Tyler Nichol feels like he’s getting paid to be a kid.
Most days, he spends his afternoons in the hills around Dawson City, digging trails. In the evenings, he rips down those trails on a mountain bike.
It’s the same thing he did with his friends, growing up in Dawson in the ’90s. The only difference now is he makes a living at it. That, and the access to heavy machinery.
Nichol sits on the deck at Red Mammoth Bistro on a hot July morning, He’s dressed for work — in a cut-off t-shirt and shorts. He’s in his 40s, but has the energy of a stoked teen, especially when he talks about trails.
Nichol points to the Acklen Ditch, a line that cuts across the slide overlooking Dawson. Built by hand in the early 1900s to carry water, it’s now a hiking trail, courtesy of Nichol.
“It was pretty funny to be in there with a modern excavator,” he says. “That ditch was hand-built. It’s pretty impressive. And I’m in there with diesel power, drinking a coffee, listening to music, not sweating … those guys would have been picks and shovels, probably hundreds working on it. And I’m just sitting on my butt, digging this trail.”
Nichol laughs, but he’s making his job sound easier than it is.
Once he’s done his coffee, he’ll head out into the hills to continue hand-building a trail himself, with one axe and the million swings it takes to cut through all the moss and root mats that cover the mineral soil on the forest floor. Sometimes an excavator just isn’t the right tool for the job. Sometimes the labour has to be manual. On those days, he is left with sore hands, sore feet from standing sideways on a hill all day, and general exhaustion (though not so much exhaustion that Nichol doesn’t have time to do midnight laps of said trails on his bike afterwards).
Machines are how Nichol got his start though.
“A lot of the skills I acquired to do (this) stuff came, like, from working at a gold mine,” Nichol says. “I didn’t learn how to run an excavator trail building. I got into the trail building after years of running equipment, in mining and construction.”
That experience led to trail work with snow parks, including the ones for the 2010 Olympic Winter Games in Vancouver. Snow parks require summertime shaping and moving earth around to create half-pipes, jumps and other features.
Nichol has also been a builder and manager at Mount Seymour, Manning Park and Cypress Mountain in British Columbia. Until this year, he was also the terrain park builder at Mount Sima. There, he spent his summers working with bulldozers and excavators to build the tabletops, jumps and other features at the ski hill. He built the lower flow trail, the big jump line and the big air zones where the national team trains in the winter.
Eventually, working with snow led Nichol to working with earth, for hiking and biking trails. He’s had contracts to do that with the City of Whitehorse, the City of Dawson and the Trʼondëk Hwëchʼin First Nation.
“They’re pretty similar,” Nichol says of ski and bike trails. “When you start building bike jumps, just the flow and geometry and physics is all sort of the same.”
There was a bit of a learning curve, in that Nichol had to figure out the rolling speed of a wheel, which is faster than the sliding speed of skis or a snowboard. Once you understand that though, he says you can create a trail that harnesses speed and balances it with the natural landscape to get the flow just right for a sweet ride.
That’s why Nichol moved back to the community — to be close to his dad and to work on trails.
His season started in early June. Any earlier and the frozen ground makes it impossible. He won’t build much past August, so his days are long. He starts work around 10 or 11 a.m. and ends at 9 or 10 p.m. He’ll spend the fall and spring scouting. It’s easier to see what he has to work with when there are no leaves in the way.
In fact, it’s hard for him not to look at a forest in terms of trails. Sometimes he says his girlfriend will ask him to go for a walk, but insist it be on a trail where there’s no potential for him to think about work, or how he might lay down a track.
“It’s always kind of on the brain a little bit,” he says. “There’s just so much.”
Even sitting at a coffee shop, his eyes wander to the Dome. There’s a whole bunch of terrain on the other side, he says. There’s still so much to look at over there.
He’s thinking ahead because he says there could be a summer ski resort vibe when it comes to the biking boom in Dawson City. Nichol has noticed the trails are as busy with people coming from Whitehorse as they are with locals.
That’s important to Nichol. He likes that the mix of beginner and advanced trails allows people like his dad, who isn’t a biker, to shred some downhill. He also likes that the local kids are catching on.
“When I grew up here, it was more of just a mining, kind of party, drinking town,” Nichol says. “People would come up from Whitehorse and they’d just get (drunk). You didn’t see a bunch of recreation. You just saw a bunch of people being crazy,” he says. “And now you see people coming to town, they’ll have a couple of pints or whatever, but a lot of them are coming to town to go bike. So the kids growing up here seeing that? I think that’s pretty cool.”
Contact Amy Kenny at firstname.lastname@example.org