Winter camping is not for the faint of heart. Especially not winter bike camping. You ride all day, get sweaty (read: cold when you stop), then need to try to stay warm all night using only what you can carry on your bike. Then wake up in the morning and ride some more.
But there’s also something exhilarating about it, and the quest to do it better (i.e. learning how to survive and maybe even be comfortable with less gear) can be addicting. Evan has been hooked for a while, and after having one of my best winter camping experiences ever this weekend, I think I am too.
We started our ride at the Mountain Top Inn, soon to be Mountain Top Provisions. Our friend Donnie is in the process of buying the spot and turning it into a hub for outdoor adventures. He met us there and we shared a round of celebratory snakebites (whisky and lime juice) before rolling out.
After a quick stint on the pavement, we turned into the woods on doubletrack. Last week’s thaw and subsequent flash freeze had transformed the snowmobile trail into a sheet of ice in spots where it had been packed down by the sleds, so it was slower going than anticipated. I was thankful for my studded tires, especially considering I was convinced I wouldn’t need them. Since putting them on a few weeks ago, I’ve been on a few rides where they were sort of nice but not necessary — this time, they made all the difference.
A mix of gravel roads and more snowmobile trails made up most of the rest of the afternoon. Conditions ranged from pure ice to weird frozen ruts to dry grass and gravel. Our route took us through scrubby, open lands and thick pine forests. We stopped at Pat Reeder’s Tavern for a quick beer. I asked the woman behind the counter to top off my water bottle.
You want ice? she asked.
Actually, warm water would be great, I replied. She gave me a funny look and I explained how it would freeze anyway. A look of understanding passed across her face as she offered me a lemon. Yes, please!
The next part of the ride was my favorite. We dropped down Bear Trap Trail, which was covered with a perfect amount of crunchy snow that left shimmering crystals rooster-tailing off our tires. The ever-sinking sun beamed picture-perfect rays of light through the pine needles. The gurgling ice-flanked stream to our right completed the idyllic image of winter in Pennsylvania. Though the trail was fast, faster than we’d been able to go all day, we all slowed to enjoy this moment, to relish in that feeling we live for —- to be outside in a beautiful place that we got to under our own power, with the camaraderie of good friends.
We climbed another ice-covered gravel road back to the top of the mountain, where we stopped for a quick vista break before racing the setting sun to the bottom of the gorge, via the Webber homestead. Bob Webber was a forester who lived in a primitive cabin on State Forest land with his wife, Dottie. He built many of the trails in the area, including the famed Black Forest Trail, and hiked up and down the mountain from the bottom of the gorge to the top on a regular basis. The couple had no electricity, no running water, and the best view from their front porch. Dottie passed away in 2012, and Bob followed from cancer in 2015.
After a sip of whisky from the flask to honor Bob, we made our way down the mountain, fingers freezing from the windchill and temperature drop on the shadowy northeastern slope. Donnie showed us a campsite before the light was gone, and then we headed to the Hotel Manor for dinner with his family. We’d packed food for dinner and had planned on cooking over the fire, but the call of a warm reprieve, a beer, and something fried took over.
Back at camp, the first thing we did was build a fire. The active sawing and splitting of wood prolonged the period of warmth before the chill of being sedentary after riding all day set in, and having a fire to warm up hands while unpacking and setting up sleep gear was a nice luxury.
For fire-starting, we brought a hatchet and foldable hand saw, homemade fire starters made from egg cartons, wax, and dryer lint, and a lighter. The hatchet was worth its weight by allowing us to make small chips, which proved to be crucial. All the wood had so much frozen water trapped inside it that even small sticks found on the ground were reluctant to burn. Only the pieces hacked off by the hatchet caught easily, and as they combusted, the rest of the logs dried out enough to spark.
We slept on the ground in the open air, on a tarp with heat reflective material and insulated inflatable sleeping pads, in 0-degree-rated down bags. I changed my upper body base layer and had packed a down jacket to wear around camp — otherwise, I slept in the clothes I rode in. I brought extra socks that I never wore because the fire dried mine out sufficiently. I stayed warm all night, surprisingly so — more so than I had on previous winter bike overnighters even when temps weren’t quite as cold (on this trip, temps were in the mid-20s both days and dropped down into the low teens at night.).
We awoke to frost covering our sleeping bags, bikes, and any gear we’d left out all night. Not needing to rush off anywhere, we lingered in our bags, pulling our boots inside to warm them and relishing the last bit of warmth before stepping out into the chilly morning air. I got a fire going soon after emerging, and we heated breakfast burritos that we’d pre-made at home. The fire was once again a welcome hand-warming break as we packed up camp, our fingers quickly becoming stiff and painful without heavy gloves covering them. As the sun began to peek over the eastern side of the Gorge, we mounted our bikes and began the climb up Naval Run.
But it wasn’t long before we were stopped in our tracks by a stream crossing that was too deep to either ride or walk, and too wide to hop. We scanned the landscape for another spot to cross to no avail. The other option was to go out and around on a gravel road that was most likely a solid sheet of ice. But we (especially Evan) weren’t ready to give up on Naval yet. I consulted the Purple Lizard Map and found another trail that traversed the hillside above us and linked up with Naval slightly farther upstream. Maybe our options to cross there would be better. So we tried it.
We didn’t find an easy crossing, but we did find an adventure, in the form of a foot-wide tree fallen across the stream. On our side, it started at hip height, but rose above the water 6 or 8 feet before meeting the higher bank on the other side. Evan was convinced we could cross it, with our bikes. I was less than convinced and desperately scoured for another options, but there was none to be had. Either we backtrack and find another way around, or we push forward, across this very scary log. Always forward…
Evan devised a method to shoulder the bikes using a Voile strap while butt-scooching across the log. It was too slippery to stand on, even sans bike. He was a hero and scooched both our bikes across in this manner, while all I had to carry was his drybag (he was using the strap that held it to his bike for the bike portaging).
Safely on the other side, I was half relieved and half nervous for what was to come. I knew there were more stream crossings. I hoped we wouldn’t have to cross this particular one again. Heights above water aren’t exactly my favorite thing. It turned out that the rest of the crossings were pieces of cake comparatively, or at least rideable, even with some hesitation and false starts from yours truly. And the hour it took us to figure out that first stream crossing was totally worth it.
Naval Run Trail is an old tram grade, so it climbs the mountain at a gradual pace. It follows the stream for several miles up a hollow, then starts switchbacking to make it up the steeper part of the mountain to the top. In the 1890’s, this narrow gauge railroad was used to transport timber to James B. Weed and Company’s sawmill in Slate Run. It’s a really neat trail (one best done with lower water conditions, obviously) and a great way to get to the top of the Gorge.
At the top, we checked the time and determined that we needed to skip some of the extra trails that Donnie recommended and instead start heading back towards the Mountain Top. We still had 15 miles to ride if we went the most direct route, and it was slow going. So we pointed our bikes southward on a snowmobile trail paralleling Route 44.
The grassy path was rolling, with endless punchy climbs. The ice theme continued, and one spot in a pine grove was not unlike a frozen waterfall. I rode up it just fine with my studs but Evan struggled to even get footing to push his bike. I was again thankful to have one less thing to worry about.
With time of the essence, we jumped on the paved road when the snowmobile trail ended, and found ourselves back at the Mountain Top in time to reconnect with Donnie for a couple beers and make the hour and a half drive home at a reasonable hour.