By William Thomas
The roof close above my head woke me just after 3 a.m., groaning sharply in a way I had never heard in 14 winters in this hideout. It was the sound my plywood trimaran Celerity had made sailing fast against a headsea a thousand miles off the coast of Honshu. Such grudging accommodation of joints and timbers to unaccustomed loads works great until the structure fails. In the cold and pitch dark, my senses came fully alert.
The creaking came again.
It must have been snowing heavy all night. Icy ears sticking out from an ill-considered boot-camp haircut indicated the heater was off and the power out. Lines must be down all over this wooded island, snapping and crackling under a barrage of snow-weighted trees and cannonball limbs. Ditto, no doubt, our sister island close to the west, which relayed hydroelectric power from the big island named after Captain Vancouver.
Burrowing deeper under a mound of blankets and a down mummy bag snatched in the dark from a curtained cache of camping gear, sometime after daybreak I heard a rumbling crashing scraping roar of a blade and labouring engine. The snorting monster banged and crested and clattered past unseen, Dopplering down towards the cove. In minutes, the snowplow returned, walling in my driveway with the rippling sound of a cresting wave before vanishing into the deeply muffled silence heavy snowfall brings.
Hope the roof holds.
Then: Today's the day I take the bike out!
That shot of adrenaline got me up and into my slippers. With the plumbing and power out indefinitely, it was skin-puckering chilly in the room: 44F by the digital thermometer. Still, warmer than the subzero overnight cold outside. All that snow on the roof and piled against the outside walls was insulating this 16x20 cabin like an igloo.
Outside on the back deck, another shock. The snow that had looked so light and fluffy through the frosted windows was sagging the tops’l-size overhead awning with the weight and consistency of wet cement.
The last time I'd gotten online, the weather channel was hollering about an exceptionally heavy snowstorm hammering the B.C. coast. Power was out everywhere and Environment Canada was calling for more snow, "heavy at times."
Eyeing the half-foot accumulation on my nearly flat roof, I guessed it could take 12-inches. (It would get 16…)
Buried under a drift pouring through its partially-caved-in tarp roof, the composting toilet was still accessible to fully-equipped expeditions, though incautious users courted frostbite. Even if the well pump worked, the icy slush in the tub discouraged bathing.
I took stock.
With careful rationing – a fire in the later afternoon through an early supper and then back to reading or watching flicks in my bed cave – I could go maybe eight days on the three presto logs left over from the last few mild winters, plus the cropped limbs I'd stored upright under the eaves of the shed where I kept the goatbike and boat gear, before I had to go across the road with my Swede saw and cut more deadfalls the bike could haul home.
As for water and food, I was "fat" as pilots say of fuel remaining. In jerry cans and glass containers, I had at least 20 days' water, if I ate from the pot as Thea and I had during storms at sea. There was a good month’s worth of meals in the cans racked in the vestibule and stowed under the bed. Not to mention the fabled cove store, well-rehearsed in alternatively bringing food by boat. (The fatbike had ferried those flats of food home.)
Auxiliary power was LOL. Both sealed gel-cells, taken last autumn from the outrigged solar-electric Grumman sailing canoe flipped upside down and buried under a drift out in the yard, would provide the reading light, music and movies vital to winter morale at 50 North, when it gets dark early and the nights are cold and long.
I had electricity for at least two weeks, probably longer. Long before then, I could hook up the three solar panels removed from Electra and keep the juice flowing indefinitely.
Kindling was already laid, but I decided not to fire up the carbon-burning Waterford MKII. Instead, I cooked a quick breakfast of oatmeal, diced apples and a rare score – organic Grade B maple syrup – on the propane stove.
When I'd purchased the Mariner folding fatbike last summer, I decided that with a fractured Jetstream causing climate chaos my sole means of transport had better handle snow.
With its heavy-duty construction and oversize four-inch-wide knobbies, the sturdy fatbike had been created to traverse the shape-shifting sand and snow that quickly upended bicycles. All that extra weight and rolling resistance made it a bear to pedal – especially for a geezer running on reduced cylinders over challenging terrain.
Hence the geared hub motor on the back wheel. Its speed-governed 32kph velocity was legal and plenty fast for a bicycle, especially when traversing this island’s rough mountain tracks. Steep hills? There are no hills onboard an electric-assist fatbike. That 500-watt Bafang motor produced enough torque to scale castle walls.
I couldn't wait to try it out in the snow! Get some pics of the bike in the deep white woods…
For my first snow ride, this Michigan refugee chose his heavy boat coat, quilted snow coveralls, featherweight Korean snow boots, ski gauntlets, wool scarf and that Italian motorcycle cop’s helmet with the full-face, fog-prone shield extended like a visor.
Then I reached for the hefty Sony with its linear fisheye lens. I checked the camera battery fully charged, film card formatted and lens stabilization “on” before packing the outfit into the Cordura bike bag. A fresh cleaning cloth and small dishtowel for drying camera and lenses went into coat pockets. Instead of hassling white balance in all that blue snow, I switched the camera's digital filter to "cloudy" to warm up the ambient light. The eight-hundred-dollar Zeiss went into a Ziploc.
Outside at last, I crunched through deep snow to the shed where my ride awaited. Sliding the Samsung battery down its rail behind the seatpost until it clicked home, I installed the sheepskin-covered saddle, latching it firmly. Then I wheeled the bike backwards into the yard.
A turn of the key and long press of a button and the display came online, promising a whole new adventure. Both thumb-indented Kendas still felt around 8psi – perfect. Folding hinge secure. No twigs in the disc brakes.
Heaving the bike through the snow dike at the end of the now invisible driveway, I was instantly sorry the road had been plowed. Icy patches and slippery slush made for a cautious start, using the thumb throttle to modulate speed and torque.
A tentative uphill hundred-feet or so and I turned hard left into the park. But I was too eager to avoid that cutback fishhook entrance. Instead of a gentle beginner’s slope, I was confronted by an abrupt snow embankment.
The obstacle was as unavoidable as it was impassable. So I pumped the pedals and gunned it hard. The goatbike scrambled up and over without hesitation, motor-assist whining: What’s all the fuss?
Cautiously, I dialed in pedal-assist level “2” and recommenced peddling. A seamless meshing of human and electromagnetic energy moved us through a fairy tale forest toward an unknown fate. With 400km on the clock, most of it off-road, I figured I could decode this unfamiliar form of locomotion quickly enough to avoid total calamity.
To my delight, the bike felt completely comfortable in the deeper snow under patches of open sky. I was already addicted to the crunch of those monster tires through the white stuff.
After inviting decapitation beneath a long-toppled tree on a fast, steep descent, the path narrowed and climbed so sharply I had to dismount and use the “walk-assist” mode to slip and slide my heel-kicking goatbike onto level ground high above the Salish Sea.
A half-mile on, I came around a bend to find my way blocked by a high fir bough bowed by that concrete snow right down to the ground.
I went hard on the power and blasted right through it – instantly blinded, the bike shrugging off the impact, icy snow cascading down my back. The bough sprung free. The tree seemed relieved.
Great fun! The only problem, tree roots and branches were hidden under the snow. There was no avoiding or setting up for them. My goatbike bucked and skittered, caught itself as usual, and kept going.
The only gnarly part came where the trail was sharply dished to the edge of the cliff overlooking the water. A big boulder on the trail’s uphill side left a snow-covered ledge perhaps twice the width of my tires. One slip and it would be 30, 40 feet bouncing through trees down to those rocks.
I have invariably found that risk of injury guarantees a Zen moment. Like an arrow releasing itself from the bow, the goatbike shot across the gap. Opening my eyes, I stopped to make some exposures.
Then on to the bridge by the waterfalls. By now I was so stoned on the ride, I could only park and clap my gloved hands and bow to the snow devas.
I was steadying the Sony on the bridge railing when a couple of hikers materialized in my tracks. They were surprised to see a bike in all this snow nearly a mile from the trailhead. "That's pretty daring," the guy said, checking out my n conveyance as his woman looked on with amused approval.
Oh no, I told them with the airy assurance of a veteran snow rider, fatbikes were made for this.
Just past the footbridge, another bad moment where the fatbike got sideways in slush and took me to the cliff’s edge. Not for the first time I wished I could get a foot down to stabilize my mount. But even with the seatpost sawed short and the seat resting on the frame, the only way my 5’6 could contact the ground while seated was to dismount or laying the bike down.
I turned around.
It warmed up the next day, the temperature hovering around freezing. For a taste of open country, deep snow riding, I wore my new red North Face jacket over an ancient down vest with rusty buttons. Long johns went under my jeans, rain pants over.
It felt good to be riding light. Back on Central Road, I gingerly navigated up that scraped-slippery two-lane. Two cars passed me going the other way, their driver’s performing identical double-takes. At the turnoff to the Heron Rocks campground, I gratefully turned into some knee-deep tire ruts and dropped the bike three-times in a hundred-feet.
Nope, I decided, stepping off each time my ride laid down in the snow. Deep slushy tire tracks are what Tiggers and fatbikes don’t like the most.
Betty’s new dog was overjoyed to have a playmate. His barking brought her outside to watch as I parked the bike and walked ahead to assess a featureless white expanse.
Crickies! The snow here was halfway to my knees. It clung like cold treacle, making each step a struggle. I hadn’t encountered any walk as exhausting since negotiate those fire-flickering dunes in Kuwait.
It was going to take serious power to punch our way through this. If the goatbike was up for it… I wished Betty would go back inside.
I mounted up and goosed the photons. Sensing newfound fun, dog and goatbike lunged into the virgin snowfield together. I kept peddling easy in power-level “2”, adding generous squirts of thumb-throttle as needed.
This was totally, mind-blowingly amazing. Through the woods and campsites my trusty snowbike carried me, until I stopped to peel off a layer and lash it to the rack.
More photos. And then down a long, deeply drifted trail and across more open ground to the water’s edge. Great shots of the bike!
But when I decided to walk it back to shallower snow, using the optional power-walk-mode, I realized I’d blown it.
Walking alongside, the electrified back tire spun without finding traction. And I soon found that I didn’t have the stamina to push 57-pounds of bicycle, battery and motor back to firmer going under those distant trees.
It was clear that takeoffs in deep snow required the rider’s weight over the back wheel and a thumb-full of power – an ideal recipe for spinning out. Or simply capsizing before the power came on.
When operating a fatbike anywhere, the best option is to go for it. I mounted up, grabbed a handful of throttle and started peddling.
Save me, bike…
To my breath-expelling relief, my goatbike bulled ahead unfazed. We scrambled back to Betty and Darryl’s place without further drama – except for nearly taking out a heavy gate, which when we slid into it, turned out to be unlatched.
I only dropped the bike once more when we struck a patch of ice on the road out. No biggie, though I was annoyed to land on hard ground instead of soft snow. The goatbike, as usual, didn’t really care. Though I later twisted the folding handlebar back into a more steerable configuration.
Can a fatbike handle snow? Yeah, baby! The deeper the better. What I’d like to explore next is some of that soft powdered variety…
© Will Thomas photos