Writer and outdoors enthusiast Dawn Huddlestone heads to Parry Sound to discover first-hand what winter biking is all about.
On a crisp, blue-sky Monday, my friend Alex and I met Peter Istvan at Parry Sound Bikes to begin an unforgettable experience: fatbiking on Georgian Bay. Parry Sound Bikes co-owner Aleesha Mullen set us up with KHS 4 Season 1000 fatbikes. Their four-inch-wide tires with heavy-duty tread looked like they could scale just about anything.
After a quick primer on gears (not much different than a mountain bike), braking (rarely needed as snow provides a wonderful, natural brake system) and trail etiquette (be courteous, stay off track-set cross-country ski trails and watch out for snowmobiles and skiers), we packed up the bikes for a short drive to the trail head.
We started on Parry Sound’s Fitness Trail (officially the Rotary Algonquin Regiment Fitness Trail) adjacent to the Stockey Centre, Parry Sound’s waterfront performance hall and home of the Bobby Orr Hall of Fame. The Fitness Trail is a 5-kilometre long, year-round route that winds its way along the shoreline of Georgian Bay and is favoured by locals for just about any type of outdoor activity, from walking and running in the summer, to hiking, snowmobiling and fatbiking in winter. The trail provided perfect conditions to get a feel for the bike’s performance – its flat, wide, well-groomed surface made for easy pedaling even on the slight uphill grades. And along the way, we got to enjoy stunning vistas of Georgian Bay – so different from summer, yet equally as striking.
Then at the Old Town Beach we veered off the trail to head out on to the frozen expanse of Georgian Bay. What a rush! Conditions were ideal: the sun was shining, the temperature hovered around -10°C and the ice stretched invitingly ahead, seemingly forever. There was a light crust of sparkling snow on the ice that crunched under the tires as we rolled along.
We pedaled to Smelter Wharf, known locally as the Salt Docks, though I could have happily continued riding along the shoreline of Georgian Bay until we ran out of daylight. Being on the water, no matter what time of year, always provides a unique perspective on the landscape, and fatbiking on Georgian Bay didn’t disappoint.
Back on the mainland, we rode the last section of the Fitness Trail and then onto the Salt Dock Trails beyond. These trails loop through a forest that seemed to glow from within in the late afternoon sun. Riding was more difficult here but no less fun. Bouncing along these narrow, uneven walking trails was surprisingly cushy – the fatbike’s tires absorb much of the impact – although at times I was envious of Peter’s 9:Zero:7 fatbike with its even larger five-inch wide tires. The trick to riding these trails, says Peter, is balance and practice, both of which I had in short supply. Fortunately, the powdery snow at trails’ edge provided a soft cushion the few times I toppled over.
We got a few curious looks from other trail users, including a playful German Shepherd who wasn’t quite sure what to make of our strange-looking vehicles. Fatbiking is still a relatively new sport and many people have never seen bikes with tires this big.
After finishing our ride along the full length of the Fitness Trail back to the Stockey Centre, we packed the bikes into Peter’s truck and then drove out to Georgian Nordic Ski Club just north of downtown Parry Sound. Cyclists are permitted to use the trails at Georgian Nordic (Lynx, Partridge, Wolf, Bunny, Jackrabbit, Fisher, and Rattlesnake) at any time, with a few exceptions – which you can find here. Note: riders must have day passes or memberships from Georgian Nordic and Get Outdoors Parry Sound.
At Georgian Nordic, we met up with David Bialkowski, owner of Trysport, who assured us that the club’s groomed trails would be like riding a highway in comparison to the Salt Dock Trails. He was right. We pedaled leisurely through the hardwood forest of the club, dismounting to ascend some of the hills along the trail, and then enjoying the rush of wind on the way down the other side. Walking up the hills isn’t necessary, of course. Like with any bike, you can power up inclines with a bit of effort. David’s advice: gear right down and lean forward with your weight more over the handle bars to make climbing easier.
Fatbikes originated in Alaska, explained David, where they know snow (as we do here in Explorers’ Edge!), and they’re an ideal way to explore local trails in the winter, or year-round for that matter. Fatbikes are becoming increasingly popular for their ability to traverse both soft and uneven terrain like sand, mud and rocky trails. They’re great for cross-training too, and for keeping the biking season going all year long.
What’s the verdict on fat biking? Get out there and try it – you won’t be disappointed that you did!
Fat Bike Rentals in Explorers’ Edge:
SAFETY FIRST. Never head out onto an lake or river before determining if it is safe to do so. Warmer weather this January means Georgian Bay is not yet frozen enough for fat biking – stick to the mainland until it is.
Guest Blogger: Dawn Huddlestone
Dawn Huddlestone is a freelance writer, as-yet-unpublished novelist, and wannabe photographer. She’s living the dream in Muskoka with her family and a growing zoo of pets.