Winter’s last hurrah.

Spring is in the air, I can feel it. Despite the fact that temperatures have still been way below freezing the past week, something seems a little bit different. The birds are chirping more, the sun feels warmer when it shines, and the weather report confirms that next week, it will indeed rise above freezing, and will even jump into the 40s a couple days. Though it’s not unusual to get snow through March and even a freak storm every now and then in April, I think the deep freeze has finally ended, and soon the winter parkas will be replaced with hoodies, and gloves won’t be a necessity just to walk outside.

But today, as spring is just around the corner, we got a snowstorm. Perhaps not the last, but one of them for sure, and the snow and ice probably won’t stick around too long after this next week. We decided it would be appropriate to do a ride on the lake for our usual Sunday bike adventure, and it couldn’t have been better. A much larger group than normal came out to partake in this unique experience—14 in all, compared to our usual 3-6. The snow began early in the morning, and continued to fall all day. Out on the lake, with a white shroud all around, it looked like we were in a giant snow globe.

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IMG_0809For most in the group, it was their first experience riding on the lake, and first impressions were all positive. Conditions were perfect—a layer of snow covered the ice, so traction wasn’t an issue, and the ice was clearly very solid. We didn’t hear a single peep from it all morning—no cracks or shifts, which is not uncommon even on ice that is fairly thick. The snow was a few inches deep, so there was quite a bit of resistance when trying to pedal through it, but there were enough of us that we broke a good trail and took turns leading.

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From our start at Backbone Road, we made our way to Pee Wee Island past the Juniata College Field Station, then over to Aitch. The way back was a mix of land and ice as we cut over little peninsulas to come back to where we started, completing a loop of about 7.5 miles. We stopped a lot, hung out on the island, took pictures, sipped flasks of brandy, and enjoyed each others company.

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It was great to get so many people out—while I love small, intimate groups, it’s also really fun to hang out with a bigger crowd sometimes, especially those I don’t normally get to ride with.

It certainly was a nice way to ring in March!

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 Photos were a collaborative effort between Helena Kotala & Evan Gross.

Riding on Standing Stone Creek.

It’s been a cold winter. It started out rather mild, with days in the 50s through December, but the past month or so has been brutally chilly. There have been plenty of days with highs in the single digits, and it’s been regularly dipping below zero at night. The snow is also just deep enough and just crusty enough to make most activities in the woods pretty difficult. This is about the point when I start getting pretty sick of winter, and begin to look forward to seeing the ground again and walking outside without a coat.

But the frigid weather has certainly been good for one thing—ice. Last year, we did a lot of ice rides on the frozen Raystown Lake, and this year has been similar with the addition of a new venue—Standing Stone Creek. After a couple weeks of very cold weather, it seemed that the stream had frozen over enough to ride bikes on it for a considerable distance. A couple Wednesdays ago, we decided to check it out for our weekly night ride. Five of us braved the chilly evening and potentially dangerous conditions, and it was well worth it. We discovered that the creek was even more solid than expected, and we were able to head upstream from town about 5 miles.

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This is a view you don’t get every day.

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Gusts of wind kicked up snow tornadoes.

Gusts of wind kicked up snow tornadoes.

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Evan’s hole. The ice was solid for the most part, but this was a random spot where he broke through. Yikes!

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Cool ice waterfalls.

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Sunset.

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That’s water. But right next to it, the ice is amazingly thick.

Jake the monkey.

Jake, the ever-playful monkey.

It was the cold and not the ice conditions that eventually forced us to turn around and head back to town. I’d like to do this ride in the daylight sometime, perhaps in the week or so we have left before spring finally arrives.

The oatmeal ride.

I sat in my car in the parking lot, tired, hungover. It was early, too early for how late I had gone to bed the night before. I felt more like snuggling in the warm covers than hopping on a mountain bike and pedaling through the snow for a couple hours. But I refused to be the one to bail.

He was running late. Part of me hoped that he wouldn’t show. But then, I saw the little red Toyota pickup rumbling down the road. Game time.

He swapped pedals for me, and in doing so, caught his wrist hard on a chain ring, drawing blood. He found some tape, patched it up, and we were off.

The snow was mushy, thick, and several inches deep. Deep enough to make pedaling through it a grueling slog. By 20 minutes in, I began to have thoughts of quitting. At the next intersection, when I caught up to him, I’d tell him I’m turning around, that I just wasn’t feeling it this morning, that I was too tired and the snow is too deep and I felt like I was going to die. My brain listed excuse after excuse.

But by the time I made it to the next intersection, where he was waiting patiently as always, I had convinced myself to forget about all my excuses. There was no way in hell I could quit. If I turned back, he’d write me off and might not invite me to ride again. I couldn’t let that happen. I was enjoying myself too much on these early morning adventures we’d been having the past couple of weeks. And if I quit, I’d just feel crappy about it the rest of the day. So I smiled and replied with a cheerful “Yup!” when he asked if I was good, and we continued, straight up Tussey Mountain.

As we rode the ridgeline, and I pedaled and pushed my way through rock gardens amid the slushy snow that had the consistency of oatmeal, my thoughts wandered away from all the excuses and instead to my riding companion, who was far ahead at this point. We’d known each other for years (about 5 to be exact), and were work acquaintances, but had never become friends until recently, when my interest in fat bikes peaked his interest at a party. He invited me to ride, I accepted, and in the month since, we’d met up several mornings a week to mountain bike.

And the night before, we’d had dinner together. I wasn’t sure if it was a date. Maybe it was just friends having dinner. Or maybe it was a date. A strange chemistry had developed between us during those chilly mornings. Strange because we’d known each other so long, but had always been so distant. I actually never particularly liked him, thought he was a bit stuck-up and could come off like a jerk. But I had never really gotten to know him. Now that I was, I had changed my opinion entirely. I liked him a lot. And my efforts to remain emotionally stoic were failing miserably.

The snow grew soggier as the temperature warmed. At times, it was necessary to pedal even downhill to make any forward progress, and maintaining control of the bicycle in the slippery mush was nearly impossible. But we continued to plod along, him waiting every now and then, and me trotting up to him with a smile every time I caught up, amused by the insanity of it all.

By the time we reached the parking lot where we had started, the 1.5-2-hour ride had turned into 3. He rushed off to work, and I to class, a big silly grin planted on my face. I was falling in love—with fat-biking and with the man who had introduced it to me.

The next evening, I discovered that Evan reciprocated my feelings. We kissed, we talked, and we began what would turn out to be so much more than I ever anticipated.

That was two years ago. Here’s to many more.

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Not the Oatmeal Ride, but the same time frame—when I still rocked the duck-taped helmet. Photo by Evan Gross.

Welcoming the Alpacas.

The latest news on the block is this: Evan and I got ourselves a herd of alpacas.  They arrived a week and a half ago. Evan and his friend Chris made the journey together to pick them up several hours away, and returned home close to midnight with a box trailer containing 5 furry fluff-balls. The next morning, we introduced them to their new home—a stall Evan constructed for them in half of our garage, with access to much of the yard for roaming and grazing. The five new members of our family include two mothers, two sons who are a little over a year old, and one baby boy who is only a few months old. In the near future, we’ll also be getting two full-grown males from the same farm to add to our herd. IMG_1588 IMG_1594 IMG_1610

Mama/baby.

Mama/baby.

Learning the "ropes"

Learning the “ropes”

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Evan has a long history with the animals—he worked on an alpaca farm in high school, so he knows what he’s doing, and he’s always wanted to raise them himself. I, on the other hand, am learning it all as I go. The biggest question we get is, “What do you do with them?”  Lots of things. First and foremost, we have fun with them. They are incredible creatures—smart, funny, cute, curious—and they all have unique personalities. We take them for walks—sometimes in the yard, sometimes on back roads near our house, and in the future, once they’re more used to us and our new home, we plan to take them hiking and backpacking (yes, alpaca backpacks will happen).

Snow walk! This has been a favorite activity lately.

Snow walk! This has been a favorite activity lately.

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Meet & greet with our friend Carissa.

Meet & greet with our friend Carissa.

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First night in their new home.

First night in their new home.

Evan is a great alpaca dad.

Evan is a great alpaca dad.

But they’ll also be more than just pets. In the spring, we’ll shear and sell the wool or get it spun so that we can knit with it. We’ll also most likely end up breeding them. One of our females is currently pregnant, so come May, we’ll have another baby alpaca. Our yard can only support so many, so we’ll have to sell some of them eventually. I was a little skeptical of the idea of getting a herd of rather large animals at first. I was a little worried we’d be getting in over our heads. But so far, they’ve proven to be a lot easier to take care of than I thought, and a lot more fun and engaging too! Despite my initial reservations, I’m so happy they’re here.

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We named this one Paul Simon. He’s been the least shy so far—always walks right up to you for a nuzzle!

Frozen Fat, Day 3: Shoreline Shenanigans.

If Saturday’s ride is at all serious, Sunday’s is anything but. Rather, it’s wheelies and derbies, costumes and skipping stones. It’s a party on bikes, no endurance needed. There are lots of stops, laughs, and log ride attempts. And everyone wins.

The venue changes from Rothrock State Forest and Martin Gap to the Allegrippis Trails at Raystown Lake. This year, just like last, the lake was lowered so the shoreline was exposed and incorporated into the ride. Fun times were had all around, even when it began to rain.

We began by bombing down Osprey…

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Wound along Hyrdroloop…

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Bosko the trail dog!

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 And bushwacked down to the lakeshore, where stone-skipping commenced. 

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Some impromptu wrestling also happened, which ended with some wet feet but fortunately not much else.

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We rode on the shore of the lake from the tip of Hydroloop almost to Susquehannock Campground. A brave few tested the ice in the inlet (I don’t necessarily condone trying this).

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At the end of the shoreline section of the ride, we all stopped for a while to commune and dabble on the several nearby rideable features.

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 There were some log ride attempts…and fails. 

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But all who attempted finally were successful. 

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More communing…and dabbling…

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…he actually saved that quite nicely. 

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 Finally, we headed back towards the parking lot.

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 The last couple miles were quite cold for Brent.

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 And Jake took a Sharpie to his bare skin.

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Mmmm…parking lot massage stick.

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 Frozen Fat was awesome. Thanks to all the people who made it so great! See y’all next year! 

Frozen Fat, Day 2: It’s about the comaraderie, not the competition.

When the alarm woke me Saturday morning at o-dark-thirty, I felt like I got hit by a train. My head was pounding, my stomach was queasy, and my muscles hurt. Coffee helped, as did the small amount of food I choked down because I knew I’d need to fuel up for the 30 miles of snowy singletrack and mountain roads I was about to pedal. I had big plans to cook a hearty breakfast of eggs before the ride, but in my current state and with a shortage of time, that wasn’t happening. Instead, I packed plenty of snacks for en route and joined the small crew of people basking in the heat of the fire still burning from the night before.

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Saturday’s ride is the “race” component of the weekend, with a 30-mile and 70-mile option. Both rides begin at a different location and end up at camp. The courses are not marked; rather, it’s up to the rider to navigate using maps and cue sheets. This is the first year that GPS files were also provided.

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En route to bus.

En route to bus.

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Last year, I wanted to push myself and see how well I could do. This year, my goals were to just have fun and get to know some of the people that I had met at last years event but didn’t get to spend all that much time with. Brent and I ended up riding together the whole time, and it was really nice to have a buddy for the day.

The bus dropped us off at Alan Seeger and we reluctantly exited the warm compartment for the cold air outside. We all stood around for a few minutes while everyone found their bikes, relieved their bladders, and got their equipment together. Evan on the megaphone signaled the start of the race, and we were off.

Conditions were perfect—sun shone through the trees on snow-covered Alan Seeger Road, and there was just enough of a layer of snow on top of the icy road to provide some amount of traction. Still, I was glad I had decided to run my studded rear tire (45NRTH Nicotine).

Milling around, getting ready.

Milling around, getting ready.

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Stevie's all set to roll.

Stevie’s all set to roll.

Alan Seeger Road.

Alan Seeger Road.

After a couple miles on the road, we hopped onto singletrack, and began a gradual uphill haul. The first bit felt like the hangover express, but I gradually began to feel better the more I rode. At the top of the mountain, we bombed down Lingle Valley Trail, a fun, loose downhill that ends with multiple stream crossings. The freezing temps made the crossings extra interesting—putting a foot down would make for a very uncomfortable rest of the ride, and ice-logged components and cables caused some shifting and braking issues at times. Yet another challenge of winter riding!

Up Brush Ridge.

Up Brush Ridge.

Confusion.

Where do we go?

Feazell.

Feazell.

Just keep pedaling.

Just keep pedaling.

The first checkpoint was at the top of a climb up Conklin Road, where we were greeted by the smiling face of Jeff and the promise of snacks and water, which was a relief considering my hydration hose had been frozen solid since about 15 minutes into the ride. In my early-morning stupor, I had neglected to put warm water in my hydration pack, or add a little whiskey, my other go-to trick.

We hung out for a few minutes, passing around jerky and trail mix and guzzling as much water as possible while the chance was there. Then it was back to the singletrack, down Beautiful Trail, a rocky, fun ride along the ridgetop.

Almost to the top!

Almost to the top!

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Partway down Beautiful, we came across Jamie holding her broken chain, looking quite disappointed. She said she was going to just hike back to the checkpoint, but Brent and I helped her fix it and continue on. Shortly thereafter, she went down on a rock while descending the mountain and banged up her knee. So, the three of us, along with Devin and Scott, who we’d hooked up with, stuck together for most of the rest of the ride. It was nice to have a good crew to ride with, especially for what is the toughest section of the route for me. From the bottom of the mountain, the course gradually climbs up singletrack, doubletrack, and finally, a gravel road all the way back up to the top. Though most of it isn’t that steep, I find it hard to get into a good rhythm. It also is far enough into the ride that I am tired and haven’t yet gotten my second wind.

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The crawl up Sass.

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The second checkpoint was at the top of the mountain, once again. This time, we were greeted by a larger crew and a fire, which we lingered around for a while. At this point, with tired legs and chilly bodies, it was tough to pull ourselves away from fire and friends to continue, but Brent and I did before the urge to hop in the truck for a ride back to camp set in.

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Warming up.

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The course always ends with a long climb up Turkey Hill Road and then a descent back into Martin Gap. The climb isn’t all that steep, but it’s over 3 miles long and psychologically challenging due to the many “false summits.” It seems that every time the top appears to be in sight, the road the keeps going up.

An added challenge on this day in particular was the sheet of ice covering the gravel. Even with studs, it was sketchy, especially going downhill. After we had finally reached the top and began descending the other side, I could see the sun glistening on the smooth, slick surface. I just hung on, tried not to make any sudden movements, and somehow made it all the way back to Martin Gap without a spill.

Keep climbing.

Keep climbing.

Back at camp, there was already a crowd around the fire. I don’t know who finished first in the 30-mile, and I don’t know where Brent and I finished. Quite frankly, I don’t care. I had reached my goals—I had a blast, I got to ride with new people, and I finished despite my rough morning.

As for the 70-mile riders, 4 out of 7 finished the whole course. Matt Ferrari of State College came in first by several hours, and the other three all rolled in together, united as a team to help one who’s light had died.

To everyone who rode, congrats. You’re all badass, just for getting out there and doing it.

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