After trudging through the woods of Otway Nordic Centre on snowshoes to get to his favourite single-track mountain bike trail, Glen Nicholson could not believe his eyes.
Survey flagging tape had been tied to trees that border the twisty trail known as Cyclone and Nicholson couldn’t help but feel rage. As he walked up the steep slope of the trail he saw six sections of Cyclone, as well as parts of Java and Cross cut trails along Cranbrook Hill, had trees that had been flagged for what he saw as a future logging road encroachment.
Knowing of the Caledonia Nordic Ski Club’s long-range plan to clear a path for a point-to-point touring ski trail, that survey tape suddenly became a threat to the painstaking efforts he and small group of dedicated trailbuilders including himself and Barry Hagen have invested to create a network of single-track paths that have helped make Otway a year-round destination for outdoor adventurers. But seeing Cyclone flagged was the ultimate slap in the face for Nicholson.
“Cyclone is probably the most popular biking trail in the whole region - it’s the crown jewel of our trail system,” said Nicholson. “When we built Cyclone we upped the standards in so many ways, where we changed things from being just bashing – through-the-bush experience to really high-quality trails designed to take advantage of the terrain and flow, so we looked for the very best spots and we also made it a park-like trails so we minimize the impact on the environment and maximize the sense of beauty as you’re going through the forest.
“So when we discovered the flagging tape which crosses Cyclone six times and runs right through the middle of it and goes right down the gully that people like so much, to create a six-metre wide logging road, it will completely destroy the benefits of Cyclone. Having worked so hard to create that experience for people and see it destroyed just breaks my heart.”
In a letter sent Thursday to the Caledonia board of directors and endorsed by 106 club members, Nicholson urged the ski club to halt further logging, trail construction and road building and make a full disclosure of plans for the area. The letter also calls for the board to publicly post detailed results of a trail survey it collected from members in June and to organize an emergency meeting of the directors to hear members’ concerns about further trail expansion.
But as it turns out, the ski club has no plan to encroach on any more existing bike trails and the controversy created by the flagged trees is simply a misunderstanding which stems from a lack of communication between the board and club members. According to Caledonia club president Lance MacDonald, nothing has been decided on any new trail development on the public land the club now occupies and no work in those areas will proceed without thorough consultation of the club’s 2,800 members.
“We’ve been caught off-guard a little bit by the feedback the last week or so from highly-engaged members around some of the trail construction we’ve been doing,” said MacDonald. “Clearly, not everybody was aware of either the work or the logging that would have to happen and that we’re not yet starting any work on public land.
“We would want to not impact any of the amazing trails we have,” he said. “We’d want to develop trails in such a way that we’d offer a new experience for people to help our members just have another way to access year-round some of the beautiful land we have under tenure there. We wouldn’t want to damage anything in our club that offers what our members want, and that includes trails, lodges, and facilities in general.”
MacDonald said the flagging was put up by a volunteer as a possible route for the new trail but in no way does it indicate where the trail will ultimately be built.
“Any work beyond the new construction we’re finishing up now, which is on the Terus (Construction) land, is all going to go through a new process,” MacDonald said. “We haven’t really started it. There’s no plan to do any work on the public lands, right now we’re just talking about finishing up what we’re doing.
“The learning for us and the feedback we’ve got in the construction we’re doing is we need to be better at how we communicate or at least reach all our members. Clearly, we haven’t reached everybody the way we intended.”
The Ridgerunner trail and dog trail expansion now being completed is on property at the eastern edge of the Otway property on land owned by Terus. Terus has given the club permission to use its land for recreational purposes and is also allowing an expansion of the dog trail system which allows skiers to ski with their pets. Two new dog trails now being completed will become part of what Caledonia plans to name the Terus Construction Dog Park. Loaded logging tracks have using parts of the new Ridgerunner trail to move the freshly-cut timber from of the area being cleared for the two new dog trails – Hair of the Dog and a yet-to-be named trail.
MacDonald said any revenue from sale of the wood will be used to cover the cost of logging operations and the club does not expect to profit from the project. He said the trail, which has been closed for about a month, will reopen in a couple weeks once the heavy equipment is off the site.
The dog trails are far enough away from the Terus gravel pit, which is being actively mined, and the company readily agreed to grant the club’s request for expanded use.
“We are the land owner and the dog trails have been on our land for years and we have no plans to disturb them - at this point, the trails are developed and it’s not impacting our plans,” said Chris Simons, Terus Construction’s Prince George area manager, who admits he skis with his dogs often on the trails.
“Expansion of the trails is a great idea. Caledonia has a terrific facility and we’re happy to support it.”
Part of the motivation for a future extension of Ridgerunner as far as the Cranbrook Hill Greenway is that it would create a service road for fire protection and forest health mitigation in the higher elevations of Otway, and it would allow faster responses to medical emergencies.
Last weekend, the club released results of a June survey which showed 97 per cent of respondents from the community either supported or were not opposed to development of a touring trail network. Of those respondents, 92 per cent wanted some form of grooming on the touring trail, either classical or skate skiing, while eight per cent wanted no grooming on the Ridgeview trail.
“The main complaint, and this goes back years, is the club executive does not communicate with the membership,” said Nicholson. “They’ve coloured and misinterpreted the survey results and played it in a way that makes it look like everybody is in favour of this new development.”
Nicholson said there’s already been damage done to the Espresso single-track trail when the Ridgerunner trail was being built last fall. After steady rain in September the new road that crosses Espresso left an ankle-deep muddy section that forced riders off their bikes to get through it. He questions the need for another wilderness touring trail in the area when there’s already the 18-kilometre Greenway trail which links Otway to UNBC. He doesn’t think it will be used enough to justify the cost of building it and keeping it maintained with a grooming machine. He said the flagging tape also parallels the existing road that makes up Sawmill Loop trail and questions why that existing trail would not be used as part of the new trail which would eventually link Ridgerunner to the Greenway trail.
Nicholson has also heard concerns from residents of the Catherine Drive area at the top of Cranbrook Hill who fear a new service road will create access to the trails for quad and dirt bike riders.
Membership in the club has swelled to 2,800 this year, up about 1,000 members from last year, as more people take advantage of skiing and snowshoeing as safe winter activities during the pandemic. The club has benefitted from significant infrastructural improvements from hosing such events as the 2015 Canada Winter Games and the 2019 World Paranordic Championships and with lighting improvements and the addition of snow-making capabilities, Otway is now capable of hosting large-scale events.
Over the past year the club has taken the necessary steps to secure tenure over Crown land it has used for its ski trails ever since the Hickory Wing Ski Club moved to the site in 1985. The club has worked out an arrangement with the Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure to remove the gravel reserve held over the Pine Flats area west of the clubhouse. The club can now invest in infrastructure near the Pine Flats gravel pit to dig a well to expand its snowmaking capabilities.
That followed a March 2019 land tenure expansion which brought the Pine Flats area into the existing licensing agreement and gave the club control over the race maze trails directly south of the range as well as the upper trails to the southwest. A lease put in place in May 2017 incorporated the area near Rotary Lodge and biathlon range and the machine shops.