Monday, March 21, 2011

signs of spring

It's a perfect spring day
with conditions we all wait for.
I remove the poagies from my handlebar.
Won't need the extra warmth today
don't need the thermometer dangling
by a cord.

A balmy day, though still not above freezing
No heavy tights
no extra fleece socks
light gloves.
We ride; the sun breaks through.

We wait for these days
the magical conditions and temperatures.
Spring conditions
when the snow is fresh
and the air warm.
The conditions just before it all starts to go.

The conditions that draw people out to the trails
Into the woods and onto the mountain slopes;
that cause them to share a smile and a greeting
instead of ducking their heads, turtle-like
deeper into their collar for warmth.

The conditions that make us think
This might be the last great day
and we ride or ski or hike like it is.
The last great day of the season
or maybe even our lives.

And in the high country yesterday
A body was uncovered
from more than a dozen feet of snow
compacted like concrete
under the power of a spring avalanche.

Before the slide
he had a smile on his face
Looking beyond the camera.
The photo looked at me from the newspaper today.
On the side of a mountain
more mountains behind him
before the moment of bliss gave way
Turned him over and under the crushing mass.

He'd done everything right
beacon, shovel, testing, checking
Cautious, his friend telling.
His friend lucky to have swum through it
Climbed from a premature tomb
to be crushed by sadness.

And it's another perfect spring day
with conditions for which we all wait.
Yet they are fleeting
as the moment of a flower's perfection.
We take it, breathe in
then watch as it melts away.

(photo from the archives: 4/23/2010)

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

knik river

Alan, Jon, glacier, driftwood.

We thought we could make it to the Knik Glacier and the route seemed promising at first. Firm ice on a mid-20 degree day with the sun radiant in the early March sky. The conditions we hope for in the last days of winter. The conditions we sometimes forget to hope for while enduring 20-below (or colder) days or rainy 40-degree days in the middle of January's darkness. And there we were: Jon, our friend Alan and me. On our studded tires headed up-river.

Open water.

I wasn't in a hurry and kept noticing shapes in the river ice: rocks and pebbles encased in more than a foot of solid ice; patterns of sastrugi, the snowdrifts of earlier in the winter eroded by winds that blow from the glacier, carrying fine particles of silt that land on the drifts, coloring them gray. Adding a gritty layer to the ice.

Sastrugi (The glacier is in the far right corner.)

Jon called out to me as I sat on the ice with the camera in my hand. I was so easily distracted that it's a good thing there was no open water right next to that section. I was focused on all the rocks, I told them as I caught up. "I guess you don't need any mind-altering chemicals, do you?" Alan asked. I guess not. Is that what it takes for people to enjoy just looking at one thing for more than a minute? Because I could have stayed in that one spot for another 15 minutes looking at the rocks and the ice patterns as they caught the noon-time light. As my body absorbed the heat. Instead, we continued.

Looking through a window of foot-thick ice.

We followed ice shelves on the river bank; we rode over miles of gravel bars covered with fist-sized river rocks and small pebbles; we plowed through low, crusty snow drifts that made barriers across our route. We got off and walked. The glacier appeared closer and closer, but only in small increments. Our tires sunk into a mush of pebbles and silt as the ground softened in the afternoon warmth. We decided to declare that, for this trip, the journey was its own destination.

don't break, don't break

After lunch, we turned around and followed our tracks back. Or we forged new courses, taking whichever route each of us preferred. Sometimes riding together; sometimes separate down the expanse of the valley. Me, riding slower, taking the time to look around. Thinking about the abuse I'd just put my studded tires through, feeling a new roughness in my bottom bracket - or was it my rear hub? Feeling a tiredness in my quads from riding out of the saddle on the roughest stretches. Relieved to arrive at each icy section for the smooth ride, even if we did have to pedal through dozens of crescent-shaped drifts that were spaced at intervals across the ice, another product of the winds that frequently blow down the valley from the glacier.

The sun was blocked by a mountain as we neared our entry/exit point. Our studded tires dug into the slushy top inch of the ice, breaking through enough that it released a slight whiff of methane that had been trapped under the ice as plants decayed in the mud.

It's nearly the middle of March. The days are getting longer. We haven't had snow in nearly three weeks. In many places the trails are hard-packed and fast to ride. In some parts of town, things are melting. March. This year it seems to be a most magical month.

Heart rock.

february in wisconsin

Along Highway 12, near Baraboo.

I arrived in Wisconsin in mid-February, during the start of the Big Demonstrations at the state capitol, but instead of getting my protest on, I spent lots of time in the rolling hills of the farm country northwest of Madison, a region they call the driftless area. That is, during the last glacial period, the area wasn't covered by glaciers, so that no (or very little) drift was deposited in the area. Long ridges, steep slopes and bluffs make the area a little limiting for farming, so corporate farms aren't that prevalent.

I stayed in the small town of Wonewoc, which was built between sandstone bluffs and the meandering Baraboo River. Just one stop on the former railroad line between Chicago and Minneapolis which is now a rail-trail. I visited cheese factories, drove some backroads and even stopped in at a dairy farm. If you've never been in a dairy barn, if you weren't raised with the scent of the barn, that sweet, rich scent that combines alfalfa, corn, oats, cow dung and warm milk, then you won't understand how comforting it was for me to duck into the barn during the middle of yet another Midwest snowstorm.

My dad got out of farming when I was a little kid; I only remember the time we raised one steer for butchering. But my aunt and uncle lived up the road and had a dairy farm. My two cousins, younger brothers and I would play in the barn. I remember riding tricycles scooter-style down the aisle between the manure gutters, racing each other and hoping we didn't fall into the manure. We built forts in the hay mow and I remember trying to help out a few times. But I wasn't a farm kid. We gardened; we didn't farm.

Just a day old.

But I was still raised with that scent and raised on the fresh milk my dad would bring home from the farm in big metal pails. After the milk was cold, we'd stir the cream back in before serving it for dinner. No soda on that table. Sure, in the summer we'd sometimes have Kool-aid, but mostly we were a milk-drinking family. Though I remember when we'd have milk break at school I couldn't stand to drink the white milk; it tasted watered-down and almost bitter. Not the sweet milk I got at home. I'd go for the chocolate milk if I could; just to cover the blandness of the processed milk.

I helped clean the barn. Know what? Cow manure is heavy!

Kitties in the straw await milking time.

On the Goodman farm, I visited with a day-old calf, helped scrape manure into the gutters and checked out the barn cats who were probably intrigued that a human was paying attention to them. (I probably got in the way a little, too.) Earlier in the week I'd bought cheese at a cheese factory that only uses organic milk, including milk from the Goodmans. Now, tucked in a bag in my fridge here in Anchorage are a couple bricks of cheddar that I like to think include milk from the small herd I visited. I know it's going to be good.

I heard that I was the second Rose to visit in as many days who
insisted on a photo with this cow. She looks like she's trying to
sniff me, but she's actually trying to back away. Sorry, Rose!

My sister-in-law gave me this jacket to wear. It was huge and
the buttons kept coming undone. My brother, Mike, later told
me it was my dad's jacket. A perfect barn coat, b'gosh.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

sometimes it's best to turn back

Jon levitating across Resurrection Creek.

If the ride starts to suck, turn around.

I'd heard from a friend that Resurrection Trail was pretty nice to ride. He'd biked from the Bean Creek trailhead near Cooper Landing up to Juneau Lake. Great conditions. So I started thinking, I wonder how the Hope side is. As it turns out, not as nice as I'd hoped.

Jon and I headed down on Thursday, making the drive around Turnagain Arm to get to the trailhead. The road hadn't been plowed all the way to the parking lot, so we parked just this side of the turn-around, readied the bikes and headed up the road. Before long we were on the trail and climbing.
In some places, the trail was smooth & fast.

Between areas of sweetly-packed, smooth trail were long runs where a moose or two had decided the trail was indeed an easy route to follow. We rode the post-hole filled trail for a few miles, enduring the elbow-jarring sections and hoping for improvements. We met a group of skiers who were touring the 39-mile trail over the upcoming three days, staying at a different public-use cabin each night. They would have great conditions. Three days of bluebird skies and perfect temperatures in the forecast. Plus, their skis would glide right over the post-holes while they barely noticed them. For a few minutes, I longed for my skies. And wished that moose was in my freezer instead of on my trail!

In more places, the trail was trampled and jarring.

As we rode alongside the creek, it got worse. I stopped and waited for Jon. We had to decide whether we wanted to endure or find a better place to ride. Jon admitted that he had taken me on rides where I was hating the conditions and now he seemed to be hating this trail even more than I was. The decision was mine. I rode up the trail another hundred yards or so. No, I told him, this would be great except that it really sucks. So we turned around. The pounding continued, yet we enjoyed stretches. At the top of the final long climb, we sat in the sun to share a thermos of tea and a snack.

A smooth climb.

Back in the car, we debated where to go: I was up for sitting in the sun somewhere enjoying a coffee. Jon thought Twenty Mile or Portage. We drove on. At Johnson Pass, he suggested we try those trails. I waited in the car while Jon checked out the trail entrance. He could see a few bike tracks that barely sunk into the hard-packed snowmachine trail. No sign of moose. Soon we were back on the bikes riding a pump-track descent of rollers (aka, whoop-do-dos) until we reached a creek. At a stream bank, we dropped onto a snow-covered creek and turned right but soon turned around when we approached open water, doubling back and riding up-river.

A mountain blocked the sun and the temperature dipped to 10 degrees as we followed the creek upstream. Soon we saw a bridge over the creek and knew we were almost to the summer trail. A trail whose dips and turns I recognize in the summer was now again turned into a series of rollers that climbed the narrow trail alongside a snow-covered marsh.

The air was still and cold. We heard a few birds, but couldn't see them. Not a cloud in the sky. I looked down at my watch and it was already 5:00, our turn-around time. We retraced our route to the trailhead, satisfied that even this short ride could redeem the earlier experience.

Is this Center Creek or Bench Creek? Either way, the
snowmachine trail hooks in with the summer trail just behind me.

Part of what I love about the winter riding experience is the feeling of adventure and exploration. Sure, somebody has been there before me, but I love being on a trail for the first time. Wondering what the conditions will be; what I'll find next; hoping I can take the right turns and find my way back before dark. The other part is seeing how much of a trail I can ride in the winter. Thursday's ride got me wondering whether we could have biked the entirety of Johnson Pass trail, or at least make it to the pass without being turned around by avalanche fields or too many downed trees. Something for next time.

Friday, March 4, 2011

a little winter inspiration

3..2..1.. go!

Last Sunday I decided at the last minute that I'd drive out to Knik for the start of the Iditarod Trail Invitational. I'd never gone to the race start, but a few people I know were racing and I wanted to see them off. I also figured it was a sunny day and besides taking a few photos at the start, I could check out some of the trails on the Mukluk.

As I made the drive toward the Susitna Valley, wind blew snow across the highway causing near whiteouts for a few miles. Above the blowing snow the sun cast its light on the mountains around me. I hoped it wouldn't be too blustery at the starting line.

I surprised our friend Pete who'd arrived in Anchorage from McGrath (the finish line of the race) just the day before after having his previous flights canceled. He's teaching in the small Kuskokwim River town this year so we haven't seen him much. Pete's bike carried minimal gear compared to the other racers, the sign of a rider who's done the race a few times. Next, I found Louise (Lou) and Eric. They're Pete's friends from California who stayed with us last year before and after the race. I got to see them off after inviting them to stop in when they get back to Anchorage. The start area was crowded with racers and well-wishers. Every time I turned around I heard a voice or recognized a face. It was sunny and windy, with a twinge of nervous energy floating around.

Pete, Lou & Eric.

If I'd arrived a little earlier, I could have biked up the trail and photographed the racers as they streamed by. I thought maybe I could ride with the back of the pack up the trail, but I would never see my friends after the start; even loaded with survival gear and food, they're all much faster than me. Then I ran into Mike Curiak and Steve Tower.

Mike stayed at our place last year, too (the house was full of people!), and rode the trail all the way to Nome, self-supported and without entering any buildings. You can see his videos here, presented in three parts. This year, Mike was the official photographer, biking and shooting pics all the way to Nome. Steve's wife, Janice, was in the race so he was riding out to one of the lakes with Mike to see her on the trail. They good-naturedly didn't object to me tagging along.

Ride past the prison farm and where the road ends, just keep going...

We drove to another parking area, then pedaled a few miles on a road before getting on a trail that follows a buried pipeline. Steve explained the route, but it was mostly a straight shot that dropped down a bluff to cross a river, then climbed out again. I was riding along a snowmachine highway through an expanse of spruce, getting ever closer to Mount Susitna (Sleeping Lady), watching as Mike and Steve became ever smaller moving dots of black against the snow. Wind blew across the areas that didn't have trees, creating gentle drifts across the trail.

Steve & Mike are way out there, about to cross the Little Su.

Sleeping Lady and a perfect trail beckon.

Just after 3:30, I decided I should have a snack and turn around. I hadn't seen any riders and there was no chance of catching my guides. I wanted to get back to the car before darkness fell so I wouldn't be riding the road with no lights. I ducked behind some trees and pulled out a snack and some hot tea. My right cheek was chilled from the north wind. I pulled out my phone and called Jon at the shop to tell him where I was. Nothing to worry about. I'm turning around, I told him, but if Steve calls and wonders what happened, tell him I'm okay. Then I turned around and started biking back.

That's when I saw the first group. I recognized Pete's gold-colored jacket at the back, then his friend Greg in the front. Soon they were gone and I rode on, encountering more cyclists chasing the leaders down the trail. A few people I knew, others I wasn't sure. But I imagine they were surprised to see a lone cyclist out on the trail just taking photos.

Greg and Pete with three other riders.

Janice crosses the expanse.

For the last several days, I've followed the progress of the racers as they've moved from one checkpoint to the next on the 350-mile course. I've been reading the updates and talking with friends. I've been amazed at the winners. When I was out there last Sunday afternoon, a part of me wished I had been joining them on that long ride to McGrath. Maybe some year. Or maybe I should just do a few overnight winter bike trips. That should satisfy my need for adventure. That, or just read the rider accounts.

Eric and Lou. She's off to set a new women's record.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

fat & fatter

I was biking behind Jon the other day when I realized I had a slight advantage. We were on a narrow thread of trail on the Campbell Tract and I could see his front wheel wiggling a little as he regained control on the fresh snow. It reinforced what we already knew: people who ride on wider rims aren't necessarily better riders; their equipment affords them a better ride.

The same tire, one on a 65 mm rim; the other on an 80.

I've noticed a difference in the last few weeks as I've been riding around on my new snow bike. I know: my old snow bike was perfectly fine; practically new. But earlier this winter Jon came home with a question: "What would you think of selling your Pugsley?" Hmm. I hadn't thought of selling the steel snow bike I'd only owned for a few years. I didn't need a new bike. Not that this has stopped me in the past. I asked Jon what was up.

So long, Pugs. You're a steel beauty, but you're off to a good home.

A friend of a friend was looking for a Pugsley and they were out of stock at Surly. He also had a tight budget. I knew the Salsa Mukluk snow bike had been in high enough demand that the shop had sold out of its first shipment and was awaiting more of the aluminum frames. I agreed to the new bike as long as there would be no gap in my snow bike availability.

I've had the Mukluk for a few weeks now and will attest that I noticed some differences right away. Besides having extra standover clearance (a major plus), the bike came with wider rims than what I had on the Pugs. The Pugs had 65 mm wide rims, where my Mukluk has 80s (you can run 80s on the Pugs; I just didn't). With the wider rims, the bike felt even more stable, it cornered better and I could really tell the difference at slower speeds (which is where I spend so much of my time).

The lovely Mukluk. Welcome to the stable.

It wasn't until I was riding with Jon, though, that I could see just how significant the difference is. He's still on his Pugs with 65s, so wherever the trail hadn't seen much use since the previous evening's snowfall, he had to work a bit more to keep on top of the hard-packed trail and not dive into the deep snow alongside the trail. I, on the other hand, was just plowing through the few inches of snow, sure and steady.

Now I'm glad somebody wanted to buy the Pugs. I hope it's now in a good home because it's a fun bike to ride and deserves to be ridden. I'm happy with my custom-built Mukluk. We're going to have some fun together. Now I hope I don't soon have the urge to upgrade any other bikes, because whenever I do, I feel a need to go back to work at the shop. It's a never-ending, co-dependent relationship. Think Jon doesn't know that?

I didn't mean to hold this post so long before publishing it; since writing it in early February, I've been to Wisconsin & back and had lots more rides on my new beauty. Now I'm feeling the urge to explore new winter territory...
And, just for the record, I will be working at the shop again this spring. I do get an employee discount on bikes & gear, but I don't get free stuff and neither Surly nor Salsa are paying me to write about their fat-tire bikes.