Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Beach bound, hold on!

Waaaaaaay back in 1989 I was a wide-eyed undergrad at Michigan State. I'd aimed myself toward a law degree but seemed to spend a lot more time riding and racing, as well as tearing down and wrenching on bikes, than I did studying. My interests have always pulled me down the experiential path, leaving theory and philosophy for others (mainly the birds) to wring their hands over.

In my quest to further immerse myself in all-things-bike, I spent lots of time back then picking the brains of the local bike crowd, most of them employed as wrenches or sales-floor-geeks. They patiently explained the uses of and need for quality tools, the importance of wearing a helmet (I was unconvinced for far too long) and the value in learning to do all maintenance yourself. Never know when, or where, things'll break. This last bit caused me to linger in grocery store magazine aisles, reading the articles that I couldn't then afford to buy. It was here that I first read about "Hellbiking". What those guys did was, to me, akin to orbiting the moon. I could see little similarity between what they did and what I was doing, and (at the time) wanted nothing to do with their version. Brush bashing, chronic wetness, and inadvertent swims aside, I wanted speed and flow in the woods more than creeping death in the wilderness. What can I say--I was young...

Fast forward to 1996. I'd finished school and fled to Colorado with ski-bum aspirations that quickly turned (for 5 months of the year) into full-fledged bike bumming. I worked through the winter at a restaurant in Crested Butte, then come spring I traveled, rode, and raced all over the continent. In those days a long race was 100 miles, and a long training ride might span 4 hours. A few times a year we'd indulge in an ~8 hour epic, but those were a rare exception. Not just for me, but for pretty much everyone I knew. We'd barely begun to scratch the surface of the possible--we were just having fun.

That summer a team of three bold riders completed a 775-mile off-road, off-trail tour exploring the Alaska Range, *and* their story and pics made it into National Geographic, effectively blowing the hell out of what we had 'til then considered 'epic'. Nevermind that it was more of that 'hellbiking' thing--I'd been in the Rockies long enough to see their limits, and the bigness and wildness of Alaska seemed like the logical next step. That was 15 years ago, and I've immersed myself in the Alaskan backcountry for a part of every year since.

Now, fast forward to the present. One of the riders from the hellbike trips linked above is Roman Dial. We've never met, but we share many similar interests. A few months ago myself and three others received an email from Roman, proposing a little trip: Riding fat-tired bikes on the beaches and bear trails of Alaska's Lost Coast. Using packrafts to cross river outflows, circumvent glacier snouts, and portage around headlands. We'll also use the boats to paddle a seeming eternity through Icy Strait and Glacier Bay to our takeout.

It is an ambitious trip through some wild country. It is a place I've never seen, though often thought of. Having so little packraft experience, my initial reaction was to decline the invite. L talked me off that ledge right quick, and the past few months have all been a sort of preparation for this trip.

I write 'sort of' because it's hard to prepare for something you've never done, in a place completely opposite to where you're going. Paddling local pothole lakes at 90* in the sun has zero in common with coastal paddling at 38* in pissing rain. Nonetheless, I've done what I could to get ready, including heaps of reading and a little bit of gear buying. The trip starts tomorrow, and the list of those involved reads like a who's who of the genre: Dylan and Eric. Roman. And Steve. Why they invited me is anyone's guess. Court Jester? Rolling source of additional (adipose) calories?!

Dylan and Eric have done similar trips to this one, and described them as 'chronic wetness'. So the crux, as it were, of this trip seems to be managing moisture. On one's person that can be challenging enough, even once you've thrown up your hands and accepted being wet all the time. Camera gear is different--it has to stay dry, period, or you're suddenly carting along a very expensive packraft anchor. I've been fiddling with a few easy-access drybags to accomplish this feat. More on that in a bit. Will they work? I'll know tomorrow...

I'll be riding a stock Surly Pugsley frame and fork. Single speed, single brake.

The brake is a Hayes Dyno. Low end from a certain perspective, but *my* perspective is that I'm not keen on going brakeless (as Eric, Dylan, and Doom are planning to) and a little digging unearthed the fact that this brake uses aluminum in key places, thus avoiding (or at least delaying) the death-by-corrosion that plagues most brakes in this environment.

I laced a set of Surly Rolling Darryl rims to a set of Surly hubs, using DT Swiss butted spokes and DT Prolock brass nips. Fixed cog up front just in case, White Industries freewheel out back. Shod with Surly Larry tires, and even some svelte Surly tubes. Cranks, bb, and fixed cog are also Surly-made. Sensing a theme yet? These guys make reasonably priced stuff that works well and lasts a long time. Durability on 'out there' trips like this one is really the only factor I considered, but I was very, very pleasantly surprised by the sweet steel feel when I started riding the bike. Didn't think you could feel that kinda subtlety through that much rubber and air volume, but you can, and I ain't complainin'.

Gearing is what Eric and Dylan told me to run--small. I've got a 24t up front, and a 20t out back, which is actually a bit *taller* (!!!) than they said we'd want. I'd prefer to mash than spin, so I went taller.

Bars and post are Moots ti. The post was chosen for comfort via deflection, the bars are there because they're a custom width and sweep that fits me to a "T", but they also store ~12 oz of alcohol--to run my stove.

Pedals are Answer flats--simple and dependable. Cheapy stem and old comfy saddle, with some old Ergon grips and a (very!) used chain round out the package. No sense using a new chain when it's gonna be dead as dead in 10 days.

The boat is an Alpacka Llama, mostly stock. I glued a few strap plates and grab loops onto the spraydeck to facilitate camera carrying while paddling. The clear bundle in the middle of the deck in this pic is a ~9lb drybag with DSLR, big (for me) lens, an intervalometer, a few batts, and a few memory cards:

While riding, hiking, or 'shwacking I'll have an Osprey Talon 22 on my back, stuffed with that big camera bag, a small stove and pot, and a bit of water.

The frame pack and gas tank are works of art, made by Eric at Revelate. How can you beat having a piece of kit made by the guy that knows more about where it's going and how it's going to be treated than virtually anyone else on the planet?! Most noticeable are the gaskets that protect the waterproof zippers.

Inside of the frame bag are 10 days of lunches and snacks, as well as a GPS, SPOT tracker, spare batts for both, spare batts for my cameras, spare tube, patch kit, and 3 other things I'm forgetting right now.

Inside of the gas tank are two wrenches (one for removing pedals while paddling, one for removing wheels), some snacks, and a Contour HD POV cam. For on/in/under water shots...

On the Old Man Mountain rear rack is one stuffsack, lashed atop one paddle blade-cum-fender. I tried a compression drybag but it leaked, so I'm back to basics with an uncompressed (and very full) version.

Inside of it is a Thermarest Prolite shorty pad, for sleeping on and for insulating me bum from the cold water when paddling. Also inside are my sleeping bag (an old TNF synth bag, procured for $40, temp rating unknown) and sleep clothes, plus ten days of freeze dried breakfasts and dinners of my own recipe. Mmmmm, lasagna...

Phew. So that's the gear. Which is and can be critical in so many ways. My hope is that over the past few months I've made logical and well-informed decisions on what to take and what to leave, so that the next ~10 days are anything but epic. Wet? Yep. Buggy and beary? No way around that. Adventurous? Yeah, you bet. It's wild country and we'll need to do lots of problem solving as individuals and as a group to even have a chance of making it all the way through. That's probably the biggest draw to this sort of thing--the mandated personal growth required to succeed, and the massive amounts of learning you do regardless of outcome. And then there's the scenery--we'll be on the Alaskan coast and in Glacier Bay. If the rain stops and the fog lifts, we're in for some knock-our-sodden-socks-off views.

With any luck, I'll have a few (thousand!) pics and some stories to share when I get back.

I'll leave you with the trailer that Eric made from his and Dylan's last trip in this area.

Whoowee. Counting the minutes now...!

Thanks for checkin' in.

MC