can seem immense.  “It’s a matter of cutting the job into small bits,” adds Lewis.  “We just make the trails one foot at a time.”

A thousand feet of boardwalk.

Photo by Seadance Photography

Speaking of feet, the upper and lower Thirsty Beaver trails boast exactly 1,000 linear feet of boardwalk.  The raised platform made from hand split cedar boards snakes over creeks, ponds, and around trees and is the most treasured feature of the trail.  They built that length of boardwalk on purpose.  “We measured it one day and found we had 960 feet of boardwalk,” recalls Munday.   “So we decided we had to add an extra 40 feet to make it an even thousand.”  Forty feet may not seem like much, but that extra length could easily add up to 40 hours of work, since Lewis figures that every second of time riding across a boardwalk equates to at least one hour of building time.

Trails constructed by the River Rats are considered by many to be works of art.  In fact, most riders remember the River Rats’ trails for the ingenious structures they find along the way.  Structures such as a double teeter-totter, two gravity defying wall rides, a floating bridge, and a massive cedar stump with the trail right through it.

The River Rats also like to add artistic touches to their trails, such as sculptures and carvings.  For example, one trail’s exit is flanked by two ancient truck fenders, and another trail boasts a complete bike high up in a tree—though it’s easy to miss if you’re concentrating on the path ahead.   There’s even a wooden ramp that includes a beautifully carved face.  The exit to Upper Thirsty Beaver used to sport a friendly beaver carving but, unfortunately, he went missing a couple years ago.  “Everyone remembers the beloved beaver,” Lewis says.  “He was a favorite, so we hope to replace him someday.”

Though the features are exciting and make what many mountain bikers call the ‘Disneyland’ of trails, it’s not just the structures that make these trails special.  The graceful bank of the corners and the well-engineered switch-backs are also admired.  And it’s not just mountain bikers who appreciate the River Rats’ work, for hikers and trail runners enjoy their trails every day.

Since the River Rats are a group of men with varied backgrounds there have been times they’ve disagreed when building the trails.  They see a forest floor as a blank slate, and each person may have a different vision of the type of trail that should be built.  That being said, the trails created by the River Rats are always built collaboratively.  They recognize each other’s strengths and weaknesses and use that for their benefit.  For example, Munday and Lewis describe themselves as the ones who rough in the trails, but John Simard finesses the trails and makes them special.  “He’s like the finishing carpenter, and we’re just the framers,” Munday jokes.

“And no matter what, we always agree,” he adds with a pause… “to come to the Waverly afterwards for a drink.”

Since the River Rats have built trails together for so many years, they’ve found that they don’t need to talk much while constructing the trails.  They are such a cohesive team they can handle even a tricky job such as splitting cedar without uttering a word.  Lewis and Munday explain how one of them will hold the axe while the other one swings the maul, and instinctively they’ll know when to stop swinging and when to reposition the axe. “We’ve been doing it for so long, we can create a huge pile of split cedar, and we’ll hardly talk at all.”  Simply put, the River Rats are a well-oiled, trail building machine.

Though they work well together, the River Rats don’t consider building trails work—instead, it’s a labor of love.  Building trails has become their main hobby.  In fact, most days during the spring and fall they can be found on the hills above Cumberland.  “We all have very tolerant wives,” acknowledges both Munday and Lewis.  “It’s great that they don’t mind us spending so much time in the woods.”

The River Rats also get a kick out of hearing what others think of their trails.  “It’s nice to hear the positive feedback,” says Munday, “and it’s fantastic to see people enjoying our trails.”

There are many opportunities for the River Rats to see others experiencing their creations since they use the trails regularly themselves—though not for trail running anymore.   “Our running days are over,” Munday says with a smile.  “We’ve decided that mountain biking is much more fun.”

The River Rats enjoy biking so much that they take holidays together to explore other trails.  They’ve ridden the trails of Whistler, the Sunshine Coast, interior BC, the famous Moab trails of Utah, as well as trails in Washington, Oregon and California.  They enjoy experiencing trails farther afield especially since they get ideas for trail craftsmanship and interesting features.  Even so, the more trails they visit the more they realize that the trails around Cumberland are something very special.

What does the future hold for the River Rats?  More trails, of course.   In fact, the River Rats have a long list of trails they’d like to build.  Their eyes light up when they talk of beautiful lakes and vistas just waiting to be revealed through their work.   Whatever their plans, the people of the Comox Valley—as well as anyone who visits Cumberland’s trails—owe the River Rats a debt of gratitude.  But the debt is easily paid, since the best way to say thank you is to enjoy the trails they’ve built.

To visit the River Rats trails yourself, visit www.cvmtb.com/index.php/trails-maps/maps/cumberland-trail-map/ to see an online map of the Cumberland trail system.