Rough-riding biologists turn to fat bikes for field work

Faced with fire and ATV bans, UAlberta scientists partner with local bike shops to get to remote research sites.

When a major wildfire burned a swath of boreal forest around Fort McMurray last spring, Elly Knight's heart sank. It wasn't just the human scale of the disaster that resonated-the blaze choked off access to the city and Highway 63, putting a summer's worth of PhD studies at risk.

The University of Alberta biologist is conducting field research in the jack pine forests around McClelland Lake, home to one of the densest populations of common nighthawks in Alberta.

Though the highway eventually reopened, the research team wasn't allowed to use their typical mode of transport, ATVs, which can manoeuvre the rough, wet, sandy terrain. ATVs were banned at one point to minimize the risk of sparking more wildfires, leaving Knight to ponder a lower-tech, more sustainable solution.

Fat bikes.

"I joked we could use bikes and then I thought, 'Actually, we could use bikes,'" says Knight, herself an avid cyclist. "I knew some of the first fat bikes were made for getting around sand, so I thought it wasn't actually a bad idea."

The bikes are prized for their traction in Edmonton winters, but Knight needed to know how it would handle in sand. She borrowed a fat bike from a colleague's brother to test its capabilities, riding it along rough terrain at another research site near Bruderheim. The bike performed so well, Knight worked with the U of A's Office of Sustainability to find partners willing to lend her team four bikes for the entire two-month research season.

United Cycle and Hardcore Bikes in Edmonton loaned two bikes apiece, making Knight's research team among the first in Canada to deploy fat bikes in the field.

Riding rough with the nighthawk

Any field work in the remote boreal forest requires solid contingency planning, both for safety and logistics. In addition to the four fat bikes, Knight and her team loaded up their truck and trailer with 400 litres of gas, 700 litres of water, a month's worth of food, a first aid kit and research gear.

Once in the McClelland Lake area, the team-members of Erin Bayne's bioacoustic lab in the Department of Biological Sciences-found the bikes were exactly what they needed to deploy acoustic gear and track the common nighthawk, a threatened species that hasn't been studied much due to its nocturnal nature and remote habitats.

"A large portion of their population exists in the boreal forest, and we know very little about them," says Knight, who uses bioacoustic technology to study the variation in sounds nighthawks make to see how they're using the landscape for activities such as foraging and breeding.

"We're trying to figure out what those sounds mean so we can understand how they use habitat without having to capture them, tag them and follow them intensely."

Even after the provincial ATV ban lifted, the research team continued to ride their fat bikes out of convenience, efficiency and pure enjoyment. Over the span of two months, Knight estimates they saved about 400 litres of gas, which further proves the bikes' worth from an environmental standpoint.

"They won't get you everywhere, because there's so much peat in northern Alberta, but for anything with a trail that isn't too wet, it's a realistic alternative and something I think our lab is going to explore."

Knight blogged about her experience riding fat bikes in the field. Read her post.