Pemberton Downhill | Cowboys, Indians and Super Dudes
Seb Kemp starts a new mini series taking us to places away from the bright lights of the Whistler Bike Park... first up, Pemberton.
Seb Kemp starts a new mini series taking us to places away from the bright lights of the Whistler Bike Park...
From Dirt Issue 126 - August 2012
Words by Seb Kemp. Photos by Reuben Krabbe.
At the end of a dirt road stands a new corrugated steel shed with nothing to hint at the age–old chemistry that goes on inside its walls. The area the shed stands on is surrounded by towering peaks that are clothed in a cloak of temperate coniferous forest or glowing white snow that pierce the blue sky like the jaws of a giant; an amphitheatre of rock and timber that makes everything in the snooker table flat, narrow valley, feel dwarfish. The valley floor is lush and green, neatly divided by the hedgerows and fenceline of farming. It is the produce of the ground here that is the main ingredient for the most unexpected of brews.
The Pemberton valley is referred to as ‘Spud Valley’ by locals and the potatoes that are grown here are of such renowned quality that Pemberton is a world supplier of high–grade seed potatoes. Jonathon Schramm (you might recognize that name from the credits of Anthill’s productions like Follow Me and Strength In Numbers) and his wife own a small potato farm in the valley. Around 2002 the value of potatoes was falling drastically due to the fashionably carbo starved Atkins diet. Jonathon and his brother realized that the fine potatoes and glacial waters that run from the mountain creeks would provide the perfect ingredients for an ultra premium vodka. So Tyler bundled himself off to Edinburgh to do a Masters thesis in potato vodka distilling at Heriot–Watt University, learnt the craft of distilling from the master distillers of Scotland, and created the original recipe for Schramm Vodka. He returned to Pemberton and with the help of his brothers built the distillery buildings in the winter of 2008 and by early 2009 had carefully hand-distilled the first crop of locally grown organic potatoes to make the first bottles of Schramm Vodka.
To be in British Columbia, deep in the mountains, stood outside an authentic vodka distillery is a little perplexing perhaps, but the Pemberton Distillery is a logical result of the confluence of the ingredients that make Pemberton an interesting place.>>
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Cookie Losee fell in love with Pemberton from the first moment his band’s crusty old van chugged into town ten years ago. It was in a previous life where he played in a group called Rare Gold he describes as “poppy sort of Neil Diamond stuff" that they descended from the Duffy Lake pass into the Pemberton Valley after being holed up in a remote cabin for a month trying to record an album. The magnificent views, laid back vibe, and warm climate grasped him at once and he vowed to return. It took a while but he moved back with his wife and first child and settled here, probably for good. He now works as a wrench in local bike shop, Bike Co. where he is afforded views of magnificent Mount Currie from the workshop’s open door.
Pemberton town is a unique place. The few buildings that make up the CBD there look more like set pieces from an old western. Even the local McDonald’s (one of only three chain stores in town) has a hitching post for horses. This is reflective of the old roots of the place. Pemberton first interested the settlers in the nineteenth century while a safe trade route was being explored between the coast and the interior. Shortly after gold was discovered nearby and 30,000 men rushed to the area. A farming community grew in the valley to support the influx but soon a better route was found, the gold dried up and much of the transient population moved on, leaving just the farmers to plant and harvest in the fertile valley. Until 1913 the only way to access the town was by ferry via Harrison Lake. Then the railway came and opened it up a little, disturbing the peace of the remaining cowboys, homesteaders, and farmers. In the 1966 the road from Vancouver was punched through to Pemberton, the same year that Whistler opened for skiing. Some of the older residents still feel a little resentment for the changes and what they consider disruption.
However, they weren’t the first. The Lil’wat First Nation had long being settled in the valley. The Lil’wat Nation, unlike many other bands and tribes throughout Canada, never entered into a treaty with the state and instead see Canada as an occupying power. This has made things complicated with land use and reparations but the Lil’wat remain fiercely independent. Nowadays, further up the valley a reserve is home to a population of 2,000 first nations people, and in many respects both the settler population and the first nation people remain isolated from one another. Unfortunately, the most common sighting of a native person is usually what Cookie describes as the “railway drunks".
Nowadays, Pemberton is a functioning town north of Canada’s wonderland: Whistler. It is a little too far north to be afflicted by the ‘weekend effect’…as it is too far from the chairlifts, cocktail restaurants, and too far of a commute for weekend warriors from the Pacific North West to consider buying second homes there. All the houses there are owned or inhabited by the local population and has been saved from the real estate hording that sees fashionable ski towns like Whistler being hollowed out.
These radical spots aren’t just for snow covered shenanigans and scares. In the warmer months Pemberton becomes the stepping stone for big adventures into places like the South Chilcotins and an ideal early season spot for snow struck riders desperate to get back on the wheels. However, this doesn’t mean Pemberton should be considered a quick stop on the way somewhere else or the next best thing to Whistler. The town’s cache of singletrack is steep, deep and demands your full attention.
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“It is the mix of trails that blows me away. From easy to the wildest gnar. The diversity of trails ten minutes pedal from the middle of town is unbelievable", says Matthew Lee, an east coast convert who knew Cookie from a previous life in Ottawa and has been drawn to the left coast by the lifestyle, mountains, and riding potential. I’m not exactly sure I agree with the mix Matthew describes, most of the trails are of a pretty high level (either fitness or skills wise) but I suppose this is part of the numbing process of living and riding here for long enough. There are a lot of trails though. There are one hundred trails in the valley. Considering there is only 2,000 people in the area that makes this place very trail–dense.
These trails are mostly steep, dusty and technical. Most are a stone’s throw from Bike Co. in ‘downtown’ Pemberton, lined up and waiting on the south facing Mackenzie ridge. In the past it appeared that Pemberton was very shuttle centric locale. The trails are big, burly, and steep. The kind which were best accessed by gas guzzling pick–up trucks and ridden on big bikes. The trails haven’t changed much, but these days riders are more likely to attack them on smaller ‘trail’ bikes. This is in part due to the work of local builders and the progression of bicycle technology.
Capable bikes that climb and still like to be slammed into the burl make sense now. People want to be out in the outdoors for long time having a good time, so pedalling up and around epic loops that still contain the same gnar, steeps, and tech that they would have previously shuttled up to ride with 8" of damage control.
It feels like there has been a renaissance of pedalling. British Columbia was heavily responsible for pushing riders and manufacturers to bump up the travel, weight and capability of bikes. The freeride scene that dominated the last decade demanded development towards bikes that allowed new highs to be struck but hindered riders ability get around the mountains. Peter Colapinto, the other half of Bike Co., has seen that Pemberton locals have always been keen to explore the outdoors on their bike, whether it meant pedalling or not, “It seems locals always have been what some would refer to as ‘cross country’ riders. It was the riders coming up from Whistler and the south for early season shuttles that gave this place a reputation for shuttling."
Seb Wilde moved to Pemberton eight years ago. He grew up on the North Shore amongst the Deep Cove Bike Shop crew, lived in the Lower Mainland’s Fraser Valley for a while, before making the move up to Pemberton. When he did he sold his downhill bike and got pedalling. Seb now trail builds and rides more than anyone can dream of while also holding down the mechanic duties at Bike Co.
Part of the reason Seb left behind the big bike was due to one particular trail development, “Happy trail changed everything. It turned the place from shuttle centric to pedal centric for sure." ‘Happy trail’ was a climbing trail that began to give riders a way to access some of the gnarly trails up high using a well–graded and shaded trail. Nigel Protter began building this game–changer in 2007. He used the topography well and worked the trail in a way that didn’t force its way against the gradient and gravity. This patient and sensible approach meant riders could enjoy the climb up to the rowdy trails up high. ‘Cop Killer’, ‘Overnight Sensation’ and ‘Gravitron’ are just some of the trails that were previously off limits to all but those willing to hump on the road. These trails often feel more like ski lines because of how they attack the fall line and the deep dust tends to have a vague feeling until you learn to just go hard enough that you float.
However, Nigel was not content and had plans for more. Around the same time the global financial meltdown was happening and the Canadian government came up with the idea of giving money to towns to stimulate local economies to keep them buoyant. Nigel, whose day–to–day job entails the kind of detail oriented eye for fund raising, put together an application for some of the stimulus funds with the PVTA (Pemberton Valley Trails Association).
The PVTA was started by locals in 2002 to get a valley trail network that linked the residential areas of the valley, but like many organisations, they found endless other campaigns to keep them busy. The PVTA, which although is run predominately by mountain bikers but includes motorbikers, hikers, and hunters, has been very successful in its crusades and secured the stimulus cash.
In 2009, using the stimulus funds, the climb was pushed upwards and upwards by way of hand crafted narrow singletrack. ‘Big Nimby’ extends from ‘Happy Trail’ and winds up 101 switchbacks to an elevation of 870m. From there many of the big boy trails can be accessed. However, using local dedicated labour the funds stretched enough to build ‘Let It Go’ (a continuation of the continuation), ‘Stimulus’ (a descent from the highest point right down to the valley floor) and ‘Middle Earth’ (another climb that reaches even higher into the Mackenzie range).
Pemberton is just twenty minutes north of Whistler, and therefore just over two hours from the centre of Vancouver. Between the city and Pemberton there is more than several lifetimes worth of singletrack. In North Vancouver there are the trails of the North Shore’s three mountains. In Squamish there are endless flowing and technical trails and, due to the work of SORCA, Big Red Ted and supporters, several machine made trails that make it worthwhile to stop off on route to Whistler. In Whistler there is, of course, the Bike Park, but also in the valley is about 200km of trails that no one from outside of town seems to pay attention to. So Pemberton, being the furtherest away, has done something very sensible, and that is to set themselves apart and create something utterly different from what is already out there. It might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but the big loops of Pemberton that demand legs, lungs and giant balls of steel are what sets this place apart.
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Inside the steel shed things look more like ‘Willy Wonka went 20,000 leagues under the sea’. The hand–wrought copper distilling pots are were the magic and alchemy takes place, turning the humble spud into a highly refined and elegant liquid.
It turns out the good old red jacketed ruskie water wine is mostly made with grains because grains have a higher starch content and therefore lower the cost of production. Pemberton Distillery is home to one of only a handful of brands of potato based brands of vodka. Tyler wanted to make a sipping vodka, something that could be enjoyed straight. The potato in it gives the vodka a softer flavour and the water (which is essential for vodka production as it is taken from 95% alcohol to 40%) gives a fresh clean taste because it has virtually no mineral content as it comes straight from the sky rather than sitting as ground water.
Vodka is the most popular spirit in the world and most Vodkas are advertised as ultra distilled, which makes them taste like ethanol and is why they need to be disguised by fizzy drinks and juices, hidden in cocktails, buried in alco–pop bottles, or administered late at night in cringe–inducing shots. Schramm vodka is very different. It bucks the trend and is actually very enjoyable when left unaccompanied. As I lifted a glass to my mouth I had flash backs of juvenile revelry that always ended up with me curled up and hurling over the back of park benches, but this was different.