Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Settling in for the long haul

I woke up countless times in the night, shivering. The inside of my bivy sack was clammy, like the interior of a cave, and my sleeping bag was not insulated enough to ward off the damp, frigid air leaking in from outside. Each time I woke up, I decided enough was enough and it was time to move on down the road. But then I imagined the icy darkness outside, and the urgency of packing up when I was already cold. As I pondered and shivered, a thin layer of warm air enveloped my body — enough to soothe me back to sleep. 

The alarm rang out at 5:30 a.m., which at this latitude was after sunrise. I groaned as I rolled onto a stiff shoulder and opened my bivy to a clear, frosty morning. Hoarfrost coated the ground, and my wet shoes were frozen solid. My shirt and socks were still damp, and a light breeze hit my face like a freezer blast. 

I beat the frost away from my bag and rushed to pack up gear as my extremities went numb and shoulders quaked — which was probably why they were so sore. I smiled as I remembered feeling a similar urgency when I went bikepacking earlier this year in Fairbanks, Alaska — when the temperature was 35 below. Only then, it wasn't as bad because I just pulled on my expedition mittens and down parka and instantly felt so much better. Here, in the Canadian Rockies in June, I had only the clear-sky promise of coming sunshine to quell an instinctual panic. With the last of the dexterity in my fingers, I checked the temperature on my bike computer: -4C (25F.) 

I pedaled slowly up Corbin Road, trying to work up power from muscles that felt like freezer-burned meat, and berating myself for choosing such a poor camp spot. Low-lying valleys are prone to inversions, and sleeping right next to the river meant humidity and cold. The rising sun made short work of the frost coating the ground. As soon as I felt comfortable enough, I stopped at the river to wash my bike. Clay-based death mud is as good as cement when it dries, and there were still large chunks clinging to nearly every part of the bike. After twenty minutes of holding the wheels in a swift current and chipping away at mud, I removed what was probably five pounds of gunk. The bike was still filthy, but what can you do? A mile later, a pair of riders passed on sparkling bikes.

"How did you get your bikes so clean?" I asked.

"Car wash in Sparwood," one answered.

"Oh," I said, feeling deflated. Not stopping in Sparwood was probably not the best strategy. The rough night of cold sleep took a lot out of me, my food supply was a little on the low side, and my throat was now fiercely sore. But what can you do?

At least it was a gorgeous day, and already warming up substantially. A dozen or so riders passed me on Flathead Pass, which is steep and rocky on one side, and so badly eroded on the other that the creek re-diverted right down the middle of the road. I expected to see a lot of riders in the morning, as most cyclists prefer not to camp in bear country, so a large percentage of faster riders stayed in town. I kept pace with one guy for a while, trying to power some life back into my dead meat legs. I couldn't breathe hard without feeling a burning sensation in my throat, and I'd also developed a cough that left me fairly certain my body was battling a cold virus. Overall I felt frustrated about my physical condition, and trying to keep up with faster riders wasn't helping morale. But what can you do? I reminded myself it was the second day, which is always a hard day, and sang a Grateful Dead song that I always sing to myself on these multiday trips: "Well the first days are the hardest days, don't you worry anymore ..."

The valley surrounding the upper North Fork of the Flathead River is a remote place, teeming with wildlife. I frequently rode by fresh bear scat, enough to keep me calling out "Hey Bear" for much of the day even though I felt confident that a steady stream of riders would probably prompt most bears to steer clear of the road. I find the rampant ursaphobia surrounding the Tour Divide to be over the top. Yes, grizzlies are dangerous, and yes, the Flathead Valley is home to one of the densest populations in interior North America. There are still only an estimated 100 grizzlies in nearly a thousand square miles, and with little human presence, they're not habituated to associate people with anything they want. The odds of running into one as a matter of bad luck are low, so I don't feel uneasy riding in bear country. I'm respectful and I hang my food and make noise, but I don't view bears as the most urgent threat of the Tour Divide, by a long shot.

What is scary for me on the Tour Divide? Lightning, first and foremost. Next, I fear running out of drinking water — with a filter, I was frequently topping up my three-liter bladder, just in case there were no streams for the rest of the day (water isn't exactly scarce in the mountains of British Columbia.) Third on the list is heat and heat exhaustion. Then drenching, cold rainstorms that last most of the day, far from shelter. Then stranger danger — there can be some odd creeps on these remote back roads. Of course there's injury — I have a lot of speed-inefficient habits I employ to keep body parts comfy on the bike. Then there's crashing, mechanicals that I can't fix when I'm a long walk from anywhere, running out of food, GPS death (I carried a spare eTrex 20), camera death, iPod death (I brought four Shuffles), sleeping pad death (I don't understand people who don't use pads. The ground is cold), suicide squirrels getting caught in my spokes ... well, you get the gist. There's plenty to be wary of on the Divide. I suppose fixating on bears is at the very least a helpful distraction.

Illness hadn't been anywhere on my fears list, or my radar. It was mid-summer, and I've long relied on a relatively robust immune system. So as my throat continued to burn, I just wrote it off as another one of those early-days issues I needed to work out, like my squeaky Achilles. Achilles tendinitis is perhaps the number one overuse injury in the Tour Divide, and I often experience minor Achilles pain after just one long day in the saddle. My strategy to ward off tendinitis is to change the position of my feet at regular intervals. It works for me, and is one of the main reasons I ride platform pedals (though not the only reason.)

I rolled through the Flathead Valley, then climbed and descended Cabin Pass without seeing anybody else. Elliot caught up to me on the Wigwam Road — a segment I've come to regard as "the most horrible rollers" — while I was battling through a slump that I would later come to think of as my "6 p.m. meltdown." Late afternoons were always the hardest time of day for me. My body was craving a hot meal and a nice evening wind-down, and I was telling her we had to eat dirty handfuls of nuts for dinner, and then keep pedaling until midnight. Nobody was happy.

But Elliot's a cheerful guy. We chatted long enough that I perked up, and then we arrived at the "singletrack" connector, which perked me up even more because I could hike for a while. The faint, mile-long trail between two abandoned logging roads follows a deer trail along the Wigwam River, then skirts a bend by shooting straight up the mountain at a rate of 400 feet in 0.2 miles. It's one of the infamous segments of the Tour Divide — a grunt of a push in dry conditions, and often a bike-dragging portage when it's wet and the "trail" becomes a waterfall. It was fairly dry this year, and I was grateful for the chance to stretch my legs and back, and give my wee little arms a bit of a workout (all while feeling grateful that I only had to do this for 0.2 miles, unlike Beat on the Freedom Trail.)

I'd planned to camp on Galton Pass, but the stubborn northern sun was not even close to setting. Also, I was nearly out of food. Everything I had would make an adequate dinner, but I'd be setting myself up for a hungry morning into Eureka. I was fairly disgusted with the mud crusted to my tights and legs — even though I promised myself I wouldn't let griminess bother me — and I'd become fearful of another cold night out (add that to the list of fears.) I'd just told Elliot that I intended to camp that night, and hopefully most nights, because Tour Divide was "a camping ride." Now I was already talking myself into spending the second night of the race in a hotel room. Oh well. What can you do?

The late-evening descent from Galton Pass was worth throwing away my willpower. Orange and red light glowed on treetops as I screamed down the narrow canyon, breathing fire as cold wind hit my raw throat. After descending 3,500 feet in just over seven miles, the loose gravel road spit me out into the pastoral Kootenay valley, four miles from the U.S. border.

The border patrol guard asked me more questions than I was expecting, given he'd probably seen at least thirty other cyclists that evening. After the guard let me back into my own country, I followed a farm road next to a three-foot-high wire fence strung right along the border. It would take no effort to jump right back into Canada there, and if it were later, likely no one would know. Ah, security theater. But I was thrilled to be back in the USA, already ahead of my 2009 pace, and maybe if I could kick this cold, I could really start flying. 


  1. Hi Jill. I was one of those guys on a "sparkling bike" that chatted for a while on the second morning. I was thinking how hardcore you were and that I should have ridden past Sparwood that first night and camped as well. However, every rider I have spoken that did had a really bad nights sleep and suffered through day 2 because of pressing on. It looks like my decision to get a room in Sparwood was a sound one in hindsight. Beginners luck?
    Also, thanks for the write up, I am enjoying it. Dave.

    1. Hi Dave  — Congrats on your ride! I used to buy into the notion that I needed to sleep indoors to sleep well and recover. I no longer believe this — I actually slept quite well most nights in the bivy. But yeah, the first night was a cold night and I wasn't quite prepared for it. If you can't tell, I do blame those first-day chills for setting the stage for the illness that progressed during my two weeks on the Divide, but of course I'll never really know.

      Later, I chose to sleep indoors a couple of times — in Helena and Pinedale — because I thought I was suffering from allergies. I thought a night out of the dust and pollen would do me some good, but instead it felt too hot, too dry, my coughing got particularly out of control, and I tossed and turned anyway. Now I think it actually is more restful to embrace a rhythm and just camp every single night ... but I also admit that I don't think I could deal with the compounding griminess of no showers. Hotels every fourth or fifth night on particular "chore" days would be pretty ideal.

  2. Every time I go backpacking, I've noticed it's awfully hard to finally convince myself to crawl out of my "torture bag" into the cold. And I'm in a tent even. I've been thinking of trying the bivy bag thing one year, leaving the heavier tent behind...but some things are just hard to let go of. My brother and I have both come to the conclusion that sleeping (and the comfort required to be ABLE to sleep) is paramount. If you're not sleeping enough, then every other aspect of the trip suffers (and we're usually only out for a few days, you are looking at 3 weeks). Any extra weight we carry is typically associated with that aspect.

    Interesting that the border guard gave you the third-degree. I guess you looked like a terrorist, and that's a new way of slipping-in for the bad-guys: blend in with a totally off-the-charts bike race. Maybe he was just bored or curious (and hitting on you...not wanting to let you just breeze on thru quick?)

    I'll have to re-read Be Brave, be strong to re-acquaint myself with the race-perspective from the inside. I don't seem to recall you hitting "death mud" so early last time (wasn't it down in New Mexico when you hit the evil stuff?)

    1. I like my bivy sack, arguably better than my stand-alone tent, because it takes no time to set up, and feels cozier. I would probably change my tune if I had to use it in heavy rain (haven't yet.) For most recreational trips, I would still bring a tent for better weather security, and because the bivy's not exactly a fun place to "hang out."

      The Tour Divide is all about managing a certain level of sleep deprivation. My habits skew toward more sleep, and try to make up for it by being as efficient as I can on the bike (because I don't ride fast, I really do try to keep moving.) I generally slept 5 to 6 hours a night, with two or three nights of a full 8 hours.(Before my three-day shutdown in Colorado, when I was logging these 11- to 14-hour sleeps.) Sleepiness was never a big problem for me, as I struggled most during the mid-afternoons and felt better in the evenings, but I did doze off once on my bike, and crashed as a result.

      The first day was the only day of the 2015 Tour Divide that I ran into death mud. I saw much more of it in 2009, when I encountered more rainstorms and snowy passes that soak clay-based dirt roads. This clay is much more prevalent in New Mexico, and I think even this year everyone ran into death mud there.

  3. Loved your list of fears, especially about the suicidal squirrels running into your wheel spokes! Like you, my fear of bears is way, way down the list. Hypothermia, near the top. Maybe because of living in Alaska?

  4. You got a snap of me crossing the river! I think that was the point that after hopping around for 5 minutes not wanting to get wet feet I realised there was no point putting it off, this was the "river road" everyone talked about! Thanks for the updates, looking forward to more. Great reading while I am on the couch with a horrible flu!

  5. tough.... builds a better person ... good on you for doing that... many would cry and go home defeated. You defeated your fears and prospered in growth.


Feedback is always appreciated!