All photos by Ryan Creary
The Lost Lake trails are not what draws most mountain bikers to Whistler, a resort town of nearly 14,000 nestled in British Columbia’s Coast Mountains. The wide gravel paths and rolling singletrack trails are leagues from the monstrous tabletops, towering berms and shock-compressing drops of nearby Whistler Mountain Bike Park—indisputably the most famous such operation in the world.
But the easy trails (“green” in the trail difficulty system) are exactly why Sandy Ward is here today. It’s a Thursday morning in July, and Sandy leads a group of kids through the shade of the Douglas fir and western red cedar surrounding the local swimming hole. After warming up on a path wide enough for a truck, they turn onto a narrower, windier trail before Sandy stops the group for a lesson on cornering. The five kids hang on every word.
They, like Sandy, are all members of the Líĺwat Nation. Lost Lake is on traditional Líĺwat and Sḵwx̱wú7mesh Úxwumixw territory. Sandy would rather teach the kids within pedaling distance of their homes in the Pemberton Valley, 20 miles north of Whistler. That would make it easier for more kids to try the sport and connect to the place their ancestors have walked for at least 5,500 years. “The land and people are together as one” is a credo of the Líĺwat Nation.
Unfortunately, Pemberton is also “one of the hardest places to learn to mountain bike,” Sandy says. “There are no green trails. So, we have to come to Whistler.”
By introducing the sport to these kids, she hopes to change that: in the short term by helping them get good enough to ride in Pemberton and, on a longer timeline, by instilling a love for the sport among the Líĺwat people. Along the way, she’s become a bridge between the mountain bike and Indigenous communities, helping unite a valley through trails, bikes and hard-earned trust.
“We would never have known about the site if it wasn’t for mountain bikers. And the more awareness mountain bikers have for our cultural sites, the more respect they will have for our culture.”
As a child, Sandy’s mom had been forced into a residential school, part of a mandatory federal boarding system created to “assimilate” Indigenous youth into Canadian society by cutting away their Indigenous culture. The system, which officially operated from the 1880s until 1997, forcibly removed children from their families and communities and banned them from speaking their first languages. Abuse was pervasive and the experience left lasting scars; people who experienced residential school call themselves survivors.
So, while Sandy grew up on the Líĺwat Nation reserve, just east of the village of Pemberton, she didn’t learn the Ucwalmícwts language or about Líĺwat culture, and her friends were mostly white kids in Pemberton and Whistler. Then, at 18, she was invited to join the First Nations Snowboard Team, a program that introduces Indigenous teens to the sport.
The experience changed Sandy’s life. She became a snowboard instructor at Whistler Blackcomb and started rock climbing and splitboarding. As she skinned and hiked in traditional Líĺwat territory, she felt a connection to place that she hadn’t before. It wasn’t until 2018, after a stint of international traveling, that she began learning Ucwalmícwts and Líĺwat culture.
“Everywhere I’d go, I tried to learn about the Indigenous culture and history of the area,” she says. “I remember coming home to Pemberton after a year and a half away. Coming over the last hill and seeing the valley, I had butterflies in my stomach, and I wondered, ‘Why don’t I know more about my own culture?’”
She’s telling me this as we give our hands a rest. We’re halfway down Lumpy’s Epic, a trail just south of Pemberton, and we’ve been riding the brakes hard. Lumpy’s is classic Pemberton riding, with ribbons of dirt linking beautiful slabs of granite with doses of roots, loose rocks and the occasional berm mixed in. The rip of rubber gripping rock and hiss of my suspension compressing fills my ears.
Rolling out of an especially steep section, we pause at an overlook above the Green River. The north face of Ts̓zil—also known as Mount Currie—dominates the view, but I can see sunlit peaks marching off in all directions. Sandy sees more.
“The mountains up there,” she says, pointing into a valley, “the Líĺwat names are the members of a family: Kwtamts, husband; Sisqa, uncle; Syaqtsa, female cousin; and Sem’am, wife. I wonder why? What did this area mean to my ancestors? How did they use it? These are the things I think about when I’m out on the trail.”
The next day, Sandy leads a small group up Mount Mackenzie. From the trailhead parking lot, we grind up a gravel road and turn onto a climbing trail called Skwenkwin—the Líĺwat word for wild potato, an important food traditionally harvested in the area. Skwenkwin was the first trail in the valley built with the Líĺwat’s literal blessing.
The opening ceremony took place in 2018, around the same time Sandy got her first bike. An Aussie friend and snow-school client had moved back to Australia while Sandy was traveling and left her fancy mountain bike behind. “It was the best tip ever,” Sandy says.
Sandy had never ridden before, but took the gift in stride and bought a pass to the Whistler Mountain Bike Park. She showed up for women’s rides in Pemberton, hosted by the Pemberton Off Road Cycling Association (PORCA), and rode across her ancestral territory alongside crews of friendly and supportive women.
But as she learned to snowboard, rock climb and, now, mountain bike, Sandy had few female instructors or guides. None were Indigenous women. She felt out of place at home; some members of the Líĺwat community said she was doing “white sports.”
In 2020, after joining an outdoors group called Indigenous Women Outdoors (IWO), she felt a greater sense of belonging. Founded in 2017 by Myia Antone of the nearby Sḵwx̱wú7mesh Úxwumixw (Squamish Nation), the group organizes outdoor activities like hiking, backcountry skiing and mountain biking for Indigenous women, all led by Indigenous women.
“It’s not so much about introducing new people to the sports as helping Indigenous women become leaders in the sports,” Sandy explains.
She first helped start IWO’s backcountry skiing and snowboarding program, leading outings into the surrounding mountains. Then, as Sandy’s skills on a bike improved, she started IWO’s mountain biking program.
“The first trip I did with IWO was the first time I felt I had a connection with the outdoor community,” says Michele Lobo of the Yellowknives Dene First Nation, who lives in Sḵwx̱wú7mesh territory. “The other women and I had a shared history of trauma. They knew where I was coming from.”
The biggest difference is attitude, Michele explains. For someone new to the sport, the aggressive vernacular like stomp, crush, rip, shred or charge can feel extreme and inaccessible. For someone with trauma, be it personal or passed down from parents and grandparents, such language can bring up bad memories.
Sandy wasn’t raised in the culture, but she had seen trauma growing up and knows a gentler approach works best. I see it in action on Mackenzie when our small group finishes the climb up Skwenkwin and turns down Radio Tower. The trail starts with 30 feet of undulating granite, and while everyone else rolls through, Shayla Wallace freezes.
Shayla, a member of the Líĺwat Nation, only started mountain biking last year after signing up for one of Sandy’s IWO bike camps in Pemberton. “I was having a really hard time,” Shayla told me on the pedal up. “I was not in a good place.”
She had always wanted to try mountain biking and spend more time on the land, but couldn’t afford a bike. Sandy set her up with a rental for the camp and afterward gave Shayla an old bike and continued coaching her. The more Shayla rode, the more her mental health improved. She started getting back into art. “Mountain biking helped clear my head and gave me space,” she recalls.
“Shayla could have gone down a bad path,” Sandy tells me later. “Mountain biking has brought her back into her life.”
As the rest of the group bounces down the granite on Radio Tower, Sandy scrambles back up and gently talks Shayla through the line. She encourages but doesn’t push. Watching Shayla roll out the bottom, it’s hard to tell who is more excited.
It’s these kinds of moments that inspired Sandy to start a youth mountain biking program. With the help of the Indigenous Life Sport Academy (ILSA), formerly the First Nations Snowboard Team, she ran youth mountain bike camps in 2021 and 2022, and hopes to do so again for the summer of 2023. A local bike shop donates rentals. Grants pay for the coaching. The kids still have to find their way to Whistler, which can be a challenge on a midsummer weekday morning. “We really need a shuttle,” Sandy sighs.
Sandy supports building green trails in the Pemberton Valley, which would get more Nation members out on the land and exercising—two of the Nation’s goals. But when a nonbiker looks at a trail map of the area, they see a mess of squiggles: over 150 of them looping up, down and across over 100 miles of Líĺwat territory—almost all of which, however, are rated for intermediate riders or higher.
“They don’t understand why we need more trails,” Sandy says. Introduce enough Líĺwat kids to fat tires, though, and they will make the case for easier trails to their parents, aunties and uncles. The Indigenous school already takes kids on hikes to cultural sites.
“Hiking and biking are not that different,” Sandy insists. “Both are about fresh air, exercise, enjoying the land and connecting with our culture. It shouldn’t matter if it’s on a hike or a bike.”
And in the virtuous cycle of a shared passion, the more the Líĺwat love the trails, the more common ground they will find with the more recent settlers of the Pemberton Valley. It’s already happening. The Nation, PORCA, the Squamish-Lillooet Regional District, the Village of Pemberton, and the Pemberton Valley Trails Association (PVTA) finalized the Pemberton Valley Recreational Trails Master Plan in 2020, and the Nation and PVTA are renaming trails using Ucwalmícwts words.
The story of Cream Puff is a good example of this change. Mountain bikers have been building trails around Pemberton for decades, but until Skwenkwin, none had ever asked for permission to do so: not from the colonial government or from the Líĺwat, who never ceded their territory or signed a treaty. Legally it is their land, and any development requires their consent.
Then a rider peeled back a chunk of moss on a trail called Cream Puff and discovered a rock carving of a woman giving birth.
Known to the Líĺwat as Birthing Rock, it is now called a7x7úlm’ecw—a sacred site—says Roxanne Joe, a mountain biker and the lands and resources coordinator for the Líĺwat Nation. Oral history says that women used to climb up Mount Mackenzie to the sculpted rock to have their babies. The chance discovery was a source of friction among the two communities. Some Nation members wanted the trail closed, but Roxanne saw it as a gift.
“We would have never known about the site if it wasn’t for mountain bikers,” she says. “And the more awareness mountain bikers have for our cultural sites, the more respect they will have for our culture.”
In the end, the trail was rerouted away from the Birthing Rock, which PORCA and the PVTA then built a fence around. That quieted the calls to close the trail, but resentment lingered. When Sandy started riding, she noticed that some Líĺwat people were still grumbling about the bikers—particularly, when PORCA organized trail maintenance events and didn’t invite the Nation.
“Sandy became a bridge between the mountain bikers and the Nation,” says Bree Thorlakson, the executive director of PORCA.
Together, Sandy and Bree began brainstorming ways PORCA could be more inclusive and respectful of the Líĺwat, from inviting the Nation to events to collaborating on fundraisers. The club was already working with the provincial government to sanction trails retroactively, so they began working with the Líĺwat to have the Nation sanction them, too.
So far, only a handful are dual-sanctioned, and there is still work to do. In the spring of 2022, for example, PORCA planned a bike race that included Cream Puff, and a member of the Nation took offense at so many people riding past the Birthing Rock.
“The more people that come to a a7x7úlm’ecw site, the higher the chance of damage and disrespect,” Roxanne says. “As the population of Pemberton rises, the more protective people become.”
PORCA immediately changed the race route, but there were renewed calls to close the trail. Tensions eased a little when the Nation put out a press release supporting the mountain bike community.
“That meant a lot,” Bree says. “It showed we’d built some trust.”
The Pemberton Bike Skills Park, just south of the Mackenzie trailhead, is another joint effort between local governments and PORCA. It opens on my last day in town. A Líĺwat drummer blesses the site, and Líĺwat and Pemberton politicians speak before the ribbon drops and citizens of all ancestries fill the jump lines, pump tracks and skills park. Everyone is smiling and enjoying the same space.
Sandy takes me on one final ride before I leave the Pemberton Valley. Along for the outing are a Scot, a Frenchman, two Canadians, two women of the Líĺwat Nation and two teenagers who ride with Sandy’s ILSA program. Our diverse group grunts and pushes past the turnoff to Cream Puff—it’s still a sensitive topic, so we decide to avoid the trail—and continue to the top of The Sickness, another slab-filled roller-coaster trail with spectacular views thrown in as a bonus. We trade turns at the front and cheer each other down every butt-buzzing roll.
At one point, the trail pops us onto a viewpoint looking straight down on the Líĺwat Nation and the Birkenhead River, an important salmon stream, and out to glacier-cloaked mountains. We’re in the heart of Líĺwat territory.
“I love where my bike takes me,” Sandy says. She’s referring to the view, but now, I’m the one seeing more.