Nameday Backcountry Fat Bike Mission: Tonquin Valley Trail

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Early starts are a part of any day long backcountry mission. It was around 4:50am as my alarm roused me out of my minimal but adequate five hours of sleep. At that time I was very grateful for all the prep done before nodding off. Preperation is paramount to a successful day, and I didn’t want to leave anything to chance. March 11th marks the beginning of my 36th trip around our Sun, and on my birthday I kept one thing keenly in mind.

“Success is where preparation and opportunity meet” 

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KNOCK, KNOCK…

“When opportunity knocks, answer the door”

This is advice often given by elder, more experienced folks. Who knows what you may miss out on if you let it slip by without inviting it in. The chance to ring in riding season during this early spring seemed a right of passage. To take our fat bikes up the Tonquin Valley Trail and in toward Amethyst Lake was our goal. The 60km round trip from the Edith Cavell parking lot and up the Astoria River is one few people have attempted by fat bike. The trail we would follow is used by the outfitters who run supplies by snow mobile up to the Tonquin Valley Back Country Lodge and Tonquin Valley Adventures‘ cabins.

It’s sort of amusing how similar to ski touring this whole winter fat biking truly is. Gear, preparation, lead times, and changing weather all play big roles. Our main objective was of course to just have a great day in the mountains. Our goal to reach the lake would depend on the condition of the trail, which if temps held around freezing, would be doable. The day would dictate though, and we were happy to accept the fate of it. We were well prepared, well stocked, stoked, and well aware of how backcountry goals sometimes do and must change, often like the wind. When you and your companions are all on the same page, you know you’re winning at least part of the back country “game”, and that can be of great comfort and enjoyment.

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Photo Credit: Elaine Hutchings

Tonquin

Photo Credit: Elaine Hutchings

THE DECISION

Like ski touring, you slowly gather beta all the way in. Temps, trail conditions, forethought and prior experience all play important roles. Decisions, unless deemed obvious and immediately necessary (like an injury for example), are usually arrived at slowly while gathering as much info along the way as possible. All this is done in an effort to maximize gains, minimize risk and give the group a good chance to accomplish their goals.

Ultimately we all decided we weren’t going to make it to the lake. The mercury was rising and the trail deteriorating in places. It became obvious that if we started back too late we may well be walking and pushing the fat bikes out, instead of riding out. Postholing and punching through the trail due to the most aggressive spring in recent memory would have it’s own consequences, besides spoiling an other wise marvelous day. Mike knew we did’t want to be riding out after 1:00 pm, as it was almost a guarantee of a miserable push. We stopped at the lunch spot about 20km in and roughly 10km short of the lake. Here we sat on the narrow foot bridge over the Astoria River, donned our jackets to keep warm, and had our lunch of various Lärabars and fruit snacks. Elaine even brought a birthday cupcake in Tupperware for me, which was so damn sweet I can’t even begin to put it to words. Bring on the sugar rush!

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Photo Credit: Elaine Hutchings

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THE TRAIL, THE RIDING

There was a couple of times we were passed by snowmobiles running supplies out to the cabins. The smell of the two strokes always brings on a sweet reminiscence for Mike and I, this was however lost on Elaine who didn’t much care for it. Who can blame her, we were there for fresh air! What was not lost on any of us, however, was how much better the trail would ride after being freshly packed down by the two snowmobiles and their heavy sleds. We were grateful for this, especially on the climb back out of the valley toward the ACC hostel nestled off the top of the Cavell Road. It very well may have made all the difference actually. There was about a half dozen places on the way down into the valley which we had to negotiate by foot after breaking through the snow tread.

I’m not new to mountain biking, but I am new to winter fat biking this year. I’ve discovered there is a whole world of technique which is unique to these fat tire beasts. Here are just a couple of points I’ve learned.

1. Core Strength is your friend 
Slow riding techniques and micro balance play critical roles in all bike handling, but on a fat bike, on snow, they become quite crucial. Mike always loves to trumpet the effects this kind of riding has on you once you toss a leg over your trail bike come spring/summer: Better balance, more accurate bike handling, sharper focus just to name a few.

2. Power and torque management
Often it can be easy to break loose, even while running lower pressures. To avoid this it’s super important to crawl and manage your pedal strokes, keeping an even cadence and varying your pressure on the climbs. I find it really comes down to a ‘feel’. You could find yourself, as I did, coaching yourself to just crawl. You may also find yourself shifting gears a lot less and slowly, steadily, carefully powering through when you sense a loss in traction. This is very useful when the snow temps get warmer.

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Birthday cake, beautiful scenery, fantastic partners, fresh mountain air, rollin fatties (as I like to call it), and so much more made this the most memorable birthday I’ve ever had. Grateful for the outdoor life of sport, adventure and companionship. Despite not making it all the way to Amethyst Lake, we had a marvelous time. Sometimes that’s just how backcountry travel goes. Often enjoyable, seldomly regrettable, even when you have to change your goals.

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2 thoughts on “Nameday Backcountry Fat Bike Mission: Tonquin Valley Trail

  1. Kevin Smith says:

    Great trip report! Love the similarities between ski touring and biking in the backcountry.

    1. Jay Sanders says:

      Thanks Kevin, merino wool is another comfy similarity! ;) I think the ski tour/winter camping trip with a fatbike approach is going to become very trendy in the future. Who knows, depending on where exactly people do start winter back country biking (i find you really need a packed trail for it to not be a slug), we may be seeing folks riding with avi packs and tranceivers too! Avalanche terrain is avalanche terrain after all.

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