Thursday, December 3, 2015

Ice Time of Year for a Ride

by Greg

We got our first real snow of the season this week. Which reminded me of a trip I took last winter, or some such thing I should be saying to justify not having posted this for almost a year.

It was early January. The frozen heart of winter. And there was a plan. Fat bikes. Studded tires. Overnight gear. And miles and miles of remote canyon where the river was frozen into an icy highway of sorts.

Some preparation was needed. I borrowed a fat bike. I scrambled around town trying to find enough screws. Then I drilled and screwed until I'd filled every-other knob on a couple tires with ice-biting metal.

Then the minor detail of packing. I'll admit that I have almost no experience camping out in single-digit-F temperatures. And that I have what I consider to be a strong interest in not freezing to death or in losing any digits or limbs to frostbite. And though I don't have personal experience, I have read enough tales of arctic and high-mountain exploration to know that pretty much any time someone steps outside a shelter into extreme winter conditions, they'll end up stumbling back in all dead or limbless.

In the week leading up to the trip, inspired by my trepidation, I spent a couple nights sleeping on the concrete driveway outside my apartment door. The first night, I was chilly by 2 a.m. and stumbled back into the heat of home to finish the night. The next night, bags, pad, clothes reconfigured, I slept comfortably in mid-teen temps and was still dozing happily as the first dog walkers of the day passed by.

It began to seem possible that I could survive a night of cold camping along an ice river. If I could get into my bag before I froze. I now began to worry about the transition between riding in the cold -- which I have some experience with -- and sleeping in the cold. January days are short. How long would we be riding into the evening? Into the night? How cold and dark would it be before we stopped riding? And would I be able to set camp, find or melt water, make food, eat, and still be alive to crawl into my sleeping bags?

The travel mode for these adventures is that each person must be strongly independent and self-prepared. I.E. one must have one's own shit together. Companion #1, Doom, is known to pedal, paddle or climb his way off into all sorts of rugged conditions. Companion #2, Mike, made a career of exploring the limits of human possibility, often in the Arctic. So I believe I was in my rights to feel somewhat intimidated by not knowing what I was doing and to fear that I might become That Guy, the awkward travel companion who slows everyone down, endangers the group, and -- most embarrassingly -- has the potential of becoming a heavy, frozen human body that everyone else has to drag out of the wilderness to present to the authorities as an example of all the mistakes one shouldn't make.

Luckily, my own fears were somewhat mollified by the presence of companion #3, Little Jeny Sunshine, Mike's dear consort, who, though certainly an adventurous sort, seemed to have as little experience as I with this sort of icy adventure. I was comforted by that lack of experience and by the fact that I outweighed her by a considerable amount. Enough that it was easy for me to imagine that she, not I, would be the first to freeze into a solid block of ice.

The preparations were made. The day came. Mike, Jeny and I headed out to meet Doom at the start. And… We got shut down.

The river was not frozen. Or, it was frozen a little bit, covered in shadowy places by rotten ice. But there was also lots of open water visible from the bridge where we stood, looking. Hoping.

What's a well-equipped group of winter ice bike riders to do in a situation like this? Make the best of it, that's what. The short day was already ending. We found a spot to camp. Gathered wood. Built a fire. Then gathered around the warmth, eating, drinking, and telling stories. Rotisserie humans, turning, turning, bright side burning, icy cold side filled with yearning. The night grew deeper and stars and moon wheeled overhead. At last, it was time to see if I could survive tucked away in my sleeping gear under the cold sky. Which, somewhat to my amazement, I did.

In the morning, the fire roared back to life and so did we. Soon we were riding over dirt and snow in the chilly sunshine on a mix of dirt road, jeep road and bovine singletrack, heading for the entrance into a side canyon. Doom stopped to test his studded tires and ride his name into a frozen stock pond. But the rest of us didn't hit ice until we dropped into the canyon.

In the canyon, the riding immediately got more interesting. There was water in the bottom. Sometimes flowing, sometimes frozen. We picked careful lines over hard ice, rotten ice and thin ice. Splashed through shallow water. Rolled between boulders and over slickrock and on frozen sand and over loose rubble and through slush. The studded tires were pretty amazing on the various versions of ice, but we still needed to keep our bikes mostly upright. And I was totally impressed with how the fat tires tractor-ed over the rubble and thrash in the bare parts of the wash.

All this was very engaging and very fun. We tracked each other's lines or invented new ones. We mixed ice and rock searching for the most interesting and rideable route. How deep is the pool beneath that ice? And how thin is the ice? And how thin can the ice be before a fat tire breaks through? How grippy, exactly, are these tire studs? We were learning and grinning and having a great time. Snapping photos of each other. Sharing our enthusiasm for life and for being outside. And no one got more than a quick boot-dunking for all the experimentation.

Plus, all this fun was happening deep within the rock canyon. Colorful layers of stone surrounded us and towered above. We moved from shadow to sunshine to shadow as the corridor twisted through the rock. There was an active quiet to the cold air, the low sound of water rolling over stones or beneath ice, the calls of ravens near the rim, and the crunch and grab of our tires. I was distracted enough by the fun and scenery that I pretty much forgot to remember that I was narrowly surviving the perils of an icy winter adventure.

The canyon widened when we reached the river, the original river of our intent. But here, too, it was not sufficiently frozen. We had hoped that further down the canyon the ice would be more sound. That perhaps we could ride onward through the main canyon from here. But no. We sat on the frozen sand in the warm sunshine and ate a late lunch. We stomped around the edges of the flowing water in our boots, probing thin ice and riverbank to see what there was to see. Then we mounted up and headed back the way we had come. As shadows lengthened and deepened. Up the narrow side canyon toward the end of the day. Back over rock and snow. With the inverted echoes of the canyon cliffs reflected and glowing in the ice and water beneath our wheels.

The short day ended quickly once we were back out of the canyon. We found a camp spot and gathered wood for another long night. Pleasant company makes short work of long nights, I'll suggest. I'll also suggest I'm often awkward around people in general. But this small crowd seemed to work. Mike's long history of bike travel. Doom's exploits all over the West. Jeny's enthusiasm for all things outdoor and bike and, well, everything in life… Tales of the day and tales from times past, intelligent curiosity, bold inquiry and thoughtful speculation. Shared in a spirit of entertainment, inclusion, and maybe even education. This warmed the night as much as the fire. And like the fire, once I stepped away into the cold blue night, that warmth was missed. When I snuggled into my sleeping bag, the embers of the fire were too far away to warm me. But my memory of the people around that fire remains warm, even now, months later as I write this.

Sunshine poured over the edge of the world and onto camp. I was once again pleased to find that I was alive, unfrozen, and had even retained all of my limbs. We fired up the fire and fired up ourselves and before long we were buzzing and bounding along on our plump tires, heading out more-or-less the way we had come. Cow trails, jeep track and dirt road. Back to our cars where we would separate. Back to our own towns where we would each go our own way, following our own paths into the future, toward our own versions of adventure.

For me, it's possible that this whole winter camping thing might open up a new range of adventures. That I'll spend more time outside and less time inside looking out the window. Sure, I'll still take my survival and my limbs seriously. But now, as winter begins to get under way for real, I'm starting to scheme. The fat bike I borrowed is now mine. And I've already re-studded my tires for next year's frozen river ride.

Saturday, November 28, 2015

The Wrong Way

by Greg

I don't always do things the proper way. Or even choose to do the proper things. Hot springs in slot canyons on the Colorado River below Hoover Dam in February? That had a nice sound to it. And an 11 mile canyon float? Even better.

Here's how it's done: Pay a livery service to a) Perform a background check on you and b) take you and your canoe/sea kayak/power boat to the base of Hoover Dam. Expect crowds. Float a short way to the slot canyon, hike up and soak. Get back in your boat and float to another slot canyon with a hot spring. Hike up and soak. Expect crowds. Maybe camp on the beach with a crowd. Then paddle/motor on down the canyon to the take out. Yay!

And here's how I did it: Convince Trina that I have a good plan and that it will be fun, even though I really have no idea what I'm doing. Drop Trina and the dogs and packs off at the top of a slot canyon near Hoover Dam. Drive to the take out and spend a long, long time trying to hitch the shuttle with fearful RV retirees, ritzy Vegas day-trippers, and foreign travelers who aren't headed back toward the dam, then finally a (foolish?) high school girl with a plastic kayak picks you up. Think about lecturing her about the dangers of picking up hitchhikers, but don't say anything because you really need the ride.

Start hiking down the slot canyon with big packs, rafts, paddles and two dogs. It's a popular hike and people wonder what you're doing, but by this time it's late afternoon and everyone else is leaving. Realize that the slot canyon is somewhat more technical than expected, with ladder steps cut into the rock and sketchy rope descents that require lowering down packs and dogs.

Find water flowing in a slot canyon, which is always wonderful, but especially wonderful if the water is warm. Find that there is more and more water and warmer and warmer water as you descend. Find that the day is over and it is twilight. Reach the river and a small stony beach that's not quite level enough to camp on. Do not leave your packs here. Instead, leave them on a small rocky promontory that reaches out into the river, while you wade across the shallow stream and back up the canyon to soak in the pools. Sigh with gratitude and relief at the comfort of the warm water and the fact that these natural pools are heavily sand-bagged to make them deeper and that there is no one else here to share them with you.

Filled with contentment, stroll back down toward the beach and find that the river has risen by a couple feet and the shallow stream you waded across is now a bay that requires more than wading. The beach is gone. Now that you think about it, you recall hearing something about the dam releasing more water at night when it's generating more electricity for the lights of the nearby city.

The packs are still above the water, but for how long? Do you camp on the high point of the rocky promontory, or on a shelf on the cliff-side, or go back up the canyon and try to find a flat and dry spot in a wet slot canyon where you can sleep? Try the shelf. But keep everything unnecessary packed while you cook and then prepare to sleep, in case you have to grab it all and scramble up the rocks where there isn't anywhere to lay down, but at least you wouldn't get all wet and maybe drown.

Sleep a nervous sleep above the possibly rising water in this wild place below the dam and below the noisy and streaming traffic on the bridge high above you.

In the morning prepare the coffee, or nothing else will matter (to Trina). The water is down. The beach is back. Inflate a packraft, throw a dog on the bow and push out into the current. Enjoy the dark canyon walls and the clear, green water. Enjoy the colorful kayaks and friendly kayakers who are sharing the river with you. Enjoy the convulsing canyon air as the first helicopter tour of the day flies overhead toward the dam. Enjoy the cactus-covered walls, the convoluted geology, the steady current (enjoy this more than you think you need to) and keep enjoying the helicopters, because they'll be with you most of the day. The current will not.

Paddle past secret palm tree oases. Watch coyotes hunting on the banks of the river. Pull up on a beach with a dozen or more kayaks. Hike a narrow canyon. Scramble up a rocky slot over a stream of warm water. Climb a tall steel ladder with a dog under your arm.

Quietly greet the nice people sitting in the sandbagged pools. Couples. Families with children. A desert rat or two. Try not to stare or glare though some of the people seem to be taking semi-raunchy bikini photos amid the small crowd. Enjoy the neck-deep warmth of the water and keep nodding occasionally as the man near you keeps talking and talking, making sure you understand the immense size of his fiscal "wickerbill" while his (probably much, much smaller) actual "wickerbill" remains thankfully inside his swimsuit. Nod, close your eyes and dream that you are a Native American who has discovered these wild pools and that you are here all alone with just your fine, strong woman and two trusty dogs and no helicopters.

Go back to the rafts and get back in the river before realizing that the river is gone and has been replaced by a long narrow lake that is backing up behind the next dam downstream. Begin to paddle along the flat water in the lovely canyon. Explore a small cave at water level. Continue paddling the flat water in the canyon. Paddle some more. Watch canoes pass you by. Keep paddling the flat water in the stupid canyon as midday turns to afternoon and begins to become evening. Wonder why you are in a dumpy little raft instead of a sleek sea kayak or canoe or powerboat or even a damn helicopter.

Thank your lucky stars that there is no wind trying to push you back up the canyon. Stretch your aching arms and paddle some more. Then, finally, beach the raft and flop exhausted onto the wet sand of the take out.

Heap everything into the truck and drive away just before the sun dips behind the canyon walls.

The wrong way? Maybe. But we got to see a cool area, even if we prefer our adventures to be more solitary. And we also got to remind ourselves that packrafts are good for many things, but flat water isn't really one of them. And this probably isn't the last time we'll do things the wrong way. And enjoy it anyway.

The Urge

Hmm... Maybe this is what happened to the LAST bike rider to have this urge...

by Greg

I’m not sure I know anyone who would have liked this ride. It consisted of climbing thousands of feet in-and-out of gravel washes and over track littered with babyhead rocks, through spine-infested, less-than-spectacular scenery, with a chance of running out of water or getting lost in an obscure, rarely visited area. But I seem to have an urge to try these sorts of things.

I drove an hour on gradually worsening dirt roads in a wild corner of Arizona to get to the starting point. Maps showed a jeep track that split two lobes of a wilderness area. I had no idea how much ground I could cover, so I was ready for either an out-and-back, or a maybe-50-mile loop. The starting point looked promising: The otherwise small creek had pooled — maybe from flooding that re-arranged rocks into a rough dam — and was blocking the end of the old track. The pond was 35 yards across and too deep to wade, certainly too deep for ATVs or the average Jeep. Excellent. It looked like I wouldn’t have much company on the other side.

I loaded my bike and threw it on the bow of my packraft and paddled across. Leafy trees were turning to autumn colors along the shore. But after I deflated and stashed my raft in a tree and started riding upward, away from the water, it was pure desert. Creosote brush and spiny stuff, acacia, catclaw, cholla, ocotillo, and the occasional saguaro, holding its thorny arms in the air. I had to re-tune myself to know which bushes and plants I could brush past, which would stab me, and which would grab my skin and clothes and not want me to keep riding. And had to keep a sharp eye on the ground to minimize rolling over anything that would compromise my tires.

Just me and the tracks of feral burros and wild javelinas on the eroding trail. I was covering good ground on my bike, floating over loose gravel in the washes. Tractoring over rubble and rock. Getting further and further into that space where the urge is satisfied, into wild land, where questions become stacked up in my mind. How far have I come? How far to the next landmark? Is that the correct landmark? Am I making the right connection between my vague map and the actual route? How quickly am I using water and how soon might I find more? The weather seems to be getting cooler and cloudier; do I have enough gear to stay warm? And dry? What if rain turns clay roads to wheel-clogging mud?

I crossed a thin line of vile brown water called Salt Creek. An ATV track showed that I was not the only person to have been there for, what? Days? Still, it was a long way onward to where they must have come in from. Possibly a rancher, as there was a closed gate and cattle tracks here, too.

Beyond the creek, the track climbed steeply, switching back and forth across the slope of what I dubbed Babyhead Mountain. The bike and broad tires remained willing, but my strength was diminished by this time, and I had to walk a few sections. Then through another gate at the rim and I was at the top, a couple thousand feet higher than the pool where I’d started. I paused for a rest, food, and the view. Surprised to find lilies blooming between the rocks. But the chill breeze at the edge kept me from relaxing for long.

It was here, probably, that I finally decided that I’d be riding the loop. I’d been going for over three hours and had gained most of the elevation and had probably ridden the roughest terrain. And even though I’d only ridden about 1/6th of the distance, going forward, into new terrain and into more unknowable questions just seemed easier.

I’d emerged onto the top of a mesa, the track stretching out across a gently rolling plain of short brown brush, brown grass, and low cactus. The cool breeze was behind me and I rode fast to the first “tank” listed on my map. The tank was a stock pond of grubby, muddy water. But also an empty metal tank and trough. And some rounded boulders nearby with scrappy trees growing between them. I went to take a quick nap amid the rocks and found a worn groove in one of the rocks. Then looked further and found more grooves - metates - where native people had once ground food. The manos, the stones used for the grinding, had apparently all been carried off.

Questions came to my mind. Perhaps unanswerable questions. Was this land, which seemed so dry and desolate to me, more productive in the past? Or was it more a question of expectations and knowledge. Am I, standing in the relative luxury of the 21st Century, unable to see with the kind of eyes that would allow me to survive or even thrive in such a place? Am I to remain only a traveler who will pass though, well supplied, and return to my chosen environmental niche, which contains watered gardens, grocery stores and restaurants? Or has the world changed too much since the time when those grooves were worn in hard rock? Could the people with the proper knowledge be placed back here and be able to survive? Or has time and plant succession and climate moved too far beyond where that is even possible?

I flew down the ruts of the track, wind pushing me along, bouncing off the rocks that pushed up from the dirt. I began to pass small herds of rangy cattle as the mesa track climbed gently to the high point of the day. Then it dipped off the edge toward a sycamore creek, drawn in orange and yellow colors of autumn amid the darker green of the drier hills. After a few more switchbacks, I was on good gravel road, zooming down (and grinding up) in twilight and then moonlight and headlight.

On this faster road, I was chewing up most of the loop. More than I really needed to. I was plenty tired and ready to quit, but there was the minor detail of finding a suitable spot to stop. I didn’t need much. Just a flat, non-thorny spot. But such spots can be a little tough to find in the prickly Arizona desert without camping in the road. The light of the western horizon was gone and the full moon had taken over by the time I found an appropriate camp. I’d already made my last big turn and was maybe 10 miles from my car. Easy to polish off in the morning after food and a good rest.

I ate a simple dinner. Drank water. Scrawled in my journal. Contemplated the simple joys of life. Set up my tarp and threw down my bag beneath brooding clouds, worried again about the chance of muddy roads. Things had gone splendidly up to this point.

Then I laid down to sleep and almost immediately got back up to vomit. Flu? Something I’d eaten? Maybe I’d ridden too hard? I’d definitely ridden hard, and needed to rest, refuel and re-hydrate. None of which I was able to do while feeling nauseous. And my water reserves were low, so wasting it by vomiting was disappointing.

I spent a long night of feeling sick, trying to sip water, and trying to sleep. Plus, despite the apparent desert all around me, there were mosquitoes. And I had neglected to bring along a head net. So I also had to wake up every few minutes to slap myself in the face. My eyes opened occasionally to track the moon’s slow course across the sky. Finally, finally, finally there was light in the eastern sky. I packed up and rode slowly, not much fuel in the tank.

I dragged myself over rough roads and slow miles back to my car. Plenty of water and food there, but I could only drink a little and still couldn't eat. And I couldn’t drive out until I’d retrieved my raft from the other side of the pond. A seemingly long quarter mile downstream through the prickly desert scrub there was a place where I could rock-hop the creek. On the other side, I followed very nice trails trough the riparian vegetation, which, though nice, were only about 2 feet high. Then a saw the trail makers, a pack of javelina, just doing their thing, snuffing and grubbing about. Until they caught wind of me. Then they huffed and pranced and dashed and finally scampered away.

My rolled-up boat was where I left it. Unmolested by any humans, though I doubt any came anywhere near it. And un-chewed by wild animals, which had been a greater worry. I’d forgotten to bring the inflation bag, so it took a long, weary time to blow enough air into it and get it inflated. Then I paddled across.

End of the adventure. It was definitely something I probably needed. Despite the unfortunate nausea, it did satisfy the urge. But it is probably something that never needs to be done again. By anyone. Challenging riding at times, but not exactly fun. Not great scenery. An excellent sense of being way out there and of the possibility of making a mistake. But I’m not going to suggest that anyone else get out there and do it.