Fiona a.k.a. Tonie, at age 9, is a veteran of several fatbikepacking weekends. She loves outdoor winter sports and really does sleep better outside. I was due to take her out for a fatbikepacking weekend without her brother. At the same time, there aren’t that many more winter weekends left. I had promised to take my friend Sean for a winter overnight ride for the past several winters.
I decided to make the most of the weekend by combining family and friends. With the potential for sitcom-like results, I invited several of my middle-aged friends (as well as some families and other kids) to come along with Fiona and I on an overnight winter fatbike campout. It ended up that the logistics of finding fatbikes for other kids was an obstacle, and so the roster consisted of Sean, my friend Tyler, and I, with Fiona as our guide for the weekend.
Tyler had some work commitments that kept him from starting with Sean, Fiona, and I, but the three of us set out on the 14km of Goat Creek Trail from near Canmore to Spray River SP6 campground in Banff Park.
Back when Tadhg was 8, I built up a Salsa Mukluk with shorter cranks, narrower tires (for the lower BB and lighter weight) and put a super-short stem on it. I also switched to a single small chainring since I did not anticipate a need for high gears. Tadhg has gotten good use out of it, and it seems in hindsight like I made some good choices. Now Fiona is tall enough and it has passed on to being her bike.
Fiona’s bike is almost exactly half her weight. That, coupled with somewhat challenging conditions and a poor sleep the night before made the uphill portions of the trail difficult for Fiona to ride. I did hand out several snacks on the way, but I can’t really take credit for her making it to the campground, she had to dig deep, but she did not once complain. She did a bunch of pushing her bike, through deep or loose snow on the uphill sections. Though it took us 5 hours, I was still impressed. Her limits are purely her size and if she had been our size, she would have been waiting for us at every bend in the trail.
[click on pictures to enlarge]
I also have to mention that I was impressed with Sean’s patience. I’m the dad, I have an obligation to care for my daughter, and I was feeling the urge to ride. His restraint was nothing short of remarkable. He also used the relaxed pace to get to know Tonie a little better. As he mentioned, there was no sweating by us adults, and Tonie is really good at shedding layers to manage sweat – she was down to a t-shirt for the warmer parts of the ride.
In the campground, we took our time setting up, Fiona and I had our usual tarp setup and the bag and quilt system that we have been using this winter. We were pretty confident that we’d be comfortable right down to -40º, though the forecast called for a mere -15ºC. Sean had a single person tent that he has used for the last 10 years and he has justifiable confidence in. His sleeping bag system was remarkably similar to our own with a synthetic outer and down inner sleeping bag. It is a well tested combination and makes good sense.
We were about halfway through setting up our shelters when Tyler arrived. He had started about 2 hours behind us, so he made fairly good time. His total load is heavier than mine, and his narrower rims and tires made some parts of the trail less rideable for him than they were for me.
One of the advantages of the SP6 campground is the eating area is well separated from the sleeping area. I figured this would work to our advantage when Sean and Tyler stayed up to sing campfire punk-rock songs until midnight.
Tonie and I were hoping for a campfire to roast burritos on, so we were glad to find an axe and the fire pit were accessible. While I put some water and snow on the stove to heat, Fiona went off to find some firewood. I shouldn’t have been, but was, surprised when she dragged back a huge pile of branches from a fallen tree she had found. She knew she had done well, and made a bit of a show of breaking up all her branches so they would fit in the fire. Tyler tried to hire Fiona to work construction for him.
For the record, I had offered to bring an extra burrito for Sean, his foul-tasting dinner was not my fault. The freeze-dried camping meals that are available are hit-and-miss at best, and are expensive mistakes if you get one that tastes bad. For longer hikes, we usually take a few days’ worth, but we do try to avoid them as much as we can. We do have a few dinners that we know that none of us like, I will sometimes choke one down just to reduce the inventory.
Much as I dislike the music of Hank Williams Jr., I am sometimes struck by how à-propos his song “All my Rowdy Friends Have Settled Down” can be. My punk rock sing-along theory was clearly delusional since we were all in bed by 8:30 pm. That was the last we saw of each other until morning. I did have to adjust my sleeping bag to the unzipped mode since I had overestimated how much warmth I wanted and woke up uncomfortably warm at some point. I also was vaguely awakened by the nearly full moon peeking out from the cloud cover to shine very brightly on us.The temperature sat at -16ºC both before I went to bed and after I woke up.
I was pretty happy and refreshed at 7:30 when I got up. It took me a while to realize that the time change had happened and it was actually 8:30.
Late rising or not, I got my morning coffee in. Though I had to watch Sean and Tyler sacrilegiously drinking an instant brown liquid product, it did not take away from my enjoyment of my fresh-ground Aeropress coffee. I did have enough coffee to share, but somehow did not succeed in converting the fellows to my side. Oh well, at least I can’t be accused of religious intolerance.
Sean had some commitments back in town, so he packed up and hit the trail as soon as breakfast was done while Tyler stayed with Tonie and I for the ride out. We had heard the grooming sled go by, and we though that had good potential to leave us with a nice rideable trail, but we did have 360m of elevation to gain before we reached the parking lot. The forecast also called for the weather to warm up which can make trails soft and unrideable.
Apparently the sleep had done Fiona good because she was riding all but the steepest hills and was riding well. I kept the snacks and drinks flowing, but I was concerned that she would fatigue, or that the trail would soften to unrideable mush.
I needn’t have worried. Fiona rode almost everything and rode it well. The trail did become softer, but it was still very rideable. As the weather warmed, Fiona shed layers until she was complaining about being too hot in her t-shirt. She kept riding though and that made all the difference. We made it back to the car in just under 4.5 hours, quicker on the uphill direction than we had been downhill. Fiona did take a break to pull out a wiggly tooth and of course for apple chips, brie cheese and some candy.
I could not be a prouder dad. Through the magic of never complaining and hard work, Fiona impressed and endeared herself to my friends. She showed determination and strength, and did it while having fun. I am lucky to be dad to such a wonderful person.
[This is a story of my ITI 2002 experience. I wrote it just after the race, in 2002. It contains some unflattering comments about other racers with film crews, but I decided to leave it mostly as it originated. Keep in mind that I had never seen a fatbike until the start of the race, hence my commentary about sand bikes. Pictures were taken with disposable cameras at a time before I became truly interested in photography. My prejudices about racers coming in 140 pound skinny packages was formed by reading too many mountain bike magazines.]
Before the race:
I had built a substantial base of fitness over the past few years of bike commuting so I knew that the people who were questioning my level of fitness were underestimating me. I also knew that there was a big difference between commuting 21km twice a day and covering 560km of wilderness in a week on a fully laden bike. I continued my daily commuting but added a little science to it. Monday mornings I extended my commute to 90km by making a circuit of the city on my way to work. Twice a week I did intervals on my way home. I also added some weekend training rides of longer distances. In November I had the good fortune to have my workweek cut back by a day to four days per week which allowed me to do some long training rides and walks on Fridays. I practiced riding the bike loaded as well as pushing it through the snow. I also ran 3 to 9 km at lunch times at work. I did day long rides out to the mountains, I did overnight rides. I slept out in –25 in the back yard.
By mid February, I felt prepared for the race and fitter than I had been in over a decade.
The bike and equipment
In order to get lots of flotation on the snow, wider tires are better than narrow ones. The most common method is to use snow cat rims which are 44mm wide and allow a rather large footprint on the snow. They also have the advantage that they fit (mostly) into a standard mountain bike frame. I ordered some Snow Cats twice from Simon at All Weather Sports in Fairbanks but they never showed up. I ended up ordering some rims of the same dimensions from Avro in Dorval. After some hassling, the rims arrived. I had them built on a pair of DT Swiss Hugi 240 hubs that use a star ratchet freehub assembly that can be field serviced without tools and engages in the coldest of weather.
A Rocky Mountain steel hardtail coupled with a Surly rigid front fork gave a reasonably light and durable package. Also I already owned the bike so I did not have to make yet another purchase.
I used a Specialized big hit 2.5 tire in the front and a WTB Weirwolf 2.5 tire in the rear. In retrospect, the Specialized tire in 3.0 inch would have been a better choice in front.
I used an extra thick downhill tube in the rear tire to avoid flats. This turned out to be overkill and was a great deal more rotating weight than necessary. Had I been less lazy, I would have swapped it out early in the race. Since I would be running very low pressure in the tires during the race, I glued one side of the tire to the rim to avoid having it slip and shear off the valve stem. I found some brakes in my box of spare parts with long curved arms that cleared the extra wide tires.
To keep my hands warm, pogies (large handlebar covers that act somewhat like mittens) were a necessity. I designed these myself to get all of the features that I wanted into them. I made them large enough to carry snacks in. In fact they were large enough to use them as booties to warm my feet in emergency situations. The bright yellow colour gave them high visibility and ripstop polyester covering over thick windstoper fleece and blue closed cell foam made them very warm.
I did not want panniers hanging down to drag in the snow so I mounted an aero bar in the front of my bike to use as a front rack. A seatpost rack in the rear held my stove and clothing while food was stored in a frame bag in the main triangle of the bike.
I was fairly conservative when it came to sleeping equipment and clothing. I did not want to be cold or get any cold related injuries so I paid a significant weight penalty.
In addition to a –20 C rated sleeping bag with a vapour barrier liner, I carried a yellow ensolite pad and bivouac sack. I brought a down sweater and fleece pants for times when it was cold and I was stopped to bivy out or to fix my bike. I also planned to use the sweater and pants for sleeping on extra cold nights.
For cooking or making water, I carried a Coleman single burner stove that we have used for several years and has proven reliable. It is a little heavier than some other available stoves but again I decided against the extra purchase.
For riding in the dark I brought a headlamp with a remote battery pack that I could put inside my jacket to keep the batteries warm. I also brought an LED headlamp as a backup or to save batteries when the larger light was not needed.
Arrival in Anchorage
I was a little apprehensive about meeting the other racers, I half expected a bunch of prima donnas with big egos. After all, there were some real racers here. I was a bike commuter.
I needn’t have worried. The atmosphere at Earth B&B was supportive and friendly.
I arrived in Anchorage only to find out that my bike had not. The lady at the lost luggage counter assured me that it would be delivered to me later that night as soon as it got in.
I spent the afternoon at Earth B&B with the other racers. Margriet (the owner) introduced me to everyone in sight. Many of the people that I had seen in the ‘Thin White Line’ video were there. Elliot McAllister, Andy Headings and I went off to the local bike store “Ready To Race” to get some parts for Elliot’s bike. It turned out that Elliot was an engineer at Christini, a company who make two wheel drive mountain bikes. The store was an amazing place, tucked into the back of the owner’s house, the vestibule housed several customer bikes and a wide assortment of parts. My favourite kind of bike store, the owner rides bikes himself and is obviously keen on more than pumping through the inventory. I hear later that he is particularly fond of wheel building and builds the type of wheels that never need to be trued and last forever.
The morning of the second day, my bike arrived. I started assembly but put off completing it in order to make a trip to REI. REI is the American version of Mountain Equipment Coop and is quite similar in many ways but perhaps a little downscale as far as quality goes. I walked there with Eric, one of my roommates at the B&B and of course we met several other racers there. Apparently, there is a yearly ritual of making many trips to REI to make sure that one has all of the same equipment as the other racers. Usually, the extra equipment ends up getting left behind since everyone already had a plan about what to bring on the race.
Fortunately, I had a list of equipment that I was bringing with me and another list of equipment to purchase in Anchorage so I minimized my impulse buys at the REI.
Back at the Earth B&B garage, I proceeded to put the rest of my bike together. I discovered that I had forgotten my pedals and I managed to break the quick release skewer on my rear hub. With borrowed pedals and skewer (thanks to Bill Merchant), I went off to the bike store to get replacements.
The traffic in Anchorage is positively bike hostile. I have never been in a city where less consideration is shown towards cyclists than Anchorage. I ended up abandoning my bike store quest in order to get off the horrible streets, they were simply not safe. I ended up splitting a cab with Elliot the next day to go to get pedals.
Elliot seemed to have the most to do. He had constructed a sled for himself and seemed to have left it entirely untested. It seemed a little late to be thinking about using questionable equipment.
I did a shakedown run on my bike on the local multi use path. I got to see some of the famous Anchorage urban moose and the scenic parts of town. I felt good, The bike felt good. I was more or less ready.
The pre-race meeting featured a slide show by Mike Curiak, the holder of the record Knik to Nome time of 15 days. It was better than slide shows tend to be as Mike is a very good speaker and had some great slides showing the various parts of the race.
A film crew member interrupted the slide show by filming the audience with a really bright light – while making voice commentary. Mike simply stopped, said “that is really annoying” and waited for him to turn off the spotlight.
After the pre-race meeting was a party with all the racers and volunteers and a keg of beer. Most of the racers limited themselves to only a glass or two of the very delicious microbrewed beer.
That night, I loaded my bike into the van that was to take it to the race start.
Waiting for the race start is a time for self doubt. Here I am waiting to start a race alongside a bunch of real mountain bike racers. I have said again and again that I am in no danger of winning the race, in fact all I want to do is finish with all of my digits intact. Still, I have a feeling of being out of my league, a bike commuter amongst successful racers. I am not scared, just a little uncomfortable. Finally, the race begins, I carefully take my place near the rear of the rush of bikes leaving the start line. I don’t want to be in anyone’s way.
About 200m from the start, at the end of the lake, the trail goes up a hill and enters the woods and becomes a single file track through rolling hills. Elliot McAlister, from Pennsylvania, breaks his sled on the hill. I feel sorry for him, less than a minute into the race, I tell him to get a backpack, but I know that he will probably scratch.
I end up just behind Maurizio and Eris, the Italian cyclists on their way to Nome. I feel really good, the pace feels like I can maintain it forever. A few people have told me that if I feel like I am going at a good pace, I should slow down. Maurizio’s chain falls off his bike. I catch up to his partner Eris and tell him. Eris turns back to help. Perhaps they are sharing tools?
For a good part of the afternoon I end up trading places back and forth with David Barker-Milne from the UK and Dario Valsesia from Italy. I can see that Dario lacks experience riding on the snow, his tires are pumped to about 60 psi and he is reluctant to let air out of them. He is also carrying way too much stuff. His food supplies include canned chili and stew – probably four pounds with those alone. He is also the only other cyclist I have seen who is in the same weight range as I am. He is also wearing way too many clothes for the warm temperature. He is using much too much energy for the slow speed that we are going.
The weather is warm, hovering around 0 C and I end up riding wearing a capilene shirt and a vest with a wind proof front. I had been hoping for some colder weather to cut down on the sweating and to allow me to wear clothes instead of carrying them strapped to the bike.
Several Iditarod junior racers are going by in the opposite direction. I should really stop and take some pictures of the dogsleds. Maybe I will later.
The trail is mostly rideable on the downhill and level sections but we are walking up the uphill stuff. The occasional ravine provides good opportunity to crash, which I do several times. On one of the crashes, I lose my glasses. I had brought one pair of glasses with clear, yellow and dark lenses. I have therefore lost my sun, overcast and night glasses all at once. At least I still have my goggles.
There is an opportunity to stop for water and a nap at Flathorn Lake but I have lots of water and elect to bypass it on the hopefully better Iditarod Junior trail that I am already on. Eris and Maurizio have by now caught up and they are riding just behind me. The trail eventually opens up onto the large Susitna river and then follows it upstream to the Yentna river.
To my left is the sleeping lady mountain, somehow it really does look like a sleeping lady. The sun very slowly sets as I ride past.
About a mile up the Susitna river, I stop for a break and meet up with Steve and Janice Tower from Anchorage. I have heard of Janice, she is the record holder for the 130 mile race and has consistently been the fastest woman in the shorter races. The Towers turn out to be a very agreeable couple. They are from Anchorage and so were not staying at the B&B.
It turns out that Steve is substantially bigger than any of the other cyclists, including myself. He is pulling a sled to help keep weight off of the bike. Several people have poked fun at this system but it seems logical, soft snow would mean that every ounce off of the bike would make the difference between riding and pushing.
Steve had intended to ride a super wide sand bike up until the night before the race when he discovered that the bottom bracket was destroyed. He ended up staying up until 3 AM to put together the regular bike, snowcats and sled combination that he was riding. Janice and Steve were already running a sleep deficit by the time that they started the race.
We soon catch up to the Italians who nearly double their speed when they realize that a woman is passing them. Steve and I get a good chuckle out of this. We soon make it to Yentna station slightly behind the Italians.
Yentna Station is a comfortable house and is serving grilled cheese sandwiches. I wolf down one of these and quickly dry some clothes before pressing on. The Italians are trying to catch a nap but the owner wants to charge them to sleep and though they are willing to pay, they do not want to get up to go sleep in one of the beds as designated for sleeping. As we leave, Maurizio and Eris are gathering their clothes to leave.
Steve and Janice have a friend with a cabin a short way up the Yentna river. I intend to continue on past, but, in a moment of weakness I accept their hospitality. It proves to be a wise decision. I sleep at the back of the cabin in relative cool and get a very refreshing two-hour nap.
Back on the river, we ride in at 11:45 for brunch at the Skwentna roadhouse. Eggs, potatoes and toast really hit the spot and we are back on the road by 1pm. After a slight detour in the wrong direction, we are soon on the trail to Shell Lake. Unfortunately, shortly after Skwentna, the trail turns to soft moguls that are impossible to ride. The moguls are left over from the iron dog snowmobile race a week earlier and are as unpopular with us as they are with the locals. The locals get beaten by the moguls when they ride around for work and to reach neighbours on their own snowmobiles. We dislike them because they mean walking or very harsh riding instead of smooth rideable trail.
This section is where we first witness Steve’s “transformer” routine. He carries a pair of skis in his sled and when the going gets tough on the bike, Steve becomes a skier towing a bike.
The temperature warms up to near freezing and the trail softens even further. Even the flat spots are unrideable now.
We roll in to Shell Lake lodge around 8 PM, Zoe, the owner is serving a choice of burgers or grilled cheese. The bread is homemade, the cheese is plentiful, one of the best grilled-cheese sandwiches I have ever inhaled. We try to rent a cabin to sleep in but Zoe says that since we will only be sleeping for a few hours, we should crash on the floor on cushions. She tapes the cushions together so they don’t separate and comes around with pillows and blankets for everyone.
Round midnight, Roberto Ghidoni, the larger than life Italian walker comes in. He is suffering a bad case of chafing on his butt and needs some cream to soothe it. I do not have any cream until the Finger Lake drop bag, so I wake Steve who has some Bag Balm(tm) and we go back to sleep.
The clock on the wall at Shell Lake dings a great deal (1 for quarter after, 2 for half past, 4 plus the time on the hour). Pierre Ostor and Steve are world class snorers and yet by 4 am I feel refreshed enough to get back on the trail. We head out by the light of our headlamps and leave behind a tip for our wonderful hostess.
The trail has hardened a bunch but is still mostly a pushing trail. We catch up to the Italian bikers and their film crew entourage about halfway along. It appears as though they had a rough night out. One of the film crew guys mentions that I look really fresh. I reply that I feel fresh, and in fact I do, I have had more than enough sleep and the pace has been somewhat slow.
As I pass the film crew, the trail becomes rideable again. This makes me wonder if in fact the film crew snow machines have something to do with the inability to ride. My suspicions are confirmed when I am passed again and the trail turns to sugar. This could become annoying.
At Finger Lake lodge I eat some fine quesadillas and rice. I also break into my drop bags for some food replenishment. I have sent way too much food and some of it looks downright unappealing. Fortunately, everyone else seems to have sent too much as well and I raid the leftovers box for some cheese and other goodies.
Roberto has been at Shell Lake for an hour or so and is getting ready to leave as we get in. He is barefoot and I mention to him that his feet look blister free, to which he replies “feet good, ass fire!” Apparently, last year he got some frostbite on his penis and this year his windproof underwear are rubbing. Everyone is donating his or her favourite salve to help him out. Roberto is a bit of a legend in these races, he tows a tiny child’s sled borrowed from his granddaughter which only highlights his stature and mammoth stride. His feet are massive and yet he has managed to find a pair of runners big enough for several layers of socks. He walks at 4.5 miles per hour for 20 hours per day, a one-eyed force of nature.
From what we have heard, the trail between Finger Lake and Puntilla Lake (Rainy Pass Lodge) is never rideable and this year is no exception. I take the left side pedal off my bike to make pushing easier and plan for a long push.
I make an interesting discovery this afternoon. I am much better at pushing the bike than I am at riding it. I stride along all afternoon, thoroughly enjoying the rolling hills and the sparse northern forest. On the few rideable patches, my knees hurt from pedaling, so it is just as well that there are few pedaling sections. Just before sunset I stop to talk to some passing snow machiners on their way to Rohn. One of them gives me some delicious birch candies. They are camping for the night at the top of the Happy River valley with the dire prediction that it will be really cold at the bottom. The descent to the river is a series of steep drops (the dreaded happy river steps) interspersed with flat traverses. I manage the descent without incident and travel for a ways along the happy river and then up some equally steep hills to another ridge. I am still feeling good as darkness descends and I walk on into the night. I am catching up to the Italians and I can see their headlamps occasionally in the distance. This section of trail is ultra hilly and drops off and on to a ridge, crossing a couple of lakes. I begin to wonder how far it is to the checkpoint. The temperature drops to a cool –20C and I wonder how effective my jacket, wet from the earlier wet snow, is going to be. [I did have a backup jacket, not sure why I wrote in the drama here]
I come to a site flooded with light… Bright as a TV studio… I assume that this must be the most brightly lit checkpoint in the race. Funny, I hadn’t expected it to be so soon, I also didn’t expect it to be hidden in the forest. I am not tired enough for hallucinating – I think.
Fortunately, it turns out to be the film crew camped for the night. Maurizio and Eris have just arrived, they are being filmed under bright lights. Eric, the film crew’s guide, makes me some Kraft dinner. He also tells me what turns out to be an outrageous lie, the checkpoint is only 5 more miles. My estimates and my trail notes put it somewhere closer to 15 miles. The 15 mile figure turns out to be correct. While Eris and Maurizio sleep, I head up the trail another 7 miles or so before biviying. My plan is to sleep till 6, get up, make the checkpoint early morning and head into the pass by day – I can push my bike all day, sleep and descend the Dalzell Gorge in the morning.
I awake around 9 to a camera in my face. I have overslept. Nothing to worry about. I doze ‘till close to 10 when Steve Tower comes by, I better get going. I just wish these boots weren’t frozen so I could get them on my feet. Oh well, they should thaw as I walk to the checkpoint. I squeeze my feet into the boots and head off to Puntilla lake checkpoint. A quick 4 hour walk gets me to the checkpoint before 2 pm at the same time as Steve Tower. My early morning plan is blown but I can still make some progress toward the pass itself in the daylight.
I feel really well rested. Janice mentions to me how peaceful I looked sleeping. I have a substantial blister from walking in frozen boots but fortunately I have a plentiful supply of blister pads. My ring finger and little finger on either hand have gone numb from the battering of my handlebars.
On the other hand, Jim Jager is still at the checkpoint. He has been out toward the pass zand encountered whiteout conditions. He has decided to scratch and is waiting for a plane. There are six other racers in an emergency shack six miles ahead. We are six miles out of second place. I think about heading out on my own but I have planned all along to be safe, which precludes getting lost in mountain passes during a blizzard. I decide to wait with Janice and Steve to let the blizzard pass.
Ray Molino has been at the checkpoint for a few days. He is essentially a tourist, traveling the same route as the race. He is riding his sandbike, a fat tire bike that some other racers are also using. With the huge contact patch of his 4 inch plus tires, Ray can ride what we can only wish to ride. He is carrying an incredible amount of stuff with him. He has a video camera, a walkman with a large collection of cassettes, a spare tire (his front tire is home made), a big slab of bacon, and a host of other goodies that he is carrying on home made racks on his home made bike. Ray is a real character, he practically invented the sport of sandbiking and frequently hosts guided sandbiking trips in the Mexican Dunes near his home in the state of New Mexico.
As the afternoon passes, Jim decides that waiting for a plane is going to take too long and cost too much so he heads out, back in the race. Cullen Barker comes in accompanied by skier Andy Stearns.
[I was very much not that interested in hanging out at the checkpoint for so long. The Italians ended up stuck in the pass, so however bored I was, they had it worse]
Our intended departure time rolls around and the snow is falling thicker than ever. We finally leave in the morning under full daylight. There are five of us: Janice, Steve, Cullen and Andy along with myself travelling as a loosely knit group. Steve and Andy are skiing and the rest of us are walking. Some stretches are hard enough for Janice to ride.
After a few miles, Ray Molino catches up to us. He is able to ride the marginal stretches of trail and is making good time. When he is walking, he makes great time by jogging the better packed stretches. He stops from time to time to take video footage. He is singing along to his walkman.
I, meanwhile, am floundering. I am postholling up to my thighs where my lightweight companions are walking. There is essentially no trail since the snowmobile traffic through here has taken a variety of routes the past few days and none of them are packed hard enough for walking. Snowshoes would be a great asset here.
Even at a snail’s pace, we are making progress. We make it to the summit of the pass just after nightfall. It is downhill and flat from here to Rohn. Just as we enter the Dalzell Gorge, the moon comes up behind us. The night is clear enough to see without the need for a headlamp. I turn mine off as I descend through the Gorge, the scene around me is surreal, like something from an El Greco painting. Icefalls on either side, dropping into the gorge, snow covered trees, the river down the center, all bathed in the glow of the moon and reflected light from the rest of the scene. My plan for riding the Gorge in the day would have missed all of this. I would still like to see it by day sometime but I would not wish to have missed it by moonlight.
As I get toward the bottom of the Gorge, I pass by Ray Molino again. He has a huge bonfire going and is getting ready to bivy for the night. He has flatted a couple of tires and has to stop and patch some tubes. His wide tires require two tubes each and he is only carrying one spare.
The remainder of the way to Rohn is mostly windswept ice. My first fall is enough to make me want to be really careful. In the city, I would have the luxury of studded tires and the traction that they provide but the soft wide knobbies that I am using for the race provide no grip whatsoever. I try to stay relaxed and not to make sudden moves. I manage to only fall twice – no injuries.
Rohn is a welcome sight. Maurizio and Eris are there as well as my companions from today. Eris has a wet sleeping bag again and is shivering in the tent trying to dry it. I bed out outside to avoid sleeping with the snoring symphony in the wildly swinging temperatures of the checkpoint tent. Andy Headings –last year’s Nome race winner, is surprisingly also still here, he has broken his bike’s bottom bracket and is resigned to flying to McGrath to fix his bike and continue on to Nome. He is waiting for his plane to arrive.
Claudia Werner is the checker at Rohn and is making sure that everyone is comfortable and taken care of. Hopefully, she took some time out to enjoy skating on the giant sized rink just a short walk away. While I am in Rohn (population 2, for 1 month of the year, otherwise 0), she is constantly looking for ways to help out.
Our second drop bags are in Rohn, time to stock up on food and drink. I once again have way too much. I cannot imagine how I thought I could possibly choke down so many Balance(tm) bars. The Fudgeos are a welcome treat. Somehow I get confused and failed to fill my drink bladder with the pineapple juice I had so cleverly sent and so carefully thawed. I sure wish I had packed some snickers bars, or at least more chocolate. Some more cheese would be good too.
I leave with the Towers at around 10:00 – being somehow stuck in slow motion packing my bike makes me late starting out.
After Rohn, the trail starts flat for a short while with some sections of open overflow and then, a series of nasty hills. At the top of the first such hill, the Italian film crew is filming us pushing our bikes up the hill. At the top, they have left their snowmobiles in the middle of the trail. This sets the scene for the rest of the day. As soon as we are in front of the film crew, the trail becomes rideable. As long as we were behind them, the trail was unrideable.
Unfortunately for me, I have to stop to fix a flat and take a restroom break and so get passed by the crew. Meanwhile, Steve and Janice manage to stay ahead of them for quite a while. I eventually catch up to the film crew and hear that they had been given a thorough chewing out by another racer who honestly believed that they were sabotaging us to put the Italian riders in better position. It is certainly what it looks like. Why are they not harassing the Italian riders? Had the Italian riders wanted to be rid of them? Either way, they are stopped on the trail, in the middle of the trail, in a narrow part of the trail where it is impossible to pass them without wading through deep snow, and they are waiting for the racer to “cool down” before attempting to pass again.
I make a supreme effort at politeness and mention that it is really annoying to be pushing a bike when the only reason you can’t ride is that there is a film crew in front of you. Especially when the stars of the film get to be ahead of the crew, making time on the good trail. Especially when the stars of the film have been observed to dislike riding behind women and amateurs.
Being in front of the crew is wonderful. The trail that I had been hiking for hours is suddenly rideable. I am thrilled. I lose some time climbing the “glacier”, a treacherous ice flow that does not want to be climbed. At the top, I am greeted by a meadow covered in dirt! Fast, hard, wonderful frozen dirt. I put some air into my tires and started hammering. I am obsessed with staying ahead of the film crew. There is a fellow stopped on the side of the trail in a pop-up tent atop a sled and I don’t even stop to talk to him. I only want to stay ahead of the evil ones. The trail turns to snow again, I let air out of the tires and continued my punishing pace. I come to a stretch of ice, I speed across it, heedless to the danger of fast riding on ice. My saddle sores are getting really painful; I hammer on. On a later stretch of ice, A gust of wind catches me by surprise. I fall, hard; the wind is knocked out of me; I hear crunching. I lay there for a while cursing myself for not being more careful, for making it this far and now having to scratch. Gradually, I take stock. My hip hurts. My shoulder hurts. My back or back ribs hurt. I am lying on ice in a single layer of clothing in winter. I better get up. I extricate myself from the bike and stand up. At least I can stand. My hip is definitely not broken. I can rotate the shoulder. The back hurts but seems to be just a muscle problem. I am back in the race. The film crew goes by.
Unfortunately, the fall has destroyed my confidence and the brutal pace has worn me down. I shuffle like a senior citizen with bad hips and knees across the remaining ice. The next several miles feature wooded steep hills interspersed with lakes – windswept ice covered lakes. I alternate between the shuffle and a slow walk through the woods. I console myself that at least the burn will be flat. At the top of the next hill, I see the evil film crew. They are filming me pushing my bike up a particularily steep hill. They are at the top of the hill because both of the crew have whacked trees with their snowmobiles. A little further on, when I meet up with Eric, their guide, he estimates that the snowmobile crash will leave them at a standstill for two days at least. Hurrah!
The next lake, I see at least a half a dozen snowmobiles tearing around. I think, “Oh well, at least they are non-partisan”. There is an assortment of buffalo (bison) hunters around this area. There is a large herd of bison somewhere in the vicinity of the Farewell Burn. I don’t imagine that I will see much of them other than the profusion of frozen buffalo dung that threaten to launch the unwary biker off the bike.
As I shuffle across one of the many lakes, I see a dog coming out of the woods. Then, I see a second dog. Both dogs are wearing collars so they are clearly domestic. I assume that someone has taken their dogs buffalo hunting but then I see a couple who do not resemble hunters come out of the woods just behind the dogs. It turns out that they are the winter caretakers at a nearby lodge and they are out walking their dogs. It strikes me as amusing to encounter people walking their dogs out in the middle of nowhere.
On one of the following lakes, I run into Andy Stearns as I knock the accumulated pounds of ice from my wheels. He has been gaining a lot of ground on me as I shuffle across lakes. He passes me and I become inspired to ride my bike instead of shuffling. I find that I am going at more or less an even pace with Andy as I ride along. I am faster on ice, he is faster on level snow, I am faster on uphills, he on downhills. We talk as we pass back and forth and it softens the effect of the solitude.
I have to make a mile or so detour around some open water with a collapsed ice bridge. I end up crossing on a small tree that fallen across the water.
After what seems like an eternity, I reach the Farewell Burn. This site of a 1970’s forest fire has a lot of tree skeletons and a lot of 3 foot tall trees. Apparently things don’t grow real fast out here. After the first two or three really steep hills, I begin to question the flatness of the burn. I wait for Andy to catch up and he confirms that in fact, the burn is a series of brutal hills, followed by a relatively flat stretch. This completely demoralizes me. All day, I had been looking forward to the flat burn, the one I had seen in the video with the riders riding quickly across rolling flat trail, the one where the riders blew past the walkers and where the trail would magically levitate my bike along at breakneck speed. I drop back from Andy to whine to myself for a while. I give myself a bit of a pep talk. I try to convince myself that my problems are not that significant. My back hurts but not enough to be serious. I have experienced hand numbness before and it has always healed. I am not that tired. I have plenty of food and water. Maybe I should be enjoying myself instead of whining.
Darkness falls and I convince myself to ride as much as possible. As I catch up to Andy, I enjoy the huge pool of light generated by his musher’s headlamp.
After several hours of up and down in the dark, I come down a hill and see a frozen wolf that someone has propped up on the side of the trail. I have no idea why I didn’t think it was alive but for whatever reason, my brain simply tells me “there’s a frozen wolf.” It has been artfully placed so that the head of the wolf and the front of the body protrude into the trail. I had been hoping to see a wolf, I guess I should have specified alive.
After such a frustrating day, it is in a weak-willed state that I arrive at Buffalo Camp. I had intended to ride straight through to Nikolai, but when Andy and I are offered space on the spruce bough covered floor of John and Marty’s (Buffalo camp owners) tent for the night, I cannot refuse. I sleep very well, the smell of spruce lifting my spirits for the following day. Even the shooting pains in my arms are not enough to make me sleep poorly.
John wakes me just before sunrise. I have to get up so that I am out of the way of the cooks and the hunting guests. I get up and take Marty up on her offer of breakfast. I notice that I am not the only one adding butter to my oatmeal. Some of the family who are here as hunting guides apparently need lots of energy too. Marty gives me a chocolate muffin on my way out of the camp – fantastic generosity.
The buffalo camp marks the beginning of the last big hill in the Farewell Burn. I push my way to the top and begin riding. My saddle sores have become tremendously painful so I alternate a lot between riding and pushing through the sparse scenery of the burn. I try to lower my seat to reduce the rubbing on my sores but this only makes my knees hurt more. It also makes me realize that my seat post is bent. I have read stories of other racers who have broken seat posts from the extra weight of the seat post rack as well as the strain placed on the seatpost by a rider traveling the near constant snowmobile moguls. I resolve to be very gentle on my seatpost until the end of the race.
The last part of the Farewell burn is mostly rolling hills. The straight trail and the lack of obstacles mean that the moguls are kept to a minimum. Some years the Burn is completely devoid of snow cover but this year it is covered to a substantial depth. I see a huge number of body shaped indentations in the snow and I am glad to note that I am not the only one falling off my bike from time to time.
I see Andy every hour or so throughout the day. I talk to him each time he passes or I pass him. When I am riding, I ride much faster than he does. When I walk, he is the quick one. I am making slow progress but I am now sure that I can easily make it to the end. I am in tourist mode, enjoying the scenery, watching for wildlife, stopping for long periods to talk to the local family that are heading out to Buffalo camp on their snowmobile. They are not making a lot better progress than I am. They have taken 4 hours to go 24 miles.
The end of the burn comes and the trail turns to alternating wooded and open swamp. There is an open river that Andy has told me about with a bridge over it. I started the day with a full load of 2.5L of water and 2.5L of sport drink so I do not stop for river water. There are several smaller creeks before the bridge with sections of open water large enough to make crossing with a 65-pound bike interesting. The local family had warned me about this, they had apparently broken through since there was a large, snowmobile shaped hole in the partial ice bridge over the creek.
About 15 miles later, I come to the first permanent building I have seen since Rohn. According to my trail notes, it is some sort of fishing camp. It marks the start of some very good trail. I manage to ride for the next five miles or so until the telltale sound of a snowmobile convoy marks an approaching break from riding. This is most unfortunate since the cream I have been applying seems to be making my sores much more tolerable. Of course, the convoy turns out to be my good buddies from Italy and their guide Eric. It is hard to hate Eric, he is very good-natured; he seems genuinely regretful that he is sabotaging my riding and he did make me that Kraft dinner.
I only have to walk for about an hour until the trail hardens enough that I can ride again. This time it is really hardened and I make good time the rest of the way to Nikolai.
Nikolai is a small fishing town on a river and its’ most striking features are it’s Russian Orthodox church and cemetery. I roll in to town as light is fading and ask a local for directions to Nick and Olene Petruska’s house. A man on a 4-wheeler has me follow him the entire way. The streets are well packed and I can almost keep up. I am thrilled to be able to use (without pushing myself like yesterday) the fourth gear on my middle chainring – the lowest gear that I ever use commuting to work.
Outside of Nick’s house, I see a number of bikes parked. Cullen, Pierre, Steve and Janice, Eris and Maurizio and Ray Molina all have their bikes parked outside. As I get inside though, I see Andy Heading. Apparently, Ray lent Andy his bike in Rohn and walked back over the pass to Puntilla Lake. Andy is planning to ride Ray’s bike to McGrath, pick up his own bike, fix it and continue on.
It seems that everyone else is getting ready to leave any second. I momentarily debate leaving with them, I feel strong but my hands are very numb and my knees hurt quite a bit. I decide that I am going to have a bit of sleep and leave around midnight. The Italian film crew is heading to McGrath right away so the trail should be set up by the time I leave. Eric promises that this is the very last time that we will see him before McGrath.
After eating, I lay down on one of the beds and fall asleep. I fail to set any type of alarm and end up sleeping until just before sunrise. Apparently the other racers didn’t leave until well after midnight – I could have gone with them. Nick prepares some breakfast for Andy Stearns and I and then I hit the road. My boots are dry, I have had almost 12 hours of sleep, my knees don’t hurt too much, I have 5 Snickers Bars from the box that Nick has provided and I have a full stomach as I set out on what should be the last leg of the race. I make some mental calculations and decide that even if I have to walk the entire way, I can make it to McGrath by 4 in the morning. I have a sense of completion that I know that I will not lose and I am confident that this will be a good day.
The trail to McGrath is mostly flat with river, swamp and lake sections interspersed with wooded sections between them. There are only a couple of hills and only one of them is reputed to be any difficulty at all.
I ride out of town on the road past the church, the dump to the end of the road and back on the trail.
I head out on to the first river section and find it to be marginally rideable. Since I have two spare tubes and no fear of walking, I let enough air out of my tire that I can feel the rim hit the sidewalls on the slightest of bumps. This is way less air than is prudent and any earlier in the race I would have been worried about destroying the tire sidewalls or getting a pinch flat. My tire abuse works and I am able to ride the sugary trail. I take a picture of myself to document my good spirits.
I discover that taking a picture of oneself while riding a loaded bike on snow is harder than it sounds. I stop and take another less dynamic but hopefully better picture. [selfies weren’t really a thing in 2002, not that I invented them]
The wooded sections are infested with my nemesis the moguls and so to avoid further damaging my hands, I chose to walk the woods and ride the rivers, swamps and lakes whenever conditions, my butt and my knees will let me. I have ceased to care about my bent seatpost, it will need to be replaced anyway and I am close enough to the end to get there without it if it breaks.
The trail is well used by locals and they come by at a rate of about one an hour. I stop to talk to them if they are so inclined and they tell me of the other racers ahead of me and of Andy behind me. Around noon, I see Eric, the film crew guide going the other way up the trail. One of the snowmobiles’ engines died the night before and he is on his way with a trailer to tow it to McGrath. Since the trail has so much traffic, I don’t care too much about Eric passing me again and it does nothing to dampen my spirits.
I continue on, riding and pushing for the whole day. Just before sunset (or during the 2 hour sunset), I am alert enough to spot the shortcut that Nick was discussing with the other riders the night before. I take it and the trail leads me toward a light which I have heard is a short way from town. I finally get to the fabled section: three miles of plowed road leading into town. I stop to pump up my tires and the first car I have seen in seven days stops to ask me if I need help. I smile and cheerfully explain that I am just putting some air in my tires to be able to ride better on the plowed road. They tell me that it is 3 miles to town.
With air in my tires, I fly along the road. I could even use some of the gears on my big chainring if I hadn’t bent the teeth on a frozen buffalo dropping. I use the biggest gear on my middle ring and ride my way into town. I am going so fast that I almost crash as I stop for the finish line sign that leads into Peter’s driveway. I pull up to the house and find a place to park my bike. Pat Irwin is here and is congratulating me heavily. Pat also tries to fend off the Italian film crew who want to film me coming inside. I insist that I am all right and that I can probably stand to be filmed this one last time. They film me coming in and I accept the congratulations of the people inside. Eric has promised to have cold beer at the finish and he has come through. I polish off a beer and some mashed potatoes with butter. I also eat some vegetables and some salad – the salad is especially satisfying after a week of eating almost exclusively fat and sugar, certainly nothing with so few calories per mouthful. The night at Peter’s house ends up being the second coldest night of the trip with the temperature in the unheated wing of the house getting down to –20 C. This suits me fine as I don’t have to worry about swings between sweating and freezing.
The next morning, those of us who were not continuing to Nome are off to the airport to catch a flight back to Anchorage. The flight is cancelled which leaves us waiting until evening to catch a flight. We get back to Anchorage and I get a ride back to the B&B with Tony Allen, who’s Affordable Car Rentals are sponsors of the race. Tony’s family has perhaps the world’s greatest tradition of bringing beer to anyone that they pick up at the airport. Cullen Barker and I dismantle and box our bikes for the trip home in the B&B garage while Tony chats with us. Cullen packs his bike in about ten minutes, as he has to get back to the airport right away to catch his flight. Tony then drives Cullen back to the airport for his late night departure home.
The next morning I fly home.
Returning to reality is a bit of a chore. I have a tremendous feeling of accomplishment and yet I cannot help but think of the things I could have done differently. I entered the race as a challenge to finish and I have finished. My training has been very effective and I was in no way out of my league. My hands will take some time for the feeling to return and the bruise is already started fading by the Tuesday following the race.
If I were to do it again, I would have the advantage of having been on the course and knowing where I was going. There is no substitute for that kind of knowledge and I cannot help but think that I would have needed much less caution if I had known exactly what to expect on the various parts of the trail.
I would bring more chocolate bars, more cheese, more butter and less balance bars. Food that tastes good and doesn’t suck all the moisture out of your mouth is so much better than dry bars like Balance.
The bike performed well but definitely needed some changes to make it optimum. The handlebars need to be higher and bar-ends are a must. Obviously, the seatpost lacked strength. The seat and chain stays lack clearance for the ideal 3 inch tire. Single speed might be a good weight and mechanical complexity saving option. At the very least, a single front chainring would make sense.
Saving some pounds off the bike might be a nice thing to do. The rear rack could have been replaced with a really large seat bag. At the very least, the pound-and-a-half rack bag could definitely have been something lighter. The clothing that I had with me was intended to keep me warm in any of the conditions that I might encounter. The fact that I did not encounter temperatures below –35C did not mean that I brought the wrong clothes.
Overall, I enjoyed the experience. I saw parts of the Alaskan wilderness that few people get to see and met the personal challenge I had set out to meet.
Last year, we managed to get to Lake O’Hara in Yoho National Park for the first time. We had so much fun that we decided to do it again this year.
This year, I built a second pulk sled for Tadhg, and mine is much more refined than my original. Tadhg is not the biggest backpack fan, so now he has the option to ski without wearing one, though he is pulling the sled, unlike on the bike where he has bags on the bike.
[click pictures to enlarge]
The trail in to Lake O’Hara is an 11km gravel road which is groomed and trackset. It climbs steadily for the first 2 and last 3 km, with the middle portion being rolling hills. Other than some waxing issues I was having (Skier Bob was having the same troubles), the trip up went really well. I had decided to avoid the trouble of melting snow for our water by bringing up 20L of water for the weekend. While pulling it in the sled was much easier than carrying it, I would skip the water carrying next time. I might bring a large pot to make snow melting easier, especially at Lake O’Hara with its eating shelters with stoves.
Just past the half way point, we met the aforementioned Skier Bob, and he took our picture and spoke with us for a while about my waxing issue and about our camping adventure. We were lucky enough to have our picture featured in the skier bob story of his ski.
When we reached the campground, we were disappointed to find the toilet was locked. This seemed unusual to us since we had been there before and had used the pit toilets there. There was another outhouse up at the Le Relais shelter (about 5o0m up the trail), but it seemed a long way to go when you need to go.
There are two picnic shelters at the campground, both with wood stoves. The wood stoves are usually very convenient for cooking on, but they work poorly with the door opened, and the shelter we chose had the stove door panel removed, so it was not getting as hot as we wanted for toasting our burritos. We at least got them hot and melted the cheese, even if the outsides weren’t as crisp as ideal.
When we arrived, we had the entire campground to ourselves and we shoveled out the first spot for the tent, followed by laying out Fiona’s and my sleeping bags and pads in a stomped down area in a tree well. (like described here). Fiona is definitely a fan of sleeping outside, and our setup was as outside as you get.
Our morning was the usual routine of backcountry cappuccinos for Tania, fresh-ground Aeropress coffee for me, and breakfast all around. The overnight temperature was around -12ºC, so while my water bag was partially frozen, the milk was only at the slushy stage. Winter camping is generally easier than summer when it comes to keeping foods fresh, though fruits and vegetables are often susceptible to damage from freezing.
We had plans to build a quinzhee, so we did some shoveling to pile up the snow. Well, mostly I did the shoveling. I got a good size pile, and we went for a quick snowshoe up to the lake, the Elizabeth Parker huts, and a bit of the surroundings. The kids were looking forward to getting back to the campsite, so we only wandered for a couple of hours.
On our way back to the campsite, we saw that some people had arrived at the warden’s cabin, so we stopped to ask about getting the toilet unlocked. Edwin, the warden, wasn’t hopeful, but said he would come by later with some keys he had to give it a try. He also provided us with a great lesson on an ingenious braking system for the pulk sled, as well as some good general information. He and his friend seemed very impressed that we had our kids out winter camping.
Edwin did have the correct key and got at least the women’s washroom unlocked, this would be much handier in the morning than the substantial walk. Not that we don’t like walking.
Digging out the quinzhee was going rather well, the interior was starting to get fairly big, until a sudden settling alerted me to the fact that I hadn’t packed down the base enough, especially on one side. Rather than risk an unstable shelter, I abandoned the project – the kids were mostly building their slide anyway.
We were joined on Saturday by a group of men who set themselves up in the other shelter and started drinking. They seemed friendly enough, and we assumed they would be like a similar group the year before, competent and quiet.
As we finished our dinner, a second group arrived, this time two couples. We didn’t see much of them that evening, but they were definitely there to enjoy the backcountry.
After another delicious dinner of what has become a camping staple for us, red lentil sweet potato dal (I have been shredding it with an immersion blender to make the sweet potatoes rehydrate better), I read to the kids for a couple of hours, and then we headed off to bed. I had deployed the tarp to keep the snow off Fiona and I since it was snowing fairly steadily.
Though the group of men in the picnic shelter did have a fairly loud and late party, we slept well enough, and soon morning dawned. It had snowed several cm overnight, and the campground looked nice with the fresh covering of powder.
Some of the campground was not so nice. The party group were packing up quickly, no doubt because they were hung over and hopefully embarrassed to have left so many cigarette butts and so much mess in the shelter. Somebody had also peed on the seat of the privy, failing to lift the seat seems to me to be the epitome of laziness, as well as an indication of contempt for your fellow campers.
Breakfast, on the other hand, was a treat. The two other couples in the campground joined us in the shelter, and they were beyond delightful. Not only did they have some more good pulk sled information, but they were clearly people who embraced the joy of winter camping. Though I failed to get any of their names (social graces are not my strong suite), we thoroughly enjoyed meeting them. Their invitation to join them on an Iqaluit (where one of the couples live) adventure was icing on the cake. Their coffee setup was similar to mine, with a portable grinder for the beans while they had a 2-tier stove top espresso machine rather than my Aeropress.
The ski-out featured enough fresh snow that Tadhg and I were sometimes pulling the sleds downhill, since they had enough drag to not slide on their own. The temperatures were warm enough that we struggled with snow buildup on the kick zone of our skis, but some scraping and crayoning of glide wax in the problem areas seemed to help.
Though we might want to skip the party gang next year, we still had a great weekend and enjoyed our visit easily as much as last year.
Like all bad ideas, it started innocently enough. “The kids have no school on Friday, let’s go camping.”
The Point campground on Upper Kananaskis Lake is a spot that we have walked past, but not camped in. It is only 4km from the trail head if you go the hard way, and 7km the easy way. When we had been there before, it had been summer, so we were blissfully unaware of what winter conditions might entail.
We thought it might also be a good shakedown for my new pulk sled, before we take it on a longer trip. The new sled is basically the same as the old one, with slightly improved hardware.
We set off in the snow at a balmy -12ºC on Friday to hike to Point campground. We chose the 4km route since it was shorter and there was just the one hill that we could recall. Tania and Fiona got a head start with Tadhg and I hauling the sleds behind. The forecast called for -18ºC at night, so we brought a few extra items of clothing and sleepwear just to be on the safe side.
It was snowing as we set out, as per the forecast. We figured the sleds would work better with a bit of snow, so we weren’t overly concerned. Of course, the hike started with a pull across the gravely surface of the dam, where there was almost no snow at all. Soon though we were into the woods with a wonderful packed trail that climbed gently enough the forest.
[Click on pictures to enlarge]
The first avalanche path that we came to was pretty icy and slanted, so we unloaded the sleds and ferried the gear across so no gear would get lost if the sleds went downhill. The next avalanche path was much easier to traverse.
Another short section of path led us to the switchback boulder field that led down the hill we had climbed. We had totally forgotten this part of the path, and it was more than a little obscured by snow. This was where we met back up with Tania and Fiona, who had turned around and were heading back to the car since they had been unable to find the remaining path to the campground or the campground itself due to the whiteout conditions.
It turned out that the path they had been following was not the correct one, just the one that many people had trampled. We never did find the correct one, but by heading across the lake for a bit, we came to the campground.
The Point is a fairly extensive campground with about 30 sites and 2 outhouses, but we were happy with the first two sites in from the lake, which had a pre-shoveled tent pad and a quinzee, respectively. The roof on the quinzee was a little low, but a bit of shoveling got it to the point where I could stretch out enough to sleep and we were soon set for the night. (Fiona and I had the option of sleeping under the tarp as usual, or sleeping in the tent).
Once we had the tent set up, we moved on to our favourite opening night meal, roasted burritos. A few folks have asked, so here is the basic recipe.
3 cups dry pinto beans, 1 large onion, 2tbsp miso paste, 3tbsp chilli powder, 1/4 cup of butter. soak the beans overnight, rinse them, add ~4cups water and the other ingredients, cook in a slow cooker about 8 hours, blend with an immersion blender until they are not-quite smooth. Then dehydrate them in a dehydrator. I usually fry some onions and red peppers and dehydrate those at the same time. At the campground, I rehydrate the beans and peppers, wrap it in a wheat tortilla with some shredded cheddar and then I roast them on the grill that comes with most fire pits, or on a flat rock if I have to.
Running out the clock when camping in winter is sometimes tricky, but this time around, we managed to keep everyone up and active until 9pm, and so we headed to bed. We woke up to a few inches of fresh snow in the morning and I started in on making Tania’s coffee. Fiona started converting the path to the bear-proof lockers into a bobsled track, which was good, since it kept her warm in the -19ºC temperature.
Our Saturday was spent on the usual Saturday chores, building a quinzee, making a bobsled track, going for a hike across the lake so we would have a better trail for the morning (foreshadowing) and of course a great deal of eating. It continued to snow for the day and the temperature stayed pretty steady, so we had an easier time staying dry.
When I looked out the quinzee door on Sunday morning, there was only an inch or so gap between the snow and the top of the door. After burrowing out through it, I found myself in fresh snow up to the tops of my thighs, nearly 3 feet of snow. My hands were dragging in the snow if I didn’t lift them.
Before making coffee, I excavated the lower 4 feet of our 6 foot tall tent from the snow so Tania and Tadhg could get out without an avalanche.
The temperature felt balmy, I was shocked when the thermometer read below -20ºC.
Once coffee was done with, we had a quick candy and granola bar breakfast and quickly packed up our stuff for the slog out.
And what a slog it was. I was towing over 100 pounds on the sled, and the snow was deep enough that the sled was just plowing it rather than gliding on top. The snow varied between waist and upper thigh deep and even though it was fluffy, it was still an all-out effort to pull the sled through it. I tried to keep my forward progress to a minimum of 20 steps between breaks, but sometimes I didn’t even make that many. It was also quite windy, so I no longer thought it was warm. This went on for 3.75 hours to make the 3.5km back to the car.
At one point Tania asked me if I felt like I was Max pulling the Grinch’s oversize sled. I responded that I’d sure like my heart to grow three sizes that day…
Now, a lot of people have asked me this week if I felt like activating the SOS feature on my InReach device. and the answer is, “not even close.” Now, this was a very difficult trek for all of us, but that’s not something that requires a rescue. If any one of us was in danger of so much as losing a toe, I wouldn’t hesitate, but we were not at that stage. At all stages of our weekend (including the hike out in the full out blizzard), we consistently asked the kids how they were doing – how were their feet/hands/face, etc. We were all very uncomfortable on the hike out (and there were a few tears from the kids), but that doesn’t need a rescue, discomfort is not the same as an emergency. When we arrived home, we still had clothes we hadn’t worn. And, not a trace, or even threat, of frost-bite.
Personally, if you asked me to go out and do it again next weekend, I would. Fiona still reports liking winter camping better than summer camping.
When we got back to the car (the lone car in the parking lot), not only was it covered in piles of snow, but the snowplow had been by. The kind driver had plowed to the side we were parked on, leaving a very tall snowbank/windrow to get through before getting underway. Thanks. While I loaded the car, Tania and the kids shoveled out a space in the wall of snow so we could get underway. Luckily, the snow hadn’t melted and frozen again and, therefore, was relatively easy to remove. This time we weren’t too concerned about the sweat the shoveling could generate since we’d be driving back to Calgary in a warm car (you want to avoid sweating whilst winter camping).
Every outdoor trip/adventure has its “learning moments” and this one was no different. When you’re dealing with the outdoor elements, you need to be prepared for all types of weather, which we were. Even with our uncomfortable moments, it was still a successful adventure with a lot of fun moments, but definitely a little more “adventure” than some of our trips.
We had some trouble deciding where to go on our father and son fatbikepacking trip. We’ve had some warm weather and some of our favourite trails are an icy mess. We debated trying a few new routes, but some of them were likely to be 90% what Scott refers to as, “hiking with an awkward cart.”
We were pretty confident that our old favourite, the Elbow Loop would be mostly free of the kind of ice that forms from lots of foot traffic, and since it is re-opened to snowmobiles this year, we had high hopes that a grooming crew had passed at least once. Tadhg’s main reluctance was the 12km of closed road that we would have to ride to get to the trailhead. Steep and varying between deep snow and treacherous ice, it is not our favourite.
[as always, click pictures to enlarge]
This variant of the road was bumpy hard snow followed by an exhilarating descent on 4km of bare asphalt. Once past it, we were on to the real riding.
The North side (Little Elbow) has a new bridge on it since September, and so we knew there would be no major obstacles. Tadhg was feeling pretty tired, but I encouraged him to dig deep in our attempt to get to the Tombstone campground where we had booked the night. The trail was mostly rideable with snow cover and not too much ice. Some spots were a little punchy, but we could still mostly ride. Tadhg was walking some of the steeper sections since he felt like his energy was low.
We passed the wreckage of Mt Romulus campground around 6pm, after sunset, but with enough twilight to see where we were going. Unfortunately, with the greater snow and steady climbing (and only 2 snowmobiles traffic this year) as it got dark, it became increasingly difficult to ride. Tadhg could ride some of the trail, but I was walking most of it. Eventually, we decided to stop for the night since we weren’t likely to make it to Tombstone before 10pm.
Since our camp spot was of questionable nature, we had no fire to roast our burritos. I was pretty certain that we would not be in any trouble since we were our usual no-trace selves and there were not likely to be anyone coming by anyway.
While the wind may have blown over both our bikes during the night, we were snug and warm in our tent. Tadhg was tired enough to get to sleep by about 9:30 and slept right through until I woke him after 9 in the morning. I knew the day ahead could be hard, and I wanted him in good shape to tackle it. I fed him some more burritos for breakfast, and we were on our way. The food and sleep had done its job and Tadhg’s energy and attitude were both refreshed. He was optimistic about the rideability of Tombstone pass.
What had been unrideable for us at night turned out to be mostly rideable when we had a better look at it. We were down to less air pressure in our tires than most people use, but still, we were riding [Mike Curiak explains fatbiketire pressure here]. Some of the steep uphill parts needed some walking, but that is often the case in summer as well.
Through Tombstone Pass was equally mostly rideable, there were some drifted in sections, but even some of those we managed to power through.
The descent from the pass was a combination of drifted in trail and crust hiding unknown depths of snow. We began the descent with Tadhg able to ride more than me due to his light weight, but even for me most of the trail was rideable. Where we punched through the crust, we came to a sudden stop in sometimes waist deep snow, but we were having a ton of fun. Our only concern was that we might have to push the bikes back up if there was no packed trail when we reached the bottom.
As we approached the Tombstone junction, my fears were confirmed when I could see no tracks heading in the Big Elbow direction. I was dreading the climb back over the pass. Fortunately, it was only a large snowdrift hiding the first 10m or so of the tracks and my stress was for naught.
The trail leading toward Big Elbow had not seen much traffic, maybe one or two snowmobiles, but it was nearly 100% rideable with the exception of the hills on the snowmobile route. In the summer, the bike route follows a different trail than the winter snowmobile route and since snowmobiles require almost no extra effort to climb grades that leave people on bikes pushing, the snowmobile hills can be steep and involve much more climbing and descending. I distracted myself from the brutal climb by trying to get Tadhg to swear, (he doesn’t) but the most I could get from him was, “stupid hill!”
Though steep, the descents on the snowmobile portion of the trail were tremendous fun. The snowmobile route also avoided the double river crossing or cliff climb that is part of the bike route.
Once back on the main route, we found a feature that was normally a small stream crossing in summer, was in fact a treacherous ice flow at least this winter. As I looked back to take some pictures of Tadhg crossing the ice, I stepped poorly and started sliding quickly down the cascades of ice. By using my bike pedal as an ice axe, I stopped my descent after about 20m. Tadhg wanted to go for a fun slide after he got his bike across, until we investigated where the cascade ended and it was the river.
A while later on, we came to the first of the missing bridges from the ’13 flood. It has not been replaced, but there was a convenient natural ice bridge across the river.
After the short climb and descent on the far side we came to the bridge that several people, including a park ranger told me had been replaced. It was in no way replaced, and the ice bridge that happened to be nearby seemed on its last legs. I had brought my overboots in case there were water crossings, so even if there hadn’t been ice bridges, we would likely have made it across with dry feet.
The Big Elbow campground is a familiar haunt for us, and we settled in for some dinner. I read to Tadhg for over an hour since we had gotten to the campground so early and we slept through a very windy night.
The wind continued in the morning, and though it made coffee and breakfast preparation a little more difficult, it was in the direction we were headed, so we had high hopes of tailwind for our ride back to the car.
The wind, being a Chinook, was warm and dry and had visibly sublimated some of the snow on the trail out as well as the road. The tailwind was strong enough that we pedaled up the road hill with ease (except for getting blown off once). We were somewhat fearful that the downhill side of the road would be a bumpy sheet of ice, but it turned out to be treacherous in only a few spots, and though it was teeth-rattling bumpy, we were at least riding.
People often ask me how I get my kids to go out camping in the winter with me. The truth is, when they were young I acted like it was normal (and it is), so by the time they noticed that no one else was with us at the backcountry campground, they were hooked. Now they vie for the privilege of going to the backcountry in all seasons.
Getting outside in the winter is our way to enjoy the inevitable. Staying inside is simply not an option for us, we are unwilling to put our recreation on hold for an entire season. Aside from the physical benefits of being active, the mental benefits of being surrounded by nature, and the skills we gain by challenging ourselves, the outdoor world has a lot to offer in terms of simple enjoyment. In some ways, being outside in winter is easier than in summer. There are few bears out in winter and keeping warm while active in -35ºC is easier than keeping cool while active in +35ºC. It is way easier to get away from the crowds in winter than it is in summer and even a paved road looks like wilderness if you hide it with a few feet of snow.
Fiona is the one we refer to as “Arctic Girl”, she will generally be the first to be taking off layers whatever the temperature.
We sometimes credit Fiona’s cold hardiness to the Scandinavian tradition of putting babies outside to nap. At first we thought it was so we wouldn’t be trapped in our house every day for nap time, but we soon realized that our baby slept better outside than in.
No matter the reason, Fiona’s cold-hardiness does not give her superpowers. She can get frostbite or hypothermia (at least we assume so) and so we take the same precautions that people in cold climates have taken with their children for millennia.
Tadhg seems to have colder extremities than most kids, so we need to pay close attention to keeping his hands and feet warm if he is to feel comfortable on any cold weather outing. When people tell me that their kids are too sensitive to cold to go on winter backcountry excursions, I often mention that Tadhg isn’t tough enough either, he is just well dressed.
So what the heck do I do to keep my kids warm? First, I listen. If they tell me they are feeling cold, I believe them and I look to do something about it. Before they could talk, I used to reach in to snowsuits and blankets to feel if hands and feet felt warm enough. I also watched for signs of discomfort – young kids may not shiver, but they won’t be comfortable, so if something is disturbing that placid sleeping baby face, it’s worth paying attention to.
Children’s snowsuits from better suppliers are generally warm, but that isn’t the same as designed for sleeping outside in -30º. Inactive people produce substantially less heat that active ones, so if the kids are standing around or sleeping, they need much more insulation. When the kids were smaller, I generally bough an extra suit, one size too big to put over the base suit. When they were in diapers, I tried to have the zippers on the snowsuit layers line up so I wouldn’t have to completely remove either suit. For naps and sleeping, sometimes a double snowsuit wouldn’t be enough to keep me (yes me, the caring parent) comfortable – for those occasions, I would put the kids onto a sleeping bag over the snowsuit layers.
A great way to keep anyone warm is to keep them moving. We try to keep moving until it is time to eat or get into a warm sleeping bag for the night.
A popular evening camp (in)activity is sitting by a campfire. While it is fun, it is also exactly the same as any other type of sitting – it produces virtually no heat. Couple that with the warmth from the fire tricking your body into shedding warmth and even sweating, and a fire with no shelter becomes a recipe for feeling cold. Lately, we have been going for walks or bike rides in the evening after eating. Instead of getting cold, the moderate activity warms us up so that we get into our beds comfortably and can relax right away instead of shivering for the first while. This is not to say that we never have campfires, we just limit the times we spend sitting around them.
Boots for kids are generally not as good as they should be. The problem is not the manufacturers, just the many demands placed on kids’ boots. Adults will generally spend hundreds of dollars on their own boots, but it is hard to part with as much when they are only going to be worn for a couple of months. Most waterproof boots will not allow water vapour from sweat to escape at -30ºC, while boots that aren’t waterproof will be wet and cold at temperatures around freezing since they will allow water in. For babies, my compromise was to put camp booties on them. I usually bought two pairs so I could put the pair that wasn’t being worn in my pocket to dry it out while the other pair was on the baby’s feet. The smallest kids didn’t wear them out, especially since they didn’t wear them on concrete in the city. Warm legs can help to keep the blood that reaches the feet warm If a kid is wearing shorts, they will tell you all about how their legs don’t get cold, but their toes will be like little ice cubes. Closed cell foam mattresses are a great way to keep the ground from drawing heat away from feet or bums that may be in contact with the ground. It is surprising how much warmer feet will be when standing on a piece of blue foam.
Mittens are another problem area for kids. They are constantly trying to pick stuff up but have small sensitive hands that lose their heat quickly. Around freezing, the only solution seems to be to have several pairs (as many as you can carry) and change them as often as you can without running out mitts before the outing is over. With Tadhg’s sensitive hands, he will often wear a pair of my mitts over his own liner and overmitt. Many people neglect the arms as part of the mitten system, but like feet, the hands depend on the blood reaching them being warm in order to keep warm. Warm arms go a long way toward keeping the hands at the end of them toasty.
On the bikes, I have pogies for everyone’s hands, but I also wrap the brake levers in foam packing material which I hold in place with heat shrink tubing. Metal poles (including ski poles) are really good at conducting heat away from hands. Insulation between the hands and the bars helps and of course so do carbon fiber bars.
Hot liquids can help greatly in warming up a child who is getting uncomfortably cold. By the same token, drinking icy cold drinks can really cool a body, and especially a small child’s body, quickly. Too many hot liquids can of course be a problem since a trip out of the tent in -40 is a good way to lose the heat that was gained by drinking a hot tea.
There is a lot of talk about how much heat is lost through the head, and in fact wearing an insulated hat is an important part of outdoor activity. Unfortunately, not enough attention is paid to the biggest source of heat loss, the lungs. The human lung has a moist surface area of at least 50 square meters which is 25 times the skin surface area of a large person. Imagine getting out of the shower and then blowing on yourself outdoors. The easiest solution to this is to wear a scarf in front of the face, which is great until it becomes a mask of ice and wet fabric. Most Northern peoples have developed some type of hooded clothing that places a pocket of still air in front of the face where it can be warmed by outgoing breath and facial warmth. This is great, though it allows no peripheral vision, it does keep the face warm. My preferred solution is a heat exchanger mask or balaclava. There are a number of them on the market, with the https://rcm-na.amazon-adsystem.com/e/cm?t=coldbikecom-20&o=15&p=8&l=as1&asins=B0091CC38A&ref=qf_sp_asin_til&fc1=000000&IS2=1<1=_blank&m=amazon&lc1=0000FF&bc1=000000&bg1=FFFFFF&f=ifr“>Ergodyne (amazon.ca affiliate link) and the Airtrim being my favourites. I generally feel that a good heat exchanger mask will add 10ºC to whatever you are wearing.
Hot foods are warming as well, not just from the heat of the food, but from the heat released when the body uses the energy in food. There are many ideas about eating foods like cayenne pepper to warm the body, but I find that just eating a hot meal will work well enough.
When camping in the winter, there is often no heated building to take shelter in if things go poorly. It is imperative to be prepared. If things get out of hand, it may be necessary to simply get into the tent and snuggle the young ones to warm them up. Hanging out the door of the tent while making a hot drink may not be the preferred cooking method, but it allows a parent to get hot liquids into a child while helping to warm them. Hot water in a steel water bottle can be used as a warming pack inside a sleeping bag to help warm a mildly hypothermic person of any age. For that matter, rocks can be heated to use for warming purposes assuming care is taken not to melt any tents/clothing/sleeping bags or burn anyone.
One of the key elements for us being out in the cold is to have fun. If we are having fun, we can more easily deal with the troubles that come from cold. We also aim to be flexible and we are willing to shorten or cancel an activity because we feel it will stop being fun.
Away from the lights and noise of the city, I always sleep better in a tent. I do awaken frequently to check on the kids though – especially when Fiona talks in her sleep. Many of the cases of frostbite in winter camping happen from sleeping through the onset of frozen feet. There are also many cases of hypothermia that happen at night, so it pays to be extra careful. When the kids were young, we would put them to bed in a snowsuit, a large snowsuit (that either covered hands and feet, or with booties) and then pack the whole kid-snowsuit assembly into a sleeping bag. While this was heavy, it was warm and comfortable. These days, we have moved toward simplifying the system with Tadhg sleeping in a down/synthetic sleeping bag, adding a down jacket if it is colder, and with a down jacket of mine if it becomes absolutely necessary. Fiona is now using a down sleeping bag with a home made synthetic overquilt. Either the quilt or the bag is good to about -10ºC, but the combination should be comfortable down to about -40.
There is a persistent myth that people need to be naked inside their sleeping bags. The fact is, insulation inside the sleeping bag works (until it gets compressed) just as well as the sleeping bag itself. The only caveat is that wet insulation of any type works poorly.
In the same way that layers of clothing can help to keep people comfortable in a range of temperatures and activities, so too can sleeping bags be layered. Of course no one wants to carry three sleeping bags per person, but it is not too onerous to carry a sleeping bag/overbag combination in most cases. In our case, our overbags weigh only 800g, so the total weight is actually less than what a single -40º rated bag would be.
Sleeping bags only insulate the top half of a sleeper since the bottom of the insulation is compressed beneath them. A warm sleeping pad is essential, more so the colder it gets. I really like the Therm-a-Rest NeoAir Xtherm mattresses, but after having one spring approximately 500 leaks on me this summer, I will not trust them as my sole sleeping pad. In the past, I have used closed cell foam pads either alone or for extra insulation with an air-filled pad, and I have now re-instituted their use in winter. (note that my leaky pad was replaced, and Therm-a-Rest recommend a foam pad as backup)
Some kids roam in their sleep and this makes keeping them on the pad an extra challenge over simply putting them on a quality sleeping pad and letting them sleep until morning. I generally pile all of Fiona’s and my own packs next to her so that she would have to work to wander over them. Her new sleeping quilt attaches to her sleeping pad and helps somewhat to keep her in place on the pad.
People some times question the safety of taking your kids camping in the cold, but I have to defer to the the entire North of Europe, Asia and North America. Many of the First Nations from around here referred to winter camping as “life” and though they had occasional issues with extreme weather, they thrived in our climate even though they slept out in tents every night. While their teepees were much larger and heated by a fire, it remains that they did not live in thermostat-controlled heated houses. I feel that on our most daring adventures, we have always left a large margin of safety, so while we have occasionally been uncomfortable, we have never been at the threshold of physical danger.
For more practical information, check out this Play Outside Guide to Keeping Kids Warm in Winter.
[click pictures to enlarge]
There are 3 nights of the year that connoisseurs refer to as “amateur night” at the bar, Saint Patrick’s day, Halloween, and New Year’s Eve.
Even though we don’t go to the bar very often, we avoid those nights at all costs. This year I talked Tania into joining me and the kids for a fatbikepacking camp from the 30th of December to January 1st, thus putting us into our favourite place, the wilderness, instead of well, anywhere else.
Since Tania lacks my passion for bikes on snow, we decided on spot with a short ride in, the Spray River in Banff National park has just 6 km of trail before the campground. To make things even better, the trail is now signed and groomed for shared-use between fatbikes, walkers and skiers.
I foolishly decided to shoehorn our 4 fatbikes into our 3 fatbike minivan and so I had more work than I should have to assemble the bikes at the trailhead. I had all but two wheels removed from the bikes, and all the bags and pogies had to be installed as well as strapping on extra gear to my bike since this was our first winter bike adventure with the whole family and I was carrying more than usual. I ended up with a 25 pound backpack in addition to an 85 pound bike. While this could limit me if trail conditions were marginal, I was anticipating reasonable conditions and wasn’t worried.
Tadhg had his usual complement of gear, mostly mittens for his chronically cold hands, and of course his sleeping kit and the pole for the tent. I also snuck a toque of Fiona’s in there as well.
Fiona brought her backpack with chips for the family for the weekend, as well as a flashlight. I was impressed with her wise choices. Her bike frame bag contained her booties as well as one of her sleeping mats being strapped to the handlebars.
Other than the trail having been trodden by many people in (apparently high-heeled) shoes and more than a little bumpy, conditions were excellent. A fatbike was almost certainly necessary, but no heroic measures were required to be able to ride. As keen skiers, we were disappointed that at least one group had used the ski track preferentially as a walking track – the track was not usable for skiing.
We achieved our goal of getting to the campground in time to set up before the sun went down (at this time of the year, about 5:30pm). Fiona decided that we were sleeping in the tent with the rest of the family so I only had one structure to set up, but had carried an extra two pounds of tarp and groundsheet. After setting up, we went back to the campground eating area (about 200m up the trail) and set to building a fire and making dinner. As usual, we had fire-roasted burritos with home-made re-fried beans.
Sitting around the campfire is a sure way to slow down the blood circulation and get chilled before bed, so Tania had the great idea to go for a post-dinner walk. Not only did it get our blood pumping, but it padded out the time between our supper and a reasonable bedtime. We all got into the tent around 9 and after some reading, went off to sleep.
I’ve grown accustomed to sleeping under the tarp, so the warmth of the four of us in the tent was an interesting change. It was certainly warm, and I found myself removing clothes and pulling off a quilt to cool down. The morning temperature outside was -18°C so it wasn’t just the mild weather that had our tent so warm. There was no shortage of frost inside the tent though, so any jostling resulted in an indoor snowstorm.
For our second day excursion, we split up with me and Fiona bringing our bikes while Tadhg and Tania walked up the Goat Creek trail. Since Fiona is nine, and Tania can walk pretty quickly, a head start for the walkers left us pretty well matched for the uphill portion of the trail, and we met up for snacks so we could hang out together.
We saw very few people, and fewer still were on bikes. The snow cover was a little thin for skiing, but great for hiking and biking. We did see some tracks from someone with either over-inflated fatbike tires or 3″ plus tires that were clearly floundering on the trail and were sinking deeply, so the fatbikes were serving their purpose.
We also ran into Evil Moose Megan on the trail on her way to and from Banff while racking up over a hundred km for the day to exceed a 500km holiday challenge.
Our ride back to camp was mostly downhill, so even with several stops for putting clothing on or off, eating snacks, taking pictures, etc, we were substantially faster than the walkers and so we were well into melting snow and boiling water for dinner when they got back. Melting snow is definitely not the fastest way to get water, but the river access was a little treacherous near the campground so I opted not to get river water for cooking.
Another nice evening walk and an even warmer sleep led to another -18ºC morning. It had snowed overnight, so we had a nice coating of insulation on the tent and a bit of padding for the footprints on the trail.
Coffee is an important part of all our mornings, and I made Tania her usual cappuccinos and my own Aeropress espressos to start our day. I do not scrimp on the camping coffee since it makes for such a luxurious experience.
Our ride out was mostly downhill, though Tania found she was pedaling hard the whole way – mostly because we were moving pretty briskly. Our ride out was well under an hour, even with several stops along the way.