“I’m a hiker mainly,” says Lloyd Laroche, 17, standing next to a mountain bike trail being build at the Chilliwack Community Forest in the Fraser Valley.
The sounds of hand tools tearing out roots and striking rocks ring through the bushes, as other youth — some part of a paid building crew, some volunteers — work through the dense vegetation to clear a new skills trail near the parking lot.
Other members of the build crew say Laroche is the muscle — the guy to call when a big stump or log needs to be hauled out of the way, but one of the trail building mentors says he still complains when there’s a load of gravel to haul.
According to Laroche, who’s a member of the Tzeachten First Nation, the mountain bike trails are harder to work on than the hiking trails; they need to be packed harder to withstand the abuse bike tires can dish out.
He’s one of five youths building trails all summer as part of a program run by the Stó:lō Service Agency and United Way of the Lower Mainland.
Through the summer many other Indigenous youth will take part in volunteer trail days, in which Laroche and the other crew members will teach them some of the skills they’ve learned, and then the teens will get to take mountain bikes for a rip on the trails.
“These are kids who — many of them have never been out on the trails mountain biking, so they’re learning how to both build mountain bike trails and how to ride bikes,” said Andrea Dykshoorn, community engagement specialist with United Way.
Dykshoorn said the program was already being planned before the pandemic struck, but the need has become even greater since COVID-19 emerged.
“What we were seeing before with lots of loneliness and isolation, we’ve seen that intensify,” she said, adding that this program is part of building friendships, connections and shared experiences for youth in the community.
Yvonne Tumangday is the elder for the Stó:lō Mémiyelhtel program (which means “to help others be well”). She said the mountain biking probably isn’t for her, but she might take a walk on some of the new trails.
“During this time of isolation because of the COVID virus, it can get stressful just being in the house all the time,” said Tumangday.
“It makes me really happy and I’m excited for this program and for the youth to be able to be learning how to clear the trails,” she said.
Tanner Wilber, 19, is part of the building crew and a member of the Nlaka’pamux First Nation. Like Laroche, he doesn’t go for the mountain biking as much. Wilber is into bush craft, hiking, and spending time on the land learning about the different plants used for food and medicine, all part of the experience with the summer program.
“It’s good to get a lot of connections through here and the different lands we go to, we also learn a bit of Indigenous history, as well as learning about plants,” he said.
He has had the chance to do a little bit of riding though, and may continue to dabble in the sport.
“It’s definitely piquing my interest a little bit,” said Wilber.
Meanwhile, Joseph Sepass, 17, from the Stó:lō Nation has brought far more enthusiasm to the sport.
He was taking part in a volunteer trail day on Wednesday. By the time he got on one of the two bikes the Stó:lō Nation has for the teens to ride, a smile was plastered on his face.
“It’s really fun … I just enjoy riding in the mountains and stuff and being in the nature and having fun like that,” said Sepass, adding that he’s into the adrenaline.
That adrenaline rush, along with the speed and beautiful forest trails may even be enough to get Laroche a little more interested in mountain biking before the summer is through.
“I’m interested in getting into the hobby,” he said, before going back to toiling on the fresh dirt path weaving through the vibrant green forest.
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