Saturday, December 26, 2009

Joy to the snow bikers

All is quiet on Christmas Day. The city is dark. The roads are empty. The trail is dusted in a fresh layer of White Christmas, packed only by the tiny paws of a single dog team. I have to leave Canada on Boxing Day, go back to a place where Christmas is gray and 39 degrees and heavy rain. But everything in Whitehorse is still holiday card perfect: minus 10 degrees Celsius, light winds, and hints of winter sunlight trying ever so cheerfully to peek out of the thinning snowstorm clouds.

Sierra, Anthony and I set out for a snow bike ride. Sierra is fairly ill and Anthony admits that the night before contained too many ribs and glasses of wine, but the conditions are too perfect to pass up. I met Sierra and Anthony at a 24-hour bike race in 2007. That was the race I discovered kindred spirits in Yukon mountain bikers - people mad about cycling and yet totally lax about it at the same time, just like me. Since then, they've adopted me as sort of an American cousin. Now, every so often I drop in to Whitehorse, usually half-plowed by yet another endurance cycling pursuit, and they take me in without complaint, let me use their sauna, give me a big bed to sleep in, and feed me until I burst. Then we all go for a ride.

Even though I only see them a couple times a year, it made a strange amount of sense to visit them on Christmas. And if it's Christmas Day, well, it only makes sense to go for a bike ride. Sierra rides a Pugsley painted white and embellished with glow-in-the-dark snowflakes and glittering spoke lights. She wears a pink hat with little pig ears and a snout. We pedal through the powder and joke about dinner: "Lutefisk pretty much just tastes like herring bait that was left out in the sun for a few days," I muse. "Honestly, I was expecting something more ... poisonous."

"You have no idea!" Anthony says. "This year's batch was actually one of the better ones."

Thoughts of Christmas fade away as we cross a frozen lake and begin the long climb. The trail is soft and I have to punch it with everything I have just to inch up the semi-steep pitches - like pedaling up a sand dune. The steep ones we have to walk. Sweat drips into tiny craters in the snow and we pull off every layer we can either stuff away or wrap around our bodies. The sun comes out and it almost feels like summer.

But the landscape looks like something incredibly different. Different than the places I know and love in Juneau, because this place is harsh and wide, and opens into seemingly forgotten corners of the continent. Riding through here reminds me of the Susitna Valley and the Farewell Burn and makes me ache for the faraway places I will never forget. We crest a wide pass and Anthony points out the names of new places I plan to etch into my memory. "That over there I think is Lake Lebarge," he says. "Like in Sam McGee!" I say, and I let myself believe that if we only had the hours to drop into the valley far below us, we'd find a way to travel back in time.

All is quiet on Christmas Day. We turn away from the yawning wilderness and ride home.