Fat Biking (And More) at Wildlife

by Jonathan Wright

Wildlife Prairie Park in the winter is a whole different experience.

It’s an outdoor lover’s paradise, one of Greater Peoria’s greatest destinations for nearly four decades, yet parts of Wildlife Prairie Park remain overlooked. Summer may be the most popular time to visit, but the park is open year-round—and seeing it throughout the different seasons is truly a feast for the senses.

While its animal exhibits may be the prime attraction, the park has grown into a haven of outdoor recreational activity. More than 20 miles of trails wind their way throughout, offering opportunities for hiking, mountain biking, trail running, snow shoeing and more.

Winter at the park is full of special events, from year-end holiday festivities to Gertie the Groundhog's annual weather prediction. If and when snow falls, the slope beyond Hespell Deck will become the Wildslide Sledding Hill, while the trails will be groomed and ready for cross-country skiing and fat biking—a booming trend in the cycling world.

Pedaling the Snow
An extension of the mountain bike, fat bikes were invented to solve the unique challenges of riding on a range of difficult surfaces, including sand, mud and snow. In recent years, they have exploded in popularity. Their oversized tires provide greater balance and control, allowing cyclists to traverse back roads, hiking trails and other difficult terrain, and giving beginners the confidence to push on to new adventures.

Just outside of Peoria, Wildlife Prairie Park is divided in half by Taylor Road. Its east side contains the main park and the animals, plus a network of trails that opened to mountain biking a few years ago. This is the side people are most familiar with—yet few appreciate just how extensive the property is. “Visitors usually park in the lot, hike around, see the animals and go home,” says Betsy Silzer, park volunteer and fat-bike enthusiast. “Little do they realize that there are about seven miles of wide, ‘double-track’ hiking/biking/cross-country ski trails on the east side.”

The lesser-known west side features a disc golf course, a pump track, and a dozen miles of "sweet, coveted single track,” Silzer adds, plus three miles of “double track.” (Single track is approximately the width of the bike; double track is wide enough for four-wheeled vehicles.) “I’ve had a fat bike for about four years now, and look forward to riding it in the snow every year. Thing is, we have not had many opportunities to snow-ride these last few winters, which is sad.

“When it does snow, there’s nothing like a fat-bike ride,” she describes. “As you can imagine, the wide tires help tremendously for traction—but be prepared to work at it. There’s not a lot of free rolling when you are pedaling through the snow. Every move forward requires power output except on steeper downhills; then you have to constantly balance, correct and adjust to stay upright. It’s an amazing test of your agility and fitness!”

The Wildlife Trail Crew
None of this is possible, of course, without the dedicated cadre of some five dozen volunteers who built the trails and ensure they are well maintained. They are known as the Wildlife Trail Crew, and many (though not all) are members of the Peoria Area Mountain Biking Association.

Month in and month out, they attempt to control the overgrowth of invasive species, address erosion and drainage issues, and clear the trails of deadfall. “Our crew puts in about 1,000 hours of hard physical labor maintaining the trails every year, as well as building new ones,” Silzer notes. “It took us seven years to build the miles of trails we have now on the west side. It’s a ton of work, but we love it!”

The east-side trails can be maintained primarily with a skid steer mower and a chainsaw, but on the west side, all maintenance and building of single track is done with hand tools. Little maintenance is required in the winter—so long as the crew was able to stay on top of things during the warm season. But winters become tricky when they’re not cold enough, as has happened the last two years.

“Temperatures drop well below freezing at night, and then crawl above freezing during the day, creating a messy, slimy, trail-destroying condition called ‘freeze/thaw,’” Silzer explains, adding that a 60-degree day in February can actually be one of the worst scenarios. While most of us want to get outside and enjoy the unseasonable balminess, traversing the soft, muddy trails creates deep ruts and drainage issues that cause the crew a lot of repair work. “It’s a constant battle to educate people to stay off the darn trails during those times.”

A Winter Wonderland
So what is the perfect weather for winter riding? When the temperature stays consistently below 30 degrees, the winter bikers will hit the trails in full force. “Riding frozen trails is as sweet as riding the hard-packed, dry dirt in August,” Silzer declares. “If there’s snow on the ground, it’s even better!”

When the snowfall is significant, the Wildlife crew will groom the trails. “All we have to do is run a snowmobile around on the double track, which packs the snow down just enough to make it super-fun,” she explains. “We also have a cross-country ski track setter that the snowmobile can pull.” By setting a ski track on one side and a fat-bike track on the other, both sports can be enjoyed under ideal conditions. “That’s two passes on the snowmobile, which is fun too!”

But if you’re not quite ready for fat biking, you can always bundle up and go for a hike. “The scenery is so peaceful and beautiful in the winter,” Silzer says. “Floodplain Trail runs all along Kickapoo Creek and is a winter wonderland.” All of these activities are included in regular admission, but you must bring your own equipment. “And yes, all of the animals are available to view in the winter,” adds Eva Kirschbaum, the park’s membership and marketing coordinator. “In fact, it’s even better to come when it’s cooler. The animals are more active and playful in the winter months. When it’s hot, they tend to hide in the shade to cool off.” a&s

See the park through different eyes this winter! For more information, visit wildlifeprairiepark.org.

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