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Mud, Sweat, and Tears: Family Bikepacking in Marginal Conditions

Jeremy loves to take his family on bikepacking weekends. That’s mostly because he loves his family, but also because he loves riding bikes and sleeping outside. He was kind enough to invite me on a weekend ride to celebrate his birthday and to have fun with the kids.

For bikepacking with kids, it is very helpful to have a bunch of trail characteristics. First, things are much easier if there is no motorized traffic on the trails. Second, a place to sleep with only a short distance to ride. Third, a fairly short drive to get to the trailhead. For us, that leaves essentially 4 trails available for weekend riding. Since 2 of them were closed and the third was booked up, our choice was made for us.

Cascade Fire Road is an old fire road, now a trail. Of our options, it is the least technical, and sees the most equestrian use. It has 2 campgrounds that can be reached by bike. We booked our sites, and watched the weather forecast go from cloudy to showers to rain. As the forecast grew worse, the number of people coming with us dwindled. By Friday, it was Fiona, our friend Carla, and me for Friday night, with Jeremy and Cadence joining us for the Saturday night.

The car ride out to Banff park was fairly constant rain, but by the time we pulled into the parking lot, the rain had let up a little, and as we started riding, it stopped raining entirely. About 3 minutes after we had set up our tarp. Conveniently, someone had stacked some firewood at the eating area, and though it was raining fairly steadily, we managed to get a fire going to roast our Burritos (well, alternately roast 1 side while the other got soggy). We didn’t hang out long after dinner, it was late and raining, and we were ready for bed.

Since Carla hadn’t been bikepacking before, I lent her some stuff, including a hammock, bags for the bike, and a bike. While the hammock wasn’t ideal for her, lending her Tadhg’s fatbike was a great idea since the trail was ridiculously muddy. It didn’t take much pushing downhill for Fiona to wish that she had brought her own fatbike. Carla was also glad that she spent the last few winters riding bikes so she was a bit more familiar than most with slippery surfaces.

Last fall, I started using a new tarp that I sewed up myself. I used a caternary cut to try to have a shape that would hold up better in wind as well as shed rain with less pooling. I used Silpoly instead of Silnylon to avoid having to re-tension the lines in rain. This was its first major rain test, and it rained steadily  and sometimes heavily nearly all night. I am happy to say that we were dry in the morning, though the rain was not as wind-driven as it sometimes is. The second night I pitched the tarp lower to shelter us more from the wind. Although it worked very well at wind blocking, we did get a little more condensation, which is typical in any shelter with minimal airflow.

Fiona had some minor clothing issues, her “magic” raincoat, that we had purchased a couple of years ago for a trip that seemed likely to be ridiculously rainy, had lost its magic, and its waterproof quality so that her down puffy jacket underneath got quite damp. The following day she used her SOL Emergency Poncho as her rain layer. The poncho provided excellent protection, especially since the adult size reached nearly to her ankles. I had my MEC cycling rain cape. The MEC cape was a nearly perfect cycling rain garment and surprisingly affordable, so of course it was discontinued a year after its release – I will miss it terribly when mine finally wears out. As my warm layer, I had my new favourite jacket, the Men’s Essential Jacket from Spirit West. I cannot say enough good things about this jacket, it is warm, still warm in the wet, and is 260g of ridiculously light. I can’t imagine that it will be very abrasion resistant, so I have no plans to wear it when trees are whipping at my arms. Disclaimer: I paid full price, I am not affiliated with them, though I won’t turn down a discount on the rest of the family’s jackets, there are no arrangements or expectations of such, I just love the jacket.

Jeremy did arrive with his daughter Cadence on Saturday afternoon. I had no concern that he would arrive since he is so consistent with his lack of concern about rain. Cadence had been a real trooper and had ridden most of the way in spite of her skinny 20″ tires and the slippery mud. The whole time he was riding in, he was thinking of how glad his wife was that she had stayed home, not because of the rain, but because of the deep mud that would probably have prevented her from getting her cargo bike and 2-year-old in to the campsite.

The rain had mostly cleared by the time Jeremy arrived, but made further appearances during the evening to prevent our drying of clothes. It wasn’t a big problem, it simply forced us to put our rain gear on. As we sat around for the evening and Fiona and Cadence played, several Elk walked by just the other side of the river and then forded the river just upstream from us.

Morning dawned sunny. Though I woke up early, I managed to get myself back to sleep to let the grass and shrubs dry out a bit before getting up. By the time Fiona and I got up, Jeremy had eaten breakfast already. Friends don’t let friends drink bad coffee, so I had promised Carla some Aeropress as an alternative to her having to choke down the foul-tasting liquid known as instant coffee. Jeremy takes care of his own coffee needs with a pour-over filter and premium coffee – he is one of the few friends of mine who have more sophisticated home coffee setups than me.

While packing up camp, we were treated to a bear walking by. It was the best kind of bear encounter, with the bear completely unconcerned with us. It’s always encouraging to see wild animals that don’t think people are a source of food. Of course I had my bear spray in hand with the safety off, but my camera was already on my bike. Jeremy was more prepared.

In spite of the dry morning, the trail remained quite muddy. There was a great deal of pushing bikes through mud on our way out, but there was more downhill than up, so progress was made.

The last 4km are an enjoyable smooth downhill. We had to encourage the kids to keep in control, especially Cadence with her small wheels that are much easier to knock off track than the adults’ big wheels. In spite of Jeremy’s encouragement to use lots of brakes, Cadence did catch the edge of a rut and went down hard. She didn’t cry for long, and she got herself back up, so I thought she was just bruised. Jeremy carried her and her bike in his cargo bike the remaining 100m of trail and bit of road. She did complain about her arm being very sore, and Jeremy was thinking there could be a fracture. In fact, when they got home, they made a trip to the hospital and she had in fact fractured both bones and is now wearing a cast. She is definitely a tough girl!

 

 

 

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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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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.

[click photos for larger version]

 

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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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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Winter Elbow Loop Successful Attempt.

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.

2017-01-28 14-21-34 1031.jpgAs 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.

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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.

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This is not the new bridge we were told about.

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.

 

 

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New Years 2017 fatbikepacking campout

[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.

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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.

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Family bikepacking at Lake Minnewanka

[Click images to enlarge them]

Lake Minnewanka in Banff National Park is one of the few trails close to us that allows bikes and is long enough for a reasonable bikepacking weekend. As such, we tend to go there a lot. Sometimes I get the feeling that it is a compromise to go there since it is so familiar. This weekend, we met a few people who adjusted my perspective and rejuvenated my attitude toward this ride.

For all the times I have taken the kids to Lake Minnewanka, Tania had never come with us. When the weather forecast looked good, I booked us in at the LM11 campground since it is our favourite.

By mountain standards, the day was ridiculously hot, 25ºC and hardly a cloud in the sky. Our car ride out suffered from the greenhouse effect – that is, our car is a greenhouse. Fiona was on the sunny side of the car, and we heard a lot about how put out she was to be in such oppressive heat.

I hurried my way through the assembly of bikes at the trailhead so that we could get on the trail. Since our ’93 Previa only holds 3 bikes and their wheels need to be removed and I remove the bags of the bike on the roof, it isn’t trivial to get ready for the trail. Tadhg is starting to be a bigger help, and he can get some of the bags installed on bikes.

 

The crankiness started soon after the trailhead, with someone complaining about how it was too hot, and she was too tired after the hot car ride to ride a bike. Tania and Tadhg cleverly rode ahead to get out of earshot of any further whining. After an hour or so of deliberately slow pushing and complaining about the heat, Fiona decided I had been punished enough and got herself in the mood to ride

We made reasonable time with Fiona riding, and we were only 50 minutes behind Tania and Tadhg when we got to the campground. This included fixing a flat on Fiona’s bike.

Since the sun is up late this time of year, we took advantage of it and had dinner before setting up the tent. The campground was nearly full, which is apparently a trend as more people discover how great backcountry camping is. This year, we have had some struggles as backcountry campgrounds that were previously available a single day in advance are now booked months in advance.

The wonderful thing about the backcountry campgrounds is that they usually attract a clientele of diverse nature lovers. This one was no exception, and we were happy to meet Jesse, who was there for a weekend on his own in the woods. Erin was a dedicated cyclist (though she was hiking this trip)  from Wisconsin who was visiting Banff for the first time who Fiona took to right away. It was their perspective on the lake that reminded me of how special a place it really is.

After dinner (burritos grilled over the campfire, yum!) Tadhg and I set up the tent while Fiona used the free art supplies on the beach to build things with.

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We all got a great sleep, and we didn’t stir until 9:00, and after a leisurely breakfast, Tania and Fiona were wanting to lay low to avoid overheating in the 27ºC heat. They stayed back and had a beach day of playing in the water and building rock structures.

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My restless nature needed some expenditure of energy, so I drafted Tadhg into coming on a bike ride with me. We had a great time in spite of the heat, and we rode down to the campground at LM20 and back. We were both feeling great and would have gone further except we had told Tania we would be back and I didn’t want to extend our fun at the expense of her worrying.

Tadhg was thrilled with the way his new bike handled, and had no trouble keeping a fast pace for our entire ride. At the ranger cabin at km 15, we saw some deer browsing on the rich grass that grows around the cabin.

After dinner, Tania took the kids for a walk with Erin, and Tadhg actually got in the water for an in-and-out swim. For Tadhg to get more than toe deep in glacial water it needs to be a very hot day.

Sunday was our day to leave, and so after breakfast, we packed our bikes and hit the trail. This time, Fiona’s mood was good, and her riding reflected it. We put her in front to set our pace and were making great time.

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As I was enjoying the rhythm of rolling along, I had to make a sudden stop as I was powering up a steep bit and my chain snapped. I opted to try to take out a link since I didn’t have another single speed quicklink with me. It was tight and involved pressing the wheel all the way forward in the dropouts and removing my wheel tensioners, but it just barely made it with only a tiny bit of bearing notchiness.  Back on the trail, Tadhg and I quickly caught up to Tania and Fiona.

It turned out that Fiona had had her own mechanical issue when she was alone with Tania. She had crashed and knocked her chain off. She then told Tania, “I can just fix it!” and did so in seconds.

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Me and my Krampus

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“I can fix it!”

With the family together again, we rode along, and were joined by a woman on her first ride after knee surgery. She was clearly thrilled to be on her bike, but sensible enough to hold back from re-injuring herself. Fiona immediately adopted her as a buddy, as she is prone to doing. When we stopped for a snack at the base of a steep hill, Tania pressed ahead of us pushing. I helped Fiona push the steepest parts and when I returned to get my own bike, Fiona and her buddy were riding off. It is so nice to have people on the trail help my kids and encourage their riding progression. I took advantage of the freedom to ride a little quicker on the fun parts of the trail.

As I hopped a tree root, I heard a crashing sound and suddenly remembered that I hadn’t closed my camera sleeve as my camera cartwheeled down and off the rocky trail. Surprisingly, it was in a mere two pieces and though it no longer has a rear LCD, it still functions. I also had to repair the lens as it had torn from the mounting plate. I do not recommend abuse of camera equipment, but the Fuji XT-1 gets a ringing endorsement from me.

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The butterfly Fiona caught was the reason I had the camera out

While I was dropping my expensive belongings and then finding them in the trail-side bushes, Fiona was busy tearing up the last bits of trail. She loves to impress people, and she takes pride in her abilities and her drive.

Camera notwithstanding, it was a very successful weekend.

 

 

 

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Bikepacking Packing (mostly also applies to backpacking)

Put everything you want to bring in a pile. Then put half of it back. It’s the cliché of bike touring and backpacking alike, but it has an element of truth to it.

I like to start by deciding what the coldest temperature I could possibly encounter and decide what I need for that temperature. For most winter trips, that means 2 layers of wool tops and bottoms (wear one, pack the other), my custom bike tights, a fleece jacket with a windproof front, my Steger mukluks, a pair of mittens, my earflap hat, a buff and my heat exchanger balaclava.  If I have to stop, I add a down sweater over this to keep me from getting hypothermic while eating or fixing bikes. I bring a spare pair of socks.

It’s no secret that the low-hanging-fruit of bikepacking are the main components: sleeping bag, tent and whatever you carry them in.

I have pretty much settled on Porcelain Rocket bags for all my bikes. They are reasonably light, very innovative and uncompromisingly durable. I have frame bags for all my family’s bikepacking bikes as well as seat bags and handlebar bags that I move from bike to bike. Tania has micropanniers since a seat bag does not fit her bike.

I generally carry a backpack, but I keep the weight in it to a minimum when I have the bike to carry the heavier items. Though my backpack looks large, it generally only contains a sleeping bag, a bag of candy and my Delorme InReach.

There is no comparisson between synthetic and down when it comes to weight, down bags are much lighter, even after factoring in a dry bag to keep the down from getting wet. I find I can get away with a somewhat lighter bag than most, partly because I use a heat exchanger balaclava on cold nights (below about -20ºC). With the kids in tow, I don’t even think about scrimping on their bags.

My tent is a Hyperlite Mountain Gear Ultamid4 which holds our family of four and is lighter than most 2 man tents. For winter I will sometimes skip the net insert if it is just me and the kids, but I bring it if Tania is coming for the extra comfort of a floor. If I bring a pole and the net insert it comes in just under 3 pounds. The minimum, without the pole or insert is about 1.4 pounds.

I did a bunch of weighing of stoves and fuel last summer and now have different systems for different trips.

For trips in winter, white gas is by far the easiest to work with as well as being faster by a substantial margin than alcohol. Inverted canister stoves work down to -20ºC (some even colder), but standard canister stoves are not useful below freezing. So for winter trips I use my MSR Whisperlite with white gas.

In the summer, for trips less than 28 person-meals (about 3 days for the 4 of us) our beer can alcohol stove is the lightest option. For longer trips, the white-gas has a higher density and has a much lower starting weight. The average weight of the stove + fuel package is lower for trips of 5 days or so, but the initial weight matters to me a lot since as we eat food, my total weight goes down anyway. Canister stoves are a little lighter for long trips since their fuel is higher density still than white gas.

Though bears are few in the winter months, I am aware of several other creatures that will steal or spoil your food and so I tend to keep my food in an Ursack bear-proof bag even in the winter. So far it has resisted the rodents and weasels that have managed to make past trips less enjoyable.

On the topic of bears, carrying bear spray in a holster outside in winter means that the bear spray will get cold enough to spray almost no distance. When I carry bear spray in anything below 5ºC, I carry it inside my jacket.

For my last winter bike trip with Tadhg, my total bike and gear weight was 66 pounds to start including food and a book. For solo trips, I can easily take 10 pounds off that. Every time I think my kit is approaching light enough, I encounter someone who is running lighter still.

One day I hope to reach the point where I can keep a week’s worth of food and equipment in my pockets. I will be able to go further and faster than ever before. You will not want to stand downwind of me after a week-long trip though.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Minnewanka Winter Bikepacking 2016

“Hey dad, you know how I sometimes complain that it’s freezing when the kitchen is 18ºC at home?” Tadhg and I were just finishing up our day’s ride on Lake Minnewanka from the LM 11 campground to just past the end of the lake at the first of the Ghost lakes. It was -15ºC, not that cold, but significantly colder than our home.

We started out on Friday afternoon after finalizing our planned destination on Friday morning. Our original destination was going to be the site of a snowmobile rally, and though I never mind having snowmobilers on the trail with me and offering me beer, I thought hundreds might intrude on the tranquility I was seeking.

The trail was in great condition, but we decided we would make better time and see more of the mountains by riding on the lake. I could see skate ski tracks on the lake and if snowpack is hard enough to skate ski, it is hard enough to fatbike.  We indeed moved quickly along the ice, and a scant 3 hours after leaving the parking lot, we found ourselves at the LM11 campground where we had booked both nights. LM11 in this case is a bit of a misnomer in that we only rode about 8km to get to it – I don’t call it cheating since if we took a canoe or kayak in the summer, we would travel a similar distance.

It is really hard to run back and start riding within 10 seconds of timer

With sunset at around 5pm, we had an hour or so to ride in the dark, or at least twilight and the sunset over the mountains reminded me of how much I like this place.  We had camp set up in a very short time. Having cleaned my stove on Thursday meant that I had boiling water from snow in very short order. Our dehydrated meal was home made refried beans and cheddar which is always popular with Tadhg and I have to admit is quite delicious.

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We spent some time off and on during the evening walking out on to the lake to look at the stars and watch for aurora. Though the aurora did not appear for us, the sky was clear and we were treated to an impressive array of stars. Tadhg spent some time speculating on their trajectories – different than his sister who invents and names constellations.

In spite of the fact that we were sleeping by 10pm, Tadhg and I managed to sleep in till 10 in the morning. It was nearly noon by the time we loaded up the bikes for a ride down the lake.  Though we were planning to return that night, I made sure to bring enough to spend the night in case something went wrong. The temperature was -18ºC when we left the campground – not very cold, but well within the realm of dangerous to the unprepared.

We made it to the end of Lake Minnewanka where it drains to a river and then a series of Ghost lakes. We rode on the river bank as far as the first Ghost Lake and decided that was a good point to turn back. In hindsight, we both probably had plenty of reserve energy, but when you are that far away from rescue, taking chances is probably not the wisest choice.

At the LM20 campground, we saw some fresh cougar tracks. We didn’t see the cougar, so it was either gone or hunting us.

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%$&*! fresh cougar tracks

The east end of Lake Minnewanka is in my opinion the more impressive end of the lake. I highly recommend it as a fun destination.

We were back at camp and done eating by 5:30 on saturday, so with heavy clouds in the sky, our entertainment recourse was to lie in the tent reading. Fortunately, I had brought the book I am currently reading to Tadhg and more fortunately, we were not that far along in it because after 3 hours of straight reading, we made substantial progress.

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Our Sunday morning started early for Tadhg with us getting vertical at 8:30. The sky had cleared and the temperature was moving upward with it being above -10 when we got up and warming as the morning progressed. By the time we hit the trail at 10:45, it was only single digits below freezing.

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Riding the trail packed by my bike

We took to the lake at the washout next to LM9, and rode the lake for the km or so to LM 8 where we returned to the trail. From there, the trail was fast and comfortable for great riding all the way to the parking lot.

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Wet, Cold Bikepacking Weekend.

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A very sodden bikepacker.

It isn’t every day that you line up three consecutive days for bikepacking with your son, so when it happens – you take it, even if the weather calls for a very wet and cold start to the trip.

We have done the Elbow loop as a day trip, hiking trip and bikepacking trip a number of times now.  It was time to move on to something a little more challenging.  I cobbled together a potential route that had a large number of alternates in case of troubles.  I thought it was going to be a stretch, but might be possible.

Thursday evening we set out from the parking lot in moderate rain.  Tadhg wasn’t feeling his best and felt sluggish on the climbs, but was happy enough.  The rain wasn’t excessive, but there was a consistent drizzle.  We had planned to make Tombstone pass by sundown but ended up only halfway, near where the Romulus campground used to be before the ’13 floods.

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Watching the very camouflaged pheasant round up her chicks

As we set up the tent, the rain got serious.  Then it got worse.

By morning, the rain had tapered down to a steady shower.  Neither of us were in a big hurry to get out into it, so we stretched breakfast and coffee till nearly 11 and hit the trail around 11:30.  The plan was to get 45km further down a couple of trails before settling down for the night.

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Deep in a washout with a wet camera.
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Squishy trail.

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I often say that single digit temperatures and rain are much colder than temperatures below freezing and this was no exception.  We struggled with rain-softened trail and low energy.  Tadhg wasn’t hungry, which is usually a sure sign of trouble.

By 5pm, we had made it less than 20km and had crossed only the smallest passes – hardly worthy of their name.  We came to a river crossing and decided to look for a place to camp – conveniently, there was an old horse camp exactly where we were.

The rain let up as we were setting up camp and things started to look up.  I revised our route plan to remove the second half so as to avoid getting too far away from the car to be able to get back on Sunday.  We left the camp better than when we started by burning the garbage that had been left in the fire pit and surrounding area.

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Saturday morning started sunny and warm with about half a dozen river or creek crossings and then a major washout.  I scouted the trail and there was a clear way through, it was just going to take time.  If we had been able to estimate how much time, we would have continued.  I just didn’t think it was prudent to move away from the car down an unknown trail to possibly put us out of reach of our sunday evening deadline.  We thought about it for a while and even though we were both in a better mood and Tadhg had energy, we decided to turn back the way we had come and ride out the remainder of the Elbow loop as a very easy 2 days.

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Sun really improves the mood

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Though we were taking it easy, it was early when we got back to Tombstone campground.  We filtered water and ate a bunch of candy.  Then we met up with a couple of fatbikers out on a day trip.  We set out down the Big Elbow side of the trail knowing that the washouts would slow us down by quite a bit, and thinking we would ride for a couple of hours and then camp for the night.  The washouts weren’t as bad as we expected, and Tadhg was riding really well – easily clearing the many rock gardens and rough trail patches.  We took lots of breaks and stopped frequently to chat with the fatbikers, but we were running out of trail.

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As we started to set up camp, Tadhg pointed out the futility of camping less than an hour from our car and so we re-packed and hit the trail.  We rode full out on the last section, passing some unladen bikers on full suspension rigs (much to their dismay). We were home shortly.

Overall it was a very successful bikepack even though we got less than a third of the planned route completed.  This was the first time I had my Krampus with the suspension fork out for bikepacking and it was close to ideal.  The miserable weather at the beginning let me us have a taste for hardship, and was a great gear test.  By not forcing Tadhg to continue we managed to keep the ride fun and improve the chances of his coming back for another attempt.