December 8, 2010
Imagine an overnight bicycle trip in the northern winter, perhaps on a nondescript snowmobile trail in the woods near your town. Moonlight illuminates a thick powder coat of snow on the trees, so much so that you don’t even need to use a headlight, despite the inky hue of the sky. The squeak of packed snow under your tires indicates the level of cold — probably about 5 degrees F and dropping. But you’re not concerned. You have warm boots, warm mitts, and panniers full of winter camping gear. You’ve been riding hard and working up body heat for several hours, ever since you left work on a nondescript evening in December, to venture into a black-and-white world that few ever see.
You pull up to a spot that looks cozy, nestled in a stand of trees under a blaze of stars. When you stop pedaling, the world becomes startlingly quiet. You hold your breath in the still air and listen for phantom echoes in the far distance — the yips of coyotes, the howl of wolves, even the low rumble of traffic in a civilization that now seems to be a universe away.
The sharp cold quickly works its way into your damp skin. Beads of frost cling to your eyelashes and eyebrows. Ice-crusted strands of hair surround your face. You exhale and the opaque swirl of breath prompts you back to action. You pull on your down coat and mittens, the get to work stomping out a large trench in the snow. You open your panniers and remove your winter sleeping bag, closed-cell foam pad and bivy sack. You fire up your stove and begin filling a pot with snow for drinking water and tea. You brush the snow off your chain, derailleurs and brakes to stave off morning freeze-up. You gather a few twigs, remove your lighter from the pocket nestled deep in your base layer, and ignite a small flame. You continue to fill your pot with new clumps of snow as you gather more wood. As the campfire blazes, eerie shadows dance along the frozen trail.
When the water heats up, you fill a cup for tea. You dip a frozen candy bar in the cup, melting the chocolate and thawing a few hundred body-heat-generating calories. As you sip your sweet drink, you soak in the silence and smile at the stars. Soon you’ll be nestled in your sleeping bag, dreaming of the crisp crackle of hoarfrost and the white sparkle of the world when you ride out in the morning.
It's all bicycle travel and it’s all good, even in the winter.
Photo by Jill Homer: A Surly Pugsley is loaded up for winter camping.
BIKEPACKER is written by Jill Homer, deputy editor for Adventure Cyclist magazine.
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