That was the theme for most of February. See-sawing temps and storms that dropped more sleet and ice than powder kept convincing me that conditions would be terrible for skiing, fat biking or just about any other activity in the woods, but every time I was (delightedly) proven wrong.
A few days after our big fat bike excursion in late January, a storm rolled through that dumped mostly rain and freezing rain, with a tiny bit of snow at the end. I thought conditions were probably shot for both skiing and fat biking, that it would just be an icy mess.
But we knew that farther northwest, the rain had turned to snow earlier so there was hope for another weekend of playing in the snow. We planned to drive a bit to find some good conditions and set our sights on Benezette for some skiing. Evan wanted to see an elk.
Even the main roads were covered in ice in spots after a drastic temperature drop following the precipitation, and the drive was slow-going. By the time we got to Quehanna Wild Area the Quehanna Highway was completely covered in snow, we were ready to get out of the car, and I was ready to stop sitting white-knuckled in the driver’s seat. The snow looked good so we just stopped at the first parking area. If conditions weren’t great we could keep going.
We started off through the woods to try to link up to Mohawk Trail. Conditions were actually perfect. The warm-up and freezing rain followed by a hard freeze had created a crust that was mostly impenetrable, especially on our wide skis. On top, there was an inch and a half of fresh powder for us to glide through. We set our sights on Kunes Camp, descending a steep and icy part of Erie Camp Trail to a small creek, where we had to remove our skis and balance on rocks to get across. Upon reaching the other side, Evan realized that the GoPro was missing. He’d fallen a few times on the steep descent and reasoned that it must have fallen out of his unzipped pocket. We hiked back up sans skis and luckily found it.
The winding trail along a small creek eventually led to the telltale rock walls of the 100-year-old hunting camp nestled amongst giant boulders. The trail itself goes straight through the camp, where we played around on our skis for a while, sliding in between and on top of the massive rocks, before veering off back to the trail. We followed Bellefonte Posse Trail back to the Quehanna Highway, then free skied through the woods along the road for a few miles back to the car. My heels were raw, an issue I’ve been having with my boots after about 3 hours of skiing. I really like the used Merrell telemark boots I’d bought last year for $50 from a telemark group on Facebook, but I kept having some comfort issues on longer ski days. I may need to invest in some different boots next year.
After a solid 5 hours of skiing, we stopped at the Quehanna Lodge on our way home to enjoy a bite to eat and freshly-tapped Nugget Nectar. It was the perfect day. Why not do it again?
We returned to Quehanna on Sunday to explore a different area, this time parking on Reactor Road and following Seeley Trail westward towards the Quehanna Trail Eastern Cross Connector. The conditions were similar to the day before — just about perfect — but the terrain was very different. The grassy forest floor had created crusted-over, mogul-like pillows. If the crust hadn’t suspended us above the tussocks it would have been difficult skiing, but we floated on top, bobbing up and down as we rode the white waves.
We climbed up to Crawford Vista and then descended gradually down to Mosquito Creek, where giant boulders rose along the river and rocks the size of houses dotted the open landscape. As we began our ascent out of the creek valley and meandered our way back towards where we’d parked, the temperatures grew noticeably warmer as the midday sun beat down through a cloudless sky. The warmth and sunshine were nice. So much of this month had been extra cold.
We made our way back to the car via Meeker Trail, but missed a left turn somewhere so we popped out farther down Lost Run Road than we’d intended. Skiing on the road was actually tougher than the trail or just through the woods, because the Altai Skis don’t like to stay in a straight line on groomed or wide, packed surfaces. Their wide, short profile makes them great for maneuvering on singletrack or off-trail in the backcountry, but they are pretty inefficient on flat terrain. They are great at all the things that traditional cross-country skis aren’t (climbing and descending steep slopes, floating on top of deep snow, negotiating tight turns) but aren’t so good at things that traditional cross-country skis are (going fast on flat ground).
Since the road curved between where we were and where the car was parked, we cut the tangent and skied through the woods for the last half mile or so. I’d expected my feet to do a lot worse considering that my heels were still raw from the day before, but I’d tried a double sock and that seemed to do the trick until that third hour of skiing. Once again we stopped at the Lodge on the way home to recall our day of exploring over a beer and snack.
The following week saw several days of temperatures in the 40s. Once again, I didn’t think the snow would be great to play in, but I’d learned from the weekend prior not to get discouraged. I was eager to get some more fat biking in, so I planned to head out to Black Moshannon for most of the day on Saturday. I was concerned that the freeze-thaw cycles had produced snowmobile trails that would be solid ice, but I had to at least try.
Shannon joined me and was excited to show me his route to ride all the snowmobile trails. Let’s do it! I had all day. Evan had gone back to Quehanna to test out his new set of Rossignol BC 80 skis, and I wanted to get at least 5 hours of riding in. We started out on the around-the-lake loop on Shields Dam and Huckleberry Trails, which I had yet to do this season. Conditions were yet again much better than expected. There was ice, but it was mostly textured enough that there was plenty of traction without studs. At the higher elevations, a granular ice had fallen either earlier in the morning or the night before and it created a really neat, fast yet grippy surface. I kept exclaiming how surprised I was at how good the riding was, and we ended up doing 35 miles and hitting all the trails as it was perhaps the last chance to do so this winter.
Temps dropped into the teens that night, and I had a hunch that the freeze would create a rideable crust on singletrack. Evan wanted to head back to Quehanna to ski and I was intrigued by trying to ride some of the trails, so we drove up together and decided to meet back at the car in 3 hours. My hunch was right, and I was delighted at the fact that I could float on top of the snow.
I love that Quehanna feels so remote — I didn’t encounter anyone for my entire ride except one hiker at the parking lot when we started out. Most of the trails I rode had been untouched. I saw a bobcat on Lincoln Road. I followed elk tracks out to Gore Vista. I whooped with delight as I carved fast turns on the magical, grippy crust. It had been a gamble, but I’d certainly won the weekend.
There would be two more days of cold and then it was supposed to warm up into the 40s again by midweek, so I made it a point to get back out to Black Mo and ride the crust Monday and Tuesday mornings before work. I got out there before dawn both days and it was well worth it. Tuesday was colder than I’d expected — I knew it would be in the single digits (it was 5 when I left the house), but my the time I got to Black Mo it was -2F. Okay, a little chillier than I thought, but I’ll be fine.
I was fine, but was somewhat uncomfortably cold for much of the 2.5 hours that I was out. I am certain that a lot of the spots along my ride were colder than -2, and could feel a notable difference in temperature in the creek valleys. Halfway through my ride I looked down and realized that my fork was stuck down at 30% sag. This had never happened to me before but I’d heard of it happening as an effect of the cold on the seals. Air gets trapped in sections of the fork where it shouldn’t be and the vacuum effect prevents the stanchion from returning to where it’s supposed to.
Though I was cold, the morning was so beautiful that I wished I could stay out all day. The sun was just starting to warm things up as I was finishing, but I had to get to work. I had originally thought about getting one more ride in the next morning but ended up bagging it because of my fork and quite honestly, I felt like I still needed to thaw out a little. Later that day, I did a road ride in temps in the mid-40s. Thawing successful.
Later that week, it kept warming up with temps in the 40s and 50s most days. It rained and the snow mostly melted. It seemed like good time to get a paddle in. Trough Creek was running but with 50 mph wind gusts predicted, we decided against making the longer drive for questionable and potentially dangerous conditions. High winds can push your boat into places you don’t want to be, and on Trough Creek, if you get pushed into the wrong spot the consequences can be high. We did a short run on the very local Standing Stone Creek instead. It’s not whitewater but there are enough little features to keep it interesting. We’ve really been loving this run this year, and the best part is we can take out across the street from our house so only one shuttle vehicle is needed and it’s easy to bike to get the car later. My biggest hangup with paddling is all the driving.
As we were getting out of the car to put the boats on the water my phone beeped and an emergency alert popped up — heavy snow squall warning. This could get extra interesting!
A few minutes after we started the paddle, it began to snow. The snow and winds got heavier. It was really neat to be on the water in those conditions. The winds made it almost impossible to make forward progress at times but there was only one instance where we both lost control of our boats and got blown over to the bank. We just held on until the gust stopped — there was nothing we could do. In that moment, I was extra glad we didn’t do Trough Creek. My feet were also frozen by the end of the 1.5 hours we were out — it was a little below my typical paddling temperature threshold, especially with the wind chill, with a “real feel” in the low 20s.
After another warm week (I rode in shorts once!), we got another freezing rain/sleet/ice storm just in time for the weekend. I was skeptical that trails would be rideable after slipping around walking in my driveway, but friends were riding and I had to try, so I tagged along. Conditions were actually some of the best all year — the magical ice crust was back! The granular ice was surprisingly grippy. There was just enough of it to fill in between the smaller rocks, smoothing out the trails in Coopers Gap and making them ride extra fast (all those PRs I got don’t count!). It was supposed to get up into the mid-40s on Sunday so I got out again early in the morning to take advantage of the amazing conditions before they disappeared.
I’d thought perhaps that was the last of the snow and last chance for great fat biking for the season. I was okay with that. While I do love winter and the snow, the tastes of warmth have me eager for some longer gravel rides and thinking a little less about layers. But it looks like we might be getting a late season storm tomorrow, and I’m okay with that too. We might get one more great ski and fat bike weekend after all.