Monday, June 5, 2023

Finding My Boundaries at the Unbound Gravel XL Race

 post by Corrine

“Wow, look at you riding!” 

That upbeat cheer is what I heard right before my race started going south. 

It was close to midnight, 98 miles into the Unbound XL in Kansas when another rider cheered me on as I biked by. At first, I wasn’t sure why he was cheering me on. But moments later, I too was mired down in thick sticky mud mixed with rocks that had stopped him. 

The mud stopped me in my tracks. My wheels wouldn’t even roll. I carried my bike—now 10 pounds heavier with mud—onto the grass on the side of the road. I spent several minutes digging the concrete-like mud out from between the wheels and frame and from around the derailleur without destroying it. Everybody around me was doing the same thing. 

Looking ahead, the road was muddy as far as I could see. About a half-mile ahead, I could see other bikers walking their bikes. I didn’t know it yet, but that mud would be my nemesis, coming after me again and again. 

Second Try

Four years ago, I did the 200-mile version of the Unbound Gravel, which starts in Emporia, Kansas. Many people think of Kansas as flat, but that area of the state has a lot of hills. A LOT of hills. And the gravel roads can be rough. And then there’s the wind and heat and humidity and rain. It can be a super tough race. And it was hard, but I was able to finish well within the cut-off time, even with stopping to help an injured rider.

But those darned race organizers also hold the Unbound XL, a 350-mile race. I knew I could ride 200 miles in one go, but could I ride 350 miles in 36 hours? I had to try. 

Two years ago, I started the Unbound XL but did not finish due to heat, headwinds, difficult unmaintained roads during the night, and my stomach shutting down to the point I couldn’t eat for eight hours. I felt I made the right decision, but I soon felt like the race was unfinished business. I knew that completing this race would be stretching my boundaries, but I thought it was within my abilities. So, I came back this year to try again. 

The XL race is self-supported (no outside help allowed), but each racer needs somebody to rescue them if they can’t finish. My son Riley, currently living in Iowa, was happy to come along and be that person. He would be able to ride his bike in a different place and play disc golf on some of the best courses in the nation. (Who knew Emporia was a hot spot for disc golf?!) 

Riley picked me up in Kansas City two days before the race and we drove to our Airbnb rental, a small cabin about 30 miles south of Emporia on a working ranch. It’s a great location: quiet, not too far from Emporia, and close to the race route. Riley and I had the chance to do a couple of shakedown rides right from our cabin incorporating parts of the course.

Beeman's cabin -  our home for 5 days

Pre-Race Jitters

As usual, I fussed over the weather. It didn’t look too bad. Highs in the mid 80s (better than in the 90s), winds only 5-10 mph and 40-70% chance of showers and thunderstorms depending on which weather app you were using. Pretty good for Kansas weather in June. 

The night before the race I fussed about what to pack on my bike. Did I need rain pants? Just a rain jacket or a windbreaker, too? And what food should I bring? My stomach is my Achille’s heel when it comes to endurance racing. I usually lose my appetite and have a hard time getting calories in. I always experiment while training, but I never know what will work during the race. I had made some rice cakes (from the Feed Zone cookbook) and I made some burritos. Would I want to eat them when my stomach shut down? I also had a mixture of sweet and savory convenience store snacks. I had electrolytes to add to water bottles. And I had some high caloric powder mixes to add to water. I had so many choices I was probably carrying a couple more pounds of food than everybody else. 

One bad thing about the XL race is that it doesn’t start until 3 PM on Friday. The 200-mile race starts early on Saturday. I think the race directors set the race start times so that the bulk of the racers from both races finish at the same time. But for slow racers (like me) starting at 3PM and riding 350 miles means having to stay awake two nights. No sleep for two nights is brutal. The afternoon start also means that there is plenty of time to fuss on Friday and get more anxious waiting for the race to start. 

Eventually, it was time to go. Riley and I headed to Emporia, and I lined up in the starting chute with the other 150 XL riders. I felt like a rock star racer with fans lining the streets for several blocks. 

Lining up in the start chute
And They Are Off

Finally, the starting gun fired, and we were off. We headed out with a neutral start and just as everybody was jockeying for position. . . we were stopped by a train. It took a couple of minutes for the train to pass and then the race was finally, really, on. We racers laughed about that and decided that we should be able to subtract that time from our finish time!

Waiting for the train

The first part of the race was a lot of fun. I was making good time on good gravel roads. I had a chance to talk to some of the racers around me. I met a guy whose brother’s wife’s sister was a patient of mine in Fairbanks. He figured out I was her doctor when he saw my Alaska jersey and asked me if I was the one who had to out sprint a momma grizzly bear. His family had told him about me. I also met a guy who asked if I had ridden in 2021. When I said yes, he said we rode together for several miles to the town of Alta. That was fun to reconnect. I met Darin and found out we had a friend in common. He had done the Silk Road bikepacking race in Kyrgyzstan with my friend, Danni, who lives in Montana. Darin and I rode 10 miles together into the first food stop. Everybody was super friendly. We were all in this crazy race together.

New friend, Darin, who knew my old friend, Danni - It's a small world

A Good Start

We got lucky with the weather. We were surrounded by ominous looking storm clouds, and somebody said they heard it was dumping rain in Emporia, but we were in the sweet spot that was mostly sunny. The edge of one of those storms hit us, but we had only about five minutes of rain. Just enough to put on a rain jacket before it moved on and we had to take the jackets off again. We did have mild headwinds, but the route kept changing directions, so they weren’t too annoying. And it clouded up after the storm passed so the temperatures were comfortable in the 70s. 

I felt like I did a good job with my nutrition, taking in plenty of fluids and food while riding. I made it to first food stop, a Casey’s convenience store in Cottonwood Falls at mile 75, in about six hours. Right on schedule. I was able to drink a chocolate milk, eat a piece of pizza, and buy a Coke to take with me before I was off again with a stop time of less than 15 minutes. The sun was just going down as I headed out with several other riders. 

Photo that was on the Unbound Facebook page.

Lots of racers stopping and refueling at Casey's convenience store

Then the Mud

The night riding started out pleasant enough. The roads were good with none of the really rough unmaintained roads that I had had to deal with in the dark in my 2021 race. But then we hit the dreaded mud. Although Kansas hadn’t had much rain this year, there had been daily thunderstorms the week prior to the race, which caused havoc for us on some of the roads. 

We had to carry our bikes or wheel them along in the grass and weeds on the side of the road. Any time we thought the road was improving and we would try to ride, our bikes were soon jammed with mud again. Then we had to stop, try to remove the mud, and carry our bikes to the side of the road where we could roll them in the vegetation until the road looked good again. Repeat, repeat, repeat. (I used my titanium camp spoon to dig out the mud.) Occasionally I could ride just off the road but would frequently get thwarted by a drainage ditch or lots of big rocks or barbed wire and it was back to walking and carrying my bike. All I can say, is it’s a good thing I’ve been consistent with strength training!

This picture only shows minimal mud caked in my bike.  I didn't get any good photos from at night

We finally got past two different sections of mud, each 1-2 miles in length, and were able to ride again. But the mud was taking its toll. Several people had broken derailleurs. Most couldn’t clip into their pedals. I was using flat pedals, so I was feeling smug about that! Others had flat tires. One racer had had five flats. He had used all his spare inner tubes when I gave him one of my spare tubes and saved his day. I saw him 50 miles later and the tube I was giving him was still holding!

More Troubles

When I started riding again, there was a terrible screeching noise coming from my drive train. I stopped several times to figure it out. I tried to get all the mud out, but all I did was change the screech to a zinging noise instead. And then suddenly, my pedals seized up. I couldn’t turn the pedals at all. What the heck? I stopped and tried to figure it out. Somebody else stopped to help me. I put the bike upside down, looked the chain all over, looked for anything that was causing the problem. Had my bottom bracket seized up? I was stumped and thinking I was going to have to call Riley. I turned my bike back upright and kicked down super hard on the pedal. Something went flying and I was back in action. It must have been a small rock that got stuck somewhere. I was just glad I was able to ride again. 

But then I noticed that my Garmin etrex , my navigational device, wasn’t working. I hadn’t taken it off when I flipped my bike over and a bunch of mud got into the toggle. Yikes, I needed that to follow my track. I couldn’t do the race without the track. But luckily, I had brought my backup older etrex with the route loaded on it, too. I dug it out of the depths of my seat bag, fired it up, and was back to riding again. Whew, another disaster averted.

After the mud sections it was smooth riding to the second food stop in El Dorado at another Casey’s. I arrived there at 5:20 AM, 150 miles into the race not quite halfway done. I had expected a lot more riders to be there, several had been just a few minutes ahead of me after the mud fest. I just assumed they must have been riding a lot faster than me. I asked the worker how many bikers had been through, and she informed me that they didn’t open until 5 AM. We had been told that this Casey’s was open 24 hours. I have no idea how the other racers who came through earlier had refueled. Maybe another convenience store was open? I was glad I hadn’t been any faster. By then I had lost my appetite but was able to easily drink another chocolate milk. Nothing looked good to eat. I refilled my water bladder and got a Coke to take with me. I still had lots of food on my bike if my appetite came back later.

And More Mud and Other Stuff

I headed back out on the course. The riding was good for a while but then it was back to the dreaded mud. This time there was close to four miles of it with occasional areas where I could actually ride, either in the middle or on the side of the road on top of vegetation. I was riding (or maybe I should say walking) with two other racers. We commiserated about conditions. 

It took us five and a half hours to go the first 30 miles out of El Dorado. We had already been biking for 18 hours and had only done half the distance. Our overall speed had dropped enough that there was no way we could make the time cut off for the race. I had envisioned this when planning for the race, telling myself I would try to finish even if I didn’t make the race cut off. 

But my legs felt dead already. The 4% grades felt like 8% grades. The other two racers’ legs were even more tired. They were walking up all the hills. At least I was still riding, but there was more climbing to come. A lot more. Just to be extra brutal, most of the climbing for the race is done in the second half. 

So many hills in Kansas

And there was more. The temperature had been cool through the night and in the morning, but now it was rising. By mid-morning it was in the mid 80s. And the wind had changed direction and was coming from the east, which was the direction we were mostly headed for another 40 miles. And I still didn’t have much appetite. 

It probably wasn't quite this hot but it felt this hot in the relentless sun


It was all too much. I decided that even if I could eat more, there was no way, I could do this for another 18-20 hours. And I really didn’t want to, either. To quote my friend Danni, “Type 2 fun is one thing but just proving that we could go to war if we had to gets sillier as we get older.” 

I decided I was going to ride to Eureka at mile 225. That would be the longest continuous bike ride I had ever done and that was good enough for me. I texted Riley to let him know and checked Trackleaders to see where all the racers were at. I was pleasantly surprised to see that at least a quarter of the racers were still behind me. Usually, I’m at the very back of the pack. I was leading the back of the pack this time! And as we continued riding, I passed a few more racers that were suffering more than me. Some were getting picked up as soon as we hit good roads that cars could drive on safely. 

Then the heat started getting to me. I took a 10-minute break in some shade but didn’t feel any better. I started walking up some hills. To heck with Eureka. I texted Riley and said that I wanted to get picked up as soon as he could get to me. He checked to make sure that’s what I really wanted. But when I found out he was about 30 minutes away from my destination I decided to just keep riding until he got to me. I got to ride through one of the water obstacles, which felt good and cleaned some of the mud off my shoes and legs. And then at mile 205, there was Riley with his car. I was so relieved. I could finally stop. My race was over. And just in time, as a huge thunderstorm was bearing down on me! 

My race is done at mile 205

We headed to Eureka and had burgers and fries. Amazingly, my stomach recovered quickly and was doing just fine with some rest and getting out of the heat. When we got back to our cabin, I even raided the fridge for any other leftovers for a second lunch. My gut recovered much more quickly than it usually does.

After Race Contemplations

This year, the Unbound XL had a very low finishing rate. Only one third of the racers finished. 100 people dropped out including some of the top cyclists such as Ted King and Tyler Pearce (the Vegan Cyclist). Last year two thirds of the racers finished. 

Meeting the Vegan Cyclist the day before the race

So how do I feel now a day after the race? Physically I feel better than I expected. I got a good 12 hours of sleep the night after the race and then went out with Riley for a 37-mile “recovery” ride on Sunday, which went well. I didn’t have my top speed or power, but I was able to ride like any day that I’m feeling slightly fatigued. 

We biked 37 miles round trip to Teter Rock. John Teter placed these rocks in this high spot in the 1870's so early pioneers could find Cottonwood Creek and not get lost in the rolling Flint Hills

Mentally, I also feel pretty good. Yes, I wanted redemption and didn’t get it. Yes, conditions weren’t perfect, but even if they had been, I don’t think I could have finished this race. I don’t think I have it in me to ride 350 rough gravel miles in 36 hours. That is hard to admit but I’m pretty sure it’s true. 

I’m a little disappointed but I’m also okay with it. I have found my limit – at least in this respect – as to what I’m capable of doing. We all have limits. Everything isn’t possible. And if we don’t try difficult challenges on the edges of our abilities, then we won’t find out how much we can do. At least I tried. 

So, I probably won’t be back to try the Unbound XL again. Maybe I’ll find another challenge to do or maybe I’ll decide it’s time to retire from racing and pushing myself. Who knows? For now, I’m happy with where I’m at.


Monday, May 22, 2023

How NOT to Train for Unbound XL

post by Corrine

There are many ways to train improperly. Live in the wrong place. Ignore a good training plan. Grow old. Get chased by a bear. Yep, I think I’ve got those all down pat and more!

I know I can ride my bike 350 miles. I’m pretty sure I can ride my bike for 36 hours. But can I ride 350 miles in 36 hours on gravel? That is the question that will be answered when I line up June 2 for my second try at the Unbound Gravel XL. Was my training adequate? I doubt it. Will I be able to finish? I hope so. My training tends to be a bit unconventional and probably really isn’t what you should do. But I did it anyway. So I thought I would share my top 10 tips for how NOT to train for Unbound Gravel XL.

1. Live in Fairbanks, AK

This was bike training in mid April

Living in the far north is not conducive to training for an early season gravel race. Our winters last forever and this year was especially long, with cold temps and snow through most of spring. I would notice all my Strava friends who live Outside (that’s Alaskan for anywhere outside of Alaska) doing gravel rides all winter. I didn’t even get out on roads to train until late April. Yes, we have fatbiking, but with frequent snowstorms our trails are often not good for biking. I got a lot of skiing in, which does build fitness but it’s not the same as long days in the saddle. (Note to self: quit doing early season bike races.)

2. Don’t Heat Train

Not heat training at -25F

This is another problem living in Fairbanks. Cold training, no problem. But heat training? Nope, not going to happen. In May, our average highs are barely around 60F. And in later summer we only occasionally get above 80F. Friends have recommended I do long saunas or even work out on a trainer in a heated space. That sounds awful. For me, training has to be fun, or I won’t do it. I’ll just have to hope that temperatures in Emporia, Kansas, aren’t too hot on race day. Or suffer. Or both. 

3. Don’t Have a Training Plan

I’m not one for rigid training plans so I don’t use them. I also don’t use a coach. Maybe I should? Nah, that wouldn’t be any fun. And I think training should be mostly fun. Otherwise, what’s the point? I’m never going to win anything. I’m not in it for prizes or glory. I race to see what I’m capable of accomplishing. And to see new country and roads and trails that I otherwise wouldn’t see. Some might think otherwise, but I swear that I don’t like to suffer. I want to have fun on a bike. When I look at training plans, such as those offered by Unbound, they don’t look fun. They just look complicated and overly structured.

I prefer to gestalt my training. I have a general plan-ish and I’m pretty self-motivated, so I generally stick with it. Unless the weather is bad, or friends come up with better fun outdoor idea, or I’m just not feeling it or …. you get the idea.

Riding with these WOW riders is always a hard but fun work out

My “plan” is as follows: I do one hard interval-like workout each week, this is often my super-fast-paced road bike ride with the WOW (Women on Wheels) group, but sometimes I do interval training on my commute to work, too. I also do one longer ride on the weekends and one or two strength workouts, and other stuff, depending on what fits into my schedule. And I gradually increase my overall mileage and time on the bike. Plus, I usually take two rest days a week. At my age, rest is as important as training. 

4. Obsess About Other Racers’ Training

I’m on some group sites for endurance racing and for Unbound. Bad thing to do. Everybody else has done more training than me. Everybody is fussing about tires and pressure and about things I didn’t even know I should be stressing about. Yikes. I really try to not look at these sites, but it’s hard to stay away. It doesn’t help and just causes more pre-race anxiety.

This forecast was made on May 23.  Are you really going to believe it?

While obsessing online, don’t forget to also obsess about the weather.  Start checking several weather sites a couple of weeks before the race.  You can’t do anything about the weather, but you can increase your anxiety just by looking at the forecast. As the time gets closer, check several times a day, you never know if it might change.  And I’m sure that hoping and wishing for good weather will magically make it happen!

5. Don’t Dial in Your Nutrition

My stomach is my weak point when endurance racing. It almost always shuts down during the race. Then I have no appetite and can’t eat anything. Often, I’ll even vomit. Not fun. I’ve researched this and have tried many things, but I still don’t have my nutrition dialed in. I never know what I might be able to get down, so I just wing it. 

I usually make sure to bring a combination of sweet and savory foods of different textures. As a last resort, I generally bring some GUs. I never eat on a schedule. I know I should, but that doesn’t work for me either. I’ve tried to eat the same on a training ride as I would in a race, but that never works, either. I don’t have problems on long training rides. If I could get this figured out, I’m sure I would be unstoppable. . . maybe!

6. Don’t Taper

Hmm, 135 miles 13 days before the race. Is that tapering?

Okay, I do taper, but it’s my own kind of taper. “Experts” recommend doing your longest ride about 3-4 weeks before your race. I was just ramping up my gravel riding at that point. For this Unbound, I did my longest ride 13 days before the race. There is some science behind tapering that says anywhere from 7 to 28 days may work so I’m hoping that 13 days gives me enough time to recover and have fresh legs. If not, oh well.

7. Wait Until Age 64 to Do This Race

Finishing Cross Washington 700-mile bikepacking race last year at age 63

I’ve always been physically active, but I didn’t even start doing endurance races until age 50 when my kids were pre-teens, and I could spend more time training. Since then, I’ve raced Leadville and Unbound Gravel 200, and bikepacking races like Tour Divide, Smoke ‘N Fire, BC Epic 1000, Trans South Dakota, and Cross Washington. I’m definitely getting slower as I get older, and it’s getting harder to stay motivated. I would highly recommend doing these races at a younger age! Of course, there are very few women my age doing them so sometimes I can even podium!

8. Buy a New Bike Five Weeks Before the Race

Yes, it's new and it's sexy but I'm not riding it for this year's race

I finally broke down and bought a gravel-specific bike after fussing about it for four years. Fortunately, even I’m NOT stupid enough to try and ride it without getting more miles on it. I’m sticking with my tried and true Felt Hardtail Niner. I’ll probably be the only one out there on a mountain bike with flat handlebars, but it fits me well and I can ride it for days without problems. That’s more important to me than a sexy, fast-looking bike. 

9. Remind Yourself You Can Always Quit

For the XL you must have somebody available to extricate you from the race if you can’t finish. But you shouldn’t even think of it as an option unless you have an unfixable mechanical or an injury. 

There will be times in every race (or at least there is for me) when you wonder why the heck you thought this was a good idea. You will tell yourself you’re never signing up for another race. You will tell yourself to just quit. When those feeling come, don’t call your support person. Just sit with those feelings for a while and keep pedaling. They will pass and you will feel better. At least that’s worked for me. 

2021 Unbound  XL after not being able to eat for 8 hours.  I made the decision here to quit

The only time I DNF’d on purpose was with my first XL attempt two years ago. My stomach shut down. I was not able to get in any nutrition for eight hours. I felt like I couldn’t keep going if I couldn’t refuel. Plus, it was really hot, and really windy and I wasn’t going to make the time cut-off. I called my son Riley and dropped out 180 miles into the race. I felt a little better when I learned that more than half of the XL field dropped out, but only a little better. Maybe I could have rested, then kept going? So what if I didn’t make the time cut off? 

Dropping out felt like unfinished business, which is why I’m back this year to try again. My goal is to finish, even if it takes me 40 hours, and I show up at the finish line long after it has been taken down. But I do want an official finish so I’m going to try my hardest to be fast enough. And I really plan to not quit.

10. Get Chased by a Bear 

Photo of a grizzly bear cub from a previous bike trip

Getting chased by a bear is a non-traditional yet effective training tool. Disclaimer - I do not recommend it!

Toward the end of my last long 135-mile training ride, I got chased by a bear. I’ve seen lots of grizzly bears in my 30+ years in Alaska, but this was by far the scariest encounter I have ever had. I still can’t believe I didn’t get mauled. 

I was cruising downhill (about a 3 percent grade) going about 20 mph when I glanced to the left and noticed two grizzly bears on the other side of the guard rail. Before I had time to think about what I was seeing, a third bear—a cub—jumped the guard rail out onto the road just 10 feet away from me. 

Not even a half second later the momma bear (only then did I realize the other two were a sow and a cub) jumped the rail and started running after me. I glanced over my shoulder. Momma was just 20 feet behind me stretched out running as hard as she could. 

I didn’t think. I just started pedaling as hard as I could while yelling and screaming.  If I stopped, she would maul me. If she caught me, she would knock me off my bike and maul me. If I had had bear spray (I didn’t), I wouldn’t have had time to use it. No good choices.

Except pedal hard! And harder! And harder! 

Luckily, I was going downhill so pedaling hard quickly added to my momentum. Speed worked in my favor. Momma pulled up fairly quickly and headed back to her cubs. But I kept pedaling hard for a long time! (I did stop screaming, though.)

The whole incident lasted maybe 5-10 seconds max. I pedaled at a sprint pace for another few miles. I didn’t want to do interval training 120 miles into my 135-mile ride, but that’s what I got thanks to coach Momma Bear. However, I wouldn’t recommend it to others!

Kansas, here I come!

So those are my tips on how not to train. I have done all of them. I’ll be curious to see if my not-training works. It’ll soon be time to find out. Hopefully, my not-training will not lead to a not-finish!

Monday, May 15, 2023

Reframing Stupid: A “Summer” Ski Trip in the White Mountains.


Post by Eric 

My ski broke through the layer of snow into the shallow water below. I quickly scooted across the wet area. I couldn’t feel that any water seeped into my boot. Lucky me, I thought.  

Then it happened again just a little farther down the trail. Again, I didn’t get wet. My lucky day! 

My first little breakthrough

Then it happened again. And again. And again. My feet were getting damp. I didn’t feel so lucky. When I came to a wider crossing, I pondered for a moment. Get out the Wiggy’s waders and try to keep my semi-wet feet semi-dry? Screw it. I blasted across, water splashing up and over the tops of my boots. What the heck. It was all good. I just need to reframe things in my head. My feet might be wet, but they were still warm.

Screw it!

A Stupid Quest

I had been feeling a need for one last winter mini-adventure. It’s not so much that I can’t let go of winter. Heck, I love summer, too. It’s that I’m a trails geek. I hate this time of year when deteriorating snow and developing mud means the trails aren’t good for any kind of activity. Eventually, I am relegated to running and biking on the roads and paved paths, but I try to put that off for as long as possible.

In recent years, I have started to extend the winter season by using some unloved skis. A few years ago, Corrine bought some fish-scale skis for classic skiing in marginal conditions, but she hated them right away. I already thought they were kind of stupid. We almost got rid of them, then I began to wonder how long I could keep skiing on the trails by using the fishies. A little reframing of the mind and then those stupid skis became an asset! A couple of years ago I did a ski TRIP out to Moose Creek Cabin in late April. 

From my Moose Creek Cabin trip two years ago

Last year I pushed the season even FARTHER. I discovered I could ski the ridge trail near our house for another couple of weeks beyond what I used to think possible. I can ski even when short stretches of the trail are dirt because I don’t care about the bases of these skis. I just ski-walk across. I’ve even skied in the rain. Now I love those skis! 

This year I’ve been skiing the ridge trail again. Despite our cool spring, nighttime lows had recently climbed above freezing and stayed there. But I skied on Wednesday, May 10, and it went well. So, I planned a last-minute trip to Eleazar’s Cabin in the White Mountains National Recreation Area. Was that stupid? (Unfortunately, Corrine wasn't able to join me. I'm sure she was disappointed.)

The day I left, BLM closed the trail to motorized use, declaring it “summer season.” The trip out to Eleazar’s has two creek crossings. With the warm temps, those would surely be flowing. The smarter stupid thing to do would be to go out to Moose Creek Cabin. It’s a bit further – 16 miles instead of 11 – but it has no creek crossings. But I had been to Moose Creek a couple of times this winter already. I was yearning for something new. And I’ve got some Wiggy’s waders that I’ve used only once. I could use them to cross the creeks. Stupid? Nah. Just a wild and crazy mini-adventure! 

The sign BLM put up the same day I started my trip

A Skiing Start

I planned for an 11am start on Saturday. I wanted to let the snow soften a bit in the sunshine. (The upper layer of snow is still freezing hard even when temps drop only to 40F or so.) But how soft would the trail be? The Wickersham Dome Trailhead parking lot was free of snow, but the surrounding area, including the trails, had plenty. However, when I hauled my gear to the trail, I sunk into the snow past my ski boot tops. I figured this might be a very short stupid adventure, but I soldiered on. 

While getting ready, I met Adam and his friend Robin. Adam and I had had a brief exchange on Facebook about Wiggy’s waders. I showed him my pair and told him my plans, including that I wasn’t positive I would make it to Eleazar’s. He said he had Lee’s Cabin rented, but that he and Robin had decided against trekking out to it. He told me to take it if I needed it. I agreed and thanked him. Then I finished getting ready.

For this trip, I took a sled gifted to me by friend Beat, who has hiked to Nome multiple times as part of the Iditarod Trail Invitational. The sled had been to Nome, but it was still in good shape. Sleds add a lot of drag, so skiers often prefer backpacks, especially when the snow is colder. But I chose the sled for a variety of reasons: 1) the snow wouldn’t be cold; 2) a sled would help distribute the weight making it less likely I would punch through in soft areas; and 3) I hadn’t used it before! Another advantage of sleds is that you can pack them with ALL KINDS OF STUFF! Have any doubts about whether to bring any gear? Toss it in! Considering a traditional fried chicken dinner on the trail? Throw in the chicken and the cast iron skillet! (OK, maybe that’s too stupid!)

So, yeah, I did bring too much stuff, but I wasn’t sure what the conditions would be. That’s my story, anyway. (Fun fact: for an unrelated reason I had a song stuck in my head all weekend: The Hollies’ ‘He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother.’”)

He ain't heavy...

The sled did drag quite a bit, but it wasn’t too bad, and the trail was in pretty good shape. As soon as I got past the soft stuff at the start, it was firm. The first half-mile had a few patches of dirt, but they were all easy to skirt around. Then it was all snow trails (well, until later, as you’ll see). 

In short order I was skiing in shorts and a T-shirt. I had remembered to slather on sunscreen, and I needed it. The day was gorgeous with lots of birdsong that I never hear while skiing in the Whites: varied thrushes, ruby-crowned kinglets, yellow-rumped warblers. This trip was totally NOT stupid! 

I had a great time skiing, making it to the intersection of Trail Creek and Wickersham Creek trails with few problems. I did punch through in a couple of areas. Where snowmachiners can spread out they usually do. That makes it harder to find the main trail. It also means the main trail isn’t as well packed. But my punching through wasn’t too bad. (I seemed to be having more luck than a snowshoer who had gone to Lee’s Cabin the night before.)

A little punching through about 3 miles in, but doing better than the snowshoes

I started down Wickersham Wall, the hill on the Wickersham Creek Trail that leads to the first crossing of Wickersham Creek. But the sled got kind of pushy, and I had a hard time with my snowplow. But I had planned for that, so I switched to snowshoes (easy to carry in the sled!), and marched down to the base of the hill. 



There I was met with a wide swath of brown. The headwaters of Wickersham Creek were running strong, and the snow had melted off the overflow ice, which was nearly as a brown as the exposed grass and dirt. I checked the channel and decided I could easily handle the crossing. I put on my Wiggy’s and ferried everything across. Easy peasy! 

Looks bad, but it had only one small channel to cross

Wiggy's time! 

I geared up and started skiing again. This wasn’t stupid. This was a great adventure! 

Then I started breaking through the snow in the low, wet spots. I had planned on the major stream crossings, but I hadn’t considered all the low spots and minor stream crossings of the trail. There were many. Fortunately, I had planned for possible wet feet by wearing waterproof socks. Oh, the water eventually overtopped my boots so that my feet were wet, but they weren’t cold. No problem! I plowed on, happy with how the plastic sled was dealing with the little water crossings. 

Spring skiing! 

Then I got to the second stream crossing, the big one. And it was big! About 100 yards across. And I could see two main channels that were flowing strong. I pondered for a bit. I thought I could probably do it, but it would be a chore. I’d have to take several trips to haul everything. Then I’d have to do it again the next morning. And now I knew I had Lee’s as a a backup. I didn’t ponder long. A few mosquitoes started gathering as if to help me make the decision. I turned and headed back. 

More than I wanted to deal with

This time when I got to the first creek crossing at the base of Wickersham Wall, I didn’t bother with the Wiggy’s. My feet were already soaked. I waded across in my ski boots. Then I donned my snowshoes for the trudge up. On my first trip across that creek crossing, I saw no mosquitoes. Now there were a bunch. They followed me all the way up Wickersham Wall, urging me to go faster. I hadn’t thought to bring mosquito dope! At least they were the big, slow, early season skeeters. I hustled up the hill. Well, as fast as one can hustle in snowshoes and pulling a sled one squishy step at a time. My little adventure started to feel a little stupid again.

Should have brought skeeter dope!

Skiing Again

Back at the Trail Creek and Wickersham Creek trail intersection, I took off my snowshoes and put my skis back on for the half-mile ski to Lee’s. As I skied, I really hoped I hadn’t misunderstood Adam. I figured if people were at Lee’s I’d just turn around and head for home. It would make for an even longer and more exhausting day (and a really stupid one), but at least I could take a shower. 

I smiled as I skied up to a quiet, abandoned Lee’s Cabin. Yay! After more than six hours of skiing, sled dragging, snowshoeing, and wading, I could rest! I hung up my wet stuff, made dinner, and relaxed a bit before going to bed. The cabin was warm enough that I didn’t need a fire. 

Yay, a cabin for the night!

The next morning, I got up early to go to the bathroom, but I noticed water from the snowmelt in front of the cabin was iced over and the upper layer of snow on the way to the outhouse was frozen. I decided to wait for the sun to soften the snow before taking off. I wanted my skis to have something for their fish scales to bite into. 

I dozed some, then got up and had a cup of coffee. I worked on paper-and-pencil word puzzles (one of my favorite cabin activities), had breakfast, and then another cup of coffee. I took my time, periodically checking on the snow. It took a while, but finally the sun softened the snow. I packed up and was off by about 11 a.m. or so. 

The ski out was as good as the ski in. Beautiful sunny weather. Trails all to myself. Birds singing. A couple of the dirt patches were a bit bigger, but I was able to skirt them all (except one within a half-mile of the trailhead). 

The one patch of dirt I had to drag across

About two miles from the trailhead, I noticed human footprints in the snow. Someone had come out that far the afternoon before without snowshoes. At times they could walk atop the snow or without sinking in very deep, but a lot of the time they were post-holing. I thought about that. Someone came out on the trail and walked about two miles, post-holing much of the way, before turning around and heading back. 

Skiing on fish-scale skis seemed a lot more fun that post-holing

Suddenly, I didn’t feel so stupid in trying to get to Eleazar’s. Or at least, I felt less alone in my stupidity.  

A short side trip atop the ridge 4 miles in with the White Mountains in the background