It’s 8:00 pm on Thursday, July 9th, 2020. I’m sitting at my computer. My wife has our three young boys out swimming. I’m pouring over a shared google doc of budget details, potential itineraries, destination options, associated mileage, ferry schedules, travel timelines, social connections, COVID restrictions, gear lists, brewery locations and a host of other multifaceted, spreadsheet-worthy logistical tidbits that might have you concluding a full-blown expedition is being prepared. It’s not – but the planning makes it feel like it is.
In four weeks, we’ll be embarking on a road trip through the Maritimes to visit the riding destinations that make this corner of Canada unique. From Saint John up to Fundy, over to Brookvale and back to the Railyard in Truro, we’ll be hitting some trails about which you should know. Along the way, we’ll be capturing photos and hearing stories of the people shaping mountain biking in Atlantic Canada. The whole thing will culminate in a 60-second MTB Atlantic teaser showcasing some of the great riding right here in our region.
Jump forward. It’s 5:00 am on Sunday, August 9th – one month later. It’s dark. I’m clumsily fumbling around the kitchen brewing a dark elixir to free me from my pre-dawn haze. Generally slow to wake up, I’m not sure how I’m going to survive these next few days, many with starts earlier than this one. But the itinerary dictates “on the road by 5:30” – so, here I am.
With coffee consumed and bike loaded, I set out for Kentville to acquire my travel companion for the next six days. If you’re from Atlantic Canada and you ride a mountain bike, you may know the name Tim Foster. As a seasoned rider, photographer and partner at Dose Media, Tim has been directing his creative efforts more and more toward mountain bike-related projects. Through his work with Sugarloaf Bike Park, Mountain Bike Halifax, Wentworth Mountain Bike Association, Mountain Bike Atlantic and others, Tim has been tirelessly contributing to our mountain bike community helping to capture and share the riding in ways only he can.
Connie meets me in the driveway. At a year-and-a-half and 70lbs, Tim’s Goldendoodle is a formidable adversary and wastes no time letting me know how excited she is with my arrival. We load Tim’s endless array of black camera bags, rack his bike, and we’re off. On route to Digby, we stop at North Mountain Coffee in Berwick for a last hit of java before catching the Fundy Rose to Saint John.
Our passage through the cool, salty air of the Bay of Fundy is a calm one. As we approach the city, it’s easy to see that Saint John is a city rife with industry. Containers line the port while stacks kiss the skyline. As such, it often gets a bad rap for its industrial presence – not to mention its disjointed and cumbersome network of roadways.
But Saint John has a secret about which only those who have spent enough time here know. If you’re into cool stuff outdoors, the place is a little-known gem. Within 30 minutes of the city, you’ll find high-quality rock and ice climbing, scenic coastal trail running, endless road riding and of course great mountain biking.
We roll off the ferry and head straight for the natural playground of Rockwood Park. After a day of travel, we’re eager to stretch our legs. We meet long time builder Laurie Robichaud and old friend Sean Driscoll at the north parking lot off of Sandy Point Road. They’re keen to show us the trails.
Laurie is a member of the Saint John Cycling Trail Miners. This crew of builders is one of the most committed volunteer trail groups in the Maritimes. Last year they logged over 1500 hours of volunteer work moving rocks and dirt around the park. Builders like Ernie Campbell, Pat Graves and Dean Price have been leading the charge working with other volunteers building and maintaining Rockwood’s high-quality trails.
Today, old school gems like ‘Sweetness’ and ‘Carnage’ are still in the mix albeit with a host of new (and very welcome) counterparts. With funding procured by Saint John Cycling, new trails have been popping up all over the park and are changing the flavour of Saint John’s riding. Machine-built trails like Bunny Rampage, the new skills park, and roadside beginner flow trails like Millenium Falcon are all examples of how the park is catering to a full spectrum of riders. From dead beginner to Sendy Sam, there’s something to keep everyone entertained in Rockwood Park. As I write these words, Halifax-based Shoreline Dirtworks is busy carving out yet another ribbon of goodness to add to the park’s offerings.
We’re scoping locations for tomorrow’s shoot and as such head straight for the ever-scenic MacKay Skyway. Approaching the trail from the south, we punch into the first crux, followed by the second, then the third, and so on higher and higher above the city. What it lacks in length, it makes up for in tech and rewards those who take the challenge with views of the uptown all the way out to the Bay of Fundy. That and the new rock slab and gap jump on your way back down the north side make this a trail you won’t want to miss. From here, we wind our way through a host of other trails linking our way back north to the cars.
We round out the day with some post-ride pints at Britts Pub at Golf Rockwood. As the park also hosts an 18-hole golf course, there’s a watering hole and feed trough right on-site welcoming riders and golfers alike.
This is an extra special apres, as it’s here that we’re meeting with our travel companions for the remainder of the trip – travelling by RV no less. The crew consists of project lead for Mountain Bike Atlantic, Sam Bosence and her partner and Saint John Cycling President, Greg. Their riding accomplices, mountain bike instructor Emily Lennon and trail builder Shaun Wilson are also on board rounding out our complement of photo-worthy riders. We’ve all worked together on mountain bike projects in some capacity in the past and here we are again.
The next morning we’re up early and back to MacKay Skyway. The fog has rolled in. It’s thick, even by Saint John standards. All the better for capturing the essence of this unique place. Sure, Saint John has plenty of blistering hot sunny days, but sometimes the fog rolls in. And when it does, it changes the place. Cool and damp, it gives the city a feel unique unto itself. Tim sees it as one big photo opportunity and we execute the morning ride as such. Line up, ride, stop, repeat. We’re finished by 9 and head back to Brit’s for breakfast. Good morning Caesars and gourmet eggy breakfasts make up for our predawn start – not to mention that Tim got the shot.
We repeat our routine of loading bags and bikes and get back on the road for Fundy National Park.
Fundy National Park
It’s 8:00 am the next morning. We’re parked at Point Wolfe awaiting the arrival of our companions for the morning ride. A park staff truck enters the lot. The bass is heavy. Two girls fling open the doors and unleash Kanye’s “Stronger” into the still morning air. These girls are park staff – just dropping in to give ‘the john’ a quick once over before moving on. Despite the banality of their task, they’re amped. So are we.
The cleaning staff departs as our guides pull in. The McNair brothers are an unlikely duo. John, the younger, owner of the official park outfitter, Outdoor Elements is unassuming and quiet. His older brother Andrew, well…not as much. Affectionately known as Big Air McNair, Andrew might be described as a slightly looser operator than his younger brother (a trait that makes for great storytelling, I might add). Together, they’re the perfect duo for an unforgettable tour along this rugged stretch of coast.
The morning is again heavy with mist and the Bay of Fundy continues to be in a foul mood. The forest is dark, enshrouded in shadows – the perfect backdrop for showing the immensity of this place. Many don’t realize but Fundy National Park drops from an elevation of over 350m right down to the water’s edge. In the words of Fundy’s Visitor Experience Manager, Andrew Fry, “You can do some serious stuff with this kind of elevation”.
At just under 24km round trip, 800m of climbing, and a healthy helping of big terrain, the Goose River trail is a great undertaking for many and an outright epic for most. But with great effort comes great rewards. Not only is the riding incredibly fun, challenging and very engaging, but the destination at Goose River rewards you with its breathtaking beauty. Unless you’re Danny MacAskill, leave your bike at the top and hike down to the beach. There’s a lagoon-like inlet complete with the pearly green water characteristic of the Bay of Fundy. Bring a picnic. Bring your french press. Bring a beer. The place is the kind of spot you’ll want to take in for a few minutes before diving back in for your return to Point Wolfe.
Close to the end of our ride, we hear a loud noise ahead. Andrew’s been going hard and something explodes on his bike. He slows to a halt. No big deal. Just a flat tire, a broken spoke and a lost Di2 battery from his rear derailleur. Luckily, we’re only a couple of kilometers from the trailhead. He throws his seatpost battery into his derailleur and limps out on freshly installed tubeless inserts. All in a day’s work for ‘ol Big Air.
We take a break for the afternoon before our evening rendezvous with Moncton-based, Les Dusty Ladies. Originally started by Mylene Depres and Dominique Gaudet as a way to remove barriers to women’s mountain bike participation, this fledgling club took flight as a flock of 10. Their purpose was to provide women with opportunities to ride with other women in an inclusive and supportive environment. Dominique and Mylene are both advocates for MTB Atlantic and have promised to bring a healthy number of riders for tonight’s shuttle laps of Whitetail. They don’t disappoint as car after car loaded with bikes arrive on the scene.
I strike up a conversation with one of the participants, Lindsay who is on a work term from Alberta. Unaware of the riding in the east, she left her bike and kit back home. Following our brief scolding, we ask how it is that she’s all set up with a helmet, shorts, gloves and bike? Attesting to their inclusive nature, Les Dusty Ladies provided her with a hodgepodge loaner kit – complete with shoes.
Les Dusty Ladies have no set ride times. Group members are encouraged to organize their own rides when it works for them. Rides usually consist of between 15 and 20 riders but tonight I lose count at 30+. I’m blown away when Mylene tells me the club now draws from a pool of 100 riders. Hats and t-shirts are on the way and they just secured a beer sponsor with the Riverview-based Holy Whale Brewing. A success story if I’ve ever heard one.
We ride until dark and finish the evening with some post-ride refreshments. While riding is the primary purpose of this women’s group, their commitment to apres cannot be overlooked. As we discover deep into the night, this is a beer league, for sure.
The next morning has us back on the road. We travel north on the 114 taking in all the grandiosity this small, rural area has to offer. Period homes built over 100 years ago adorn the roadside with their historic architecture. As we head north through the rolling hills, the morning fog lifts revealing the rich colours of the mixed forest and farmland along this stretch of coast. The greys and steely blues of the morning acquiesce as the sun emerges through layers of dispersing clouds. After a dark and cloudy first half of this trip, we’re on our way to a very sunny Prince Edward Island.
Prince Edward Island
We turn off the main drag onto a connector when we see him. He’s out before us in the middle of the road. He looks to be in his 70s with long grey hair and a beard to match. He’s riding a banana-yellow ebike and his helmet is a red bandana. He’s absolutely flying, throwing out huge (seated) GS turns down this rural stretch of road. We’re a bit confused at first but it soon makes sense. If you ride a bike, it makes perfect sense…
We’re on route to Brookvale to connect with our good friend Greg Dion and his family. Greg oversees Sugarloaf Bike Park in Campbellton, NB and is vacationing with his young family in PEI. It’s perfect timing as we’re trying to highlight all the best the region has to offer including ride destinations for the whole family, of which Brookvale is about the best. We meet up with his wife Annick and daughters Amilia, 7, and Anabelle, 4. They’re having a blast gobbling up all that Green Machine has to offer.
Riding these trails has me stoked to connect with PEI trail builders, John Mullins and Joe Downham. John is waiting for me at the lodge. He has a safety pin in his ear and is wearing a PEI Parks hat with a flip brim. His shirt is sleeveless and his pants look like they’ve done some hard time in the forest. He’s got an old school, skater look and upon meeting him, I swear I can hear Sonic Youth somewhere in the back of my head. It sounds good.
At 45 years old, John grew up in a time when snowboards were still being outlawed on ski hills. In fact, he may have been the first snowboarder to slide over snow on Prince Edward Island. As a young rider looking to expand his horizons, the moment he finished school he packed his board and moved to Vancouver Island. It was here that he was indoctrinated into the (then) new school art of sculpting terrain features in the Mt. Washington terrain park – skills that have transferred nicely to the red dirt of PEI.
Joe on the other hand grew up in the UK. He began his career riding the Seven Stanes in Scotland at the age of 12. He’s the kind of unassuming rider/builder who’s been building trails in his own backyard for years. And these aren’t just paths through the forest. He owns his own excavator. Let’s leave it at that.
The two came together by chance a few years ago when the trails at Bonshaw were first being built. Joe had been working with key Bonshaw trail builder Albert Flavell. When Albert was forced to step back due to an injury, John was recruited to fill in. The rest is history.
We walk into the completed section of Plamu. For the available vertical, it’s a jump line to rival any on the east coast in terms of its refined nature and thoughtful design. This trail will leave you with both a smile on your face and the desire to become a better rider. I’m blown away by the big booters and giant berms. Joe tells me, “Yeah, we’re really finding our rhythm”. For sure, they are. After carving out such classics as Coastline, Surf n’ Turf, Blue Nuit, and Green Machine, these guys are definitely laying down some top-notch mountain bike trails in Brookvale’s Mark Arendz Provincial Park.
We land back in the parking lot where by chance, we run into Randy Miller and Diane Buhay of Saint John. As self-identifying seniors, their ages are both north of 60. But they’re not your stereotypical bike-riding seniors. They’re sporting full-suspension rigs, modern kits and call the trails at Rockwood Park their home turf. We chat briefly and part ways. It’s refreshing to connect with riders like Diane and Randy. They leave me very optimistic about the prospects of riding well into the future.
As tomorrow has us back on the mainland, we revisit the routine of pack, load and hit the road. A quick overnight at Northumberland Campground and we catch our second ferry from Wood Islands back to the mainland at Caribou. We’re on route to the Railyard at Victoria Park in Truro. Two new jump lines have just been completed and we want to check them out and learn who’s behind them.
From the ferry terminal at Caribou, we head southwest for less than an hour to the Hub of Nova Scotia. Here we meet up with good friend, fellow rider and accomplished builder, Devon White. As one of the key builders behind these new trails, and a more-than-proficient rider, Devon is the perfect choice for showing us these new lines at the Railyard.
He drops in and we watch him float the features like he’s somehow freed himself from the ties of earth. He boosts his way down, floating table after table, throwing no handers and spinning 3s along the way. As always when I ride with this guy, I’m both humbled and inspired.
I get right to it. Where’d these trails come from? Who’s responsible? And how’d they pop up so quickly?
Turns out they’re the realized vision of Truro local, Mitch Cooke. Mitch grew up down the road in Brookfield and raced motos professionally before retiring to start what is now HAF Lifestyle Store. Since then Mitch has gone on to pursue other business ventures including Jimolly’s Bakery Cafe and Callus Moto and MTB Apparel.
Earlier this spring, Mitch approached Parks and Rec Supervisor, Larry Anthony to discuss the potential for a jump line to add to the offerings in Victoria Park. The park already hosts a pretty full complement of awesome riding but Mitch saw further potential in the terrain available. After a few back and forths, and funding provided through Mitch’s efforts, Callus Cut 1 was approved.
Within days, the flags had been placed, the bench dug, tables shaped, trail tamped and booters sent. In Mitch’s words, “We don’t mess around” – and for good reason. When you get the green light for building this kind of trail in a municipal park, you waste no time in execution.
Capitalizing on the success of the first, Mitch was approved for a second line for which he turned to Devon. With somewhere around 25 machine built trails under his belt, Devon has a reputation for building high-quality tracks. He also has a reputation for sending them. I still wonder if his proficiency lies more with his bike or with an excavator – I suspect that at his level, you can’t have one without the other.
With approval given, Devon arrived with his crew to begin sculpting his masterpiece. Fellow rippers including Jeff Schubert, Brandon Porter, Nick Carter, and Mike Nova among too many others to mention, helped move and sculpt dirt for a week – with no expectation of pay. Seven days later this group left us with Callus Cut 2, another premier jump line in Atlantic Canada.
It’s 12:15pm, Wednesday, Sept. 9th exactly one month after returning from the trip. It comes as a text from Tim: “want to see a rough cut of this vid? Still lots of work to do, but may be helpful to get the ole cogs turning”. His ‘cog’ metaphor is in reference to getting my brain working to scribble out this piece of writing you’re skimming over at this very moment.
My response: “Are you kidding me? What kind of question is that? Of course, I want to see it!”
At 60 seconds, it’s not exactly an epic saga. But after the nonstop week of travelling, riding and shooting, it’s the most awaited 60 seconds of flashing pixels I’ve ever anticipated. I was jazzed, to say the least. It’s the culmination of a week of travelling with an incredible crew of riders, meeting locals, hearing stories, riding trails, and consuming the best food and local beer the maritime provinces have to offer. These 60 seconds, although short, provide a glimpse into the people and places that embody our community and how they are working to involve and engage more riders to help keep our scene growing out here on Canada’s east coast.
Mountain Bike Atlantic was created to showcase the high-quality mountain biking available in Atlantic Canada – complete with cafes, restaurants, breweries, bike shops and simple, east coast culture. And things are just getting started. Plans are in the works for further road trips to more destinations to uncover more of the incredible trails here in the east. To add, and maybe most exciting, Phase 2 is being prepared and has both coasts of ‘The Rock’ on board as Newfoundland is welcomed to the project (they’ve been unofficially on board the whole time). Stay tuned – so much more to follow…
As a community-minded rider based in Halifax, Chuck Sutton fills many roles in the mountain bike community. He is a founding member and president of Mountain Bike Halifax, owns and operates Ride East Mountain Bike Instruction, serves on the Trails Committee with the McIntosh Run Watershed Association and is an Advocate and Advisory Committee member for Mountain Bike Atlantic – not to mention he’s a teacher, husband, father of three and now, writer.
You can keep up with Chuck and all his adventures at @rideeast.ca