Wednesday, January 02, 2013

Snow biking bliss

 In between our overnight trips into the wilderness north of Fairbanks, Beat and I spent a few days kicking around town.  Our friend Joel was vacationing in Hawaii, and graciously allowed us to stay at his house near the university. Fairbanks city life was an adventure in itself. The day after we arrived, the water tank froze, actually froze solid. Since it was also Christmas Eve, Joel's roommate Nathan couldn't get it sorted out until after the holiday. Nathan made a valiant effort by collecting a few dozen five-gallon jugs' worth of water from at a local water station and pouring them on top of the ice (Fairbanks has actual water stations, just like gas stations, where the many people who live off the grid go to buy water.) That and a few small pots of boiling water didn't even make a dent, so we were without running water until we got back from Tolovana Hot Springs. This added to the whole rustic Fairbanks cabin living experience. Also, we helped extract a taxi from a snowbank by pushing on the bumper with a truck. That was fun.
On these inbetween days, I had a chance to explore Fairbanks trails on a fatbike. I borrowed a bright orange 9:Zero:7 from Amy Breen, the woman who narrowly beat me for the title of "Cutest Skirt" during the 2012 White Mountains 100 race (mine was blue and hers was pink; how can I compete with that?) She was bike touring in Southern California over the holidays (this seemed to be a common theme with many of the people we know in Fairbanks. We came up to Alaska and they all went somewhere warm. What gives?) and generously offered to let me use her bike while she was gone. It was a little small for me, but otherwise the perfect adventure vehicle for exploring town. (All of these trails are within city limits.)

 Joel lives on the edge of a large network of Alaska Dog Mushing Association trails, so this was the obvious place to start. On Christmas Day, Beat went out for a session of running and gear testing, and I went for a ride. It was still quite cold in the valley, around 10 or 15 below zero. I got dressed the way I remember dressing to ride in Juneau, and let's just say I froze a little bit. Snow biking is hard work but surprisingly more difficult to stay warm than walking/running, perhaps because I'm working some muscles hard while not using others much at all (upper body, feet.) I got off the bike every ten minutes or so to run, in an effort to bring some feeling back to my toes. On the way back to Joel's house, I met a huge tractor of a groomer that had doubled the width of the trail, and also smoothed a bunch of loose power over the surface. Suddenly my narrow and fast trail was soft and punchy. I took this photo while I was venturing off the groomed track in search of something better. I didn't find much, so it was back to the groomer for a return ride that was double the effort and took double the time. Ah, snow biking. At least it was easier to stay warm.

 My next opportunity to ride was December 28, and I ventured back out on the newly groomed trail that by then had at least set up a bit. While slogging through the fluff a few days earlier, I let a bunch of air out of both tires in an effort to increase the floatation. This marginally improved my handling on the soft trail, but later I discovered that Amy had no bike pump in her frame bag, and Joel didn't have any at his house. I spent quite a bit of time trying to track down a pump, and found nothing. So the rest of the trip I had to ride a bike whose tires were half-flat, probably around 4 or 5 psi. It was still super fun on the soft stuff, but annoyingly bouncy and slow on hard surfaces. I ended up seeking out marginal trails because my progress on the good trails was so infuriating.

 But, wow, the light. The color. The beauty. I found it all so enthralling and took lots of photos. This day, temperatures in the valley were about five below zero. I put on a few more layers to ride but my feet were still cold, and even though the soft tires allowed me to ride pretty much everything, I still frequently jumped off the 9:Zero:7 to run until the blood returned to my toes.

I finished my ride more than an hour after sunset and didn't ever have to use my headlamp. The light in Fairbanks is so great this time of year. Living here would have its perks, which I think would trump most of the hardships. As long as I could get outside for a short time during the daylight hours most days during the winter, I'm not sure I would even notice the twenty hours of darkness. Of course, most people have to work during these hours, which is one of the factors that makes winters so hard. My two-plus-hour ride ended up netting me thirteen miles. Average speed: 5.6 mph. Hardest half marathon ever.

On December 29, I made use of all of the daylight to go for a "long" exploratory ride. I set out not really knowing where I would end up, but aiming indirectly for either the Ester Dome or Goldstream Valley. When a few attempts at climbing the dome ended in dead ends, I dropped into the valley. Temperatures on this day had risen into the single digits. But coasting road descents = brrrrr. Oh, yeah, this is what "road" riding looks like in Fairbanks in December. Stunningly beautiful commuting.

 Down in Goldstream, I stumbled across the winter trail network. Dog mushers make the most enjoyable trails, narrow and winding through the snow-frosted forests. The only people I saw on the trails that day were two different mushers. I pulled off the trail to let them by, watching in awe as their dog teams sprinted past with single-minded focus. I'm not really a dog person, but I am fascinated with well-trained sled dogs — possibly the best endurance athletes in the animal kingdom.

 Becoming more blissed out with every slow pedal stroke.

 And the light. The color. The beauty. The narrow strip of low-angle sunlight that escaped beneath a ceiling of clouds was enough to set entire hillsides ablaze.

 I started venturing off the main trails to explore side trails that sometimes seemed to be no more than a single snowmachine track. The bike's deflated tires spread out over the soft snow and allowed me to ride trails I wouldn't have been able to walk, evidenced by the fact that whenever I stepped off my bike, I post-holed up to my shins. While fatbikes certainly can't go everywhere, it continues to surprise me just how well they perform on marginal terrain.

 If I lived in this cabin I would go snowbiking every day, and be even less productive than now. It's probably good I don't have these kinds of outdoor recreation temptations here in sunny, warm California.

But these few cherished snowbike outings were the delicious frosting on top of a rich and successful week of winter trekking. I can't really express how much I enjoyed our holiday vacation without gushing; I loved every part of it. Even freezing my toes on the way to Fred Meyer had a bemusing novelty. We went to the BLM office to purchase our White Mountains permit, and discovered that even the most mundane buildings around Fairbanks were beautiful in their winter settings — surrounded by a forest of frost crystals that glittered in the pink light of sunrise/midday/sunset. We browsed Beaver Sports and discovered winter gear we didn't even know existed (down-filled overboots? What a great idea!) We relaxed by the wood stove at Joel's house and drank cup after cup of hot chocolate, mostly without guilt, because we were so ravenously hungry all the time from playing in the cold. We visited fun people and slept under incredible moonlight. And the light. The color. The beauty. I can't wait to go back.