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Not This Time

I have been lamenting the lack of a winter ultra race in the Calgary area for many years. We have a great location for it, all we lack are enough connected winter trails that together could make an exceedingly difficult race. One where if things weren’t ideal, walkers and skiiers would keep up to or pass the folks on bikes. One where some years no one would finish. I also wanted something scenic that most people would not otherwise experience, something that would be a rewarding tour.

Pick a Route, Any Route

I decided to put together a route, any route, where I had ridden most of it in the past. My prime criteria were: it had to pass mostly through areas where random camping is permitted. It had to be difficult to complete in 3 days, and bikes needed to be permitted on the trails.

Once I had something mapped, I thought I’d do a weekend test ride on as much of it as I could possibly do. I was pretty certain adding the Highwood Pass section of closed highway would be too much for me, but I did want it to be difficult.

Conditions Matter

Winter ultra races like the ITI have always discouraged comparisons between years as invalid since conditions have so much effect on a race. Often, a lead racer will be caught by the rest of the racers when a storm holds them up. Sometimes, an hour’s worth of snow accumulation means the lead racer can open an hour’s lead to days. Some years, a route is impossible.

A 3 Day Tour

I left Friday morning, to start a 3 day full-speed tour. I knew conditions were to be cold. That can be a good thing, so I wasn’t worried. I was concerned about the snow, but I had hopes that someone would have snowshoe packed the first bit of trails, and that snowmobiles would have passed on some more of the trails, and that I could push through the rest.

The “Short Loop” of Prairie Creek and Powderface Creek is one that I’ve done dozens of times, it sees consistent snowshoe traffic and so is generally pretty good. Indeed it started reasonably, having been snowshoed by at least a few people. It was mostly rideable, if a little soft and slow. The trouble started when I turned up the trail to Powderface Ridge. It had only one set of touring ski tracks, and they were not hard enough to ride on, nor to walk on. On top of that, some wild horses had used the trail to move between grazing areas leaving some sections of trail pocked with deep footprints. My progress slowed. I was moving at about 1km/2hr, this was the kind of challenge I dreaded and wanted.

With a race roster, the second through last racers get the benefit of trail breaking by the lead racer, in my case, there was only me. I’m pretty fine with pain and suffering though, so I continued on at a ridiculously slow pace. I moved my gear to a sled that I brought to pull the bike in, the depth of the trail meant the bike dragged on the trail sides, so it was just the gear. Still, the lighter bike was easier to manage.

Then Things Got Worse

As the sunset approached, I started feeling a little chilly. First I had to put on a sweater. At this level of output, it is rare indeed to need much in the way of torso clothing. I checked my thermometer and saw that it was indeed below -30ºC. I was well prepared though, so I didn’t really worry.

The trail didn’t get any better, but there were some more substantial uphill bits, which slowed my progress even further.

As the temperature dropped further, I decided to sleep before I was out of the trees on the exposed side of the trail. My estimating from the bottom of the thermometer scale to the line on the thermometer put the temperature somewhere near -38ºC. That’s into the realm of cold, even for me. Frostbite from touching metal is within seconds, so everything has to be done with mittens on. Even lighting my stove was a challenge, as the white gas fuel needs a flame to it for a couple seconds before igniting.

A Good Night’s Sleep Always Helps

I wasn’t racing, but I was tired from the effort. I slept soundly from about 10:30 until 7AM. When I woke up, it was near enough -40º. Making coffee was tricky, everything wanted to freeze, I don’t think the makers of Aeropress intended it to be used at -40º. I had to use my hot water to thaw it to open it, then I used more hot water to warm it, then I had to quickly make the coffee before it froze again, and yet, my coffee was very satisfying.

Now, the logical choice when faced with such an obstacle as this trail, is to turn around and go the way that you know will be easier. For some, this would be the fun way. Instead, I wanted to stay on my intended route. There is a great deal of satisfaction to be gained from doing something hard.

Packing up is never my strong suite, but packing gear in -40º is a real challenge. Taking mittens off for even a few seconds is uncomfortable, not just while they are off, but because when they go back on, they have cooled enough to be painful to touch. Either way, I got myself packed and underway.

And Then Things Went South.

I knew by this point I wasn’t making it the full distance. I was fine with that, because I was in the backcountry, in the cold, and well away from my comfort zone.

The 2.5 hours for the remaining km to the saddle at the top of this section of trail was not that onerous. I was feeling good after a nice night’s sleep, and I was in a good frame of mind (though a horrid song was stuck in my head). I reached the top and decided to send Tania a reassuring message about not worrying that I was so slow, when I discovered my InReach Mini was missing. I ordinarily have it mounted on my bars with a carabiner to secure it to something in case it falls or breaks off the mount. But, the InReach Mini is only rated to -20ºC at which point it starts to turn itself off, so in the cold I had to put it in my pocket. One of the times that I put it in the pocket, I must have failed to zipper it in (it was -35º, I was wearing mittens).

The InReach Mini is an amazing piece of technology. It allows me to reassure my family that I am okay, it lets me call for help in an emergency, in short, it is a great communication device for the backcountry. It is also very small, and pretty much impossible to find when it’s dropped in the snow. I had no choice but to stop my trip, go home where I could retrieve the last position the InReach sent, and to go back to try to find it another day. I was devastated. I had not had a solo winter trip in years, and here it was cut short by my carelessness.

Beardcicle

The Consolation Prize

When I got home, I looked up the track from the InReach and it had sent a final location. Fortunately I had had tracking turned on. After driving back and skiing up to the place where my GPS showed the device should be, I started raking the snow with my ski pole. Less than a minute later, a little orange device popped out from under the snow on the trail. I was thrilled, both at not having to replace it, and that it was so accurate that I could locate it within a ski-pole’s length.

Lessons Learned

  • I was prepared for comfort at -40º
  • Tether the indispensable electronic device (if you have to move it from its correct spot)
  • I don’t mind when things are tough, but I don’t like when I mess things up myself.
  • My previous philosophy of no sled with the bike was mostly correct.
  • Count calories: I know how much food I can eat, and I brought too much of it.
  • In the end, you’ve got no one but yourself to blame.

The Numbers

  • km travelled: 13 of 178
  • Hours moving: 12
  • Hours sleeping: 10
  • Hours searching for device: 3, with a 5 hour trip the following day

The Gear That Worked:

My sleep system as always was a -10ºC down sleeping bag with a home-made -10ºC synthetic quilt over it. My sleep system is a Thermarest Ridge-Rest with a Neo-Air Xtherm over top. I was comfy at -40º, my only complaint was that it was hard to see the stars with my sleeping hood done up. I brought my tarp but did not use it.

My bike is my usual Salsa Mukluk Ti with a Rohloff hub. I was pleasantly surprised that the Rohloff shifted well at -35ºC.

My bike luggage was my usual Porcelain Rocket bags with a custom spacer for the bar bag from Tadhg.

Pogies were my own design, they were warm enough but I really should have insulated my brake levers as I have done on my kids’ bikes.

Postscript

As I read this I realize that I have not put the most positive spin on it. While this was not a successful trip, it was a trip, and I didn’t see anyone else out there, so that’s something. Also, while I did mess up my weekend, I can honestly say that I lived it, rather than wasted it.


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Redemption

Back in June my friends and I went for a bikepacking weekend up the Cascade valley, it was fun, except for the mud, rain, and the broken arm. This weekend, Jeremy and I set out with our daughters for a night at Lake Minnewanka’s LM11 campsite. Our prime goals were “no whining” and “no broken arms”. We amended the latter to “no broken limbs” when the girls pointed out that they were allowed to break legs.

There is no fast in family bikepacking. I’ve grown accustomed to that. Jeremy has the calm dad vibe as well, so we did not suck the fun out of riding by hurrying the girls along. Unfortunately, this meant that our we rode for almost an hour in the dark (we had many lights) and supper was delayed past the point where girls were ready for it. There may have been complaining.

Though we realistically only accomplished the one goal, we did have a successful overnight, and we definitely had fun.

The biggest accomplishment was how much confidence Cadence gained over the course of the ride. As each hour passed, she gained comfort and proficiency on the bike. It was great to see.

Of course you can’t dismiss the value of dads riding with their kids. The healthy lifestyle we are nurturing will hopefully stay with our kids for their entire lives.

 

 

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MYOG part 3: You Can Make Pogies (or Buy Them)

Prologue:

Pogies are giant mittens that go on the handlebars of bikes to allow the user to wear light gloves but still work the controls and not freeze their hands. They are a not necessity for winter cycling but they sure are a great way to keep hands warm. If you know how to sew, you can make pogies and have toasty warm hands on your bike this winter.

For those who don’t ride their bikes in the cold, pogies might not make sense, but they are probably the single most important piece of equipment for making me comfortable on the bike in the winter. It is entirely possible to ride a bike in mittens, but brakes and shifters wear out mittens at a very quick rate. I would not go bikepacking in winter without them.

For anyone who doesn’t care about making their own, or hearing my philosophy on making pogies, go ahead and scroll to the bottom or click this link to just buy some.

 

 

How I started making them.

My second bikepacking specific item I ever made was a pair of pogies. At the time, there were few options in pogies commercially available, and I wanted some specific qualities. First I wanted them warm enough to keep my hands from freezing. Second, I wanted them to be roomy enough the I could fit some snacks thawed in them, third, I wanted them to serve extra duty as emergency booties. What I missed out on was the part where they would be better if they stayed better attached on the bars. Though they worked well enough, the outer edges would rotate outward unless I left the zip ties that I designed to hold the corner tethers in place. Unfortunately, the zip ties would rub on my hands causing serious wounds after a few hours.

The first pogies I ever made, filling with snow.
My ITI bike from 2002 – scanned from disposable camera film.

How do you make them stay on the bars?

There are a bunch of commercial solutions to the problem of securing pogies to the ends of handlebars. A very popular method is a velcro strap and tether. It works, but does not really address the issue that I had of my city-boy hands rubbing on the strap. It also does not do an ideal job of securing the pogies. My favourite way to secure pogies is a bar plug that clamps the pogie to the end of the handlebar. Conveniently, Tadhg took up 3D design and printing just as I was trying to work out how to modify some off-the-shelf bar plugs to work with pogies. He has refined the design enough now that a pair of his clamps comes with all the pogies I sell. One of the big advantages of home-made gear is that you can modify it easily, or at least easilyish, if it doesn’t do what you want.

My pogies have changed over time

I modified that first pair of pogies several times, and I still have them, they now use a plug in the end of the bar to keep the pogies on. The number one issue I have had with them is that they can fill up with snow if I leave them on the bike without rotating them downward. They were, however designed to be used as booties when they are off the bike. I have not made any more pogies that fill with snow.

As time goes by, my preferences change, and many things that I liked about the first set of pogies were not what I ultimately wanted, and so I have tried several other styles over the years.

Upcycled Children’s Jackets as Pogies.

I have made many pairs of pogies from children’s size 12 to 14 jackets where I simply hem the cuffs, turn them inside out, sew each side of the zipper to the back of the jacket, cut them in half, and voila, a pair of pogies. They are warm reasonably light, and aren’t too expensive to make. They are not the most attractive pogies, but they are simple, warm, and are reasonably light. I still have several pairs of these in my collection (how many people have enough winter cyclists and winter bikes in their family for a pogie collection?) and they are great for around town and even for longer trips. Several of my pairs of this style don’t have mounting holes in the sides, so they are quicker to install and remove than the newer style that I make.

They are a great first MYOG project, and I can definitely endorse finding a relatively simple style of kids jacket in roughly a size (US age sizing) 14 and making it into pogies.

Pogies from Scratch

When I first started selling pogies, I made them by upcycling children’s jackets with faulty zippers. These eventually became harder to source in sufficient quantities, and I eventually decided to make my own design of pogies from scratch.

My experience had shown me by then that I wanted several things in pogies. First was simplicity. I have made pogies with complicated vent systems, food thawing pockets (it is exceedingly difficult to eat things that are frozen to -30ºC), storm cuffs, and a number of other “features”, but I gravitate toward simple styles.

 

My preferred style for the last few years has been a simple shape with roomy hand area, longer arms (to keep the blood warm on the way to your hands) and enough stiffness to help me get my hands in but not so much that they face upward and get filled with snow in a storm. They are fleece lined, which is comfortable and reasonably warm, they are large enough to fit a couple of snacks in the bottom for thawed food.

 

I Sell Pogies

I encourage people to make their own pogies, but people have lives. Not everyone wants to make their own, and not everyone likes sewing as much as I do. Some sewing machines won’t punch through the materials well enough to make pogies. For this reason, I sell my own pogies on this blog. Feel free to buy some, also feel free to ask me questions about building your own.

Since I am not only a winter bikepacking nerd, but also a dad, I of course make the pogies in smaller sizes for kids (or anyone with smaller hands).

 

 

 

 

 

 

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MYOG Part 4: Sleep System

[Editor's note, I know this is technically the first published, but I wrote it as the 4th in the series. Read them in any order and  they should still make sense. Also, I get asked a lot of questions about my tarp.]

MYOG Sleep Systems, introduction

Canada can get cold. The Canadian Rockies can get even colder. I like to sleep comfortably and warm, but I’m lazy and I don’t like to carry a lot of weight. My current system of a tarp and quilt is what I consider a great compromise between weight and warmth.
When I started out, I used a commercial down sleeping bag, and a backpacking tent. These can be great, and modern tents have come a long way in the last decade. 10 years ago, 5 pounds was considered light for a 2-person tent. Now, I have a commercial 4-person tent that weighs 3 pounds with a pole and mosquito net insert. Weight is no longer really the savings when making your own gear.

Most of my backcountry trips seem to involve rain or snow (except if I bring my friend Jeremy, who also does not mind adverse weather). A few years back, I did some experimentation to see what would happen to my sleeping bag after a few days of sleeping out. I was surprised to find that my sleeping bag took on several hundred grams of moisture the first night of sleeping in a tent. Even with draping my bag out in the sun to dry, by the third night I was sleeping in a less effective, and heavier system.

But Why a Tarp?

This is part of how I came to be sleeping under a tarp. Sleeping outside greatly reduced the amount of condensation in my sleeping bag, but if it rained, the rain would get in. My bivy sack had the same problem as the tent. The tarp would keep the rain off me, but trapped far less condensation in my bag than the tent. I used a commercial rectangular tarp for a few years, but found it was hard to pitch so that it consistently kept out the rain. In other words, I wanted a custom tarp. The other half of the tarp origin story is that we “allowed” Fiona to sleep out under a tarp with me one night and she awoke in the morning and said, “I only sleep under tarps now, no more tents.”

Tarp Design

There are about 7 million tarp designs available on the internet, and I took ideas from a few of them. I wanted it to shed wind and water better than a rectangular tarp, so I made it with a catenary cut ridge line and front. I also wanted not to adjust in the middle of the night, so I chose silpoly as the material for minimal stretching. I also wanted light weight but enough durability to hold up in a substantial wind.


The holy grail of bikepacking tarps is one where your bike fits inside, or can be used to support the tarp. I also hike and ski, so though I think bike-supported are extremely cool, I opted to use bike supports only for treeless bikepacking situations and use hiking/ski poles as primary supports where trees are not available. The tarp weighs in at 300g, so it ended up being on the lighter end of the shelter scale.

The silpoly does not stretch in the rain and doesn’t need to be re-tensioned when it rains. I do not recommend it as an easy fabric to sew, it is like sewing live squirrels to each other.

Quilt design

Not Exactly a Bed Quilt

Since I’m foolish enough to think that winter is the primary bikepacking season, I wanted to have some versatility to my sleeping bag system. I wanted lighter weight in summer, I wanted synthetic material for the outer since down performs so poorly in wet conditions. I wanted light weight since my daughter would be carrying one.
In the 80s, I used a dual bag system of a sleeping bag with an overbag. I really liked it, but I had also been interested in quilts as an alternative to sleeping bags. I talked up the concept of a down bag with a synthetic quilt over it for cold, with the quilt on its own for more moderate temperatures (well, moderate for the Canadian rockies). Camping quilts are not exactly like a bed quilt, they are usually shaped in some way, and many (like mine) have a footbox like a mummy bag and a drawstring closure at the top.

Testing the new quilt

The home made portion of the combo ended up as the quilt – down sleeping bags are relatively available, and affordable. I used Climashield Apex as my insulation layer and the lightest nylon I could find, Membrane from RSBTR. The sleeping quilts have simple ribbon loops to attach them to a sleeping mat, so they can tuck under the sleeper at the sides, and they work well down to about -10ºC.

The quilts being about 800g each puts them as competitive weight wise with the commercial versions, but they were about half the price to make as the commercial equivalent. In winter, adding a -10ºC sleeping bag yields a combination that is comfortable below -30ºC, theoretically to -40ºC, but we have not been out that cold since I made them.

No Hood, No Problem

A big problem for me with traditional mummy bags has been that the hood can end up in the wrong spot when i roll over, and then the hood fabric gets wet from breath condensation. With the quilt, this doesn’t happen since the quilt lacks a hood. To deal with the lack of hood, I made sleeping hats from the same material as the quilts themselves. the hat acts like a hood, but turns with the sleeper allowing them to not get wet from breath.

 

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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.