Saturday, November 16, 2013

Bike Camping Durm-style

Sometimes (read that as "always") I tend to get caught up a little too much in my day to day activities.  You lose track of any larger picture, going about your daily routine and before you know it, a day/month/decade has passed you by.  That's when it's nice to interject a small interlude into your week.  And that's where a bike camping overnight comes in.  I won't waste my finger strength blathering about why you should ride a bike, etc. because it's self explanatory.  What I would like to do is showcase an overnight bike camping trip my friend, Jon, and I took in the Durham, NC (pronounced "Durm") area yesterday in hopes that others will be inspired.

If there ever was a dependable and eternally enthusiastic friend, Jon is it.  I have frozen my ass off on subzero ice climbing trips with him, shared a tent for a month during which neither of us showered, and tied into the same climbing rope innumerable times.  We shared a whole lot of other times together that I will abstain from entering into the written record for fear of later legal ramifications.  Jon can be bleeding profusely from both shins due to ill fitting mountaineering boots, be looking at the kiddie box of raisins that constitutes his day's rations and flinching at the sound of bus sized seracs falling off a mountain and he'll still muster a big smile and say "Let's do this".

Of course when I mentioned to Jon on Wednesday that I was planning to bike from Durham to Jordan Lake the next day and spend the night, he was immediately on board.  Sometimes I have to be skeptical about Jon's enthusiasm because he currently works the third shift on some odd rotating schedule.  It would render almost anyone continually sleep deprived.  Jon can sometimes appear zombie-like in his motions after long work stints.  (And he usually smells like rotting flesh just as a zombie would, but that's an entirely different matter)  We both needed to work Friday afternoon, so Thursday evening was prime pickins for a camp out.

If you have yet to bike or walk on the American Tobacco Trail, then you are certainly missing out.  It served as a comfortable and convenient route out of downtown Durham for us.  The trail begins adjacent to the Durham Bulls baseball park (no... not the original of movie fame, but that one still stands fairly close by) and runs through urban neighborhoods about 7 miles south to where Interstate 40 currently interrupts it.  A dedicated overpass for pedestrians and cyclists is under construction and should hopefully be complete sometime this spring.  With all of the construction delays that have happened in the past though, we may be seeing winged bacon before we see the overpass.  Fayetteville Rd parallels the ATT and so you can ride on it for a couple of miles to cross I-40, but keep in mind that you're going through several stoplights with on/off ramps and passing Southpoint Mall.  Not impossible, just be careful.  From there you can reconnect with the ATT and ride another 13 miles south to where it ends.  There we switched over to very quiet country roads that wind their way west to the man made Jordan Lake.

Being model citizens for once, Jon and I elected to camp in a designated campground of which there are about 6 or so circling the lake.  Some shut down for the colder months, but two are open year-round.  Of course the campground was a ghost town this late in the year, but the hot water was still running in the bathrooms so who cares?  We were able to scrounge some free firewood abandoned by a previous camper and build a cheery fire to combat the low of 32 degrees that night.  Most folks that we talked to in the area considered it stupid or suicidal to camp out in such temperatures since it doesn't get much colder than that this far south.  (My friends in Pennsylvania are currently laughing...)

The night passed quietly and we both slept soundly despite everyone's concerns.  The brisk morning air called for a quick breakdown of camp so that we could start moving about and riding however.  One gas station on US 64 advertised breakfast starting at 5:30 am and that was a siren song to our wind nipped ears.  After a few breakfast sandwiches, Jon and I decided to go our separate ways.  He would retrace our route back up the ATT to Durham and I would take Fearrington/Farrington/etc. Rd across the lake and back up to Chapel Hill, NC to work later in the day.

This trip is a great ride for anyone living in the Triangle.  Once the overpass for the American Tobacco trail is completed, I think that even a novice cyclist would feel comfortable riding the 30 mile stretch that we did.  There are plenty more opportunities for overnight bike camping trips in the area and I'll continue to post them as well as the biking friendly routes that I take.

It being his first bike tour of any kind, Jon is double checking the list outside his apartment.  Gummi bears?  Check.  By the way, he lives in a renovated toy factory.  I'd say that suits him.

The American Tobacco Trail starts as a paved trail in downtown Durham and includes several bridges over busy streets.

Once you cross Interstate 40, it gets a little bit more rural and has an unpaved shoulder as well which is presumably for horses.

The southernmost 7 or so miles of the ATT are not paved but are so firmly packed that any road bike can still easily travel on it.

Jon is smiling even though his Brooks leather saddle is still hard as a rock.

We arrive with even some daylight to spare... but not much.

With all of the leaves having fallen, some beautiful views of Jordan Lake are available from the campsites.

Jon has just finished telling me that his touring bike is now "one of the five best purchasing decisions" he's made in life.  Even I am afraid to inquire as to the other four.

The water in the bathrooms is absolutely scaldingly hot.  I guess to handle peak tourist season when it gets diluted.  Instead of going to the trouble of boiling another pot of water, we get the bright idea of just making tea with the water straight out of the tap.  It is hereafter referred to as "sink tea".

The men's bathroom in Loop A of Crosswinds Campground has some pretty sweet murals in it.  Yes, I checked the women's too.  It was a deer.  And an owl.

I admire their detail.

I didn't happen to see any windsurfers out on the lake that day.

Jon taught me how to play gin rummy then promptly kicked my ass.  What a friend.  Incidentally, all of these photos were either taken with an iPod Touch or a smartphone so I apologize if their not up to your standards.  This one was taken with the iPod and a headlamp held aloft for a "flash".

The following morning, hot breakfast sandwiches were indeed welcomed.  For those of you who have yet to sample "country style ham" in the South, you are missing out.  It contains approximately 1000% of your daily recommended sodium intake and would balance any electrolyte/salt deficiency on the hottest of days.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Shrandonneuring

Opening disclaimer:  This event is in no way officially recognized, endorsed, encouraged, or promoted by the Sheetz corporation.  Yet.  Hopefully, the same company that has the sense of humor to erect billboards with the slogan "Grab life by the meatballz" can appreciate the spirit in which I do this and won't send me a cease and desist letter.

PART ONE

On the Randonneurs USA website, we find the following definition of randonneuring:

Randonneuring is long-distance unsupported endurance cycling. This style of riding is non-competitive in nature, and self-sufficiency is paramount. When riders participate in randonneuring events, they are part of a long tradition that goes back to the beginning of the sport of cycling in France and Italy. Friendly camaraderie, not competition, is the hallmark of randonneuring.


Eric and I out on a characteristic 100+ mile ride including lots of gravel forest roads.  We had set out after lunch with no route planned.  Note the setting sun.  We still had 30 miles of gravel to ride and a house party to crash.

As my friends and enemies will agree, this describes my cycling (and running, mountaineering, etc.) habits fairly accurately.  On a day of riding, I like to strike out with only the vaguest notion of where I will end up.  Still keeping the 21st century at arms length, I will shove a paper map or two into a back jersey pocket along with a non "smart" cellphone, a $20 bill, and my ID.  Throw a banana in for good measure.  Top off your water bottles and ensure your headlight is charged and you're set.  Now all that is left is to pedal 60-100 miles in an indeterminate loop.  Any appealing side road, inviting diner or friendly local is a welcome diversion.  A day without a plan is one ripe for new discovery.

Some folks just call this "riding a bike" and don't need the benefit of a definition.  But in an age where many cyclists I talk to are on specific training regimens for their next "tri" (or triathlon) and question me on what cycling app I use, I am heartened to see a side of the sport devoted to getting out, riding a long distance just for the hell of it, and having fun.  Randonneuring is the neighborhood pickup football game of cycling.  Except instead of only playing one game at a time, you're playing three in a row.  Or twelve.

PART DEUX
 
For those of you living in the mid-Atlantic United States, especially central and western Pennsylvania, the Sheetz chain of gas stations needs no introduction.  For those of you who are still unawares, Sheetz is a chain of gas stations.  The thing that sets them apart is that they have a smorgasbord of made to order food that tastes divine.  While some may argue about the healthiness of some of the items on the menu, no self-respecting long distance cyclist is going to think twice about devouring one of everything.  Especially not this string bean cyclist.  The company began in central Pennsylvania and now extends into several neighboring states.  I can remember twenty years ago, going into a Sheetz and writing down my submarine sandwich order on a paper slip, which was one of maybe three offerings on their menu.  Now you stroll in and their touch screen ordering systems has about 100 different options for breakfast, lunch and dinner.

My bicycle gets 20 milez per donut.

It should come as no surprise that when I lived in Pennsylvania, these stores were a favored stop on my long bicycle rides.  Early in the morning, I would stop at one closest to my house and pick up some breakfast Schmuffins and coffee.  (Sheetz adds the "Sh" prefix to many of their foods' names and pluralizes with the letter Z as in "Would you gentleman like some donutz along with your coffeez?")  Later in the day and 50 miles into the ride, you could get a sub or whatnot.  And of course when you're still riding well after dark and fighting off exhaustion and sub-freezing temps, you can fill the gas tank with hot chocolate and some fryz.  Don't get me wrong, I like to stop in small local eateries and try new places, but nothing beats seeing the red awning of a Sheetz down the block and knowing that you can dependably refuel.

AND NOW I GET TO MY POINT

While I am content to blithely ride about the countryside with nary a plan, it's hard to get other people to rally around this concept.  This is where the idea of a brevet comes in: a predetermined ride of 200+ kilometers with checkpoints, but in the spirit of randonneuring where everyone is self sufficient and enjoying one another's company.  There are preexisting randonneuring groups in the Durham, NC area where I now currently live with annual events as there were in Pennsylvania.  But what I am interested in is a really low hassle, low cost ride that everyone can enjoy.  And Schmuffins.

For these events you must check into a control at certain spots to make sure that you're on course and sticking to certain time restrictions.  Since I don't want to bother with any volunteers at control points or officials (or bother with anything really) I realized that some place (e.g. Sheetz) could serve that purpose for me.  When you order food at Sheetz, the receipt that you get is time stamped.  Voila!  Obviously you're going to want to eat every so often when you're riding 120, 200, 600 miles.  Order some scrumptious edibles, save your time stamped food receipts and present them at the end of the ride.  While I didn't get this idea off of the ground when I lived in the Pennsylvania heartland of Sheetz, I realize that my dream can still become a reality with their empire now reaching the Triangle area of North Carolina. 

If you are interested in participating in such an event in the greater Durham/Raleigh/Chapel Hill, NC area, send me an email at tfmrotek AT gmail DOT com.  Time and date have yet to be determined.  I have one 120 mile route that I am going to scout next week as a possible first event. Categories for awards or prizes have yet to be determined.  Actually nothing has really been done yet beyond writing this inane post.  So if you wanna get in on the ground floor of this, let me know.  The first ride will be around 200k/120mi travelling through both rural and urban areas and hopefully include some gravel portions just to annoy folks on really skinny tires.  Steel bikes and alter egos are always encouraged.

P.S.  For anyone who thinks that Wawa warranted even an honorable mention in this post, just go home.  No one cares.  Sheetz rules.

Monday, March 4, 2013

The List

Yesterday, I went climbing indoors at the Triangle Rock Club with my friend, Jon.  Okay, before we go any further, here's a picture of Jon so y'all know what you're dealing with:


Climbing with Jon may seem rather not remarkable, but in a way it is.  You see, Jon and I met in college in Pennsylvania and climbed together during our formative years with the sport.  We used to live and breathe climbing, travelling with one another and friends around the continent in search of new challenges.  But now for one reason or another, neither of us have really climbed much in the past year.  And both of us find ourselves living in Durham, NC of all places.

The climbing session went by without a hitch.  Our hands tied the necessary knots without a second thought.  We efficiently belayed one another with movements firmly ingrained in our muscle memory.  The two of us fell into a casual banter that reflected our comfort with one another borne from years of climbing in infinitely more committing situations.  And we slightly sucked at climbing.  The technique, the footwork, the movement was still there.  Endurance and finger strength had obviously ebbed over time.

By the end of two hour's worth of climbing, my forearms were inflamed.  I found my hands hardly able to maintain grip on the bulbous holds of a 5.6, a route I could have done blindfolded and in clown shoes in previous years.  Jon and I resolved to get stronger and get out of doors.  We began reminiscing about previous exploits in the mountains.  We even ran into another climber we recognized from our haunts at Seneca Rocks, WV.  The three of us parted ways promising to explore the vertical bounds of North Carolina together.
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Just today, I was cleaning out my wallet.  Movie stubs, receipts, stacks of women's phone numbers... anything but money of course.  That's when I came across a list that I wrote to myself back on the eve of a new year entitled "GOALS FOR 2010".  I cannot remember the exact circumstances under which I wrote it, but from knowing myself all too well, I must have been feeling particularly unmotivated at the time.  The list was comprised entirely of climbing goals and would make for a busy year.  What really stands out for me is that out of eight goals, I think I only accomplished one that year.

  
The year 2010 was the last year that I really devoted to climbing.  It was a great year.  I led some of my hardest routes.  I earned a Single Pitch Instructor certification from the American Mountain Guides Association.  But boy oh boy did I majorly fail in terms of the goals I set for myself.  Looking at the list, I slowly remembered the reasons (or excuses) that made me miss each.

MOJO - Mojo is a classic bouldering problem at a climbing area in central PA called Hunter's Rocks.  It is an overhung prow of rock with large bucket holds along the underside to a height of 10-15 feet, whereupon you must climb up a vertical face and finally mantle the finish at about 20 feet off of the ground.  I think it is rated a V0 at Hunters.  It would probably be rated a bit harder at other areas, but who knows.  My weak upper body strength combined with the problem's reputation of twisted/broken ankles for those who botch the top out always had me worried.  In truth, I had climbed the route a couple of times before 2010.  I distinctly remember the first occasion, pulling up onto the vertical face, scared, and realizing it was safer to finish than to try and back off.  My friends Brandon, Kim, and Erin cheered me to the topout.  I can only guess that I put it on the list just to scare myself once again.  That or I meant to climb the "second pitch" of Mojo, which some argue is especially fun when bolstered with certain herbal supplements.

Me.  Bouldering somewhere.  With a sweet afro.

5.10 SPORT ONSIGHT - My partners and I typically only climbed trad at moderate grades, so this should have been a pretty good goal.  Unbeknownst to me, I had already ticked this box as well in the past.  Jon actually reminded me of it yesterday.  In a neglected corner of the Lower Quarry at the Bellefonte Quarry, there lies a short, dirty, overgrown limestone slab.  On each square yard of its surface emerges a polished limestone orb which led my friends and I to refer to it as "the Boob Wall".  If we were more PC than juvenile at the time, we would have called it the Knob Wall or something.  I'm just reporting history here.  There I led a 5.10 sport route named Buried Treasure, a reference to the amount of cleaning the first ascencionists performed before climbing it, no doubt.  But, as the sole "goal of 2010" that I actually completed, I also onsighted a 5.10+ in Birdsboro Quarry within the year 2010.  Kevin and Denise watched me lead the seemingly holdless face of Welcome to Safe Harbor Direct.  Whenever I attempted to repeat the feat on toprope however, I was as mystified as them.

TRIPLE S ONSIGHT - Triple S is actually an acronym for Shipley's Shivering Shimmy.  The only guidebook for Seneca Rocks where this notorious and difficult 5.8 corner crack is located lists the name in all capitals: TRIPLE S.  So, you can always tell a newcomer to the area when they say they're "just gonna go climb a 5.8 called 'Triples'."  Invariably you see that same climber later, completely cowed, having been shut down on "just a 5.8."  I have always wanted to lead the route onsight and turned down many offers to follow it.  In 2010, I had climbed most of the classic 5.7s.  On a ridiculously hot day with my friend Aaron belaying, I onsighted The Burn and Discrepancy, both softer 5.8s.  I should have gone for Triple S right then, but I didn't.  On the drive back home, both of the front wheel bearings in my truck blew out.  I don't know if I drove back to Seneca that year.

I'm sexy and I know it.  Ellingwood Arete emerges directly from behind my head like a giant dunce's cap.

ELLINGWOOD ARETE - The Ellingwood Arete is a classic multipitch 5.6 deep in the Wind River Range of Wyoming.  In fact, it is one of the 50 Classic Climbs of North America.  It is a knife edge ridge that continues straight up for about a thousand feet.  On my first trip into the Winds, my friend Jeff and I planned to climb it.  We took a rack of hexes, some cams and nuts along with us.  Those never saw much use since we stuck primarily to 3rd class and snow climbing.  Since neither of us had climbed a multipitch rock route before, perhaps it was better that we didn't get to the Arete.  On my third trip to the Winds, I hiked to within sight of it on a rest day when I went trout fishing in Indian Basin.  On my second and fourth trips to the range, I climbed in the Cirque of the Towers, 40 miles to the south.  I didn't even get to the Winds in 2010.

If I ever do get to Rainier, at least I already know what altitude sickness feels like from climbing Pico de Orizaba in Mexico.

MT RAINIER - Um, I didn't get to Rainier either.  The closest I had even gotten to Washington State was the year before when my boss and I tried to climb Mount Hood on the tail end of a business trip.  Two days of whiteouts led to us poaching lines at the Timberline Lodge on our backcountry skis instead.  In 2011 I was offered a job guiding on Rainier for the summer by Alpine Ascents International.  Stupidly, I turned the job down.  In 2012 as I biked down the Pacific coast, I finally saw Mount Rainier for the first time from about 50 miles away.  It is big.  I wanna go back.

Coming off the Columbia Icefield and down the Athabasca Glacier.  Jon is behind me.

N FACE OF ROBSON - Mount Robson is the tallest mountain in the Canadian Rockies.  Its North Face is another route included in 50 Classic Climbs in North America.  Back in 2007, I went climbing in the Canadian Rockies with my friends Jeff and Jon.  We climbed Mounts Athabasca and Columbia in preparation for driving 50 miles or so north to go tackle Mount Robson's North Face.  At the Athabasca Glacier, a ranger told us that no one had climbed Mount Robson by any route that year because of dangerous conditions.  We went to the Tetons instead.  I have since returned to Canada in order to fish for northern pike, but alas no mountaineering.  I still have my passport.  I still gaze longingly at pictures of the mountain.

GLASS MENAGERIE - I'm not even sure which Glass Menagerie I was writing about here.  Was it the Grade 4 ice route at Roadside Gulley in Lockhaven, PA?  Or the multipitch aid route on Looking Glass Rock in western North Carolina?  I actually led the ice route, Glass Menagerie, the following year.  I was pitifully slow.  Now that I am living in NC, I'm a lot closer to the other route.  Too bad I gave all of my bigwall gear away whenever I divested myself of belongings to bike across the country...  I guess I will have to work on that.

This is pretty par for every ice climbing trip I've taken to New England.  Sleeping in a parking lot after driving until 4 am.

3 GULLIES IN A DAY - This refers to climbing three different routes in Huntingdon Ravine on Mount Washington of New Hampshire in one day.  I really thought that I was going to get this one since I was familiar with a couple of routes.  I had already climbed Pinnacle Gulley with my friend Seth as my second ice climb ever.  On another trip, I climbed Odell's Gulley with my friend Ieva.  That would be the same one where George, the eccentric caretaker of the Harvard Cabin, kept asking her if she wanted to spend the rest of the winter there with him.  Each time he asked, she would barely suppress her laughter while I tried to divert his attention with Oreos and Wild Turkey.  It worked.  Barely.  In early 2010, the ice season was terrible.  Even so, I managed to finally organize a group to head to Baxter State Park in Maine and climb Mount Katahdin (another longtime goal).  On the approach to the mountain, I caught a ski edge on some ice and fell while wearing a 100lb pack, dislocating my arm.  No more ice season for this guy.
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My day of thrashing at the gym and the surprise unearthing of my list from 2010 make me want to dust off my climbing gear and get back out into the mountains.  But even more than that, it highlighted the importance of conspiring with old friends and setting goals for oneself.  Whether they're written down or not, I always have several goals on my mind.  All are outdoors related.  Sometimes I achieve them.  Sometimes I fail big time.  But they always serve to sustain me.  Motivate me.  Challenge me.  Right now I have undocumented ideas that propel me to keep trail running, riding and tuning up my bike, paddling my packraft, and perhaps even trying to remember un poquito of my high school Spanish...  We'll see what comes of such ideas.

I wonder what others set as goals for themselves.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Let it snow?

Protect Our Winters and the National Resources Defense Council recently released a study detailing the negative economic impacts of reduced snowfall due to climate change.  A copy of the report can be downloaded here.  To vastly summarize the report, a few key findings are:

-winter temperatures are expected to rise 4-10 degrees F by the end of the century if no changes are made to climate change contributors

-this could cause a 25-100% reduction in snow depths in the west and reduce the length of the northeast's snow season by half

- the US wintersports industry is currently valued at approximately $12.2 billion

-over the past decade, the downhill ski resort industry lost $1.07 billion which resulted in a loss of 13,000 to 27,000 jobs

Whitetail deer in Pennsylvania's Laurel Highlands.  I think I took this picture about a decade ago.  Will this eventually be a sight of the past?

Well, sufficed to say, I think that sucks.  I am sure that many people in the wintersports industry and wintersports enthusiasts would agree with me.  I like to go cross country skiing, ice climbing and build snowmen.  For many years, my paychecks were largely made from selling equipment and clothing for winter time activities.  But at the same time, many of my other actions contributed towards the progression of climate change.  I drove my car to the ski hill and the state forest.  I flew in a plane to go climb a volcano and note it's receding glaciers.  I also took planes 3 or 4 times a year to attend national outdoor and ski industry trade shows along with thousands of others who had done the same.

Here, quoted in full, is the last paragraph from the conclusions of the above report:

We must safeguard our winters and with them, a way of life for thousands of communities, a global winter sports industry, and local business across the United States. We can do this by supporting clean-energy and climate policies that reduce our carbon pollution, and opposing attempts to block such policies from moving forward. We need to protect the laws we have, specifically the Environmental Protection Agency’s authority under the Clean Air Act to set carbon pollution standards for major polluting industries. And we need to put in place policies and standards for the longer term that will ensure that vibrant, prosperous winters endure for generations to come.

I think these are all correct and admirable goals to combat climate change and our disappearing winters.  There are plenty of industries and societal practices that produce large amounts of carbon emissions that we need to address.  But I think that we as wintersports lovers also need to be honest and not ignore our own contributions to climate change as well.  What do I mean by that?

-just about every snow film in recent history that I see at the Banff Film Festival world tour involves someone flying to Alaska and then getting helicoptered to the top of a peak, again and again

-the outdoor and snowsports industries host numerous national (and international) trade shows each year where thousands of folks fly and drive great distances to attend

-snowmobilers drive trucks the size of tanks into the state forest and then run their snowmachines for the entire day

-folks fly from areas of little or poor snow to the West and go skiing

-areas with poor snow run snowguns that draw electricity for long stretches of the winter

And why do I bother to mention this?  I don't like to see lovers of winter only point their finger at someone else, be that big industry, coal, cars, etc.  While those are very real and significant contributors to global warming, I would ask people to keep in mind that just about no one is innocent in this problem.  And I unequivocally include myself as a contributor to global warming as well.  So I am asking is that all of us that love winter and want to see it stick around in our lifetimes, remember to look inward as well as outward.  Not only do we owe it to ourselves so that we may keep skiing and boarding, but I would argue that we owe it to future generations of skiers and snowboarders.

Okay.  I'll shut up now.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

The Spoon

In late October, I rode my bike from central Pennsylvania to southern, southern Virginia where my parents own a farm.  They are in the process of renovating the farmhouse that sits on the property and I traveled down in order to assist.  I've spent the past two weeks patching and sanding and painting and putting up molding and all of the sorts of things that you do to old houses to give them new life.  Yesterday, as I finished a couple of hours of scraping 50 year old carpet glue off of a staircase, I decided to take a little break.  An aside if you will.  I was going to make a spoon.


A spoon?  Yeah, I'll bet you didn't see that one coming.  Well, if you know me or you've read enough of my ditherings, you already know that logical transitions aren't my strong suit.  But let me explain myself...

Just about everyone at some point in their life, be it as a child or an adult, thinks to themselves, "Wouldn't it be great to just go off in the woods and build a cabin and live there and forget about the 2012 election/terrorism/my 401k?"  You can silently muse about this, but once you voice it aloud, your mother/husband/rabbi quickly tells you that this is not possible.  And that's precisely when (hopefully) you also hear about Dick Proenneke.  Dick was dropped off at a lake in the interior of Alaska in 1968 where he went about building a cabin by hand, alone.  He also constructed much of the other items necessary for daily living out of natural materials or castoff packaging.  Proenneke would live by himself in the cabin for about 30 years (aside from occasional visits from a float plane and a couple of trips back to the lower 48 to see family).  Whilst he went about all of this, he filmed himself and kept a lengthy journal which were the basis for the documentary Alone in the Wilderness.

Whenever I am hanging out with my friend Ieva, conversation begins with a normal discussion of how things are going and how much we have or have not been climbing/biking/running.  With pleasantries aside, we switch to the important stuff: building cabins, goats, sewing your own clothing, persistence hunting, etc.  About a month ago, we got together in order to watch Alone in the Wilderness as I had still never seen it.  Upon watching it, I felt like all of life's troubles were washed away.  I knew what to do with myself.  To seal the deal, we also watched the sequel, Alone in the Wilderness II.  Ieva and I were understandably excited to go out and immediately build a cabin, but we let logic prevail and decided to start with something simpler: making a wooden spoon.

In Alone in the Wilderness II, Proenneke shows the process of making a spoon.  As he is a superb craftsman, he makes it look really easy.  Also they edit out all of the laborious parts to shorten the footage.  We felt like this gave us some idea of what was going on and set about finding the necessary tools.  One implement called for is a gouge (a rounded chisel) and Ieva and I went to two different hardware stores and searched around town, but couldn't find this specialty tool.  The effort sort of lost steam at that point.  My father is a devout woodworker so I asked him to locate a gouge for me while I was bicycling down to the farm.  When I arrived, a gouge was awaiting me and I thus had the tools I needed.  So, without further adieu, I give you the process for making a wooden spoon by hand.
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Select a young tree that is slightly bigger in diameter than how wide you want to make your overall spoon.  Chop it down.  I don't have my copy of The Foxfire Book on me but it has a good discussion of what wood to use for what purpose.  I selected an oak because there were a lot of oak around.  (Before anyone decries me for cutting down a healthy tree instead of using deadfall, you should know that "green" wood is much easier to cut and shape.  You can now return to reading this post inside of your house made of 2x4s.)

Next, "limb" the tree.  That is, cut the protruding limbs off of the trunk.  I really like to use the Gransfors Bruks Scandinavian Forest Axe for this.  Its large enough to fell a tree and limb it and light enough to use for small shaping functions later in the process.  During all of this cutting, be EXTREMELY CAREFUL that you do not cut your foot, leg, hand, fingers, etc.  You can do a lot of damage with a sharp axe.  And then as Gem says in The Town, "there goes college soccer".

Haul your tree trunk out of the woods to your cabin/yurt/commune and put it up on sawhorses.  Okay, Dick Proenneke would have used a tripod made of other tree sections, but I didn't want to make my parents apoplectic by cutting down the entire forest.  Get yourself a carpenter's saw.

Cut a blank for your spoon.  It should be relatively straight and free of large knots.  You want it to be a bit longer than your desired spoon length and a touch wider.  This blank that was about 20 inches long and 3 inches in diameter yielded a finished spoon of 12"x2".

Flatten one side of the blank with your axe.  A small hatchet could make this easier (and perhaps safer).

Continue by flattening the other side taking care to try and make the sides parallel.

Draw the outline in pencil of your overall spoon shape and the area where the "bowl" or concave portion should be.

Begin cutting out the bowl of the spoon using a gouge.  I was using a #7 sweep 3/8" gouge which is good for small and medium sized spoons.  For a larger "serving" sized spoon I might use a wider gouge.

Continue chiseling until you have the concavity as deep as necessary.  Don't worry about how thick the "walls" of the spoon are at this point.

With your axe, now rough out the top profile of the spoon around the bowl and along the length of the handle.

Then draw the side profile of the spoon in pencil and then rough it out again with your axe.  Leave the "walls" of the concavity thick still.  Trying to shave too closely with the axe at this point can ruin your whole project.

Next, step in side.  Cozy up to the fire.  Put on some NPR or some folk music.  Make yourself a mug of tea.  And get out your hunting knife.  I suppose you could use some sort of carving knife, but that's just unnecessary baggage when you're taking a float plane in to your homesite.  Start slowly whittling the spoon towards its final form.  Go slowly.  Use your index finger and thumb as "calipers" to gauge how thin you're making the bowl of the spoon.

After you've gotten it to where you're happy with it, break out some sandpaper and smooth out the surfaces of the spoon.  Yes, Dick had sandpaper with him.  I found that it was ineffective to sand the wood while it was still quite "green" and damp, so I am letting it season and dry for a few days before giving it a proper sanding.

And voila!  You have a fully functional spoon that you made with your own hands.  Proenneke finished his spoons with shellac or varnish or something that I cannot recall.  I'm fairly sure that the health industry would frown upon that these days.  My friend Lauren teaches youth in the outdoors and occasionally they make spoons as an activity.  She said that they finish them with a cooking oil.  Makes sense to me.  Once this gets its final sanding, I'll rub a light coat of olive oil on the spoon to protect the wood.

For my first attempt ever at making a spoon by hand, I think it turned out pretty well.  I believe the scoop portion of the spoon should be deeper and the walls should be thinner.  I was a bit timid with the chisel and later whittling as I didn't want to make them too thin and ruin the spoon.  Rome wasn't built in a day and even Dick Proenneke probably didn't make a perfect spoon the first time.  But, this first one is perfect for putting dollops of sourdough batter on your cast iron fry pan to make pancakes, as Dick would do.  I believe that my friend Liz, upon hearing of Ieva and my intentions to make spoons, laid claim to the first one that I made. Hopefully she'll put it to good use.  Kindling is not a "good use".

If you've read this far, you probably need no justification on why you should make a spoon.  But there's probably someone out there thinking "Why waste your time?"  It was fun.  I hate eating with plastic.  It's rewarding to actually make something in this day and age.  Or in the words of the cashier at the consignment shop in Mount Joy, PA who rang me out for a Foxfire book and a guide on bowmaking, "the way the world's heading these days, you're gonna need to know this stuff".  In either case, I hope that you enjoyed the step-by-step explanation and are perhaps inspired to make something yourself!

Monday, November 5, 2012

J.A. Stein Mini Cassette Lockring Tool

What follows is a review of a really esoteric and very specific piece of bike equipment.  If a thousand people read this post, perhaps one might find it useful.  Which is excellent.  Except probably only four people read this blog.  Oh well.
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On a recent multi-day ride, a friend and I pulled off of the road into a the parking lot of an Italian restaurant buried in central Pennsylvania.  Our chains were dry and shrieking for want of lubrication and it was sorta time for a lunch break too anyways.  My friend rummaged through his panniers and happened upon the correct one with his repair stuff in it.  As he removed everything to find a bottle of chain lube, I noticed something wrapped up in a grocery bag.

Me: "Is that a chain whip?"
Him: "Yep."
Me: "I really wouldn't want to carry that."
Him: "Yeah, me neither.  But what are you going to do if a drive side spoke breaks and you need to remove your cassette?"
Me: "Commit seppuku with a tire lever."

First off, I am not criticizing my friend.  Both of our bikes (and wheelsets) have over 10k miles on them.  We carry lots of heavy stuff in our rear panniers.  We ride over things like rough trails, the cataclysmic streets of Baltimore, hippies, etc.  Prime situations to break a rear spoke.  And we do all of this often at great distance to a bike shop.  If you break a spoke on the drive side of your rear wheel next to the cassette, you need to remove the cassette in order to replace the spoke.  The usual necessary tools are a chain whip, a cassette lockring tool and a crescent wrench.  Unless you're my friend who opted to carry these along, you're not likely to find such specialized tools outside of a bike shop while out touring.

I have always been aware of this potential situation.  For many thousands of miles of touring, I simply adopted the "I hope that a rear spoke never breaks but if it does make it right by a bike shop" mentality and tried not to think how royally screwed I might be in certain places.  Perhaps somewhere like Wyoming's Great Divide Basin.  I assure you that I am not alone in this mindset.  Actually, I'll bet that many cross country cyclists have never even considered the predicament I just laid out.  But right then and there, in the parking lot, I promised my friend that I'd determine a solution.  We had both heard of "emergency" lockring removers, but hadn't purchased one since they cost about $40 and we had no idea how they worked.


The only such tool in current production that I have heard of is the J.A. Stein Mini Cassette Lockring Tool.  It's been recommended by other long distance cyclists, but I could not find anywhere that clearly explained how the tool operates.  I ordered one through Harris Cyclery for $35.95 and I would urge you to call them and try to negotiate their $10 shipping fee since what I received could have been essentially mailed in an envelope.  For your forty odd dollars, you receive a small plastic bag with several loose metal bits and you begin wondering if you've been swindled.



Now, I have the advantage of having removed my cassette a couple of times to replace it.  I used the ubiquitous Park Tool Cassette Lockring Tool and Chain Whip and a crescent wrench.  This gave me an overall expectation of what had to happen here.  If you haven't removed a cassette using conventional means, it would probably behoove you to ask for a demo at your local bike shop before playing with the Stein tool.  But once you look at the Stein tool, you will note that the larger plate has splines machined on it much like a conventional lockring removal tool.  With your skewer removed, you engage the splined plate with the lockring on your cassette.  Then with a 3mm allen key, you attach the smaller arm to the plate.  With the wheel in your bike's dropout, you reinstall the skewer, clamping down the slotted end of the arm.  As you rotate your crankarms in the easiest gearing, the tool rotates until it contacts the frame whereupon further crankarm rotation causes the lockring to be loosened by the now immobile tool.  By changing the orientation of the tool slightly, you can tighten the lockring back on by rotating your rear wheel backwards by hand.


This may sound quite complicated.  I assure you it isn't.  It's just hard to put into words.  If you have experience with a usual cassette removal procedure, you will be able to follow the directions that come along with the tool.  You will need to be carrying your own 3mm allen key and if you are the type to carry an emergency cassette remover then it would stand to reason you're also packing a multitool.  The tool worked fabulously once I read through the instructions.  I had to remove a bolt holding one of the fender arms on that would have blocked the tool's rotation.  In order to get the lockring to "break free" I sat on the bike and pushed down on a pedal with my foot.  I doubt that handstrength on the crankarm alone would be enough force.  And likewise, reinstallation of the lockring was a snap too (albeit with one caveat that I will describe below).  I can absolutely recommend carrying the Stein tool along on bicycle rides that take you far away from the bicycle shop or your home workbench.  Just remember to bring extra spokes as well, otherwise this is all for naught.

DISCLAIMER for Surly Long Haul Trucker owners:  I have an LHT and by my observation, a heck of a lot of other cycletourists do too.  When I went to reinstall/tighten the cassette lockring, the directions are at odds with the LHT dropouts.  When reinstalling, you set up the tool with the arm pointing 180 degrees in the other direction and thus the arm contacts the frame by the chainstay, instead of the seatstay as in the loosening operation.  If you look at the above photo where the tool is installed for the loosening operation, you'll see a flange of sorts where the chainstay meets the dropout.  If you follow the tools directions, when you are tightening the lockring back on, the arm of the tool will ride up onto this flange and get bent.  I know because I did it.  I was able to hammer the arm back flat and I'm sure it will work fine in the future.  What I would do next time is allow the tool to contact the back of the derailleur hanger instead of the chainstay.  The directions clearly say that you should not do that as you may damage your derailleur.  With that in mind, I would probably unbolt my derailleur first since it isn't necessary for the tightening function to avoid damaging it.  Again, if you own an LHT and are using a Stein tool, this will make immediate sense when you're sitting there looking at it.       

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

The Bicycle Luggage Debate

The one thing that I have noticed folks get really wrapped up in when bike touring is how to carry their stuff. Specifically, people love to argue the merits and drawbacks between panniers and trailers.  Everyone is convinced that whichever they've picked is correct and the other is inferior.  Well the other thing that I have noticed is that typically these same people have only ridden with one system thus making their claims biased and unfounded.  To satisfy my own curiosity and to inform you, fair reader, I decided to ride with both setups.
Well why don't you cry about it, Saddlebags!?!  (Obscure Ace Ventura reference... sorry)  Panniers work great.
When I say "ride with both setups" I don't mean write some crappy magazine review in which I borrowed something for an afternoon and took it along when I got coffee.  (Although I drank lots of coffee whilst using both panniers and trailer.)  No.  I mean I tested the heck out of this.  I rode across the country (approx. 5,000 miles) this summer using Ortlieb Back-Roller Plus and Front-Roller Plus panniers.  Just a couple of weeks ago, I went on a 750 mile tour using the same front panniers and a BOB Yak trailer.  In both cases, I was also using an Ortlieb Ultimate5 Plus handlebar bag.  During both trips, I got opportunities to ride pavement, gravel, dirt, long climbs, steep climbs, fast descents, windy straightaways, car-choked urban environments, and just about every other condition imaginable.  I'd say it was a pretty darn fair test.

Since I had toured so much with panniers, I had my biases against trailers somewhat going into the second tour.  I thought it would be slower.  I thought it would "pull me back" on steep ascents.  I thought on extended gravel and dirt it would just add drag.  I thought it would suck weaving around cars in the city.  I thought I would instantly be disgusted.  And what happened?  I didn't really notice any difference.  Nope.  I was just as happy pulling a trailer as I was with panniers.  In fact, on the last day I forgot that I was using a trailer.  As Porky the Pig says, "That's all, folks!"  Get over it.
Trailers work great too.  Don't worry.  They don't make you spontaneously yardsale in plazas.
But seriously, the debate is just silly.  There's a simple series of questions that can make this an easy decision for you.  I should have drawn some sort of Venn diagram or flow chart, but I never took graphic design.  Microsoft Paint sucks to use with a laptop touchpad mouse too.  So I guess I'll just write this out longhand.

-If you already own a bike that won't accommodate racks, buy a trailer and go touring.  Ignore all of the pannier geeks.
-If you're on a strict budget, you may want to choose the trailer.  A BOB Yak Plus which includes a waterproof duffle will hold 94 liters and goes for $359.  My panniers hold 25 liters (front) and 40 liters (back) and I'll say that I strap 30 liters of stuff to the top of the rear rack to make the volume capacity the same.  Those bags plus my front and rear racks amount to about $460.  Yes you can certainly get cheaper panniers, but Ortlieb bags are the de facto choice for most cross country riders by my observations.
-If you want to haul random stuff like packrafts, beer kegs, mule deer, etc. the trailer is more versatile for that.
-If you're also using buses/trains/planes in your travels, panniers are a lot easier to get around with.
-If you're wheedling your bike around in urban spots, taking it on elevators, carrying it up stairs, etc. it's a lot easier without the added length of the trailer.
  
Then again, why choose at all?  Just overload your bike beyond all reason and go have at it.  Okay... don't do that.
Of course, these are just some of the bigger questions to be mindful of.  I'm sure you can think of minute differences or situations where only X will do!  But the point of this post is to say that it really doesn't matter in terms of handling.  I tested that.  If you can ride a bike and make panniers weigh equally side to side you can figure that system out.  My brother who had never even seen a bike trailer slapped a loaded one on his road bike and was racing the taxis of Pittsburgh within minutes. Either one is fine.  The important thing is that you choose a system, throw some stuff in there and get outside.

A special warning:  Do not choose a double wheeled trailer.  They won't track as well behind you and when you're riding suspect roads, the right side wheel will invariably be hitting all of the nastiness by the curb/shoulder/road edge despite your best intentions.  Riding through Baltimore last week, if I hadn't been using a single wheeled trailer that followed my bike's tires exactly through the miasma of broken concrete, grates and trash, I may very well have died.  I'm not exaggerating that.  The only exceptions are if you are hauling a child in a two wheeled trailer or if it's just crucial because you cannot balance a single wheeled variety correctly.

I leapfrogged across the country this summer with two families that were biking on tandems with double wheeled trailers. They chose these because when you're asking an 8 year old and a 15 year old to bike together on a tandem, they cannot deal with the added frustration of balancing a single wheeled trailer.  But each and every one of the group of 12 still took turns cursing the two wheeled versions for the aforementioned drawbacks.