Although I hadn't fully grasped it yet, the sleeping pads I'd chosen for this trip were VERY well suited to insulating me from the cold snow beneath, but they didn't have *quite* enough padding for my hips. As a result I'd have to roll over about every 45 minutes through the night. And about 2 hours before each sunrise I'd turn over and try to go back to sleep once more, but sleep wasn't so keen on coming back. So I'd lay there and semi-nap, then 'round about first light I'd start to motivate and get packed up, breakfasted and riding before the sun crested the horizon.
On this morning I'd packed the bike up and was cinching the sleeping bag tight to the rear rack when I heard a sound behind me. I turned to see Tom Jarding ("World's Sexiest Mailman") approaching from Shell Lake.You don't need to spend more than about 20 seconds around Tom to be affected by his contagious smile and what-me-worry attitude. We chatted for a bit but were both anxious to cover some ground so I hopped on the bike and took off, knowing I'd see him later in the day.
To my delight, the trail was just as hardpacked as it had been the previous two days. In fact, curiously it seemed to me that this section was even firmer than the Yentna had been. I'd heard something about a local (to Shell Lake) couple that had been grooming the trail from here to Puntilla, and it was easy to see that exactly that was happening. In an average year hundreds of snowmachines make the trek at least as far as Finger Lake, BUT slednecks seem to have an aversion to riding in someone else's track so the traffic spreads out and a 'main trail' never really materializes.This year--not so much. There was only one track, 98% of the machines had been using it, and you could have bowled a 300 on it--it was that hard and that smooth.
Honestly, I felt a bit dirty riding it. It was soooo easy, but what good is easy? I like to be pushed and pulled and torn and beaten by brutal conditions--it brings out the best and the worst in me, and fast. But this--this was just ridiculous. I made a mental note to find out if the racers were getting mints on their pillows too.
Approaching a sharp corner I came face to face with a guy cruising on a snowmachine. Normally one of two things happens: They pull up next to you, kill the engine, then chat for a bit, OR they ride off the track, pass by (sometimes waving, sometimes not) and continue down the trail. This guy did neither: He sat on his sled ~30 feet away, engine running, staring straight at me. All of the grooming had left the trail a smooth, deep boulevard with ~30" high walls on each side. In other words, I wasn't really able to lift the bike up and get off the trail right here. And he didn't seem keen to try riding around.
So we stared at each other for a few, then he made a brief, angry (from my perspective) hand gesture that let me know he expected me to move. As the thought "what a lazy mofo" went through my head I started horsing and wrenching the bike up the bank, little by little, until there was room for him to squeak by. Then I gestured that he was welcome to pass. He gunned the throttle and came flying up, then grabbed a handful of brake and stopped right next to me. Pointing toward my head he yelled over the racket of his machine, "Nice hood, sissy".
I stood there for a second processing what he'd said. Nice hood? Maybe he said 'nice head'? Nice food? Nice mood? Nah--what sense does that make? Had to be 'nice hood'. I chuckled a bit, thinking of all the 'sissy' dog mushers and other slednecks out here wearing hoods to shield them from the wind. Hell, if wearing a hood makes one a sissy, sign me up. I smiled back at him and yelled, probably a bit louder than I needed to, "Nice motor, toughguy!"
With that he pinned the throttle and left me cackling in a cloud of two-stroke exhaust.
Mid-day I passed through Finger Lake and chatted with the always cheerful crew, then enjoyed a brief but steep descent down to Red Lake before starting the climb into the mountains in earnest.
A few hours up the trail (but only a few miles--so steep I was off and pushing quite a bit) I bumped into Geoff Roes. I'd ridden a bit with Geoff on the first day--long enough that as I followed him I consciously wondered if his stride felt to him as effortless as it looked to me. Geoff floats along the trail and just doesn't look like he's putting any effort or thought into going as smoothly or as quickly as he is. I was envious of his stride as I followed him that day, but then I thought briefly ahead and realized that I'd rather push a tank-ass heavy bike than run all the way to McGrath.
It had been fun to chat with Geoff that first day and night but this meeting wasn't nearly as light-hearted: Geoff was hobbling back toward Finger Lake. He wasn't sure what exactly he'd done nor when, but was obviously having shin or ankle pain and was heading home to heal up. He was dejected at having to bail but was also savvy enough to realize how much he'd learned in the ~140 miles he'd already covered. I was sorry to see him go but I'm damn sure Geoff is gonna be back on this trail for many years to come.
Here he is limping back down the trail:
More steep climbing punctuated by some off-the-back-of-the-saddle descents led me down onto the Happy River. And then there it was--the Happy River Hill. Steep enough that it's mandatory to push even an unloaded bike (and totally impossible for any human to pedal up it), and also necessary to take several breaks along it's ~1/4 mile length, I'd been thinking about this hill for several hours already. And although I expected it to be a bit of an ordeal, it turned out to be nothing at all.
I pulled all 4 panniers off the bike and dropped them in the snow, then pushed the bike about a third of the way up. Walking back down for the bags was sufficient enough to get my heart rate somewhere sub-redline, so I grabbed the bags, walked back up to the bike, breathed for a few, then repeated the process til I'd crested the top. With an unloaded bike I'd guess that it takes ~10 minutes to push up the hill. Out of curiosity I timed myself from the moment I started unhooking the panniers at the bottom until everything was back on the bike at the top. 19 minutes. Surprisingly quick. And ~3 of those minutes were devoted to unhooking/rehooking the panniers. Cool.
Afternoon faded to evening, then to alpenglow, and dusk found me pushing the steep hill from Shirley Lake to Finn Bear Lake. By the time the stars were out I'd already negotiated the fun, swoopy trail contouring the Long Lake Hills and found a suitable camp spot in the windy meadows just beyond. I staked out the tent as a pale green aurora shimmered above the peaks to the northwest, putting a smile on my face as I pulled off shoes and climbed inside for the night.