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Long-awaited trail officially open

Sept. 2 celebration of Lord of the Squirrels marked culmination of hard work

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Roughly 60 wise men and women came from far and wide to see the young Lord on Saturday, Sept. 2.

With the Lord of the Squirrels celebrating its official opening that day about a month after its soft opening, a number of riders were getting their second look at the alpine route, though many more were checking it out for the first time.

Surrey's Tammie Brophy rode the trail for the first time roughly three weeks prior to its official opening, giving it a rave review.

"It was mind-blowing. The climb is epic, that's definitely the word. We've used that word a lot of times, but this is truly one of those," she said. "When you get into the alpine, the flowers and the views go on forever."

Brophy said the trail, a descent constructed by the Whistler Off-Road Cycling Association (WORCA) connected to the ascent built by the Resort Municipality of Whistler, was challenging.

"I definitely had to do some walking because some of the pitches were quite steep, but they've done the downhill really well. It's a good mix and it's got a little bit of everything in it," she said.

Port Moody's Christine Cho hadn't ridden the trail before, but after having heard about it and seen photos on social media, had a sense of what lay ahead and what the payoffs were.

"I'm going to be tired, I'm pretty sure, but I think it's going to be pretty awesome. We're up for anything," she said as she geared up at the edge of Stonebridge Place.

After four years of planning and three years of construction, lead trail builder Dan Raymond had mixed emotions seeing the project reaching completion.

"I'm ecstatic and a bit sad at the same time. It's the end of something really big. When you spend three years devoted to one project, it builds up and becomes a part of you," he said. "When we took our tools out last year because we finished our section of the trail about a year ago today, it felt like, not a death, but that something was coming to an end.

"I was longing for it a month later, missing the campouts up there. The amount of time we spent in the alpine while building it, it feels like that's become my backyard.

"A year later, seeing how many people are enjoying it, it's motivating me to move on to the next big thing."

Raymond said a highlight came in 2016, when he and others camped out for days at a time during 10 weeks of the summer as the trek in and out made a daily commute inefficient.

"You could see Whistler but you couldn't have a beer with your friends after work," he said. "The experience of being so remote but so close was really awesome and I think that's part of the allure of why people are so excited about this ride. It really is close to home, but it really is quite epic in that sense."

He's been pleased with the response to the trails, noting he's seen people riding the 6.9-kilometre Lord of the Squirrels (with a 900-metre descent) and 8.6-km Into the Mystic (with nearly 750m of climbing) on a weekly basis.

"People will always tell me that they love it, but the proof that they love it is when we see the repeat offenders, the repeat customers," he said with a laugh. "While we were building it, we knew we were onto something good when the same people would come up and they'd be bringing friends, and then those friends would be bringing other friends to show the progress even before the trail was finished."

Raymond explained the biggest stress he faced was a common feeling among Whistlerites, the fear of missing out (or FOMO). However, it wasn't that he was dedicating years to this project instead of other pursuits, but that he might miss an opportunity making Lord of the Squirrels the best it could be.

"To have such a giant, clean slate and not want to miss every possible viewpoint, to not miss every possible best flow line, to not miss these points of attraction that I would hate to come back five years later and go, 'Ugh, if we had tried a bit harder, we could have got to that,' or 'Ugh, if we spent more time here, it would have been a bit better,'" he said. "To not cut corners and be so incredibly thorough and almost anal to make sure that we got the best possible experience was the biggest challenge."

Roughly a quarter of the work was done by volunteers, Raymond said, adding between volunteers and paid builders, about 200 different people came out to help over the course of construction. WORCA vice-president Jerome David said the volunteer hours worked out to the equivalent of $32,000 in paid labour. The project ended up costing roughly $202,000 in the end with the American Friends of Whistler contributing $25,000, the National Trails Coalition providing $48,000 and the Resort Municipality of Whistler providing $20,000 annually over the three years of construction. In addition to the donations, much of the funding was raised through WORCA's membership fees.

In addition to Lord of the Squirrels and Into the Mystic, three shorter trails also opened in August as part of the Sproatt Alpine Trail Network: With a Twist, On the Rocks and Happy Hour. These trails were the network's first phase, with the Alpine Club of Canada also involved, which will see 40 km of trail in the area when the project is ultimately completed.

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