Sunday, March 31, 2013

Crust Biking

The holy grail of cross country skiers-skate skiers, are the few rare days, sometimes just hours…..each spring known as “Crust Skiing.”  Until this “spring” I’d never considered that as something any other sport might long for.  I was wrong.  Enter “Crust Biking”. 

Mother nature needs her ducks in a row for crust skiing (or biking) to take place- warm, sun high in the sky spring days followed by a crash of temperatures during the overnight hours.  The colder the better for the crust will reach deeper into the snow surface providing a stronger lid on the snow pack.  For skiing, one can skate by (pun intended) with a slightly thinner surface, but as I found out for a fatbike, conditions need to be perfect.  Since the cross country crowds at Levis Mound have quietly abandoned skiing for the season, I decided to veer off our packed singletrack and do a trail “inspection” of the ski loops.  The previous day had been sunny and warm-almost 50 and the cold temps overnight produced boilerplate ski trails which barely noticed the fat tires skimming along on top.

It was the easiest pedaling of the year to be sure-almost no resistance except for the low pressures in the tires.  Deep, frozen slush deer, wolf and coyote tracks were a reminder of the previous day’s warmth and springs' return.  This base wouldn’t last long. Approaching an ungroomed trail, the thought started to wander into my head if it might be possible to ride unpacked snow-like I’ve always done crust skiing.  Would the crust be strong enough?  Would the tires have enough low ground pressure to keep me on top?  Without another thought, I turned onto the pure unblemished snow....and didn’t go a$$ over teakettle! I could hardly believe it was possible to do this-yet another vein of riding to chalk up to the fatbikes!  Floating along almost silently on this shell of snow made me feel like I could explore anywhere now.  Well, almost anywhere.  Suddenly I hit a spot when the sun hadn’t quite reached the day before and instantly both wheels dropped through.  I was stuck, still in the pedals sitting vertically…motionless. Hmmmm, dismounting, and pulling the tires free I moved down the trail and found a stronger crust to continue on.  Soon, one learns which snow will provide the strength and where to avoid.  There are subtle nuances in the seemingly uniform snow pack.  Places that angle toward the sun will be great, shady corners, out of the reach of the sun, will not work and one will be punching through constantly.

Discovering that there was such a thing as crust biking set me off in search of other suitable snow.  Large clear cuts should provide the proper mixture and I headed off toward several in the Levis Mound area.  It was crazy to be riding along anywhere in those spots-free to explore terrain we never venture into.  Swampy wet areas were perfect-they were still frozen and the snow crust covering perfect to ride on.  I know this land well, but “crusting” opened so much more territory….temporarily.

As much joy as I was having this morning-it would end all to soon.  By late morning, the sun already was high and the tires rolling on the surface started to make a different sound-almost like the snow was groaning unto the weight of bike and it’s peddler.  Cracking the surface with more frequency eventually forced me back to our singletrack-there the riding was still rock solid.  My window of crust biking was over for the day.

Looking at the forecast, I may have one or two more chances at the new form of fatbiking-just maybe.  Rain was moving in, which would really make a good crust, as long as cold overnight temps get mixed in.  If so, I’ll be back out, full grin on my face and taking advantage of a new found freedom on a fatbike.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Snow Shadows

Treeline on the Reed Farm
This winter has been long.  And I love winter. I love the snow, the crispness on my face, the cleanness of the white, the quiet of the season. As Ruth Stout put it:
There is a privacy about it which no other season gives you.... In spring, summer and fall people sort of have an open season on each other; only in the winter, in the country, can you have longer, quiet stretches when you can savor belonging to yourself.  

But  this year winter has hung on, digging it's claws into the change of season and not letting go.  I've never quite seen a drawn out winter like this-consistent snow and temperatures, not the usual warm up melt, then snow and well.... repeat.  Last year I was riding motorcycles and bikes on dirt and about to mow the lawn.  Nature will have it's way and this year winter has endured.

It's not all bad, this extra taste of snow and cold.   March brings longer days, starting very early, and for me, an opportunity to reengage my photography eyes. Looking back over the years, there always seems to be that one day during the season changeover, when my camera is out, snowshoes on and a dog along, shooting images of shadows on white.  It seems that that one day is a day I can "see" pictures.  Maybe just in my eye and maybe no one else will care or like them, but they are shot for me at that moment.  I think Stout expressed so well some of the things I feel when quietly making my way across snow covered fields and threading between dark tree trunks on the woods.  They are all "quiet stretches" to savor.  

I have a thousand pictures of Queen Annes Lace from all seasons-it's everywhere in my part of the world.  In the cold of winter, it's stands silent and delicate and in the dawn of the day casts threads of shadows on the sparkling snow.  I have yet to tire of making those pictures of them. An unimpressive treeline, grounded in fieldstone, now becomes a better subject with layers of grey hills backing it up and limbs of black branches holding still.

A day of enduring wind created acres of farm field drifts and a mosaic of patterns. Almost overwhelming, I had to caution myself not to shoot a thousand frames of these forms.  The lab followed closely behind me struggling in the deep snow until reaching the firmness of the windblown pack.  The way the morning light played off the snow reminded me of water waves gently washing up to a smooth beach leaving behind very similar shapes in the sand.  Others, like waves about to crash, but now frozen still.  Tucked away at a quieter place at the edge of a frog pond, isolated tracks were evidence that life was still tucked in here. Nearby stems of a cattail seemed to be reaching up like fingers freeing themselves from the snow, casting long thin strands in a minimalist, almost zen quality.  At another time I might have walked past, but this day, there was something there-at least for myself.  Perhaps just a simple composition belonging to just me and like in the quote something to savor.
Queen Annes Lace
The Drift Breakline
Snow Waves
Delicate Footfalls
Strands in the Snow

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

The Kramer Bros.

 I think about baseball when I wake up in the morning.  I think about it all day and I dream about it at night.  The only time I don't think about it is when I'm playing it. - Carl Yastrzemski

Mike Kramer is a boyhood friend of mine, first meeting and being picked on (by him) at a Boy Scout meeting back in Rib Mountain Elementary School.  For over 40 years, we have remained so, growing up together, surviving school, college and starting families.  Even now, we're both going to become grandpas during the same year.  Mike was always has been athletic, more so than I during our school years, and it's something passed down to his kids.  His three sons (the "Kramer Bros.") all flocked to the Concordia College baseball program in St. Paul after a solid high school career.    Sister Anna also attended Concordia and has been their biggest fan, along with "ma and pa" as Mike would say.

James and Jared
James is the oldest and first to share the Kramer talent in St, Paul.  Wausau West HS has always been a strong baseball program and I think Concordia welcomed him in.  Besides being a catcher, James also worked a stint as the visiting clubhouse "boy" for the Minnestota Twins-oh the stories he can tell (and we listen intently!).  Baseball is in his blood to be sure.  Now graduated and working and a dad-to-be, he helps coach the team and does his best to keep the two younger Kramers on the straight and narrow.

 I did play ball (softball-beer league, Ha!) but the sport was not in my DNA and I don't live it like the Kramers.  Part of it was maybe watching thousands of games while I worked as a groundskeeper through high school and college, watching games at every level, from Legion ball through pro teams.  One common core to all those teams was the role of the catcher-it's the one person who is involved in every pitch, every play in every inning during the game.  Mike always said it was the best position to play-the catcher is really the on field manager.  Jared is the next oldest brother and following in older brothers steps, a catcher.

Mr. On-Base Percentage
"Jere" has a sly fun loving smile under the helmet and mop of red hair and as with all catchers does his best to control his pitchers. Must be a fun job, and at the game these images were made, I enjoyed watching him direct and remind players on defense what was going on.  He's no slouch with a bat in hand either commented Coach James-in fact the previous week Jared landed a dinger in Kirby Puckets seat in the Metradome-qute a poke!  On this day however, his most crushing hit took place in BP when older brother received a bullet back, nearly breaking his elbow.

I think the real highlight for all of the family and friends that came to watch this game was seeing youngest Kramer brother Adam as THE pitcher under this catchers direction.  It was the first time I'd seen them play let alone as the battery working the hitters from the opposing team.

Conference on the Mound
Adam is the last Kramer to share his talents on the Concordia team (for a while anyway) and has really been an impressive pitcher, even playing in the Northwoods League during the summer.  The game we watched against Winona State earned him NSIC Pitcher of the Week honors as winning hurler throwing a one hitter with six strikeouts.  Adam is quiet, almost shy but that demeanor is not reflected in how he pitches.  His repertoire of pitches includes some real heat and with the help of Jared, they had little problem selecting throws that would work to make hitters look silly.
The Look
It's all business while Adam is pitching.  The job entails not only getting the ball over the plate but holding runners tight if they should reach base.  This game saw witness to Adams first pick at second base and as he recalled, he wasn't even sure how it all happened.  A quick turn, a perfect throw and a second basemens tag sent another runner to the dugout.  Wished I'd had the camera up at that second.
The Hurler
Much like Carl Yastrzemski's quote, I think the Kramer Brothers think about and live baseball about every second of the day and night and I felt honored to watch their skills on the diamond and on a field that hosted it's last Concordia game.  Although playing in a dome isn't "real" baseball, there were no complaints when they looked ahead to the following week and a game in snow and cold.  I doubt it'll matter, James will still keep them in line, Jared will keep things loose on the field and Adam will mow 'em down.  And in the stands, maybe shivering under a blanket, with be proud mom and dad and sister cheering them on.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Snow Day

Snow days.  Some people, teachers, students...hate 'em or love 'em.  For me, well, the first thing I usually do when the official word comes through is head out the door to do anything.  Since there is snow, that anything would have to involve it in some way.  Usually I'll be out grooming ski or fatbike trails as soon as possible, do some snowshoeing or even the dreaded shoveling or plowing the endless driveway.

All that said, fresh snow is also an exciting time to get the camera out.  The outside world is now wiped clean with a untouched layer of white making everything new again and seemingly giving me fresh eyes to see.  It's a favorite time to be out and the change in the scenery breathes a clearer vision it seems into my camera.

The Driveway & Molly

Cliff's Field with Queen Annes Lace

Legacy White Oak

Cliff's Corner in Black & White

Field Edge with Molly Tracks

 Oak in Black on White

Ash Standing Tall and Proud

Swirls Grounded

Bent in Submission

Nature's Towering Cathedral

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Ageless Fatbiking

We’ve all done it.  We see some of the same people at a trailhead from time to time, even recognizing their vehicle or their bike or the skis they snap into, but for whatever reason, we fail to introduce ourselves.  Opportunity lost I guess.  I’m guilty-I’ll sometimes be in a hurry to just start pedaling or poling and want to be away from the parking lot as quickly as possible.  An introduction might include that I’m a trail builder and groomer here and at times I want to be unanimous.   Those were mistakes I’d made when I’d see an older gentleman pull up on his bike, take a drink of water from his bottle and load the truck that had long been sitting at the trailhead.  Retired, I’d guess (and was correct) with unlimited time to ride.  What stopped me when I saw him this winter was the Pugsley he rolled in on- a fellow fatbiker…. Now  I needed to walk over and talk riding-sort of the last straw to an introduction.

Rod Villand is a Westby native and has retired from his La Crosse Wisconsin painting business and owns a cabin nearby. A good reason to frequent my home turf of Levis Mound.  If anything can become a common kindship, it’s unloading a fatbike and taking it for a spin.  The tribe of us fatbikers is still small in number, and I think that is what bonds us yet -and I like that. 

I’d heard about Rod from another friend who’d seen him pull up with a small trials motorcycle in the back of his truck-something more rare than fatbikes are to be sure.  He’d been a competitive trials rider in the Midwest starting in the mid ‘70s after a stint on dirt bikes prior to that.  Mountain bikes first came along in the ‘80’s and he re-called riding those early bullmoose handlebar rigid bikes on the very first trails I began building at Levis Mound.  Those trails were rough-we really didn’t know much about trail building then, but they were good enough to make it from his cabin 4 miles away, explore the mounds and return.  Even in those days, he was hardcore enough to slap studded tires on his bike and pedal nearby snowmobile trails- “Snowbiking” before snowbiking was cool (pun intended).

Owning and running your own business meant a hiatus from cycling for a number of years, but luckily for myself, his retirement put dirt back under his tires and a new friend on our trails.  When asked “why a fatbike?”  He said he was just “fascinated by the much larger tires,” which connected him to his motorcycling days.  When he speaks of bikes-the pedal or motorcycle variety, there is a kid-like sparkle in his eyes, something I’ve seen often while cruising singletrack together or chatting back at the trailhead.  He obviously loves riding-sand, rock,  snow….doesn’t matter.  A shop from La Crosse let him demo a Pugsley at Levis and that was all it took, he was sold.  The thought of riding anywhere, at anytime of year was “very appealing.” 

Like any mountain biker, soon tweaks and modifications start popping up on your ride.  Most fatbikers depend on, and are happy with the suspension afforded by the big tires, but being 67 years old and still banging off rocks and roots required a little more cush on the front end.  A Maveric fork was swapped in for the rigid one and Rod reported a much easier recovery on the shoulders after riding.  Seeing as our newly formed winter riding group had just gained a few new bikers, he did have a worry about keeping up with other riders  (I think it was a little unfounded-the guy can ride!).   He decided the next addition would be a Bionx electric assist on the bike.  Although seriously worried it would be “wimpy” to use one, the desire to be able to ride longer and more aggressively won out.  “There are 4 settings on the assist, and I figure each one is good for every five years of my age.”  The Bionx only kicks in when torque is applied to the pedals, so one still has to ride hard to make it all work.  “On the climbs at Levis my tongue would be in the spokes without it!” 

There seems to be a friendliness that flows through the fatbike scene and the people that ride them- the big fat tires opening a door to conversation, stories of rides and of trails. It is a connection and for myself, one that got me across the parking lot to meet a new friend. “When you’re retired, you have a lot more time to play, and my fatbike set-up helps me ride consecutive days, with younger friends and hopefully for more years.”  I hope so too Rod. Age doesn’t seem to matter, just the love of riding and wanting to get out the door.   I won’t make the same mistake of missing those opportunities to meet new people-if anything, introducing myself to Rod cured that and I’m grateful.