My friend Seth Levy, an obsessive bicyclist of the most masochistic variety, relentlessly tried to get me to fatbike with him when I lived in Maine in the mid-2010s.
“But I don’t like being cold, and I’m not a cyclist,” I explained. Maine’s long winters were glum, wet, and frigid. I preferred being in front of my wood-burning stove. And improved weather meant rock climbing.
Ignoring me, he enthused that I could ride fat-tire bikes all year round.
“Fatbikes open up so much more terrain for winter AND summer,” he explained. Yes, Maine has long winters, but also long springs “filled with mud, wet rocks and sloppy dirt roads,” perfect for a fatbike, not to mention great terrain to ride in the summer (aka “black fly season”).
“I’m not a skilled mountain biker, but I can do things with a fatbike I didn’t know were possible,” he added. “A steep hillside covered with roots and rocks becomes something you can ride up with a fatbike. Plus it’s such a new sport. Nobody is good at it!”
He didn’t sell me on it. But then I moved to the Southwest with its 300+ days of sunshine, and I decided to give cycling a try. Riding bikes off road seemed a gentler form of Type 2 fun than climbing big rock walls. I first acquired a hard-tail, then a gravel bike and finally my full-suspension Stump Jumper. My fatbike fetish came later, and wasn’t inspired by Colorado’s impossible-to-ride-on dry, light fluff. I used my Specialized Helga on a few groomers and in desert sand. And I increasingly started to think about winter opportunities. And then I was on the phone with Seth five years later talking about my newfound obsession with bicycles when he again suggested fatbiking in Maine. This time I enthusiastically agreed.
Bad Skiing = Great Fatbiking
Three of the most active places in the world where people fatbike on snow are Alaska, Minnesota and New England, says Erik daSilva, one of Maine’s early adopters of fatbikes and the safety education manager of the Bicycle Coalition of Maine. “Around here every single person I ride with in the summer also has a fatbike for the winter.” And, he adds, many average Mainers in general have them, with some riding more in the winter than summer.
Why Maine? So many reasons. Great conditions, plenty of trails, access to remote, unpeopled areas and a system of deluxe huts are just a few. Climate change means that Maine’s average winter temperatures have warmed by about five degrees since 1970, according to Climate Central. That means less snow on the ground, more rain and icier conditions, ideal for bikes with oversized, studded tires.
“Maine snow is temperamental,” says Erik. “Conditions are not reliable for skiing, but they’re often awesome for fat-tire bikes. I like the challenging rocks and roots on our trails once in a while. But you get rattled around a lot. Winter turns our mountain bike trails into super fun, fast-flowing corridors.”
Plus, it gives him something to do from November to April. Erik bought his first fatbike, a Salsa Mukluk, in the early 2010s. “It was really incredible. All of a sudden I could ride year round.” Trail opportunities abound. Two hundred and eighty snowmobile clubs have developed 4000 miles of trails as part of an interconnected Trail System that allows people to ride uninterrupted across different regions, along with 10,000 miles of additional local club trails and if you manage to hit the groomers on a good day, you’ll be extra lucky says Sam Morton, VP of the Greater Portland New England Mountain Bike Association (NEMBA). Sam maintains the trails in winter and summer. “Groomed trails can be solid ice, but if groomed really well and conditions are right, they’re what we call, ‘white velcro,” almost a bobsled track with incredible traction,” he says. “It’s so good!”
He also loves the community of mountain bikers. “A group of us ended up riding multiple hours this past Saturday,” Sam says. “It was two degrees and windchill was -20, but everyone was laughing and having fun. For those who don’t want to ride the trainer in the wintertime, and who would rather get out and get some type of riding, this is more fun.”
All this goodness doesn’t come without work, however.
Private Land & Relationship Building
More than 90 percent of Maine is privately owned. But similar to Scotland’s “right to roam,” public access on private land is a longstanding tradition in Maine and implied permission is written into state law. According to the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, about 10 million acres is open for public recreation. On the other hand, there’s no one source for cyclists to figure out who owns what and where.
“You can go in and hike, four wheel drive in a truck or camp, so the lands have a public feel to them,” Erik explains. “Often where that stops is if you have a bicycle. It’s a liability thing.” But head to the hills during the shoulder season when logging trucks cease running, and it’s a different story.
“A lot of these road have giant signs that tell you exactly what you can or can’t do,” Erik says. “But if it’s not posted, then by law, one is allowed to access those public lands.” Most importantly, he and other fatbikers emphasize, is to make sure you’re being respectful of landowner rights and practice LNT principles at all times.
“The majority of the sno-mo trails in Maine are on private land whose owners generously provide access to winter recreation,” Seth explains. “This access depends on the courtesy of recreational users.”
Seth and Erik suggest fatbikers always yield to others, avoid riding during soft conditions, stay out of cross-country ski tracks, and run appropriate tire pressure to not wreck trails.
“If tire pressure is too high for surface (soft snow) then fatbikes can create ruts,” Seth explicates. “The ruts freeze, creating a trail surface that isn’t good for other users. Running the appropriate tire pressure for the conditions makes riding more fun, and maintains the trail surface for others.”
Good etiquette also means staying out of the way of snowmobilers. It might not be intuitive for pedestrians to move over for machines, but remember, the machines can neither hear you nor easily get off the trails. And you are on trails they’ve worked hard to piece together.
“Maine’s land access is really unique,” explains Wolfe Tone, the executive director of Maine Huts & Trails. “It’s fragile. And the users groups, whether fatbikers, gravel bikers, hikers, paddlers, etc, really need to reflect on and understand the privilege we have to enjoy these lands.” Fatbikers have a responsibility to consider their effect on the land, from the wear and tear they put driving to or utilizing trails, roads and bridges, to the trash and debris they hopefully do not leave, to the regulations imposed and voluntary buffers to trails, vistas and waterways.
“There’s a very significant investment on somebody’s part that makes it possible for us to ride on their land,” he says. “So ask those questions of yourself: How did I get here? Who was the visionary who build the relationship with the landowner who got the landowner to say yes? And who is stewarding these lands?”
GPNEMBA donates every year to their local snowmobile clubs as a way to build positive relationships, Sam says. He recommends all cyclists consider either donating or actually joining your local snowmobile club. “Everybody is fighting for land access. I’d rather have a friend in a snowmobile club than an adversary.” And the result of all this hard work? Somewhere in the range of 15,000+ trails fatbikers can ride in the winter. My fiancé, Steve Fassbinder, and I only had five days to ride, but Seth promised us a taste of some of the best trails in the state. We headed to the Carrabassett Valley, specifically to the Maine Huts & Trails system.
Maine Huts: Fatbikers Paradise
“Maine Huts & trails was envisioned and built to provide access to parts of this landscape that people otherwise wouldn’t be able to get to,” Wolfe says. “People come to us to enjoy some of the most remarkable and unique parts of Maine’s landscape, and they do it in a comfortable, enjoyable way.”
I didn’t really know what to expect when we unloaded three bikes from Seth’s girlfriend’s tiny Prius in the parking lot. We geared up and set off in a snowstorm around 8p.m. It was two degrees. We would spend the next three days going from the Stratton Brook Hut to Poplar Hut to Flagstaff Hut.
“There will definitely be some hike-a-biking,” Seth told us. Would the trails be too icy even for our studded tires? Would there be too much snow? Would it take us four hours to go three miles as Seth suggested it might? Would the cook save us food!?
Turns out, the trails were perfect that night, and we got dinner! In fact, conditions were excellent for our entire ride, except for perhaps the morning of the third day when a steady sleet-like snow left a thin layer of ice on everything we owned and forced us to let most of the air out of our tires to ride the slush. But even on that day we spent two hours drying off in front of the wood-burning stove at Halfway Yurt and then finished the day with fluffy white snow falling.
“We’re proud of the uniqueness of our hut system and our trails,” says Wolfe. “People come to experience the magic.” And it is magic. The huts boast sizable, clean and inviting community spaces, the central meeting point of which are wood-burning stoves. They utilize made-in-Maine, from Carrabassett Coffee Company coffee to R.E.D.D. Bars and Grandy Oats granola. Powerful hot showers wash away the cold of the day, and the gear drying rooms feel like pleasant saunas. To top it off, they are carbon neutral. The heating and composting systems run on solar- or hydro-powered and 85% efficient, low emissions wood gasification boilers that use wood sourced from responsibly managed local woodlots.
Though Covid has made sharing common spaces more difficult, Steve, Seth and I enjoyed the company of various local, vaccinated Mainers who had skied in. The system of huts and trails employs a few key staff to welcome guests and make delicious meals on their full-service days, but volunteers build, maintain and groom most of the trails and do a lot of work on the huts. The organization’s goals are to entice more winter sports enthusiasts to their huts in the years to come. Wolfe says fatbikers are an important component of this plan. He’s seen exponential growth in the bike community.
“I’ve been coming to the Carrabassett Valley area for 14 years,” Wolfe explains. “When I saw my first fatbike six years ago, I remember looking at it as such a novelty, like the Model T coming around the corner.” But now the Carrabassett Valley NEMBA chapter packs down about 35 miles of trails with their Snowdog trail groomer. “That has just opened up huge opportunities.” What else could fatbikers ask for? Not much except for more remote, human-powered adventures…
When we first brainstormed our trip, Seth and I invited adventure photographer Brian Threlkeld to join us. An avid multi-sport adventurer, he’s spent time in Maine’s remote northernmost regions. Though he didn’t get his first fatbike until the late 2010s, he had been tracking the fatbike-ski-skate packraft exploits of Alaskans for decades. When he finally did, he wondered why he waited so long.
“On a fatbike you don’t have to be a super competent technical rider to ride fun trails,” he says. The ease of entry is really cool.” And with his extensive experience in lightweight backpacking, winter camping, canoeing, etc, it didn’t take him long to plan a trip to the Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument, just designated in 2016.
They rode a snowy 50 miles over three days and were on their bikes for 95 percent of the trip. The other five percent involved bushwhacks over blowdowns, through streams, a beaver pond and a bog. He credits their success to careful planning and numerous calls with other experienced adventurers.
In a place like northern Maine, he says, you’re really out there with few opportunities for help. You need to do your research and have robust backcountry winter skills. “It’s like going to climb Denali,” he says. “It’s way easier if you have really good winter camping skills. you can be strong as hell, but if you don’t know how to boil snow, it’s going to suck.”
Other recommendations Brian suggests for winter trips in Maine include: know how exertion levels equate to layers, know how to stay dry, have the right gear and enough of it, carry an inReach, carry a bike repair kit, let someone know your plans and, be nice to land owners or park rangers.
But, most importantly, just get yourself and your fatbike to Maine, he says. “The fatbike is this vehicle to human-powered adventure that just makes sense. If you want to get from here to there, you can walk. But if you can ride a bike, why not do that? Bikes are fun. Who doesn’t love riding a bike!”
As fatbikers exploring Maine, Steve, Seth and I would like to acknowledge the Indigenous Peoples who stewarded these lands for centuries before colonizers arrived. Human settlement in Maine dates back 11,000 years. And the Penobscot Indian Nation still owns almost 50% of the land in the Carrabasset Valley, leasing property to Maine Huts & Trails that enables fatbikers to connect remote areas they otherwise would not be able to connect. The Penobscot are part of the Wabanaki Confederacy, aka “The People of the First Light” or “Dawnland,” which also includes the Mi’kmaq, Maliseet, Passamaquoddy and Abenaki. Their lands included most of the places identified in this article, including Newfoundland in the north, to mid Maine in the south and parts of Quebec in the west.