Monday, March 22, 2021

Eric and Corrine's Excellent Birthday Adventure

Eric and I both have birthdays in March.  Eric’s birthday is 10 days prior to mine except I’m a year older.  He just turned 61 and I turned 62. This year we decided to do something different and celebrate our birthdays with a multi-day bike trip in the White Mountains. I can’t think of a better way of celebrating. 

Although Eric has spent most of his life in Alaska, I moved here in March of 1990. So, by my calculations I have now spent 1/2 of my life in Alaska!  There are a lot worse places to spend 1/2 of your life. 

It’s hard to believe, but we had never done a trip in the Whites in March. Usually, we have either been tapering for or racing one of the many spring endurance races such as the White Mountains 100.  March weekend trips were out of the question.  But due to COVID, the WM100 was cancelled, and other races seemed less important to me this year.  So, we decided to make other plans.  

There are many reasons why March is a great month for overnight trips to cabins. 

--More daylight: You definitely don’t need bike lights and hardly need headlamps in the cabins. It is light until 10 pm! 

9:30 PM at Caribou Bluff Cabin

--It’s still dark enough at night to enjoy auroras: We did see them every night. Alas, no photos. Our little point and shoot cameras don't take good aurora photos.

--This time of year temperatures are generally warmer with highs around 30F: Temps were below average for our trip but still mostly between -10F to +10F.  And the sun makes it feel really warm in the afternoons. 

Okay, it did get a little colder at night at Borealis-Lefevre Cabin

--Rock solid trails: This year the trails weren’t rock-hard, due to way above average snowfall in February, but they were firm and quite good for either biking or skiing. 

So yes, March is a great time to get out in the Whites. And the perfect place to celebrate a birthday! 

Our first day we headed to Caribou Bluff cabin. We started at 11 AM to let it warm up a bit, and we made good progress down the trail. We’ve done this part of the trail many times, so we knew what to expect, but we still love the views.  Once past Borealis-Lefevre cabin the trail was a little slower going but good overall.  We got to Caribou Bluff Cabin in late afternoon.  Caribou Bluff is a great little cabin.  It sits up on a hill with views up and down the valley.  But it is tiny.  The night before, 6 people with a total of 29 sled dogs (5 mushing teams) stayed there.  We felt it was a bit cozy for 2, I can’t imagine 6 people in that cabin!!

Can you imagine 6  people in this little space? This is the entire cabin!

As soon as we got to the cabin we started in on chores. Eric and I are a well-oiled machine when it comes to camp chores.  I start the fire, collect snow for melting on the wood stove, and get our sleeping bags and food out while Eric goes off and finds dead trees for firewood and then saws them up.  With chores done, we still had time to hike up to a high point on a trail that previous cabin occupants had put in with snowshoes.  

Eric celebrates getting to the top of the trail without breaking through too much

View from our little hike above the cabin

The second day, we once again waited for the sun to warm things up before starting biking.  There are two ways to get to Windy Gap Cabin from Caribou Bluff.  We had never been on the Fossil Gap Trail, but we saw it had been groomed the day before by BLM.  Traveling with fully loaded fat bikes on snow is slow, and we usually only average between 5 and 8 mph. If we took that trail, we would double our mileage for the day (about 20 miles) but the weather was great and the trail bikeable, so we took the long way to Windy Gap Cabin. I love exploring new trails!  Fossil Gap Trail was really fun.  We went through a valley with lots of limestone outcroppings, then through the woods on a meandering trail along Beaver Creek, which was open along that stretch, and then up and over Fossil Gap with long views in every direction. Spectacular. 

We ran into Nick and Bryant doing a 3-day ski around the big 100-mile loop

Narrow trail winding through the woods

Open water on Beaver Creek.  Luckily the trail runs along the creek.

We turned right at Windy Creek Trail, took a quick break at Wolf Run cabin, then continued up and over Windy Gap.  No one had ever told me how much climbing there was on the Windy Creek Trail. We spent 9 miles climbing and then a quick and very steep downhill and we were at the cabin.  The views were amazing which made the climbing a little easier. And it was so fun to be on new-to-us trails. 

View from up on Windy Gap.  Windblown trail.

Windy Gap cabin - another great cabin with spectacular views

We had both spent time at Windy Gap cabin during our WM100 races but had never spent the night.  It’s another cozy and warm cabin (which was good because it was -18F overnight) and it is in a great location.   Eric took off on his bike to get wood and managed to drag several dead trees back that we then sawed up for firewood.  We had another relaxing evening.

Eric bringing back dead trees to the cabin for firewood

Day 3 we headed out on the Fossil Creek Trail back past Caribou Bluff and onto Borealis-Lefevre Cabin. We got to bike the new reroute that BLM put in to keep from having to cross Fossil Creek 4 times, often with lots of open water and overflow. Instead, the new 1.7 mile trail climbs up and over a slight bump.  Well, it felt like more than a just a slight bump!  More like 300 feet in a half mile (according to Strava) with some hike-a-bike. 

Sign at the end of the reroute

Pushing up the last of that "little" hill on the reroute. Views make it worth the push.

But after that it was mostly gradual downhill with just a few climbs.  At the top of the last major climb, we saw 2 bikers, one sitting on the trail.  Were they injured?  Bike problems?  No, just our friends, Zak and Peter, out for a day trip taking a lunch stop complete with hot drinks.  I seem to run into these guys often when out and about on long bike rides.  I guess we must be on the same wavelength. We chatted for a while but then made our way to our last cabin, Borealis-Lefevre.

Zak and Peter on their lunch break

Once again, I had stopped at Borealis during the WM100 race but had never spent the night.  Eric had done a trip there a few years ago with friends.  It’s another great cabin in a great location although it is often very cold there as it sits just above Beaver Creek where the cold air likes to settle.  It got down to -20F that night so when the auroras came out nicely at 4 AM, we only spent a couple of minutes outside watching them before jumping back in our sleeping bags.  And even though we wanted to get an early start the next morning, we once again waited until the thermometer climbed to -10F.  Why bike when it’s so cold if you don’t have to?

Our last cabin - Borealis-Lefevre

Eric looking a bit goofy with Albert Einstein hair after 3 days on the trail!

The trails were even better on the way out, so we made pretty good time the last day.  And for the 4th day in a row, it was sunny and beautiful. 

Eric warms up on the first climb out of Beaver Creek

It's cool to see all the animal tracks

We had discussed whether we would try to ride up the Wickersham Wall (a 1-mile, 600-foot climb).  We had both ridden up it in the past on fresh legs with unloaded bikes when the conditions were just right. I figured we would be walking it this year.  

You can make out the trail up "Wickersham Wall" ahead of us

Eric was ahead of me, and I decided I would ride at least as long as he did.  But when he started walking, I was still able to ride. (It may have helped that I got a new super granny gear this year.)  So, I decided to keep going. I did have to stop several times just to gasp for breath but then would get right back on and keep riding. So even though I didn’t ride it continuously, I did ride all of it with just several short stops to let my heart rate slow down.  Well, and I did have to walk 15 feet when I couldn’t get going again due to the steepness of that portion.  But I had a fully loaded bike this time.  And my legs were tired after 4 days of biking. And I’m a year older.  I’ll take it!  Maybe these 62-year-old legs still have a little power left in them!  

Success, even it I had to take breaks to rest and walk 15 feet of the "Wall". You can see the trail we came from down below in the valley

As we got closer to the end, we saw more people out skiing, biking and snowmachining. It was great to see so many people out enjoying this winter wonderland in our back yard.  And it was an incredible 4 days out celebrating our birthdays. We might have to make this an annual affair! And now there is only one cabin in the White Mountains that we haven't spent a night at -- Richard’s Cabin. Fortunately, I made reservations for that cabin in early April so hopefully we will make it there, too!

Cabin birthday celebration with hot chocolate and Snickers bars!

Tuesday, March 9, 2021

When Stupid Meets Bear Spray: Just Another Life Lesson

Descending toward Henderson Road. Before the "incident."

Most shortish bike rides, especially on familiar routes, don’t deserve a blog post, but when you do something really stupid? Well, that changes the formula.

Corrine, Nikki, and I decided to bike the Mine Loop this past Sunday. The loop is an informal fatbiking route that starts and ends in the vicinity of Goldstream Sports and takes you past the old Ryan Lode Mine. It has several variation possibilities, but the ones I know always include the trail along the Intertie, the mine, Henderson Road, and Happy Ridge Trail. 

Nikki coming onto the Intertie with Corrine in the background.

We took off about noon, having waited until the day warmed a bit. The trails were nice, if a bit soft in places. The squirrelly snow made some things challenging. While trying not to walk or tripod (two wheels, one foot) on one steep descent, I crashed, doing a full head plant into the snow. When I caught up to Corrine and Nikki on Henderson they pointed out that all my helmet vents were totally packed with snow. I took my helmet off and banged the snow out of it. A little stupid is a good thing when you’re out having fun! 

The soft snow meant steeper hills required some pushing. 

But a lot of stupid? Not so much.

We climbed Henderson and got to the “end of road maintenance” area. Two dogs from a nearby house came out to bark at us. Not a big deal. I’ve seen those dogs before. I stopped and gave them the evil eye. They backed off. When I started biking they kept coming, getting too close for comfort. I stopped and told them to leave. They backed off. I got on my bike. They came at me again, within lunging distance. 

I don’t like being harassed on public rights-of-way by dogs. It’s annoying, but I try not to get too irrational about it. I figure the chances of getting bitten are very low, but the consequences can be pretty high: End of that ride, loss of future exercise time, the hassle of tracking down the owners to make sure the dogs have rabies shots. Oh, and the pain.

More pushing at the mine. David F. was also out for a ride, but he took a "smarter" route to the top.
(And, yes, I'm putting this in to delay coming to the "incident.")

So, I pulled out my bear spray. I carry it in winter for moose and dogs. I’ve never had a chance to use it on moose, but I’ve used it on dogs a few times. It works great. The dogs sneeze, shake their heads, and wander off, leaving me alone. The day wasn’t windy, and I was slightly uphill. I decided to put a cloud between me and the dogs so that I could continue unmolested. 

It worked great, sort of. The sight and sound of the spray sent the dogs running. I felt slightly smug – for about a half-second. That’s when I noticed the cloud was coming back at me. Apparently, there can be air movement even when there’s no perceptible wind. Who knew?!

I was too surprised to do something smart like close my eyes and turn my head. I just stood there and got a face full of bear spray. 

(In retrospect, I should have sprayed down instead of straight out. In fact, that’s what you’re supposed to do with bears. That would have helped a lot. But what good would the story have been then?)

Better times. Me out biking with beautiful women. Before I did the stupid thing. 

Here’s where things get interesting. The spray stung, but I was able to put the bottle back in my feed bag and continue pedaling up the unmaintained part of Henderson Road. In short order, I could see fine. My eyes and face stung just a little, but not horrible. I figured I had just gotten a little dose and was fine. 

Corrine and Nikki had waited for me at the entrance to Happy Ridge Trail. I stopped and told them what I had done. They shook their heads a bit but didn’t make too much fun of me. (A different response than if I had been out with a bunch of guys, I’m sure.) But I noticed that as soon as I stopped, the stinging got worse. I figured the spray molecules were still on me and my clothes, doing what molecules do above 0 degrees Kelvin– move around. Some must have been creating a small invisible cloud around me. As soon as we started moving I was fine. 

Until I wasn’t. For a while things went OK. Then we stopped to regroup. While waiting, my eyes started stinging again, so I washed my face with snow. I kind of knew I wasn’t supposed to do that, but it was damned irritating! The snow didn’t seem to make a big difference right away, but it was a mistake. As soon as we started again, going down a gentle grade, my eyes started stinging badly. I’m not exactly sure what happened. Maybe I disturbed a bunch more spray molecules. 

I had to slow down. I pulled over and let the other two go ahead. I limped along for a while, opening my eyes for brief glimpses of the trail. That worked OK, until I hit an open sunny spot. Ouch! That’s when I discovered my eyes were now really light sensitive. Dilated pupils, I guess. Fortunately, that section was brief. I was able to continue, and my eyes seemed to mostly clear up again. It was a problem only when I stopped. 

Do I need to remind you that there were good times on this ride before the "incident"?
Me out riding on the Intertie trail with beautiful women. 

We finally got out to St. Patrick Road, where I figured I would be good because I could keep moving.  I kept going but slowed a bit to let Corrine and Nikki catch up. Suddenly, my eyes started really bugging me. Not sure what happened. It wasn’t really sunny on the road. Maybe there was a very slight breeze at my back that helped keep that invisible cloud near my face. Whatever the case, I could again open my eyes for only brief glimpses, so I biked slowly. 

After a couple of minutes, my eyes got better. I picked up speed and they got even better. I caught up to Corrine and Nikki. 

“I need to keep up a certain speed to keep my eyes clear!” I yelled as I passed them. 

I kept going all the way to the pullout near Ann’s Greenhouse, where we had parked. I was fine when I stopped, but only for a minute or two. Then I was back to opening my eyes for brief glimpses. 

Me, showing off the wisdom of my ways! 

When we got home I immediately peeled off my clothes, which were destined for the washer. I took a shower, rinsing my eyes out and washing my face and hair several times. I was mostly fine after that, though later that evening I noticed my eyes stinging a bit when I had my reading glasses on. It must be that glasses help restrict air flow. That, and the fact that those red pepper oil molecules are tenacious little SOBs. 

I actually learned that once a few years back. I accidently set off my bear spray while on a summer mountain bike ride. Fortunately, the wind blew it away, but I did get some on my gloves. I didn’t notice that until I wiped my eyes with my gloved hand. Yeow! 

When I got home I washed the gloves with soap and water, and then let them soak in water overnight. I did a couple more rides with them. No problem. So, all was good…until it wasn’t. A couple of weeks later Corrine and I were on a bikepacking trip in Montana. In the middle of a long climb in the rain up a forestry road, I noticed my eyes were starting to burn. I couldn’t figure it out until I remembered the bear spray incident. I was using the same gloves and I had wiped at my eyes a few times. I took off my glasses and was fine. They just needed that little bit of air movement. 

I’m still a big proponent of bear spray for use on dangerous or bothersome dogs. It’s a great tool if used properly. And there’s nothing like experience to learn what “properly” means. I figure I will eventually figure it out, but I’ll probably have to spray myself a couple more times.