Sunday, February 15, 2009

Guitar Lake to Schneiderheinze.

The ever-freshening wind that kept me awake all night and laid waste to the trail just kept getting stronger. It had pushed me along at a thrilling clip headed west toward McGrath, but now, roughly two hours since leaving Nikolai, the gusts were so intense that I was losing control of the bike. The problem wasn't actually the strength of the gusts but the unpredictability. I'd brace expecting 'em to come from the right then when they hit me from the left I'd be off the trail and buried, sometimes so entwined in the bike that extrication took significantly more strength and time than I cared to spend with a face and fleece mitts covered in fresh snow. There are tradeoffs with any clothing choice, in this case the comfort and warm-on-the-inside fleeciness of my gloves was an emphatic liability due to the amount of snow that clung to them after each crash.

What can I say--appropriateness when stacking hadn't been high on the list of criteria when picking them out.

Slowly and *almost* imperceptibly the trail surface was changing again, from scoured and polished to occasionally drifted. "Occasionally" morphed into often, then mostly, and finally in the span of an hour I went from riding at 10+ mph to walking at less than 2. The thrilling excitement of covering ground that fast was difficult to let go of, made moreso by my suddenly sloth-like pace.

But no amount of effort can keep *any* bike on top of this kind of snow. It's not a question of float, it's more a function of traction, or, in this case, a lack thereof.

Freshly fallen snowflakes that come down in the absence of wind have all of their arms intact. Look closely at each flake and you can see all of the little arms sticking out, and it's not too hard to imagine how a few thousand snowflakes per square meter will intertwine with each other.

Grab a handful and make a ball or step down onto a patch and there is an unmistakeable crunch--the sound of hundreds of arms breaking off as each flake gets squished into its neighbors, somehow sticking and intermeshing at the same time. That's the point--fresh snow unaffected by wind will stick together, creating a platform that a fat-tired bike can be ridden on and, with more effort, through.

But this snow is very different, by virtue of the simple fact that it came down in a wind and has since been tumbled along by that same wind. Before any single flake even hit earth its little arms had been removed, and any flakes that did manage to hit the ground intact didn't last long as they blew, bounced, and tumbled their way to where they've come to rest. The end result of all this wind affected snow is that the flakes are no longer flakes--they strike a closer resemblance to ball-bearings or bb's than anything else. Perform a little experiment--go down to your local hardware (or to your garage, shop, or junk drawer) and get a handful of bb's, place them on the floor, then step on them and try to mash them together. Not working? Squirting out from underfoot in every direction? Exactly. Wind affected snow does the same thing--it simply cannot and will not stick together, so as you walk you have a two-steps-forward-one-step-back feeling as the bb's of snow squirt out from under your feet. In the extremely unlikely event that you're able to mount up and pedal a stroke or two on this kind of surface, you'll immediately lose control of the front wheel as it too squirts sideways across and through more of these ball bearings. Not that the front wheel matters here, because the back wheel just spins and digs itself in.

With wind affected snow, there is no choice but to push the bike. McGrath was suddenly much more than 3 hours away.

So I walked along, hood up to protect my face from the lashing gusts, mind returning to focus on the damaged stove and tent. Knowing that the stove was untouchable until I was inside the wind-free environs of the tent, I kept my eyes peeled for small sheltered areas where I might be able to briefly remove hands from gloves and fiddle with the aluminum tent poles. Traversing the many lakes, rivers and sloughs I'd anxiously scan the far shoreline for any hint of a depression, hill, or swale, but again and again I'd be disappointed with nothing but flat earth. In an effort to calm my ever-increasing anxiety I told myself, "You can't fault a place for being what it is. Don't get pissy because the land is flat, turn that finger around and point it at yourself: YOU chose this equipment and apparently failed to properly test it. Now deal with it."

I walked for hours, needing to make progress anyway but more focused on that elusive sheltered spot that might yet exist ahead.

Crossing one swamp I caught and passed one of the racing runners who had stopped to fiddle with gear. It occurred to me that this might be the race leader, then it confounded me why he'd be moving so slow that I could catch and pass him. His native Italian tongue afforded no answers to my ignorant American ears, so after a brief strained attempt at conversation I moved on up the trail.

My spirits sunk slowly with the setting sun. I knew I'd have no trouble bivying comfortably with or without the tent, but lacking the ability to turn snow into hot water meant another 24 hours gone with no calories replaced. Aside from the knowledge of what the lack of food was doing to me I *was* feeling weak. My legs churned along metronomically, almost separately from my own attention or consciousness. They knew their job and apparently didn't need external coaching or motivation. I didn't argue. I noticed the lack of calories in a churning, empty belly, a core temp that couldn't regulate itself, a head fixated on the idea of food, and a nose that constantly rang false alarms to the tune of grilling meat and woodsmoke. But mostly I noticed the lack of calories in my weak-and-feeble-to-begin-with upper body. My legs did the heavy lifting of pushing the bike but arms and torso were still required to balance it against the gusts and steer it through the windblown snow. I debated whether decades of cycling could somehow have consumed unused pectorals, ultimately concluding that since they complained so fiercely they must still exist.

And still on I pushed.

I could blather on and on about the pushing and the wind, and how difficult travel was on that afternoon. Any forward progress came with a stiff toll, but to be honest that wasn't the big story for me. When I finally did manage to find a semi-protected little hollow, drop the bike, pull out the poles and inspect them in daylight, what I saw made trudging with the bike seem comically simple.

The poles were not repairable.

Some of the first few cracks had merely split the female ends of each section and these I had repaired with spare spokes, duct tape and zip ties. Those repairs had held, but the cracks that started on the second night had actually spiraled instead of merely splitting, and no amount of duct tape, zip ties, or super glue could fix that. A month later I would learn that these poles were a proto set that had never been intended to see the light of day. No one at the tent company could find any good reason why or how I had received them. I didn't blame them nearly as much as myself--I should have tested more, and I should have had the means to repair them. My fault.

So the poles were shot. I packed 'em back up and resumed pushing. I walked through the afternoon and into evening, stopping only once to chat with a fella on a snowmachine. He sat side-saddle on his machine to face me, lit up a cigarette, then really didn't have anything to say. I politely plied him with questions but received only one-word answers in return. Not so much a conversationalist. When he finished his smoke he flicked the butt, said, "Whelp...", then fired up his machine and left.

And with that, I was back to walking.

Sometime late that night, maybe even early the next morning, I rolled the bike up to the home of Peter and Tracey Schneiderheinze, leaned it against the porch, clomped up the stairs and stood in front of the door. Knowing full well that to step inside the house would end a certain component of this journey, I hesitated. As I began (yet again) flipping through the possible solutions that would allow me to continue, all of them hinged on a functioning tent and stove, neither of which I had been able to solve on my own.

I reached for the handle, turned it, and stepped inside.


  1. Mike...when is your book coming out? I'm just wondering if you've ever thought about it.

    I think you could put together a great collection of stories and photographs that many cyclists and non-cyclists would be interested in reading and enjoying.

  2. A question:

    The fasting is survivable, but what are you doing for drinking water during this time without a stove to melt snow?

  3. long last...the story continues!

    Thanks for that Mike!