At the base of Dragon Mountain, just south of Quesnel, the First Journey Trails crew trickles into a small work camp at the end of each work day.
They have spent the last couple of months carving mountain bike trails into the surrounding hills. Cutting through the roots and rock is tiresome work, and in the evening, they just want to relax.
Marie Scharf, who is originally from Berlin, is the sole female in the work crew.
She builds a small fire to keep the pesky mosquitoes at bay and slowly sips on a beer while her colleagues gather around and plop themselves down in folding camp chairs.
While she is new to trail building, the 27-year-old is comfortable in the outdoors and no stranger to manual labour, having built furniture while still in Germany.
An avid skier, Scharf spent the winter in Whistler working as a guide for a zip-line company and hitting the slopes whenever she had the chance.
This summer, she wanted to spend her time outside and was eager to learn something new.
As fate would have it, she ran into a friend of Thomas Schoen, the owner of First Journey Trails, while on a wilderness first-aid course in Vancouver. He asked Scharf what her plans were.
“I was talking about tree planting or trail building but I was thinking more about hiking trails because I love hiking and running and then he said, ‘I have a friend who is building mountain bike trails and I can put you in contact.’”
She wrote to Schoen saying she would love to give mountain bike trail building a try, but there was one small issue: Scharf had never even ridden a mountain bike.
But she was willing to learn.
“Well, you’re an expert skier, so you’re set up to become a mountain biker,” Schoen chimes in from a camp chair across the fire.
It is Scharf’s experience as a skier that has enabled her to see the curve in the hills, which has helped her to pick up the trail building a little quicker. The job has not been without its challenges though.
“Well, you’re exposed to the weather all the time,” Scharf points out, “and the bugs are horrible … but it’s great. It’s such an inclusive team. They’re helping me and teaching me things, like how to use a chainsaw, for example.
“We did a switch back today and they were letting me lay it out and giving me tips on how it could be better.”
She is asked what it is like being the only female in an all-male crew and whether all the guys are on their best behavior with her around.
“I haven’t noticed anything different, have you guys?” she asks her colleagues, who erupt in laughter. “I think they’re always behaving very well, and I think because I’m not a mountain bike nerd, I bring other topics [of conversation to the table].
Scharf is now one of the few professional female trail builders in B.C., and Schoen is delighted to have her on his team.
He has been looking for new ways to diversify his staff since attending a conference in North Vancouver last year.
“It was hosted by the North Shore Mountain Biker’s Association and the International Mountain Bike Association and was centred on inclusivity and diversification within our industry,” says Schoen.
“Speakers talked all about the LGBTQ community, First Nations and even handicapped mountain bikers.”
They were interested in opening up the mountain biking industry and being more inclusive.
“It was an absolutely fantastic three-day conference with guest speakers from all over the world, and I’ve been thinking about it ever since, and I thought, well, one of the small steps that I can take is to try and find some female trail builders.
“There are obviously some amazing female mountain bikers … and there are a lot of female volunteer trail builders helping out on the club level, but I just never heard of a full-time female professional builder … so I thought, well, maybe that’s something we could get going here.”
So far, it has been working well.
“It’s good to have diversity in a group because in my experience, you will get a better result in the end, which is better for everyone,” says Scharf.
She has ingratiated herself to her colleagues and is learning new things every day.
“I’ve learned how great it is to see dirt,” she says quite seriously. “I’ve never thought so much about dirt in my whole life and how happy I am when I finally see it coming through.”
As part of the job is clearing rocks and roots, dirt is often the end goal.
“When you get past roots and stuff and there’s this brown, beautiful dirt, [you learn] to appreciate it.
“I’ve also learned about climbing lines and how you lay out a trail.
“You see a piece of ground with trees and everything and you think, ‘how am I ever going to get through that and connect to another piece [of trail],’ and then two hours later, you’ve done it, and it’s nice.”
While the manual labour has been challenging, she now knows the secret is good pacing and being in the moment.
“In general, with every job you take, it’s about the whole experience: meeting lots of interesting people and learning about their backgrounds and why they are here.
“Some people can probably make more money in other jobs, but there’s a reason why they’re here: because they’re passionate about their profession and wanted to bring it to another level.
“With mountain bike trail building, I think it’s a really visionary thing. You see something and you want to make it and you learn the skills to do it and I think that’s something that you can apply to any other job as well.”
On top of the job, Scharf is really enjoying her time in the Cariboo.
“I had a really fun job in Whistler and I really enjoyed it there, but it’s a resort town, so it doesn’t really feel real because you’re putting on a show for all the visitors and all the tourists.
“Coming here, it’s such a different feeling because it’s more real. Maybe some tourists are passing by, but the town is a town — it’s not made just for tourists, like Whistler.
“So it’s been nice to come here and spend time with a Canadian crew, who all live here or somewhere in B.C. Where I came from before, it’s all travellers like me, so you don’t get a feeling for the country like you do here.”
Scharf will leave her mark on the area with the trails she builds on Dragon Mountain, and the experience on Dragon Mountain with First Journey Trails will leave its mark on her.