Born to Dig
This is my shovel. There are many others like it, but this one is mine. My shovel is my best friend. It is my life. I must master it as I must master my life. Without me, my shovel is useless. Without my shovel, I am useless. I must use my shovel truly. I must dig faster than my enemy, who is time itself. I must dig before it gets me. I will. Before Digger I swear this creed: my shovel and myself are defenders of my trails, we are the masters of our craft, we are the saviours of my life. So be it, until there is no time, but perfect trails. Amen.
I have two shovels that have stuck with me for every trail I have started, abandoned, or completed. These are only shovels, but two of my most prized possessions. These two fibreglass handled beauties were purchased from a local hardware store back in 2005 and have been with me to this day. I have used these two, and only these two, as a paid trail builder, as well as a volunteer who was thrilled at moving dirt.
My shovels were on duty for many landscaping projects in my yard. They partnered with me when I was employed as a landscaper, instead of being sullied with paltry company hardware. These tools represent fond memories - ones from completed projects, as well as jobs that were never finished. These two objects represented a gateway to happiness; a moment in solitude in the forest away from everyday stresses.
Your shovel is only a tool. It is a hard heart that digs. If your building instincts are not clean and strong you will hesitate at the moment of truth. You will not build.
I would often go out to work on my trail, not because I wanted to, but because I felt I had to. I built trails as a stress relief. A few hours to live in my head in complete solitude, away from everyone. Most often it seemed, building and maintaining a trail was more important than riding my bike. Even without a plan nor any direction, scratching in a line was my idea of gratification. I tried to justify riding my bike over digging, but the bike usually lost out. One part guilt plus one part obsession equaled full commitment to trail building. Choosing to ride my bike would set me back a day, while two hours of digging got me that much closer to completion.
This is trail building, and it is an addiction. It permeates your thoughts and consumes your time. It affects every facet of your life and the lives of those around you. It takes control of you and destroys your body. You spend an unnatural amount of time looking at maps, examining the hillside, imagining perfect lines through the trees. You spend more time on Google Earth than you do riding your bike. You tell shoppers at the hardware store what shovel to avoid because you have broken almost all of them. The midweek doldrums drag on and it makes your skin crawl. The forest beckons for your return.
You talk the talk. Do you walk the walk?
Writing the first draft of the story is the most fulfilling. The project’s Treatment presented in flagging tape. Taking the time to examine each contour and feature on the hillside, planning the entrance and exit of every corner. Will it be a long sweeping turn or a tight switchback? How will you control riders’ speed without hindering flow? Always in the back of my mind are the time chasers. They will always create cheat lines and braid corners, so I plan my lines to defeat them. If I am foiled by a cheater, the short line becomes the more difficult one and, of course, the quicker option. When turns are built so perfectly, that to braid them would mean that you simply don’t enjoy riding. Deep and steep berms with shallow exits - berms so effective that brakes aren’t needed. I’ve taken half a day to complete one berm to make it perfect. One fucking berm. A single pile of sculpted dirt that can be the crux of the entire trail. Planning your project around one feature can be a challenge, but without incorporating it, your whole trail has a lot less character.
There is almost nothing as beautiful as a completed trail. A perfect ribbon of manicured earth, following the contours of the hillside. It is art in its purest form. The methodical process of bench cutting through gold has no equal. We create something that wasn’t there before. We create experiences for others, whether good or bad. After all, the trail has always been there, we’re moving the dirt away that isn’t one.
A day without digging is like a day without sunshine.
Good trail building takes time to learn and adapt to. We’re all still learning, as we are only as good as our last effort. You can’t dive in and expect good results right away. Make mistakes and learn from them, because even the best builders have produced forgettable trails. I’ve started trails and had to abandon them because I couldn’t figure out the flow. I’ve constructed trails around a single feature, while trying to envision the story.
Your technique requires training because it’s so destructive to your body. I’ve come out of the bush so tired that I could barely walk, and that’s far from hyperbole. I’ve bonked more than once, left my gear on the trail so I could find food. I woke up the next day with shoulders so sore and my back wrecked that I couldn’t think about riding. But what would immediately consume my brain would be finishing my trail.
You write "Born to Dig" on your shovel and you don’t ride a bike. What's that supposed to be, some kind of sick joke?
I’ve gone three consecutive years without riding a bike, but I couldn’t go that long without trail building. I didn’t own a mountain bike and I was out almost every weekend sculpting dirt. Why? Because it’s a fucking addiction. I missed using my shovels more than my need to ride. The love of the process of building was my motivation. When I used my flatty to bench cut through gold, the results were more rewarding than riding my bike.
My shovels are well used - the steel spades have worn down from years of earth moving. They have outlasted a couple of cheap chainsaws and many more picks. I have tried cheaper alternatives as back ups, but those shovels couldn’t withstand the demands of trail building. I have broken many imitations, but in all that time, my two shovels have stood strong. Never faltering, never giving anything up to the task at hand. They were used as levers to move large boulders, twisted and groaned under heavy loads. They have served as tampers to pound wet soil. My shovels have even served as javelins to scare off packs of coyotes and curious bears.
Although my battle hardened shovels have served me well, they are retired from active duty. They helped realize my desire to help positive experiences for others. These tools weren’t ordinary trail building implements, they were building memories. They allowed me to construct trails for everyone to enjoy, and with that comes a certain level of pride. Years have gone by and priorities have changed. I have moved on from building mountain bike trails and now my shovels sit silent.
My family was lower middle class and it was the mid eighties. The economy was in the tank, and both my parents earned a modest living while supporting my brother and me. Practical needs such as food, clothing, and shelter rank over toys. Luxurious items such as new bicycles are out of reach. Most of my bikes were hand-me-downs from my older brother, or found at the dump by my dad and usually they had mechanical issues.
In 1985 my parents recognized that my brother and I wanted new bikes. We ate ketchup sandwiches on white bread to splurge on a couple of Free Spirit All Terrain Bicycles from Sears. My best friend also got a new mountain bike from the hardware store. There was pressure to keep up with the Jones', while keeping bored kids out of trouble.
What a time it was. Mountain biking was a new thing and I had a new bike. At that time, to have a dedicated off road bicycle was earth shattering. It advertised its off road intentions, “All Terrain Bicycle” right on the frame. This proved that it was no road bike. Although to us, mountain biking always existed, with or without the categorization.
We grew up at the end of a dirt road, with a few trails out of our backyard scratched in with our dirt bikes. We modified ten speed road bikes by turning up the handlebars so we could ride our trails. We borrowed dad’s shovel to go pile dirt so we could jump our bmx bikes. But now, we have purpose-built off road bicycles with low gearing. A world of possibility and exploration opened up before we even threw our legs over our new bikes. Even to this day, my love of exploration came from owning that first mountain bike.
Mountain bike maintenance didn’t come from mechanical fascination in those early years. The shit gear we were using made it essential. These bikes were piles of shit. My brother’s bike fared better than mine, as he spent more time cleaning it and I rode mine. The first part to fail was a cracked crank arm, followed by bent chain rings, and blown out hub bearings. There was only one bike shop where I grew up, and they helped me keep that bike running for what seemed like an eternity.
I was young, confused, and so naive. I thought my $600 was the epitome of technological advancement. As a kid who wore my brother’s old socks, I considered any toy that cost that much money to be the height of technology. I was so wrong; so disheartened from my pride & joy falling apart before my eyes.
Growing up in the sticks, I had to learn how to keep my bike working. I gathered whatever information my little brain could take in. Manuals describing how to pack a hub, I never knew existed. Nor anyone telling me that non drive side pedals are the opposite thread. Crank arms installation with a hammer and block of wood. If cables aren’t fraying, I lube and reuse them. The bike’s steel single-walled rims bend and once again straighten. The process of mechanical experimentation taught me what worked and what didn’t.
My father was a car mechanic and he never once paid for labour on anything. He built our house by himself. He rebuilt engines and swapped automatic transmissions for manuals. I learned that ethos from the fact that he could fix pretty much anything, so that was my norm growing up. Even at twelve years of age, I thought that bringing my bike to get fixed at a bike shop made no sense. I adopted the idea that if it went together, I could take it apart. I got it wrong more than I got it right, but I was learning. I was repairing broken parts while adopting personal responsibility for wrecking shit.
Years later I started working in the bike industry. I also started racing. The love of bicycle maintenance I learned as a kid continued to blossom. Stripping my bike down, bolt by bolt, to make it perform better was a carryover from those early days. I was the type of guy to dive into rebuilding brand new forks because they shipped too dry. I would dismantle pivot bearings, clean and re-lube them to squeeze an extra few months out of them. I raced motorcycles and learned that if my valves needed to shimmed, then I was going to have to figure it out. I refused to let someone re-valve my suspension, so I did it myself. Paying for labour when I have two hands and a brain? Not a chance.
I’m not saying I’m special. I’m a mediocre bike mechanic at best. I’ve learned a lot from people with far more skill than I will ever have. My desire for self sufficiency was born from growing up poor. It taught me to love the process of trial and error.
At the risk of sounding like an old codger, kids these days will never know the pain of those early bikes. The expectation of failures occurred when you least expected them. Bikes now are perfect and rarely break under normal use. Entry level bikes are much higher quality now than they were a few years ago, let alone from the eighties. And yet the art of maintaining your bike is as vital as ever. Tell me a better feeling than unbolting your bike piece by piece? Cleaning every part, and rebuilding it with new oil and grease. Name a better ritual than setting up your brake levers, because there is none.
The process of maintenance used to be one that involved fixing what is broke. With modern bikes, we are weeding out personal preferences and not much more. We’re fortunate that we have such reliable bikes now, but my feeling is that riders have become less self-sufficient. I have no way of quantifying that statement, but is that a fair assessment? It goes without saying that bicycles are far more complicated now than they were back in 1985. Although, standardization usually means better fitment. Long gone are the days of pop can shims and packing bottom bracket bearings. Bikes now are for lack of a better description, plug & play. So in a way, the process of maintenance has gotten easier as bikes have gotten more complicated.
I’m less obsessive about maintenance, but I still enjoy the ritual. Cleaning my drive train, installing a new bar, and figuring out how to customize a perfect bike. Now it’s more about changing the look with new parts rather than a question of functionality. But, I’ll always reminisce about those early days of repairing my bike. No bike stand, no proper tools, no real know-how other than the ability to try.
I wouldn’t trade that experience for anything.
**This article was originally published on the Roots, Rants, and Roars website, 2020. Not all the original photos are available.
Exploring the Island in the Bay
The last time I visited Bell Island was a distant memory - over thirty years ago. It was long enough that I can not recall what I did nor where I went. Whatever it was, the memory didn’t stick with me. I was far too young to appreciate what it had to offer. For my wife Johanna, a resident of British Columbia, exploring most parts of Newfoundland is a new and exciting experience.
I knew the beauty that the bay island possessed. I grew up across the water in Conception Bay South. Seldom trips in my father’s twenty foot skiff to the Belle’s shoreline left me in awe and wonderment. One hundred meter sheer shale cliffs with plenty of secret coves and the occasional cave was not seen on the docile shores of Manuels.
Johanna and I jumped at the opportunity to explore Bell Island on the last day of summer. Coinciding with our island hike was the decision to bring along food and make the experience more memorable.
We opted to take part in My Food Hike, a promotion by Roots, Rants and Roars that encourages people to share their hiking experience along with a trail side picnic. There are fifteen restaurants who are on board supplying packed lunches for us wandering souls. We chose the nice people at Rocket Bakery to fuel us on our hike. They offer a choice of kale & toasted almond salad, or, pasta & veggie salad with ranch dressing as a starter. The main consists of a chicken club with charred red onions and bacon, or, homemade hummus & veggie sandwich. Homemade lemonade and a ginger molasses cookie completes the meal. Everything is packaged into a Roots, Rants and Roars insulated backpack - yours to keep! In addition, RRR has supplied a hiking playlist and is available for download on Spotify.
Getting to the ferry terminal from almost anywhere is an easy task. In our case, twenty minutes from downtown St. John’s was all it took. Get on Portugal Cove Road from the city core and within minutes, you’re at the port. Taking the ferry is a painless excursion as well. We departed Portugal Cove on the ferry, Beaumont Hamel, and a twenty minute sailing (and several photos) later, arrived at our island destination.
While on Bell Island, you can explore the area on it’s two main routes - Lance Cove Road and Middleton Avenue. Both run most of the length of the island. We chose to go along the southern shore from Memorial street, which turns into Nish Jackman drive, which then turns into Lance Cove Road. We came to the end of the route at a short dirt road called Bell Road. There we found two gated dirt paths which allowed us to reach the feature that gives the island its name - The Bell.
Johanna and I chose the grassy trail that runs parallel to the cliff’s edge. On this approximately one kilometer path, you will think you’re on a different part of the planet. We didn’t get too close to the edge, but the views here are unrivalled almost anywhere. The drop is a straight down, one hundred meter fall to the rocky shore, so we kept back from the precipice.
We can see part of the upside down bell in the distance. After meandering our way through tall grass, we arrive at our picnic site overlooking the almost surreal looking rocky outcropping.
Rocket Bakery’s trail side meal offerings are refreshing and light, perfect for destination hiking.
Great views and tasty food goes best with good company.
My wife Johanna and I lost our jobs in early 2020, just as the pandemic hit. We went into lock down and tried to reassess our future and what we were going to do. After much deliberation, we decided that maybe we should buy a house in the province where I was born - Newfoundland. Then, we would pack up a bunch of stuff and drive across Canada to claim our prize.
We both loved our visit there the year before. Plus, the real estate market there was going down the toilet. Perfect. So, we started out search to find our perfect little getaway.
We looked virtually everywhere for that perfect little home. After a couple of months, we found one in the town of Heart's Delight-Islington. In case you haven't realized, a small portion of the photos on my Instagram feed were taken from our back deck in HDI. West facing sunsets and right next to the ocean. How could I not?
But I digress. Johanna and I spent seven months on the rock. We travelled, we saw friends and family, and we did side projects for Tourism Newfoundland. It was such a great escape from the rest of the world, as we were locked down in our own protective bubble.
Anyway, onto the story of the image.
Our time was up and we had to drive back to British Columbia. In January no less. We headed for the ferry port town of Port Aux Basques on the west coast of the island. Having a few hours to kill, we took a small trip down the southern coast to the town of Rose Blanche. Once there, we discovered this beautiful lighthouse. Lucky for us, there was a major storm happening at the same time. What you can't tell from the photo is how windy it was - Johanna was having trouble walking!
The ground cover vegetation was a pleasing golden brown and the sun was dipping into the horizon, giving warm tones to the scene. And my wife, being the ever present model she is, wore the perfect coloured coat for the scene. Or was she just protecting herself from the elements? I used my Canon EOS R combined with my trusty Canon EF 100-400mm ii shot at 100mm, iso 800.
It turned out to be one of my favourite photos, mainly because of the memories it created.
I'm a firm believer in putting in hard work in order to get good results. But it doesn't always go as planned, no matter how much effort you put in.
Case in point: I've been on a train photography kick lately. Not sure why or how it started, but I think the turning point was when a friend suggested that I should contact the marketing department at Canadian National Railway about shooting for them. This sparked an idea to go out specifically looking for trains to shoot.
Around the same time, I rekindled my love of neutral density filters. I applied them to every shot involving movement of some sort, in order to boost my modest fine art repertoire.
I closed off my aperture and slowed down my shutter, capturing flowing waterfalls, light streaks from moving vehicles, and ghosting effects using people. With my desire to create something new to look at, I also sought out moving trains. Look to my home page if you need more convincing.
This train photo was the culmination of a thirty minute hike in sub zero temperatures. But I love the results I got, especially of the perfect orange ribbon of train cars. The surrounding landscape is okay, but the star of the show is the train. I was also able to capture several other colour streaks from different coloured cars. A bit of hard work that paid off.
I went out to a nearby spot a week later. Way colder, windier, and not a pleasant experience overall. It was so windy and cold, you really couldn't have exposed skin and I had to hold onto my tripod so it didn't fall over. While not one of my favourite images by any means, there are some elements of it that aren't that bad. The orange streaking train cars work well along with the mountains on the horizon. Worth the effort? Barely.
This scene involved scoping out Google Earth for an hour, driving about half an hour, then hiking down a steep, icy hillside. My best vantage point was being perched precariously on top of a very high cliff with a sliver of a train cars rumbling below me. While I'm not overly displeased with the result, there are/were a few elements working against it.
The saving grace of this photo is that I guarantee nobody has an image like this, for better or for worse.
This shot took some work, well mostly in getting there. In chasing waterfalls, my wife and I found this one after a bit of searching online, followed by over an hour's drive and close to an hour of walking. When we scrambled to get there, the only place I could set my tripod down was in the stream amongst a bunch of fallen logs (which we quite slippery). I used a hand held Speedlite which I activated manually to make that red jacket pop.
I'm pleased with the results, but if my wife flinched at all, those efforts would have been ruined.
On the contrary, both of these images took almost zero effort (other than dragging myself outside). No, I didn't plan the shots, not did I use any special filters. They're both cases of being at the right spot at the right time with the perfect lighting. They are two of my favourite images that I have captured over the past couple of years. I know that to recreate both of these would take a great bit of planning, work, and even more luck.
The moral of the story? Put in the work, or don't, but be prepared to shoot at any time if you want good results.