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November 24, 2013

The Dregs of November

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The last two weeks in November and first week in December are cold, days are very short, and we have nearly continuous overcast.  There may be a little snow on the ground, but it’s a tease.  The real snowpack hasn’t quite started.   Mud and dirt dominate the world rather than the snow that will brighten the winter.  And, it rains a lot.  On average, our wettest month is November and most of that is rain, not snow.  I dislike exactly one season at Seeley Lake.  It’s here

As for teases, my first November in Montana differed from this norm.  I made my first sled run on November 5th, did one more disastrous training ride with a bike on ice on November 19th, and from then on did nothing but sledding.  Even riding my bike that time on ice resulted from my living in Huson, just outside of Missoula, which doesn’t get the amount of snow Seeley Lake does.  Seeley Lake had plenty of snow for sledding.  Since then, I’ve started sledding during November only twice, and these were on the 28th in 2006 and 29th in 2010. 

Part of why I, like all distance and expedition mushers, chomp at the bit to start sledding right now is that training runs move to multi-hour affairs.  Even this year with my ultimate goal of only a slow 40 mile-a-day average, I’ve done two one hour and a quarter ATV runs and two two and a quarter hour ATV runs.  So far this season, nothing points to us getting our snowpack soon. 

The closest thing to a redeeming feature is the fact that I can start testing cold weather gear.  35F and rain provide a solid first test.  That weather has been particularly useful for experimenting with a new product, waterproof down a.k.a. hydrophobic down.  Down is a remarkable insulator, extremely durable, and far and away the most compressible clothing insulation used.  It has the tragic flaw of being useless once it gets wet. 

Hydrophobic down, down coated with hydrophobic (water fearing) chemicals appears to solve this problem.  Moreover, the chemicals are quite standard---evidently very normal durable water repellents that get used in clothing all the time.  If hydrophobic down works even a fraction as well as manufacturers claim, it will revolutionize outdoor clothing as much as Gore-Tex did.  We won’t need “synthetic down” to deal with moisture, we’ll be able to use a slightly modified version of the real deal. 

Even the excitement of finally being able to test gear and clothing is limited by the fact that it still isn’t that cold.  We’ve gone subzero, but only by a few degrees.  The earliest I’ve seen -20F is the end of the first week in December.  I can and am working out bugs in new gear, hydrophobic down included, but the real tests are still at least a couple of weeks away. 

I suppose that there is one other nicety to this time of year and that’s that the dogs are all telling me that the weather has finally become decent.  They don’t mind the wet---some mushers think they do but everything I’ve seen says they’re just cuing on their owners---and they seem to have a particular fondness for cold mud.  Freezing rain, not a problem either.

Still, with my dogs being as old and experienced as they all are, everybody knows that we’re getting real close to sledding season.  While sledding, the dogs are no longer pulling me as I ride on a 300 lb plus ATV, usually in gear and against the engine.  They’re just pulling a sled that, loaded, may top off at sixty pounds plus me.  Pulling the ATV provides a great workout for them and they enjoy it, but I think that for them too, sledding and skijoring beat pulling the ATV.

We’re approaching the second half of the dregs.  It’s the time when the mud normally freezes, solid.  It’s been cold and relatively dry, so this happened early.   There’s snow, but not a lot.  Many years, I’ve gone out with my snowhooks, checking to see if they work, only to find there’s not enough snow for them to even think about grabbing.  This year, the snow that’s fallen hasn’t been enough for me to even dream of testing my ability to hook down a team. 

There’s the old joke about the guy hitting his head on the wall.  Somebody asks, “Why are you hitting your head against the wall?”  He replies, “Because it feels so good when I stop.”  It will feel good when we get onto sleds and skis, but for now, we’re just hitting our heads against the wall.   

   
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