Shakedown: Reacquainting myself with winter roads (selfie included) - Slightly North of Sanity - CycleBlaze

Shakedown: Reacquainting myself with winter roads (selfie included)

It would be foolish to step off a plane in Inuvik in March and start pedalling north without first testing my gear in proper winter conditions. I'm familiar with proper winter conditions--I know that -30 C can be reasonably comfortable if I'm moving, but that -40 C is pushing it (yeah, I'm name dropping with temperature; you'd do it too if you knew -40 BEFORE WINDCHILL).

In other words, I know enough about extreme winter conditions to not screw around with untested equipment.

This gives me a perfect excuse to spend a week in Yellowknife, Northwest Territories.

Located on the shore of Great Slave Lake, Yellowknife was founded on gold and still clings to its last shred of frontier spirit, due to the eccentricities of both the climate and anyone who wants to live in such a place.

In Yellowknife, the city marks the snowmobile and pedestrian routes across this lake in the middle of town.
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During the summer, it is a place of rock, water, light, and swarms of bloodthirsty insects. But in March, the lakes are frozen, snowmobiles roam the streets, and swarms of tourists (there for the northern lights) abound. I saw a guy wearing shorts at -25 C, and several ravens tenaciously clinging to a moving car, one other flying behind. Then there were the ptarmigan, puffy balls of white feathers that like to hang out on the snow-covered streets, this defeating the whole purpose of camouflage.

I was supposed to join a group of people for the weekend at a wall tent with a woodstove. I was going to bike out on an unofficial ice road and then find some way to haul my bicycle and gear the last 2km to the tent.

Of course, it didn't quite work out that way. The first part of the ride out of town was slow, as I got used to carrying a load on snow, but steady. It was snowing, so when I turned onto the side road with light traffic, things got rough.

I was crawling in the middle of the road when I spotted a car behind me: it was my friend, who commented on my tire tracks all over the road, then asked what time he should come looking for me if I didn't show up at the tent.

Conditions were a little better on the ice road. Not a government-maintained road, it was quite rough and therefore slow, but mostly rideable, though I had to push the bike the last couple hundred metres to the portage (not just used for canoeing, a "portage" is the section of road that connects two lakes).

The next lake was in good condition and I finally felt like I was making progress. For a few minutes, anyway. Then the wind picked up and people driving by started asking if I was okay. I changed from my gloves to my mittens, then had to go running after my gloves as the wind swept them away.

The light was flat, no contrast to show me whether I was approaching hardpack or loose snow, smooth or rutted surfaces, or where I could expect my wheel to slide out.

It continued to get worse, to the point of being near-blizzard conditions, complete with poor visibility and enough snow on the road that I had to start pushing the bike, which was even slower than it sounds.

I was getting cold and was barely making any progress, but it was too late to turn around. It was probably a good idea to set up the tent and wait for the weather to improve, but someone was expecting me, and so I put on my parka. My orange vest was flapping in the wind, and I spent a few minutes trying to get it under control so I could put it back on, but to no avail. The best I could do was get one of the armholes over my head, and I was still tangled up with it when my friend showed up.

"Want to bail?"


We strapped the bike to the roof of the car and drove a few more kilometres. Then, being the wonderful person he is, my friend strapped on his snowshoes and carried most of my gear 2km to the tent, while I followed, sinking deep into the snow with every step.

It took us two trips to bring everything and finished the second carry in the dark. So I watched some aurora, slept in the heated tent the first night and woke up to a beautiful -26 C morning.

Not only does this dog bark at the northern lights, he also photobombed most of my photos with this pose. I have no idea of the who/what/why behind that.
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The heated tent
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Morning on the lake; so much texture in the snow. I couldn't see any of that texture yesterday.
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During the day, I tested my stove by turning a pile of snow into 3 litres of boiled water. So far, so good. I set up my tent, joined a group of people who were ice fishing, and had to endure absolutely everyone telling me I was crazy.

It was unsettling; everyone had the same opinion. All these outdoorsy people who live in this climate thought I was insane. Without exception.

But despite the widely held view, spending that night in a tent (more on that in a bit), had already elevated my status to that of semi-badass. Completing the ice road ride, and especially the Dempster if I could manage it, would elevate me to a badass of near-mythical proportion.

After dinner that night, I crawled into my sleeping bag and tried to sleep. My feet were cold and wouldn't warm up, so I took off my socks, which helped. I still couldn't sleep though, because the aurora came out and everyone was tramping through the snow around my tent, exclaiming at it.

Crunch, crunch. "Wow, that's amazing!" Crunch, crunch. "How are the photos turning out?" Crunch, crunch. "Look, you can see some red in the photo." Crunch, crunch. "Look at it move! It's getting faster!" Crunch, crunch. "Wow, I see some pink!"

That's when I learned that winter camping is hard. Once I'm in my sleeping bag, nothing will get me out of it and back into the cold. I can lie there and listen to how good the northern lights are, and I'm going to stay put and miss out. They probably weren't that good, anyway. I'll keep telling myself that.

Sleep was still elusive. My feet got cold again, only now I couldn't reach to get my socks back on without unzipping my sleeping bag. The rest of me was chilly, too. It would be so easy to go to the heated tent...

But I didn't. I managed a few hours' sleep and woke up as the sun was coming up. The thermometer read -34 C. Badass, indeed.

Armed with some notes about my setup, I got a snowmobile shuttle back to the road after breakfast and started back to town.

The ride out was calmer, smoother, and faster than the ride in, even though there was more climbing.

One of the portages on the way out.
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Ice road on the lake
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As long as I avoid riding in snowstorms, I should be fine on the ice road, at least after I buy some super-warm socks.

In the course of conversation with my host (who is clearly a horrible friend) and his roommate (who will both remain nameless even though they don't deserve the anonymity), it was suggested that I could fund my trip in part by contributing a toe or two to the Sourtoe shot in Dawson City (if you're not familiar with this, tourists do a shot of liquor with a toe in it--to be clear, they don't drink the toe. It's still gross). I could even be the first tourist to do a shot with my own toe.

The two of them apparently made a bet as to how many toes I would lose during the course of my tour. So, in an effort to keep them up to date, I will be including a daily toe count in my journal.

The day before I flew to Inuvik, I still had one thing on the to-do list: ride the ice road across Yellowknife Bay to Dettah. There is all-season road access to the community, but the ice road is a fun shortcut, and being a government road, is kept in pretty good shape. It was -30 C, a good test for the bike, which passed, though I'll note I felt very disconnected from the bike in big mittens and a furry hood. I can't shift to a harder gear with the mitts on, but the shifting was wasn't working well anyway, so everything kind of worked out in its own way.

Snowking builds his snow castle on Yellowknife Bay every year. According to one of the builders, they judge each year's ice slide by whether or not kids cry on it. This year's slide was a success.
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Ice road selfie!
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I love this ice.
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My bike fell over 5 times before I managed to prop it up. Then it fell over again. Not wise at -30, but luckily I didn't break anything.
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More beautiful ice
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There are a few dozen houseboats on Yellowknife Bay. People live there year-round, and in winter they can park their cars, or airplanes, at their door.
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And with everything ready, it's time to start getting terrified.

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Mike AylingCycling and camping in those conditions - you are definitely a badass!
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7 months ago
Lyle McLeodI’ll give a second ‘bad ass’ vote!

Just missed seeing you in Inuvik! Kirsten (spouse) and I were there on 4th March. We came to do the same thing ... sort of .... drive the ice road before it became extinct. To no surprise to you, we weren’t able to do that ‘cause it was -33 c with +70 km/hr winds ... road was closed! We did see the Japanese walker though between the airport and beautiful down town Inuvik. More small-world moment too- Daniele and Simon’s the two Italians that you met were going to stay with us through Warm Showers - their plans ended up changing so we didn’t meet them but had many email exchanges with them.
Enough about us - great accomplishment- and truly bad /frozen ass!

Lyle & Kirsten
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7 months ago
Stephanie P.To Mike AylingI had great weather helping me out on the ice road; it's much easier to stay alive (and comfortable) at -20 C than at -40 C.
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7 months ago
Stephanie P.To Lyle McLeodAw, that's too bad the road was closed. It was a great trip. And yes, a very small world up there. I wonder if/when the walker made it to Argentina.
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7 months ago