Local enthusiasts stress the importance of snowy winters
A film featuring fat biking in the Methow Valley — and suggesting it may help save winter recreation as the climate changes — has been making the rounds of public television stations across the country.
Fat biking is an appealing way to offer more options for winter recreation, said James DeSalvo, executive director of Methow Trails and one of the people featured in the film. But DeSalvo isn’t convinced that fat biking is the answer to climate change — or a guarantee of a flourishing winter economy in the Methow.
“Early on, we had the perspective that fat biking could help diversify what people do in the winter — but not necessarily save skiing,” he said earlier this month.
For the trails association, which spends more than $6,000 every day to groom the Nordic ski trails, it’s not clear how to charge fat bikers to use the trails, said DeSalvo. “Monetizing biking in general is really hard,” he said. “There are only a few models to charge for a biking trail to sustain maintenance of the system. It can contribute to the overall winter economy, but it won’t support the trail network if there’s no snow.”
Because people can ride bikes on many of the same trails for free in the summer, “it’s hard to snap your fingers and charge as of Nov. 1,” said DeSalvo. When there’s snow, people understand that there’s daily maintenance and accept that’s what they’re paying for. “Without snow, the connection to charging for trails is hard to make,” he said.
While fat bikes can theoretically go anywhere, they need a packed surface to provide enough traction in the snow. Methow Trails has four to six people grooming its fat-bike trails.
The other fat biking trail networks in the valley — 20 miles at Pearrygin Lake State Park and on state land at Lloyd Ranch nearby — are free, although people need state parking permits. The trails are groomed by volunteers.
When she was filming in the Methow two winters ago, filmmaker Katie Campbell of EarthFix talked to several others in the world of cycling, including Julie Muyllaert, co-owner of Methow Cycle & Sport in Winthrop. Campbell had identified the Methow as a place that was preparing for changes in climate, said Muyllaert this month.
In her interview in the film, Muyllaert said, “Fat bikes help us respond to changing climate. Almost everyone knows how to ride a bike. They can easily get on a bike and go, ‘Oh, this is familiar to me, I know how to do this.’”
Climate change connection?
Steve Mitchell, a devotee of biking on snow before fat bikes even existed, was also involved in the filming. He and others in the fat biking community helped by organizing group rides along the river for the camera crew.
“They wanted to tie fat biking to climate change,” said Mitchell, co-owner of Rocking Horse Bakery in Winthrop. “They were asking what would happen in a ski community or mountain town without snow. They wanted to know, ‘Could fat biking take the place of skiing?’”
“That may have been a bit of a stretch,” said Mitchell earlier this month. “Fat biking is still really small relative to the Nordic ski community. When you compare fat biking versus ski passes, one’s off the charts, and one’s barely on the charts,” he said.
Even though the population of cyclists is low compared to the number of cross country skiers, most people see fat biking as just one more option, said Mitchell. “A lot of Nordic skiers look at fat biking as an alternative if the snow conditions aren’t great for skiing,” he said. “You can still hop on a bike and get a workout and have fun.”
After being shown on regional public television stations, the eight-minute segment on fat biking was incorporated into the public television show Scitech Now. Against a backdrop of people cycling on snowy trails near the Methow River, the Scitech Now host intoned, “A new winter game is rolling onto the scene, guaranteeing fun for visitors with or without snow on the ground.”
The episode has been shown around the country. After eight minutes on fat biking, viewers learn about a device that helps stroke victims learn to walk and about video games that help with chronic pain.
Mitchell was interviewed in the film for his perspective as a fat bike enthusiast and owner of a business that depends in part on tourists who come here for winter fun.
“Snow is basically the dollar sign behind the local economy in the winter. And without it, I don’t think you’d have a thriving community,” Mitchell said in the film.
The film cited research that found that, in coming decades, spending on winter recreation across the country could be in the billions of dollars.
Still, it doesn’t add up yet, at least not in the Methow. The portion of trail passes Methow Trails sells for fat biking is minuscule — less than 1 percent. Snowshoe passes amount to 1 to 2 percent of sales. And the passes are much less expensive — $10 per day, versus $24 for a ski pass. An annual snowshoe/fat bike pass is $50, versus $325 for a ski pass. Because people with a season ski pass can also use the trails on a bike or snowshoes, it’s hard to know how many are doing it, said DeSalvo.
Fat biking in the Methow had its roots half-a-dozen years ago, when the staff of Methow Trails borrowed fat bikes from Methow Cycle & Sport and tested them in a foot of fresh snow on the path to Rainy Lake up near Washington Pass. “It was hysterical — it was so fun. The snow was so light that we were kind of able to float through it,” said Kristen Smith, Methow Trails’ marketing director.
The photos Smith took of the group riding in brilliant sunshine and then circulated on social media have had a long and wide-reaching shelf life — they continue to crop up on flyers for fat-bike events as far away as the Midwest, said DeSalvo.
The sport is clearly growing. This January the Methow hosted the fifth annual Northwest Fat Bike Meetup.
Methow Trails has been incorporating various “low-snow contingencies” in its planning for years. Groomers clear rocks and trim tree branches to preserve the quality and longevity of snow and groom at the coldest time of day to avoid disrupting the snow. And when they create a new trail, groomers actually angle the surface slightly to the north to decrease the amount of sun directly hitting the trail. Methow Trails is also looking to acquire permits for higher-elevation trails, said DeSalvo.
Other local purveyors of winter recreation are also thinking about climate change. This season, the Loup Loup Ski Bowl added luge sledding, which can be done when there’s not enough snow for downhill skiing. With its ice-making equipment, the Winthrop Rink is also set up for warmer winters.
When there’s little snow, the impacts reverberate throughout the local economy. A few years ago, when a lack of snow forced the cancellation of a Nordic ski camp at Sun Mountain Lodge, Sun Mountain gave full refunds to registered guests, and the lodge’s banquet servers, housekeepers and spa workers all lost income. Methow Trails’ groomers also work fewer hours when there’s less snow.
Mitchell acknowledged that he and other businesspeople here — as well as enthusiasts of winter recreation — wonder what will happen as the climate warms. “We knew we had an active program and were looking at the whole climate-change scene,” said Mitchell earlier this month. “There was some synergy, with a small town that wouldn’t exist in the winter without winter recreation.”
But he’s not convinced that fat bikes are the answer. “It’s that age-old question — if winter doesn’t get snow, what happens to the economy?” said Mitchell. “Will fat biking solve that? No.”
The Scitech Now episode on fat biking in the Methow can be viewed at www.scitechnow.org/videos/scitech-now-episode-313.