Wednesday, October 26, 2016


Warning: There is more bike-nerd minutia here than most will ever want to know or have use for.  Proceed if you must.

The past few years have seen what can only be described as tumult in terms of bicycle wheel and tire size options.

Where 26" was for seeming millennia the undisputed choice, what we eventually realized is that one "choice" was no such thing at all.

Today, adults can readily choose from 26", 27.5", or 29" wheels (properly 559, 584, and 622mm) shod with tires from 2" up to and over 5".

In essence, you can tune the width and length of your contact patch to a very fine degree.  It is a good time, a good age, for cyclists.

Thus for the last ~decade my go-to bike has been a 6 x 6" travel sled with slack HTA, steep STA, relatively high BB, and very short chainstays, shod with 29 x 2.5" tires run tubeless on 35mm rims.

Yes, that's a bit of alphabet soup but for those that know what they like and how to get there, what it translates to is "modern trailbike that happened to adapt 29" wheels much sooner than most".

For better than a decade this was *it*:

We collectively arrived at that package as a result of a confluence of factors, chief among them the concurrent arrival of 29 x 2.5" tubeless tires, SRAM's 1x drivetrains, and tapered steerer 150 and 160mm travel forks.  Once there it felt like this shining "aha!" moment, where a decade worth of imagineering, prodding, and fiddling all coalesced and somehow came out yet better than we could have hoped.

Yeah.  For years and years that was "it".

But change continues to happen whether you're asking for it or not.  Surly released the 29+ idea on the wider world, and eventually the wider world responded with B+.  Then fat-for-dirt bikes started to appear, and suddenly the waters were muddied and some sifting and settling needed to happen.

It didn't take many test rides to realize that there is emphatically *something* to the idea of wider tires run at lower pressures.  You can feel this immediately going from a road bike at ~100psi to an MTB at 25psi.  So when I stepped off of my LunchBox at 20psi and onto a plus bike at 10, my eyes lit up and I knew that this was my new path forward.  "Doing more with less" became the new mantra, where more refers to the difficulty of the trails I lean toward, and less points squarely at the psi in my tires.

This time last year I convinced Devin Lenz to build a fat tire full suspension bike, partially as a recovery vehicle following a surgery I needed.  At that time a 26 x 4" rim and tire made the most sense, and Devin dialed the geometry around that combo.  He did, as he always does, an amazing job balancing all of the little details such that it rode like a much lighter, much more nimble bike than appearances or prejudices would lead one to believe.  

Coming off a decade on 29 x 2.5's, the shorter, fatter wheels were ultimately nothing but a disappointment.  No matter how dialed the geometry on Devin's creation, no matter how good the suspension felt, short wheels and tires simply can't do what taller ones can.  Or, as my high school basketball coach phrased it when cutting me from the team, "You have solid skills, but I can't teach height".

So although I rode that bike for several months, I became increasingly frustrated at having to work so hard to get the bike up to speed, or through a rough section, or, most noticeably, up and over ledges, each of which wanted to hook the rear wheel and stop it, stop *us*, in our tracks.  The most succinct way I can think of to describe the sensation of riding the 26" version of that bike was "It shouldn't have to be this hard".  

Clearly there is more to any bike than how tall the tires are.  What it boiled down to, for me, was that dialed geometry and suspension kinematics were only 2 pieces of the puzzle, and without optimizing the 3rd -- tire size -- things just weren't coming together.

Next I laced a set of B+ wheels and took them for 2 rides.  Two.  On the first one I couldn't believe how much *worse* the bike felt than it did with the 26 fat tires on it.  I chalked that up to a gravity squall sort of day, took a day off, then went back out for another ride.  And it was every bit as bad -- the wheels/tires just kept getting hooked on every ledge along the way, or falling (as Wes Williams loved to say) into 28" holes.  Honestly, for the way I like to ride and the places I get to ride, B+ seemed like the worst of all possible worlds.

I know, I know -- I could always go back to 26" x 1.9" if I really wanted to be frustrated.

But I don't!  I ride bikes for fun, for joy, and neither 26 x 4" nor B+ were bringing that aspect to my rides.  Thus I sold that bike and turned my experimentations toward 29+.

For better than a year I've intensely experimented with different rim widths, tire sizes, tread patterns, rubber compounds, and tire pressures, not to mention different geometry and travel on the test sleds.

I'd venture a guess that I have more experience on a greater diversity of 29+ configurations than anyone else on the planet at this moment.  4, 5, and 6" of travel on each end, achieved with a plethora of different forks and dampers.  2.8", 2.9", 3.0", and 3.2" tires, run on 30, 35, 40, 45, and 50mm rims at pressures ranging from single digits to the middle teens.  It was 29+ that taught me to think of psi in terms of quarter pound changes.  If you're already in the ballpark, adding or dumping a *whole* pound is excessive.

My conclusion is that there is no more efficient human-powered vehicle than 29+ for converting energy output into forward motion.  The rougher the terrain the more this is true.  For all-day rides, for bikepacking, for expeditioning, 29+ wins the day, day after day after day.

The catch?  Keeping in mind that I am Princess and the Pea incarnate, I found 29+ to be just a bit too tall for my favorite, most ridiculously difficult tech trails.  The kinds of trails that are so slow, so tight, so diabolical that a trials rider has a distinct advantage over the rest of us regular schlubs.  29+ just felt a titch cumbersome in those situations.

So where does one go if 29+ is too tall, 26 fat and B+ are too short, and 29" is too harsh?

Straight to the shrink to have my head examined.  I *do* keep reminding myself that if I don't like what's in front of me now, I can always go back to 26 x 1.9 for perspective.

Thankfully I haven't had to do that.  

Sometime last winter I became aware of 27.5 x 4" rims and tires being made by Bontrager.  I sidestepped the knee jerk "another standard" reactions and sourced a set to fiddle with on our expeditionary fatbikes.  Jeny and I both rode and loved them on a spring desert tour, and it was there that my mind started racing toward...


Pictured above is the first test mule that Devin sent once I got him to understand what I was after.

What was I after?  Goldilocks, of course!  I wanted something that wasn't too big, wasn't too small, that felt just right.

Specifically, the 27.5 x 4" wheel/tire combo (think and say "B Fat" for pete's sake) has the same diameter, to the millimeter, of a 29 x 2.5" combo.  Which should, in theory, give me the rollover characteristics I'm after without being too tall.  But the tires are fat enough that I can run them in the high single digits, giving me the suppleness, comfort, and traction I desire at the same time.


Thus far it certainly seems so.

I rode the bike above all summer long, from low desert chunk to high alpine buff, in configurations ranging from 5 and 5" to 6 and 6", fiddling with angles every way I could.

When I got it to where I was just riding it, day after blissful day, and couldn't think of any further way to improve it, I asked Devin for the 'production version', with a few subtle geometry tweaks.

I am cognizant that needs, desires, abilities, and locations can all change, and with any of them my preferred bike will too.  Having said that, and looking forward to where I hope to live and eventually retire, I feel like this is my 'climax vehicle'.  

It isn't the lightest, nor fastest, nor most technologically infused bike out there.  Keeping in mind that every bike is a compromise, this is the most capable, with fewest drawbacks, of any bike I've yet owned.  Combining modern trail geometry (66* HTA, 16.7" CS) with 6 x 6" of supple, supportive, tunable suspension and light, durable, tubeless tires that are the right blend of tall and wide was the path forward.  

I would be remiss in not pointing out that Fox built this fork with what can only be described as a freakish amount of tire clearance.  Without this fork, and the Bontrager B Fat tires, and Devin Lenz's willingness to see what lies down every intriguing path, I'd still be yammering into my porridge and tugging at my ear hairs trying to figuring it out.

I *did* build myself a 29" wheelset for this bike and shod it with a set of light, tubeless ready 2.6" tires.  Ostensibly these are for high-alpine days where the trail is smooth enough that I can tolerate the relatively high 20-ish psi's that are needed, and am after a lighter, faster, more efficient overall package for that day.

In reality I'll only use that wheelset a handful of times per year, and the rest of the year they'll hang there, representative of a mental bridge that I am as-yet unwilling to cross.

Thanks for checking in. Don't hesitate with questions.

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

The shopping cart move. Or, sanitization gone too far.

Recognize this move?  It's from the Lunch Loop in Grand Junction, Colorado.  My backyard, literally and figuratively.

It's near the bottom of the Holy Cross, and has existed more or less intact (save for some natural erosion) for 15+ years.  

Pictured is the "up move", an ~18" ledge that leads you to a short, sloping roll toward a ~2.5' drop to (more or less) flat.

I've been using it for more than a decade as a place to help dial in suspension settings whenever I build or test a new bike.  It is a fun, easy move -- up, roll, drop, repeat -- consistently doable on every kind of bike you'd regularly ride at the Lunch Loop, but it is also useful for dialing things in.

I went to it last week for exactly that reason, and was shocked when I got there:

Someone(s) must have spent *hours* building that shitpile of weakness.  I looked closely, and am 99% certain that I could have rolled a shopping cart (even with a wobbly wheel) up it smoothly.

In other words, someone with zero skill could now easily roll up onto that boulder.  Makes me wonder aloud what they do once up there?  Just trying to get a better cell signal?  Good place for a selfie?!!  

It took me a solid 20 minutes of heaving rock to restore the move to it's natural state.

Honestly?  If you built that ramp I'm embarrassed for you.  

Learn to ride the trails as they are.  Elevate your game instead of bringing things down to your level.  There is no shame in walking things until you learn to ride them, but it is despicable to deliberately dumb trails down.

Sunday, September 25, 2016

A ride, recently: Volume 74.

Somewhere in the high country, this fall.

One of those days, when, were you in the lowlands, you could be forgiven for thinking it was still summer.

But where, in the world above 10,000', you had no such illusions as rain turned to sleet and then, ever so briefly, snow.

Three riders visible in the shot immediately below.

Thanks for checkin' in.

Friday, September 16, 2016

Footsteps of Giants: The bike.

My main goal in choosing a bike for this trip was to find something modular.  Sure, it needed to fit me well, fit big tires, and have decent soft-surface geometry.  But before all of that it had to be able to accept a geared, derailleur based shifting system, and then in the event that something happened to that shifting system, this chassis needed to be convertible to singlespeed without major shenanigans.  In other words, it needed sliding or horizontal dropouts.

I spent a week searching the 'net in my spare time, and if you discount custom frames you pretty quickly end up looking at Surly's frames, or the Trek Farley.

I've owned and loved a Pugsley and Moonlander and wasn't averse to leaning in that direction.  The only real downside I could find to the Surly frames is that they're made of steel, and steel + salt water immersion is eventually going to be a bad thing.  

The fact that the Farley (at least the one I was willing to spring for) is aluminum ever so slightly pushed me in that direction.  The fact that the Farley's use on-center laced wheels pushed me over the edge.  For daily use an offset-laced wheel works out just fine, but will never compare to the lateral rigidity and ultimate durability of an on-center build.  When I'm going deep I really don't want to give any second thoughts to my equipment once underway.  In short, the bomber run-em-over-with-a-truck-and-they'll-still-be-fine reliability of on-center wheels was the decider in this case: I ordered a Farley frame and fork.

While waiting for them to arrive I laced myself a set of wheels using Bontrager Jackalope 27.5 x 80mm rims, DT Swiss Big Ride hubs, DT Swiss SuperComp triple butted spokes, and DT Prolock brass nipples.  I chose this diameter of rim because I've had a fair bit of experience with it over the last ~9 months.  The easiest way to explain what I like about it is to point the wayback machine to 1999, when I got my first 29" wheeled bike.  Remember your first ride on a 29 incher, and how effortless it seemed to keep those tall wheels rolling over pretty much everything, at least relative to the 26" bikes that were still in favor at the time?  Then as now, a taller wheel will roll over obstacles with less effort.  So if you've got a fat enough tire to float across soft beach sand, then why not make it a bit taller so that it can erase holes, roots, beach cobbles, rain ruts, and other momentum sucking obstacles?

Why not indeed.  Ever since trying "B Fat" late last winter, I've been smitten and can't really see a benefit to 26 x 4 or even 4.8.  I still prefer a 26 x 5.2" setup for pure snow riding, as nothing yet available floats as well when the snow is bottomless the way it is in our backyard.  But for three-season use on beaches, down washes, or off-piste entirely, I have converted to B Fat and I ain't goin' back.

Why the Jackalope rims?  In a word, rotating mass.  "But Mike!" you say, "There are lighter rims out there!"  And this is true, to a point: There are lighter rims available.  But, I retort, most of those rims are doublewall -- which means that every time we ride through a slough, or push our bikes through a too-deep-to-ride river, or play chicken (and lose) with the dumping breakers, some of that water gets between the walls of the rim.  And stays there.  Thus very quickly your gucci light rims are ounces if not pounds heavier than they were when you built them.  No bueno.

The solution is to use a singlewall rim to start with.  And because I have stacks and stacks of these in the shop, and have been building with every iteration available (and some that never made it to market) for the past 15 years, I've developed favorites.  The Jackalope has the easiest, most intuitive, and most reliable tubeless interface of any singlewall rim I've used to date.  I can install tires by hand, no tools needed.  I can, should the need arise, also remove tires with no tools needed.  Perhaps most importantly, I can inflate a tire, tubeless, with a mini hand pump -- no compressor, floor pump, or even frame pump required.  And that last bit is what pushed me over the edge on rim choice: If I were to cut a tire on, say, mussels or barnacles at some point of this ride, I could peel it off, stitch it back together (yes, I carry a needle and nylon carpet thread), then reinstall the tire and reinflate it tubeless on the spot.

There are other singlewall rims out there to choose from.  They are either hideously expensive when you consider how I was about to treat them, or famously fragile, or they have tire fit issues that make the tubeless interface or field repair of a flat somewhere between difficult and diabolical.  

Choosing the Jackalopes was, as they say, a no brainer.

Tire choices are still somewhat limited for B Fat.  I use the B Fat Hodag's on my full suspension fatbike, but they didn't seem quite big enough once I started throwing gear into a pile for the Lost Coast.  The added mass of a boat, paddle, PFD, camera gear, repair kit, tent, sleep kit, and many days of food meant that very quickly I chose the biggest B Fat tire available to date: The Bontrager Barbegazi 27.5 x 4.5".  These treads have decent grip but more importantly they have surprisingly little rolling resistance -- especially given how much float they afford.  I used them on a desert traverse this spring and really couldn't find fault with them there.  Tall, fat, light, durable, and tubeless ready -- check.

Why the DT hubs?  I've used DT's star ratchet hubs (240s, 340, 350, 440, and 540) for decades on my own personal bikes, and on the bikes of every customer that will let me lace them.  Down the spine of the continent on the GDR, across Alaska on the Iditarod, plus countless alpine and desert tours in Utah, Colorado, Wyoming, Idaho, and Montana.  We're talking literally hundreds of thousands of miles with *zero* failures or even hiccups.  They are among the lightest hubs on the market, they can go thousands of miles without service, they are unbelievably easy to maintain (a rag, a dab of grease, and ~3 minutes are about it) and yet they very rarely need maintenance.  I continually experiment with new and interesting hubs on rides close to home, but when I'm going deep I never, ever have to wonder or worry about the DT.  All that and, somehow, they are among the least expensive hubs available today.

I learned from Eric and Dylan that brakes in a coastal environment are largely superfluous.  You use them more when schwacking than when riding -- to keep the bike in place as you find footing or hoist yourself forward.  As such there's really no need for *two* brakes.  Given a choice between front or rear, I choose front simply because there's less hose out there to get caught on brush, plus it's easier to stuff your gear back under the bars with only the front loop of hose to deal with.  I had a single Hayes Prime Comp brake sitting on the shelf, orphaned after some previous project.  I've had great success with these brakes over the past 4+ years, and so if only to keep from spending yet more money on a bike that was going to get thrashed in short order, I shortened the hose and bolted it on.

Comfort is important on a beach ride: Since the terrain is relatively uniform you don't move around on the bike as much as you would on an engaging trail.  The best you can hope for is firm sand to keep the pace high -- and failing that you're either groveling along at stupid low pressures, or you're walking.  If you get your wish and the sand is firm, you sit and spin not unlike a road ride -- which is great for average speed but not awesome for contact points that would prefer to not always be in contact.  I spent a few hours fine tuning the bar height so that I had a good balance of weight on both hands and butt, then raised the bars another inch for good measure, knowing that I could always lower them, but also that I was unlikely to do so.  

I had an old set of no-name take off bars sitting on the shelf in a ~680mm width.  Too narrow by modern standards, but when it comes to schwacking through brush with a bike, every extra millimeter of bar width matters.  I was happy to take something narrow, and thrilled that they were being recycled instead of buying something new.  I screwed a clapped-out set of ergo grips on and called the cockpit good.

I experimented last winter with a Bodyfloat isolation seatpost on my snowbike.  I freaking loved it, despite how ugly it is.  In a previous life I'd used the Thudbuster suspension post and both Moots and Eriksen ti posts.  One ride on the Bodyfloat convinced me that rigid posts on hardtails are stupid, no matter what they're made from.  By the second ride the stictionless suppleness of the coil-sprung Bodyfloat had me wondering whom I could give my Thudbuster to.  I was thrilled to have the Bodyfloat on the bike for this trip.  It squeaked a bit after 3 solid days of rain, grit, and seawater, so I dug out my chain lube and put the tiniest dot of lube at the base of one of the pivots, and it was silent the rest of the trip.  As a group we swapped bikes a few times and I always immediately missed the Bodyfloat, while whomever was on my bike immediately commented on how good the post felt.

Drivetrain: I got creative here, for several reasons.  Primary driver was not wanting to spend a pile of money on something that was just going to get treated like dirt for 2 weeks straight.  I dug into my drivetrain drawer and found a thumbshifter, a clutched derailleur, a used-but-not-used-up chain, and a shoebox full of loose cogs.  Knowing that our trip started with ~17 miles of hard-surfaced road gradually descending to the Copper, I knew I'd need a go-fast gear to keep from flapping feebly in the breeze.  But then once we left that road and hit the delta, the lagoons, and the beaches, I knew I'd need a few go-slow gears to choose from.  From the Lost Coast North trip I knew that SE AK has some really bad brush through which we might have to schwack, so I wanted to keep the drivetrain as simple and clean as possible -- to minimize the potential for breakage.  I also wanted to be able to go to a singlespeed if I bent my der hanger or tore the der clean off the bike.

Thus I decided on a 6 speed setup -- largely because the gears I'd be likely to need in a singlespeed situation were the 5th and 6th cogs, and these had the best chainline.  The spread was 11 to 26t, and I just filled in the gaps between with even jumps.  

For cranks I picked Surly Mr. Whirly's simply because I knew I could remove the spider and bolt a titanium 20 tooth Action Tec ring straight into the 58mm bolt circle of the crank.  Remembering Eric's epic chainring failure of '08, I basted the chainring bolts liberally with blue loctite.

Wanting to keep cable runs to a minimum -- both for concerns about saltwater intrusion and to minimize the possibility of snagging one while schwacking -- I bolted the thumbshifter onto the seatstay rack mount, which gave me a massive 8" long cable run to the rear der.  I couldn't easily reach that shifter from the saddle, which meant I approached this ride from the perspective of a singlespeeder, always reading the lay of the land and ramping up in advance when necessary.  Over the course of the trip I think I averaged 2 shifts a day -- and of those probably only one was necessary.

Alas my desire to go the extra mile to keep things simple ended up biting me in the ass -- and I'm still not sure why.  I broke my chain 4 different times, all of them apropos of nothing that was happening. Grit may have been a factor, but then why weren't the others breaking theirs?  Same with saltwater -- why only me?  I wasn't shifting enough to speak of and I was diligent about cleaning and lubing the chain a few times a day -- more than the others as far as I could see.  4 broken chains might equal every other chain break I've ever had in 40+ years of riding bicycles.  Never did figure this out, but somehow when I'd used up all of my quicklinks and spare links, and learned that no one else had brought any, the breakages stopped.

Shifter placement visible above.  

I got creative with pedals.  On many previous trips I'd learned the importance of removing pedals for long periods of pushing or carrying the bike.  Once removed, not only do you not bang your shins on them when walking, but they can't catch on willow or alder and come swinging around to hit your shins or calves even harder.  But carrying and keeping track of an extra tool is sort of a bummer, so I went looking for a solution.  I found these on eBay and ran them on my commuter for 3 solid seasons, expecting them to somehow crater.  But they never did.  So I ordered a second set and when they arrived I compared the bearing feel and tried to find any difference in interface slop from the 3-year-old set to the new set.  And I really couldn't tell a difference.  So I bolted 'em on for the trip and ultimately used 'em throughout.  It was really, really convenient to be able to to just pop a pedal off and stick it in a pocket during the big boat crossings, or while schwacking our way up to the glacier.  I'd always make a point of rinsing the spindle in some ~fresh water before snapping the pedal back into place for the next fetch.  Really tickled with these.

Seat was an old WTB Vigo that just plain fits.  I think it's my last one -- may need to start scouring eBay this winter...

Bags: I used a Revelate Gas Tank to keep an iPhone close at hand for navs.  We used Gaia to locate ourselves, mark daily progress, and a few times to "see" what was over the bluff and help determine fine route choices when things got really bad.

I chose a stock Revelate frame bag because it fit the frame really well and because I was able to swing into Revelate and just grab it when I got to Anchorage.  Inside I kept most of my lunches, some water, bike tools and repair kit, and a spare tube.

I used the Revelate Terrapin under the seat, as I've done for many previous trips.  This is my all-time favorite seat bag, largely because of it's modularity and waterproofness.  Easy to just toss the whole thing into the tent at night, then repack it from within the comfort of the tent in the AM, and then quickly slip it in place and away you go.  I had this thing stuffed with all of my dinners, all of my breakfasts, the bug net for the mid, a fuel canister for the stove, and any overflow that I didn't want on my back.

The Farley frame came with a QR seat binder, which I used frequently when it came time to schlep the bike on the boat.  Open the binder, spin the post 180* and drop it completely, and the seat bag was instantly both out of the way of my body inside the boat and my paddle blades outside.  Handy.

All I can think of.  Don't hesitate with questions.

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Footsteps of Giants: Camera gear and food.

A few years back when I did the Lost Coast South, I took a massive amount of camera gear along because I didn't want to regret going light in such a spectacular place.  That meant two Canon 7d bodies, a 28-300 tele zoom on one and an 8-16 UWA on the other.  I also had 8 spare batts (they are bulky for the 7d), an intervalometer, plus a Contour POV (and 5 more batts) in it's silly waterproof case.  Because of where we were and what our objective was, I had to have 2 separate waterproof bags to carry this stuff in.  Any way you slice it that was just too much photo gear, even if the results seemed to vindicate the decision to carry it.

This time around I went much simpler.  I no longer have the 7d bodies -- one actually died on the trip described above -- thus I brought my one and only DSLR: A Canon 5d3.  I schlepped along a Canon 28-300L lens, which is just a massive piece of metal and glass for this sort of trip.  I've owned 2 of these now, and both have been simply unparalleled as far as IQ and covering a massive range are concerned.  That said, I have a love/hate relationship with this lens: Love the results, hate carting it along.  First world problem, anyone?

I carried this body/lens combo in an Ortlieb "waterproof" bag, usually strapped to my handlebars.  I added quotes because it's a nice bag: great size, easy open/close zipper, and it does pretty dang well with moisture management.  But it is emphatically not waterproof in any way.  It manages a few hours of rain OK but after an all-day rain (during which I kept it sealed shut) it completely wetted through and there was a small puddle in the bottom of the bag.  Doom and Brett both used these bags as well, and both had moisture management issues as I did.

Camera bag bottom left.  I most often slung it over the front of the bars, but sometimes clipped it to my shoulder straps and had it on my chest.

Our forecast was so dismal that I forewent bringing a UWA lens, simply because I knew I wouldn't want to be swapping glass in such a humid and gritty environment.  Given a choice I'll always prefer to shoot from a UWA perspective ~50% of the time on any given trip.  But because of the rain and wet sand infiltration we experienced, coupled with the fact that the camera/lens combo I carried is a bonafide 28mm, I didn't regret the lack of UWA more than once or twice.

I brought an intervalometer but never used it on this go round, simply because I couldn't foresee many time lapse sets working out with the near-constant fog, drizzle and wind.

I carried 4 extra batteries for the 5d3.  But because we had so much rain the DSLR never left it's water-resistant bag for the entirety of 2 of our days out, which meant I only used 2 of the backups.  Raining sideways and blowing salt spray are not the ideal environment for electronics of which one is enamored.  On those days (and many other times when I wanted a quick from-the-hip shot) I exclusively used a Go Pro Hero Session and a few-year-old Olympus TG-830.  Image quality on both of those is meh, but they're waterproof and coming home with a low-quality shot beats nothing at all.  I was glad to have both of these.

Food: I carried organic pop tarts (no nuclear ingredients like the capital P version) for breakfast, salami, string cheese, and tortillas for lunch, and then freeze dried meals for dinner.  I had an even split of Backpackers Pantry and Good To-Go, and have learned that I vastly prefer the G2G stuff: Flavor and cost are about the same but I can pronounce and understand everything on the ingredients label of the G2G meals.

We cooked over canister stoves most of the time.  Normally this group would opt to heat water over a driftwood fire, but the copious quantities of precip made the effort of kindling fire with wet wood tedious, and the desire to stand over it in the rain non-existent.  We were glad to have stoves.

I had a handful of treats like chocolate bars, peanut butter cups, and licorice as "head food".  I don't ever seem to be able to carry as much of that stuff as my body would like to consume.  N+1 seems to be the correct quantity.

I treated ~1/100th of the water I drank with Aquamira drops -- basically just the stagnant stuff when we were thirsty and uncertain when the next moving water would arrive.  Anything flowing we just dipped and drank.  I flavored my water with Nuun a few times a day.

Tomorrow: bike geek minutia.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Footsteps of Giants: Gear.

You can't do a trip like this without a lot of gear.  And while I'd never claim that there is only one "right choice" for gear, I've made a lot of mistakes on past bike/boat trips that have educated me on what should but doesn't work, and what works best.

Starting with the boats: All 5 of us used modern long-stern Alpacka rafts.  

Doom, Jaybs, Roman, and I were in Yukon Yaks, Brett had a Denali Llama.  

Doom and Jaybs had open boats -- no deck at all -- and no Cargo Fly zippers.

Brett, Roman, and I had whitewater decks on our boats, and cargo zips.

I used my zipper to stash gear low and dry inside the tubes for each of the "big" crossings: The Copper, Controller Bay, and Icy Bay.

I think Roman used his cargo fly on the same crossings.  Not sure if Brett used his.

While I had the whitewater deck on the boat, I opted not to bring the coaming and skirt.  I'd debated it heavily and reasoned that I should pack either those or a light drysuit, but not both, and ultimately concluded two things:

- I already had too much crap to cart along, and

-the drysuit packed smaller, lighter, and was more versatile, able to keep me dry both in *and* out of the boat.

Roman brought his full skirt/coaming/whitewater deck setup, as well as a drysuit.  Like the rest of us, he used the drysuit for big chunks of every day.  I'm not sure I ever saw him use the whitewater skirt setup.

If I owned a Yak with a Cruiser deck I'd have brought it, no question.

None of us had thigh straps, footbraces, or throw bags, and never really missed them.  No real need or use on a trip like this.

I've done a handful of other week+ long bike/boat trips in maritime climates.  On the first I skipped the drysuit, on each successive trip I've taken one.  They are fragile, no doubt -- you have to be smart about how you use them.  That said, I think they are worth their weight in unobtanium when you factor in packed size, personal comfort, and cost.  I would never willingly go without one.

We had zero boat or drysuit damage, thus had no cause to effect repairs.

Paddles: some version of a breakdown paddle is mandatory.  Roman and Doom had Sawyer 5-piece paddles.  Jaybs had a 4-piece Werner.  Brett had a 4-piece Aqua Bound.  I had a 4-piece Mitchell.  These paddles have to be light enough to cart along on your back every day, quick to deploy, comfortable to use for long stretches, and durable against accidental (and some not so accidental) rock impact, as well as unfazed by grit.  They also get used to support our tents, so it's important that the broken-down size (in my case, 3 out of the 4 pieces of my Mitchell make for a near-perfect, taut pitch of either a 2 or 4 man 'mid) works well with your tent.

I own a total of 5 Sawyer paddles and currently 3 of them are broken.  I love the adjustability and light weight, but I rarely take them far from home -- I simply cannot trust them.

The Mitchell I brought is a full-on whitewater paddle with bent shaft.  Overkill for this trip?  Absolutely.  But my race-wrecked hands and wrists go numb quickly on a straight shaft paddle, thus the added mass was very welcome both for comfort and peace of mind WRT durability.

We had zero paddle failures or repairs, though a few times the others' blades and shafts got stuck together and we had to get borderline medieval on them to get them apart.

Tents: We took two HMG Ultamids.  Doom, Brett, and Jaybs shared a 4-man version, complete with bug net and floor.  

Roman and I shared a 2-man, and while we brought the bug net I chose to be penny-wise and pound foolish by forgoing the floor option.  At the start of the trip when the sun was out and our packs were crammed full, it seemed like an OK compromise.  Once the rain started, I didn't feel the same: Wet sand sticks to everything, and no place is sacred.  Had we possessed the floor we would have had much less sand in our clothes, sleeping bags, food, undies, and teeth.  

There turned out to be very few bugs (I think they all drowned...) thus the bug net was superfluous and I'd have traded it for a floor or ground sheet in a heartbeat.

PFD's: We all wore them for the big crossings.  I don't think anyone used them for the quick "disaster style" hops across rivers.  We all opted for improvised inflatable versions.  All had plenty of flotation -- typically more than USCG requirements stipulate.  As with any inflatable, the tradeoff is in saving lots of packed space and weight vs. gambling on durability.  My PFD was also my pillow.

Packs: We each brought our favorite, well-worn and time-tested satchel.  Mine is an HMG 2400 Windrider.  The size is good, the hip-belt pockets are great, and the mesh exterior pockets are priceless.  Pretty much my all-time favorite pack, and "the one" I'd choose if I could only ever have a one-pack quiver.

The others each had an HMG Porter 3400.  Jaybs and Brett added an exterior stuff pocket to theirs.

None of our packs were truly waterproof.  To date I have tried many claimed to be such and found them lacking in both dryness and in how much weight, bulk, and cost were added only to have my gear still end up wet inside.  That said, the fabric on our packs never wetted out and never leaked, thus the only way our gear got wet inside was if we put it in there wet to begin with.  After a few days of rain we didn't really have a choice.

Clothing: In a word, wool.  I wore a long sleeve wool hoodie every moment of the trip -- it never came off, nor did I want it to.  I find this piece to be utterly perfect in design and execution -- so much so that from roughly November through April it is what I wear almost every day.  The fabric is soft to the touch, the cut is neither too tight nor too loose, the hood fits well and is warm, as well as unnoticeable when pulled back.  Finally, the thumb hooks and ample length to the sleeves add a level of comfort that has to be experienced to be appreciated.

I wore wool boxers and wool socks for the entirety, underneath a pair of quick-dry Patagucci pants.  I've owned this pair of pants for 5+ years now, and I can't think of a way to improve them.

I carried a pullover rain shell and some thin rain pants.  The shell was in use most of every day and sometimes even when sleeping.  I used the pants often but would probably opt to leave them next time: My drysuit was drier and I'd never leave home without it.

Sleeping: I own a really nice, really light, supremely packable summer down bag.  I took one glance at our forecast and left it at home.  Instead I brought along an old clapped out 40* TNF synthetic bag that I hacked apart years ago -- removing the zipper and the top ~1/3rd of the bag itself.  The end result is a "half bag" that I scrunch down into when I sleep.  I tend to sleep on my side 95% of the time, and usually fetal, so the added length of a full bag is more or less superfluous.  I supplement it with a synthetic hooded puffy that I also wear around camp.  On the bottom I had a set of wool long johns and an old set of high-loft alpaca wool socks.  These last two are creature comforts that I can do without, but am always glad to have a dry, cozy layer to nest into when camp time rolls around.

Sleep pads: We all used inflatables.  I've owned this one for 3+ years now and taken it on countless trips.  Main benefits as I see them are the handy/quick foot pump, a massive dump valve, and a true-to-advertised width.  I wouldn't mind a shorter version since I don't use the full length, but I own several 3/4 length pads that never get used because they just aren't as comfortable or user friendly as this Nemo.

Footwear: Some sort of light trail runner works best.  Gore Tex is bad -- once wet it never dries out.  I chose a set of these because they fit my feet, are very light, pretty durable, they dry quickly, and the laceless system works well.  You can find them a lot cheaper if you take the time to search.

Phew -- that's a lot of minutia.

Next post will cover bikes and camera stuff, as well as any questions about stuff I've omitted thus far.

Thanks for checking in.

Friday, September 9, 2016

Footsteps of Giants: Lost coast north day eight.

Laying in our bags all night while listening to the rain continually intensify, you might think we'd had to agonize over what our next step would be.  Get up onto the glacier with already soaked gear, in a whiteout, for 2 days of just-above-freezing rain?  Then another 2 or 3 days of sodden riding and paddling from there?

In reality, once we took a quick glance at the calendar and did some basic math, we really didn't have a decision to make: Our time was already up.

It was more complicated than just that, of course, but knowing that we had ~100 miles left to go, with ~half of that on the glacier (2 days travel), then a long day across Yakutat Bay in the boats, then another day to ride and schlep down to Yakutat proper, then ~half a day to box bikes and ensure there was room on the milk run out meant (assuming all went well) that we needed ~5 more days to finish.

We had just a shade over 2 to work with.

Given that there was an airstrip near Icy Bay lodge -- a mere few hours from where we lay listening to the rain fall -- made our "choice" to pull the plug purely academic.

All that remained was to pack our sodden gear, call in a plane, and make it to that airstrip.

We rode a few hundred meters to where the Cetani flowed out of the glacier, inflated boats while shivering in the rain, then climbed in and went for a ride.  Highlights of our float included Grand Canyon-sized wave trains, reading and running everything, and (ahem) watching Brett both swim and self-rescue.  

The water was so cold it didn't feel cold -- it burned any skin it came into contact with.  The fact that Davis immersed himself into it, got himself and his craft out of it, floated another ~40 minutes festering in his own slushy juices, then packed up and rode a few miles without a single whimper bore testament to what we all already knew: Davis doesn't dwell on minutia.

Rolling through the fog back out to Icy Bay, aiming toward a cabin we'd spied the day before.

If you could step outside of your borderline hypothermic state for a moment you were likely to notice unbounded natural beauty everywhere.  It required discipline, sodden and shivering as we were, to maintain that mindset.

We kindled fire, dried gear and selves, cooked a meal in the hunting cabin, then fired up the sat phone to arrange pickup.  Dry clothes in a warm room felt indescribably blissful, tempered only by the knowledge that our trip was ending.  All that remained was a few miles of riding to the airstrip.

Something about knowing the plug has been pulled makes me pay closer attention to the small details along the way.  Almost like I'm already missing them.  Megatons of kelp, trillions of mussels, a single apex predator, and a dearth of traction beneath our tires were the highlights of the ride up to Icy Bay Lodge.

A few short crossings kept us engaged, especially once the ceiling lifted enough to allow up-bay views of the Yahtse.

After a few hours of coasteering we rounded a point and saw a tender, a landing craft, and even some pleasure craft moored.  The folks at the Icy Bay Lodge were friendly, inquisitive, and informative (sharing that their little harbor here is the only safe anchorage between Cordova and Yakutat -- which explained the crowd) not to mention hospitable.  While Mike inquired about our trip and answered the volley of questions we returned, he also made sure we each had a cold beverage in our hands.

At dusk we climbed a steep, greasy track up into the woods, then rolled along through the trees to the airstrip beyond.

I'll be back to share some video and a bit of 411 on gear in a few days.  Got a specific gear/bike/boat/kit question?  Ask and ye shall receive.