Headed out last weekend for a ride with @spoke_n_words – he texted he was running late. “S’ok”, I says, “I’ll take the scenic route.”
The kids had a day off school which meant I wasn’t obligated to drive anyone anywhere – at least during business hours – so I managed to load the Surly Disc Trucker up and squeeze in a rare commute to the office by bike. This always includes the requisite taking of photos.
Also managed to leave early enough to have time for a #coffeeoutside stop.
And of course, since the bike was in the office, and the sun was hitting it so nicely, I took a few photos of it as well.
Sometime back I started following Alastair Humphreys on various social media platforms. He’s a travel writer/blogger and I’ve read two of his books, Grand Adventures and Microadventures: Local Discoveries for Great Escapes. Through this second book, he encourages people to get out and have #microadventures in their immediate surroundings. Day trips, overnighters, easy stuff that can be accomplished within work-a-day life.
Back at the beginning of the summer I assembled a few things with plans for my own version of the micro adventure, a combination of a commute to work and a S24O (sub-24hour overnight for the uninitiated). I had dubbed it a ‘C24O’. My plan was to head out one evening on the bike with camping gear, ride until dark, camp and then get up and go to work the next day. Not surprisingly, the usual stuff got in the way and I went the whole summer without a single ‘C24O’.
Summer is really dragging into Fall in our neck of the woods so this past Friday I was able to get out for a conventional overnighter. My plan, formed hastily, was to head out Friday night, find a spot, and then get up early Saturday morning and hit the Farmer’s Market before the crowds and when the good stuff was still there. Weather was looking promising, though a bit chilly – no rain forecast, but a projected overnight of º2 C meant that I packed the wool base layers. When I managed to roll out Friday evening in shorts, the sun was setting and it was absolutely sublime out.
I didn’t have a particular camp spot in mind, but several ‘potentials’ – my main concerns were not running into people or getting hassled by yahoos out on a Friday night drinking excursion in the woods. I rolled into Marysville and headed down to the flats along the Nashwaak River for a closer look. I had a backup spot in mind if nothing panned out. I managed to find what I felt was a pretty stealth spot a ways of the rail-trail that was tucked in the grass enough that trail users couldn’t see me yet had a nice view of the river. I also checked the satellite on Google Maps and noticed that fortunately there were no houses directly across from my spot on the river.
I decided this was as good a spot as any and sat for a bit listening to the river go by and checking out a flock of Canadian Geese messing about a little bit down river. Once it was a bit darker, I scouted out to find some firewood and came back to set up my tent. The evening was cool, but not uncomfortable, and as it got completely dark I started a small fire and sat and listened to the night coming on.
Although it was hard to see far past the fire, I was at one point startled by loud splashing noises down in the river. I figured it was probably deer, beavers, or possibly even fish jumping, but wasn’t able to see anything even with a headlamp. I would continue to hear the noises every once in awhile – I eventually started talking to them to make sure they knew I was there and there was no need to come check me out any closer.
I spent a few hours feeding the fire and listening, feeling I should be doing something but realizing that there was actually nothing to do. What a strange sensation – and a luxury – in this day and age to accept that sitting there, doing nothing, listening to the sounds of what was going on around me and processing my own thoughts was exactly what I should be doing.
As the fire died and I exhausted my supply of wood, I had a moment where at first I thought someone was shining a light down my way from the trail or a light had come on somewhere. A bit startled, I realized that, as my luck would have it, I’d managed my trip on the full moon and it was rising up behind me like a spotlight in a clear, empty sky. It never ceases to amaze me how much light the moon casts and this night was no exception.
Even after the fire was out, I sat and soaked in my surroundings, for I could see quite well in the moonlight. I managed to catch a quick glimpse at whatever was making the splashing noises in the river – it was definitely something jumping up – and back into – the water, but I still wasn’t sure what it was.*
It was starting to cool off pretty good at this point and even though I’d thrown on a few layers throughout the evening, I decided to get warm for good in the sleeping bag and call it a night. Settling in, I could hear the sound of tall grass in the occasional breeze, running water and the occasional slap of my mystery friend playing in the river.
I slept pretty well, though did have to get up and add some layers during the night. My sleeping bag is rated to 0ºC, and though I have no idea what the actual temperature was, I think it may have been below what was forecast at my camping spot as I was in a low-lying area down by the river. As luck would have it, wearing everything I’d brought with me inside the sleeping bag, I was pretty comfortable most of the time. I was wearing a wool base layer top and bottom, synthetic technical shirt, thermal pants, wool cycling jersey, a down jacket and toque. The only thing I screwed up was brining only the one pair of wool socks I was wearing – I could’ve used another pair as my feet were cold.
After a few toss and turns during the night, I decided around 5am that between the bit of cold that I was feeling as well as my desire to get to Market, that I probably wasn’t going to sleep anymore so decided to get up. It was still dark of course, but the moon was out in full and was striking. A thin frost had formed on everything, the ground, grass and my tent and the light from the moon made everything shimmer.
I was pretty cold at this point and cursed myself for having not collected more or saved some firewood from the night before as a fire would have been fantastic to warm me up both physically and mentally. I tried to get something going with some of the grass nearby, but it was mostly too wet and frost covered to catch. Going to find more actual firewood was a bit of a hike from my spot and I figured it was probably wet as well. Lesson learned for next time. I also made a note to work on my fire-making skills more often as gas bar-b-ques and fuel canister stoves have made me lazy. All my Boy Scout knowledge has been lost in the ether of time.
I did set about starting up my burner stove to make some coffee and oatmeal. I didn’t have any coffee at home the night before when I set out so I’d stopped at a gas station on the way and bought a jar of instant. Man. That stuff is terrible. Never again. I couldn’t even make it through the whole cup. I shoveled down some lukewarm oatmeal – I’d managed to bring a stove canister that was pretty much empty and barely got the water boiling before running out (Another lesson learned!) – and then set about breaking camp. Packing was easier since I was wearing most of what I’d packed the day before. I was rolling through the pre-dawn on the bike trail by 7am. It was chilly out and the prospect of hot food and good coffee at the Market kept me going.
Once there, and after warm eats and luxurious coffee, I set about doing a little shopping. As I got ready to leave I realized I had no room to put my groceries on the bike. Ironic I thought, that a bike covered in bags and gear had no room for a few groceries. I’m still learning each time I go out to pack efficiently and in this case, maybe I’d done too good of a job. I had just-enough space for everything, and nothing extra. I guess when I’m planning multi-day trips I’ll need to work on allowing extra room for food.
Since my ride home from the Market was all on rail trail, it would be smooth, and in this case I was able to get away with simply balancing my grocery bag on the handlebars and steadying it with one hand over bumps.
The ride home was a treat. I left the Market and it was still dark, but the sun started to come up just as I crossed the St. John River. By the time I approached the Nashwaak, the trees were afire with oranges, yellows and reds – lit up with that special, ‘first morning’ power of light that always seems somehow brighter or more radiant. These times at dawn and dusk, I always think of a Steinbeck quote from Cannery Row, “It is the hour of the pearl – the time between day and night when time stops and examines itself.” It seems sometimes like the light is so intense and the colors so radiant, that everything stops, especially if you stop to take it all in.
Best part of it all is I was back home with yummy eats to share with the Fam by 9:30 or so and had the whole rest of the day to bask in my micro adventure glow. Definitely glad I got out – grateful to my wife Lyn for handling the Herd while I did and looking forward to more in future – next time with an extra pair of socks.
*I’ve come to the conclusion after referencing a few people and sources that my noisy visitors were probably river otters. I wasn’t sure if we had them here, but apparently they are around and they make more sense than beavers, as there was no dams or signs of beaver activity around. Also I’ve heard beavers slap their tails, but never really seen them ‘jump’ out of open water like these guys.
Since the beginning of the year, for a myriad of reasons, most days I’ve been trudging out to my unheated garage and pounding through an hour on the bike trainer. It’s been a good experience, I’m learning a lot about myself and making progress. It ain’t riding outside though.
Yesterday after watching yet another internet video of people riding bikes in all manner of conditions, the realization struck. I used to do all that kind of crap too, in fact I was sorta known for it at some point. What happened? I vowed to get out that day.
Not afraid to say I got a little soft. I love winter and I love getting out in winter, but I’ve realized this year that the amount of love I have for it is directly proportional to how much I get out into it. It’s real easy to start making excuses, and it gets even easier when you can’t even remember the last time you got out. Guilty as charged. Cold, dark, motivation, time. All these things become reasons you can’t do something. But they are all things over which we have some control.
Often getting out the door is the hardest part. I admit to being a little bit of a gear junkie and obsessive planner. Even if I’m going for a 2 hour ride, I’ve gotta think about what I’m gonna wear, what I’m gonna bring with me, where I’m going to go, and why. While there’s something to be said for making sure you’re prepared – especially in less-than-hospitable conditions – it can also become a roadblock.
On the drive home yesterday, I started planning in my head. “The temperature and conditions are this, so I think I’ll wear this – no – maybe that, yeah that, but I’ll BRING this too, and that other thing. In case.”
Got home. Got dressed. Changed shoes. Get the bike and throw stuff in the bags. Remove the extra pair of gloves still in there from last ride. “Won’t need these – SUPER WARM out today!” Put the Garmin on the bike and it won’t start. Battery’s dead or something. The internal argument starts. “This shouldn’t matter. I should be able to ride a bike without keeping track of how far or fast I ride it. But then why did I spend a chunk of change on the Garmin? Maybe I should just get rid of it?” Meanwhile the clock is ticking and the ride window is closing.
I remember I have the GPS on my Garmin watch – ok, use that. Being a gear junkie sometimes has it’s benefits. Half way down the driveway and I can’t keep my feet on the pedals. The shoes are slipping off constantly. I wore my winter cycling shoes for warmth, but they’ve got cleats on the bottom and hard, Vibram soles that are getting no love from the platform pedals. Back to the garage. Change shoes. Running shoes with wool socks. These’ll be fine.
I still had no idea where I was going or what trails would be passable in the snow, so I just went.
It was fantastic to get out. The sun was shining, it was mild, not much wind – and the kicker – I’d dressed perfectly for the conditions. I commended myself. Luckily I had the Garmin to tell me just how ponderously slow I was going, oy, only checked that once.
Got to my turnaround point and started to head home. “Hmm, lookit that, clouding up a bit. Not so much sun.” Pedal faster means stay warmer, I said. Half hour from home and things have cooled down considerably. Sun setting. Hands we kinda cold. “Nice one ditching the extra gloves,” I chided myself. Well, at least I’d managed to keep my feet warm and dry. 10 minutes later and the front wheel washes out on the snowmobile track, the bike goes down, I eject and end up running off trail into the thigh deep snow. In my sneakers. AND shorts. Yeah, shorts, it was MILD out remember? So much for the dry warm feet.
Back on the bike, grumbling. Cold. Muttering about what a dumbass I was. “Lucky you’re only 20 minutes from home or you’d be losing fingers and toes out here tonight. Some freaking polar explorer you are…” But then I realized, I WAS really only 20 minutes from home. I wasn’t blazing an unmarked trail across an uncharted section of continent looking for someplace to camp for the night. Spirits brightened, even if the weather didn’t.
Then I had another realization. The reality is, 99% of the time we’re only a cell phone call away from a pickup. I didn’t feel as dumb as I was initially accusing myself of being. I’d made a few mistakes, but nothing that was a big deal and nothing, I decided, that should spoil the great time I was having. I wasn’t one of my YouTube heroes trekking across and Andalusian pass with nothing but what was attached to him and the bike for survival. At most I was a 20 minute WALK from an Ultramar.
So yeah, I could have made some better choices heading out – I should have known better, but I shouldn’t let my mistakes this time keep me from going out next time. I’m glad I got out. And super glad I didn’t end up having to call the Mrs. for a pickup, cause that stings a lot worse than the cold.
When I started looking at maps with an aim to ride out my back door for an S24O, being that I live in a rural area I found plenty of space. I was a bit hesitant to just pirate camp anywhere for fear of pissing off landowners and/or encountering hostile local yahoos. There’s a river that runs pretty much north/south a few kilometers behind my house and rail trail that runs next to it. I started thinking about the best way to go about establishing some contacts with folks who lived and/or owned property along the river/trail. Then it dawned on me. I sit on the board of the river watershed association (an illustrious postion granted mainly since I provide pro-bono design and web work) and after an email to the Pres, within minutes I was in contact with some folks.
Out watershed association has a tree nursery (for purposes of growing trees to be replanted along the river to fight erosion) on a portion of the river on land loaned by someone who lives nearby. I’d inquired about camping there. Turns out the woman that owns the property is very cool, and very amenable to people using and enjoying her property respectfully, particularly if that doesn’t involve motorization of any kind. I was in.
Takeaway: if you’re a bikepacker, joining and/or participating in as many local environmental, landowner/stakeholder type groups as possible would be a great way to network. Folks are a lot more likely to let you recreate on their land if they know you, and maybe even like you first.
The spot I’d picked was only about 20km (12mi) up the trail/river. My purposes of this trip were not really to slog forever, more to test out all my kit/carrying setup/bike fit and get my first S24O under my belt. My plan was to head out in the evening, leaving myself some light, then hit the spot, make some dinner and camp. The next morning I wanted to get up and head further up the trail to scope out some other potential spots I’d seen on day rides for camping, as well as a ‘shelter’ I’d seen a sign for but never gone far enough to check out. I had to get up and roll early ’cause I only had a Kitchen Pass until noon the next day. Weather was looking good with no rain predicted, however it was forecast to be super hot – 30-35ºC (86-95ºF) with high humidity pushing into the feels like 40ºC (104ºF) range.
I set out around 5pm, made it to the tree nursery and made contact with the property owners. Super cool people. Couldn’t be happier that I was there. They live in a house on the property and said if I needed anything let them know. Win.
I headed across the field from the house ’cause I wanted more seclusion and set up camp. Made dinner and some coffee and then walked down to the river and sat in it for about an hour – it was too low for actual swimming, only about waist deep, and watched the sun go down. Felt great in the heat though.
Had a good night’s sleep. Checked out the stars through the tent roof with my SkyGuide app. Their spot is near a highway a few KM away so there was some road noise, but as the evening wore on it tapered to none and eventually it was nice to hear nothing but the breeze in the trees, the bugs and I was happy to realize I could even hear the river water moving over the rocks in the distance.
Got up just before light and made breakfast. Oatmeal, coffee. Standard. started to break camp. Was rolling by about 7:30. I wasn’t exactly sure how far up the spots I wanted to check out were. Turns out the ‘shelter’ I had seen signs for was a snowmobile warming hut at the intersection of the provincial snowmobile trail system. I had seen signs for this on a ride before and thought it might be a good S24O spot, but wanted to know for sure. Turns out it probably would be. It’s about 20 kms (12mi) further than the tree nursery, so roughly 40kms (25mi) from my house. Would make a good winter ride destination too. Waypoint added to GPS.
Made coffee at the shelter and then started to head home. The day before when I was packing in a hurry to get out, I was distracted. On my way to the Tree Nursery I realized I hadn’t packed a tube, patches, pump, or anything to do with repairing/fixing flats. I was past the point of no return. I rolled with it. Heading home the next day I was flying, making good time, set to be home around 11. EARLY, ffs. POW. Rear tire blows. Sigh. Had to call the SAG Wagon (wife) for a pickup about 12k (7mi) from home. Lesson, learned. Some other things I learned:
- Don’t pack in a hurry. See above.
- I didn’t bring enough water. I’d packed my Camelbak in the frame bag with about 80oz of water in it and I’d brought a 1L Naglene for cooking. The 1L was gone after dinner (2 bags Mr. Noodles) and coffee the first night. Luckily I bummed some water from my hosts at the Tree Nursery for breakfast. I had water left in the Camelbak and could have used that, but dispensing it out of the Camelbak is a drag. Plus, I had just about drank all of it when my tire blew up due to the heat, so if I had use some for breakfast I’d prolly have run out. Realizing now that I need to allow for more water packing and/or definitely a filter/purification strategy for any longer trips. In this case the river would have been fine (probably could have drank it straight even without filtering) but if I had a filter or tablets/drops, would have been perfect.
- Everything will get wet. Plan accordingly. I’d decided to leave the rain fly off my tent so I could look at the stars since I knew it wasn’t going to rain. Being that I was on a low-lying flat right at water level, in a valley, the next morning, everything was soaked from condensation/a fine mist. Not a huge deal, given I was going home, but if I had to go for a few more days, packing a damp tent and sleeping bag would have been a drag to unpack/use. Possibly a future idea would be to always use the rain fly, but pack it in a separate drybag so if it’s wet, it doesn’t get everything else wet. I realize in some regions of the world/climates this isn’t an issue. It pretty much always is here. We get dew most nights year round. I had brought a cheapo foil emergency blanket that I’d covered the bike with the night before and that somewhat helped there. The emergency blanket also proved useful for putting on the wet grass to sit on when cooking.
- Even if an item of kit comes with it’s own stuff sack/bag, that’s not necessarily the best way to pack it. A couple of examples. My Sea to Summit Pillow comes in a little bag – probably would be easier to just throw it in with sleeping bag and compress – same time use items anyway. Even though my MSR Hubba Hubba comes in a nice compact bag – I think if I took the poles out, and put them in the framebag, I would actually be able to compact the tent considerably more and create more seatbag space.
- I’m pretty sure the Brooks Cambium C17 won’t be the go-to saddle for this bike. After that much riding (the most continuous riding I’d put on it) I was finding it a bit to hard and not comfortable. I think it would be ok for pavement rides or dirt roads, but for these trails that were often large gravel, rock, etc, it was harsh. I think I will try my Selle-Anatomica NSX on it. Though I have some concerns about water with the NSX, I know a lot of bikepackers use them, so maybe they’re resilient enough. I think the added cush of the leather/suspended saddle will be more comfortable.
Gear MVP Award for this trip: Sea to Summit Aeros Pillow: after messing about with clothing/makeshift pillow options on some family camping trips, I decided to spring for one of these after hearing good things. My local outdoor shop has trouble keeping them in stock, they’re so popular and I had to wait for a new shipment to come in. TOTALLY worth the negligible weight/space penalty on this even if there is one at all. Very comfy, and to me, having a decent pillow makes a huge difference in the quality of a nights’ sleep. 5 stars.
I think total distance was somewhere in the 50-60km (30-40mi) range, I forget exactly. Great weather and riding conditions. Fantastic scenery and excellent mojo. All in all, a great trip – even with the tire blowup – and a very productive one as well!