Drawing tourists and newcomers to a northern village like Burns Lake calls for offering something different than other places.
While other communities in the region, such as Fraser Lake sometimes struggle to keep themselves viable, the draw, or brand of a place becomes critical to attract businesses and new people.
Increasingly over the past 12 years Burns Lake’s chief brand has been its mountain biking scene.
“We get people up there from literally all over the world. They’ve seen Burns Lake as a mountain biking destination. They make a plan of coming through this area,” Guy Epkens-Shaffer, president of the Burns Lake Mountain Biking Association (BLMBA) told Lakes District News.
It helps that Burns Lake in 2013 received an International Mountain Biking Association-designated ride centre, increasing its visibility in the cycling world.
That same year Burns Lake mountain biking made it onto Explore Magazine’s ‘All-Canadian Bucket List’ of one of the top three things to do in the country.
But it took years of work by local people to reach that level and in the early 2000s the village only had a handful of riders with a similar number of trails.
Efforts and funding opportunities picked up pace and in 2006 the BLMBA was formed, with Kevin Derksen serving as the first president until 2014.
Each year new trails were built for different types of biking and a single shuttle road for downhill trails was linked “back to the main trailhead [with] camping, swimming and canoing on site to complete the visitor experience,” said Derksen, who works as a computer technician with the Nechako Lakes School District.
“We have worked towards creating the kind of experience we want when we travel to other destinations.”
As the visiting rider numbers grew, so did the attention, and in 2010 Bike Magazine published an eight-page photo package calling Burns Lake ‘Canada’s Mountain Bike Nirvana’.
In addition to rising numbers of bike tourists seeking to hit the trails, Epkens-Shaffer said he knows of several people who moved here for work and for whom the mountain biking was the main draw.
Now that Burns Lake has solidified itself as a mountain biking destination, the BLMBA president said work has begun on highlighting the village as part of a regional network.
“We tried to work on the Highway 16 corridor branding. A few hours drive and you get different mountain bike areas…from Valemount to Terrace,” he said, pointing out that most communities through that area including Prince George, Fort St. James, Smithers and Terrace have strong mountain biking trails and infrastructure.
A big challenge for resource industry-based northern communities in achieving visibility for something other than fishing or hunting is that their design and culture was planted there by southerners, explained architect Bruce Mau, who is originally from Sudbury, Ontario.
“[The northern resource town was] an industrial project, to give workers a place to live. It wasn’t a kind of aesthetic project or cultural project,” said Mau, whose northern hometown was dominated by nickel mining for most of the 20th century.
To tap into a place’s beauty and attract people, small communities should consider what makes them unique and use their local knowledge.
In the case of Sudbury, he cited Laurentian University’s McEwen School of architecture’s “tri-cultural project” that joins Indigenous, English and French people together to focus designing buildings of wood, an abundant local resource.
Though there are many differences between Burns Lake and Sudbury, the goal for both northern communities is attracting people based on local charm.
“It’s not about an image or a logo or a quick fix. It’s about making the place itself tell that story,” he said.