Sources of Inspiration: Fat Bikes & Canyon Country
It is funny how the little, seemingly inconsequential things in life can stir in us moments of realization or clarity. How ideas can arise out of these stirrings which inspire us to see things from a completely different angle and conceive, what at first thought seems impossible, possible. Ever since I learned about the advent of the fatbike in Alaska and threw my leg over my very own Salsa Mukluk, I have been finding inspiration from within…to do desert tours up sandy washes…to ride up a snow packed canyon road with backcountry ski gear to access bottomless powder. My Mukluk has carried me to many places which no other bike could and has allowed me to have some unique adventures. However, when I see videos of the Alaska crew riding the Lost Coast utilizing the floatation of their fat tires as stepping stones to cross the marshes of a tidal plane, it stirs in me something deeper…a desire to find terrain in my own backyard which seems impossible to bike, yet with a fatbike, just may redefine what is possible given creativity and imagination. At the very least a good ole’ fashion adventure may develop.
During the fall of 2013 I spent a lot of time in the canyon country of Utah. From leading groups down tight, dirty, wet slot canyons to bikepacking across desert mesas and ridgelines, it seemed that every weekend I found myself exploring and experiencing the many wonders of this brutal yet amazingly beautiful country. As the fall progressed I would returnhome to my mountain town thinking about possibilities. An idea was beginning to take shape…
I believe the conversation went a little like this:
Me: Yo! Do you have some time in May for an exploratory adventure in Utah?
Kevin: Gotta check in with the family. What do you have in mind?
Me: I want to see if we can finish the mission we started last fall. It is going to involve our Mukluks, bike packing gear and most likely, canyon ropes.
Me: It will also take some commitment and may not even be possible. At the very least though, we will get some exercise and get ourselves into a little adventure.
Kevin: Ok. Sounds interesting. I am down. Let’s get together and look at some maps.
Me: Sounds good. Check your schedule and let me know what night works best for you.
And thus two days later, Kevin and I found ourselves driving towards southern Utah to test an idea that had been ruminating within me for months: could we find entry into the canyon near its top, and once in, could our fatbikes and technical skill allow us to negotiate a stream bed of boulders, gravel, sand, slickrock, deep pools of water, and thick vegetation? The unknown was about to become the known.
During one of my weekend forays in the fall, Kevin and I explored a short section of our intended canyon where road access allowed us easy entry and exit points. We successfully rode our Mukluks down a ten mile section of canyon encountering everything you would expect in such terrain. It was amazing what our big tires allowed us to ride over and through—from bowling ball sized fields of boulders to soft sand and sticky mud. This was the southwest’s adventure playground for these bikes—making the seemingly implausible, plausible. Wahoo! Our success got me wondering about the character of the entire canyon and if it would be possible to ride from the top down? There were no road entry points above where we had entered in the fall, so we would have to find another way into the canyon that would most likely involve hiking with our bikes as well as a possible rappel or two. Upon an evening session of peering over topo maps of the region, we identified three possible drainages which emptied into the main canyon itself. Hopefully, one of these canyon spurs would allow us easy access into our riding objective.
Upon finding our first drainage, the adventure began. Leaving the truck, our first order of business was to hike the drainage and see if it was possible to enter the main canyon with bikes and camping gear. After a two hour scout we identified what we thought would be a viable way to get into the canyon. Center lining the drainage was not going to be possible, as the closer it got to the main canyon it became more slot like in nature with narrow walls and significant drops into unknown depths of water—we were not going to be able to get bikes down through these features. Upon further investigation we were able to follow a wide ledge above the slot features to where the side drainage dumped into the main canyon. We could easily see the bottom of the main canyon and it looked rideable. Now, how would we get ourselves, bikes and gear down there safely?
With a plan, we returned to the truck to pack our gear and prepare for dropping into the unknown. During our exploratory in the fall, I had previously hiked segments of the canyon where we had ridden so the only question I had at that time was whether or not these bikes combined with our riding skills would allow us to ride rather than hike the many obstacles the canyon floor presented. In the current situation, the canyon itself was an unknown. Were there big pour offs in the canyon forcing us to down climb or rappel? Was there a slot section where it would be impassable with bikes? How much water was in there? These questions were going through our minds as we packed and sorted through our gear trying to find the balance of having what we needed to complete the mission without carrying too much or needless items, while all along not knowing what to expect.
Me: Hey! Once I pull this, there is no going back…at least not out this way. We are committed. You good with that?
Kevin: Pull it.
With a tug the canyon rope slid easily through the recently built anchor and fell 100 feet to land in a pile at my feet. Kevin and I had just completed the first of what would be two rappels. Loading all of our gear on our backs, including our bikes, we lowered ourselves into the unknown hoping this decision would not be a fool’s errand.
After another 50 foot rappel and a short down climb of a rock slab, we were bushwhacking through thick vegetation to the canyon bottom. Wahoo! The first obstacle of the trip was surpassed—we were in. While pausing for a quick bite to eat, we began assembling the gear on our bikes. On went handle bar bags, frame bags, seat post bags, and small feed bags. Once our ropes and other assorted climbing hardware had found a place on our bikes, we began our first pedal strokes down canyon. What would the canyon have in store for us?
The character of the upper canyon was very similar to what we had experienced in the lower portion, with steep overhanging walls boxing in a canyon bottom of sand, gravel, mud, slick rock, and bowling ball sized boulders and larger. The riding was engaging and always changing. Short sections of slick rock bordered by pools of water would leave us amazed at where we were and what we were actually doing. As we rounded a bend our slick rock would end in a field of rubble and sand. As we approached these obstacles I found my mind preparing for my body to unclip from my pedals and begin a hike-a-bike—there was no way to ride across a field of boulders…or was there?
A fatbike is an amazing machine that is capable of taking one’s riding to a whole new level. We know that fat tires provide increased floatation for riding across sand and snow as that is how these bikes originally came about and were developed. With a little skill and creativity to see a passable line amongst a jumble of boulders or talus, these same fat tires seemingly float across terrain that is impassable on any other bike. And so Kevin and I would enter a technical feature hoping for the best only to reach the other side with a fist pump and yell of disbelief of what we had just ridden. These bikes were redefining our notions of what was possible to ride.
As the afternoon moved into early evening, we slowly made our way down the canyon taking in the beauty that we had all to ourselves. The canyon was absent of any human presence. However, we did encounter plenty of signs of the creatures who called the canyon home, from tiny hoof prints of deer to the print of a lone bear as he made his way up canyon prior to our entrance. Making our way down canyon became a game of sorts where teamwork was a necessity. Despite our success in riding across boulder fields, the canyon was not all rideable—with car sized boulders and larger providing plenty of problems to solve.
Me: Hey, Kevin. Is there a way through there?
?Kevin: Yea, but we are going to have to lift the bikes up on to this boulder and then turn them upside down to get them through this slot.
Creative solutions for unusual dilemmas. Just before making camp we came upon our first “portage” of the adventure—an obstacle requiring us to completely de-rig our bikes and make two or more carries to get by the obstacle. In this particular case, the canyon walls had narrowed such that there were only 15 or so feet between them. The canyon bottom was filled with water…murky water of an unknown depth. Thinking outside of the box we searched for a way up and around, but to no avail. There was no choice but to wade in and test the waters. Leading, I slowly eased into the pool. Soon I found myself waist deep with another third of the pool to get across. Fortunately, there was going to be no swimming involved as the pool became more shallow the closer I got to the end. With the depth test complete, we made our way back to our bikes and stripped them of their bags for the first carry across the pool. To preserve our components we needed to be able to keep the bikes as high and dry as possible—an unloaded bike was the way.
“Portage #1.” Photo courtesy of Kevin Sainio. Our camp for the evening was in a secluded spot under a slightly overhanging canyon wall among van sized boulders. Pools of clear water dotted the sandy canyon bottom and made for easy access to drinking water and rinsing out our muddy socks and cycling shoes. We basked in the last light of the day and watched bats make their way from the many fissures of the canyon walls to feed. In a day of many firsts we had managed to cover nearly ten miles of canyon along with a morning scout and a couple of rappels. Listening to a chorus of frogs sing a lullaby to one another, we fell fast asleep wondering what the canyon had in store for us tomorrow.
Our camp in the heart of the canyon. We were up at day break and eager for the obstacles that lay ahead. We both felt a little sore from the previous day’s activities as rappelling with a fully loaded bike and then manhandling it up and over boulders is a full body work out. Putting on our work clothes of cycling shorts, shirts, and shoes, we prepared for the inevitable work that we knew lied ahead. Our topo map showed many extended narrow sections of canyon just a few bends from our camp. Would we find passage for our bikes through these sections or would we come to our first insurmountable problem?
Day two began with more amazing canyon riding. Not knowing what lurked beyond every bend in the canyon we learned to embrace the unknown and live in the moment. The narrow sections were all passable with only a few carries and lots of beautiful riding on slick rock and wet sand. It was stunning. As we progressed down canyon we started to see signs of others who had passed before us. Several slot canyons emptied into our canyon and we saw the footprints of those who had down climbed, rappelled, swam, and groveled to get down them. At the mouth of one particular side canyon we found an old relic and perhaps an indication that someone else had attempted to bike the canyon. The crank was partially buried among the rocks and muddy sand of the canyon floor. Was it possible someone else had already attempted this adventure? If bikes could only talk and share the stories of where they have been pedaled…
Remnants of a previous ride attempt? Late in the morning we came upon what would be our final “portage” of the trip. The canyon was completely blocked by cottage sized boulders with no access through. Following the clues left by those who had come before us, we de-rigged our bikes of their gear and crawled our way up a steep, loose and sandy hillside to get on top of one of our obstructing boulders. From there, we down climbed its slabby backside to the canyon floor. Carrying up the hillside with our bikes was interesting as for every step up, we seemed to slide down two as the sand crumbled under our weight. Once our bikes and all of our gear were on the other side, we took a much needed lunch break and pondered what could possibly lie ahead.
Our final “portage” with clear sailing beyond.
To our delight, the canyon began to open up and the sections we could ride became more consistent and longer. We cruised the last couple of canyon miles and by early afternoon we were at the road access point where we had started during the fall. Wahoo! We did it! The unknown had become the known. Our reward was an experience on a bike like no other. We redefined what I thought was possible and I had found my own Lost Coast. Or should I say, Lost Canyon.
Anyone up for some “Bike-a-neering?”