Winter fat-biking in the city—even a city with a great river valley trail system like Edmonton’s—can sometimes feel, well, a little ho-hum. How many times can you ride the same small network of trails before it all starts to feel a little Groundhog Day-ish? Sure, there’s always the option to load the bikes on the car and head to the country roads and trails, but that requires time and planning; sometimes—most of the time, really—a semi-serious cyclist just wants to walk out to the garage, hop on a bike, and go.
Fortunately, a few weeks back, the Dusty Musette crew discovered a new urban option that’s got us excited: creek riding. The idea came to me while dropping my son off at the Snow Valley ski hill. As I drove over the bridge spanning the Whitemud Creek below the freeway, I noticed DIY cross-country ski tracks on the little frozen creek and thought to myself, hey, if it works for skiing, why wouldn’t it work for fat-biking? So Val, Penn, and I arranged an expedition up the Whitemud Creek one sunny afternoon, starting where the creek spills into the North Saskatchewan. We didn’t know how far we’d get or how many soakers we’d come home with, but we were keen to explore new territory in our backyards.
The ice—its depth and quality—is the first thing on our minds as we roll down the creek bank onto the frozen water. But any worries are quickly dispatched. The ice is solid and surprisingly smooth, for the most part. A snowmobile has recently been up the creek, making a convenient path for us in the snow. (It occurred to me later that snowmobilers have been onto this creek riding business for ages. A few days after our ride, I was driving along highway 2 to Calgary and noticed that almost every creek we passed had snowmobile tracks on it. How had I not noticed this before?)
Still, even with the packed-down snow, it’s slow going on the creek, meandering along the twisty, zig-zaggy bed. Compared to gravel road riding, the pace is glacial. And there’s some walking. One stretch is melty, with water on top of ice, so we clamber along the bank for a bit. At one point, Val gets himself a watery souvenir, the trip’s only soaker. We’re only moving at about 10 kph down there, but it’s such an adventure that we don’t care.
Talk about your “nearby unknown.” The creek runs through the middle of the city’s southwest, established residential neighbourhoods on both sides. But you’d never know it on the creek; it’s world is silent, beautiful, remote. The valley is surprisingly deep and, with rare exceptions, the houses that back onto it along the top can’t be seen from the creek bed. And although there is a walking trail running alongside the creek for much of the way, you can’t see it from the creek, and, more importantly, trail walkers can’t see you. This means that creek riding allows you to slip through a busy walking area virtually undetected.
As with any journey into the unknown, there are surprises, novelties, and other local exotica: outfalls that form frozen mini-waterfalls, exquisite monster snow crystals, a perfect secret skating rink. We encounter only two people on the creek that day, a walker decked out in full crampons and a rogue cross-country skier. In both cases, we all grin stupidly at each other, an unspoken acknowledgement of our secret discoveries.
The light is strange down here; brilliant sunbeams strike the top of the valley at mid-day, but the bottom remains a land of shadows. Most of my photos are duds. But the memories are gems.
We emerge from the creek bed not even 10 kilometers from where we put in. The mileage may be unimpressive but the adventure-quotient is high. Winter fat-biking just got a lot more interesting.