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Long Weekend Bikepacking With Tadhg

He started his bikepack negotiation with, “I’m not riding 100km days unless you carry all my stuff. I’ll ride 20km total [5km days] if I have to carry anything.”

Both proud and appalled, I planned out a 90km/day route. Unfortunately, I heard from a friend that the route included a pass with “impassable snow” and there was also the potential for some flooding on some parts of the route.

I also got out of going to BC, so we decided to start closer to home. We never regret a ride along Lake Minnewanka, but I wanted a much longer ride.

I figured I could easily convince Tadhg to ride from the Goat Creek trailhead to the Minnewanka LM11 campsite (~45km), so that’s what I booked.

Tadhg asked why we were parking at Goat Creek, but seemed unconcerned, I took this as a good sign. The disadvantage to this route is that it starts with a downhill (therefore ends with uphill). It was only a short while later that we were in the town of Banff. I took the opportunity to revise our itinerary in person since the online booking system couldn’t believe that we could get from Goat Creek to Minnewanka in daylight hours. (I could, even on foot, and I amn’t the world’s fastest man) I also got us some Falafels, which were excellent, but meant that I was now carrying an extra dinner.

We had the pleasure of seeing a bear on the trail right near LM11 campground (where we were staying). I say pleasure, because the bear was not habituated to people, and ran away from us once it heard us. It took a left turn up the creek that runs adjacent to the campground and once it had some distance from us, it resumed foraging.

Tadhg was very thrilled when I told him he could sleep in as late as he wanted. Our second day was a mere 11km of mostly nice singletrack.

The LM22 campground sees few visitors and so it is a bit more overgrown than the LM11 campground. That coupled with a large number of ungulates in the area mean that it’s a haven for ticks. The other folks in the campground were finding many of them. Even with permethrin treated clothing, I found a few on me. Tadhg somehow escaped the tick menace.

Day 3 was another sleep-in day for Tadhg. Though we needed to cover 38km, it was on our way back over ground we had already covered. Though my lack of rear brake had me keeping my downhill speed a little lower than I might have liked, we made great time.

I love meeting other families on the trail, so I was very stoked to meet a couple from Canmore and their 6-year-old heading out for an overnight. They were doing things right with a very happy girl. Some of that happiness rubbed off on me.

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Late Winter Bikepack

Mid March, my friend Katrina organized a very fun overnight bikepack to Lake Minnewanka. The original plan was to get up early on Saturday, bike from Goat Creek trailhead through Banff (town) and then ride up to the Lake Minnewanka trailhead and proceed to the LM8 campground.

The year previous, this is exactly what an intrepid group had done. Of course winter fatbikepacking is a task requiring either time, flexibility or both, it pays to be adaptable. In this case, we were out for Saturday overnight, some of us hadn’t had the experience of pushing a bike for a full day, and the group consensus was that it might not be the most fun to have on a weekend.

Katrina and Mike were celebrating a 21-year anniversary, Tadhg and I would probably have gone bikepacking anyway, I asked Jeremy to come along (because he is fun), and Guy was there for fun and to test out some new equipment. Ultimately, it was all spurred on by Ryan Correy who started the Bikepack Canada organization. Though Ryan is battling cancer, he continues to passionately promote bikepacking in Canada.*

Since we started a little later than expected, the trail was softening in the sun as we rode. The benefit of weighing a mere 100 pounds and having lots of fatbike experience showed with Tadhg being able to ride almost everything. I was able to ride about 90% of what I ride in summer thanks to my Bud and Lou tires on 100mm rims, and my willingness to ride with less air than most people think is necessary. I think it’s important to note that there is no substitute for experience, and I’ve been bikepacking on snow since the 1990’s and I’ve owned a real fatbike to do it since 2004.

The others did more pushing, but there was still a reasonable amount of riding, I’ve certainly done trips where the bike was just an awkward cart for my stuff, or worse, a hard-to carry piece of luggage in snow above the wheels.

At the campsite, we all set up our tents and such, Tadhg had relented to the use of the tarp when I explained that he would be carrying any tents that we were going to use. My tarp is 430g with pegs, so it really does offer a significant weight advantage, even if it isn’t as luxurious nor as wind-protected as our HMG Ultamid.

I’m fascinated by other people’s techniques for winter camping. Guy had a vapour barrier liner that he was experimenting with. In the morning, he deemed it a success. I’ve had good experience with vapour barrier liners in terms of them keeping me warmer, and keeping my sleeping bag insulation very dry. The dry insulation is a significant benefit on trips over 3 days since sleeping bags and quilts lose insulating value as they accumulate moisture over consecutive nights. The vapour barriers do have the disadvantage that they can get moist and clammy on the inside. In my experience, my body tends to sweat less if I use the vapour barrier, but the inside still feels more damp than the sleeping bag. The vapour barrier is definitely something I’ll consider on longer trips and it seems like Guy is planning using it for all trips.

Our ride out was earlier in the day than our ride in, so we had the benefit of a frozen trail. Tadhg rode everything but the hill that he usually walks, I was pretty close to him as far as riding to pushing ratio, and I think all of us were much happier to be mostly riding.

A big thanks to Guy for taking us all out for lunch, it wrapped up our weekend nicely.

*Since I wrote this, Ryan has succumbed to cancer. I’m grateful for his efforts to bring us all together. His Bikepack Canada organization has done a lot to share skills, experience, and advocacy to the community. He will be missed.

 

 

 

 

 

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Why?

I get asked, like most winter cyclists, “why?” The situation varies between riding with my kids a couple of blocks, to riding in extreme cold, to riding and pushing through snow to go sleep outside somewhere. The implication is that it’s too hard to be worth it.

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Some of the questioning comes from a mistaken assumption that it is inherently unpleasant. This is almost invariably from people who haven’t tried it. There is seldom a ride where I feel uncomfortable during the ride. I generally dress reasonably for the temperatures and weather conditions. I often end up shedding a layer while riding, but seldom feel the need to put a layer on. I don’t like being uncomfortable, so I avoid it. I sleep well outside.

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Many people assume from my hobbies and appearance that I’m some sort of hardcore leathery mountain man who pits himself against the odds to see if he can. Again, that is rooted in a lack of knowledge. I love to see the beauty of the mountains. I love the freedom of outdoor life. I love a challenge, but I’m quite cautious by nature. My 10-year-old daughter is way more of a daredevil than I am.

Me (a younger version) on the last day of the 350mile ITI.

I do get a rush from the exertion of pushing myself a little. I sometimes enjoy the thrill that comes from not holding back. Sometimes I like to suffer a bit, to feel my lungs burning, or to fight falling asleep on the bike as I put off stopping for the night.

Mostly though, I like being outside, moving. I was not built to sit idly by as life passes. Past experience tells me that if I get out and move, I feel good. It’s as simple as wanting to feel good. Some might call it an addiction, but if it is, it’s one without consequences and one I feel comfortable sharing with friends and family.

This winter has, for some people, dragged on. For me, It has been fun. I’ve been out camping on skis, my feet, my bike, and most importantly, I’ve done it with my family and friends. I feel good that I haven’t wasted my winter watching TV. I feel great that I’m fit. I mostly feel great because I’ve spent my time outside. Even the most mundane grocery run is more fun when you do it by bike.

Life is short. At the end, I anticipate regrets, but I don’t expect to regret a single minute of riding my bike, in the cold or not.

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Lost Horse Creek Winter Overnight

Fiona and I had enjoyed the previous weekend’s trip to Shadow Lake, that Tania suggested we do a quick overnight to the campground at km 7.2, Lost Horse Creek.

Tadhg and I decided to bike, both of us generally prefer biking when it’s one of the options. Tania left herself the option to ski or walk, and Fiona  was planning to either ski or ski with her other pair of skis. At the trail head, Tania opted to take advantage of the packed trail surface and walk.

With the weather above freezing, the way in had us down to our t-shirts in short order. Tadhg did leave his hat on.

Fiona and I decided to sleep under the stars to save time putting up our tarp and in hopes of seeing some Northern Lights (though chances were slim, the northern sky had mountains obstructing the view). We dug out a nice spot in the snow to put the tent up for Tania and Tadhg.

I was proud of getting up at 7:15 to make coffee (a pride that lasted until I found out it was time change weekend in the car home) Winter has the great advantage of being able to bring real milk for Tania’s cappuccinos, and I always feel better about serving real milk than even the whole milk powder that works reasonably well.

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We gave Fiona and Tania a substantial head start while we packed up, but even with that, the bikes speed advantage over Tania’s walking, and the downhill trail meant that we passed them on our way down. It was a fun finish to a very relaxing weekend.

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Shadow Lake Fatbikepacking with Fiona

Every year I try to make it out on a couple of trips alone with each of our kids. The one-on-one time is great bonding for all of us. I try to choose something that will be at least some challenge so the kids can take some pride in it afterward. I have high hopes that I’m providing some opportunity for my kids to learn the freedom that nature provides.

In spite of our local school board’s efforts to instill fear of any cool temperatures in my kids, Fiona enjoys the challenge of a cold weekend. She was disappointed to hear that the forecast low for the weekend was -16ºC. “But I was hoping for cold!” she told me. Personally, I was thinking of how much easier it would be to not have to deal with the extra work that comes with cold. Putting on boots in the morning is so much nicer at -16ºC than -30ºC.

We’ve been on a few ski camping trips this winter, and I’ve been wanting to do some bike trips while the season is here, so I encouraged Fiona to agree to a bike trip. I had had heard good things about the Redearth Creek ride to Shadow Lake. Only the first 10km are open to bikes in summer, but in winter bikes are allowed as far as the lodge. (Shadow Lake Lodge is a beautiful historic backcountry lodge with individual cabins and a wood-fired sauna.)

We left the house on Friday afternoon, and after driving through a snow storm, (past many crashes, one of which I stopped to offer assistance to the driver) we arrived at the trailhead just after 4:45. We were riding by 5, which was good since at this time of year, the lights need to be turned on at about 6:45.

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The trail was steadily uphill, but not overly steep, so I could ride almost all of it though conditions were a little loose. Fiona needed to push up many of the hills, the laws of physics dictate that 10 year old girls do not have the favourable power to weight ratio I have.

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Just before we turned on our lights.

We weren’t there to race, so our many snack breaks and slow pace weren’t an annoyance, just a part of our ride. It did turn out to be the longest 7.2km in history though. I started investigating side trails for signs of the campground about 2km back from where the actual campground was. We were thrilled when we finally spotted the sign for the campground in our headlamps.

As per usual, few people had used the campground this winter. We placed a high priority on shoveling out the outhouse door to simplify visits later on. I often wish the National Parks outhouses did not have the front step exactly the same height as the door. It would be much easier to open the door if it were an inch higher so that we didn’t have to scrape every molecule of ice from the step. Since it was snowing hard, we set up our tarp, even though we had an ample tree well to shelter in.

 

 

There was a nice creek water source at the campground, and the approach to it looked very reasonable. I was, however, too lazy to shovel a path in the waist-deep snow to get to it, so we melted snow for our coffee, oatmeal and the day’s drinking water.

 

We took our time, and were riding our bikes by 11AM. Again, we weren’t racing, and since we knew that we had time to backtrack if we missed the campground, we didn’t even need to be vigilant, we just needed to enjoy the ride. We weren’t any faster than the guys on snowshoes who kept stopping to take pictures, but Fiona’s riding had benefited from a good night’s sleep and she was riding up some fairly steep sections of trail.

 

Fortune smiled upon us, and we encountered a woman snowshoeing just as we were to pass by the campground. She was surprised that we would even attempt to camp out in winter, but kindly showed us where the site was.

 

Our early arrival at the campsite left us with plenty of time to go for a short hike up to Shadow Lake proper. There wasn’t much to see on account of the heavily falling snow from overcast skies, but it was worth going for a walk and answering an extensive series of science questions from Fiona. Our discussion of the future of humanity did stray a little toward the preamble to the film “Idiocracy” but she was hoping to direct our evolution toward having 6 fingers per hand – because, “I’d love to have more fingers!”

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We got back to camp in time to prepare supper in the light and then, after some reading by headlamp, we were off to sleep.

I don’t know if it’s the mountain air, the physical exertion, or some other factor, but I always sleep well outside. I awoke feeling refreshed and happy. Fiona had also had a great night, and other than some reluctance on her part to put on her cold boots, she was at her best and helped with breakfast and breaking camp.

 

We decided to start our day with a quick jaunt up to take some pictures at the Lodge. Conveniently, a kind stranger offered to take some “kind stranger” pictures of the two of us.

 

 

The trail back was mostly downhill, which we were looking forward to. We were somewhat concerned about the new snow that had fallen all weekend, but the trail was mostly rideable and with the weather cleared, we enjoyed much better views.

 

An interesting thing had occurred as the snow fell and the supply snowmobile from the lodge had passed up and down the trail, what had been a single trackset on the trail had become several. In a couple of places I’m afraid that we ran out of room and used the 6th or 7th ski track for ourselves, I know that I’d have a tough time being angry if I was on skis and was limited to even 1 set of tracks, so I hope everyone else feels the same.

 

The loose conditions allowed Fiona to practice her control skills. Though she acts modest, she has tremendous talent when it comes to keeping a bike going in snow. Of course, any time we get a chance to put in 3 consecutive days of riding, skills are going to improve. While Fiona had a couple of crashes, it was still a lot of fun.

 

I’d like to encourage others to go out and try this sort of trip with their kids, or on their own. Not only is it a learning experience and healthy physical activity, but it is fundamentally fun. With a little luck, one day we will get to a backcountry campground in winter and the outhouse door will already be shoveled.

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Multi-family Kid-friendly Bikepacking

Our friend Lindsay suggested one day that we should do an overnight bikepacking trip with our families to celebrate the start of the new school year. I never pass up an opportunity to sleep outside, so I was definitely in. We each told a few friends about it, and before long what we had thought would be only be us and another couple of people turned into a full campground. I blame Lindsay for being so famous.

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Side note: Lindsay sent many of you here to read my capture of the energy and essence of the trip. I’ll try not to let her down [pulls out “Writing English for Dummies” book].

Our friends were diverse in experience, backgrounds and ages. We were all experienced cyclists, but some of us had not been bike camping before. A few of us had been on Megan Dunn’s bikepack.ca family bikepacking trip during the summer, a few of us were people we knew from social media and hadn’t met in real life.

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Though I myself like some of the more technical trails, I wanted this trip to be accessible for novices. That way they wouldn’t hate me for my trail selection. I also wanted it to be a not-to-distant drive from Calgary, and to provide enough challenge that the kids and parents could feel that they had accomplished something. Lindsay and Des were planning to bring their cargobikes, so I wanted to pick a trail that would be compatible with them as well.

When Tadhg and I had toured the newly-built Romulus campground (it replaced the one that was washed away in the 2013 flood) we thought it was very nicely done, with the hiker section being just as nice as the equestrian side, and the food area being separate from the sleeping area. The trail in met our criteria, and so it was what we recommended.

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The fancy new outhouse at Romulus

We met at the trailhead at 11:00 AM parent time (11:45) and loaded up the bikes. We started riding some time around 12:30. Everyone spent some time getting to know each other as we rolled up the trail.

Bikepacking with kids in tow is best described as slow. Kids like to stop to look at flowers, push bikes up hills, push bikes down hills, have snacks, tell you how tired they are, have more snacks, complain about the lack of snacks, well, you get the idea. Suffice to say that we broke no speed records that day. We did get lots of time for the parents to speak among ourselves (mostly bike talk, this was a pretty bikey crowd).

The stars of the show were the babies. My friends Andy and Ellen had their 8-month-old twin girls along. They towed them in their chariot with their gear distributed between the trailer and their panniers. This was the twins’ first overnight camping trip, so we were pretty excited to have helped indoctrinate encourage them to bring their kids out camping.

The kids all had their usual lines about how tired they were, how far it was, and how steep the hills were, but their energy levels once we got to camp belied the difficulty of the riding. A 10-kid game involving bears, wolves, horses, and a lot of chasing took up most of the camp time, with the exception of all the eating of course. I have been on trips with parents before where there were structured activities for the kids. I am both too lazy to carry items like bored games, and all of the information that I have read shows free play to be valuable for learning and physical development. My kids often play with the toys in the backcountry: rocks and sticks, make crafts with the supplies in the backcountry: rocks and sticks, use the sports equipment in the backcountry: you guessed it, rocks and sticks.

With such a bike crowd, it was no surprise that the kids’ bikes were all good quality light bikes. The parent’s bikes were a quirky assortment. Alex and I had our Krampus 29+ bikes, mine a singlespeed, which were overkill for this section of trail, but are versatile enough that both of us use them as our main bikepacking bikes. Ray earned some cred with his dump-salvaged Trek turn-of-the-millennium hardtail which was in excellent condition, especially considering its $0 cost. There was a fleet of long-tail cargo bikes present, mostly Xtracycles, a couple of MTBs, and Tania, Andy and Ellen brought their fatbikes. The three trailers were a fat-tired Burley, the Chariot child-carrier trailer, and Ray had a salvaged trailer that had seen better days but worked fine to carry their stuff. Arguably, the most suitable bike for this trip was Jeremy’s Surly Big Fat Dummy, a longtail fatbike destined to carry his children and gear across many sandy, snowy, or really any kind of adventure they choose.

This summer has been extremely dry, and so the trail in was quite dusty. Much as we were enjoying hanging out together, we were all glad to have the rain start in earnest around 8:30 PM. Not only would the moisture consolidate the trail for the ride out, but it was a great way to encourage all the kids to bed. The rain on our tarp is a familiar sound to me and so I was quickly lulled to sleep.

There is always a risk of a kid not sleeping on any trip, usually on the first night as they adjust to an unfamiliar setting. This was no exception and one of the twins (we won’t mention which) was reluctant to do any sleeping. The parents were heroically tolerant of this, I suspect they might even take her on another trip.

The ride out is predominantly downhill. Thanks to the rain, the dusty trail had consolidated and was much easier to ride on going out than coming in. Even the least experienced riders had gained some extra confidence, though some of them were more tired than they had been on the trip in.

I am very happy at how well this ride turned out. From meeting new people, to seeing different gear and styles, to enjoying the creativity and open minds of the children, it was a great success. We were talking of more trips even as this one was unfolding. There have been requests to join next year’s ride should we make it an annual event. I am overwhelmed by the positive response this has received. I am flattered that others think that the things I like to do are fun.

Though this was not a major adventure, nor a life-changing experience, it was something that I hope the kids will remember. I feel it has strengthened bonds between the families and given us all new ideas. Thanks to all of you for joining us.

 

 

 

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Piecemeal Bikepacking with Tadhg

We were dropping Tania and Fiona off for a 4-day weekend in Radium and so the logical idea was to challenge ourselves with the Kootenay Gravel Grinder route. We were a week late for the race, and we’d be days off the pace, but it was in the right place, and from what I hear, a nice route.

The forecast 35ºC heat sounded a little discouraging.

Fortunately, the very rad Megan “Evil Moose” Dunn was putting on an overnight family bikepacking trip on behalf of bikepack.ca on our “home trail” the Elbow Loop. Though Tadhg was going to be the only teen on board, I didn’t want to miss a chance to meet other bikepacking families. I figured Tadhg’s babysitting experience would serve him well.

We decided to take the easy way in so that we could leave the car in a good position to follow Megan’s overnighter with another, longer ride.

We always think of the hike up to Elbow Lake as a bit of a slog, but as Tadhg grows, more of it becomes rideable for him. Our 7km ride in to Tombstone campground was done in just under half an hour, I felt like going for an out-and-back ride somewhere just to have been riding my bike for a bit of time.

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We set up our tent, and were just discussing moving it to a more open area to get out of the stench of horse droppings (the campground is used by equestrians, who apparently have no rules or desire to do any cleanup after their horses) when Megan and her gang arrived.

They had made it up the Little Elbow side of the trail in about 5 hours, which sounds slowish but is actually pretty good time for a family. When there are a 4 and 6 year old riding a tandem attachment and their own bike, the speeds drop pretty quickly.

Later in the afternoon another family arrived on foot with their 1-year-old baby in a backpack. This was definitely a hardcore group.

Once the tents were set up in a more open area of the campground, thoughts turned to food (and the kids started playing tag with each other). I had my new “recipe” rice:

  • 2 cups instant rice (with salt from rice instructions)
  • 1/2 cup roasted cashews
  • oil from rice instructions in separate container
  • 1/2 cup coconut milk powder
  • 1 tbs curry powder
  • Add water according to rice instructions and let sit for 5 minutes (10 minutes if above 1500m)

The coconut milk powder really boosts the calorie count and the cashews add some valuable protein to this tasty dish. I plan on adding dehydrated vegetables to future versions.

As we finished dinner, Jeremy and Chris arrived, Chris’s 8-year-old was under her own power on a 24″ wheel fatbike while Jeremy had his Surly Big Fat Dummy with his daughter as cargo (and pusher on steep hills). They had experienced some traffic and other delays, and had come up the much harder Big Elbow side. Their 5 hour time was a substantial accomplishment.

I struggle to find adequate words to describe how much I liked this group. I knew Megan was the real thing in a world of phonies. It turned out that her buddy Katrina is pretty much a force of nature. She and Mike’s son is the kind of kid I like to be around, energetic, patient, intelligent and fun-loving. Jeremy and Chris were justifiably proud of their daughters. It took a lot of effort for them to ride/push in the harder way. It really is easy for me to like bikepacking parents, I hope to do something with them again soon.

For our second day, Tadhg suggested that we do the 40km loop, and since he had bonded with the younger boys, we opted to escort them out and then giv’er back to the campsite for our second night.

 

From experience, I can say that the 5 hours it took us to get out to the trailhead was a very decent speed for a group that included a pregnant woman, a dad with trailer and panniers, a 4-year-old on tandem attachment and a 7-year-old. The level of whine was impressively low as well.

Our trip back up the other side with just the two of us (mostly unladen) was just under the 2.5 hour mark, including a stop for second lunch and investigation of the newly refurbished Romulus campground. This was always our favourite of the loop campgrounds, but the new version has a much improved hiker section, so that the equestrian and hiker sides aren’t the posh equestrian and the rustic hiker sections. I can’t wait for it to open.

Monday’s ride back to the car was uphill, so it was slower than the way in, the plan was to move the car to Sawmill, and then ride the High Rockies Trail to Goat Creek trail and then down to the backcountry campground near Banff town.

I had heard on Friday an interview with the designer of the High Rockies trail in which they discussed how beginner-friendly it was. There was also discussion of how much flow it had. There was even mention of bikepacking, though I was dubious. Previous sections I had ridden were fairly smooth, so I was a little surprised when it became clear how much climbing we were doing.

The reality is that the trail is designed to follow contours and drain well, so it isn’t quite as beginner as I was expecting. Tadhg has no pump track experience, so the constant dips sucked his speed away rather than giving him a chance to pump. The trail flow is also at faster speeds than he could manage with a loaded bike.

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Since we had the car option, I decided that we needn’t suffer quite so much and so we turned around after 45 minutes or so to return to the Sawmill Parking lot. Conveniently, we may have missed a bear closure on the trail just ahead of where we were. The more downhill ride back to the car was much easier than the ride out.

A look at the map and a car ride took us a bit further up the trail. Buller mountain seemed a reasonable place to start and be able to get into the campground by nightfall. The trail was still difficult, but Tadhg was getting the hang of the wavy trail and keeping some of his momentum. After nearly 18km, we came out to a spot near the road and had a good look up the valley. We saw virtually nothing. The smoke was getting quite thick and was obscuring our views of the mountains. We then made the decision to pull the plug on the adventure. Neither of us were in the mood to ride through a smoky mess with the accompanying dry throat and stinging eyes.

On the way back, we did shortcut a section of the trail by taking the road, but the dusty gravel held little appeal, and we were soon back on the trail. All total, we rode roughly 60km for the day which isn’t a bad number for the types of trails.

I do not want to seem like I’m disparaging the High Rockies Trail, it is extremely well-designed, especially given the difficult area it travels through. My main issue with the High Rockies Trail is its lack of campgrounds. There are essentially no campgrounds (a couple of car campgrounds at the south end) for the entire 80km of trail. Since few people (and no beginners) have it in them to ride 160km of the trail as an out-and-back trail in a single day, the lack of campgrounds is a significant oversight. If there were campgrounds at the North end and two other places along the trail, they would go a long way to making the trail bikepacking friendly. I’ve heard that I wouldn’t have this issue if I didn’t have my family to slow me down, but realistically my family don’t move much slower than the average adult, and approximately no hikers will go 80km between campsites.

As it sits, the High Rockies Trail is a great collection of day rides. I might one day ride it as a very long day, but as a hiking or bikepacking trail, it fails miserably until some campgrounds are built along its length. Perhaps making the Mt Rummel campground year-round would be a good start.

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Fatbikepacking Guiding by a 9-Year-Old

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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[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.

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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.

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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.

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Ititarod Trail Invitational 350, 2002

[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:

Training

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.

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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.

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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.

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That night, I loaded my bike into the van that was to take it to the race start.

Race Day:
Day 1
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.
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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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]

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.