It’s easy to be a nature detective on an early December morning at Brainard Lake. The coiled criss-crosses of Yaktrax and racket-shaped prints of snowshoes mingle with wide ribbons of knobby tread and the divot and drag of ski poles. The post-holes of lumbering elk skirt the trails, and snowshoe hares scamper through it all.
Underfoot, it’s a pretty picture of shared use. But if you ask the trail users if the relationship is as symbiotic as it looks, you might get a different story.
According to Reid Armstrong, community liason at the Boulder Ranger District, the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) estimates total winter use (October to June) at the Brainard Lake Recreation Area to be approximately 44,000 visitors. Most of these visitors travel to the trails west of Ward for cross-country skiing, snowshoeing and dog walking, although the new popularity of fat bikes has added another user group to the mix.
The gist of a fat bike can be found in its footprint: these bikes accommodate a 4-plus-inch-wide tire that can be run at a very low pressure to provide superior grip in squirrelly terrain. Colorado’s snow-packed trails are proving to be perfect ground for the wide bicycle wheels. As the tracks of myriad users would indicate, everyone is currently sharing the winter trails, just as hikers, bikers and equestrians do in the warmer months. The regulations governing the Brainard Lake Recreation Area reflect the multipleuse philosophy of the USFS and therefore are minimally restrictive to any user group.
“Wilderness area trails do not allow motorized or mechanized use of any kind during any time of the year,” Armstrong says, “and some trails have seasonal closures. Specific to winter fat bike use, only Wilderness trails and two designated “ski-only” trails in the Brainard Lake Area are prohibited to fat biking on the Boulder Ranger District.”
If Ingvar Sodal was alive today, he might chuckle — or scoff — at the “ski only” signs marking the Little Raven and Colorado Mountain Club (CMC) Ski Trails. In the 1960s, when the Norweigan engineer started the Boulder group of the CMC’s crosscountry ski school at Brainard Lake, there were only skis.
Richard Jones of Boulder has been skiing at Brainard since the time when Sodal and fellow CMC members constructed the Waldrop Trail in 1971.
“He (Sodal) scouted and found the old telephone line into the camp at Brainard and used that and parts of the old South St. Vrain pack trail and connected them and that was the first ski trail,” Jones says.
Until about 15 years ago, he says, skiers were the only ones who used the trails built by the CMC.
“Then small aluminum snowshoes came along and folks started snowshoeing. I first learned of the fat tire bikers riding the Waldrop Trail last winter (2014).”
Although the first commercially available fat bike debuted in 2005 (the Surly Pugsley), and Longmontbased REEB Cycles introduced their first fat edition in 2011, there was something in the air last winter that caused heads to turn — or spin, in some cases — toward fat biking on Boulder County trails.
In January 2015, the Daily Camera printed a letter to the editor from a cross-country skier who was disappointed to have his pleasant ski day ruined by the trail conditions left in the wake of some “50-pound bikes mounted with aggressive riders barreling down on them.” Although he didn’t actually encounter the riders on the trail — only “the ski track gouged and rutted by wide-knobby tire traffic” the day after their ride — this writer was particularly miffed by the fact that the perpetrators struck at night.
“Very clever to conceal your activity and identities under cover of dark! Would you have the courage to do the same to the ski track at North Boulder Park? How would you feel if a fleet of motocross bikes snuck in at night to tear up your beloved Valmont Bike Park?” he taunted.
Although the letter triggered an avalanche of 63 responses online — many of which were thoughtful, well-versed and tended to reflect the spirit of “can’t we all just get along?” — it may have also been a bellwether of conflict to come.
More recently, someone posted a photo to a Facebook group I belong to of a fat bike tube (picture a deflated version of what people use to tube down Boulder Creek) hanging from a snow-loaded tree on one of the trails near Brainard Lake. The photo was taken by a Nordic skier and sent to his fat biker friend, who then posted it to our Facebook page. Although everyone in the group is unified by their love of all things mountain bike related, there was still a trace of tension palpable in the comments that followed. It was likely a case of accidental littering — and who knows who hung the sacrificial tube from the tree — fat bikers know they’re being watched, and this sense of scrutiny makes some people want to play nice, while it pisses other people off.
“We have fielded a variety of complaints from winter recreation users of all types: skiers, snowshoers and fat bikers,” says Armstrong of the USFS. “Last winter marked the most noticeable uptick in complaints surrounding fat bikes. Complaints largely involve users feeling a negative impact from other user types on their preferred activity of choice.”
If you snowboard or mountain bike, this story may start to sound familiar: Dave Chase, owner of Lyons’ Redstone Cyclery, isn’t surprised that the presence of fat bikes on local trails has incited a bit of the same “us versus them-ism” that happened when people first started riding fat tires on dirt in the ’80s — because back then, “regular” mountain bike rubber was plenty oversized.
“Regardless of whether you’re mountain biking or fat biking, bikes are the newest “user group” and there are other established user groups that don’t want to share,” Chase says. “It’s exactly like the mountain biker/hiker conflict. It’s the same players. People that don’t wanna share. Is this conflict avoidable? Absolutely. Is it likely to continue? Yes.”
• • • •
Pinpricks of light and puffs of frozen breath punctuate the frozen darkness of a Tuesday night in early December. Occasionally someone speaks, but mostly the sounds are of squeaky snow and heavy breathing.
Until the hooting and hollering begin.
I’m riding with the group of folks who were likely the cause of the irate Daily Camera letter writer’s failed ski day, and I can’t quite peg them for the irresponsible trail-destroyers he thought they were. In fact, just as we’re warming up, getting into the groove of the ride, we stop abruptly. There’s a tree down, and it’s blocking our southerly route on Sourdough Trail. By the time I wander up to the front of the pack to see what’s going on, two of the guys are already gnawing into the trunk with a Survival Pocket Chain Saw, which looks just like it sounds.
This type of impromptu trail maintenance would appear to benefit all users, not just bikers. Richard Jones likens it to the type of work that Boulder CMCers have been doing since the early ’80s.
“Every year in the early part of the ski season, high winds bring down trees across the trails,” he says. “If various skiers didn’t carry saws and clear the trails, the trees would just accumulate. I’ll take my hat off to a biker or a snowshoer cutting a tree across the trail.”
Downed trees aren’t the only obstacles to easy travel on winter trails. Unless they’ve got a penchant for sweat and suffering, most trail users appreciate the tracks of someone who’s gone before them. Riding a trail surface, and skiers recognize the irony in the co- fat bike is actually quite miserable without a packed dependence this creates.
“If we didn’t ski [and snowshoe] on those trails, a bike couldn’t ride it,” Jones says. “Bikers depend on the trail being packed down — having a solid base. A biker can’t really move off the trail when meeting a skier, or other biker.”
For some skiers, herein lies the conflict.
“As a skier, it is disheartening to spend energy breaking trail and creating a nice ski track only to have it wrecked on the return trip by a traveler on foot, snowshoe or bike,” says Brett Dolenc of Longmont, who’s been skiing the trails around Brainard Lake since he was a young boy.
While fat bikers are the first to admit that they rely on (and appreciate) the tracks of those who’ve gone before them, some are so jazzed to get out and ride that they have taken to packing in their own skis or snowshoes when they’re going to ride after a recent snowstorm.
“When there has been a recent dumping, I take a pack with my snowshoes in it. Trails may or may not be packed yet, so we need to be ready for these unfavorable conditions, and it just makes sense from a trail etiquette perspective,” says Lyons fat biker Doug Mers. “Often times hikers, snowshoers and skiers only get out for 1 to 2 miles. Fatbiking, I can cover that packed portion of trail pretty quickly, so instead of turning around I’ll throw on my snowshoes and hike a bit further. I’m helping pack the trail and potentially enticing other trail users to go further.”
Tim Moore of REEB Cycles in Longmont says he feels that as fat biking has become more popular, the opportunities to inspire a more educated user base have increased. When he sends someone out the door with a new fat bike, he also tries to set them up for success, which includes having fun and riding responsibly.
“With new riders, we try to make sure they’re going with a group of people who know what they’re doing,” Moore says. “If you go out and your tires aren’t set up right, it’s not as fun. Since fat biking is so fun, it’s easy to say, ‘I should do this no matter what.’ But it’s a condition-specific sport. If you drive up to Brainard and there’s 10 inches of fresh snow, it’s not a good time to ride.”
Although their role isn’t necessarily to tell people when they should or shouldn’t ride bikes, for the past two years, members of the Bryan Mountain Nordic Ski Patrol have been stationed at the Brainard Lake Recreation Area during the winter months to help people make safe and smart decisions about trail use. Like any ski patroller, the volunteers from Bryan Mountain have an Emergency Medical Technician- Basic certificate and are available to provide first aid to the public. Fortunately, most of their responses are to people new to the area who aren’t familiar with the trails or their regulations.
“Usually, people want to know where they can take dogs or where they can take bikes. There are lots of snowshoers — and when I’m up there it’s evenly divided between skiers, snowshoers, with a few bikers,” says Alan Apt, a patroller with Bryan Mountain and author of Snowshoe Routes, Colorado’s Front Range (CMC Press).
Apt hasn’t witnessed any direct conflicts between trail users at Brainard Lake and says he feels that, as the newest user group, fat bikers are doing a fine job of sharing the trails.
“I think that there are some cross country skiers who are not happy about the fat tire bikers but I think that the bikers, to their credit, are generally 98 percent very courteous, nice people. Just like mountain bikers in general, I think they’ve really made an effort to reduce conflict,” Apt says.
This observation corroborates with the current USFS stance on fat bikes sharing the winter trails at Brainard Lake. While the Boulder Ranger District monitors for areas where safety may be an issue, Armstrong says, there isn’t currently any data that would lead them to make management changes.
“We are encouraging winter mountain bikers to practice good trail etiquette and safe riding. Yielding on snow-covered trails requires additional time, much like driving in winter conditions. Winter recreation users are encouraged to maintain adequate speed and control along stretches of trail with limited visibility and steep grades,” she says.
Good trail etiquette and safe riding are universal principles in recreation. Success, CMC’s Jones says, depends on the willingness of people to treat one another respectfully.
“I suspect that most skiers are upset by bikers,” he says. “Maybe I would be, too, depending on the encounter. But just as hikers/bikers/horse riders need to learn how to meet and pass, so do skiers, snowshoes and bikers. People need social skills; the behavior of some bikers in town and some drivers, too, show how lacking many are of these skills.”
The banner of logos at the bottom of the winter recreation map at Brainard Lake is a reminder that trail users have more than one special interest group to thank for the maintenance and upkeep of the trails. In addition to the safe-keeping efforts of Bryan Mountain Nordic Ski Patrol and the tireless trail stewardship of the Colorado Mountain Club, folks from the Boulder Mountainbike Alliance, the Indian Peaks Wilderness Alliance, the National Forest Foundation and the Wilderness Restoration Volunteers have also contributed toward making the area a safe and beautiful playground for anyone.
While each user group has its own gripes about who does what to the trail, the more important issue — and the one that most agree on — is how we act when we encounter one another in the woods. After all, the only fights that should be occurring out in the winter wonderland are ones waged with snowballs.