Thursday, February 26, 2015

How I Design Adventure

High in the Selway Bitteroot Wilderness, Idaho. Photo Aaron Teasdale.

As a cartographer for Adventure Cycling Association, I spend heaps of time studying the interplay between terrain and bikes, and as the architect of the Idaho Hot Springs Mountain Bike Route, I've learned what those lines really mean out there on the trail, and as a serial bikepacker, I've experienced more ups and downs than I can count. Bicycle touring is challenging and amazing, and this post is about what I've learned about how to put together a trip.

What I'm going to present is the approach that I've unconsciously used to design backcountry bike trips over the past few years. At the same time, I'm going to bring it back together by designing a short trip for myself that I hope to complete this spring. Which can be seen in the rough map below.

This is the starting point of my adventure planning. I first focus on what I want the adventure to communicate to myself, then establishing rules. Then much later, creativity.

Let call this the "Outer Canyonlands Hackle"

Step 1 - Determine Initial Goals

This is the point where you put your loose goals on the table. These can be as simple as "I want to ride my bicycle and camp in the woods with my friends." Or, as complex as "I want to test my limits to see what is accomplishable to further the activity of bicycle travel by swimming across Lake Superior with my bike on my back."

These are your goals and they are personal. The point here is to sketch them out to establish why you are doing this trip, and what you hope to accomplish. At the same time, don't worry about having definitive answers right now. You don't need to be super-serious. Again, these are loose goals. You'll have a chance later to add or take away from them. You may even change them entirely.

Outer Canyonlands Hackle - Initial Goals:
- Skip out of Montana for warmer weather. 
- Experience a climate zone and landscape that is unfamiliar. 
- Do a 3-4 day human-powered self-supported trip that involves mountain bikes and flat water canoeing. 
- Test gear strategies for an upcoming summer trip. 

Step 2 - Determine Moral Constraints

For most self-supported adventures, the best moral ethos for a trip is one which negatively affects the environment the least. The logical extension of this would mean to head out the door naked, using only your feet and hands for transportation, forage for food, and encounter no outside human assistance. Since we are planning a bike trip, that is unattainable, but it is healthy to understand what the logical end of the spectrum is. Ultimately, you will have to decide how close to this you can get by deciding what is ok for your trip, and whats not.

You'll also have to morally deal with cultural regulations, such as areas where it is illegal to use a method of transportation. Or, areas which require permits to travel through. These regulations may go against your desires, but they may be the best for the environment of that area, which if you went against, would comprise your moral constraints entirely. If any doubt exists, it's best to follow cultural regulations.

These constraints are intended to narrow your focus, and make trip planning easier. Ask tough questions. Is this a human powered trip only? Are re-supply airplane drops ok? Hitchhiking? Amtrak? Train-hopping? Staying in hotels? Can I ride from my front door instead of getting a ride to the trailhead? Is burning trash in the wilderness ok? Would a SPOT tracker compromise my wilderness experience? Phone? eBikes? Headlamp? Helmet? Toilet paper? Is riding a bike in a designated Wilderness ok? What about just that trail that barely dips in? What about packing a disassembled bike on a backpack through designated Wilderness? What about using a guide book? A map? Inquiring trail info from locals?

These questions are but a few. The rabbit hole runs deeps. Dive in. The more questions ask yourself, the stronger your convictions will be, and the more meaningful your adventure will become.

Determine Moral Constraints - Outer Canyonlands Hackle:
- Human powered travel only. 
- Practice leave-no-trace. 
- Resupply at the car is allowed. 
- Since I am not experienced navigating in this environment, digital navigation is ok. 
- Get permit floating the Green River through BLM. 
- Obey all rules in Canyonlands National Park. 
- Study more about the environment which will be encountered and treat it well. 
- Deal with human feces properly on the river. 

Forest Fire Lookout Towers make wonderful destinations.

Step 3 - Establish Destinations Constraints

Do not think of a route as just a line between a start and end. Don't limit yourself. Instead find intermittent points in an area to connect. If you glance at a road/trail network in an area with the goal to just bike tour, it can be pretty daunting and/or boring to suss out a route. Instead find destinations. Then, connect them.

One technique that has worked for me is to plotout interesting locations in your chosen area and try to link them. Here in the Northern Rockies, I love hot springs and fire lookout towers, but you may prefer waterfalls, quaint towns, ice cream stands, breweries, knitting shops, gold mines, ghost towns, idyllic streams to fish, or desert towers to climb. Don't be afraid to narrow your focus even more by making it a themed trip.

Really get down and dirty with this. Study the cultural and natural history in the area. There's always things that will make your trip more interesting.

Your destination constraints do not have to be points. They can also be linear parts of the greater route. Such as singletrack you've always wanted to ride, a river to packraft with your bike on board, or a hill to skin up with your bike on your back.

It helps to also work in where you are going to sleep each night. Again, this can be a point. Such as a campground, cabin, or bed and breakfast. Or, it can be a rough area. Like camping somewhere along a certain creek. If it is a longer trip you will need to locate resupply destinations, and work them in. It also helps to figure out water sources, especially in the desert. On some desert trips, water becomes the main destination constraint.

Lastly, mix in as much of your destination goals as you can. Make this personal. Connect destinations that give you that warm fuzzy feeling of excitement. Or, that grizzled sufferfest feeling of accomplishment. Or, don't - this is your adventure.

Remember, these constraints make planning easier by limiting your routing options, and narrowing your focus.

Establish Destination Constraints - Outer Canyonlands Hackle:
- Since I do not have a lot of experience in this environment, I will be conservative with my routing strategy, limiting unknown off trail travel. 
- Upon looking at the Moab area. The Green River between the town of Green River and Canyonlands National Park, and the Colorado River between Moab and Canyonlands National Park, both feature contiguous class I boating. Both would fit in with my initial goal of canoeing flatwater. Because of this, these destination constraints become part of the route, but I also have to locate put-in and take-out locations, and connect those via roads or trails. To ultimately meet my initial goals, these points become the most important destination constraints I face. 
- Since resupply is ok, the car becomes a destination constraint naturally worked into the route. 
- The largest challenge will be exiting the Colorado River and off-trail navigating to Potash Road. I have located 3 possible routes to exit the the river bottom via 2 different canyons. 
- Both nights will be spent along the rivers for easy water access. 

Multi-sport tool options

Step 4 - Determine Tool Constraints

Now is the time to figure out what gear you need to get you to your destinations, within your moral constraints. This could mean choosing a road bike over a mountain bike, deciding you're going to try multi-sport travel, or, it could mean the trip could be better accomplished without a bike at all.

Ultralight, SUL, Disaster, Yardsale - these are all gear ethos to work from, but they will ultimately be determined by your mental and emotional experience both within the environments encountered, and chosen method of travel. They will also be determined by your physical abilities, and the destination and moral constraints you have already established.

Light is right, until it's not. Don't fall into the trap of thinking one gear style is better then another. This includes bikepacking bags vs trailers vs panniers. Again, don't limit yourself - especially due to something being culturally in vogue. Each trip might call for a different approach. A lot of people think I run on the lightweight side of things, and on the trips where my destination and moral constraints call for it, I do. Truth be told, I also do my fair share of yardsale-in', and it's awesome too.

Determine Tool Constraints - Outer Canyonlands Hackle:
- Ride simple mountain bikes on land. 
- The canoeing sections will require use of a lightweight boat. The Alpacka Gnu fits this criteria perfectly. 
- We will be testing a prototype boat. I'm confident in it's ability, but still will prepare for a failure by packing as if we were not taking it. 
- Will pack as lightweight as we can, but still be comfortable lounging in camp. Bikepacking bags + 20L backpack with frame removed.
- No need for MegaLight center pole. We will use a paddle instead.
- Will bring a pfd.
- Need to investigate drinking water strategies.

Step 5 - Analyze and Adjust

Now that you have setup your constraints and rules, you know them. And now that you know them, feel free to modify them while still holding true to your initial goals. Manipulate your proposed story so it communicates better - to yourself. Maybe, you want to add some of you moral, destination, or tool constraints to your initial goals. That's great. This is the time to do that and work back down the list.

Repeat until you are 100% satisfied. If you are not 100% on this, scrap the whole design, and start over. Or maybe, just half of it. Don't get stuck on trying to put a square peg in a round hole. Although, sometime the square will fit with the right modifications.

This part also involves the heaviest amount of research, but because you've whittled your trip down with all of those constraints, it becomes manageable. Again, and I can't say it enough - these constraints make trip planning easier by limiting your options, and narrowing your focus. Which will hopefully lead you to design your perfect dream adventure.


While we have been discussing a simple bike tour here, this technique works for an incredible amount other situations that call for problem solving.

- If you choose to take on a trip partner, you are now a team. Act like it. Realizing your goals now depends on being a good teammate, not a competitor. If your teammate fails for any avoidable reason it is your fault for choosing the wrong teammate.

- Look outside the bicycle and outdoor industry for inspiration and techniques you can adapt to your adventure.

- If an adventure seems too hard at first, design a harder adventure and choose to do the easier of the two.

- Listen to this. Then, practice. Design lots of trips. Try to design one a week. Or, one a month.

- If this process seems serious at all, it's not. Have fun, with design.

Friday, October 3, 2014

Floating Around the Internet, Looking Ridiculous

In case you found your way here via the November issue of BIKE magazine, above would be the "Beverly Hillbillies" photo of me that Graham was referencing. I just finished up reading the piece, and I have to say it is very accurate and authentic. Nice work, Graham, and the editors at BIKE.

Also while you're here, check out Dave Chenault's article, in the Sept/Oct issue in Adventure Cyclist, about our Tobacco Root packbike trip. Heads up though, this may be Adventure Cycling member's-only content. I'm not sure. Someone let me know in the comments, will ya? Here is the map of our route I made for the occasion:

Below is a couple more shots from the BIKE photoshoot I did with Aaron Teasdale a few months ago. Talk about a fun day, and definitely not your normal photoshoot. Here's was Aaron's take:
Went out on a lightning-fast shoot of packbiker extraordinaire Casey Greene for BIKE magazine the other night. The mag was about to go to press and this was our one chance to get the images they needed. (No pressure!) To make it even more interesting, heavy storms moved across Western Montana that day. After studying the doppler all afternoon, we decided there was one spot within striking distance that _might_ have dry weather. Picked up Casey from work at 4:30 in downtown Missoula and beelined for two-hours into Idaho, throttling my van up a narrow dirt road until it petered out high in the mountains. 
The gods of fate smiled on us—the sun was shining. With only 90 minutes to work with before it slipped behind the western horizon, we moved fast, running along the rocky ridgeline to the next photogenic spot. The sun went down all too quickly and, concerned I didn't have enough diversity, I kept shooting, experimenting with super-high ISO, super-low shutter speeds as we made our way back to the van in the dark, lightning strobing the sky in the distance on all sides. 
I ended up sending BIKE 144 shots the next day, which was pretty satisfying considering that 24 hours earlier, watching heavy rain move across the region, I was worried we'd be skunked. Thanks to Casey and BIKE for the opportunity and challenge. And thanks to the mountains for gracing us with sun and allowing us to shoot on their slopes. Yet another great night in the wilds.
True that. Check out more of Aaron's photos here. And on FB here.

These photo copyright Aaron Teasdale.
A little off subject, but I'll be giving a talk about the Idaho Hot Springs Mountain Bike Route maps at the NACIS cartography conference in Pittsburgh, next Thursday. More info here. If anyone is in the area, stop by and hear about what went into the design of the route, and the maps.

More: You're going to die, Ohio Boy - by Dave Chenault
Inspiration: Mountain Bikes From Hell! - by Roman Dial

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Bikepacking Yaak's Fire Lookout Towers

I'd been to these mountains before. I'd ridden my bicycle through them 4 years - a lifetime - ago. I'd never been so happy. Each night on that outing, myself and my friend Shaun had stayed at forest fire lookout towers, perched high on mountain tops. We had started in the Selkirk Mountains of north Idaho and seemed to dance across the peaks and river valleys right to the edge of Glacier National Park in Montana.

This time around, we had come back for more of the same: 4 lookout towers in 5 days. Shaun and Reuben picked me and my bike up early on a Wednesday morning. We drove past Arlee and Thompson Falls. We passed the town of Troy and hung a right along the Yaak River, where we drove straight for the little town of Yaak. The forested hills closed in.

September 17th

My bike is a 2013 Surly Krampus. It's green and has really big tires. Even though it is new, it seems old. A throwback to a bygone era. But it's not new trying to be old, like an FJ Cruiser. It's the original: a 1972 BJ45 Troopie. And just like my dream truck, it promises to be dependable and crawl over anything, but get me nowhere in a hurry.

I can agree to this.

But I haven't yet. There has to be some skepticism, some weak point to worry about. Maybe it's because I'm a pre-trip worrier, or maybe it's because I've not had a successful multi-day outing this year and I'm trying so-god-damn-hard to make this one work. Or maybe, it's because I'm in the Yaak where everyone is skeptical of everything. The kind of place where outsiders are looked at not so much as aliens, but more so Cold-War-Era Russians. The weather is harsh here too, and the outside world far away. If you spend winters here, you have to be skeptical, and you better own two of everything: two chainsaws, two generators, two trucks, two winches, two radios, two wood stoves, and three of each wouldn't be a bad idea.

So, I pick the bike's hydraulic disc brakes as it's achilles. I'll focus on that. That's the weak point. Now the world is in order, and I can climb to the top of it. Which today happens to be Mt Baldy.

September 18th

Winter is never too far away in the Yaak. In mid September, it is just waking up, like a spring bee buzzing around drunk from hibernation. You can feel it's presence, but it won't sting. The air is crisp on the morning descent, but not cold. Not even close.

There are 3 paved roads out of the Yaak. The South Fork Road heads over Pipe Creek Summit past the old ski hill, past the bar and pizza joint at mile marker 7, and down to Libby. The East Fork Road winds it's way up between 2 giants, Mt Henry and Mt Robinson, and down towards Eureka. And the Yaak River Road follows the Main Yaak River to Troy. This morning we are on the later.

Things of note on this 8 mile stretch: few cars, a Forest Service Work Center where I unload some trash - mostly beer cans, and large pile of ruble near mile marker 13 where the Golden Nugget bar use to be.

The Spokane newspaper ran a story this past March about the Golden Nugget's mysterious fiery demise the month before. The journalist who wrote the piece thinks it may be related to 5 other rural bars that have gone up in flames over the past 12 months. I'm skeptical. But then again, the owner was a formal Grand Dragon of the KKK who did federal time for burning down a church in Kentucky - so there's that. Regardless of gossip, the Yaak now has 3 storefront businesses instead of 4, and the remaining 3 are also bars. I hope the journalist wasn't onto something.

September 19th

Yesterday was a hard day. I did not anticipate the rolling nature of the East Side Yaak Road. I struggled up the final 2000ft climb to Yaak Mountain. I was anxious, and riding too hard. Breathing too much. The rhythms of this bike tour have not settled into my system yet. The rhythms of the Yaak would probably take a lifetime to settle into, but I'm not going to have enough time to figure that out. The best I can hope for is the bike tour.

Rick Bass' book, Winter: Notes From Montana, is a fine read. In it, Rick tells the story of his first winter spent in the Yaak. From what I can gather he house-sat a ranch on the east side of the South Fork Road, near Lost Horse Mountain, that first year in the late 80's. Here's some of my favorite quotes from the book:
"But the fishing stinks. It's almost Paradise up here, but not quite. And maybe, if I understand it correctly, that's what's needed in Paradise, to make Paradise be Paradise: a flaw. One small thing, one small evil, to define the wonder and richness of everything else."
"It can be so wonderful, finding out you were wrong, that you are ignorant, that you know nothing, not squat. You get to start over. It's like snow falling that first time each year. It doesn't make any sound, but it's the strongest force you know of."
 "Everyone back east wants me to send them pictures, but very few of them sound serious about visiting. This is fine with me. I will send them pictures."
There are other good one too, but it's hard to find quotes in a book without reading the whole book from front to back searching for them, and if your searching for quotes, you miss the fluidity of the story, or bike tour. Or, whatever.

The decision is made to head down to Troy for breakfast and coffee, then onto Libby via US 2, and back into the Yaak via Pipe Creek and the South Fork Road. After those 50 some miles, we'll start the climb to Big Creek Baldy. It looks like a beast on the map.

September 20th

A logging truck passes on the morning climb to Pipe Creek Summit. It rattles and hums it's way down the hill towards Libby. All property in the Yaak is ether National Forest or private. There are no National Parks, Recreation Areas or Monuments. This is fine by me. Some people think the best way to ruin a piece of land is to invite industrial companies to have their way with it. Others think the best way to ruin a piece of land, is to make general public aware that it exists by naming it a National Park, Recreation Area, or Monument.

The driver of the logging truck does not wave back.

My butt hurts. The worst comes when I'm slowly trying to peel it off my saddle. It's gotten worse over the past few days. I'm getting older. Rueben's and Shaun's aren't feeling much better, and because of this, we ditch our bikes, and decide to backpack up to our final destination: Mt. Henry. It feels good to be on my feet. Bikes are nice, but they're not all that. At least not today. And today is perhaps the finest September day in the history of September days.

September 21th

That last sentence, in that last paragraph, was appropriated from my friend Aaron Teasdale's article about fire lookout towers in next month's issue of Adventure Cyclist magazine. I didn't want to use quote-marks because that breaks things up too much. It would leave too many questions - especially at the end of a paragraph - but I did want to give him credit. It is a fine line.

Aaron is also the reason we are up here at Mt Henry. Last week he sent some pictures of the dilapidated tower on top, with a warning: "That’s the best spot in the Yaak. Amazing views". To my surprise, it fit into our schedule, which had been planned out for months.

It's hard for me to separate the experience of bike touring to lookout towers, from the experience of that first trip me and Shaun did, back in 2010. On that occasion, everything was new, we were ignorant, and we knew nothing. We just went for it. Now, we know too much. At what point does knowledge and experience extinguishes that sweet bumbling bliss of a possible shit-show?

A tough question. But this is not something to think about now. This can wait. There is a priority right now, on the catwalk surrounding the Mt Henry lookout tower, and it's not worrying about any of that.

He was not wrong about the views. The world is slowly revealing the Cabinet Mountain's snowfields in a blanket of alpenglow.

On the playlist: Hurray For The Riff Raff - End of the Line
Inspiration: Slaying The Badger