Changing business in response to a changing climate

As the season is winds down in the fall our clients inevitably ask, “What does Cog Wild do in the winter?” Increasingly the answer is winter recreation as we adjust our business model to account for climate change. While we have had to shut down in Oakridge for heavy rain we are most impacted by fire and smoke shut downs during the traditional summer mountain biking season when tourism used to peak.

Implications of climate change on mountain biking in Oregon:

We’ve noticed that once riders see a fire in the state, they stop coming. Understandably, no one wants to vacation near a wildfire. Folks stop coming to visit during the year when a fire is burning. Folks who are already here tend to want to change their plans on short notice when smoke rolls in.

We’re not alone in noticing a change in mountain biking due to climate change. Protect our Winters UK, recently published Downhill from Here, a report on climate change and cycling. They point out three areas where climate change is impacting cycling; results that we can corroborate locally.

#1 Threats to access due to increasingly intense and frequent extreme weather

Cog Wild has definitely seen threats to access due to increasingly intense and frequent extreme weather. Each year we have more and more days when we can’t ride due to “atmospheric rivers”, active wildfires and subsequent smoke. Who remembers when we had to shut down Oakridge shuttles for four weekends in a row in the spring of 2022 due to historic rainfall?

Wildfire and smoke shutdowns were not a big deal when we bought Cog Wild in 2006. In the first decade that we owned the business there were 7 days when the AQI was unhealthy for sensitive groups or unhealthy. From 2017 to 2023, there have been 58 total days when AQI was unhealthy for sensitive groups or worse, 30 of which were hazardous AQI. For the past 6 years we’ve seen an average of 10 bad air days in Bend annually. The Bend Bulletin recently interviewed Cog Wild about the affect of smoke on our business, check it out. Last year we had more total smoke days than in the prior 5 years, although fewer of them were “purple air”.

Since we began operating in Oakridge in 2016, there have been only 2 years (2016 and 2019) when we were not impacted by smoke. In 2022, due to the Cedar Creek Fire, there were 37 days when the AQI was unhealthy for sensitive groups or worse. We got lucky this year when wet storms over Labor Day Weekend extinguished the Bedrock fire and allowed us two months of glorious fall mountain biking to close out the season.

Image from Oregon Wildfire Smoke Trends Report

#2 Threats to riders’ health and safety:

So many of us manage our mental health with outside recreation and still need & want to get out regardless of weather. However, riding in wildfire smoke and extreme heat is dangerous and not recommended!

The State of Oregon recently published the Wildfire Smoke Trends Report. In addition to information about methodology and the impact of AQI on health, it shows the number of days when air was unsafe for sensitive groups or greater for many cities and small towns in Oregon.

#3 Threats to experience and events:

Climate change will continue to affect the mountain bike experience Cog Wild can provide. Heavy rain can supersaturate the trails in Oakridge making the riding more stressful and dangerous. When we ride on muddy trails we leave ruts and degrade the trail quality, which has an additional negative affect on the experience for future riders. Trudging through the soft trails and over downfall after a forest fire is harder and way less fun than flowing down well compacted trail.

Last month the New York Times, put out an article called “Unpredictability in the System’, and other Travel Lessons from the Summer of ‘23 that offers some insight into how travelers can better navigate the changes. The big standouts for us were the reminder to be flexible and the increase of travel to cooler regions or in our case an increase in visitors during the spring and fall when the weather may be wet but when fire is less likely to impact the experience.

The takeaway:

So, what does this mean for Cog Wild?

With predictably unpredictable fire and smoke shutdowns each summer, we’re looking at how to stay viable and keep getting folks outside. To do so, we’ve extended the operations calendar and have added activities to the shoulder and off seasons.

In 2021 we added Cascadia Junior Cycling, a race and recreation program for ages 5 to 18. Spring and fall after school programs extend our operations calendar into April and November, giving our staff two more months of work. Anticipating weather shutdowns, we build in a week at the end of spring, summer and fall sessions for potential make up days due to smoke, fire, heavy rain or unseasonable snow. Last spring, we started after school cycling programs a week late due to snow in mid April.

In Bend we are permitted to mountain bike anytime the conditions are good, which can be any month of the year. During the winter, when conditions are less likely to be favorable for mountain biking, we shift to fat bike tours and shuttle service for the Three Sisters Backcountry Nordic Traverse.

In Oakridge we’re permitted to run shuttles earlier in April and later in November when the rain is light. This winter we’re excited to launch winter operations: guided bike rides on the low elevation roads & trails near town during the high pressure systems and even more exciting, we’re going to provide daily guided backcountry nordic ski and snowshoe tours from mid December through mid March. Come play in the snow with us!

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