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Groomed singletrack on Whitefish Trail enables new winter recreation access

by WHITNEY ENGLAND
Whitefish Pilot | February 16, 2022 1:00 AM

A trail with the snow groomed to a precise 33 inches across winds through the narrowing woods all the way around to Beaver Lake just north of Whitefish.

The packed trail, which almost acts as a snow-made sidewalk with support underfoot or tire, links up with roads and other trails in the area to create several loops and even takes an adventurous biker or hiker on a steeper climb up to Rainbow Lake — all on a packed singletrack trail. These groomed trails along the Whitefish Trail system are because of a dedicated staff at the Whitefish Bike Retreat who now groom 6-plus miles of trails in the area for the community to enjoy.

Starting in December after the first snow flurries of the season stuck around, the Whitefish Bike Retreat began grooming on the Whitefish Trail for the first time after finally gaining access and permits to maintain winter trails. The WBR is working with the City of Whitefish, DNRC, Legacy Partners and Explore Whitefish in order to provide this service to the community.

The owners and operating staff at the bike retreat are grooming the trails for free and recreationists of all sorts now have easier access to enjoy the Whitefish Trail system near the Beaver Lakes throughout the winter.

“It’s been really fun and it's been really rewarding…” Catherine Dean, Whitefish Bike Retreat owner, said regarding grooming the trails. “And it’s nice to get outside in the wintertime — it makes me happy.”

The Whitefish Bike Retreat grooms the trails with the ever-growing activity of fat tire biking in mind, but the trails are equally available to anybody hiking, snowshoeing, or cross country skiing. Catherine Dean and her son James, who works as operations manager at the retreat, took on the challenge of grooming the trails together. The Deans plan to keep maintaining the trails and allowing access from the WBR property free of charge and hope to continue expanding the groomed trail options each year. They believe it's important for people to have multiple options for enjoying outdoor recreation in the wintertime, typically a time when people suffer from seasonal disorders.

“It’s to benefit the people in the community,” James expressed.

Catherine agrees, and says it’s worth the effort just to see people out enjoying the area all season long.

“I think that it provides an alternative to getting out because wintertime, where people tend to stay inside, they don’t get the sunshine,” she said. “Getting outside – it's mental, emotional and physical; when all three of those are being exercised you feel good, you feel happy.”

Although grooming miles of the Whitefish Trail is extra work for the Deans, Catherine and James agree it’s actually pretty fun to cruise through the woods on snowmobiles laying the track.

In order to groom the trails properly, one snowmobile has to prime the trail and then another snowmobile towing the groomer follows to pack the trails correctly. It was a lot of trial and error for the Deans to figure out at the beginning of winter, especially since the whole process was new to them after buying the Whitefish Bike Retreat in April of last year. Luckily they had some help from the founder of the retreat, Cricket Butler.

The former owner of the Whitefish Bike Retreat has had a longtime goal of gaining permission to groom winter trails along the Whitefish Trail system. Butler finally got to see that goal come to fruition this year when she helped the Deans lay the first track on the Whitefish Trail in December.

“I actually don’t think I have a word for it,” she said. “I was obviously really giddy that first day I went out and actually set the track for the first time, it was just amazing… I’m also proud of making that all come together because finally after all those years and not giving up, it happened.”

Butler says this has been almost 10 years in the making because shortly after opening the WBR in 2013 she realized she would need to do something to generate revenue in the winter. She didn’t have much experience fat biking at the time and her journey to grooming winter bike trails started by trial and error.

She began by playing around with making trails on her property, first by using a snowblower, then a quad pulling a makeshift groomer and eventually snowmobiles towing various apparatuses she created. Finally, she found a groomer and the right way to make it work and gained permission from DNRC to groom along the roads in the area.

“What I wanted to do was create a consistent area where people could come and ride and enjoy fat biking on these trails — and they would know what they were getting every time,” Butler said. “That was my goal, but I had a very hard time getting to that point.”

Over the course of the years, she and her two boys groomed what she referred to as almost sidewalks alongside the rutted tire tracks heading up to the lakes. She received donations from individuals and a grant from Explore Whitefish to help with the maintenance cost. She always had a goal to keep the groomed trails free to everyone and she managed to stay true to that.

Butler always had the thought of grooming the actual Whitefish Trail, and she kept pursuing it even though the answer was always no. Working with DNRC and the City of Whitefish, both were supportive but didn’t know if it would ever be possible, she finally got the permit for this winter. A huge hold-up to getting permission was that motorized vehicles are not allowed on the trails, but WBR was finally approved because the snowmobile and groomer were deemed as maintenance vehicles to maintain the winter trails.

“It took years to figure out how to make it happen even though everyone kind of wanted it,” she said. “But it finally went through and got approved.”

Even though Butler no longer owns the Whitefish Bike Retreat, she gets to see those years of hard work and perseverance come together to provide a real asset to the community.

In the coming years, the Deans are hoping to continue expanding the groomed winter trails in the Beaver Lakes area.

The WBR rents fat bikes for those wanting to try it out and can give advice on the best trails to ride based on experience level. The Deans also plan to begin renting snowshoes next year and are excited to continue offering another alternative for people to enjoy the outdoors all winter long.

“Hopefully it will just get bigger and bigger and then next year maybe we can offer some more trails,” Catherine Dean expressed. “There’s a lot of people that come out here and they’re not adrenaline junkies, they just want to enjoy the outdoors. They’re just people wanting to come out and try something new.”

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James Dean, Whitefish Bike Retreat operations manager, pulls the grooming tool behind a snowmobile while grooming the Beaver Lakes trails this winter. (Courtesy photo)

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Guests at the Whitefish Bike Retreat, Linda and Lars Brekken, hit the freshly groomed trails on fat bikes near the Beaver Lakes area. (Whitney England/Whitefish Pilot)

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