You may remember that a few weeks ago Puck and I traveled to the Northern Fatbike metropolis of Hayward/Cable, Wisconsin for the Midwest Fatbike Summit and Grooming seminar. One of the goals for going to the summit was to meet individuals who have had success in both gaining trail access and subsequently mastering the process of grooming to provide a challenging yet enjoyable fatbike experience on the snow.
Fat-bike.com friend and frequent contributor, Steve Meurett, was one of our first targets because the trail system he works on at Levis Mounds near Wausau, WI is one of the best in the midwest at this point early in the game of making and managing trials suitable for fatbike use while also addressing other trail users and the interaction between fatbikers and other user groups. Here we go!
FB.c – Steve, what is the history of gaining trail access for fat-bikes in your area?
Steve – A few years ago, at the advent of fatbiking, some of the rare fatbikers ventured onto the groomed ski trails. It wasn’t a great marriage because if the ski trails are soft, bikes can damage the surface. Of course, if they are hard-it’s no problem, but it’s difficult to open and close them all the time. At that time, if the snow wasn’t too deep-riders could pedal on singletrack, but quickly deep snow shuts it all down to bikes. We decided to get proactive and start machine packing for fatbikes in 2011-2012. Last year we really committed to the fatbike trail and experimented with a bunch of implements. This past summer we cut and cleared problem trees, made bridge by-passes and designed and fabricated a purpose built singletrack roller. The Clark County Forestry and Parks Dept has been very supportive of snowbiking as it’s brought in more winter users.
FB.c – Were efforts made to share existing trails with other users, gain access for fat-bikes only or a combo of the two?
Steve – Since the volunteers who groom ski trails and singletrack are the same people (myself and about 3 others) – we took the separate trail route. We’re all skiers as well, and want to manage to have the best ski conditions possible. We also felt riding singletrack in the winter was so much better than riding wide XC ski hiways. For our race (Sweaty Yeti) we use a combination of singletrack and ski trails to have the race flow better.
FB.c – What was the process for gaining the eventual acceptance of the trail? Did you have to present a specific plan etc.?
Steve – See above-the county owns the snowmobile and provides fuel, we bought the roller and supply all labor and volunteer hours. As far as acceptance, other trail users like snowshoers (who share singletrack) enjoy visiting with riders and there is a mutual benefit to both (packed trails, more access). The XC skiers are on seperate trails, so it’s no problem. When I see access problems like at Nine Mile Forest in Marathon County, I don’t quite get it-I think there is a certain amount of selfishness at some trails. Not here.
FB.c – What land manager(s) did you need to work with?
Steve – The trails and progects manager for Clark County Forestry and Parks. (Brian Duell- 715-743-5139)
FB.c – When trail use was approved for fatbikes were you able to use an existing network of trails or did you need to start from scratch?
Steve – We use exisiting Levis Mound Singletrack and actually added a section (downhill) that is more of a winter use trail, although it’s designed to be suitable in the summer too.
FB.c – If you made the trails specifically for winter fatbike riding was the trail design different than a 3-season MTB trail? What challenges does building a trail specifically for winter use have that a dirt MTB trail would not?
Steve – First would be if we can get a snowmobile through it-so slightly larger radius turns, thin out trouble trees and avoid off camber side hills. We modified a mile section this year and bench cut it so grooming would be easier. I also think flatter trails are appropriate because riding snow is difficult enough. Steep climbs are just not that fun in softer winter conditions. If they are winter only, it frees up design somewhat in that you can ride the fall line of a slope-that opens up some fun downhill rides without the worry of erosion. The ability to access wet areas is also there-riding places where normally one could not go. It’s actually loads easier to make a winter trail because you can put it almost anywhere. We do have some trail that is snowshoe packed only because of exposure and steepness-it’s nice to have those, but you also need more human power to pack them. We limit snowshoe packing just because we have a good system of machine grooming and only a couple people who can volunteer.
FB.c – Now that the trail is approved and usable are there specific requirements for riding the trails? Rules of the road, so to speak.
Steve – Some trails have tire size restrictions (3.8″ for instance)-we don’t right now. Last year we did have some regular 29ers ride and it caused a lot of rutting of the packed base that fat tires did not. If it becomes an issue in the future, we’ll make a suggestion of appropritae tire size. Since we are a shared trail system with other users (hikers and snowshoers) we wouldn’t limit access to them. In warm conditions, hikers can post hole a trail, but we will just live with it and accept that it’s going to happen.
FB.c – Is there a user fee for the trails? If so, how much?
Steve – $5.00/day. We are looking at doing a year pass now that riders can ride all year instead of a season like in past years. The year pass would probably go up a little (like to a $40.00 or something). Ski trail grooming is costlier to the county (fuel and equipment) so they have a higher fee.
FB.c – How did you raise the money to purchase their equipment, signage or anything else associated with the winter trails?
Steve – The county uses trail passes to buy fuel and equipment. The club also pays for equipment and signage. Labor is volunteer. We have gotten funds from Gnomefest and the WEMS race in the past (donations to the club) and now are going to tackle a snowbike race (the Sweaty Yeti March 1st) and Snowshoe race (Wolf Run March 2nd) to try and raise money. Our club also decided to bring back the Buzzard Buster Race as part of the WEMS series this summer to help get much needed money back in the coffers. Right now some of the volunteers use their personal money to fund grooming and the trail.
FB.c – Do your fat-bike trails allow other users like XC skiers, snowshoers, dog walkers etc.?
Steve – Yes- see above.
FB.c – Do you groom the trails and, if so, how? Human-powered, mechanized or both?
Steve – Yes-see above.
FB.c – Can you get into a bit of the specifics on the equipment you use?
Steve – Older Ski-Doo Skandic and now a custom singletrack roller. 24″ wide, 28″ tall in diameter plastic culvert, flat pan behind and we can add weights as needed. Works really well-small surface area gives us good ground pressure to pack and it pulls fairly easy. It can roller over stumps and logs better than a pan style groomer (in low snow years).
FB.c – What specific challenges do you face when grooming your system? This could be snow type or amount, trail width, use restrictions etc.
Steve – Too much snow is the biggest challenge. Even with grooming, it sometimes takes a few days to really firm up. We try and pack new snow right away. Cold dry snow, like 90% of it this winter, has made it harder to deal with. One warmer day would settle everything and make the surface hard. Widening the trail this past summer helped easy grooming by hitting fewer trees! Bridges, which we have a lot of, require by-passes so the sled can go around.
FB.c – How many miles of groomed access is available for fat-bikers on your trail network?
Steve – About 10 miles of singletrack.
FB.c – Is grooming a volunteer activity organized by a local club, tied to an existing organization (such as a XC ski group), covered by a municipality, business…?
Steve – All volunteer, Neillsville Area Trail Association. A loosely organized club.
FB.c – Have you seen any economic impact on the local area due to the trails being available and consistently groomed?
Steve – Yes-more trail fees are coming in-local businesses (fuel and food) are getting some benefit.
FB.c – How can fat-bikers, interested in riding your trail network, find it? Are there specific point people to contact?
Steve – www.levismound.com, https://www.facebook.com/LevisMound, email@example.com
FB.c – Do you have any advice to other fat-bike advocacy groups looking to create their own fat-bike trail network?
Steve – It’s true-build it and they will come! I know there are some who poo-poo machine grooming, but in rural areas or if you have limited volunteers, it’s the only way to be able to have access to riding. I think it’s a stupid argument. Also, if user conflicts arise, maybe the best bet is to build a separate trail-it’s much simplier than a summer trail and less environmental concerns in trail design. Sisters Farm Trail near Ladysmith will be adding a lot of new trail next year as winter only to add to their existing network they already groom. (They share some trails with skiers there and pack singletrack as well.)
There you have it. Words of wisdom from a guy who has been at the forefront of fatbike trail access and is making a success of it! Thanks very much, Steve!