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Upper Kananaskis Lake Winter

Like all bad ideas, it started innocently enough. “The kids have no school on Friday, let’s go camping.”

The Point campground on Upper Kananaskis Lake is a spot that we have walked past, but not camped in. It is only 4km from the trail head if you go the hard way, and 7km the easy way. When we had been there before, it had been summer, so we were blissfully unaware of what winter conditions might entail.

We thought it might also be a good shakedown for my new pulk sled, before we take it on a longer trip. The new sled is basically the same as the old one, with slightly improved hardware.

We set off in the snow at a balmy -12ºC on Friday to hike to Point campground. We chose the 4km route since it was shorter and there was just the one hill that we could recall. Tania and Fiona got a head start with Tadhg and I hauling the sleds behind. The forecast called for -18ºC at night, so we brought a few extra items of clothing and sleepwear just to be on the safe side.

It was snowing as we set out, as per the forecast. We figured the sleds would work better with a bit of snow, so we weren’t overly concerned. Of course, the hike started with a pull across the gravely surface of the dam, where there was almost no snow at all. Soon though we were into the woods with a wonderful packed trail that climbed gently enough the forest.

[Click on pictures to enlarge]

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The first avalanche path that we came to was pretty icy and slanted, so we unloaded the sleds and ferried the gear across so no gear would get lost if the sleds went downhill. The next avalanche path was much easier to traverse.

Another short section of path led us to the switchback boulder field that led down the hill we had climbed. We had totally forgotten this part of the path, and it was more than a little obscured by snow. This was where we met back up with Tania and Fiona, who had turned around and were heading back to the car since they had been unable to find the remaining path to the campground or the campground itself due to the whiteout conditions.

It turned out that the path they had been following was not the correct one, just the one that many people had trampled. We never did find the correct one, but by heading across the lake for a bit, we came to the campground.

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The Point is a fairly extensive campground with about 30 sites and 2 outhouses, but we were happy with the first two sites in from the lake, which had a pre-shoveled tent pad and a quinzee, respectively. The roof on the quinzee was a little low, but a bit of shoveling got it to the point where I could stretch out enough to sleep and we were soon set for the night. (Fiona and I had the option of sleeping under the tarp as usual, or sleeping in the tent).

Once we had the tent set up, we moved on to our favourite opening night meal, roasted burritos. A few folks have asked, so here is the basic recipe.

3 cups dry pinto beans, 1 large onion, 2tbsp miso paste, 3tbsp chilli powder, 1/4 cup of butter. soak the beans overnight, rinse them, add ~4cups water and the other ingredients, cook in a slow cooker about 8 hours, blend with an immersion blender until they are not-quite smooth. Then dehydrate them in a dehydrator. I usually fry some onions and red peppers and dehydrate those at the same time. At the campground, I rehydrate the beans and peppers, wrap it in a wheat tortilla with some shredded cheddar and then I roast them on the grill that comes with most fire pits, or on a flat rock if I have to.

Running out the clock when camping in winter is sometimes tricky, but this time around, we managed to keep everyone up and active until 9pm, and so we headed to bed.  We woke up to a few inches of fresh snow in the morning and I started in on making Tania’s coffee. Fiona started converting the path to the bear-proof lockers into a bobsled track, which was good, since it kept her warm in the -19ºC temperature.

Our Saturday was spent on the usual Saturday chores, building a quinzee, making a bobsled track, going for a hike across the lake so we would have a better trail for the morning (foreshadowing) and of course a great deal of eating. It continued to snow for the day and the temperature stayed pretty steady, so we had an easier time staying dry.

When I looked out the quinzee door on Sunday morning, there was only an inch or so gap between the snow and the top of the door. After burrowing out through it, I found myself in fresh snow up to the tops of my thighs, nearly 3 feet of snow. My hands were dragging in the snow if I didn’t lift them.

Before making coffee, I excavated the lower 4 feet of our 6 foot tall tent from the snow so Tania and Tadhg could get out without an avalanche.

The temperature felt balmy, I was shocked when the thermometer read below -20ºC.

Once coffee was done with, we had a quick candy and granola bar breakfast and quickly packed up our stuff for the slog out.

And what a slog it was. I was towing over 100 pounds on the sled, and the snow was deep enough that the sled was just plowing it rather than gliding on top. The snow varied between waist and upper thigh deep and even though it was fluffy, it was still an all-out effort to pull the sled through it. I tried to keep my forward progress to a minimum of 20 steps between breaks, but sometimes I didn’t even make that many. It was also quite windy, so I no longer thought it was warm. This went on for 3.75 hours to make the 3.5km back to the car.

At one point Tania asked me if I felt like I was Max pulling the Grinch’s oversize sled. I responded that I’d sure like my heart to grow three sizes that day…

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Now, a lot of people have asked me this week if I felt like activating the SOS feature on my InReach device. and the answer is, “not even close.” Now, this was a very difficult trek for all of us, but that’s not something that requires a rescue. If any one of us was in danger of so much as losing a toe, I wouldn’t hesitate, but we were not at that stage. At all stages of our weekend (including the hike out in the full out blizzard), we consistently asked the kids how they were doing – how were their feet/hands/face, etc.   We were all very uncomfortable on the hike out (and there were a few tears from the kids), but that doesn’t need a rescue, discomfort is not the same as an emergency. When we arrived home, we still had clothes we hadn’t worn. And, not a trace, or even threat, of frost-bite.

Personally, if you asked me to go out and do it again next weekend, I would. Fiona still reports liking winter camping better than summer camping.

When we got back to the car (the lone car in the parking lot), not only was it covered in piles of snow, but the snowplow had been by. The kind driver had plowed to the side we were parked on, leaving a very tall snowbank/windrow to get through before getting underway. Thanks. While I loaded the car, Tania and the kids shoveled out a space in the wall of snow so we could get underway. Luckily, the snow hadn’t melted and frozen again and, therefore, was relatively easy to remove.  This time we weren’t too concerned about the sweat the shoveling could generate since we’d be driving back to Calgary in a warm car (you want to avoid sweating whilst winter camping).

Every outdoor trip/adventure has its “learning moments” and this one was no different.  When you’re dealing with the outdoor elements, you need to be prepared for all types of weather, which we were.  Even with our uncomfortable moments, it was still a successful adventure with a lot of fun moments, but definitely a little more “adventure” than some of our trips.

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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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Kids and Cold: a Few Tips on Winter Outdoors

People often ask me how I get my kids to go out camping in the winter with me. The truth is, when they were young I acted like it was normal (and it is), so by the time they noticed that no one else was with us at the backcountry campground, they were hooked. Now they vie for the privilege of going to the backcountry in all seasons.

Getting outside in the winter is our way to enjoy the inevitable. Staying inside is simply not an option for us, we are unwilling to put our recreation on hold for an entire season. Aside from the physical benefits of being active, the mental benefits of being surrounded by nature, and the skills we gain by challenging ourselves, the outdoor world has a lot to offer in terms of simple enjoyment. In some ways, being outside in winter is easier than in summer. There are few bears out in winter and keeping warm while active in -35ºC is easier than keeping cool while active in +35ºC. It is way easier to get away from the crowds in winter than it is in summer and even a paved road looks like wilderness if you hide it with a few feet of snow.

Fiona is the one we refer to as “Arctic Girl”, she will generally be the first to be taking off layers whatever the temperature.

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Fiona at -27ºC

We sometimes credit Fiona’s cold hardiness to the Scandinavian tradition of putting babies outside to nap. At first we thought it was so we wouldn’t be trapped in our house every day for nap time, but we soon realized that our baby slept better outside than in.

No matter the reason, Fiona’s cold-hardiness does not give her superpowers. She can get frostbite or hypothermia (at least we assume so) and so we take the same precautions that people in cold climates have taken with their children for millennia.

Tadhg seems to have colder extremities than most kids, so we need to pay close attention to keeping his hands and feet warm if he is to feel comfortable on any cold weather outing. When people tell me that their kids are too sensitive to cold to go on winter backcountry excursions, I often mention that Tadhg isn’t tough enough either, he is just well dressed.

So what the heck do I do to keep my kids warm? First, I listen. If they tell me they are feeling cold, I believe them and I look to do something about it. Before they could talk, I used to reach in to snowsuits and blankets to feel if hands and feet felt warm enough. I also watched for signs of discomfort – young kids may not shiver, but they won’t be comfortable, so if something is disturbing that placid sleeping baby face, it’s worth paying attention to.

Children’s snowsuits from better suppliers are generally warm, but that isn’t the same as designed for sleeping outside in -30º. Inactive people produce substantially less heat that active ones, so if the kids are standing around or sleeping, they need much more insulation. When the kids were smaller, I generally bough an extra suit, one size too big to put over the base suit. When they were in diapers, I tried to have the zippers on the snowsuit layers line up so I wouldn’t have to completely remove either suit. For naps and sleeping, sometimes a double snowsuit wouldn’t be enough to keep me (yes me, the caring parent) comfortable – for those occasions, I would put the kids onto a sleeping bag over the snowsuit layers.

A great way to keep anyone warm is to keep them moving. We try to keep moving until it is time to eat or get into a warm sleeping bag for the night.

A popular evening camp (in)activity is sitting by a campfire. While it is fun, it is also exactly the same as any other type of sitting – it produces virtually no heat. Couple that with the warmth from the fire tricking your body into shedding warmth and even sweating, and a fire with no shelter becomes a recipe for feeling cold. Lately, we have been going for walks or bike rides in the evening after eating. Instead of getting cold, the moderate activity warms us up so that we get into our beds comfortably and can relax right away instead of shivering for the first while. This is not to say that we never have campfires, we just limit the times we spend sitting around them.

Boots for kids are generally not as good as they should be. The problem is not the manufacturers, just the many demands placed on kids’ boots. Adults will generally spend hundreds of dollars on their own boots, but it is hard to part with as much when they are only going to be worn for a couple of months. Most waterproof boots will not allow water vapour from sweat to escape at -30ºC, while boots that aren’t waterproof will be wet and cold at temperatures around freezing since they will allow water in. For babies, my compromise was to put camp booties on them. I usually bought two pairs so I could put the pair that wasn’t being worn in my pocket to dry it out while the other pair was on the baby’s feet. The smallest kids didn’t wear them out, especially since they didn’t wear them on concrete in the city. Warm legs can help to keep the blood that reaches the feet warm If a kid is wearing shorts, they will tell you all about how their legs don’t get cold, but their toes will be like little ice cubes. Closed cell foam mattresses are a great way to keep the ground from drawing heat away from feet or bums that may be in contact with the ground. It is surprising how much warmer feet will be when standing on a piece of blue foam.

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Fleece costumes count as insulation

Mittens are another problem area for kids. They are constantly trying to pick stuff up but have small sensitive hands that lose their heat quickly. Around freezing, the only solution seems to be to have several pairs (as many as you can carry) and change them as often as you can without running out mitts before the outing is over. With Tadhg’s sensitive hands, he will often wear a pair of my mitts over his own liner and overmitt. Many people neglect the arms as part of the mitten system, but like feet, the hands depend on the blood reaching them being warm in order to keep warm. Warm arms go a long way toward keeping the hands at the end of them toasty.

On the bikes, I have pogies for everyone’s hands, but I also wrap the brake levers in foam packing material which I hold in place with heat shrink tubing. Metal poles (including ski poles) are really good at conducting heat away from hands. Insulation between the hands and the bars helps and of course so do carbon fiber bars.

Hot liquids can help greatly in warming up a child who is getting uncomfortably cold. By the same token, drinking icy cold drinks can really cool a body, and especially a small child’s body, quickly. Too many hot liquids can of course be a problem since a trip out of the tent in -40 is a good way to lose the heat that was gained by drinking a hot tea.

There is a lot of talk about how much heat is lost through the head, and in fact wearing an insulated hat is an important part of outdoor activity.  Unfortunately, not enough attention is paid to the biggest source of heat loss, the lungs. The human lung has a moist surface area of at least 50 square meters which is 25 times the skin surface area of a large person. Imagine getting out of the shower and then blowing on yourself outdoors. The easiest solution to this is to wear a scarf in front of the face, which is great until it becomes a mask of ice and wet fabric.  Most Northern peoples have developed some type of hooded clothing that places a pocket of still air in front of the face where it can be warmed by outgoing breath and facial warmth. This is great, though it allows no peripheral vision, it does keep the face warm. My preferred solution is a heat exchanger mask or balaclava. There are a number of them on the market, with the https://rcm-na.amazon-adsystem.com/e/cm?t=coldbikecom-20&o=15&p=8&l=as1&asins=B0091CC38A&ref=qf_sp_asin_til&fc1=000000&IS2=1&lt1=_blank&m=amazon&lc1=0000FF&bc1=000000&bg1=FFFFFF&f=ifr“>Ergodyne (amazon.ca affiliate link)  and the Airtrim being my favourites. I generally feel that a good heat exchanger mask will add 10ºC to whatever you are wearing.

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Hot foods are warming as well, not just from the heat of the food, but from the heat released when the body uses the energy in food. There are many ideas about eating foods like cayenne pepper to warm the body, but I find that just eating a hot meal will work well enough.

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When camping in the winter, there is often no heated building to take shelter in if things go poorly. It is imperative to be prepared. If things get out of hand, it may be necessary to simply get into the tent and snuggle the young ones to warm them up. Hanging out the door of the tent while making a hot drink may not be the preferred cooking method, but it allows a parent to get hot liquids into a child while helping to warm them. Hot water in a steel water bottle can be used as a warming pack inside a sleeping bag to help warm a mildly hypothermic person of any age. For that matter, rocks can be heated to use for warming purposes assuming care is taken not to melt any tents/clothing/sleeping bags or burn anyone.

One of the key elements for us being out in the cold is to have fun. If we are having fun, we can more easily deal with the troubles that come from cold. We also aim to be flexible and we are willing to shorten or cancel an activity because we feel it will stop being fun.

Away from the lights and noise of the city, I always sleep better in a tent. I do awaken frequently to check on the kids though – especially when Fiona talks in her sleep. Many of the cases of frostbite in winter camping happen from sleeping through the onset of frozen feet. There are also many cases of hypothermia that happen at night, so it pays to be extra careful. When the kids were young, we would put them to bed in a snowsuit, a large snowsuit (that either covered hands and feet, or with booties) and then pack the whole kid-snowsuit assembly into a sleeping bag.  While this was heavy, it was warm and comfortable. These days, we have moved toward simplifying the system with Tadhg sleeping in a down/synthetic sleeping bag, adding a down jacket if it is colder, and with a down jacket of mine if it becomes absolutely necessary. Fiona is now using a down sleeping bag with a home made synthetic overquilt. Either the quilt or the bag is good to about -10ºC, but the combination should be comfortable down to about -40.

There is a persistent myth that people need to be naked inside their sleeping bags. The fact is, insulation inside the sleeping bag works (until it gets compressed) just as well as the sleeping bag itself. The only caveat is that wet insulation of any type works poorly.

In the same way that layers of clothing can help to keep people comfortable in a range of temperatures and activities, so too can sleeping bags be layered. Of course no one wants to carry three sleeping bags per person, but it is not too onerous to carry a sleeping bag/overbag combination in most cases. In our case, our overbags weigh only 800g, so the total weight is actually less than what a single -40º rated bag would be.

Sleeping bags only insulate the top half of a sleeper since the bottom of the insulation is compressed beneath them. A warm sleeping pad is essential, more so the colder it gets. I really like the Therm-a-Rest NeoAir Xtherm mattresses, but after having one spring approximately 500 leaks on me this summer, I will not trust them as my sole sleeping pad. In the past, I have used closed cell foam pads either alone or for extra insulation with an air-filled pad, and I have now re-instituted their use in winter. (note that my leaky pad was replaced, and Therm-a-Rest recommend a foam pad as backup)

Some kids roam in their sleep and this makes keeping them on the pad an extra challenge over simply putting them on a quality sleeping pad and letting them sleep until morning. I generally pile all of Fiona’s and my own packs next to her so that she would have to work to wander over them. Her new sleeping quilt attaches to her sleeping pad and helps somewhat to keep her in place on the pad.

People some times question the safety of taking your kids camping in the cold, but I have to defer to the the entire North of Europe, Asia and North America. Many of the First Nations from around here referred to winter camping as “life” and though they had occasional issues with extreme weather, they thrived in our climate even though they slept out in tents every night. While their teepees were much larger and heated by a fire, it remains that they did not live in thermostat-controlled heated houses. I feel that on our most daring adventures, we have always left a large margin of safety, so while we have occasionally been uncomfortable, we have never been at the threshold of physical danger.

For more practical information, check out this Play Outside Guide to Keeping Kids Warm in Winter.

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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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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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Assiniboine Pass hike/ski March 2016

We love cross-country skiing, we love camping, and we had a 4-day long weekend for easter. The obvious solution to this non-dilemma was to go ski camping.

After our awesome trip to Lake O’Hara for a long weekend in February, it was a strong contender for a return visit. On top of that, a group of really cool families were going to be there and it would be nice to meet up. In the end, we decided that, beautiful as it is, Lake O’Hara is better suited for a one or two night winter stay since so much of the surrounding area is in avalanche terrain and so the options for day trips with kids are limited.

We decided to head up the Bryant Creek trail toward Mount Assiniboine. With campgrounds at 9 and 17km from the trailhead, it was well suited to a 3 night trip with nice 8-10km daily distances.

When we got there, we took a look at conditions and Tania wisely decided that walking/snowshoeing was the right mode for the trip. Tadhg has enough experience that he also knew that conditions were questionable for skiing. Fiona, is a little lot more obstinate and was determined to go ski-camping. I decided that I should ski so that I would be better able to keep pace with Fiona, I also brought my boots and snowshoes. I dutifully loaded the snowshoes for the family into the sled in anticipation that we might need them later.

The first part of the trail is the Watrige lake trail from the Mount Shark trailhead, a gentle groomed XC ski trail.  The trail itself is a little dull, but the surrounding peaks make for enough distraction that it is hard not to enjoy.

After a few km, the trail has a long descent to the Spray River/Lake and that was where my ski plan began to fall apart. My sled was simply too heavy for me to hold back with the poles I used to pull it. I had never used it with the weight of our snowshoes padding out the usual load of food and a sleeping bag. Even after taking my skis off, I had to struggle to keep the sled from overtaking me – I was worried about breaking the tow poles with pushing back, and if I tried zig-zagging down the hill to keep the speed in check, the sled would roll and I would need to drop my pack to go back to set it upright.

The second half of our first day was spent climbing the Bryant Creek trail to the campground. The BR9 campground was where Fiona and I had spent our fun weekend  skipacking together in February so we knew what to expect.

Our now traditional first night of camping meal is bean and cheese burritos with our homemade dehydrated pinto beans.  It is surprising how well the beans rehydrate to taste like real food. We have been roasting them over campfires to make them even better, but the Bryant Creek campgrounds do not allow fires and so we had to skip this improvement.

Our second day had us hiking past the Bryant Creek shelter, 2 more campgrounds and reaching the BR17 campground at the Allenby junction. Apparently, no one but us had used this campground this winter, because it was undisturbed snow – I was somewhat happy to see this because it meant that the snowshoes that I had been dragging suddenly became indispensable.

After searching around the deep untracked snow in the forest for about half an hour, we located the outhouse and a reasonable spot to put up our tarp and tent. Tadhg shovelled a tent pad 2 feet into the snow, as well as the outhouse door (about 3 feet deep)  and some stairs down to it. Fiona wanted desperately to help with the shovelling, and she finally got a turn when it came to shovelling out a pad for us to sleep on below the tarp. Tadhg also dug a snow cave that he thought Fiona should sleep in – I told him he had to make it big enough for the both of us, but he was tired of shovelling.

The Allenby junction is surrounded by mountains and is as beautiful as it is remote. I would definitely be willing to walk the 17km to stay there again. It was also higher and colder than our previous campground. When we got to checking the thermometer at 9:30AM it was -14ºC after warming up for a couple of hours so we estimate it was around -18ºC at night. It seems I was pushing my -10º sleeping bag a little. Nonetheless I was comfy enough to sleep and everyone was better rested when we got up.

Our stretch goal for the weekend was to make it to the top of Assiniboine pass where we hoped to get a view of the iconic mountain as well as the surrounding area.

The last 4 km to the top of the pass were fairly steep and since they were quite icy, we used snowshoes for the extra traction. The climb was well worth it even though Assiniboine was shrouded in cloud and snow, it was still somewhat visible and we sat facing it while eating our snack.

Afterwards, we made the trip back down to the campground to collect our stuff and make the return hike to BR9.

I was last to leave the campground and as I pulled out, I broke one of the poles that pull the sled. After a hasty repair, I got moving on the trail again. Unfortunately, my repair was not as effective as I hoped and my ability to steer the sled was very limited. Also, whenever the sled got more than a tiny bit sideways, the working bar would pull the sled over, forcing me to drop my pack to run back to put the sled back upright. After about 50 iterations of the sled rolling game. I finally caught up to Tania and the kids waiting for me. This meant that Tadhg could follow behind to right the sled and to pull on a brake rope for descents.

It was past our usual dinner time when we got back to camp, but we got everything set up quickly and though we had to eat in the dark, we weren’t as put out as we might have been.

I took a few minutes in the morning to revise my sled repairs into something I thought I could deal with and we were off right around noon with Fiona skiing again and the rest of us hiking. After the climb from Spray Lake, I even put on my skis for the last 3 or so km back to the car. Finny still says that only she went ski camping since I didn’t  ski enough for it to count – she was the only one to ski the whole way between the campsites.

 

 

 

 

 

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Family Skipacking to Lake O’Hara

First, if you haven’t been to Lake O’Hara, put it on your list. It is one of the prettiest mountain lakes I have ever seen, and that was in the winter when lakes aren’t usually as impressive.

We wanted a family friendly ski camping weekend. Lake O’Hara was high on our list of places that we should go to and the reports were saying that it had reasonable conditions.

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We booked a couple of sites at the campground (there is a lodge and the Elizabeth Parker hut as other accommodations at Lake O’Hara) and we were off.

The ski in is not that difficult, but it has a couple of relentless uphill sections. Though the first 2km took us about an hour and a half, we sped up to a reasonable pace for the remaining 8km and arrived at the campground with enough time to set up in daylight. Many of the obvious spots in the campground were already taken, so we scouted out an area where we thought we could pitch the tent and the tarp and started shovelling.

I knew that the tarp pitch was poor, but I was too lazy to shovel out a better area, so I left it as it was. Tania and Tadhg were going to be safely ensconced in the tent and Fiona is not that fussy about what she sleeps under.

The campground at O’Hara has a couple of picnic shelters with wood burning stoves.  The other group were in one of them and thought they were obviously friendly, we chose to cook in the second shelter. We had a delicious Valentines day dinner of bean and cheese burritos (home cooked – dehydrated beans and fresh cheese and tortilla shells).

After a bit of reading, we decided to turn in and get a good night sleep. It was snowing heavily as we went to bed, so there were no stars or aurora visible. The other camper group spent the evening at the day shelter further up the trail and they were so quiet coming back to sleep that I wasn’t sure when they returned – I really like it when groups like that are sharing a campground with me.

Around 1AM I woke to a tarp that had sagged from falling snow almost to my face. I roused myself to reset the tarp and tie it low enough to shed at least some of the snow that was falling. The  wind was blowing quite heavily, so occasional clumps of snow were falling from the tree branches. I did a quick job, but at least it kept snow from falling on my face so much.

Morning dawned much clearer than the evening. We had a good view through the trees of the surrounding mountains unobscured by clouds. Fiona was first up of course, and we went down to the cook shelter to make coffee.

I got a chance to chat with the other group in the campground and got some really good advice on pulk sleds and attachments. They had had a good chance to perfect their designs and their sleds had much less slack and much better control than mine.

We had a nice leisurely breakfast and set out for some day skiing. Lake O’Hara itself is about half a km past the campground and it is stunning. The surounding mountains are beautiful and have many hiking trails to explore. Many of the trails involve avalanche risk though, so we limited ourselves to a select few. It was a perfect day to ski around the lake itself, and so we did the west half of the lakeside trail.

Though the skiing for the day was short, we still had a great time and the views could not have been better. We will definitely be back.

The group that left the campground left behind a quinzy and Fiona immediately declared her desire to sleep in it. While it seemed a little more closed in than her usual choice of a tarp, it also saved me setting up the tarp properly and allowed me to pack the tarp away early. We used the super roomy quinzy as a spot to read to the kids for the evening and Tania got to do some reading of her own in the roomy and quiet tent.

Once again it snowed most of the night and so once again we awoke to fresh snow. We were pretty thrilled since we figured the fresh snow would provide some drag to help slow down our primarily downhill ski out to the car. I offered to carry Tania’s pack in  the sled so that if she fell, she wouldn’t have the extra weight to push her into the ground.

The ski out was,  in fact, quite slow, the fresh snow gave us lots of control. Unfortunately, we had some struggles with ice on our skis in the flat and uphill parts of the ski out. Even Tania’s waxless skis were building up enough ice on the bottom that her skis would not glide. All we could do is stop to scrape the ice off and try to keep moving. From km 5 to 3, the terrain is quite rolling, so we made poor progress as we needed to stop and scrape at least 3 times.

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Bryant Creek Skipacking with Fiona 2016

Guest Blogger (sort of) 8-year-old Fiona wanted to write up this trip. The timestamped photos are ones she took, and they are accidentally set 12 hours ahead from the camera set up AM, not PM. We went to Banff National Park BR9 campground on Bryant Creek from the Mount Shark trailhead in Spray Lakes Provincial Park. On our middle day, we skied approximately 10km up the valley toward Assiniboine Pass.

Daddy was pulling a sled with mattresses and stuff in it. I didn’t carry my backpack on the way there, but I did on the way back.

We left home. I had a nap in the car. We got to the Mount Shark trailhead. We started skiing. I took selfies of myself.

We crossed a bridge and saw an ice bridge. It was cool.

It got dark. We skied in the dark. [about 3 hours] We set up camp. We set up our tarp to sleep in because it was snowing. [Fiona had planned for us to sleep under the stars]

Next day, we skied to the shelter [Bryant Creek]. We had snack. We had Brie and it wasn’t frozen because Dad put it in his pocket. We went inside the shelter because we wanted to see. I went on the top bunk.

We skied more. We needed to groom the ski trail.

The bunnies went on the trail because it was less deep and I called it a bunny highway.

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We saw bear prints crossing the trail. It was cool.

We went back to camp.

Next day, I got “chocolate covered sugar bombs” for breakfast. I made my own “hot chocolate” with the “sugar bomb” dust and water. Daddy made big eyes for the picture.

 

Next day, we had to go over a log. I helped get the sled over the log.

I skied down some steep hills, but when I was going up a different hill, I fell down. We went over a bridge.

We passed over some creeks and we saw mountains.

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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.

2016-01-17 12-48-49 4477.jpgFor the trip out, we decided to take the trail since it looked to be almost rideable.  In fact, as I pushed ahead and rode 20% of the trail and pushed the rest, Tadhg was merrily riding along in my bike’s track.

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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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Minnewanka fatbikepacking microadventure.

“More food please.” We had been in the car for an hour and a half. He had eaten 2 pears, 2 oranges, an apple, a sandwich and a granola bar. We were popping in to get our camp permit anyway so I picked up a pair of masala dosas to go and we headed out of the Banff townsite with Tadhg stuffing his face.

After packing the bikes, we were on the trail by 3:30, our plan was to bike 11km along the Lake Minnewanka trail to the very originally named LM11 back country campsite (actually, it has a name, it is numbered to avoid confusion). The trail starts out with a bit of climbing, but most of it is rideable by Tadhg since he has been riding to school this year and is super fit.

The trail is not so snow covered that we need the fatbikes we are riding, but they aren’t totally overkill either. Tadhg has grown over the last couple of years so he now carries his own clothes and sleeping pad, as well as the 3 liters of gatorade that he loves so much.

Several snack stops down the trail, we come to the LM8 campsite. Though it is now twilight, we decide to press on, but not for long, as dark comes early this time of year. By LM9, it is full dark and we decide to camp. Unfortunately, we have neglected to bring a book, since dinner and food hanging is done by 6. After a bit of walking around, we decide to turn in around 7.

With the temperature forecast to only go as low as -9°C, I have no concern about the cold. I didn’t even bother to zip my sleeping bag, since using it spread like a quilt lets me move much more freely. Several times during the night I am awakened by the pitter patter of unwelcome little rodent feet as mice or voles seem pretty convinced that they will find food in our tent. Where are the owls and martens that we love so much?

Even our properly hung food bag does not escape attention as one of our granola bars is 90% eaten and another few have been opened and sampled by some sort of critter capable of robbing food from a bag suspended by a metal cable.

Since we now have the whole day to ride, we decide to head further away from the car. After 5 km and several snacks, we turn back. Tadhg’s riding continues to impress me, there are some rock gardens and technical sections that he would have been walking just this summer, but they are trivial to him now.

 

 

As we got to the LM8 campground, we realized that one od Tadhg’s mittens was missing from his bike. Though we rode back to look for it, we did not find it, but we did get some more riding done on this wonderful trail. We also ate more snacks.

This last picture is a movie, not just a boring picture:

Even with the one mitten lost, we did have a great overnight ride and both Tadhg and I called the trip a success.

The final stats ended up: day 1 – 9.5 km, day 2 – 27 km. The only climbing that seemed significant was the 100m gain at the car end of the trail.