Tuesday, June 30, 2015

RDJ 2015

Another year, another RDJ (2014) (2013), another twist.
Last year, I literally couldn’t wait to knock out this loop.
This year, I was ambivalent at best. I had a new plan for a big, late-spring loop, CRReD: Start at Devils Pass TH, head down the road to Tern Lake and take Old Sterling Highway to Crescent Lake, out-and-back to Crescent Lake, onward to Snug Harbor Road, up the 14 miles or so of gravel on Snug, “down” Russian Lakes Trail, across the street to Resurrection Pass Trail, and hang a right one-and-a-half dozen miles later on Devils Pass Trail to close it all out.
I think the CRReD loop would have totaled up to about the same mileage as RDJ (~90), but where the latter sports something like 30 miles of pavement (albeit, mostly on a scenic bike path and the even more scenic Hope Road), CRReD would have something like 4 miles of pave in total, and would make all the rest of its connections on jeep roads, atv paths, and gravel roads.
Then the Kenai caught on fire. The south half of Resurrection Pass Trail was closed due to a 250-acre fire above Juneau Lake, and combined with the smoke of the Stetson Creek and Card Street fires, filled the Cooper Landing area with haze and smog.

Card Street Fire in Sterling. Photo: KTUU
CRReD was a no-go.
Johnson Pass, in awesome condition, beckoned, but there was this nagging feeling that I know I felt, and I think Adam did too, that with perfect weather and perfect trails, if the RDJ didn’t happen, not doing the RDJ might be a regrettable decision later on.
Out of curiosity, I rode the north half of Res on Friday to the Devils Pass junction, and found that smoke from the fires was a non-issue. I could hardly even make out where the distant fire was.

No smoke on the north side of Res or Devils Junction.
We went ahead and met at the south Johnson Pass trail head on the earlier side the next day, thinking we’d do it over-and-back.
With wheels on, and maybe a few minutes from roll-out, Adam looked at me and suggested a new twist.
We could park my car at the north Johnson Pass TH, and start the ride at the north Res TH.
The thinking was two-fold:

  1. Carly was planning to meet us at Bertha Creek Campground near the north Johnson TH, and Adam wanted to get to spend some time with them in the evening before Gus hit the sack for the night. Doing the 8-9 hour RDJ would mean Adam wouldn’t get much time with Gus, but if he split off at the north Johnson TH, he’d have ample time and still get a 60-mile ride in.
  2. By starting at north Res and ending at north Johnson, we could eliminate what is the obvious bane of this long loop, the 27 miles of road riding between the two trailheads, while enjoying a very reasonable 62 miles of trail (OK, there’s 7 miles of road riding between Devils Pass TH and south Johnson). Bottom line, we’d still get a solid ride in. If I was so inclined, I could carry on solo and retrieve Adam’s car from the start at north Res TH, and if not, Adam didn’t mind going to get it the next day.

Base camp
The car staging would eat up over an hour, but it was such an obvious win, we immediately mobilized.
The day turned out to be pretty well perfect. Low-slung clouds in the morning helped to stave off the heat for a little while. Eventually lifted and revealed brilliant blue sky. Trail conditions were superb; we got a wiff of smoke near the top of Res; and the veg on the south half of Johnson was a little unruly, but that might have been my only complaint.
We also saw a ton of familiar faces.

LV Ray Peak from Trail Lake.
We hit the north Johnson TH in 6 hours. I think just a bit before we topped out on Johnson, I’d mentally committed to closing out the loop on my own, but I kept my mouth shut as it was kind of nice to have the option.
I actually felt really good when we got to my car though.
Adam retrieved some clothes out of the trunk, and I switched to my hard tail. If I’d known what the game plan was from the outset, I might have had the bike a little better prepped (lubed and tires at full pressure for road riding). With the option to use a lighter and more efficient bike, staged perfectly at the start of the long pavement section, not switching seemed dumb.
I stopped my clock for the 15 minutes we were in the lot. I don’t know how I feel about that in the scheme of things.
Basically, the next 2.5 hours turned out to be really brutal, and completely sucked, but, in the best way.
A few miles down the bike path, my hopeful tail wind turned to a steady head wind, and although it wasn’t too strong, it was persistent the rest of the way to Hope.
The bigger problem, was that I bonked, really hard. I have no idea why I didn’t have a bite to eat while I was switching bikes. I have no idea why I decided that since my clock had stopped, so had my metabolism. Regardless, I got nailed hard, and that deep into the ride, the margins were too thin.
I reached for a pack of shotblocks in a jersey pocket, but realized they weren’t going to act fast enough, nor be sufficient to get me out. A couple miles later I dug out the emergency Gu that lives in my pack.
As always, the e-Gu saves. My head stopped floating on the end of the balloon cord it was on.
While the road riding sucked, it was obvious my body had been good for the 60 miles/6 hours, and the additional 30/2 was what was going to make this ride count. As much as I hurt, and as brutally as my legs screamed the final miles on Palmer Creek Road, I was really glad I was closing it out.
That was kind of it. It was really uneventful. This was the latest start for this ride, and thus the latest finish, which was kind of nice as the evening air cooled a bit and traffic was very light.
I got to Adam’s car and shut the clock off at 8:30 total.
If I ran the clock through the transition, it would have been 8:45, which was last year’s time.
I guess that leaves some questions in my mind. If I’d stayed on my full suspension (i.e. 0 transition time), would my total time have been extended to 8:45 because of the bigger bike’s inefficiency?
Did I “cheat” by using a lighter bike for the paved section, and a big bike for the trail sections?
I’m not sure.
I think it probably would have been about the same. I did the whole loop on a hard tail last season, so I still got the advantage of having the light efficient bike on the pavement and the climbs on Res and Johnson.
I also don’t find my current full-sus bike to be terribly inefficient on the road.
In the future, I’d probably continue to complete this loop by starting and ending at Devils Pass TH (I just like ending really long rides by coming down Devils), but I’d also do this variation again, particularly if we had a similar situation.

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Can I Mountain Bike the Kenai This Weekend?

Figuring out how the trails on the Kenai are going to ride, and whether they’ll be too snow-covered, rain-soaked, or overgrown with vegetation, might not be rocket science, but it's certainly not as obvious are riding in Southern California either.

Every year is different. Heavy winter snows, cold or hot springs, summer rains, the onset of the fall monsoon season, and early or late killing frosts can influence how quickly different trails come into or fall out of favor by as much as two weeks.

In general, I tend to target trails, or segments of longer trails, as listed below. In some cases, I may target certain trails (e.g., Russian Lakes, Johnson Pass) more heavily in the earlier part of the season, even if other trails like Resurrection or Lost Lake are snow-free, as the former will be unpleasant to ride once they become overgrown, while the latter will be ride-able through the height of summer and into autumn.

Mid-May through end of June:
Gull Rock Trail
Russian Lakes Trail
Johnson Pass (south end tends to come in 1-2 weeks prior to north end)
Devils Pass Trail
Cooper Landing to Swan Lake+ on Resurrection Pass Trail
Iditarod Historic Trail from Primrose Campground to Mile 17 of the Seward Highway

July through end of August
Resurrection Pass Trail
Devils Pass Trail
Iditarod Historic Trail from Bear Lake to Kenai Lake
Primrose Trail
Lost Lake Trail
Crescent Lake Trail

September through end of October
Devils Pass Trail
Swan Lake to East Creek on Resurrection Pass Trail (accessed by Devils Pass Trail)
Crescent Lake Trail
Iditarod Historic Trail from Bear Lake to Kenai Lake
Primrose Trail
Lost Lake Trail
Russian Lakes Trail (after a few good killing frosts)
South half of Johnson Pass Trail (after a few good killing frosts)

The Kenai at its best!
Within season, another tricky issue can be figuring out how muddy a trail will be due to recent rain, and whether they will be worth the drive. There are three well-placed RAWS weather stations that capture reliable accumulated precipitation data on the Kenai Peninsula that I make regular use of. A good rule is that for every 1/2-inch of accumulated rainfall, as many days should be allowed for the trails to dry out. Obviously, this is just a general rule, and needs to be evaluated in relation to how well the target trail drains, the time of year, and the weather before and after the rain.

Some trails on the Kenai are better armored and drained than others (listed below). Additionally, at the height of the growing season, plant uptake can help absorb a lot of ground moisture. Later in the season, as the plants stop growing and the days and nights get cooler, water tends to stand around for far longer. The best post-rainfall weather is of course, hot, sunny, and breezy.

RAWS Weather Stations
Granite Creek (South Turnagain Pass) (LINK) Best for north half of Johnson Pass
Kenai Lake (Moose Pass) (LINK) Best for south half of Johnson Pass; helpful for Crescent Lake and Primrose
Broadview (Cooper Landing) (LINK) Best for Resurrection Pass Trail, Russian Lakes Trail; helpful for Crescent Lake Trail

Pro tip: While other weather stations located on the Kenai that are run by the AK Department of Transportation, SNOTEL, and HADS don’t record accumulated precipitation, they do show daily rainfall amounts, along with temperatures and wind speeds. These stations are located in a much broader swath of locations, and can provide helpful clues as to what might be happening away from the RAWS sites. As we all know, the weather in AK can be very variable, and what is happening in one place, could be completely different just a mile or two away.

The other end of this guessing game is trying to figure out what the future holds, or more precisely, if rain is in the forecast, whether you will get wet. Realistically, this is much more involved. As a general rule, rains tend to be more persistent and heavier closer to Seward, and more showery further inland - but that's totally dependent on the storm track and severity of the weather system. If you're not a weather dork, the next best bet is to keep an eye on the weather a few days in advance, and use reliable forecast tools from the National Weather Service, not some Google app on your smart phone.

Wet Weather Best Bets (Season-Dependent)
Russian Lakes Trail
Devils Pass Trail
Lost Lake Trail
Primrose Trail
South end of Johnson Pass Trail
Iditarod Historic Trail from Primrose Campground to Mile 17 of the Seward Highway

Wet Weather Trails to Avoid
Resurrection Pass Trail
North end of Johnson Pass Trail