Monday, September 5, 2016

Kicking Hippies or what to look for in rubber boots

I have spent a very significant portion of my life in knee high, rubber boots. Sure, there are some Alaskan fisherman that live in them, but I doubt that many people have walked around in rubber boots more than I have.
Growing up in the mountains of NC, black rubber boots were pretty much all we wore all summer long.
Working on dairy and hog operations in NZ and in Kentucky? Black rubber boots.
Field work in in irrigated crop fields. Rubber boots. 
In more recent years, CX races and Boundary Waters trips in October necessitated knee high boots, and my go to was the venerable Burley from Lacrosse. 
Fall is the best time to be in the BWCA. You just need some tall boots for the portages
I have been known to roll with boots to more formal occasions.

Pretty comfortable and plenty warm for MN winter use, The Burley is a great boot. My only gripe with it is that they are heavy and do not give you much traction.
 So it came a a big surprise to me this year when I bought a new pair of rubber boots that really blew me a away.

The Rutmaster RPM is the most comfortable boot I have ever worn. There are made from a Croc like material and have a raised mesh interior that keeps you cool. The biggest plus is how light these boots are. 
the mud stuck in the tread pushes them over the 3.5 lb mark.

Clean, they are less than 3.5 pounds for a pair. Thats half of what my Lacrosse Burleys weigh. When we are scouting irrigated fields we cover between 5-10 miles per day on foot.Light boots mean less hip and knee pain at the end of the day. The RPMs also have a pretty aggressive tread, so you are not sliding around in the mud.
My biggest gripe is that they are camo. 
They are on clearance at Gander Mountain store (not online :( ) for under $100 dollars.
I do not think that they will see much use during the depths of MN winter, but for covering big miles during the summer, fall portages in the BWCA or navigating a sewer tour, these are some pretty great shit kickers.

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Touring with Butch

This past winter, Brent and I hatched a plan to take a week long bike tour leaving from the twin cities and a returning under our own power. We had kicked around some routes but I ended up plotting out a trip up to Duluth and up the North Shore then back down through the Chequamegon. It was a pretty ambitious route by my standards, and it was a learning experience for me, as I have never gone on a bikepacking trip with someone that is touring.
This is a key point. Butch was touring, and was prone to go on 60 minute vision quests while I sit a the cafe or bar in town, wondering where the heck Butch is? Then he shows up with a tale of a Swedish wood carver explaining his craft and lamenting tourists. We drink beers and then proceed. Nothing wrong with it, we just never discussed the the details of how and where we would ride. As such, my mileage expectations were unrealistic (even for me).
Butch built this troll about 10 hours before we started. 1x10 with 2.5 hookworms and slime tubes. He would put some Duluth Pack Panniers on it when we hit Duluth.

I rode a Ventana El Comandante with an ovalized 1x11 drivetrain. Arch Ex with Bontrager rubber. zero flats. Bontrager tires are like the Shimano of the tire world. Not the lightest, most supple or the flashiest. Just high quality and consistent. 
 We left the St Paul on Monday morning and headed out of town on the Gateway Trail, then headed north along the MN side of the St. Croix. 
Redwing Rd. 
Wild River SP. 
Government Rd. 
Ticked off miles until we started to have some storms. Luckily, Zach and Ike at Treasured Haven Farm were kind enough to let us take shelter in their produce washing shed. They deliver organic CSA shares to Minneapolis! Check them out!

After the first series of storms blew through, we jumped back on the bikes and motored into Pine City. Dinner at Chubbys and watched the radar. Decided to seek out some more solid shelter given the nature of the storms that were predicted.

Baseball dugout fit the bill (thanks for the idea Morgan!). We were kept awake for much of the night as storm after storm rolled over us (or maybe it was Butch snoring?). Quite the light show.
It rained like a cow peeing on a flat rock. All night.

In the morning, we rolled into Hinckley for some vittles and it became apparent just how much it rained overnight. The reports started rolling in. Eight inches. Ten inches. Fourteen inches. There was standing water everywhere.

Section roads usually looked like this
The only spot that the rain got the best of the Munger Trail.
Luckily we were taking the Munger Trail north so I was not worried about the water since rail beds tend to be engineered to a higher  standard than roads. This proved true as we hit Willow River. Lots of ATVs using the trail as a means to get from one side of town to another.
Proceeds to crush can on forehead

We blasted our way into Jay Cook SP and hung out by the river with with some locals that had long boarded 9 miles carrying a bottle of Schnapps. GEDs, manufacturing jobs (MN still has them!), and the utility of a good lighter were discussed as we got our Huckleberry Finn on with these dudes.

Butch got skunked in Duluth as Frost River and Bent Paddle were closed, but bought some Panniers at Duluth Pack store while I took a nap by the harbor.  Managed not to run over anyone on the lake side trail. What a mess, from a navigational and transportation standpoint. Once we got north a bit we knew it was time to find some flat ground and get horizontal. Fire. Shore. ZZZZs

The next day, we decided to make it a recreational day. Big tail winds saw us to Gooseberry for a Lake Superior spa day.

 It was like something out of a Hemingway story. All we were lacking was to roast a goat and drink new wine out of a skin.

Instead we ate sardines and drank #merica.
Refreshed, we rolled on to Silver Bay via the Gitchigumee and some ATV trails.


Deathrider Chalet put a roof over our heads for the evening (thanks Josh!). Did some recon and route finding and decided to curtail our northerly route in favor of some south shore exploring.
What a dump.....Seriously this is by the solid waste facility

The next day we rolled all the way back to Duluth so Butch could hit up Frost River and Bent Paddle. I also got to witness this pokemon thing. Every schmuck with a phone was standing on the bike path looking at their phone like a zombie. Not sure how I feel about this.
Upon exiting Frost River, I was rushed and embraced by a wild eyed, bearded man, who turned out to be ALVIN! Alvin is a fellow Nebraskan that works for OB up in Ely, and we got to also meet his fiancee, Alexia, over beers and Russ Kendall smoked fish and cheese. Divine.

Sated, we rolled the Dicky Bong (I can't make this stuff up!) across the St Louis river and into Superior, WI. Tri-County Corridor to Brule. Exhaustion set in and we ended up sleeping under a sign that said, "No Overnight Camping". (Sorry)

The next morning we rolled the dice, and let Google pick a cycling route from Brule to Danbury. Holy Buckets! If I had been on a road bike I would have wanted to kill myself, but 2.4's were the ticket. We destroyed 60 miles of ATV trail and sand roads in an incredibly remote part of northern WI. I saw two bears, some Badgers, and all sorts of critters.

Once we hit Gordon (its on the way to your vacation?) we laid in some provisions at the only store in town. We set up shop on the bench out front of the store, and served as a constant source of olfactory amusement for tourists with Illinois plates. I would have killed to have had a knife and a over-ripe durian at this point. Instead we ate twizzlers and drank Bent Paddle. It was 10am.
Telling you man, Hemingway.

Last section of the sand roads was pretty tough as the head wind and heat started to ramp up. Finally popped out on Hwy 35 and headed for the first shady looking (literally and figuratively) bar for some relief.
I feel like taking a moment to point something out. In Wisconsin small towns, all places that serve food are bars. The only establishments that only serve food are either schools or daycare centers. So when I say we stopped at the bar, I mean that we also got food with our drinks. Don't want ya'll getting the wrong idea.

From Danbury, we Gandy Danced our way to Luck before exhaustion set in. Crashed in trailside shelter knowing that we had a 20 mile pull to get to Watershed Cafe in Osceola. In the AM I was a man on a mission. Raged down the Gandy then cruised "S" into Osceola. Hit Watershed right after the doors opened. Downed liter of coffee, double stack of waffles (with real maple syrup!), eggs, hashbrowns, toast and Sausage. Fact. Best 20 dollars you can spend. You are free to disagree with me, but you will still be wrong.
Then it was back to the cities. All told, we knocked out over 500 miles in 6 days. Had a great time exploring this area. Here are a few takeaways should you consider a similar trip:

  • Start in Hinkley. It cuts 2 days of gratuitous travel time off your trip, and you still get to experience all of the Munger Trail which is SWEET! 
  • Roll the widest tire your bike will clear. Always.
  • Don't drink crappy beer.
  • We never paid to camp anywhere, but this comes with its own set of perils. You will setup camp in the dark and be on the road as soon as the sun is up (unless you want that vagrancy/trespassing ticket for instant skid row cred). I rarely spend money on lodging unless its really crappy out and it benefits my mental health. 
  • Don't be all racer Boi like me. Find a partner that will get you to stop and smell the roses....or at least drink all the local beer.

Sunday, February 14, 2016

BWCA Late Season

October 1st is the best time of the year. It marks free range in the BWCA. You still have to fill out a permit, but its at the entry point and there are no fees this time of year. It essentially means that you have a month to look at the weather, and pick a stretch that looks like nice weather and then head up.
It also means that there are no bugs and not many people.
The downside, its pretty chilly, the fishing is marginal, and you have to portage in knee boots.

The Stampers, the Johnsons, and the Brohaughs and a pack of 6 man-children set up base camp not too far past Lake 1 in Ely. And for 3 days, did nothing but cut wood, cook, eat, and make merry.
This is that story in images:

"Blue Steel, Griffin, Blue Steel"

Griffin is stoked on the camp vibes
Since it was pretty chilly we spent a lot of time around the stove and feeding the fire.

Butch in his element

I also have admit that the bushcraft of Paul Brohaugh blew me away. That dude camps on a whole other level. I felt like a tenderfoot several times. If nothing else, he showed me the magic of cornmeal in pancake batter. 

We had a south facing site so we caught some warm afternoon rays and we sheltered from the wind. Not quite "guns out" weather but morale stayed high despite some snow at night.

They get it from their mothers

I don't even know what to say.

One must have a minstrel with a repertoire of several chords 

Never disturb the wildlife when feeding.

A few observations about gear and camping with the progeny:
  • Get a big Boat. We rented a 3 person boat from Ely Outfitters (Thanks to Kristen and Corey Larsen, We guided together back in the early 2000's, and now they live in Ely year round). We put all the gear, two boys and a dog in it snuggly.
  • Make sure that there is plenty of food stuffs for grazing. Carb'ed man-children are happy man-children 
  • Bring several saws and axes. When its cold, you will spend much time gathering firewood, and we probably would have fished a lot more if we had cut our firewood gathering time in half. 
  • Have a large tarp that you can rig into a covered kitchen should the weather become inclement.
  •  Don't be afraid to let the man-children maraud freely. We were on an island so there was not too much trouble they could get into. We kept the smallest in a pfd any time he was near water.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Chequamegon Deadhorse

This was a route that Patrick Ross cooked up that I think deserves to be acknowledged. Patrick is another one of the wonderful people that I have gotten to know through Gravel Conspiracy, and I think of him as a good friend. Its a gem of a 2 day bikepacking route that starts and ends at the OO trailhead just east of Seeley, WI and is a tour of gravel and ATV trails in the Chequamegon National Forest on the last weekend before the trails open to ATVs in the spring. Patrick has the event on FB so if you search for it there you will find it. Its definitely worth it.
I drove up to OO trailhead after work and slept in the back of my car. The next morning I saw Dallas Wynne and we had breakfast
I even brought my own country ham

All saddled up and ready to roll (Lto R: Dallas Wynne, Joshua Stamper, Keith Kowalsky, Patrick Ross) 

Golf course in the middle of  no where. Only John Waller will grasp the significance of why I stopped here, and what I intended to do

It was pretty cool to be able to see the CNF without it being either a tunnel of green or a sheet of ice. Photo cred: Patrick
We stopped in Clam lake at about the 40 mile point to lay in some more supplies, and to have lunch (ie pilfer salt and pepper for dinner), then we boosted.  And by supplies, I mean that I bought a 14 oz boneless ribeye, a tallboy of Bud, and a pound of twizzlers. 
Where I discovered that all my chainring bolts were loose.
Last 40 miles for the day ticked of easily. Then it was time for a Chippewa  river swim to freshen up, and prepare dinner

Main course that night. D-Dub lounges like a lion on the savannah. 
In a bivy, down by the river!

Don't call me, I will call you.
 The next morning we rolled about 10 miles to head into Winter for some vittles.
WE got to Wendy and Joes before they opened so I changed a slow leak. 
D-Dub revelling in the glory of the day.
 Then the day got a little more interesting. we navigated some blowdown and forded the creek. I would later create a strava section through here called "cackles maniacally"
Dallas is pumped

Cold therapy

Gratuitous WI logging shot

I totally could have done this trip without the backpack.
 I heartily encourage you to checkout this route. Like fine wine, its best shared with friends.

Monday, January 18, 2016

Yurts at Afton State Park or "Lets shiver in a rustic manner"

So this past week Butch mentioned that he had reserved one of the yurts at Afton State Park, which is located about 15 miles from our house in eastern Minnesota. This caught my attention because I have been looking for some activities to do with the boys during the winter. I was unable to find any useful information about the yurts on the DNR website other than:
  • They were available to use in the winter for $55/night
  • The yurt sleeps 7 and is heated by a woodstove
  • Firewood was supplied
  • You can't cook inside the yurt
Then Sunday morning Butch texts me that it is too cold to take the kids, and that he was cancelling his reservation. So, I just had to go investigate further, to see if these yurts were deep winter habitable by normal people.
I stayed in Gray Fox

Fire that puppy up

Temp inside when I started the fire

Temp outside when I started the fire

The power of positive thinking decreases in a linear fashion as you move away from the equator.
 When I got to the Yurt at about 3pm, the temp inside was about 14F. I immediately started a raging fire in the woodstove, and then went for a hike down along the St. Croix. I got back around 6pm, and the yurt had only warmed up to about 25F. Once I switched out my boots for down booties I was pretty comfortable. I was wearing a mid wt Capilene base layer under wranglers, a wool shirt and an insulated vest.
Took a hike while the yurt warmed....or tried to warm.

I had Cake lyrics stuck in my head

The day before I made a Cassoulet, and I heated (outside!) it up over a double boiler using a Vargo alcohol stove.

Nighttime falls on the hall of the dirtbag king

Before I went to bed I managed to get the yurt up to about 35 degrees F
 The Yurt was well apportioned. 2 sets of twin bunk beds, and another full futon bunk bed let these yurts sleep 7, but it would get pretty tight. All the furniture had that rough cut, northwoods style to it. The mattresses were comfortable, and while its was really cold, I slept very well in a -20F down bag. I did get up once in the middle of the night to pee and stoke the fire. (Pro tip: never go winter camping without a pee bottle)
While I worked pretty steady to keep the fire stoked, I was never able to get the temp in the yurt above 35F. Maybe if I was going to be here multiple  days in milder weather I could get the temp up into the comfort range, but it seemed a struggle when it was this cold and I was the only person there. 
I should also point out that the woodstove is about half the size of anything that I have ever seen or used. It was cute, but failed to heat the space. I was sort of surprised to see that they insulated the flue pipe almost as soon as it exited the stove, which usually is a significant source of heat exchange with wood stoves. I imagine that this has something to do with safety, but I was too cold to really care. 
This morning the temp in the yurt was about 10 F. Note the frozen water jug. I had to sleep with my camera batteries, and my work laptop was not happy when I started working on irrigation BMPs 

Which was slightly better than the temp outside.
 After I heated water and got the fire going again, I went for a hike on the St Croix
looks like there was some high water at some point this winter.

Hog drops

St. Croix heading north
Final thoughts: These yurts are a really cool, slightly more rustic, way to enjoy Afton State Park. My main goal was to ascertain at what level would kids (and parents) be comfortable staying in these structures during the depths of winter in Minnesota. Given the fact that I was only able to bring temps in the yurt about 40 degrees above outside temp, I would say that the outside temperature "comfort limit" is about 20F. If we could get the temp inside up to about 60 F I would totally take the boys here.
That being said, if you are well prepared and want a bit of adventure, these yurts are a ton of fun  when the mercury falls below zero. Here are a few tips:

  • Down booties or some other warm footwear. The yurts have no subfloor insulation. 
  • Liner gloves and mittens 
  • Bring a foam pad to kneel on while you stoke the fire. The wood that DNR provides is so dry and the firebox is so small you will be spending a lot of time down in front of it. 
  • Pee bottle: its a 80 yard walk to the vault toilet 
  • Have winter rated sleeping bag
  • Make sure everyone has a head lamp, since there is no power or lights in the yurts. Gas lanterns are not allowed.
  • You have to cook outside so focus on meals that just require boiling water and don't require you to stand out there tending it. Bring thermoses or some way to store hot water.
  • You are gonna need a cooler to keep things from freezing.
  • Bring your classic skis. the yurts are ski in and ski out.