Yukon 'fat bike' tours open up new winter market

Skookum Backcountry Adventures operator James Minifie is offering a new way to see Yukon's backcountry in winter — on a multi-day, all-terrain bike tour. 'There's not really a lot like it, even around the world,' he says.

Skookum Backcountry Adventures taps into growing craze with a multi-day backcountry trip

Skookum Backcountry Adventures operator James Minifie is offering a new way to see Yukon's backcountry in winter — on a multi-day, all-terrain bike tour. (Derek Crowe)

Yukon has been enjoying a growing reputation as a world-class mecca for mountain bikers who come to sample the incredible single-track trails around Whitehorse and Carcross.

In the past, bike season typically ended when the first winter snow fell, but not anymore — now, bikers simply switch to "fat bikes" to hit the snowy trails. And one Yukon tour company is hoping to cash in.

Fat bikes are similar to mountain bikes, but with over-sized tires to allow easier travel on soft surfaces such as snow and sand. 

Fat bikes, named for their extra-wide tires, are designed for travel on soft surfaces such as snow and sand. (Derek Crowe)

This winter, for the first time, Skookum Backcountry Adventures is using fat bikes to take adventurous tourists on a multi-day tour, through pristine and remote parts of the territory.

"It's a huge thing now, fat biking," said James Minifie, the company's owner/operator. "I couldn't really find any multi-day expedition-guided fat biking, yet. There's some stuff in Norway and a little bit of stuff in Iceland, but nothing quite like this."

Minifie's past focus has been guiding skiers through Yukon's backcountry. He's expanding to fat bikes with the help of guide Derek Crowe, who has competed in the Arctic Ultra race on a fat bike.

Minifie says he and Crowe rode part of the trail a few years ago.

"I was so blown away by the scenery and the experience that I decided it might be a nice trip," Minifie said.

Derek Crowe (left) and James Minifie in Carmacks, about to begin a ride down the Yukon Quest trail. (Derek Crowe)

A warm tent and a hot meal

In March, the two will lead five people along part of the Yukon Quest dog sled route. They'll start on Mar. 9 just outside of Carmacks, and finish three days and about 200 kilometres later at Takhini Hot Springs (about 20 kilometres outside of Whitehorse) — a good spot to thaw out and rest weary muscles.

The tour will take bikers through some of Yukon's most remote backcountry. (Derek Crowe)

​"How fast you can go kind of depends on the quality of the trail. We're going about three weeks after the [Yukon] Quest, so we'll probably have some issues with ride-ability, but I have a groomer and we have snowmobile support. So the plan is to make the trail completely rideable again," Minifie said.

Temperatures in early March in Yukon can fluctuate wildly, with the mercury easily dropping to –30 C at night. But Minifie will offer riders a warm tent and a hot meal at the end of each day's ride.

"I have these pretty fancy tents — 'Arctic Oven' tents, they're called — and they're heated with either wood or diesel heaters and they're quite warm. So we set those up. And we have a crew that goes ahead on the snowmobiles and sets up camp, and all the food's taken care of.

The tour company will offer riders a warm tent and a hot meal at the end of each day's ride. (Derek Crowe)

"The idea is, you don't have to carry a bunch of stuff if you're a client. You can have a light bike, and all your stuff is transported for you, and you really only have to carry your survival gear for the day."

Minifie says clients can also relax, knowing they're going to be safe in the backcountry, although he adds this year is geared "towards more of the experienced client, who knows what they're getting into."

Getting the word out

Minifie says most of his marketing so far has been through social media, but he also attended the Banff Mountain Film Festival this year along with Kelly Milner, who made an award-winning film about Yukon's mountain bike trails.

Fat bikes are becoming more common, but are still a novelty to many Yukoners. (Derek Crowe)

"They have a trade show that goes along with the festival, so I packed up all my stuff and went down there," Minifie said. "I had a fat bike down there on display, and the whole nine yards.

"That actually really paid off, 'cause the group that's coming this year are Calgarians and people from Edmonton who signed up."

He's also advertised on a European website for fat bike enthusiasts, and says he's now got two tours already booked for 2018.    

"There's not really a lot like it, even around the world," he said.

'I was so blown away by the scenery and the experience that I decided it might be a nice trip,' said James Minifie. (Derek Crowe)

About the Author

Nancy Thomson

Raised in Ross River, Yukon, Nancy Thomson is a graduate of Ryerson University's journalism program. Her first job with CBC Yukon was in 1980, when she spun vinyl on Saturday afternoons. She rejoined CBC Yukon in 1993, and focuses on First Nations issues and politics. You can reach her at nancy.thomson@cbc.ca.

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