Saturday, December 26, 2015

This is my perfect holiday

 Beat and I didn't think we'd be able to make our annual winter training trip in Alaska happen this year, but at the last minute he maneuvered some work obligations and purchased tickets to Fairbanks. Three hours and 43 minutes of low-angle daylight, frost-coated branches, perfect stillness amid negative-double-digit-temperatures, full moonlight on snow, and the possibility of aurora sightings make for a magical time of year in this part of the world. I don't begrudge Alaskans their need to travel to warmer, brighter climes over the holidays. For me, though, there isn't a better time of year to be a tourist in the Far North.

Our friends Corrine and Eric graciously took us in over the holidays, and even let us borrow their fat bikes for training rides. During our first day in town, Wednesday, temperatures hovered near zero degrees. We had to re-introduce our non-acclimated selves to the erratic rhythms of pedaling a bike over packed snow. Every time I return to this activity after a long absence, I'm struck by two things: It's really difficult to dress correctly for cycling, because minute-by-minute effort levels vary wildly. The other thing that strikes me is how pathetically unfit I am. I tell myself climbing steep hills back home is sort of like pedaling snow, but it's not. The slow, heavy grind of snow biking will crush my muscles and then crush my soul. I suppose I like it that way.

 On Thursday we got out for a crushing ride that was only 28.5 miles. It took us five hours to cover the distance. There were two thousand-foot climbs that went on ceaselessly, and plenty of rollers that had us sweating on the way up and shivering wildly as we tore through daggers of cold on the way down. The temperature in the valley was minus 18.

Minus double digits always make for a harsh start to the holiday, but another thing I'm struck by is that a body can adjust to these temperatures pretty quickly. Although I defiantly refused to put on an extra jacket at the top of every small hill only to remove it at the bottom, I managed to stay mostly comfortable — my feet, especially, stayed toasty warm, which is always encouraging for a subzero ride with minimal pushing. Beat had more issues, but he has relatively little experience with winter cycling. Although I'm far removed from being a regular, my own system is a result of years of trials. Winter cycling armor is a puzzle every individual has to solve for themselves.

 It sure was a nice day, though, on Christmas Eve. This photo was take just before 2 p.m., I believe.

 We burst into direct sunlight for all of two and a half minutes. Beat said "the sun is so warm!," apparently referring to the oblong orb that had barely slumped over the horizon. To me, it still felt exceedingly far away.

 Beat during the climb up O'Conner Creek. The trail just kept rising and rising as low-hanging alder branches slapped us in the face and poured snow down our necks. I think if I worked that hard to climb a hill back home, I'd arrive at least 4,000 feet higher than I started. Nope, just a thousand. I swear the Earth's gravitational pull increases with latitude.

We gathered with a few friends for Christmas Eve feasting and festivities, and later that night I wandered down the driveway to sleep under the stars at 5 below. I would have liked it colder, but at 5 below I can lay for long minutes with my head out of the bivy sack, scanning for aurora as the full moon fills the sky with silver light. That moon, to me, felt warmer than the 2 p.m. sun. The air actually was warmer. Still, I love the crisp, deep nights nearly as much as the dawn-and-dusk days, which is why I don't mind 20 hours of darkness. At least for a holiday. 

 Christmas Day, after more warm, delicious, carby homemade food, Beat and I put our sleds together and went out for a sled-drag. I requested we drive to the lowest part of the Goldstream Valley, where the temperature was still 18 below, for better gear testing opportunities. But when there's no wind and you're engaged in a steady physical effort like pulling a sled along flat terrain, it's not difficult to stay comfortable and happy. I'm still struck by how much energy I need to expend during a sled-drag (I always start this activity thinking I'll jog along with my loaded sled, and then my hamstrings just laugh at me and I huff and puff to maintain 20-minute-miles.) But it was silent, peaceful, beautiful day in the enchanted frosty forest.

Right now Beat isn't thrilled about the prospect of taking bikes to Nome. This is something we've discussed earlier, but the Christmas rides seemed to strengthen his conviction that winter cycling is not something he enjoys, at least not yet. I understand where he's coming from. Sled-dragging is hard work (harder work, minute for minute, in my opinion), but it's comparatively relaxing at the same time. Winter cycling is frequently high drama. Sometimes it's good drama, such as rocketing down a frozen river with a fierce tailwind pushing you along. But often it's bad drama, such as wallowing in knee-deep snow dunes while battling even fiercer headwinds. It's an important factor to consider, I think — whether one is mentally prepared for the bipolar moods of the wheel-laden traveler.

But for now, we only have to think about this decision as a more distant problem, even though the ITI is only two months away. For now, it's the holidays, and for now, we will simply hike to hot springs, sleep in cabins and under the stars, squeeze in more bike rides and hopefully develop more effective layering strategies, watch deep crimson light spread across the horizon two hours before sunrise, get annoyed about "hot" temperatures that we'd consider frigid anywhere else, and just enjoy this most magical time of the year. 


  1. (I managed to stay mostly comfortable — my feet, especially, stayed toasty warm)


    1. I wrote about my current system here:

      I can't say it has extensive use, but I've tested it in a wide range of conditions and I've not yet been miserable because my feet were too cold.

      I still hold the opinion that warm feet in cold temperatures have less to do with foot gear and more to do with how well the rest of your body temperature is regulated, how much moisture you've accumulated, your own physiology, etc.

  2. I love the unexpectedness of dropping into your posts if I haven't been following you closely. Just magical to be whisked off to Alaska and see it through your lens. The 1st photo is breathtakingly beautiful.

  3. Yes, photos are memorizing. Professional quality. Photo contest winners.


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