The alarm went off about three hours after I had finally fallen into bed. I woke still tired, but no longer weighed down with the gloom that had come upon me in the wee hours. By now, I had done enough crash-mode projects to recognize that hitting "the wall” was just something that happened more often than not. But when I was hard up against that wall, exhausted and at my lowest ebb, it was difficult to perceive my state as just a normal part of the process. Sleep, as always, brought the needed perspective. Even a little sleep.
Anne offered to make coffee and feed the cat so that I could sleep in. "No thanks, Sweeties,” I said: "I’ve got to get moving.” I had a goal now: to finish the last few little jobs, load the van, and get out on the road.
I kissed Anne goodbye at the front door and watched her walk to her car. Saying goodbye is always a little different when it means "See you next week” instead of "See you tonight.” This time it felt even more different: I knew that the next time I would see my wife I would have completed an experience that promised to be of epic proportions.
The numbers alone suggested how big it was going to be: The Numb Bum would last for 24 hours, of which only about seven would be sunlit, and temperatures were forecast to fall well below 0°F. The race would be held on a frozen lake near Edmonton, Alberta, some 850 miles from Seattle. We 12 members of the Ice Holes [http://www.micapeak.com/Phil/ice/index.html]racing team would field two bikes, which we would transport, along with all our gear, in two vans and a 20-foot horse trailer.
And yet those were just the numbers. They told how far and how cold and how many, but they gave not a clue as to what the experience would really be like. The first time we Ice Holes-to-be heard rumors of the Numb Bum, it sounded like a remote ordeal in some sub-Arctic wasteland on the other side of Zero, in a zone of otherness wherein frozen eyeballs and other ghastly things befell the ill-prepared. As we prepared for the race, checking items off lists one at a time, the thing began to seem like just another set of problems to solve and eventualities to anticipate. But none of us had ever been there, and that uncertainty hung over what we did.
Today was the day for the Ice Holes to finish preparing ourselves and our bikes and to go see what the thing was really like.
Before we could make our way to Sandy Beach, Alberta, I had to finish my "last few little jobs”: Solder a two-conductor SAE-style connector to the cable for my electrically heated visor, in place of the oddball phono plug that was supplied. And cut new strips of cardboard to protect the studs on the XR400’s tires, because the old cardboard wouldn’t fit with the wheels mounted. And check the new wiring one more time. And... and...
Then I still had to load the van. This job was nothing like loading up for a normal weekend club race. I was bringing the usual cargo - bike, tools, spares, canopy, folding chairs, riding gear - plus some unusual additions. Most worrisome of these were two tanks of propane, fuel for some of the heaters we were taking on our sub-Arctic expedition. I placed the tanks upright in the back corner of the van, padded them with old rugs so they wouldn’t clang together too loudly, and set a couple of cinder blocks close against them to hold them upright.
I caught a sharp whiff of gas. "Great,” I thought, "let’s accumulate a nice little fuel/air mixture back here.” The main valves were tight, so I went inside for a screwdriver to check the little valves on the side that I had seen the attendant open when he filled the tanks. One was about an eighth of a turn loose.
By the time The Van of Steel pulled away from Patrick Dowd’s place in Everett, it was 3:30 p.m. on Thursday. Those aboard were Pat, myself, Bill ("Sparky”) Sparks, and Michael ("Poppa”) Bain. A Ducati rider and the only non-racer on the Ice Holes team, Mike was coming along to serve as cook and pit coordinator for our racing effort.
Just getting to the border was hard enough. We planned to cross at Sumas, Washington, and pick up Trans-Canada 1 at nearby Abbotsford, British Columbia. Not one, but two serious accidents caused us to detour from our route between Bellingham and Sumas; after the second detour, we were navigating back roads by guesswork.
The border crossing was uneventful, and soon we were heading east on TC-1. Finally we were making time toward Sandy Beach. Night fell, and the highway climbed gently as we approached the Canadian Rockies. After a while there was snow dusting the shoulders of the road, then snow piled up at the edges of the pavement, and finally snow on the roadway itself, sometimes with bare wheeltracks and sometimes not.
Pat had been driving since we approached the border; he was the most respectable looking of us four - or the most respectable, at least, of those holding valid driver’s licenses - and we wanted him fronting our act to the Customs officers. As the snow got deeper, he confirmed the road feel I was getting from my place in the "shotgun” seat (though it’s illegal to call it that in Canada): the van’s new studded traction tires were hooking up just fine in the slick stuff. The big 460 cu. in. V-8 was gobbling kilometers just as lazily as it ate miles South of the Border. The Van of Steel was in its element.
So were we. It was Magical Road-Trip Time: the kind of time you work your way into once in a while, when you like the people you’re traveling with and you trust the person at the wheel and there’s good music coming from the speakers, and the road and the night stretch out before you, seemingly without end.
I was starting to relax, and suddenly I was acutely aware that I had slept only three hours the night before. I crawled into the back of the van and stretched out on an air mattress in a narrow, almost-level space next to the XR400. There were faint odors of gasoline and motor oil and a few other compounds, but no smell of propane. I thought again of all the heavy objects stacked around the "back bedroom,” and wondered briefly how much damage a portable generator could do if it fell on someone’s head.
I don’t know how long I had been sleeping, or how deeply. No matter: I was instantly awake when I heard Pat exclaim "Oh, shit” and I felt the van make a sickening swerve.
I snapped upright just in time to see a vehicle, on its side, go shooting from left to right across the roadway in front of us, raising a roostertail in the powdery snow before it came to rest on the right shoulder, still lying on its side. I stared at it as we shot past, the snow still settling around it and Patrick already on the brakes. I worried for the people in the little SUV even as I felt relief that the curse and the swerve were not warnings of our own imminent crash.
The three women in the SUV were bruised, and one seemed to have sprained a wrist, but otherwise they were all right. Pat managed to summon a tow truck even though the cell-phone coverage was sketchy where we were, about midway between Hope and Kamloops on BC highway 5. We waited with the women until the tow truck arrived, then I took the wheel and we continued on our way.
Although our pace through the foothills of the Rockies was brisk, a few 18-wheelers roared past us, huge shapes sketched out in amber running lights and trailing turbulent vortices of snow. Soon it was Magic Road-Trip Time again, the magic heightened now by the feeling that we had dodged a bullet.
Somewhere north of Kamloops my body metabolized the last of its caffeine and adrenaline - even the little boost I had received from our near-miss. Poppa Bain took the controls; Pat was in the van’s prime sleeping space, the little cubbyhole next to the racebike, so I curled up on the bench seat in Row 2 of our big blue juggernaut and slept soundly for several hours.
When I awoke about 7 a.m. we were only a few miles from our destination. I rubbed my eyes and took in the landscape. Stretching out straight for miles ahead of us, the roadway was built up several feet above the surrounding fields, in which brown, withered vegetation pushed up through wind-scoured snow. Here and there in the distance, stands of barren trees cracked the monotony, failing to break it. The land looked hard, cold, and unwelcoming. Modest single-story houses and plain-looking outbuildings seemed to huddle in their sunken yards.
After a turn or two and another few miles of dead-straight pavement, a small cardboard sign reading "Numb Bum 24” gave the first indication that we were on the right course. It was a Major Moment: Simply to arrive there, bike prepped and spirit primed for the event, was an achievement.
The lake itself was, from one point of view, just a frozen lake covered with snow. (Lakes never froze where I grew up. If you’re from Minnesota or another ice-fishing state, you might want to skip this paragraph.) A big open space covered with white stuff, surrounded by trees and houses. No big deal. But there was a pickup truck cruising around on it, and a couple of motor homes parked on it. In the distance we could see snowplows working on the track. I was having trouble getting my mind around the idea that this was not a huge parking lot or field - that under the snow was not pavement or dirt, but ice, and below that frigid water.
The pickup truck approached as we sat in the van, staring out at the white expanse. The driver was a guy in his 20s. "Hey,” he said, grinning. "Ya here to race?”
"Yeah, man!” I said. "Are you Chad?”
"Yeah. Are you Tyler?”
No, I said, but we were members of Tyler’s team and El Capitan was a few hours behind us. It was good to meet Chad Perrott. He was head Numb Bum guy for Riverside Yamaha in St. Albert, one of the organizers of the event. Chad had already done a lot to help the Ice Holes prepare for the Numb Bum, providing advice and referrals for many of our needs. One of his best turns was to set us up on a sweet rental deal for a motorhome. He made a couple of quick calls to ensure that it was ready, then offered to lead us to the rental agency.
When we returned to the lake, I - most qualified to drive the behemoth because I had driven my father’s motorhome about three times 25 years ago - drove down a boat ramp onto the lake, wondering as I did so how strong 26 inches of ice really was. As captain of that boat I was going to have to go down with my ship if the ice broke. It held.
Chad helped us choose a good spot along pit row and I parked the motorhome where he directed. The motorhome anchored our spot in the pits: The Ice Holes had arrived.
The rest of the team, except for Kev Burgess and Shahar Dahan, had arrived by mid-morning. Kev and Shaka would arrive at the Edmonton airport in mid-afternoon. We set to work putting up canopies, unloading tools and bikes, stringing power cords, and firing up propane and kerosene-fueled space heaters. Then it was time to fiddle with the bikes, knocking a few more items off lists we would never exhaust. We had heard that carburetor icing could occur under certain Numb Bum conditions, and had discussed rigging some means of heating the carbs. Neither bike-prep squad had found time to do that, and we decided just to hope it wouldn’t be necessary. Besides, someone noted wryly, we would have 24 hours to sort out any problems.
Tyler Sandell had bought a few pounds of tire studs and laboriously screwed them into the knobbies of his Honda XR100. Honda’s half-pint dirtbike is the Pit Bike of Choice for many racers, and Tyler wanted to have an ice-prepped pit bike for the ice-paved pits of Numb Bum.
The bike proved also to be the Training Bike of Choice for the Ice Holes team, none of whom had ever raced on ice before. As soon as the XR100 came off the trailer, Jay Ibold was buzzing it up and down the broad pit lane. With its 30-inch seat height, weight of about 150 pounds, and tractable power delivery, the XR100 was a confidence-inspiring platform for learning basic skills.
The track opened for an hour-long practice session on Friday afternoon, and I finally got a chance to see what this ice-racing thing was all about - and to see, not incidentally, whether my cold-weather gear was anything near adequate to its task.
My training session on the XR100 was good preparation for taking the "big bike” out on the track. With its lowered chassis and broad power band, the XR400 was easy to ride: back off the throttle momentarily to kick out the back wheel, then gas it again to hook it up. Work it through the turns, amazing yourself all the while at how the studded tires hook up with the ice.
Meanwhile, I was gathering lots of data points about my gear. The basic outfit - roadrace leathers, motocross boots, and snowmobile suit - was keeping me warm enough, especially as I began getting up to speed with the cornering technique and had to work harder. But I regretted almost immediately my choice of gloves: even with the heated grips and insulated handguards, my favorite roadracing gloves were not warm enough. My fingers were stinging just three or four kilometers into the 16-kilometer lap.
A worse problem was that my visor almost immediately froze over. I hadn’t plugged in my heated visor because the temperature was relatively warm, about 20°F, and I wanted to see what visibility the visor would provide without the electric heating. It might have performed better had I remembered to bring the breath deflector: an "air scoop” made of neoprene and foam designed to direct my breath past my chin and out the bottom of the helmet. As soon as I began to breathe hard, a heavy layer of translucent frost formed on the inside of the visor.
I reached up to flip the visor open. Then I quickly learned something of real strategic value: once I had pulled my left hand from the handguard, returning it to the grip was going to take more time than I was used to. Suddenly, I had to revise my Personal Cornering Plan for the turn that was rapidly approaching. I put my left hand in the air in case other riders were closing, then slowed way down and putt-putted around the turn with just one hand on the bars as I craned my neck to peer out from under my visor and pawed at the cuff of the handguard as it tossed in the wind.
This was going to be fun, I could tell, but the details were going to need careful attention.
Most of us Ice Holes holed up, if you will, in Morinville on Friday night. "Moronville,” as locals called it, was the nearest real town to Sandy Beach, the latter being a "summer village” with no motels and few other accommodations beyond a convenience store. Chad had advised us on the lesser evil of Morinville’s two motels, and we took three rooms.
Shortly after 8:00 we cruised le ville, looking for a dining spot. Someone spotted a steakhouse tucked away at the end of a little strip mall, and we saw a fair number of cars and trucks parked out front. The vehicle count suggested that the place was either popular or the only venue open for miles, so we decided it would be fine.
It was good that we enjoyed each other’s company, as the steakhouse seemed dedicated to denying us any contribution of its own to our good cheer. The kitchen lacked a blender, so blended margaritas - official team cocktail of the Ice Holes - were not available. Neither were most drinks that didn’t involve a shot of booze, or a beer, or both. Most of the entrees were available in a "Neptune” version, with a kind of seafood garnish. Something made me think that was a good idea, so I ordered the Steak Neptune. "Oil and vinegar” for my salad, I was to discover, meant plain kitchen vinegar and some kind of cooking oil.
Tyler had also ordered Quelque Chose Neptune. Soon after the waitress set it before him he muttered "Excuse me” and stood up. He was pasty pale and his hands shook as he pushed his chair back to the table. "I have to get out of here,” he said, and walked out fast. Jay Ibold followed him.
The rest of us were quiet. Tyler is a big, robust guy about 30 years old. Apparently fearless, he will race anything that moves, and probably won’t take long till he starts beating you. I don’t think anyone even considered that El Capitan was suffering from pre-race nerves - especially with the race still 15 hours away. We scrutinized our food. I scraped the garnish off my steak, and gave the residual sauce a careful sniff test.
Tyler and Jay never returned; they were staying in St. Albert, another 20 miles down the road, and we decided that was where they had gone. The rest of us returned to the motel and hung out for a while, watching CNN and drinking beer and calling home. Sleep had been scarce for almost all of us the night before; most turned in soon. But rumor has it that some of my more hardy teammates found a place to drink well past midnight in the sleepy little town. A place, better yet, where the bartender and waitress were fond of American ice-racers. But that is their story to tell.
My story is that I called Anne to tell her a little about my day and to ask about hers. As we chatted I realized it had been only about a day and a half since we had said goodbye at the front door of our home in Seattle. We said goodnight and I shut my eyes. It had been a hard day and a half, and the real endurance test was yet to come.
of Part 2. In the first part we
promised racing action here in Part 2, but stories sometimes take on a life of
their own. This story, originally in two parts, has grown a third part, which
will narrate the Ice Holes’ contest on the unforgiving ice.
Nolan is a local rider, a member of WMRRA and a regular contributor to Sound