To Build a Fire – Part 1

A little over 2 weeks from now and I’ll be heading off to Northern Minnesota for a little fun in the sun at the Arrowhead 135!  Here’s a tale of woe and misery that I wrote after my first experience doing the race in 2010. I’d like to think I’ve come a long way since then:

“He was a newcomer in the land and this was his first winter. The trouble with him was that he was without imagination. He was quick and alert in the things of life, but only in the things, and not in the significances… Such fact impressed him as being cold and uncomfortable, and that was all. It did not lead him to meditate upon his frailty as a creature of temperature, and upon man’s frailty in general, able only to live within certain narrow limits of heat and cold; and from there on it did not lead him to the conjectural field of immortality and man’s place in the universe… ” Jack London, To Build a Fire

I couldn’t help but laugh. I had pulled off to the side of the snowmobile trail I was riding just south of Vermillion Lake in northern Minnesota to take a piss. Gingerly leaning my bike up against the nearest stunted tree in the frozen swamp in which I had stopped, I stepped away to take care of business. Snowflakes danced in the beam of my headlamp to the throb of my pulse as the chill of night enveloped me, a chill that only fatigue and below zero temperatures can bring in the stillest of night. Aaah relief, sweet relief. Without warning, a great white WHUMPF filled the air and I was completely covered in snow. The snow that had collected in the upper branches of the tree I had leaned my bike against had let loose in one fell swoop. This was not good. Snow practically covered my frozen face. It had found its way down my neck… more alarmingly, it had also worked its way into the open fly of my pants. Though it had been a long day on the bike, this was not as refreshing as it might sound.

So there I stood in the Minnesota wilderness with a crotch full of snow, furiously blinking my eyes trying to clear the snow from them like a psychotic chipmunk who had just downed an entire pot of French roast. The main lesson of Jack London’s classic short story “To Build a Fire” immediately jumped to mind: Be careful where you build your fires, figurative or otherwise.

Why was I whizzing in the middle of a frozen Minnesota swamp in the gloom of a winter’s night? Well, about 35 hours and 127 miles earlier I had toed the start line in International Falls, MN with 100 other bikers, skiers and runners in an attempt to finish the Arrowhead 135, a point to point race that ends near the town of Tower a few hours by car to the south. A self supported event, participants are required to carry a minimum of 15 lbs of survival gear as well as finish with a minimum requirement of calories and fuel. Some crazies actually run this sucker on foot while pulling a sled…yikes. Being of mostly sound mind and marginally able body, I was racing my bike – a Surly Pugsley. More importantly, I was finally starting to have a little fun.

Technically this was a race, but the only race for me was against myself and the elements. I was in it to finish, nothing more – hopefully with all of my digits intact. Feeling the snow beginning to melt on my neck, I passed a few bemused moments wondering how the wolves in this area were going to react to my territorial marking.  I imagined them running along, noses to the ground then halting immediately with a whimper as if to say “sheesh this guy is really dehydrated and needs to do a better job with his fluid intake if he wants to ride well” before running in the opposite direction with tails between their legs. I removed the excess snow from my crotch, zipped up and pedaled on… only 8 more miles to go. At this point I could finally afford to laugh at my mistakes… a day earlier it had been a much different scenario.

The race had begun just after 7 AM. Clustered patiently like caribou before migration, an anonymous bull startled our herd with a sarcastic “hey it’s 7:03, can we go? It’s cold out here”. Rising above the nervous laughter that followed, a voice from the crowd replied “yup” and away we went. We had received our migration signal. I followed the 52-strong snowbike herd out onto the snowmobile trail that runs through the center of town, then turns south toward a vast expanse of wilderness.

International Falls is a “company town”.  As we rode into the predawn, the omnipresent paper mill spewed an antediluvian broth of union fired fumes into the calm morning sky.  A brief moment of deja vu ensued as during my college years I had lived for a while in a similar place: Old Town, ME.  Small communities like this that are tied to their lifeline of one major employer dot the landscape of Maine and I have always found their forthright industrial dignity refreshing in a way.  24 hours a day they continue to hiss and moan the last gasps of the industrial age in America as our economy shifts from producer to consumer.  They are a dying breed.

Of course the term “refreshing” can only be used if the wind is blowing the other direction… if you’ve ever experienced the olfactory delight of a paper mill at full throttle you know exactly what I mean.  From experience I can tell you that on a dead calm winter morning you can smell a town like Rumford, ME from at least 30 miles away, and you never wonder if there are rose bushes flowering somewhere.

The start time temperature was -21 deg F, a typical wintertime low for International Falls. While every race and every ride (or sometimes even just getting up off the couch to go out and ride) can be a battle against oneself, this particular ride was a little different than what I’ve become accustomed to. The cold can be deadly in this part of the world. Jack London had been on my mind from the very start. International Falls prides itself on being the self described “ice box of the nation” and temperatures have been known to plummet to near -60 deg in this region. I considered myself lucky it was so warm. The reality of the situation was I would not have started if the temperatures had dropped below -35 deg at the start.  I just did not have enough experience with such temperatures and that was the line I had drawn in the snow. It’s important to establish and recognize one’s limits.

The first 8 miles or so of the race were almost dead flat. Immediately my bike began to squirm and I sensed the air pressure in my tires was low. I had been forced to keep my bike in my motel room the night before and the tire temperatures had not had time to match the outer air temperature until right after the start. The end result of that massive drop in “T” on the other side of the “P” in the ideal gas equation found me a few psi short of a full load despite my best attempts to calculate it in my head the night before. Meh. I was never that good at math (probably why I became an engineer instead of a physicist) so I stopped to pump up the massive 3.7 inch Endomorphs on the Surly. The herd immediately passed me by for the most part except for a few stragglers.  With them I rode the remainder of the race, our eyes ever vigilant for wolves.

I had built my own fire for snow biking some time ago by reading the exploits of those who have competed in the big Alaskan races: the Curiaks, Petervarys and Stamstads (among others). Not only are these guys great athletes but I can only assume that they are mentally as tough as nails. I am a poser in this world, a complete neophyte with a fat tired bike that works a desk job in an area of the country with a climate as benign as a Mormon at the door with a handful of pamphlets. It is one thing to read about something and think you can do it, but it’s quite another to get out in the cold and actually go do it. These races are about more than just riding a bike and experience is key. It’s tough to replicate cold in Southern California, and I hoped my vague remembrance of it from my younger years would see me through.

I began to embrace the cold and settle into my ride. I was wearing my insulated Camelback under my outer shell in order to keep it from freezing so I needed to unzip my jacket in order to drink. Each time I did I noticed a few drips of water from the bite valve but thought nothing of it as I zipped my jacket up. The apprehension I had felt at the beginning of the ride began to melt away and I settled into an easy, sustainable pace.

I enjoy falling into the rhythm of riding, eating, drinking and repeating on long rides. It has become second nature to me. The rhythm began to flow and I fell into pace with the scenery of the northern woods I was passing through. Unlike the “in your face” beauty of California with its dramatic relief and range, Northern Minnesota must be absorbed through every pore, digested and exhaled into her frigid air as frost in order to appreciate her subtleties. The angle of the light, so low this time of year, glances off the boughs of the firs that struggle to remain upright with their burdens through the coldest of nights. The sunlight is soft and diffuse as it filters through the jagged shards of ice that entomb each tree in a wonderfully coexistent dichotomy. The screech of my tires at these cold temperatures continued to rise and fall to the drumbeat of my boots on the pedals as I pounded the crystalline trail. I was beginning to fully appreciate the beauty of Minnesota. The sun was on my face and I half closed my eyes at its warmth like a cat in the sun after a meal.

As I reached down to pull my balaclava off of my nose, all the good vibrations of my morning idyll ended so abruptly that I jumped backward on my bike seat. A torrent of water was pouring out of my jacket and down the front of my pants. I jammed the brakes on and practically jumped off the bike as if I was on fire at below zero temperatures. The bite valve had come off my Camelback tube and most of my 100 oz of water was now instantly freezing into a solid sheet of ice up against my body on the inside of my shell. Things were about to get interesting as my “frailty as a creature of temperature” was exposed just 25 miles into the race. I had built my first ill-advised fire.

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