Our first ride of 2017 was a winner, an auspicious undertaking that has me hopeful for the year ahead. I mapped out a route that combines gravel roads and a frozen creek west of St. Albert, between Meadowview Road and Highway 633, to be exact. Val, Penn, and I parked at Sandpiper Golf Course and rolled off into a fierce north wind, with the plan to ride straight gravel roads north and take the meandering creek back. (In hindsight, I see we probably should have done it the other way around, to account for that north wind. Next time, I’ll work that into the plan).
There’s a bleak beauty to snow-covered fields, one that you can’t really appreciate while riding and thinking about where your front tire’s going. Only when you stop, say to pee on the roadside, can you really get a good eyeful of the vast whites, blues, and greys. Trees are scarce in these parts and riding gravel roads with wide-open, wind-swept fields on either side, you feel kind of vulnerable and small. Winter makes the cold geometry of prairie grids somehow even colder.
Near the intersection of Range Road 263 and Highway 633, we dropped down onto the creek bed to head south and entered a completely different world a mere 10 feet below the fields. Nothing geometric or vast or harsh down there; it’s all winding, bending, bushes-shrubs-trees. You’re constantly going around blind corners. Even the light is different, with shadows on every other turn. It’s super slow but fun, and, in many ways, the antithesis of prairie gravel-road riding.
Snow machines had been along the creek, but only a few since the Christmas Day snow, so we found ourselves negotiating a couple of inches of fresh powder. This made Val happy, because there’s nothing he likes better than experimenting with tire pressure. For the first kilometre we did a stop-and-start dance of deflation and inflation until we got it just right.
Tracks—of animals, machines, and people—are everywhere on the creek. We followed snowmobile tracks first, then some fresh snow-shoe tracks for a while, and finally switched to a narrow trail of coyote tracks (the last of which provided the best track for fat tires.)
When the creek intersected Range Road 262, we hopped back onto gravel, re-inflated, and set off for the final push back to the car. It was a perfect 2-hour, New-Year's-Day, fat-bike adventure.
I’m convinced that gravel and creek is a winning combo for Alberta winter fat-biking. Just dig out some maps, string together some straight black lines and some squiggly blue ones, and get to it.