Return to Knik Glacier, via Hunter Creek

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The ride to the Knik Glacier ranks as one of the most scenic rides, anywhere, and it is very accessible.  It is close to Anchorage.  It is an easy ride in winter, but only for a few short weeks or months, usually late in the season.  We first rode here in 2012, at the end of a record season of snowfall.  We attempted to reach the glacier last week from the north side of the river, from the Jim Creek Trailhead, but turned back due to time constraints.  This weekend, with 24 hours to spare, Lael and I pedal out of the city with high hopes.

On Sunday afternoon, we are pedaling towards the Hillside trails without ambition.  The day is sunny and warm, but the pattern is tired.  Around 4PM, I suggest, “let’s ride out to the glacier”.  

“OK.”

We turn back home and morph our Salsa Mukluks into adventure mode.  I’ve loaned some essential bikepacking gear to a friend, who is riding the Denali Highway.  Using some dry bags and gear straps, we pack creatively- and lightly- to carry only what we need.

Each of our bikes is laden only with a 30F sleeping bag, a vapor barrier liner, a maximum layering system for the cold, and our cameras.  We will pick up some food en route, in Eagle River.  Simple, except that it is already 6:30PM.   

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The route out of town includes snowy multi-use trails and paved cyclepaths for miles.  Alternating dry pavement and ice exist on the bike trail through Eagle River, Chugiak, and Peter’s Creek.

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We stop at the supermarket in Eagle River to stock our bags with food.

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Continuing east, twilight guides us along paved paths.  Eventually, our route leads to the shoulder of the Glenn Highway.  We slowly descend down to sea level, and exit the Glenn Highway for the Old Glenn Highway, a smaller section of road along the Knik River.

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By the time we turn off the pavement to look for a campsite, it is nearly midnight.  

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We lay down a groundcloth, sleeping pads, and our bags.  We put on all our layers, slip into our vapor barrier liners, and arrange our things.  I have a habit of organizing my things when camping.  Dry socks and a snack ensure a warm night.  Still, in our minimal sleeping systems, it is a good idea to keep the door closed.  We both bury deep into our bags.  

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By morning, ambient light appears on the horizon at 5:30AM.  Light falls far across the valley at 8.  We are camped in the shade aside a northwest facing mountainside, until the sun rises over nearby mountains at 9.  We pack our things and push out to the road.  Cold fingers and toes are not uncommon, especially as we are not using any specialized cold-weather gear.  However, Bjorn and Kim from Homer, AK are riding across the state of Alaska and have just crossed the Arctic Circle.  They know a few things about unsupported winter travel.      

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The end of the paved road, and the beginning of the ride on the river, is about 17 miles away.  By the time we arrive to meet our friend Carp, we are warm.

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Carp is waiting with a thermos full of coffee.  While we’ve just regained warmth in our fingers, we’re both happy to pile inside his warm van and unload some gear for the day.  Overnight lows in the teens diminish as the sun rises high in the sky.

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We load our framebags with snacks and ride onto Hunter Creek.

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A series of fatbike tracks leads from the wooden bridge on Knik River Rd.  There is a lot of dry gravel, and not a lot of snow. 

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This time of year, the ice is melting fast.  This area is a playground for fatbikes.

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The glacier is visible in the distance, and for part of the ride, a broad doubletrack leads the way.

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Several ice bridges over the Knik River are critical to this route.  At one point, we cross ice which has begun to visibly crack, although it appears solid.

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Just downstream there is open water.

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A short distance upstream, the river is also open.  These routes won’t be open for long.  It is April already.

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The frozen banks make for the most efficient pedaling.

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Leading to gravel tracks, and some untracked tundra.

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Across a gravelly plain, we reach the end moraine.  This mounded pile of unconsolidated sediment contains the glacial lake.

This is the place.  This is what we have come for. 

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The lake is frozen in winter, and contains remnant icebergs from the glacier.

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Which makes for a fatbike playground.

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Studs recommended.

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Already, some open water in a few places.

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Nearer to the glacier, icy slot canyons allow passage.

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We stop for a rest amidst an icy solar vortex.  Sunlight reflects from all sides.  It must be sixty degrees in here.  Watch your step– I plant a foot into knee deep slush.  Spring is working fast.

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Ice detail:

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After sunning ourselves for an hour, we turn back.

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One last look from atop the moraine before pedaling downstream.  On this day, we are treated to a light tailwind towards home.  The ride from Hunter Creek is about 9 miles in each direction, with very little elevation gain.  

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An abundance of scenic springtime rides in Alaska could be the basis for a new tourism.  Many high-caliber adventure rides are accessible from town, and with a decent set of legs, are attainable by any cycling enthusiast.  In changing winter conditions, there are plentiful riding opportunities from groomed in-town singletrack, hut-to-hut alpine passages, beach rides, river rides, glacier rides, section-riding on the Iditarod Trail, and more.  Come visit Alaska!  

Late march may be the best time of year up here.   

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Fresh from the source, with very little silt this time of year.

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On the way back we follow some well-travelled tracks.

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But soon realize we’ve taken a wrong turn.  A small drainage separates us from Hunter Creek.  No matter, we each find our own way across.

Carp, a seasonal fisherman and boat captain, float tests the Pugsley.  

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Lael utilizes the beavers’ dam.

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XtraTuff boots full of water are no fun, but all of this fooling around is just early signs of summer.

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Lael and I go for a swim.  This weekend marks our first sleepout and our first swim.  The seasons are changing.  

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A bit of routefinding brings us back to the trail.  In a few months, all of this will be entangled in prickly plants, mosquitoes, and bears.  Spring is better than summer in a few ways.

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Back on trail!

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Until next year, we’ll revel in memories and photographs of Knik.  I’m starting to realize that the rides we find are getting better and better, from Belgium and Ukraine, to Arizona and Alaska.  However, I don’t think they’ll ever get better than this one.    

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Shogun Prairie Breaker 2

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The Craigslist ad reads, “Draire Breaken 2: $100″.  Even through twisted English and a low-res cell phone photo, I know what I’m looking at.  Just to clarify, I inquire: “I am very interested in your mountain bike.  Do you know what the model name is?”  


Hi Nicholas,

The Model Name is Draire Breaken 2. It has Shamano Deore XT Derailer, Shifters & Tarney XT Crank. Cr-mo Steel Tange M+B Forks. I have had many people interested so, first come first served. I’m sorry.  Thanks.

 

Armed with $100, we arrange to meet at the seller’s house near the Tacoma Mall.  When I arrive, he is attempting to remove a square taper crank from a Trek hybrid bicycle with a blowtorch and a hammer.  I inform him that a simple $10 tool will easily remove the crankarm.  Bang.  Bang.  Bang.  “This damned thing is on her good”, he explains.  I nod in agreement, and refuse whichever service he has just offered to the bicycle I am hoping to buy.  “No, that’s ok.  I’ll manage”.  

The bike is, in fact,  a Shogun Prairie Breaker, c. 1984-86.  It is equipped with Shimano derailleurs and shifters, Takagi Tourney XT crank, and Tange MTB tubing.  He drives a hard sale, and takes my entire stack of twenties.  No deals today.  As he says, many others have been interested in this vintage Draire Breaken 2.  They must all be aware of the essential improvements over the original Draire Breaken.  Still, $100 is a good price for a bike that rides.   

I am giddy to have found such a neat old bicycle, and such a large frame, with mostly original components.  I am building a bike for Lael’s brother, who is well above 6 feet tall, so an inexpensive frame that fits his stature and a large tire is mandatory.  I also love old mountain bikes, and at the time, I hunted these things on regional Craigslist forums like a bloodhound.  These days, I have refocused my energy.  

I roll the bike over to 2nd Cycle, Tacoma’s local bike co-op.  After a few hours of Tri-Flow and tinkering, the bikes rides superbly, with only a few modifications.  A newer Deore LX rear derailleur replaces an old steel Suntour model, which was not original to the bike.  Sweeping Wald handlebars fit the ‘slingshot’ style stem, and make a comfortable vantage for city riding.  I find a suitable saddle out of the parts bin at the co-op.  Finally, a modern chain improves shifting and the overall efficiency of the drivetrain.  The bike retains all of the bearings, cables, and brake pads with which I received it.  Bikes like this are best given attention only when needed.  Preempting necessary maintenance usually results in more work than expected, with the possibility of only incremental improvements.  A complete overhaul or restoration would be another story; in this case, Tri-Flow and elbow grease are the best medicine.

The next day, I join a couple friends on the first leg of their bike tour, which allows me to transport the bike to Lael’s brother in Portland.  Over the next two days, I verify what a wonderful bicycle I have made, and as my legs warm, I discover that the bike presents a strong pedaling platform for me.  Stretching my legs, I push the pace for 10, 15, 20 miles.  Coming into town on Hwy 30, I catch a racing team, out for a weekend ride.  I leapfrog the team car several times, emblazoned with the SRAM logo.  This bike, by the age-old measure of quality, is fast!

Arriving in Portland, I deposit the bike with its new owner and board the train back to Tacoma.  Four years later, the bike is now in Alaska, and is wearing the only studded tires in the house.  As the city turns to ice, I put my other bikes aside to revisit this old friend.

Below: These old Deore XT cantilevers are some of my favorite.  I poached a pair off an ’84 Schwinn High Sierra to replace the Dia-Compe brakes on my ’85 High Sierra.  When set-up properly, with quality brake pads, braking power and modulation is exceptional.  Kenda Klondike studded tires are far from the best, but they are far better than tires without studs right now.

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Six in the back, three in the front.  The tall steel teeth on older freewheels last forever.

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The Takagi Tourney XT crank is more beautiful than most similar cranks of the era from Sugino and Shimano.  180mm crank arms are suitable for a 6’4″ rider.

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For mild freezing weather, these vintage pogies work well. Made of basic nylon (in the USA), they exhibit how simply one could make something similar.  I found these at the Bikeworks co-op in Silver City, NM while riding the Divide a few years ago.

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Studded Nate (Grip Studs)

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A single ride across Anchorage in winter encompasses a greater variety of surface conditions than an entire summer or riding between Holland and Ukraine.  Riding conditions change over time with the weather and with the impact of other road and trail users.  Conditions also change across town, from road, to sidewalk, to trail.  Sidewalks are a necessary part of winter commuting routes in Anchorage.  

Five days after a fresh snowfall with stable freezing temperatures, trails are firm, sidewalks are cleared but feature a light crust of snow, and roads are icy.  Two days after snow, trails are criss-crossed with tracks and mostly soft-packed, sidewalks are covered in layers of road slop with the texture of brown sugar, and roads are smeared with layers of snow over sheer ice.  The day of a fresh snowfall, everything is blanketed in snow.  This pattern repeats itself throughout the winter.  Often, a layer of fresh snow makes much of the urban riding more predictable.  In a way, it is easier.  

In a final twist, the month of January often brings Chinook patterns– warm, wet wind from the sea, further influenced by adiabatic heating as air descends over mountains.  Light rain and 33°F today, leads to an even glaze of ice tomorrow.  Yes, it is raining in Anchorage, with above-freezing temperatures are expected all week.

From past experiences as a daily commuter in Anchorage, I’ve learned that the right tool for reliable transport in such diverse conditions with regular snowfall is a big, aggressive tire.  The first time I replaced a worn Surly Endomorph tire with a Nate, my eyes were wide.  Still, I rode an entire season without studs on that bike.  I promised myself that next time I ride though an Anchorage winter, I’ll have fat tires and studs.  

45NRTH does manufacture a studded fat tire, called the Dillinger, but the tire is currently out of stock from distributors (there may be some online, or in shops elsewhere).  While made to a very high quality, the Dillinger is expensive (about $225), and features a less aggressive tread pattern than the Nate.  The two most difficult conditions on the streets of Anchorage are deep, greasy reconstituted road snow (the brown stuff below, often called brown sugar, which is always plowed onto sidewalks), and ice-glazed streets.  Adding studs to an existing Surly Nate tire offers the best solution.  

Grip-Studs are a tungsten carbide stud with an auger-like base, designed in many sizes as an aftermarket solution for footwear, bicycles, motorcycles, and cars and trucks.  I picked up one package of Grip-Studs (#GST-1000) at The Bicycle Shop, along with a manual installation tool (#4000M), and set out to experiment with the installation procedure and stud patterns on the Nate.  The result, just in time for glazed roadways, is a studded Nate.

Below: Four inches of fresh white snow makes for predictable riding, as fat tires dig into the hardpack beneath.  The reconstituted high-density brown snow is plowed from the roadways; fat tires ride high on this concoction, smearing across the top.  The streets are glazed with ice from the passing of thousands of cars daily.  This road is divided by a median, and cars travel at 35-45mph.  Like most roads in Anchorage, it loses a lane or two in the winter.  Riding here in the winter is interesting, to say the least.  A cyclist was recently killed only a few blocks away, and the local TV station solicited me for some comments about commuting in Anchorage.  

For more insight into winter commuting in Anchorage, check out Lael’s story Sidewalk Singletrack, describing her experience riding through record snowfall in the winter of 2011-2012.

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Nate is a heavy-hitter even without studs.  I’m glad to see this tire on stock fatbikes from Surly and Salsa.  When conditions are tough, either in the city or in the backcountry, it helps.  Still having trouble?  Bud and Lou might be your new friends.

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A package of 100 Grip Studs is much lighter than expected.  In a reversal of my usual grams to dollars ratio, these are more than a dollar per gram.  Still, even at 100 studs per wheel, this is a cheaper solution than buying a new set of 45NRTH Dillingers, even if they were available.  The Dillingers might be a better choice if you lose sleep over rolling resistance, or plan to jump into a few fatbike races and don’t plan to swap tires.  Dillingers and light and fast.  Nates are chunky, for sure

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The 6mm tall knobs on the Nate are enough to fully engage the threaded base of the Grip Stud, without penetrating the casing and puncturing the tube.  The siping on the knobs doesn’t seem to affect installation.

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Even pressure, and about two to three full turns is enough to install the stud.  A little drop of water on the knob helps lubricate the threads, reducing friction and twisting.

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Thus far, the front tire has about 76 studs.  I intend another round of studs up front, and a full complement in the rear.   

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Update: Temperatures have risen above freezing for several consecutive days, and dropped below freezing at night, resulting in a city-wide ice rink.  Studded tires are necessary, while fat tires still have a place on deteriorating snow-covered trails and sidewalks.  Lael reports that Grip Studs– finally– have made her fatbike a reliable everyday winter commuter.

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Freeze thaw cycles

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The Stumpjumper has a new fork that’s actually an old fork of the same color from another bike. Now, it resembles the 1984 Stumpjumper, but with mid-fork rack eyelets. Studded tires and fenders are key to urban cycling; it hasn’t snowed in a week and over twelve hours of sunlight makes some meltwater during the day as snowbanks fade in gothic grace. At night, puddles freeze into icy mirrors. Footprints and tire tracks are fossilized until the light of tomorrow.

Spring mania has set in as roofs are shoveled and bikes are awakened from hibernation. For months, everyone ate and slept too much. Now, they’re buying road bikes even as the roads are still iced over. Anticipation.

Freeze Thaw Cycles is the name of an exceptional bike shop in State College, PA. They stock practical touring and commuting cycles, as well as interesting used equipment and mountain bikes for the local state forest. They had a small stash of 86mm BCD chainrings for my SR Apex triple in 2008 when I first visited. They also supplied a used LX rear derailleur to replace mine, which had seized. For a few days, I had to cross rumble-strips to shift to a smaller cog.

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Arctic urban cowboys

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Clear skies and a full week of zeros from the weatherman changes the game. Soaking down jackets from inside-out, sweating inside shoes, and icing neckwarmers in layer after layer of iced breaths are hazards of cold-weather activity. Some lessons from the first week: breathability counts, and down becomes useless without a vapor barrier beneath, and hands and feet can never have too much help when riding a bike in the cold. Gaiters are great, and help keep dusty snow-spray from the front wheel out of my shoes and off my shins. They make me look like a horseman, like Viggo Mortenson in Appaloosa, on a Pugsley; Lael wears a snowboarding helmet and looks like a Power Ranger. In sum, an arctic metal-cowboy and a cycling Power Ranger.

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Plastic-bodied pedals and balaclavas would help the feet and face from freezing when the bank sign says -13F. Other measures may be taken, but measures tend to cost money, unless I can get my hands on a sewing machine. Thinking about stitching up some insulated pogies.
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Note: Gary Blakley, of the seasonally frigid Del Norte, CO suggests these $13 pogies from Amazon, designed for ATV operators.  Local producers include Dogwood Designs, availaible online from Revelate Designs as well as local Alaska bike shops and outdoor stores including REI; Apocalypse Design of Fairbanks manufactures a line of Arctic gear and Bike Toasties, their version of the pogie.

Alaska livin: a wolf in sheep’s clothing

20111213-133006.jpgNearly silent, slow motion: some days, like Monday, are quieted by school closures and a large snowfall, thus, little traffic. The snow insulates the sounds of the city, and conceals the last browned round of thawed and refrozen snow. The city is anew, and at peace– apart from it’s usual, frantic, caffeinated self.

Bike commuting in Anchorage is both heaven, and hell. A day later the roads are again brown, and rutted, and frozen in place. Pugsleys waver in these conditions, sliding sideways from one misshapen rut to another. Here, studded tires would claw through miniscule mountain and valley of ice on: Northern Lights Boulevard, to Denali or Arctic, left on Tudor, which is no better or worse than International Blvd, then right on the Old Seward Highway to my destination. Unfortunately, I was on the Pugsley, which has large volume tires designed for snow. At home, my 1985 Specialized Stumpjumper is wearing the studded tires I desire, but it’s hard to tell which bike to take when the neighborhood is disguised in sheep’s clothing– fresh snow. The neighborhood streets are a padded playground of snowpiles and untracked powder; the fast-paced boulevards of the real world have long since iced over. A 4 inch studded tire sounds sensible, if necessary. I’m working on it: it’s not available commercially but there are some leads on the internet. The tread is barely thick enough to install shallow studs, which are expensive enough to keep me from trying for now.

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Hours past sunset, returning home via the Coastal Trail and the Chester Creek Trail, the snow has been skiied and compacted throughout the day, but the generous footprints of the Endomorph and Larry are still essential to keeping us afloat, and 10 psi keep us comfortable over the now uneven terrain. These conditions are more snow than ice; 2.1″ studded tires would claw and sink.

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The solutions, either in practice or theory: install studs on my extra 3.7″ Endomorph tire, continue riding the two bikes without modification, or (theory) have a single bike with large-not-massive tire clearances like the Surly 1×1 or the Troll that will accept a large, studded tire up to 3 in. That tire would be homemade from a DH style tire (such as the Nokian Gazzolodi, at 1500+ g), and thus, very heavy. The option of owning and maintaining one bike is much simpler, and enticing, except that I don’t own either of the aforementioned frames. A 3″ studded tire would excel in icy, urban riding, and icy, rutted trail riding. It may flounder a bit in fresh snow, but would still outperform a 2″ studded tire in every condition except dry pavement. In short, the Surly Troll continues to be incredibly versatile, excelling at a few things, mostly related to it’s gaping tire clearances.

From a commercial perspective, someome needs to begin manufacturing a 4″ studded tire for fatbikes, and a lightweight 2.5-3.0″ studded tire for modern mtb’s like the Troll.

Monday morning, 7 AM, there were two tracks on the Chester Creek Trail– one pair skis, and one fatbike, with the characteristic Endomorph pattern. We were the third and fourth of the day, past fallen trees, moments before the groomers altered the record kept by the night’s snowfall.

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