Monday, January 27, 2014

A friend's journey at the Arrowhead Ultra

Awhile back I wrote a post on the Arrowhead Ultra 135.  I thought I'd post a friend's diary on this event.  He started the race this morning in -25F actual temperature!  Here is part one and part two.  More to come soon.

Go Tom go!

Yesterday, February 8th, I got to catch up with Tom and chat about this year's Arrowhead.  Tom sadly didn't finish this year, but it wasn't about the brutal conditions.  He was quite happy with the trail conditions--packed and fast, and said he wasn't cold--even though it dropped below -30F.  While he told me what happened, I couldn't help but think how smart this guy is.  He chose to pull at Mel George, a bit over 16 hours into the race for him, for two reasons.  First, he flatted early in the race and it took quite a bit of time and energy just to change the tube.  Imagine changing a regular tube in winter conditions.  Now, imagine changing a fat tire in -25.  It took two of them to release the tire from the rim and about 30 minutes to get the job done.  Second, just before hitting Mel George, Tom said he started looking at the snowbanks and thinking "that would be a nice place to lie down and take a break".  He knew at that point he was done.  He's a seasoned enough winter rider and camper to realize that could spell death.  I can't express how important it is to think in this calculated way while doing extreme weather events.  Tom is such a role model in my book and I can't wait to hear about his upcoming adventures.

Saturday, January 25, 2014

A New Chapter

Could this be a new me?  Finding myself on a beach cruiser with coaster brakes.

It's January 25th.  I am gazing out my kitchen window at a black sky and half moon so clear I can make out it's craters.  There is the slightest tinge of cobalt forming around the East--a sure sign the days are getting longer.  The winds have been howling for days now.  Relentless winds trying to knock me off my feet.  I think, if they do, at least they will blow me South, but the South is no better right now.  My friend from New Orleans wrote and told me they were covered in a sheen of ice.

In January I try my best not to let myself dream too much.  Winter will still hold a mighty grip for at least another six weeks.  I know that days with temps above thirty are just a tease, and it will be a long time before I pull my road bike out.  I talk to myself in January, make a road map if you will, for the upcoming year.  I attempt to not let myself get carried away in summer event planning, otherwise I'll miss the power this quiet month can hold.  Similar to my twice-a-year big house cleaning, I clean my mind.  Focus on a couple basic things that matter more to me than my bike:  my health and my family/friends.

I am not one to make resolutions in the first month of the year.  That being said, I do try to make improvements.  From simple things like reading different styles of books and telling people I care about "I love you" to deciding to put myself out of my comfort zone on upcoming rides and, with a friend's pushing, wearing hats I wouldn't have ever tried on.  I don't look at these "improvements" as a test--there is no pass or fail, there might not even be forward movement, but there will be movement.  One of these, okay I'm ditching the word "improvement" and will now just call it "movement", is opening up to more writing opportunities.  As of this week, I am now signed on to write a monthly column for Silent Sports magazine.  To be honest, I'm scared shitless.  I will no longer be read and judged by a few hundred people, it will be thousands.  I can see why people use pen names.  But Joel was nice enough to take me on and I knew I'd kick myself if I said "no".  I've been reading Silent Sports for over twenty years and feel it's the only magazine out there I really connect with.  It was this magazine I would read while working at Midwest Mountaineering and REI in Minneapolis and it, along with co-workers, would spur me on to challenge myself.

So what does this mean for my blog?  To be honest, I'm not sure.  I will try to keep writing and will put links to my articles on the blog, but it may need to take a back seat for awhile.  Only time will tell.  I'm hoping some of you come along for my journey and continue to read my babblings as well as give me feedback.  Thank you readers for your support throughout the past three years.  A bigger thank you to Jason Sweet who encouraged me to start this whole writing thing in the first place.

Monday, January 13, 2014

Sensory Overload in NOLA

Rolling through NOLA on my cruiser

In the long bleak days and nights of winter, sometimes it’s necessary to shake things up a bit.  Throw one self into what one can only described as a sensory overload.  Most winters, I get my fix by going to Obrich botanical gardens every few weeks.  I sit in there, in the fake yet lush ecosystem, and let the scents, colors and humidity wash over me. 

This winter, I knew those short lived and meager trips wouldn’t provide the sustenance I needed to survive several months of bone chilling cold.  Instead of picking someplace truly tropical to visit, like Hawaii or the Caribbean, I decided to go Cajun and head down to New Orleans. 

The birth of this idea began with an old friend getting a job down in Lafayette, Louisiana.  I had always wanted to spend time in NOLA, and explore the city in a non-touristy way.  I saw this as the perfect chance and I bit.  I couldn’t help it.  The lure of fresh raw oysters, jazz, vibrant colors, diverse architecture and relative warmth was too much for me to turn down.  I wanted everything that Wisconsin wasn't.

After doing some research on neighborhoods and places to stay, we settled on a mother-in-law cottage in the Bywater district—just across the canal from the famed lower ninth district.  From what we could tell, this place offered everything we could possibly need:  privacy, a kitchenette, a great jazz bar just down the street and two cruiser bikes to use as we wished.  I was sold on the bikes; my friend was sold on the “hot rocker chic” who owned the cottage.    Perfect for all!

If you’ve been reading my blog for a while, you know my other two-wheeled love is the motorcycle.  The very same friend, whom I was meeting down in NOLA, had also treated me to motorcycle rides in Madison when he came through this past summer.  The offer stood to have him pick me up at the airport, via motorcycle, as long as I could find a helmet that fit.  In a matter of seconds, I had multiple offers—all from cycling friends I have to add—and it was set.  My journey South would go from four wheels, to two wings, to motorized two wheels and finally to human powered two wheels.  Planes, trains and automobiles in the most obscure way.

Thanks to a cycling friend, I had my helmet!

There is no way I could write about all the amazing things that blew my mind in New Orleans.  You'll just have to go down there and experience for yourself.  I will, however, give you snippets of why I am now in love with this place.

-Stepping off the plane and into 45 degrees from -12 in Wisconsin.  I could have worn shorts, and yet all the locals had down parkas, hats and mittens on.

-Color everywhere!  Public art is the norm here, not the exception.  Crayola painted houses, murals, sidewalk art, sculpture, brightly painted beach cruisers--this ain't Wisconsin.

So often I would see bikes matched with houses.

One of the Bywater/Marigny cottages

Riding through Bywater

I fell in love with the murals!
-Music poring out of every window.  No need to visit Bourbon Street...each neighborhood has it's own smattering of performance spaces.  I got treated to jazz, ragtime, drum line, afro-caribbean, r&b, and blues.  My favorite, however, had to be a band called Tuba Skinny.

-People are nice here.  I mean really nice.  I always knew if I was walking or biking past a local or a tourist.  The locals would always say something like "Hey y'all, how ya doing?"  It took me two days to realize this was just what they do, and I love it!

-You can strike up an amazing conversation with just about anyone.  Each person I talked to had a life story I could probably write a book about.  James and I met a guy who just moved back to NOLA, after leaving Hawaii.  He left NOLA after being stuck in the floods from Katrina and then chose to make a lava field on the Hilo side of the Big Island his home.  When the lava took over his home, he moved back.

-"If you find a vegetable or piece of fruit, eat it!  You don't know when you'll find one again"  These were the wise words from an old neighbor of mine, who grew up in NOLA.  I thought he was joking until...

Oysters are sea vegetables right?
-Roads are for walking on, sidewalks are meant for placing trash.  Even if the sidewalks were clear of old x-mas trees and trash bins, they are impossible to walk on in most neighborhoods.  Very narrow, heaved in every which way and sometimes non-existent.

If we weren't forced to walk in the street, I never would have seen this.

-Cats rule all.  I'm guessing it's the rat problem that made everyone get a cat, but they are everywhere!

Bywater cats
-Don't even try to figure out the pronunciations of street names--just ask a local.  I thought my French would help me there.  Ha!  Each name has been skewed in some odd fashion.  It bugged the shit out of me in the beginning, but I went with it and won't go back. "Burgundy" will always be "burrGUNDee" from this point forward.

-I really like Abita Jockamo beer!  As well as fresh and charred oysters from Felix's.

-Biking on miles at a snail's pace on a beach cruiser can be fun.  Besides, the pot holes are the size of houses on some streets so 40mm tires are a godsend.  I saw one roadie the entire time and thought he was crazy.

Food and bikes...yep, this sums up most of my life

A really cool kid's CSA building made from containers

A fantastic bike shop in the Marigny neighborhood--they sell fatbikes to hunters!

Can't say NOLA has a lot of safe biking, but they are coming along

Lower 9th "make it right" homes

CBD/Warehouse riding

-Nitro cold brew coffee is really the true ambrosia.  Get it at District 9 along with crazy doughnuts like Chinese Five Spice or Vietnamese Coffee.

-The Besthoff Sculpture Gardens is one of the best sculpture gardens I've been to.  There were three pieces there which actually changed my life.  GO!

My new favorite sculpture

-The Lower 9th Ward isn't sketchy at all.  I saw 110 out of the proposed 150 green homes being built by Brad Pitt's Make it Right Foundation.  It is worth a visit.

Make it Right green homes

So here I sit, back in Madison, already dreaming about my next visit to Cajun country.

Monday, January 6, 2014

Arctic Dreams

Dogsledding near the BWCA

I am a firm believer there is a child within us all.  For some, it slumbers silently waiting for something to rouse it.  For others, it is swept up under the rug after we become an "adult", never to be brought out again.  It is truly an odd phenomena that we, as adults, find it necessary to choke this side of us as if it were a demon.  I know many adults who have completely lost the art of play, as well as adventure, and it makes me very sad.

I must be honest, there have been multiple times in my life that I too, lost the art of play.  I took myself all too seriously and lived by "shoulds" and "have to's" vs. "want to's".  Now I'm not suggesting we all run around neglecting our daily duties and ask others to support us, I'm just suggesting that no matter what our environment is, we MAKE time to have fun again.

I sit here looking out my kitchen window at the brilliant blue sky and deceptively warm sun, dreaming about a time when I was little.  As a child I cherished all the seasons.  Each one brought a new exciting gift just waiting to be unwrapped.  Winters in Minnesota would bring feet of snow and temperatures which would frequently drop below zero.  I would head out, even in the worst blizzards, bundled so greatly it was hard for me to move.  I let my imagination run wild and would often pretend to be a polar explorer.  When the snow piled up between garages, I dug tunnels through them and built quinzee huts.  I could sit out there for hours, sometimes working on perfecting my hut, sometimes just listening to the wind.  I loved feeling like I was the only person around and it was up to my quick thinking to survive.  I will tell you my mom always knew where I was, although I liked to think she didn't, and I actually never got frostbite until I was an adult.
Humans are an infant species, a mere 150,000 years old. But, armed with a massive brain, we've not only survived, we've used our wits to adapt to and flourish in habitats as varied as deserts, Arctic tundra, tropical rainforests, wetlands and high mountain ranges.                                                      -David Suzuki
Fast forward many years and I continued to dream about the Arctic.  There was a thrill I'd experience when I thought about spending time in the far North--part sheer fear, part excitement.  Right after high school I took a job working for Midwest Mountaineering in Minneapolis.  There, I was introduced to people like Ann Bancroft, Will Steger, Paul Schurke, Lonnie Dupre, Arleigh Jorgenson and Garth Willis.  They made my spark turn into a burning fire and I was determined to follow in their footsteps.  I consumed every book about Arctic exploration I could get my hands on (I still do this) and even read several about expeditions in the Antarctic.

Images of barren ice fields, drifting pack ice, polar bears, seals and a vast openness drew me in.  I thought there would never be a greater challenge than to survive in such an inhospitable place, even though the Inuit do a beautiful job at this.  I spent evenings poring over Barry Lopez's Arctic Dreams and pictured myself leading my own expedition.

Once in his life a man ought to concentrate his mind upon
the remembered earth, I believe. He ought to give himself up
to a particular landscape in his experience, to look at it from
as many angles as he can, to wonder about it, to dwell upon it. 

He ought to imagine that he touches it with his hands at
every season and listens to the sounds that are made upon
it. He ought to imagine the creatures there and all the faintest
motions of the wind. He ought to recollect the glare of noon and
all the colors of the dawn and dusk. 
                                                                     -Navarre Scott Momaday

Wintergreen Lodge
After transferring from Midwest Mountaineering to REI, I decided I wanted to give dogsledding a try.  I knew my choices for Arctic travel were limited to dogsled, skiing with Berwin bindings, walking with a pulk sled or kayaking.  At the time, people weren't even thinking about biking up there since mountain bikes were still somewhat new and fat bikes were long from being designed.  Because of my love for animals, I chose to learn about dogsledding.  I had spent time working with the dogs at Voyageur Outward Bound in Ely, MN but had never run them in snow.  I finally got the nerve to call Paul Schurke one day and ask if I could become his intern.  I promised to do anything he needed around camp for a chance to learn some skills.  January 1995 rolled around and I headed North to Wintergreen Lodge, perched on White Iron lake near Ely, not having a clue what to expect.

My days were filled with scooping up frozen poop from over a hundred dogs, chopping up frozen chicken bits with an axe to supplement the dog's dry food, hauling pales upon pales of water, organizing massive amounts of harnesses, gang lines, food bags etc., pre-cooking food for trips, and baby sitting Paul and Susan's small children.  Finally, I got the chance to be an assistant on some trips.  On that first day out of camp, I realized all the preparation and hard work I had done the previous week or two was done for a reason.  I had learned so much through repetition and menial tasks--something I could have never learned safely on the trail itself.  Those days spent on the trail were some of the hardest, yet most rewarding days of my life.  I would wake cold and stiff, still exhausted from the day before, not wanting to leave my cocoon.  When the guests would retire for the evening, the guides and I would take care of the dogs, make repairs to gear and prep for the following day.  Our days were long and we thought of very little other than what was in front of us.  I loved it and cried when I had to leave.

After spending that winter, along with a few winter stints with Outward Bound and Wilderness Inquiry,  I somehow fell off the Arctic bandwagon.  I still thought about being a dog handler for mushers in Northern Canada or Alaska, and continued to do some winter camping, but I just couldn't wrap my mind around doing it full time.  The years rolled by and somewhere in there I began to despise winter--I'm sure living in Kona, Hawaii didn't help matters.  I became "soft" and lost my sense of winter adventure.  Although I still continued to bike commute in the winter to work, I told myself I hated it.

Getting ready to ride in sub zero temps
A few years ago, I joined up with Madison Bike Winter and decided to stop moping--or at least not as much.  The winters have rolled by and each year I awaken a bit more of my winter inner child.  I won't lie.  I still much prefer summer over winter, but this morning, when I woke to -13 F with windchills ranging from -35 to -45, I was a bit giddy to ride my bike to work.  I felt like a child once again, pretending to be an Arctic explorer.  I found pleasure in smearing my face with Vaseline (I ran out of my Dermatone) in case there was a break in my balaclava/goggle seal.  I found even more pleasure in hearing some of my co-workers calling me a "dumbass" for riding in this weather.  Truth be told, I felt much safer riding to work instead of driving.  There was not one iota of me that even considered driving.  And when I showed up to work, toasty warm, nothing anyone said could wipe the smile off my face.  I felt alive...something I strive for more and more each day.

If you are new to winter biking, there are a few things to consider.  Not everyone does well in extremely cold conditions.  If you suffer from a condition called Raynaud's, like me, or diabetes, you have to take extra precautions and should avoid long exposure without an escape route.  Learning how to dress, eat and hydrate to stay warm, but not too warm, is key.  I would also recommend learning some basic bike maintenance and practice performing simple tasks with gloves on.  You'd be amazed how hard it is to fix a dropped chain when your hands are cold.  Most importantly, take small test runs around the neighborhood.  Only when you're confident in your set up should you venture out further.  Lastly, keep a good sense of humor.  Things will go wrong at some point...count on it, and it's how you roll with it that can make the situation miserable or tolerable.