Tag Archives: Winter
24 February, 2015

A Winter to Remember

The thermometer read -8.7º F (-22º C) when I came down for coffee this morning. The snow outside, blanketing the field out the window of the bedroom-turned-office I spend my days in, fell over a month ago. It doesn’t melt, it only deepens, compacts, and hardens. I had forgotten what winter felt like. Sure, we’d get occasional snowstorms and a couple days below freezing at our house in western Washington, but winter weather — real winter weather — was something we dealt with only by choice. It was tucked away in the mountains to our east, always there if you wanted to visit, but not something that you had to deal with on a daily basis.

Short-lived snow showers like this one don't add up to much, but sure look pretty coming down.

Short-lived snow showers like this one don’t add up to much, but sure look pretty coming down.

It’s been 17 years since Kristin and I spent a winter in the northeastern United States, and even then it was only to bundle up for the dash across a Pennsylvania college campus. With no shoveling responsibilities of our own back then, it hardly counts. So, in reality, it’s been over two decades since we experienced winter life in New Jersey, dealing with the cold and the snow and wind-chill and the ever-changing road conditions and fretting about the lack of tire-tread on the car we’re driving.


One of the many snowy days since our return to NJ.

This much I now know: Sub-freezing temperatures feel a lot warmer when you only experience them while strapped into a snowboard or snowshoeing through knee-deep powder with a pack on your back. Recreation makes everything better. Warmer. Running errands, going for a walk, and taking the garbage out, on the other hand, exposes you to a cold I had long since forgotten existed. We’ve been back in New Jersey for over a month and the daytime temperature has only risen above freezing a half-dozen times in that span. Too many days failed to exceed 26º F (-3º C). The layer of ice on the driveway and front walk has existed for over three weeks. An inch-thick slab with no signs of budging, it has stubbornly ignored the sprinklings of salt and chemical de-icer I apply.

Went for a hike on the mountain bike trails at nearby Chimney Rock Park, one of the first places I ever mountain bikes with my brother.

Went for a hike on the mountain bike trails at nearby Chimney Rock Park, one of the first trails I rode with my brother.

There was a period last summer, during our ride through New England, when we began to think that settling in Vermont might be worth considering in order to be closer to family. As far as New England states go, Vermont’s geography and politics offers a close approximation to western Washington, its landlocked nature aside. But now? Hell no, screw that, not in a million years! The cold and snow we’ve been bemoaning for the past month in New Jersey is but a mere sample of a typical Vermont winter. No thank you. The inevitable drought that will plague the Pacific Northwest  later this year could be severe, but those balmy spring-like conditions Seattle has been enjoying lately sure seem nice from this side of the country.

I wrote most of the preceding paragraphs yesterday morning: then the ambulance came.

Kristin’s father was in terrible pain throughout the weekend, pain that was suddenly manifesting in nausea and trembling. The comforts of home were no longer enough to keep him comfortable. Fortunately, he’s got a great team of doctors and was admitted into the hospital, assigned a cozy single-patient room, and is close enough to home for frequent family visits. It may or may not be directly related to the cancer, we’ll know more soon.

Nothing like a walk through the woods on a freezing cold day.

Nothing like a walk through the woods on a freezing cold day.

Life is a funny thing. We’ve been back in the United States for over six weeks now and, if we’re being honest, we really miss our bikes. We think about them daily, miss being on the move, and have even questioned the length of this unexpected trip home. Sure, we’ve gotten to spend more time visiting family this winter than we have in years, but it’s not our nature to sit idle. We’re restless people.  We just want to get going again. But then something like yesterday happens and we’re so relieved that we happen to be here. Kristin’s mother was glad that Kristin was in the house to call her sisters as she dealt with the EMTs. Kristin, in turn, was happy to hand the phone to me when she began to sob. Our brothers-in-law were both available to accompany Kristin’s sisters to the hospital while we babysat our niece and nephew.  The day went as well as it could, the strength of this family I’m happy to have married into fully on display. Back home after another visit, I cooked dinner so Kristin’s mother could pack a bag and get back to the hospital quickly. Kristin tended to her father’s pertinent email as her sisters called with updates from the hospital. Nobody needed us to be here, but we’re sure glad we were.

Kristin's parents dogs enjoying the snowy weather from the comforts of their chair.

Kristin’s parents dogs enjoying the snowy weather from the comforts of their chair.

Kristin and her dad were supposed to have left for Washington D.C. yesterday morning for a three-night father-daughter getaway. They had even arranged for a tour of the White House with the local Congressman. That trip to D.C., the other Washingtonisn’t going to happen. Or maybe it will. The one thing we’ve learned this past year is to not try and predict the future. We were supposed to be in Greece by now. We’re not. Instead, we’re headed to Japan in two weeks. Or maybe not.  We’re flexible.

Future Travel: When we left Italy last month we did so planning to spend March and April in Japan before heading to Bhutan for an 11-day trek in the Himalaya. That trip was cancelled last week due to a shortage of signups (we declined the option to pay extra for a private tour, as it was already budget-bustingly expensive to begin with). Not wanting to head back to North America or Europe after just going to Japan, we decided to book the entire month of May in Bali, in a small house in Ubud that will serve as a perfect writer’s retreat and basecamp for exploring Bali, Lombok, and Komodo. I miss surfing. Kristin misses yoga.

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Special Thanks: Kristin wanted me to once again thank you all for the wonderful comments and encouragement you left in response to our Detours Ahead post and to make sure we provided you, our faithful readers and friends, a short update. Those wanting a bit more information might be interested in this article about Kristin’s father, Eric, that was recently published in the local paper here in NJ. We’d also like to thank my mother for her generous contribution to our “cherry blossom party” and her sister Susan, my aunt, for a lovely Valentine’s Day gift. And to all of our family and friends who we’ve spent time with this past six weeks, letting us eat your food and drink your beers.

12 May, 2014

Transitioning Seasons and Attitudes

I’ve watched enough Weather Channel over the years to know that Minnesota is notorious for its lengthy, frigid winters. I did not, however, expect to see icebergs on Lake Superior. Nor did I expect to push through the occasional snowdrift alongside Lake Bemidji, or be told we might not get to go canoeing at the Boundary Waters Canoe Area because most of the lakes were still frozen – in May! And the next time we arrive in a campground with running water will be the first. “We’re supposed to get a few more nights down below freezing so we decided to keep the water off“ is an explanation I’ve grown tired of hearing. Kristin is convinced I timed our departure and planned our route in order to chase winter, to skip spring entirely, then thrust us into the heat of summer. If that was my intent, it was a plan well-executed.

Our outfitter in Ely managed to find some open lakes for us to paddle after all.

Our outfitter in Ely managed to find some open lakes for us to paddle after all.

Despite the unseasonably-cold temperatures, signs of spring abound. We’ve spent the past few days riding along the scenic coast of Lake Superior’s northern shore and it seems as if we can’t go ten miles without crossing another thundering river overflowing its banks and hurtling itself over cliff and log into the Big Lake with reckless abandon. We can spot a river crossing from a half-mile way – the mouth of each river is marked by a slick of chocolate brown sediment and tannins – and then hear it moments later, well before we can see it. We stared in wonder at the volume and ferocity of the water gushing over Gooseberry Falls then, further up the coast, from the mouths of the Cross, Temperance, and Cascade Rivers, among numerous others. We saw the snow in the interior, we pedaled past dozens upon dozens of frozen lakes, and rolled alongside the endless sparkling reflections of white paper birch forests glistening in watery roadside ditches and bogs. Yet the mind still struggles to understand where all this water is coming from. Kayakers from all over the country reportedly flock to this area of Minnesota each spring to catch the melt-out. Sadly, we’ve only seen their creek boats strapped to the roofs of their Subarus. Perhaps the flow was even too much for the daring.

The amount of water flowing out of the MN interior was positively mind-boggling.

The amount of water flowing out of the MN interior was positively mind-boggling.

Spring is coming a little slower along the Big Lake's northern shore.

Spring is coming a little slower along the Big Lake’s northern shore.

The melting ice and swollen rivers isn’t the only change we’ve encountered as we make our way east. The attitudes about our trip are changing as well. Up until this past week we’ve never once been asked if we were doing this trip “for a cause.” Not once in all the years we spent planning and saving did our Seattle-area friends and acquaintances ever ask us that. Neither did any of the strangers we chatted with during our weeks spent cycling across Washington, Idaho, Montana, and North Dakota. It was understood that a trip of this sort doesn’t need justification. To do it was enough. But here in Minnesota we were asked about “a cause” a half-dozen times in two days. By people who knew us for less time than it takes to read this paragraph.

Not so mighty near its headwaters, but an important dividing line between East and West nonetheless.

Not so mighty near its headwaters, but an important dividing line between East and West nonetheless.

The question at first bothered me. A lot. But as the miles ticked by and I thought about it some more, I started to get depressed. I felt sorry for these people whose first inclination, rather than shared excitement or astonishment, was to seek justification. It wasn’t lost on me that these questions only started to come once we crossed the headwaters of the Mississippi River; Minnesota may not consider itself an Eastern state, but, to this former New Jerseyite, these observations suggest otherwise. I wonder about a place whose people (some, not all) instinctively seek to justify and assess the actions, even those of complete strangers, by first asking about a stack of dollars. Has the need to maximize productivity become so hardwired that the mere thought of the outrageous delivers a short-circuit to the conduits of politeness? Or is it a function of guilt or peer-pressure? These are two phenomena that I’ve striven hard to distance myself from as an adult — with some success — so there is the chance that I just don’t understand it.

Split Rock Lighthouse from a nearby beach.

Split Rock Lighthouse from a nearby beach.

But if the layman on the street is wondering about the “cause” for our our trip, then perhaps you are too?

Those who know us well know that we’re not the type to ask for money or donations to a charity. Whenever we’ve decided to do a charity bike ride or other such event, we’ve never done any fundraising. Doing so feels icky. We just wrote the modest checks ourselves to cover the fundraising requirements. I have two very personal thoughts about this. For starters, in my opinion, everyone is already inundated with options to donate and don’t need new suggestions. Bike rides like the Tour de Cure, for example, are great fun and generate a lot of money for diabetes research. People know about diabetes and don’t need me to educate them. If they want to donate, I believe they will on their own accord. Secondly, and perhaps more to the question at hand, I don’t believe in trying to disguise my own personal interests and hobbies as some sort of noble deed. I’m the type who believes in giving, and I do, but if I want to run a marathon or race a triathlon, I’ll just do it. If I wanted to climb Mt. Rainier or ride my bike around the world, I’d save up the money and do it. This isn’t to say that charity-based activities are bad and that everyone who does them are disingenuous, but I personally don’t believe in masking my own selfish interests in some sort of cloak of benevolence. Similarly, I didn’t seek any sponsorships for this trip for a similar reason: I didn’t want to contaminate this trip, a life’s dream, with the need to plug product.

Since that’s too much to explain to a stranger in the street, let me add my freshly-rehearsed response. I suspect I’ll use some form of it often as we venture further east. “The cause is to inspire others to not postpone their dreams for a retirement that isn’t guaranteed. The goal is to inspire others to travel more, slower, and further than their two weeks of vacation allows. The purpose is to encourage people to rethink the prescribed way of life.”

But the true cause for doing this trip is because I couldn’t think of a reason not to.

Shot directly below our campsite at Lake Tettegouche State Park.

Shot directly below our campsite at Lake Tettegouche State Park.

15 November, 2012

Mountain Mourning

The day we dreaded had come. We said goodbye to our sweet, sweet dog Annana who passed from us on Friday, October 19th. She was ready. We were not. Kristin and I had spent all but one of our fifteen years of marriage with dogs. You never realize how alive the house is even when the dogs are sleeping until you come home to a house with no dogs at all. Not wanting to spend the weekend sitting in the newfound quiet, we distracted ourselves from our pain on Friday by loading up our touring gear and readying for a weekend in the mountains. A bike overnight, if you will.

The first significant snow of the year was due to hit the Cascade Mountains late afternoon on Saturday, just as we expected to reach Snoqualmie Pass. There were other places we could have gone, but embracing the cold and the snow just felt right. It’d also give us a chance to test out our new tent and the cold-weather suitability of our Thermarest 35-degree “alpine blankets” and Sea to Summit’s +25 degree liners, the unorthodox-but-modular sleeping system I’ve been referring to in previous posts.

We rolled out of our driveway Saturday morning in 44-degree weather and quickly did our only descending of the day. We dropped from our ridge-top neighborhood into town and was soon on the Snoqualmie Valley Trail (SVT), one of the two gravel rail-trails we would spend all but a few miles on this weekend. The sky was gray, the fiery leaves flickered and danced in the breeze.

Kristin riding the SVT

We reached Rattlesnake Lake, the junction of the SVT and John Wayne Pioneer Trail (JWPT), about 90 minutes after setting out and were taken aback by the clear blue skies. As my sister Jessica would say after seeing the photos, “It looks like summer!” It wouldn’t — and couldn’t — last.

Fargos in the wild: Rattlesnake Lake, WA.

The JWPT climbs steadily for roughly 19 miles towards Snoqualmie Pass. The trail corridor, extending eastward all the way to the Columbia river along the old Milwaukee Railroad, constitutes Iron Horse State Park and contains multiple access points leading to rock climbing, hiking, and fishing opportunities, all while myriad mountain creeks crash down from the ridge above just feet from the trail. The views from the trestles, despite the trail running a few hundred yards south of Interstate 90, are breathtaking. The mileposts counted off a descent beginning at 2136 as you climbed your way eastward, with each mile announcing your progress towards Chicago, the original end of the line.

We rested briefly at the entrance to  Snoqualmie Tunnel, a 2.3 mile-long tube deep inside the belly of the mountain upon which resides the ski resort where nearly every adolescent in the greater Seattle area first gets their turns. The world-famous Pacific Crest Trail also crosses  directly above this tunnel. Having towed our fully-laden Burly Nomad trailer up 2500 feet of damp gravelly gain, I took the opportunity to rest atop a picnic table. The sun was so bright I had to bury my face in my arm.

Doug taking a breather before plunging into the darkness of Snoqualmie Tunnel.

The tunnel, usually a parade of hikers and cycling families on weekends, was devoid of human life. My NiteRider MiNewt 600, a secondary light I use when mountain biking at night, lit the way for the two of us as we pedaled in eerie silence through the pitch black. The only noise being the soft crunching of sand and the occasional dripping of meltwater seeping through the concrete surface of the tunnel walls.

We emerged in a blinding snowstorm. Annana was on our minds continuously as we climbed the pass, but now we couldn’t help but laugh. A mid-October snowstorm, “And we chose to ride into this?!” I laughed. Hungry and in need of some water we decided to ride into the small community of Hyak and get some burgers from the gas station near the ski resort (a post-snowboarding ritual of mine). We loaded up on burgers, filled our bottles and my dromedary bag with water, and most importantly of all, snagged a few extra plastic baggies for our feet for the next day. And what a difference they would make!

The snow had somehow intensified while we were munching down our burgers and was now rapidly accumulating on our handlebars and our jackets as we rode back to the trail. It was clear we weren’t going to ride all the way to Lake Easton State Park, as our initial plan had called for, so we opted for a stay at one of the backcountry campsites along the JWPT near Lake Keechelus. About four miles further down the trail, tucked amongst the fir and hemlocks, is the Cold Creek Campsite. A lone vault toilet and picnic table are yours to use for the honor-system donation of five dollars. We pushed the bikes past the postage-stamp tent pads and found a nice snow-free clearing amongst the trees to set up camp.

Under the tree umbrella near the shores of Lake Keechelus.

It was our first time setting up our new Hilleberg Nallo GT3 in the wild and we were both taken aback by how much larger the tent seems in its natural habitat. Buyers remorse set in, if only briefly, when we saw how much real estate we’d need to secure each night in order to set this nylon mansion up. Later, tucked inside the roomy interior, with our gear dry and safe inside the vestibule, we reached a different opinion: every square inch was precious!

Dinner this night was somber. I had packed a couple of the Mountain House freeze-dried meals I bought in bulk from Costco (a food item I have been meaning to sample for nearly twenty years, but never had… the verdict: not bad if you get them cheap). We spiked our hot cocoa with some whiskey I brought along and sat in the supreme silence of a snow-capped forest. Nearly six inches had fallen by the time we hit the sack. And nearly twelve hours passed before we were jolted away by the bombardment of bough-fulls of snow free-falling out of the trees onto our tent. Though the temperature hovered around 32 all night long, we both slept soundly with our sleeping liner and down blankets.

The way home…

We packed in relative quiet and pedaled off into a rapidly melting snowscape. The 45 miles back to our house went by fast. Too fast. For an empty home awaited us. Just as it would for the 17+ months to come before we embark on our bicycle trip into the great unknown.