Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Farewell lakes to Salmon River Swamps.

The day dawned clear and calm--exactly what I'd been hoping for. I'd laid in the bag for long enough that there was no dilly-dallying and no missteps when repacking in the sharp cold that had settled onto the lake. I made a mental note on how much clearer the process of repacking seemed after spending a few extra minutes cataloging everything I had to pack away, and what order worked best to pack it.

Side note: I realize that it seems extremely obsessive compulsive (anal, anyone?) to have to plot and plan an 'order' in which to repack ones gear. When I raced this route the amount of gear I carried was significantly less--both by design and by evolution. I learned the hard way that the more stuff you have to account for and stash away, the more time you spend not moving, which means you're getting colder by the minute. First thing in the AM when the temps are at their coldest is a difficult time to merely conjure up the mental wherewithal to get yourself out of a perfectly warm sleeping bag, not to mention the guaranteed pain involved in having your hands go numb (repeatedly) while stashing all of the stuff that needs to be stashed. In short, the less time you spend packing, the warmer your extremities remain. And within minutes of being packed and moving, the blood is flowing and everything starts to warm up nicely. So it pays to pack quick.

While stuffing my sleeping bag I couldn't help but notice the track of a lone lynx that had circled the tent sometime in the night.I get a kick out of how well adapted they are to this environment--those gargantuan feet belong to a ~30lb cat!

I make a habit of walking the first ~1/2 mile every morning--basically just to get myself a teeny bit limber before hopping on the bike and clipping in to the pedals. It also serves as a good time to recheck all the cinch straps holding precious gear to the bike, as well as brush teeth, degoopify eyes and glasses, check/replace the batts in any of the appliances I'm carrying (GPS, SPOT, camera, headlamps), and just generally prepare for the day.

Crossing Steele Lake a few miles later it was entertaining to see the tracks of the bikers ahead. Fresh snow had obscured all markers and previous tracks before they arrived, so some of their tracks followed the margins of the lake (looking for where the trail exited) while those that came after (raises hand) could simply look ahead and see where to go.
Gone are the days, however, when you could look at a tire track and know who left it. The proliferation of Surly EndoMorph tires has forced would-be trackers to memorize the soles of their competitors boots! Ha!

My attention to these sorts of things (and the light mindframe that went along with them) was a great mask for what was really on my mind: gear repairs. The morning was far too cold yet to work with bare hands, so I focused on anything else and kept tabs on the rising temp.

Rolling along through the Farewell Hills I had time to reminisce about the dead wolf that some crafty bison hunters had propped up alongside the trail a few years back. They'd found it trailside after it had apparently been stomped to death by a moose. By accident or intent I'll never know for sure, but the hunters had carefully placed the carcass behind an alder thicket so that it was invisible to northbound travelers until they were literally arm's reach away. It was early in the morning (still dark) and I was a sleep deprived zombie when it entered my peripheral vision. My brain registered the shape but didn't believe it. When I swung my headlamp over to double check, the wolf's eye reflected the light and I'll swear til my dying day that that wolf took a step forward. I emitted (100% involuntarily) a 14-year-old-girl-at-a-horror-movie scream, simultaneously sprinting and bunnyhopping (?) as I passed the wolf. I was so certain it was real and so terrified it was chasing that I didn't stop sprinting for at least 2 minutes, and simply could not bring myself to turn and look back. I didn't want to know.

Folks that passed the carcass in daylight hours (or that were less sleep deprived) got a good chuckle out of it but I don't think anyone else was as fooled as I was. Chalk one up for the bison hunters...

Near the north end of the Farewell Hills the sun had risen enough that I could start to consider working with gloves off. The hills aren't big and the vegetation, while thick enough to make traveling off-trail miserable, doesn't really provide any shelter from wind.As I cruised ever northward I kept looking for a windless spot with southern exposure--basically I wanted the sun on my face and hands while fixing stuff. Such a spot never presented itself--the farther I rode the more the wind came up, until finally I had no choice but to stop, drop and deal with my gear issues regardless. The breeze wasn't much but it was pervasive, essentially rendering every effort I made at lighting the stove futile. Not willing to waste any more time while the wind continued to rise, I focused on repairing the tent poles.

Laying awake hours before I simply couldn't think of a reason why the poles would crack at -30 degrees but not at -20 or -10. Had it been cumulative fatigue combined with cold? Was the design of the tent such that the poles were overstressed and as such doomed to fail regardless? I had no answers, just many empty theories coursing through my noggin' as I re-reinforced each pole junction. I used up 75% of my alloted duct tape for the entire trip fixing the poles, and ~half of my zip ties, but when I finished I was confident in the repair.

Optimistic--that's me. I should have known better...

Once I started moving again I didn't have a whole lot on my mind--staying on the trail and upright against the ever-freshening crosswinds took all of my concentration. The wind wasn't malevolent or crazy or brutal--it was actually a lot of fun. No doubt my perspective was colored by the fact that it was midday (big wind at night almost always seems malevolent to me) but I enjoyed fighting the wind for control of the bike, and laughed each time it 'won', pushing me off the trail and into the deep snow. Over and over I'd extricate myself from the deep stuff, push a short distance to get the bike to the right margin of the trail, then remount and alternately finesse (in the lulls) and fight (in the gusts) 'til I got shellacked again.
The miles passed slowly but I enjoyed myself intensely--lost in the minute-to-minute struggle.

Eventually the fun came to an abrupt end as the trail took a northwesterly turn--it was instantly drifted in and that was simply that.

I walked through the afternoon and evening, often stopping briefly to turn away from the blasting of the relentless gale. I enjoyed the sunset while walking and then ingested my only 'meal' of the day in the form of a 500-calorie chocolate bar a few minutes before setting up the tent. My hunger had been manageable throughout the day and I'd deliberately saved the calories until just before climbing into the bag: I'd much rather deal with hunger while awake than while trying to sleep. Although movement had been consistent throughout the day and I wore plenty of clothing (with plenty in reserve) for the temps and windchills, the caloric deficit was catching up to me and I felt it in a rare inability to stay warm once the sun went down.

I pitched the tent in a tangle of downed trees at the edge of a swamp. The wind was still strong here but the tangled trees had removed a bit of it's conviction--swirling and buffeting were the norm as opposed to the relentless driving gales out in the open. I was thrilled to feel warm inside the bag but sleep was restless and tortured--both by the wind, the gnawing in my stomach, more pole failures, and by unexpected company...


  1. How exactly do you get goop off your glasses at -30?

  2. Geez, enough with the cliff hangers already! Great writing.
    Now I'll be thinking about what "it" was all day.


  3. You and "the wind" will forever be inextricably tied together for as long as I can remember you, but not because of Alaska. Though, I don't doubt that the comment you made to me was somehow rooted in the wilds of the far north.

  4. WHy a tent and not a bivy? More space, more comfort? I am an absolute novice when it comes to winter overnight riding. So I am curious.

    Keep up the great stories and photos. They are high quality reading.

  5. Heard you had a bibler tent? Bibler is really great but my poles snapped from downdrafts of winds in the Cape Lisburne area in the summer. A mountaineering friend had the same thing happen climbing. Not sure if it's the design or the material...

  6. I had a similar "14-year-old-girl-moment" when I was cutting through the local golf course late at night coming home from work on my Pugsley.
    The place is infested with rabbits and my smile turned to horror as I realized the big black bunny bounding towards me out of the shadows was in fact an ownerless Doberman. I didn't bunny-hop, but the 2-minute-don't-look-back-sprint was put to good use!

    I am about to buy some Ortlieb panniers. Would you recommend the traditional closing Bike Packers you appear to be using over the roll-top Back Rollers?