Thursday, May 31, 2012

And away we go!

Here I go again on my own.
Going down the only road I’ve ever known.
Like a drifter I was born to walk alone.
And I’ve made up my mind.
I ain’t wasting no more time.

(Is it impressive, predictable, or pathetic that I can recite these Whitesnake lyrics from memory?)

So where to begin... Well for those of you that don't know, I'm riding my bike somewhere... for some amount of time. I am carrying maps for the TransAmerica route, but who knows what is in store for me? I'm sure plenty of readers remember last year when I aborted a long distance bike trip before getting out of Pennsylvania. Laugh it up because <drumroll> I managed to not only travel to another state, but also a federal district! As I sit here in Washington, D.C., I will recount my past week of bicycle travel.

Last week, I left State College with two male escorts, Scott Woods and Clay Chiles. My friend Scott was happy (and a bit sad as my former boss) to ride with me and ensure that I got at least out of the borough. Check. Then Clay (who was riding to continue his training for the Transylvania Epic mountain bike race) rode with me until we were about 20 miles away from town. That was sufficient momentum to keep me headed on my way. Over the course of three days, I rode to Lancaster, PA on a route that I had already ridden a couple of times with my friends on previous tours.

The reason that I went to Lancaster first was to attend the wedding of my friends, Sam Zehr and Lori Reeder. This necessitated in not only carrying a 6 lb suit and dress shoes (strapped to my handlebars), but also paying for a haircut and shaving. I realize that most no one actually believes this since I resemble Bigfoot more than a human most days, but the wedding photographer did record me on camera. I'll be sure to share pictures of this anomaly once I see them. The wedding was a beautiful affair and the ceremony was conducted by Sam's sister, Julia. A reception followed with a dinner that Lori and Sam had prepared earlier themselves with desserts contributed by numerous others. Sufficed to say, I tried my damnedest to make up for calories lost on the ride down and load up for the future! I also sat in a hot tub for several hours at the B&B for further recovery.

Then on Memorial Day, it was time to depart Lancaster. Fortunately, Mike Zehr, Sam's father, had the day off and wanted to ride along with me for the day. We were both a little reserved about this idea for opposite reasons. Mike kept fretting that he was "out of shape" and "might not be able to keep up". I on the other hand thought back to the previous spring when my friends and I had ridden a stretch with Mike back to his house. At the start, Mike looked back at us with a grin deserving of the Cheshire Cat and then left us gasping trying to stay on his wheel for ten miles or so. That and the fact that when I had weighed my bike without food or water it tipped the scales at 87lbs. In the end though, we maintained a great pace together for about 65 miles down to the outskirts of Baltimore. It turned out to be a absolutely gorgeous day of first riding rolling country roads to York, PA and then riding the Northern Central Rail Trail. The funniest part of the day was on a deceptively flat looking portion of trail where Mike and I both kept quiet about hitting our personal low point of the day. My legs were tiring and I was breathing hard and couldn't figure it out. Later as we started coasting downhill for miles, we realized that we had been charging up a subtle incline earlier for miles which explained our fatigue!

In Cockeysville, MD, Mike bid farewell and got a shuttle home from Mary, his wife. After a night's sleep that more resembled a coma, I descended down into Baltimore on what felt the hottest day yet. Navigating the city this time was much easier than when Eric and I traveled through last fall and I even stopped down at the Inner Harbor for lunch. After that, I found US Route 1 which beelines towards DC. The fact that it is a relatively straight shot is a positive thing. The forty miles of no shoulders, 40-55 mph speed limits, broken pavement, construction zones and scattered glass were slight negatives. But I liked it rather than try to cobble together numerous small roads that would only succeed in getting me hopelessly lost. But I made it into the city and to my brother's apartment safe and sound where I am spending several days checking out the capital.

It's only been 300 miles of riding thus far and I have no idea where this trip will take me, but so far I have met so many good people and received so much support. Jeremy who gave me advice down at Zeno's the night before I left. The park ranger at RB Winter state park who shared wisdom from his cross country ride.  Beatrice and Bethany who will include me in their prayers. The guy from Quality Bike Products who caught up on his fixie outside of Harrisburg and chatted me up for a mile. George (a relative of Sam's) who regaled me with tales of two cross country rides as well as being a support driver for the Race Across America. Greg and Sue (other relatives of Sam's) who within moments of meeting me offered a place to stay at their house when I pass by. Of course I cannot begin to thank the Zehr family for all of the hospitality, food, showers, prayers and encouragement that they have given me over the years. Thank you Mike, Mary, Julia, Sam and now, Lori. I would also be remiss in not thanking Scott Woods, Ieva Perkons and the rest of the crew at West Arete for their support and for putting up with my "early retirement".

Guess who's going to win this race?  Clay Chiles at the start.

Break in Centre Hall, PA
Yes, yes it is.  Appropriately, this is at the top of a long climb.
Lovely day for riding on 11/15 to Duncannon, PA
I have spent more than one evening in this pavilion at the Riverfront Campground while it was raining, relaxing with friends
Folks from western and central PA will get the joke.
Sam and I picked 2 gallons of fresh strawberries for the wedding.
Mike introduced me to mulberries, which were prolific between Lancaster and York.
Mike Zehr after riding to Maryland
Baltimore's Inner Harbor.  Apparently they have pirate ship rides on Fridays now!
Note to reader: Never bike tour between Baltimore and Washington on a Monday, lest you  be disappointed

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Alpacka Raft's Denali Llama packraft

"Spring Creek is nice and floatable" read the text message from my friend, Jeff, who had biked along it's banks yesterday morning on his morning commute.  "YES!" I exclaimed as I pumped my fist in the air and kicked up my heels in glee (at least that's how I remember it).  For the past month or so, all of the creek levels had been depressingly low.  It was made all the more depressing in that I had just recently purchased an Alpacka Raft Denali Llama packraft and hadn't gotten a chance to use it.  But with the past two days of heavy rain, the creeks were up and I would apparently get my chance.
NOLS newsletter on packrafting courses
I try to think back as to why I even got a packraft in the first place, besides it just being so obviously awesome.  It probably had something to do with a blog post on Surly's website a year ago regarding a small whitewater packraft that could be carried on a bike when ridden and conversely a bike could be carried on the packraft when paddled.  Hmmmm.... that's sounded awesome so I tucked that one away for later.  Then I watched the below video and my brain exploded.
I kept it in the back of my mind and then ordered one about a year later.  I had dreams of biking to the Pennsylvania Grand Canyon aka Pine Creek Gorge and doing a packrafting/trail running/biking extravaganza.  And once I received the raft, I started seeing mentions of them everywhere.  The most recent NOLS magazine included an entire article on a new packrafting course.  Then I went to the Banff Film Festival and three of the films had adventurers using packrafts.  I also read Jon Waterman's book, Running Dry, that is his account of paddling the Colorado River from source to sea using a packraft for many sections.  And the packrafts used in all of these occurences: Alpacka Raft's.  I had made the right decision apparently.
What a dork.
When I got the box in the mail that I had shelled out over a grand for, I thought that I had been swindled.  I have owned three person tents that couldn't fit into this box that was supposed to hold a whitewater packraft and a four piece kayak paddle.  It didn't weigh much either.  Sure enough though, it held a sub 6lb whitewater raft and a paddle.  Holy shit.  The Denali Llama is their biggest single person whitewater model and it weighs in at 5lb 3oz.  The optional spray deck that is welded on at the factory is an additional 8oz.  I also got an Aqua-Bound Manta Ray fiberglass four piece kayak paddle.

Overall, the packed raft was about the size of a two person backpacking tent.  This along with the paddles can easily be strapped somewheres on a backpack or to the rear rack of a bicycle.  Inflating the raft is an absolute snap.  Included with the raft is an inflation sack, which is a big sil-nylon sack with one end open and the other with a threaded valve on it.  Screw the valve into the port on the raft, fill the bag with air, compress the bag and push the air into the raft.  Their video does a better job explaining this.  After practicing twice, I easily inflated the raft streamside yesterday in less than a minute.  One initial point of concern however was that the valve on the boat is not a one way valve.  Thus, when you stop pumping or take off the inflation bag, air will flow out of the boat.  It turned out to not be a problem in the end.  I could unscrew the inflation bag quickly enough and cap the valve without losing too much air.  Then there is a small secondary port to inflate by mouth to reach final desired pressure.  No problemo.
Just add water!
So after weeks of staring at my neglected packraft, yesterday morning I got the message that streams were boatable.  As an initial test, I didn't want to paddle with my bike strapped on the boat but rather just get a feel for how the boat handled.  To be completely honest, I haven't kayaked much at all, so all my boating experience comes from canoeing.  I biked over to the whitewater course on Spring Creek behind Tussey Mountain Outfitters in Bellefonte.  On the ride there, I barely noticed the boat on my rear rack.  Of course before launching, I stopped by my friend Jeff's office to grab lunch so that we could discuss packrafting, biking and interoffice politics.  But after that, I made my way down to the creek and readied my craft.

The stream was flowing much faster and higher than I had ever previously seen when I canoed there.  But my enthusiasm for trying out the boat told me the hell with it and to just goof around in the eddies.  I paddled around in some of the eddies and slackwater to familiarize myself with the boat.  Then I began ferrying back and forth across the main current from bank to bank to see how it would respond to me.  While I personally couldn't paddle against the strongest parts of the current and move upstream, the raft otherwise behaved beautifully.

With the paddler sitting so low in the craft, it is quite stable.  However, with such a low position and an inflated tube at your side, paddling is a little more difficult.  I found myself bringing the paddle higher and paddling at a sharper downward angle than you would have to in other craft.  I am sure though that this is also a function of me needing to get more accustom to using a kayak paddle.  With the raft being flat bottomed and with the bow having less of a pronounced "point" than a canoe, I found it a little harder to paddle upstream and track into the current, but again this could be a function of poor paddle skills too.  With the flat bottom and the raft floating high, I noticed that breezes easily affected the boat, so paddling flatwater into a headwind would probably suck.

Overall however, I am absolutely pleased with my investment in a Denali Llama packraft from Alpacka Raft.    After reading about the rafts, their history, and accounts of what others have done with them on the company's site, I know that I have made the correct decision for a craft that fits into my car free and adventure filled lifestyle.  Just the other day, at a lunch with my friends Jason and Eric, we were discussing a particular ice route that forms in the Pine Creek Gorge.  You can cross country ski into the route on a rail trail, but you are still on the opposite side of the creek from the climb and the creek isn't always frozen over.  Our concerns over whether or not the creek is frozen evaporated with the realization that we have a packraft in our quiver now.  Stay tuned...