Biologists swap ATVs for fat bikes in wake of Fort McMurray fires

As a massive forest fire raged in and around Fort McMurray last summer, Elly Knight was scrambling to find a solution for her research.

A PhD student in Biological Sciences at the University of Alberta, Knight studies common nighthawks and their vocalizations in the McClelland Lake area, north of Fort McMurray at the northern end of Highway 63. With one of the densest nighthawk populations in North America, the area was ideal for the study.

“(Nighthawks) are work really well for bioacoustics because they are nocturnal, which means their calls aren’t masked by other species,” Knight said. “They have very frequent, distinguishable calls. They talk a lot.”

Knight and an associate tagging nighthawks
Knight and an associate tagging nighthawks Supplied

At the end of last May, Knight’s study region was under a complete fire ban, as many hotspots were still smouldering from the Fort McMurray fires. ATVs, which Knight depended on to track the nighthawks, were ruled out.

“That’s how everyone has always done it in the boreal areas, you get on your quad and whip around, get as close to the study area as you can, and then walk,” she said. “Our lab has a large fleet of ATVs that we use, but this year that wasn’t an option.”

Unable to use traditional forms of transport, Knight contemplated using fat bikes instead of ATVs. With wide tires, low gearing, and go-anywhere capability, fat bikes have become a favourite with Edmonton cyclists to tackle snow and ice. Originally, the bikes were intended to travel through sandy areas, which drew Knight to the bikes.

“All the places we would potentially be going through would be sandy, because that’s what nighthawks like, so I thought we could give (fat bikes) a try,” Knight said.

With only a week left before she and her team were scheduled to depart for the field, Knight approached United Cycle and HardCore Bikes to provide the machines. Both shops were willing to help, and Knight said she appreciated their “incredible generosity.”


Once in the field, Knight said using the bikes posed several challenges. Since they require increased effort to pilot into the research areas, the researchers stayed closer to their camp than they would have with ATVs.

Far easier to repair, and not requiring a trailer to haul them or gas to power them, Knight said bikes were less complicated to manage compared to ATVs. In addition, the bikes proved to be perfectly suited to the area. McClelland Lake was burned in a forest fire five years ago, that fire removed much of the ground cover usually found in boreal forests, and makes the area an ideal habitat for the nighthawks. It also makes the trees very unstable, which posed a challenge for Knight.

“You get a little puff of wind, and the trees fall over. When one falls across the road and it’s anything substantial, you have to go back to camp to get the chainsaw,” she said. “With a bike, you can lift it right over.”

Though it may not have been the ideal situation for her research, Knight said the change was refreshing. She and her team will continue to conduct research on fat bikes next season.

“It makes a difference in the way you integrate with your study species,” Knight said. “It’s just nice not to have to use noisy, smelly, gas-powered vehicles if you can avoid it.”

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