A tale of two units: How Sagamore and Yawkey were opened for fat biking in winter at Cuyuna Lakes

I first fell in love with mountain biking when, out of curiosity, I attended the grand opening of the the Cuyuna Lakes Mountain Bike Trails in the summer of 2011. Within two weeks, I bought a mountain bike, started this blog, joined IMBA, and became addicted to the sport.

Cuyuna Lakes Whiteout 2012, Beginner class; photo by Aaron Hautala Haul Road, Yawkey Unit Tugger, Yawkey Unit

My love affair with Cuyuna further intensified when I first rode (and raced) a borrowed fat bike in the snow at the Cuyuna Lakes Whiteout back in March. The Sunday after the race, participants were allowed to ride their fat bikes – one day only– in the Yawkey Unit, my #1 favorite section of the trail system. Heaven!  But only one day?  I couldn’t complain too loudly because I didn’t own a fat bike.

So when I heard earlier this fall that the Yawkey Unit would be open to fat bike riding all winter, I contacted Aaron Hautala, president of the Cuyuna Lakes Mountain Bike Crewand asked him for details on how the new policy came to be.  He fed me bits and pieces of the year-long process and I decided to pull it all together into a blog post because it’s a story of perseverance and collaboration among private and public interests, all for the good of the sport, the natural environment, and the local economy.

Gary Sjoquist and Jenny SmithIn late summer of 2011, one of the key people behind the creation of the Cuyuna Lakes Mountain Bike TrailsQBP Director of Advocacy Gary Sjoquist, suggested to DNR staff at the Cuyuna Country State Recreation Area (CCSRA) that the trail system would be a good place to pilot winter fat biking, given the rapid growth of the activity around the country.

Jenny Smith Letter to DNRIn the fall of 2011, Jenny Smith, owner of Cycle Path and Paddle in Crosby,  sent a letter to the DNR asking that Cuyuna’s trails be opened in the winter to allow snowshoeing in the park. While her letter didn’t specifically ask for winter fat bike access, she made the economic argument that the successful introduction of mountain biking in the warm months could be extended into the cold months with other winter activities besides cross country skiing.

On October 25, the CCSRA Advisory Council unanimously passed the following motion:

To explore funding opportunities to pilot a “Winter Tourism Package” for the CCSRA to allow winter biking, snow shoeing, skiing, and access to parking beginning in December 2011 in order to provide an economic boost to an area negatively impacted by the recession. Motion was made by Representative John Ward and seconded by John Schaubach.

Steve Weber, DNR Manager of the CCSRA, began exploring the options for a winter trail program with his DNR colleagues. In an email to them, he wrote:

CCSRA Winter Riding mapSteve WeberIt became apparent early on that the majority of our existing mountain bike trails are too narrow and steep for winter mechanized grooming. However, I do believe there are some winter riding possibilities on the existing mountain bike trail but that is going to require a lot more research and testing before we can offer it to the public. Time permitting, perhaps we can do some testing on that this winter… After some research, I discovered the perfect area for a winter bike trail and conceptually designed a trail in the Sagamore Unit.

Steve showed the Sagamore Unit trails to local Cuyuna Lakes Mountain Bike Crew(CLMTBC) members who were gung ho about the plan and offered club assistance.  His plan for a pilot project to see if there was desire and ability to open this unit up to winter riding in the future was approved by Courtland Nelson, Director of the Division of Parks and Trails. Plans were then made to brush the trails immediately and to secure the equipment necessary for grooming the trails in the winter. A group of CLMTBC riders began regular riding of the entire trail system to identify which trails and units would be best suited—experience and safety—for winter biking.

Nick Statz, Yawkey Unit; photo by Aaron Hautala Cuyuna Lakes Whiteout 2012

As the winter of 2011-12 set in, CLMTB club members began talking up the idea of a winter cycling event, and the Cuyuna Lakes Whiteout was born. The race for the event was held in the Sagamore Unit and the Yawkey Unit was opened up for a one-day winter pass which CLMTBC promoted with this video:

CLMTBC riders had identified the Yawkey Unit very early on as ideal for year round riding because its:

  • Trail footprint is manageable to maintain, groom.
  • Trails provide a great experience for riders: scenery, range of difficulty and elevation
  • Trails provide a challenge on a fat bike all within feet of each other.

In April of 2012, CLMTB proposed to the MN DNR and the CCSRA Advisory Council that the Yawkey Unit be open year-round. In November, the plan was approved: the Yawkey and Sagamore units would be open all winter, with Sagamore to be groomed by the MN DNR and Yawkey to be groomed by CLMTBC and area snowshoers.

Brainerd Dispatch article on fat biking  Cuyuna Lakes Whiteout 2013

On Dec. 28, the Brainerd Dispatch featured a front-page photo of CLMTB members Aaron Hautala and John Schaubach riding in Yawkey, along with a brief paragraph explaining the winter riding rules.

So props, kudos, and high-fives all around to CLMTB, the MN DNR, and the CCSRA Advisory Council for making this happen.  I expect to be riding Yawkey and Sagamore next weekend and I’m all signed up for the Cuyuna Lakes Whiteout coming up in March.

Here are some recent CLMTB videos of riding fat bikes this winter in Yawkey and Sagamore: