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Fat-bike riders explore Lake County Demo Forest

A group of fat-bike enthusiasts ride the trail in the Lake County Demonstration Forest north of Two Harbors, Minn. Clint Austin / Forum News Service1 / 2
Fat-tire bikes have wider tracks than even mountain bikes. Clint Austin / Forum News Service2 / 2

The shadowy forms ghost through the forest almost like a procession of deer. They travel in single-file, rolling through a dense snowfall coming down in flakes the size of Wheaties. The only sounds are the squeak of nubby tires on the fresh snow.

A cadre of fat-bikers, riding their balloon-tired cycles, are out for a Sunday afternoon tour of the groomed trails of the Lake County Demonstration Forest north of Two Harbors.

"This is one of my favorite places to ride," says Josh Kowaleski of Duluth.

Seven of us have turned up for this outing, one of several Sunday rides scheduled on the trails this winter. The rides are organized by Spokengear Cyclery and Outdoor in Two Harbors. On this recent Sunday, shop owner Dan Cruikshank is up ahead in the column of riders.

The 5.3 miles of groomed trails offer another option for Northland fat-bikers.

"It's something a little bit different than you can get in Duluth ... where you're going up or down. This is more of a cross-country trail," Cruikshank says.

The trails at the 400-acre Demonstration Forest, on the Drummond Grade about 8 miles north of Two Harbors, are groomed as needed by volunteers under county supervision. They're wide with minimal hills. The trails include several loops and are designed for entry-level riders.

"It's definitely my favorite place to send beginners," Kowaleski says.

The trails, a few miles inland from Lake Superior, tend to get good snowfall, Cruikshank said.

"These trails are in much better condition at the end of the year when you go through the freeze-thaw thing. That doesn't happen as much in the woods there," he said.

Low-speed fun

The allure of fat-biking isn't always apparent at first glance. The bikes are almost comical in appearance compared to road bikes or even mountain bikes. Riding a fat bike is typically not about speed. Kowaleski, a Spokengear employee, estimates our group is riding about 5 or 6 mph during our Sunday ride. But it seems faster in a relative sense as we zip past trees and negotiate the twisting trail.

Once people try fat bikes, they're usually hooked, Kowaleski says.

"(People) think they're ridiculous," he says, "but they get on them, and I've never had anyone come back from a ride not smiling."

The sport remains in a growth phase.

"More and more people are discovering it," Cruikshank says. "Especially if we have bad winters, where the ski trails aren't ready until March, people are, like, 'What do I do in October, November and December?' I would say the number of riders hasn't anywhere near peaked."

On the move

The temperature holds near four degrees on our Sunday ride. Among our crew are Jon Loye of Duluth; Kevin Frederick of Esko; Allen Sanborn of Duluth; Cruikshank; and Kowaleski. Along the way, we're joined for a time by a solo rider from Two Harbors and his eager bluetick coonhound.

We snake through the woods, strung out along the trail. Well-bundled and spread out, we move along in relative silence. Conversation is difficult on the move, but we stop frequently and regroup. The chatter quickly turns to trail conditions, biking gear, winter races, hand-warming strategies and helmet preferences.

Then we're off again, snaking past leaning cedars and beneath snow-dolloped balsam boughs. Mature white pines reach up to meet the falling snow. On the forest floor, the snow is clean and trackless. The afternoon light is waning. The Demonstration Forest is busy demonstrating just how somber a forest can be in winter.

Pausing along the trail, alone, a rider is aware of the deep silence. No chickadees call. No gray jays swoop. No passing raven shatters the tranquility with an intrusive squawk.

We take in all of this at our modest pace, cranking along in our layers, heart rates elevated, traveling the winter woods in a way none of us could have imagined a decade ago.

Ride the Demonstration Forest trails

Spokengear Cyclery and Outdoor holds weekly rides at the Demonstration Forest each Sunday. Check for times at facebook.com/Spokengear.

Try a fat bike

Fat-bike rentals

• College of St. Scholastica Outdoor PURSUIT! Program, css.edu/student-affairs/student-life/campus-rec/outdoor-pursuit

• Continental Ski and Bike, Duluth, continentalski.com

• Galleria Bicycle, Hermantown, galleriabicycle.com

• University of Minnesota Duluth Recreational Sports Outdoor Program, d.umn.edu/recreational-sports-outdoor-program

• Spokengear Cyclery and Outdoor, Two Harbors, spokengear.com

Fat-bike tours

• Day Tripper of Duluth, daytripperofduluth.com

• The Duluth Experience, duluthexperience.com

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