North Shore ski trail will allow fat-biking on trial basis

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A 12-mile segment of the Norpine Trail System on the North Shore will be open to fat-bikers as well as cross-country skiers this winter.

The designated ski trail, groomed for both classic and skate skiing, will be open to fat bikes on a trial basis this winter, according to Norpine Trail Association officials. The out-and-back trail segment open to bikers is from the Ski Hill Road at Lutsen to near Cascade Lodge. Fat-bikers will be permitted to ride on the wider portion of the trails groomed for skate-skiing under appropriate conditions.

Fat-biking was allowed on the trail on a one-time basis this past January for the inaugural Norpine Fat Bike Classic race, said Mike Larson, president of the Lutsen-Tofte Tourism Association.

"The Norpine Trail Board was willing to give it a try," Larson said of the race. "We were able to demonstrate success. It worked on the trail — the trail wasn't wrecked. And great enthusiasm resulted from the event."

Building on that success, the second annual Norpine Fat Bike Classic will be Jan. 6.

The impetus for finding trails for fat-bikers originally came from resort owners on the shore, Larson said. They saw participation among cross-country skiers leveling off and were looking for ways to diversify their business, he said.

Signs posted on the Norpine trail segment will indicate that fat-bikers should yield to cross-country skiers, and that the trail is open to bikers "only when conditions are appropriate to prevent trail damage," Larson said.

Cross-country skiers are required to buy a Great Minnesota Ski Pass on trails, like the Norpine Trail System, that receive state grant-in-aid funds for grooming. Fat-bikers are encouraged to buy the ski passes and also become members of the Norpine Trail Association with a donation, Larson said.

Thom and Jelena McAleer bought Cascade Lodge between Lutsen and Grand Marais in June. They groom part of the Norpine Trail System. The McAleers are from Anchorage, Alaska, where cross-country skiers, fat-bikers and skijorers have been sharing trails for several years. Thom McAleer said he was surprised to find some resistance among Norpine board members to permitting fat-bikers on ski trails.

"I couldn't understand why there was resistance," McAleer said. "When I sensed that, I shared with them that in other places this is already happening and people are getting along. Fat-bikers don't want to disrupt any other person's experience. I think by having this trial, folks who were initially concerned will see there can be multi-use trails."

Because the Norpine trail segment selected for this winter's experience is an out-and-back trail, it gets less use by cross-country skiers than other loop trails.

"It's not a trail center," Larson said. "It's part of the old lodge-to-lodge 'ski-through' we had years ago. The use wasn't that great. We felt it was a safe risk."

After this winter's trail use is evaluated by the Norpine board, a decision will be made about future use.

Many cross-country ski trails are not open to fat-bikers out of concern that the bike tracks will mar the grooming for skiers. Fat-biking is not allowed on Duluth's city cross-country ski trails. The Sugarbush Trail Association, which manages cross-country ski trails in the Tofte-Lutsen area, has decided not to allow fat-biking on its trails, said Jeff Lynch of Sawtooth Outfitters in Tofte.

"The perception from the skiing community is that there's a bit of a conflict there," Lynch said.

Fat-biking is permitted on cross-country ski trails at Giants Ridge near Biwabik.