A Love Story About Mountains, Marriage And Fat Bikes In The Snow

Tom Babin

Travel Alberta

Sep 26, 2017 - 4 minute read

You know the story: Boy meets girl while hiking a glacial mountain. Girl falls in love with boy while dangling precipitously from a rock face. Boy and girl marry and take tourists fat biking in the snow through the Canadian Rockies.

No? Well, you know that story now. I first heard it in bursts of enthusiasm from Claude Faerden while he poured tea from a Thermos to warm the bellies of a group of tourists. We were in the midst of a bike trip through the snow in Kananaskis Country, a stunningly beautiful section of the Canadian Rockies in Alberta that is beloved by locals and little known by anybody else. Faerden – a mix of capable mountain man and tweedy science nerd – was keeping things light while we rested beneath the fading winter light.

But he was easily distracted. Understandable, considering the surroundings. “There,” he said, pointing to a nearby mountain peak and explaining the origin of its name. “Here,” he said at a location where he once set up a motion-sensitive wildlife camera and captured stunning photos of bears and elk. “This!” he called out after a brief foray into the bushes, pointing to the leaves of a bush that can be used to make Labrador tea. Some say the tea has a mildly euphoric quality, which had me wondering if he might have indulged a bit before the trip. He didn’t. He’s always like that.

Among the unexpected things on this fat-bike trip is a love story. Faerden operates Kananaskis Outfitters with his wife Michelle. The pair met while working as outdoor guides in the Canadian Rockies, and fell for each other during weekend hikes and climbing trips (a more common story among Albertans than you might expect). Today, they are helping push Kananaskis from the whispers of locals into the minds of the many travellers focused on nearby Banff National Park.

Cycling & Mountain Biking

Michelle Faerden, left, guiding a group of fat bikers through Kananaskis Country in the southern Alberta Canadian Rockies, knows what to do when you encounter a frozen waterfall: You take a selfie.

Kyle Hamilton

The Unexpected Ease Of Fat Biking

Here’s another unexpected thing I picked up on the trip: Fat biking is, well, kinda pleasant, easy and fun. Basically, fat bikes are bicycle monster trucks. Imagine a mountain bike with massively wide tires built for snow. But forget those extreme mountain-bike videos you’ve watched on YouTube through fingers covering your eyes. You can find those, if that’s your thing, but this trip was a brisk and joyful romp along a beautiful mountain trail.

Because here’s the thing: For all its similarities to mountain biking, fat biking has some key differences. For one thing, those massive tires have absurdly low air pressure, which gives the bikes a kind of bouncy fun that keeps the pace down. Then there’s the trail. Unlike summertime mountain-bike trails that are littered with sharp rocks and slippery roots, these are covered with snow. Soft, pillowy (most of the time) snow.

Snow Biking Throughout Alberta

That is why fat biking is coming into its own in Alberta. Trails are being identified all over the province for use by fat bikers, including an extensive network throughout Kananaskis Country. The national parks of Banff and Jasper include several designated fat-bike trails. The Canmore Nordic Centre, which hosted the Nordic skiing events during the 1988 Winter Olympics, has a deep network of trails for fat biking. Edmonton’s beautiful river valley is seeing an upswing of people on fat tires, as is Calgary’s Fish Creek Provincial Park. Many other places in Alberta, from Hinton to Cypress Hills, feature groomed fat bike trails.

Claude, of course, knows all of this, having guided fat bikers through the Kananaskis Valley for several years. So does Michelle, having bought Kananaskis Outfitters as a flagging rental shop as a bright-eyed 23-year-old with big ambitions. For both of them, the real joy comes in sharing the valley they love with visitors. For Claude, it’s sharing his love of the stunning night skies of the Canadian Rockies far from the lights of the city. For Michelle, it’s looking the other way: into the trees, the rocks and the wildlife that dwells there.

“I love seeing in people that feeling of discovery,” she says. “That eye-opening wonder when you show them things in nature. It’s so fun to take people out and show them and they get the same look of wonder in their eyes as they did when they were kids.”

Through both Faerdens, that sense of wonder seems to linger just below the surface, ready to emerge at any opportunity. Fittingly, that could also describe the valley they love to share.

“I love seeing in people that feeling of discovery,” she says. “That eye-opening wonder when you show them things in nature. It’s so fun to take people out and show them and they get the same look of wonder in their eyes as they did when they were kids.”

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