Documentary celebrates Carcross’s trailblazing youth

For eight weeks last summer youth in Carcross - axes in hand - went to work in the bush on Montana Mountain.

For eight weeks last summer youth in Carcross – axes in hand – went to work in the bush on Montana Mountain.

Using only hand tools to clear trees, move rocks and fill holes they created a nearly kilometre-long swooping mountain bike trail from scratch.

Complete with 15 to 20 bermed corners and wooden features that can be rolled over or launched off of, AK DNR is now probably the most well-used trail on the mountain.

But it’s certainly not the first one the group has worked on. It’s not even the only one they worked on that summer.

For the last 10 years youth in Carcross with the Singletrack to Success program have been building and maintaining a network of trails on Montana Mountain that have been called among the best in the world.

Now they are preparing for their big screen close-up. A documentary on the group is scheduled to premiere today at the Kwanlin Dun Cultural Centre.

Funded by the Carcross Tagish Management Corporation as a way to expand tourism to the area, 45 youth have been paid over the last 10 summers to work on the trails. About 40 of them are members of the First Nation.

Jade McLeod is a soft spoken 16-year-old who can yank an old stump out of the ground in 15 minutes if he’s got an axe handy.

“We use the axe, try to chop off the roots and then pull it out,” he said.

Getting it out involves wedging the axe into the top and pulling. Really hard.

He’s proud of the work they’ve done for other mountain bikers to enjoy.

“It’s pretty cool that they enjoy it.”

About 3,500 to 4,000 visitors are anticipated this summer. A 2012 rider survey found that about 60 per cent of the riders are local, 25 per cent are from B.C. and Alaska, and the remaining are from all over the world.

His crewmate Keona McLaughlin, 16, remembers working on Black Bear trail last summer. The route is considered technical in sections and the team had been clearing rocks to create a smoother, safer ride.

“We did so much to it and then we had riders going down that had ridden it before and saying how much it has improved.”

In 2013, seven years after the youth started going to work, Outside Magazine named Whitehorse and Carcross the best biking destination in the world.

Four years ago Kelly Milner had just bought a cabin at the foot of Montana Mountain near the bottom of the trail network.

“Every morning we’d watch the kids from the trail crew walk across the foot bridge to our side of the lake,” she said.

“They were like the seven dwarfs going off to work.”

Over time she realized that those kids probably had a story worth telling.

“They’re getting world recognition in terms of the quality of the trails and what they’re creating, and that’s a pretty big thing for kids from Carcoss to have in their back pocket.”

The 30-minute documentary she directed and produced, titled Shift, will make its debut Wednesday at a fundraising event for Single Track to Success.

Doors open at 6:30 p.m. and the event begins at 7 p.m.

Tickets will be sold at the door and entry is by donation. All proceeds from the event will go to the Singletrack to Success program.

Some time in early 2017 the movie will air on Northwestel Community Television. Between now and then the plan is to take it on the festival circuit.

“Carcross is very different than it was five years ago. It’s much busier, there’s much more going on, there’s new shops that have opened up,” Milner said.

“A lot of that is on the back of the First Nation’s purposeful attempt to build a local economy based around tourism and recreation.”

Jane Koepke was first approached by the First Nation around 2004 with the idea of making Carcross a destination for mountain bikers.

At the time the only trail on the mountain was the Sam McGee trail – now part of Mountain Hero. It wasn’t exactly user-friendly.

It took anywhere from an hour and a half to five hours to pedal up an old mining road.

Even then you weren’t at the trail. Bikers were forced to “bikewhack” – the biking equivalent of bushwhacking – to finally get to start the trip down, Koepke said.

“Super fun, but it was not the stuff of mainstream mountain bike tourism, not even remotely. There was only one trail.”

Before launching the program Koepke spent three months working with local First Nation members to scour the mountain for potential trails.

She sees the youth program as a way to pay homage to the First Nation’s history with trails.

“What was unique about the Carcross/Tagish people was that, during the gold rush, they actually were employed in a wage economy as packers on the Chilkoot Trail – their trail,” she said.

Montana Mountain was the site of a silver and gold rush starting in the early 1900s. It was much more organized than your typical rush, Koepke said. She credits the infrastructure installed by businessman John H. Conrad.

“The fellow who was pushing this thing forward had major financial backing and he wasn’t messing around,” she says.

“He built tramways, he built wagon roads, he built all kinds of infrastructure on that mountain.”

A hundred years later those old trails and wagon roads have become ideal single-track trails and were the bones for developing the trail network.

About 25 kilometres of the 65 kilometres worth of trails on Montana Mountain are historic wagon roads from that era or mining exploration routes from between the 1950s and 1970s.

Once, early in the planning process, Koepke was looking at maps in a local coffee shop when an elder informed her that she was missing a trail.

“He grabbed a pencil and drew this huge line on the map. We’d never heard anything about this trail before, it was crazy.”

The next morning Koepke spoke to a railway crew working in the area who claimed to know the trail. They took her to a path that ended at a beautiful waterfall.

What she was being told didn’t jive with what the elder had said earlier. This was much shorter than the line on the map that went way up into the alpine.

So she and a partner spent hours picking through the bush until they stumbled upon a historic wagon road built in 1910 for a power transmission line that climbs about 1,500 feet above lake level.

Complete with a corduroy road made of logs through a swamp, the route would eventually be refurbished and become the McDonald Creek trail, one of the network’s longest routes.

In the last decade Koepke has watched crew members grow while working on the mountain.

Crew members aren’t chosen because of their skill or physical ability. A desire to work hard is much more important, she says.

One year Koepke watched a new crew member struggle to even make it up a slight incline.

“I thought she was going to have a heart attack. She had to stop for a smoke break, I don’t know, every half hour.”

By the end of that summer that same girl was scampering up the mountain with the rest of the team and had cut down on her smoking.

“They’re receiving a foundation of incredibly hard work ethic that will set them up for success in whatever they choose to do in life,” said Koepke.

McLaughlin already has an eye on his future. He knows he wants to work outside.

“I definitely want to be outside and I’m thinking I might want to do adventure tourism and take advantage of adventure tourism blowing up in the Yukon.”

It’s an industry that’s growing, in part, thanks to him.

Contact Ashley Joannou at

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