Spring Training

It’s barely over a week away now.  The Spring North Cycling Tour looms, and yet I’m still struggling to get time on my bike.  So far I’ve logged a grand total of 157 miles.  Normally, I do that week in, week out.  And on tour that represents just 3 days of cycling.

We’ve never toured this early in the season before.  Usually by the time we set out on a trip, we have had months of training behind us and it feels like a natural extension of our summer’s activity.  And we are already well acclimated to the weather.

First bike ride of 2015Not so this time.  With temperatures bouncing between the 20’s and 40’s here in the Northland, I have yet to complete a ride without frozen toes.  So when I look at the forecast for Johnson City TX, which we expect to reach within a few days of starting our trip, I find it hard to conceive of readings that climb into the upper 70’s and 80’s.  I will be going on faith when I pack my short sleeve jerseys and leave behind my heavy layers.  Intuitively I know I shouldn’t be needing them, but it sure is hard to let go at this stage.

Stony PointSpring is a relative term.  On the North Shore just having the ice recede is a victory, even if the snow still clings in the shadows and the wind off the lake rarely registers above the freezing mark.  The thought of wildflowers blooming is still a foreign concept. But very appealing.

We have made a few adjustments to our gear for this season.  To date, we’ve mostly traveled in late summer or fall with the benefit of remarkably dry weather.  With the very real likelihood of spring showers, we’ve made a concession and added fenders to our bikes.  I hated to mar the stark features of my bike with such mundane accessories, but ultimately decided that comfort ruled over style.  Drier feet are worth it.  We’ve also swapped out our down sleeping bags for ultra-light thinner models.  Now I’m really counting on the warmer climes to moderate the night time temps.

There’s no doubt the start of this trip is going to be a shock to the system.  The sudden accumulation of miles.  A sharp spike in temperature.  And a vast blossoming of color in our world.  Despite our lack of training for all this, I’m sure I can take it.  Bring on the Spring North Tour!

An Aurora Hunter’s Wife

I’ve gotten used to living with an Aurora Hunter.  The constant monitoring of atmospheric indicators.  The blips and beeps that go off night and day from apps informing him of favorable conditions.  Flinging around mysterious terms like Kp index, solar wind speed, Bz and coronal mass ejection.  And the nocturnal trips out into the dark and cold.  All in search of Northern Lights.

It’s a lot like going to estate sales.  The ads sound really good, and you’re sure you’re going to find some real treasures.  But the reality is many of the sales are duds with nothing of interest.  Then just when you think you can’t stand to walk through one more crowded house crammed with odd stuff, you hit a gem – a true winner.  And all those fruitless trips were worth it just for this one.

I’ve gotten good at sleeping through most of this.  So good that two nights ago I had no idea that Rich’s alerts went off around 2:00am, pulling him out of bed and out into the night.  It wasn’t until shortly after my alarm went off at 6:00am that I heard him – returning.  And this time he was victorious.  “Oh Wow” were the first words out of his mouth.  The rays were dancing around the sky and he could even see the reds with his own eyes.  Pretty impressive, and I admit to feeling a twinge of envy.  To be fair, he did text me with a description and lot of exclamation points, but I slept through that bleep as well.

With promises of another night of auroral activity, I suited up in all my long underwear and winter gear to go along this time.  The word was to get out early, and it was good advice.  After driving an hour to a remote lake with a good view away from any city glow, we could already see faint green spires shooting into the sky even in the fading light of the sunset.  The darker the sky got, the more aurora lights we could see.  By 9:30 the lights were emanating from a full semi-circle around us, spreading well up into the sky.  The best part was when the most brilliant lights started on the right and unfurled above the horizon.  It was easy to see them advance across the sky above the lake, twisting and growing as they illuminated the night.

Rich Northern-Lights-1

Photo by Rich Hoeg

Naturally Rich was out with his camera, his passion being to capture the magic.  Thinking I had plenty of time for that later, I merely watched.  It was liberating to just take in the lights, to be able to look all around the sky at the various components of the light show and the interplay between the columns of light.  Later when it became clear that it was the peak of the display, I wished I had been prepared to photograph it.  But then again, I would have missed much of the drama.

Northern LightsBy the time I did set up my tripod and camera, the lights were dimming.  No longer did we have the deep green hues and movement.  But it was still beautiful.  Shortly after I took a few test shots, the color began to fade.  Surprisingly, the resulting photos had some merit.  It helps that the camera captures more color than I can see.

We lingered for about another hour, but the lights dwindled to a dull white glow.  Although the indicators were still quite positive, the reality was that the show had ended.  It never did reach the pinnacle that it did the previous night, but that’s the nature of the Northern Lights.  Nothing is ever guaranteed.

I know enough now that I will probably miss some of those spectacular displays. I just don’t have the persistence to act on every alert.  But Rich does, and if I get lucky in choosing when to accompany him I will likely see some pretty good Northern Lights, like last night.  Such is the life of an Aurora Hunter’s wife.

Cycling…in the Pink

Every long distance cycling trip we take starts with a laundry list of detailed preparations.  Route selection alone can take months.  After all, half the fun is pondering the options and researching a variety of potential destinations.  Once that is settled, a map is produced and we move on to checking out sightseeing, lodging options and local specialties.  The final push includes gathering our gear, making sure everything is in tip top shape (including ourselves) and checking off each item on our packing list.

But we’re still not ready to go.  The last essential piece is Marketing.  What would a tour be without a distinctive name?  a logo?  and of course, matching jerseys?  There’s no mistaking our mission when we’re out on the road, and that is no accident.  Our shirts say it all.

This shameless bit of of self-promotion actually contributes a lot to the trip.  Somehow our jerseys make us approachable.  Just sporting a blatant advertisement for our journey invites questions, from the random query at a rest stop to swapping fascinating stories over breakfast in a café.  We’ve even had folks ask how they can sign up for the tour!

This year the name came fairly quickly.  Starting in the south we’re following the spread of the warm weather, hence Spring North.  The logo was an obvious choice.  Seeing the bluebonnets of Texas in bloom will be a highlight of this trip, so a blue flower won hands down.  And the jerseys, well, let’s just say we picked an eye-catching color.

Now one might naturally assume we’d have blue jerseys to go with the theme.  But this color maven complained that we’d done blue too many times already.  I need some variety in my cycling apparel.  Little did I know that when Rich mockingly said “how about pink?” that he was serious enough to carry it through.

I should have known better. Back whenRich and Erik Super Nerds in Pink our son was on a Lego League team, they chose the name “Super Nerds in Pink.”  Being a supportive coach who was anxious to motivate his team, Rich promised the boys that he’d let them spray paint his hair pink if they made it to the state tournament.  Well, the boys delivered and Rich made good on his pledge.  A precedent was set.

Today a package came – our custom jerseys had arrived.  Tearing into the bag, we pulled out our prizes.  Yes, they’re pink all right.  We’d better like them, we ordered two each.  Wear one, wash one – that means we can always be in uniform.  There will be no missing us this year.  We’ll be the folks cycling in the pink.Spring North jerseys

Instant Spring

At first it was hard to believe the thermometer.  And to overcome the months-long habit of layering on the outdoor clothes.  After two days of sweltering through my run with too many too heavy clothes, however, it was finally sinking in.  It really was warm out!

With temperatures well below zero just days ago, and beautiful cross-country ski conditions still a vivid memory, we can be forgiven our inability to grasp the sudden change in season.  But it didn’t take long for all of Duluth to head outdoors to enjoy the transformation.  And I love watching the parade.

The Lakewalk is virtually a highway of pedestrians.  Dog walkers, high school track teams, runners and baby strollers are in abundance in colorful garb.  Nobody seems to mind sloshing through the inevitable puddles or crossing the streams that flow over the pavement.  The faces I pass are all smiles.

Brighton Beach is populated with folks of all ages, taking in the rapidly shrinking ice formations on the lake.  Close to shore there are still remainders of the ice shards that were once piled so high, now surrounded by watery pools on top of the rapidly melting ice.  Further out, the ice is turning darker as it thins.  Plenty of ice houses attest to the fishermen’s belief that it is still viable.  But you’ll never find me venturing out there.

Brighton Beach melting iceOpen water is rapidly advancing toward Duluth.  While Lake Superior reached over 90% ice coverage just a few weeks ago, it opened up quickly with the wind and sun.  The edge of the ice field has now retreated all the way down to Brighton Beach.

Last week the thought of the Coast Guard ice breaker beginning its duty on Monday seemed outlandish.  By the time we saw her out plowing through the ice, it seemed perfectly natural.  One could already imagine spotting boats out on the horizon heading for the Aerial Bridge.

At 57 degrees this afternoon, I just North Shore ice melthad to hop on my bike and head up the North Shore.  I was hardly alone.  Cyclists were whizzing up and down the Scenic Highway, exchanging friendly waves and nodding.  Sure the shoulders were still full of gravel, but it was a small price to pay for the vast pleasure.  Like the rest of them, I too was grinning and loving it.

Of course, everyone knows this is Duluth.  Winter isn’t over until it’s over.  But I did happen to stop in a ski shop this afternoon, and was startled to find the wall of cross country skis barren and empty.  All put away to make room for bicycles and other summer gear.  It was instant spring in there too.

 

Cyclists eager to Spring North

There’s a feeling of spring in the air today.  Funny how temperatures just above freezing along with some welcome sunshine can feel so balmy here in the Northland.  It’s enough to start one’s brain dwelling on flowers, wearing shorts and of course…  cycling!  Knowing this blip of warmth is just a tease here in Duluth, we’ve taken measures to find true spring instead.

Announcing the Spring North cycling tour for 2015!  The idea is to head straight south, searching out warmth and blooms in the heart of Texas.  From there, we will work our way back north, as spring warms the adjoining states throughout the month of April.

Once again, we are usingSpring North Tour map Amtrak and the $10 charge for taking our bikes on board to give us a one-way trip.  Leaving our car in St. Louis, we’ll board the train and spend the night in a sleeper car, arriving in Dallas the following morning.  After spending Easter weekend with my brother and his wife, we plan to set off from Granbury, Texas and head south to the Texas hill country.  Our hopes are to catch the Texas Bluebonnets in bloom.  Rich has been talking about this for a couple years now, so fingers crossed we get the timing right.

From there we swing back north, traveling through the Ozark Mountains in Oklahoma, Arkansas and Missouri.  We will complete our journey along the Katy Trail, which follows the Missouri or “Big Muddy” River right back into St. Louis again.  In all, about 1,500 miles.

The timing of this trip presents a bit of a challenge for us northerners.  No opportunity to train!  If we’re lucky, we may get a day or two on our bikes if the temperature spikes in the next few weeks.  Otherwise, we will be training as we go.  It’s not our fitness level that we’re concerned about – cross-country skiing has kept us in shape through the winter.  But without any time in the saddle beforehand, that first week could be a bit sore on the behinds until we get used to cycling again.  But we have a remedy for that too.

This bikSpring North Tour designe tour does not have a solid end date.  Although we can expect to complete the mileage by early May, we have no firm commitments requiring a timely return home.  So we have the option of starting off with lower mileage, taking things more slowly or doing unplanned detours along the way.  We’ve never been very good at veering from the original plan before, but there’s a first time for everything.

Our jerseys are ordered, the train tickets purchased and bikes tuned up for the journey.  It’s still all a bit hard to conceive while there’s still ample snow on the ground.  But we’re banking on warm weather in the south, and looking forward to Springing North.

Super Silent Sports

I love the term “silent sports.”  It embodies what I treasure most about outdoor activities.  Human powered, surrounded by nature, testing one’s physical strength and endurance, going the distance.  My day isn’t complete without an hour or more spent engaged in this pursuit.

Lester new snow 2When the snow fell yesterday, I couldn’t wait to get out in it.  Six inches of fluffy new powder lay on the ground, and I knew the ski trails would not yet be groomed.  But for once I actually preferred it that way.  Admittedly, I had new waxless classic skis I wanted to try out, but I was also anxious to just get out in the deep new snow.

Lester new snow 1Cross-country skiing undoubtedly qualifies as a silent sport.  But skiing the untamed fresh snow brings it to the pinnacle of silent.  Normally my skis would swish over the groomed trail with a satisfying sound that testified to a long glide.  My poles would make squeaky complaints as they pierced the snow and angled against the crust until they were released for the next plant. Natural sounds, yes, but noisy in their own way.

The fresh layers of snow muffled all those sounds.  Those that had skied before me were long gone, leaving only a vague trace.  My skis slid quietly through the downy snow and although I made slow progress over the hidden tracks it was deeply satisfying.  There was no need to hurry, no urge to push to the max, no impulse to get in a good workout.  Just plowing through the snow was enough.  My poles too were muted as they stabbed the soft snow, gaining just enough purchase to help propel me forward.

The woods lining the trails were equally muffled.Snow shadow  The pine boughs were layered with snow and the ground under the trees was blanketed by the snowfall.  Any noise I managed to make was immediately absorbed by my surroundings, as if it had never existed.  It was a world shrouded in stillness.

All it took was six inches.  Half a foot of fresh white snow to transform a silent sport into a super silent one.  I relished every bit of it.

 

 

 

Backyard Skiing

My faith in winter has been restored.  After weeks – no months – of brown trails I found it hard to maintain my enthusiasm for cross-country skiing.  Sure, we could drive to find enough snow for skiable trails, but that wasn’t the point.  I was used to walking out the door with my skis, sauntering up and over the bridge and skiing off into the woods.  The lights for night skiing seemed to mock me each time I saw them shining through the trees in the evenings or early mornings.

Lester Amity Trails 1Lester Amity Trails 2All it took was a 5″ snowfall to set things right again.  It was enough for the city groomers to ply the trails for the first time all winter.  February 10 has to be a record.  Since then we’ve been graced with light snowfalls that have continued to renew the trails.

The first time I ventured out on the trail, I could feel it.  That sense of well being.  Of gliding over the snow in Lester Amity Trails 3our own woods.  Every turn was familiar and I took pleasure in passing my favorite spots along the way.  The steep hills were still a challenge, and the long downhill on the way back brought on its requisite chill.

Now I remember why I like cross-country skiing.  Getting outside on the snow.  Relishing the silence of the woods.  Pushing hard to go up and riding back down.  Feeling the skis glide across the snow.  Being the first one out on fresh corduroy.  The brisk air on my face.  The toe warmers glowing in my boots to ward off the cold.  And if I’m lucky, feeling the warmth of the sun shining down.

Granted, conditions aren’t always perfect.  There are those days so cold that my skis forget how to glide.  And my fingers freeze soon after I begin skiing.  At times the trail gets worn down from all the skiers, turning hard and crusty, begging to be regroomed.

Yet desLester Amity Ski Trail signpite any drawbacks, it’s still “our” ski trail.  And I’ll keep going back to ski.  After all, it’s right in our backyard.