We decided to spend a weekend of (mis)adventure in the Nancy Lake State Recreation Area. Per my usual, planning was rather last minute; all public use cabins everywhere within 200 miles of where we lived were booked a week before our 4 day weekend. We got lucky (I think) when the Red Shirt Cabin #4 mysteriously became available about 2 days before our hopeful departure. We quickly snagged it for two nights and patted ourselves on the back for a job well done and in preparation for adventure.
I checked the trail reports; "groomed" perfect for biking, right?! We loaded up the fat bikes, complete with a new bike rack I had designed, the dog, and gear and drove 70 miles north. At the trailhead, we strapped our bags to the bikes like the (maybe not so) seasoned bikepacking pros we are and set off fearlessly into the setting sun.
Within 10 minutes we realized that things sucked. The normal, easy 6 mph clip we usually speed along trails was severely hampered by the loose and heavy power on the trail. It was groomed but the snow was loose. I stopped and aired down my tires; it made no difference. We were sinking and there was nothing we could do. I assumed it was probably just because this is my first winter on a fatbike and I didn't know any better. We powered on. Three hours later, we had completed the 8 mile trek to Red Shirt Lake and found our home away from home.
The struggle on the trail certainly set the theme for the rest of the weekend; everything was going to be harder than it needed to be. We got to the cabin and were delighted to find wood neatly cut and stacked outside waiting for us. That is where my delight ended. We opened the door and were greeted by a surprisingly small wood stove. I proceed to light a fire in the wood stove to warm things up. It took us (ok, an hour into the process I was banned from touching the fire for the night when I accidentally put the budding fire out in my attempts to oxygenate it) over 2 hours to get a fire going that we were willing to leave unattended for more than 15 seconds for fear of it going out.
Let me be clear: this is not our first rodeo. Cabin trips happen on a not infrequent basis. Give me some nice dry wood and I will turn it into a nice fire in 15 minutes. We fall solidly into the "seasoned amateur" adventurer category.
I roamed around the cabin in my warmest puffy coat and made dinner. 4 hours later, we could finally feel the temperature inside creeping up. With the fire roaring, we shut the door to the wood stove, expecting the temperature to keep going up. For some reason, the temperature in the cabin did not rise. At least the stove was warm enough to start drying wood on.
With the fire at least warm enough to sustain itself for a short time without supervision, we stepped outside and were treated to vibrant start with faint northern lights on the horizon.
Unfortunately, despite the fire, the cabin temperature dropped. We opened the door on the stove to let some heat into the cabin. That's not how this is supposed to work. We crawled into our sleeping bags and hoped for the best.
Despite getting up throughout the night to keep the fire going, the morning greeted us with a deep chill in the air. I got up and re-lit the fire and made coffee and breakfast. Even the dog seemed a little subdued and cold.
We stayed indoors long enough to get things warming up. We set out to find adventure and fire wood. I found a nice downed birch tree that I cut a few limbs from. We dragged them back to the cabin to feed the dismal fire. After the important business of firewood was taken care of, we set off on our bikes.
We biked all around Red Shirt Lake to see the sights. Despite biking on the perfectly flat lake surface, it was arguably harder than biking up the Hillside trails on my mountain bike in the summer. The snow grabbed the tires and held us back, requiring constant energy in the form of pedaling to keep us moving forward. The sights were fantastic but the effort required to bike was surprisingly immense. The dog was stoked for the adventure.
We got back to the cabin and started the fire process yet again. That wood stove seriously sucks. In our leisure time for the day, I browsed the cabin journal. Some entries claimed that they got the cabin up to a toasty 80+ degrees (bullshit). Others seemed to have similar problems to ours.
Despite a roaring fire, the cabin never really got warm again. We made dinner and melted snow in our warmest clothes and then huddled by the stove for warmth.
About two hours after going to bed, I noticed things getting much colder. In one last attempt, I got up and added wood to the fire. The stove itself was hot but the air in the cabin was on its way to matching the outdoor temperatures, hovering between 15 and 25 degrees.
I went bad to bed, expecting the temperature to at least stabilize from my efforts with the fire; it continued to drop. I burrowed into the sleeping bag. We even let the dog in the sleeping bag. We awoke to a chilly 20 degrees inside and frosted windows.
Soon enough, it was time for the bike back. It seemed like endless uphill on our way out. I was excited at the possibility of some downhill on the way back.
I was horribly wrong. Somehow, the trail was uphill both ways. We struggled all the way back. Mind you, this is an 8 mile trail 1 way. We regularly bike 4-8 miles in an evening after work. We don't bat an eye at a 12 mile bike ride to the Serenity Falls Hut (which only took us 2 hours) or a 20 mile day trip.
We struggled through the snow, dodging the snowmachiners (oh, this is a multi use trail-skiers, snowmachiners, and dog sleds!). We ran into a friendly skier we chatted with us and confirmed that the conditions were sub-optimal for biking. Ok, maybe it isn't just me. Maybe the loose snow just made things harder.
We made it back to the car, stoked to have survived another adventure and overcome the deep snow and freezing cabin! Great weekend of Type 2 fun!
In review, the trails may sometimes be great for fatbiking, but can certainly bog you down under the wrong conditions. Be prepared for either!
Red Shirt Lake Cabin #4 is probably great in the summer. Unless you are a wood stove magician or like being cold, I would suggest booking one of the other 3 cabins available on the lake if they are free in the winter.