Thursday, February 14, 2013

Winter Biking and Powder Skiing in the Kingdom

Fish Fry-days, every Friday during Lent
Friday morning was unusually calm given New England was expecting a major noreaster and upwards of 30 inches of snow through the weekend. As usual, I was up at the crack of dawn to check the forecast and flakes hadn't even started falling here in Rio Blanco. There were two clear choices. A four hour slog south in the skimobile to bomb all 425 feet of vertical and unlimited refills on powder at Mount Southington, Connecticut. Or, wait it out here in Vermont and hope for the best. With major road closures expected in southern New England, and only the most modest/baldest of light truck tires mounted on my HONDA, Connecticut was out. And I like waiting as much as I like a kick in the balls. Somewhere there had to be a better third option. 

The northern tip of so-called 'Winter Storm Nemo' had just entered Vermont, and the snowier southern end was starting to form up off-shore in Southern New Enlgand, leaving massive stretch of clear air along the I-91 corridor all the way to the Northeast Kingdom. This left a narrow window of opportunity to get north in time to catch both the leading and trailing edges of Nemo. Quick action required, the wheels began to turn a I visualized the gearshed that is the back of my Pilot. Skis - check. Boots - check. Helmet(s) - check. Mountain bike? Check.

This Valentine's Day, get that special someone
 something special. Get them carbide studs.
I'd been out all week in Lebanon NH's Boston Lot riding some of the hardest hardpack I've ever seen in New England. Winter fat bike use had left the Lot with 20 miles of icy rock hard snail trail, and studded tires had opened my eyes to the wonders (and horrors) of February mountain biking. The Kingdom Trails Facebook page had been pushing their new winter biking trails pretty hard all week as well. If I could get there by 9, there was a chance to get a good 2 hours of single track in, grab some lunch in town, and snap on the powder skis for an afternoon of freshies at Burke Mountain. 

For some reason, everything we've done in 2013 had gone perfectly, exactly according to plan, or even better than expected. My doubleheader in East Burke was no exception.

Word was that most of KT's winter trails are found on the east side of Darling Hill. Checking in with the folks at East Burke Sports, I confirmed that some of my favorite riding was packed and primed and ready to ride - Herbs, Beat Bog, Leatherwood, Widow Maker and Pines. I had my fingers crossed for Rim to East Branch, but Rim was closed along with most of East Branch.

Flakes just starting to fall in the Kingdom
The boys at East Burke Sports were blunt and honest. "It's pretty icy out there." "Stay off the front brake if you want to stay on your bike." Nodding, of course I knew the penalty for manhandling the brakes on a slippery day was akin to hitting eject. One should expect to leave the cockpit all together. And quickly.

I'd taken a number of hard dives at Boston Lot and over the past week and, only half-jokingly, I suggested that perhaps the shop would do well to rent hockey pants in addition to their new lineup of fat bikes. For some reason I've landed hard on my left hip four or five times now - the same spot every time too. I was expecting, with an inch or two of fresh powder on the ground already and falling steadily, that studs were not going to be much protection on hidden ice and fast corners. A 6th massive crash on East Branch late in the morning reminded me how right those grease monkeys were. 

East Darling Hill loop
The KT staff had been 'grooming' their winter trails by fat bike and snowshoe all through our very snowless January. It seems funny to think about snow pack and base in terms of biking, but a good base is just as important to winter biking as it is go safe and enjoyable backcountry skiing.

Almost all studded tires run fairly narrow and require a very hard base to get good purchase. Fat bikes roll rubber wider than 3 inches, and can float through fresh snow and above a much softer base. Friday was one of those in-betweenie kind of days where either would work but neither would work well. Having only one option to choose from, I chose studs for dust on crust and had a heck of a good time doing it.

Namesake seating on Heaven's Bench
The east side of Darling Hill consists of some of KT's oldest trails and is the perfect spot for winter biking. Narrow tight single track connected by wider double track sugar roads and the VAST trail. These trails also get very little cross-country ski use, which is better done behind In-at-Mountain-View Farm, or the actual nordic center by the Dashney Farm.

All in all, the going was pretty slow. But that didn't effect the workout, or my sense of accomplishment at having gotten four good February mountain bike rides in while Mother Nature wasn't looking. It's easy to get stuck in your usual loop at the Kingdom but, by forcing a start on VAST, all routine went right out the window. I quickly found myself going up things I'm usually coming down, and riding trails I haven't touched in years (Heaven's Bench, at right).

Dark and stormy
I'm not sure why I thought the riding would be good or safe down the bank on East Branch, given how wet this section can get in the summer. I tried it anyway and will be limping for a while from the experience. Still smiling about the whole day though.

At high noon exactly I rolled back into the East Burke Sports parking lot, changed up inside the shop. The powder had, as predicted, piled up to schushable levels while I was out on the biking trails.  Burning my mouth sucking down a bowl of chicken soup the NEK Country Store in my haste to get up to the mountain to meet Brad, I paused to curse and reflect. The perfect morning, with afternoon of powder skiing and Burke's legendary peace and quiet to look forward to... if a jet engine doesn't fall out of the sky and kill me before I squeeze too much enjoyment out of 2013, I'll be dipped in banana oil.

Will you be my Valentine?

Who needs Stowe when you've got the NEK?

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