One of the survival lessons I’ve learned from my many teachers is “understand the source of your stress.” This will help keep you alive when things have gone wrong because it can help you identify a direction to take your situation. When you have an idea of what is bothering you, you can prioritize your actions to address the situation, make it better, and move on to the next task which, in a survival situation, is undoubtedly an important one. I use this survival mechanism in my day to day work, which should tell you something about my day to day work. Last week I used it on a recreational trip, and when you’re using survival strategies on a recreational trip, you know that things aren’t going exactly the way you thought they were going to go.
I had been really looking forward to the three day fat bike trip I’d planned with friends Jill Homer, Sierra van der Meer, and Jenn Roberts. We get together once a year (apparently – this is still a young tradition but we’re determined to keep it up) to embark as a flotilla of female fat bikers on a trail or trip that strikes our fancy. We’ve termed it Pecha Kucha because Pecha Kucha sounds dirty and we figured that if boys have their Brokeback Mountain, we can have our Pecha Kucha. The current rules of Pecha Kucha require an international venture amongst Canadian and American cyclists in late winter with fat bikes. Last year the two Jills (Jill<sup >2) drove 12 hours to Whitehorse and rode the Yukon Quest trail to great success and immense amounts of fun, so it was decided that Alaska would play host this year. The Canadians – Sierra, who always is able to avoid getting a nickname, and Jenn, who is usually known as Jennoitsome – pronounced “Jenn-wah-some” because her Twitter handle is Jennoit and she’s awesome, but was saddled this year with the ridiculous name of Jenny Jenny Cocoa Puff, which, luckily for Jenn, was only thought up on the very last night so only lasted about a quarter of one conversation – drove to Interior Alaska so that we could give a shot at riding the Denali Highway*.
One of the entertaining aspects of Pecha Kucha is reading everyone’s blog posts afterwards, and finding out all the details we didn’t have time to discuss while we were actually in each others’ presence. One of the things that was revealed via blog is that Jill Homer, who was the planner for this trip, is a terrible trip planner. But see, when we first started talking about this trip, she sent out such a series of exhaustively detailed suggestions for logistical strategies that I think the rest of us just kind of thought “oh, she’s good at this” and believed everything she said. We’re all cured of that assumption, now, mostly because she told us in her blog post that she’s not good at planning. If she hadn’t mentioned that in her post, I think we’d all just go on thinking that Jill’s an incredibly talented trip planner who just got saddled with bad luck and unexpected turns of events on this trip. So, thank you, Jill, for clarifying that situation to the benefit of future Pecha Kuchas.
And there will be more Pecha Kuchas, because even though we got “surprised” by conditions, we had a ton of fun and were already planning Pecha Kucha 2014 by the end of the first day of Pecha Kucha 2013. What was the surprise, you ask? Well, to me it wasn’t that much of a surprise. I’m what you call a pessimist, or, perhaps, a cynic. When Jill suggested a plan of a 42 mile day, followed by a 36 mile day, finishing with an 81 mile day to top off our trip, I flatly refused, certain that an 81 mile day is out of reach for fat bike travel purposes in the name of “fun.” It is only via Sierra’s blog post that I found out the rest of the group was still banking on that plan. When Jill confidently informed us the first day that we’d be on the trail about six hours and be managing a 7mph pace, I nodded, but inwardly thought “only when pigs fly, and pull us along with them at the same time, will we manage that pace” because I know very well how slow fat bike travel can be.
The 42 mile distance didn’t worry me, though, because I’m strong and no matter what, slow and steady will get you there. We also talked a bit about how if we needed help, there would be TONS of snowmobile traffic on the road, because it’s a major snowmobile destination. We didn’t bother to find out that we were one week early for snowmobile season, so the hordes of potential ride-givers were nonexistent. Nope, we knew none of these potential complicating factors, so after a delayed start (I took irrational umbrage at the lodge owner’s comment “are you guys always this disorganized?” because it’s not like HE was gearing up for a ride of unknown length, unknown conditions, and unknown outcome after a poor night’s sleep and two hour drive, WAS HE?) we hit the trail.
First came a seven mile climb. This was the first in a series of surprises for me, because I don’t much care for number-obsessing and I rarely look at trails with an eye for amount of up vs. down, climbing vs. descending, and anything really, other than the distance. I like the type of surprise one gets when the topography does unexpected things, so you’d think that 42 miles of such surprises would make for a delightful day indeed. I enjoyed the first climb, feeling very strong and good although the trail wasn’t easy. It was soft and, while not mushy, was quite resistant, providing ample amounts of extra rolling resistance to our big tires and requiring total commitment to turning the pedals and absolute route-picking focus (I tried to look at scenery at mile 5, and fell over in a graceful oops-I’m-on-clipless-aren’t-I swan dive. I also almost lost my car keys in the fall, because I’d neglected to zip the top pocket on my backpack. Wouldn’t THAT have been an entertaining discovery three days later?). The seven mile climb was followed by a quick descent that was halted by two moose that did not want to yield the trail, undoubtedly enjoying the more-or-less packed surface after a hard winter. We could give no quarter, though, so we chased them off (Ok, I chased them off while my stalwart friends shouted encouragement from, oh, a quarter mile back). The important thing about the moose is that they diverted our attention for about half an hour, so we didn’t see the multi-mile climb looming in front of us, clearly visible on the next hill, but hiding behind moose. Moose are very distracting.
Most of the way up this climb, which was strenuous due to the soft trail conditions and severe Arctic sun, which overheated us all in a matter of minutes and thanks to its effect on the trail required an endless mix of pushing and riding, neither of which was pleasant or efficient, I asked Jill Homer about our mileage and pace (Jill’s a number person). Comically, we repeated what was, unbeknownst to me, an exact copy of the conversation Jill and Sierra had just had; something I only know because, again, of Jill’s post-trip blog post:
“How are we for pace?”
“….do you really want to know?”
“We’ve gone twelve miles.”
*pause for facts to sink in*
“So we’re averaging about 3mph.”
Jill and Sierra’s conversation used km/h instead, though, which sounds better because 3mph is 7km/hour which is a bigger number and sounds faster. But isn’t.
I kind of intended to ask everyone if they wanted to keep going. But I decided inwardly that we would ultimately decide to keep going and the discussion would just waste time, so I never verbalized my doubts. Which in the end was OK but man, there were a few moments, about 14 miles and an unknown amount of hours later (I don’t carry a watch on trips)(nor a camera, by the way, so all these pictures are courtesy of someone else), at which I cursed my rectitude. “I didn’t know women did the bro thing,” commented my friend Scott, when I told him about this. So, yes, there was a little bit of that not wanting to be the person who wimps out thing. But the other consideration was that Sierra and Jenny Jenny Cocoa Puff had driven eleven hours to get to this destination and what else were we going to do with our time, anyway? So we kept going, down the committing descent into Tangle Lakes, which lay a little before the halfway point (this is important, because when we arrived at Tangle Lakes, Jill Homer perkily told us that we were at the halfway point, but she told us this with a clearly visible mile marker in the background which read, evilly, “20,” which is, in fact, NOT the halfway point of a 42 mile journey, so at that point I began to have my doubts about Jill’s honesty) and up the next climb which promised to, similarly, go on, oh, forever.
I had dropped behind the group before Tangle Lakes. I felt like shit. I could not feel good no matter how much I ate and drank. I didn’t know what was wrong but I was falling into despair. I rolled up to my waiting Pecha Kucha posse and slumped over my handlebars. “I wish I knew why I can’t feel good,” I lamented, while failing to elaborate. The crew looked at me without pity. Everyone was struggling in the conditions. There was nothing for it but to do it, and we all knew it, so on we went. I suffered. I hated this trip. I felt awful and I didn’t know why; I was doing everything right. I had plenty of food and water and was drinking and eating enough. But something was not working.
As we rounded a small hill and I experienced euphoric relief when entering the lee side, I realized that, in the shadowed aspect of our starting point, I’d broken one of my own cardinal rules of backcountry travel: always, ALWAYS wear a visor. Visors protect my sensitive eyes from blowing snow, annoying rain, and, most importantly, piercing sun. I hadn’t worn a visor. The sun was sitting right where it shone into my eyes between my sunglasses and hat. It was giving me a migraine.
I was pretty far gone, overly concerned about being so slow and in denial about how far we had to go (“we’re past the halfway point! It’s all downhill from here” chirped my brain untruthfully), so I neglected to do anything about my situation, which breaks my second cardinal rule of backcountry travel: if something is wrong, fix it. That burgeoning blister, that chafing pack strap, that inadequate knot in the cord that secures your compass to your person; those will all ruin your trip and possibly threaten your life if not addressed. Five achingly slow miles later, as I painfully struggled up yet another draining climb, I remembered the words of that survival instructor: “understand the source of your stress.” The source of my woes was that I had a headache. It was sapping my energy like mad. Inexplicably, I mentioned this to Jenn and told her I’d decided that, at the top of the current climb, I’d stop and take Advil. Did I think I’d rally with Advil as my reward? Note: Advil, while necessary, is not sufficient method for motivation. Twenty minutes later, when the top of the climb was still not in sight, I came to my senses, hit the brake (brake! While climbing! You know things were dire), and dropped my bike on its side, declaring to Jenn that I had to deal with my headache. Jenn carried on. I layered up, took four Advil, took a break, drank, ate. Eventually I trudged on.
Twenty minutes later I felt like a different person. The headache was gone. I was strong again. I chased down Sierra, which was remarkably easy to my renewed, headache-free body, to remind her to not leave us too far behind as we’d split up the tool-carrying responsibilities (and I needn’t have done so, Sierra always remembers those details) and the three of us carried on together into the sunset.
It was quite gorgeous and enjoyable for me to be out during sunset, watching the stars blink on, and I don’t mind riding at night, so I was really having a good time at that point. The lodge was visible in the distance as a red blinking light far down in the valley. One of the few snowmachiners we’d seen had told us we’d have a long (“ten-mile”) descent at the end which none of us believed but turned out to be more or less true, so the sight of the lodge’s beacon was cheering. The descent was long and steep, and the wind picked up, hammering me with an icy blast that threatened to frostbite my face. I’d had enough of breaking my own rules, so I stopped and took the time to layer up and put on a face mask and goggles for the rest of the descent. I was so glad I did. Instantly warm, I was immune to the wind. I stopped a number of times to enjoy the stars, which sadly can no longer be seen from where I live in Anchorage because of light pollution. When I rolled up to the cabin I couldn’t figure out who was standing there until I realized it was Jill Homer, who had already been there almost an hour and had changed into “normal” clothes. I felt great, so I futzed with my bike and enjoyed the scene for a while, until entering the cabin and realizing that everyone else was changed and ready for dinner. Once again I was last. But this time it was OK.
Stay tuned for Part Two, in which our Pecha Kucha team splits up with different objectives on day two, and tackles the trail back home on day three.
*The Denali Highway is not the highway that goes into Denali National Park. It has nothing to do with Denali National Park. The Denali Highway is a gravel road that goes E-W from Paxson to Cantwell.