The trailer

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When you live under the stars or in a tent for two hundred days a year, you appreciate simple things: the pavilion in a city park, public restrooms, outdoor outlets, free wifi, and a shower.  You’re thinking, “How about a hot meal and a shave”.  Yes, I’m homeless.  I’ve spent the winter under a roof, to which I am grateful.  I’ve found inexpensive rent in Key West and France, Annapolis and Tacoma.  One summer, working as a baker outside Denali National Park, I found this trailer.

Moving out of employee housing saved us several hundred dollars a month and allowed us time away from our work environment.  Above that, the trailer was a beautiful respite from the humdrum lifestyle at Carlo Creek, mile 224 on the Parks Highway.  Actually, Carlo is a mellow place, but the trailer made it feel like a city down there.  Haul trucks whizzing past and tourists with schedules to keep and the daily operations of a restaurant and cabins created a buzz that felt like real life.  The trailer, for $100 dollars a month, was otherworldly.

An old 1960’s camping trailer resting upon cinder blocks, it was the first roof on a riverfront property which has grown to include an outhouse and a two-story cabin.  We had to haul our own water up the hill to the trailer on our bikes, but it came wired with electricity that powereda rice cooker, a lamp, and alarm clock, and a CD player for our small arsenal of discs.  It was the summer of Toots and the Maytals, and Sam Cooke; Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac and Fairport Convention; and plenty of Van Morrison.  Astral Weeks and months, that summer was.

The trailer also came with a leak on the south end near the wood stove, and field mice arrived as soon as we began to stock the pantry.  There never was a nicer, cleaner rodent than a tiny little field mouse.  Aside, I had staked my claim in the vast universe and I would defend my cache against all trespassers.  Mousetraps set with peanut butter and cheese and crumb cake were hidden in the depths of the pantry and after several days experimenting with adhesive nut butter and delectable crumbs, I caught one.  Rather, I killed one.  And then five or six more throughout the summer.  Upon returning to the trailer three years later, one trap had still not been tripped.  The other had ensnared a mouse.  It must have been the last one.

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Lael and I shared a bed measuring thirty-two inches wide, sometimes sleeping head-to-toe.  We awoke to the most spectacular views of the cirque, locally called “the bowl”, between two snowy peaks across the Nenana River, which served as the boundary to Denali National Park.  Dall sheep could be seen on the slopes across the way, and moose were common nearby.  Lael saw a lynx on her quarter-mile bike ride to work at five in the morning.  We fed and housed cycletourists as they passed on the highway, offering them a riverside camp spot and some baked goods from the cafe.  Lemon squares and strawberry-rhubarb coffee cake were the house favorites.  Cass spent a night alongside the river, and two Californian brothers with fishing gear and hip waders on Surly Big Dummys stayed a day, swimming and picnicking.  The Berling brothers wound their way down to Argentina, fishing local waters as they went.  Cass is somewhere atop a volcano in Ecuador, no doubt.

Returning to the trailer after several years was a quiet and thoughtful moment.  With cool temperatures and rainclouds above, I gave thanks once again to having a roof over my head.  And in the morning, with visible breath, I awoke to spectacular views across the Nenana.

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The bottom pane is missing, lending a cool draft all season long.

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A trip to the outhouse starts the day:

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The Alaska Railroad passes across the river.  It’s a treat to be swimming when the tourists chug past at 20 mph, cameras in hand.  “Native Alaskans!”, they must think.  The gravel landing below is the prized camp spot offered to passing cycletourists.

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Even from the outhouse, the views are amazing through swinging saloon-style doors.  Sit and ponder in the morning air, especially before mosquito season arrives.

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Late in the summer, curiosity carried us across the river.  We packed our gear in trash bags and swam the icy waters to the other side; others typically hitch down the road to the nearest bridge and hike seven miles along the railroad tracks.  Only a stone’s throw away, we decided to swim, even if these waters were glacial ice less than fifty miles upstream.  A short steep hike up to the bowl offers a rewarding vista, and a fun amphitheater to explore.  Up there, the snowfields melt into a seasonal glacial lake; sliding down the melted face of the snowfield into ice water is a chilling treat.

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Mile 224 on the Parks Highway– worth a visit.

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Biking to Denali: Trapper Creek and beyond

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Once, twice, or three times a year I get the itch to ride my bike a lot.  Awake in my tent down the Petersville Rd. at ten in the morning, I stretched like a well-rested lioness.  I didn’t have anywhere to be and I wasn’t racing to slip into wet shoes.  I mechanically packed my things and rode away, pushing through the first few snow patches and churning my tires through mud on the all-too new, experimental bike.  Soon, I was pedaling down dry dirt roads, and then pavement.  Faster and faster I rode until a brief coffee and internet stop at the crossroads in Trapper Creek enlivened me.  I almost stopped for the day, but a light tailwind encouraged me further.  The bike is heavy and the day was cloudy, but the wind was in my favor and I wouldn’t miss it.  I know how fortunate a tailwind is to a cyclist.  At first, twenty miles forward, then a break.  Then thirty.  Stop. Lube the chain, regain feeling in a cold, wet right foot.  An exact handful of raisins and six almonds.  Nice to have this new crank.  The broken creaking yellow Race Face crank was driving me crazy.  Then forty.  Then fifty miles without a rest.  And then, at half-past midnight, I had arrived at tomorrow’s destination.

As cold rain had began to fall in the early afternoon, I set into a comfortable gear and found a rhythm, hoping to reach Carlo Creek at mile 224 on the Parks Highway.  At that time, it was still over a hundred miles away.  It was here, at 224, that I had spent a summer in 2009 working as a baker in a cafe.  It is here, at the Panorama Pizza Pub that I could expect a lively scene and some fresh pizza along with some familiar faces past midnight.  Across the creek at McKinley Creekside Cafe I would awake to Raven’s Brew coffee and a traditional breakfast, finishing with a square of strawberry-rhubarb coffee cake.  The cake recipe is from Lael’s family, and it’s legendary along that stretch of highway.  Or I could stop and camp in the rain.  At the thought of the cake, I pedaled.

I pedaled twelve hours to get here, I told them, but nobody really cares.  They shouldn’t.  That’s not why you do these things.  I did recognize some faces at Panorama, and I quickly ordered up three slices and a pitcher.  I found a roof for the night, and wandered in for some coffee and eggs, over easy, at Creekside in the morning.  That’s why you do these things.

This is the greatest distance I have ridden on the Pugsley in a day, and nearly as much as I’d ridden in one day on any bike.  I like to reignite my legs several days into a tour.  It’s a way to remind myself that, “I can do it.  But I don’t have to.”  On this day, it wasn’t about me as much as the bike.  Two hundred and twenty clicks on a snow bike with fenders in the rain.  It’s sort-of a road bike I suppose.  The bike experiment is proving to be a success.

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On the same day, the Alaska Endurance Association and the Alaska Randonneurs held their Denali Highway 200/300K in an out and back format from the Brushkana Campground in three distances from 60K to 300K.  This is the longest gravel event in the state, and seems to be growing with popularity  Here’s a set on flickr: looks like a great time when the sun is shining.  I’m rarely willing to spend money to ride my bike, so I thought my ride was a fair consolation.  I’ll be riding out the Denali Highway soon.

Camping is possible all along the road, including several established campgrounds within Denali State Park.  After Trapper Creek, there aren’t many services until the entrance to the park.  Cantwell has one dusty gas station and Carlo Creek, fourteen miles further (MM 224), is where Panorama Pizza and the Creekside Cafe are found.

One bike for all seasons, Part 2

Schwalbe Big Apple 26×2.35″ on a Surly Marge Lite, a 65mm singlewall rim with cutouts at a featherweight 690g.

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You might have noticed I’m riding a snow bike with smooth tires and drop bars.  The purple Surly Pugsley that got me through a snowy Anchorage winter is now a road bike with really big tires, or a mountain bike with a drop bar and smooth rubber, or a really burly touring bike without, “what are those things called?”.

“Saddlebags?  Oh yes, panniers.”

Is it a mountain bike?  Yup.  A road bike?  Yes.  A touring bike?  Definitely.

These are the questions that will follow me around this summer.

I’m aware that’s it’s a lot to ask of one bike, but I’m asking.  The response so far has been positive.

Schwalbe Big Apple 26×2.35″ on Surly Large Marge.  This is a 36 hole, asymmetrical rim in the double wall DH version, weighing in at 1150g.

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I decided to ride the Pugsley as an experiment.  It is an experiment in multi-functional bike design, but also in the bicycle lifestyle where one “bike” can transport me through a snowy winter, a season of exploration around the continent, and then through the challenges of riding bikes in rural southwestern US and Mexico, on rough tracks and trails.  I’d like to ride this thing in the Sierra Madre and the Copper Canyon, or perhaps the playas and arroyos of Baja.  Perhaps a Baja fatbike and packrafting trip is in the cards.  I want only one bike, but I want to travel without limitation.

It’s hard to leave behind my 1985 Schwinn High Sierra, which I’ve ridden over the last two years of bike touring.  It passes paved miles casually, and excels on most dirt roads.  More rough terrain challenges the bike and rider, but I was riding 1.75″ tires and slightly bigger rubber could have extended the range of the bike, at the expense of the the paved experience.  When I arrived in Alaska this past December, I came prepared with a secondhand Pugsley purchased in Seattle.  A 1985 Specialized Stumpjumper also awaited with a pair of studded tires for icy conditions.  Thus, I had two bikes: a snow bike and an ice bike.  Come summer, and the touring season, I looked for a one-bike solution.  The problem was, I couldn’t stand the thought of leaving the capacity for 4″ tires behind, but riding fat bike tires on the road down to the lower 48 didn’t sound like fun either.  I could ride the Stumpjumper, as I had the High Sierra?  Rather, I thought it would be fun to ride the Pugsley on singletrack later in the summer, in places like Colorado, Utah, and Arizona.  In the Pugsley, I had found a rigid frame that would allow me to explore new places.  But what about the transport phases where miles of paved roads are necessary?  I enjoy riding pavement at times, and a long day in the saddle can easily land you 100 miles closer to a destination, or an interesting trailhead.  Sometimes you just have to get somewhere.

I considered several solutions to “generalize” the functionality of the Pugsley.  Alternatively, I was looking to “optimize” it towards multiple different riding conditions, including: paved road touring, dirt road touring, and eventually, single track or sandy rides on 4″ fat tires.  And if I returned to AK for the winter?  I considered, in theory or in practice, the following modifications and judged their merits especially based on price, convenience and performance:

1) Build 29″ wheels front and rear for an all-road tourer such as the Salsa Fargo.  While 29×2.1-2.3″ tires would take me far, I would build, ship, or buy fat tire wheels later in the summer when I desire the extra suspension and floatation.  I would also have to ship or source fat tires at that time. 

This requires the cost of a new set of wheels, which are not prohibitively expensive on the Pugsley as it uses 135mm hubs all around, unlike the more expensive 170mm hubs on other fat bikes.  Wheels would need to be built or shipped later in the trip, which is complicated and a little costly, especially if the expense comes when I am not working.

Below, as far as I got with 29″ wheels before the obvious complication (and cost) had me looking for other solutions.  The rear wheel used a SRAM 506 hub, which is a quality loose-ball bearing hub with a taller non-drive side flange, which is optimal for dealing with the 17.5mm offset of the Pugsley as it reduces the spoke angle and tension on that side.  I rode this half-fat setup for several weeks with a Schwalbe 29×2.35″ tire in the rear.

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2) Ride fat tires (4″) all summer and avoid pavement.  It’s not impossible to ride pavement on fat tires, but it’s not optimal for long stretches.

Twenty five psi in the Surly Larry or Endomorph tires, or the 45North Husker Du tire make for a better ride on pavement than you’d expect.  It’s a little heavy, but it rolls well.  Still, for the cost of the tires, it’s absurd to wear them out in almost exclusively paved conditions.  It was tempting to retain full fat bike capacity, but I wouldn’t have experienced days of good “road” riding, pushing twenty or thirty miles at a time to roll over a hundred miles in a day, and by the time I reached Montana, my tires would be toast.  Elsewhere, fat tires would be a great excuse to stick to dirt, but 2000 highway miles stand between me and the dirt tracks of the lower 48.

3) RIde fat bike wheels all summer (wide rims, such as 65mm Surly Large Marge or Marge Lite), with a smooth 2.25-2.5″ tire for mixed road riding, including many paved miles on the AlCan Highway.  Buy some fat tires later in the summer, and mount them to the existing wheels.   Sounds simple, but does it ride well?

This solution was a revelation, as most discussions of retrofitting a fat bike for alternative uses focus on 29″ wheels and the available rubber, such as smooth touring tires and 2.1″ knobbies.  For the Surly Pugsley, which has a higher bottom bracket than most fatbikes, the smaller tire does not lower the bike enough to create any issues in use.  Actually, the BB height of a Surly LHT (26 x 2.0″ Schwalbe Big Apple) and a Surly Pugsley with 26×2.35″ Schwalbe Big Apple tires (on 65mm rims) is almost exactly the same.  The Big Apple rides well on pavement and is relatively long-wearing (with a reflective sidewall!); it features enough volume to be capable and comfortable on dirt roads, and opens up some more challenging riding as well.  With these tires, I could ride every place I’ve ever toured before.  The trick: when I decide to ride some Coloradan singletrack or the beaches of Baja, I only need a pair of 4″ fat tires to be riding fully fat again.

A pair of Maxxis 26 x 2.4″ Holy Rollers mounted to Surly Large Marge rims got the ball rolling on this project.  I prefer the Schwalbe Big Apple for mixed terrain which includes pavement.  Medium-wide singlewall rims with cutouts such as the Surly Marge Lite can lighten the bike and make “road” riding on a fatbike more tolerable.

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There is no harm in riding a bike with unused tire clearance– better to have it, than to wish for it.  A large volume tire serves multiple functions: with higher pressures, it rolls well on smooth terrain, but with lower pressure it suspends, and floats and provides traction.  An undersized tire may roll fast on smooth surfaces, but will quiver as the road turns rough.  It is often stated that a narrower tire is a “faster” tire.  This does not hold true when the road turns rough, where a large tire may be faster.

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I’d realized how versatile fatbikes could be earlier this winter.  At the time, my discoveries were focused on the Salsa Mukluk which is better suited to a 29er conversion than smaller 26″ tires for summer trail riding or touring.  It also readily accepts a suspension fork.  See “One bike for all seasons” for my previous thoughts on riding fatbikes all year.

My experience nearly plagiarizes Joe’s decision to ride his Pugsley in South America, despite a perfectly good Surly Long Haul Trucker in waiting.  Discussions of function aside, fatbikes are fun and we’d both hate to travel somewhere fun without them.