BOW VALLEY – Along the Trans-Canada Highway east of Lac des Arcs at a large rock cut, the tiny figures of a mountain bikers can be seen riding along the edge of the ridge above as vehicles head east and westbound unaware of their presence above.
Soon, the bikers exit the forest along the highway's right of way and they ride to their vehicle, waiting parked on the side of the busy roadway at the Quaite Valley backcountry campground trailhead.
While most drivers don't notice the recreational activity on the steep cliff above them, also known as McConnell Ridge, local trail and mountain bike groups and the provincial government are well aware of the informal trail aptly known as Razor's Edge. That's because efforts have been underway to re-route Razor's Edge into a safer alignment relative to the Trans-Canada Highway and have it officially designated as a trail in Kananaskis Country by Alberta Parks.
Canmore and Area Mountain Bike Alliance (CAMBA) trails director Andrew Dickison said work has been ongoing for almost a decade to get the formalization of Razor's Edge to the phase it is at now, with volunteer trail building teams hard at work to complete the first phase of the project before the end of summer.
"Being a sanctioned trail means it would have future protection," Dickison said.
"It will remain an official trail and be maintained. It will be looked after, the signage will be correct and it will be on maps.
"People will be able to find official information about it and that is a huge difference to how it is now."
Formalizing Razor's Edge into a sanctioned and recognized trail inside Kananaskis Country has required finding a new alignment for it that eliminates the danger of rocks falling onto vehicles below and decommisioning 300 metres of the current trail.
"As a result of looking into formalizing the trail, the design of the connector piece had to take into consideration Alberta Transportation's safety concerns ... that is really important," said Friends of Kananaskis Country executive director Nancy Ouimet.
"Because of having to phase out a part of an existing trail and existing behaviour of how people have been using the trail, we are really hopeful what we are building is going to create a better experience and the trade off will be a win."
Razor's Edge is unrivalled in Alberta's Rocky Mountains – being one of the only black/double black technical alpine single track experiences for mountain bikers. It's unique characteristics and technical aspects make it incredibly popular. It is consistently ranked among the top trail riding experiences in CAMBA's annual member survey.
But Dickison said it is important to remember the trail would be considered multi-use and open to other recreational groups like trail runners and hikers. That is also why efforts to build the new trail have involved groups like Canmore Trails Alliance, an program of the Friends of Kananaskis Country.
"From our point of view, we are certainly designing this with a lens toward the mountain bike experience of riding on this trail and to be respectful of the style of trail above that it connects with," he said.
"However from [Alberta Parks'] point of view, which we always have to remember and like every trail in their inventory, it is a multi-user trail, so it has to be appropriate for hiking trail running and other user groups."
Dickison said Razor's Edge is unique in the Bow Valley and its features, like the exposed rock slabs along the ridge, makes it special and coveted by mountain bikers. It is a type of trail experience mountain bikers, and members of CAMBA, have said they would love to see more of. So when it came to designing a new route, making it more attractive than the current alignment was paramount to see riders change their behaviour and use it instead of the current route.
"The experience of this [new] trail has to be right," he said.
"If this was poorly built, poorly designed and not enjoyable to ride, we have no chance at all of stopping riders from turning onto the highway."
If it wasn't for the effort currently underway to create the new two-kilometre re-aligned route, Razor's Edge could have been lost completely through a closure due to the safety concerns from Alberta Transportation.
"To lose a trail like this on our watch wasn’t really an option," Dickison said.
Currently in its third summer of dirt digging and trail work, Canmore Trails Alliance and CAMBA have been setting goals each season in order to keep pushing the project forward with 596 metres completed in 2017-18. This year's goal of 1,200 metres of new trail is not yet in the ground, and several more trail building days are planned in September – requiring volunteer support.
The project was also an opportunity for these groups to prove to Alberta Parks they can do this type of trail building work, which could translate into future opportunities.
"I do believe there will be more opportunities for responsible volunteer groups that have proven themselves to take on more of a maintenance and management role of some of these trails," Dickison said.
"But we have to prove we can do that professionally and responsibly and that is part of this project."
For Ouimet, it also represents a collaborative approach to trail building that has brought together Alberta Parks, the CTA, CAMBA, other groups and people who love to build trails. It also involved three government departments to get the application for the trail work approved: Alberta Transportation, Alberta Parks and Public Lands, which is responsible for land the new connector trail crosses through to return to the Quaite Valley trailhead.
"Public Lands and Alberta Parks worked together ... and from the start of this project really wanted to work in a partnership approach that was engaging the local volunteer associations," she said.
CAMBA "inherited" the project in 2012 from mountain biker and trail builder Blue Falconer, who passed away in 2016 after being diagnosed with cancer in his colon, liver, stomach and lungs. For CAMBA vice-president and Plaid Goat Mountain Bike Festival organizer Wanda Bogdane, honouring the legacy of the work that has gone into formalizing the trail is vital to the project.
"The history of this trail is very deep and it is really important that we have part of the characteristics and personality of the proper Razor's Edge within the connector too, as much as Mother Nature let's us have," Bogdane said.
"It has been moving through this process for a very long time."
For Bogdane, there is incredible tourism product and economic development opportunities as a result of that change. Mountain biking is a draw for visitors, and with few expert level signature trails and an appetite for them – formalizing Razor's Edge is a win-win.
And because it is not officially recognized by Alberta Parks, it is off limits to guides and mountain bike skill trainers to utilize. The new alignment, once completed in 2021 as expected, would open it up to those groups.
"Right now, the most sexy and interesting trail we have is off limits to those folks. If you are a technical rider and you want to learn skills on the trail, you can’t do that officially here," Bogdane said.
More than 800 hours of volunteer time has gone into the work so far.
Marcus Henry, with Steedz Enduro mountain bike team, said giving back to the help build the trails he enjoys riding is important.
“One of the reasons why we started the whole Steedz Enduro team was to essentially give back to the community,” he said, adding all Steedz riders are required to be members of CAMBA as well.
“Mountain biking has given us so much and ... everybody wants to ride it, let’s help make it happen.”
Go to CAMBA's and the CTA's Facebook pages to find out information about upcoming trail building sessions in September.