News / Edmonton

Scientists on bikes: Alberta researchers ditch quads after Fort McMurray ban

Alberta's ban on ATVs for potential fire risk after the Fort McMurray wildfire has some researchers donning two wheels.

University of Alberta PhD student Elly Knight spent most of her field season riding a fat bike instead of a quad. Now she doesn't plan to switch back.

Kevin Tuong/For Metro

University of Alberta PhD student Elly Knight spent most of her field season riding a fat bike instead of a quad. Now she doesn't plan to switch back.

Most evenings this summer biologist Elly Knight loaded up her fat bike and peddled into the remote boreal forest north of Fort McMurray in search of common nighthawks.

The human toll of the Fort McMurray fire was devastating, but there was a cost for researchers too—Knight was not only cut off from her site for most of the spring, but when she was finally able to go back the province imposed a ban on ATVs, due to fire risk. It was lifted in the Fort Mac area until late June.

Quads are traditionally the workhorse for field ecologists. So the University of Alberta PhD student had to get creative.

“I joked that we could use bikes and then I thought, ‘Actually, we could,’” she said.

Knight borrowed a fat bike and took it out for a test ride near Bruderheim, an area that has the same sandy soil as her research terrain.

“It was like floating, it was great,” she said. “That’s when we knew this was a realistic option.”

ATVs are banned on some paths following the Fort McMurray fire, so biologists are taking fat bikes out to research.

Her team ditched the ATVs in favour of a squad of fat bikes loaned by United Cycle, who saw it as an opportunity to test the limits of the wide-tired bikes. Soon they were spending 10-12 hours a day on the bikes.

The results surprised them, Knight said.

Although they weren’t able to carry as much gear members were able to work more independently and cover more ground on the fat bikes. 

“More than anything they’re way less logistically complicated,” she said. “Quads are tricky because you have to load them on and off trailers, you have to tow them to the sites.”

Bikes are also safer, she said, pointing out that driving vehicles are one of the most dangerous things field ecologists do.

Now they’re planning to use them again this year, and other members of the lab may try it out, too.

“Field ecology is challenging at the best of times and I think that the Fort McMurray forest fires have really pushed the lab to be creative,” she said.

“I don’t think [using bikes] would have ever occurred to me, how often do you think outside the box unless you’re forced to?”