“Yes!!! A shelter! Damn it—it’s an outhouse.”
Nose, toes, and fingers are items I hold in higher regard than overall standings. There is a certain amount of inherent discomfort I accept in these races, but I’d crossed that line. My feet needed some love.
Frostbite is a sneaky, diabolical, and—given enough procrastination as fuel—vicious predator. It stalks our little piggies all the way home. Where a match, placed under the foot, initiates an immediate response, frostbite lurks. Like the wolves that call the woods of Voyageur National Park home, it is a constant companion on the trail and a danger much more real and nearby than we like to admit. So patient in its attack, we as racers can easily fail to give it the respect it’s due. We convince ourselves “It’s not that bad; just another hour or two until I’m at the checkpoint, and I’ll get my feet warm then.” Sometimes, it’s not that bad. Sometimes, it is. Toes go numb. Pain gone. Ride on. Big trouble. The wolf has you now.
My piggies wanted to go to market and eventually wee-wee-wee all the way home to Tower, Mn., the finish.
The best piece of second-hand winter racing advice —and perhaps life advice also—I’ve heard was from Jeff Oatley, a legend in the FatBike community: “When a problem arises, fix it. NOW.”
Starting line temps, 15 hours or so earlier, had been around -11F. Wind speeds were low, and trail conditions solid. Nighttime lows were predicted to be -14F. Damn near perfect. A beautiful moon, already visible as the sun began its journey to the other side of the planet, and crystal clear skies eventually found me riding with my headlamp off for short stretches. Stars danced above. The trail was lit by a moon whose beams stretched in every direction, touching nary a cloud. A more pristine winter night one could not find. The scene was so compelling, so inspirational, so fulfilling, that occasionally I’d unclip from the pedals and coast to a stop. Placing my right foot on the ground, looking to the sky, gazing into the abyss, and breathing deeply with intent, I’d allow my eyes, ever so slightly frosted, to close and then.... listen. Silence. The sort of silence only the wild places can offer. A silence that words, even those of the greatest poets, cannot do justice to. It can only be experienced. In a world that is so very busy, so incredibly noisy, this symphony, the Arrowhead 135 Concerto, is magnificent in its simplicity. And those who hear it, never forget it. No matter the time nor place, even now, reading these words, if you have heard the silence of the wilds and experienced the void, you can close your eyes and return there in an instant.
Crystal clear northern skies do not come free of charge, however. Typically, they also bring cold. Real cold. The silent symphony could not be enjoyed long. “Move or die,” the old timers say, when asked about what to do in "real" cold...cold in the -40 degree range, where the Fahrenheit and Celsius scales meet. I was unsure what the current race temps were. Based on the amount of gear I had on and the chill still nipping at me, we were damn sure south of the -14F that had been predicted.
I was well prepared for all eventualities. I’d packed with respect for the weather, not relying on the forecast. “Plan for the worst. Enjoy the best.” Mother Nature is not to be taken for granted. I’d chosen to take on the Arrowhead this year without support, meaning... well... NO support. Food, water, and gear, were all on the bike. There would be no going into the Gateway Checkpoint to resupply or get warm, and the same was true with Melgeorges Cabin. “No grilled cheese for you!” If I got cold, thirsty or hungry on trail, I was on my own. Build a fire, boil water, get in my sleeping bag. Figure it out.
Todd McFadden is a bad ass on the FatBike and a great friend as well as mentor. His wife must be pretty cool too; she has a saying that Todd had shared with us at breakfast the morning prior to the start of the race. “If you’re dumb enough to get into trouble, ya better be smart enough to get out of it.” That sums up perfectly the reality for anyone taking on the Arrowhead 135 unsupported. It’s you and you alone.
(End Part 1)