08 September 2016

The Magic Loop: My Introduction to Bikepacking

The only time I've ever gone quasi-backpacking, my then-boyfriend chided me for walking too fast. He said it defeated the purpose. The only time I've ever gone quasi-bikepacking, I ran out of water and lay awake all night plagued by biting flies.

Bikepacking is very trendy in Teton Valley. Schedules finally align so that I can tag along for a weekend trip with Bruce and Kat, experienced outdoorsfolk who promise to be patient with my incompetence. Nan and Erica outfit me with all the necessary gear. The southern Big Holes are beset by fire so I pick a different mountain range and the Smithhammers, with some fine map-reading and a little social media stalking, create the Magic Loop.
Our playground: Caribou National Forest and the Palisades Reservoir
We disembark and I immediately have to fiddle with my entire set-up--this is rubbing that, this is cumbersome, that is rattling. Bruce says that every bikepacking ride starts this way: "derping and dicking around." It becomes a theme of the trip.

I am tentative on the heavy Krampus at first, but it feels so content fully-loaded. In its natural state. It works well all weekend, except when shifting from the big to little ring. That requires five minutes of murmured incantation to the drivetrain gods. We pedal for awhile and then turn up a seasonal road and begin climbing. Roadie Julia could happily climb on this road forever: butter smooth surface, perfect grade, big views.
Cruising through deciduous trees=eternal happiness
All pictures kindly provided by Bruce
We descend the other side and pass parked RV behemoths, fat people and children in ATVs, the little metal trailers where shepherds sleep. We pass a riverbank flooded with naked sheep and a watchful Great Pyrenees assesses our threat, bays once, remains at rest.

After reaching our goal for the day, we convince ourselves somehow that there is a marina down the road, perhaps with a shop that sells beer to thirsty boaters. Kat and I decide to investigate while Bruce moseys up Bear Creek to fish. We pedal farther than expected and find a boat ramp and a campground but no other amenities. Foiled! We go down to the beach, eat snacks, touch the moist sand where the reservoir has receded during the season. Maybe we can pedal the tiered shoreline around to a shortcut and skip some of the road. It is surreal riding, choosing the widest and most stable tier, the sand crumbling under our tires, the smooth pebbles rainbow colored. No one has ever ridden bikes here. The shore steepens and we decide to be smart instead of adventurous. My IT band begins to hurt on the ride back to camp, but a few minutes of singletrack soothes it.
Camp and a pile of calories
We eat food out of little cups and talk about that which sustains us: love, careers, adventure. After dark I hear smashing through branches. I'm frozen under my tarp, ears perked, wondering if a bear has found our food cache strung up in a tree. In the morning Kat says it must have been a moose--too loud and clumsy to be a bear.

We spend all morning making slow progress up the Bear Creek drainage. Infinite redundant creek crossings and beaver dam navigation. Thwacking through claustrophobic willow and cottonwood groves calling, "Hey bear!". Climbing and descending narrow slate shelves above the creek, sometimes tripod-ing on the unreliable slope. Every time we begin to doubt our path, a signpost appears to give comfort. We consume enough calories to maintain a positive outlook.
Bear Creek
At the source of Bear Creek, the Loop, sensing our fatigue with rough travel, bestows upon us fast miles of perfect gravel through a vast basin. It is a playground for motoheads, criss-crossed by dirt tracks and surrounded by mountains. Big and little raptors coast on thermals and fly mating dances and swoop into the brush.

We climb out of the basin, growing concerned that we might have to dry camp, worrying about the dark clouds hurrying in from the west. Then the Loop provides a sheltered campsite next to a brook. At night it pours rain and I scooch around under my shelter, waiting to get wet. I never do. In the morning I examine the tarp--soaked and plastered in pine needles. Little piles of hail dot our campsite. I marvel at modern camping gear.

We pedal to Caribou City, an abandoned mining town, then hit singletrack, alternating between fun descents and wallowy, horse-stomped climbs out of muddy drainages. We snack and admire the views and then start a trudging hike-a-bike (the Krampus growing heavier with each step) but then Bruce and Kat double check the Loop so we backtrack and descend instead, forever and ever, down an open, mellow drainage with deeply saturated fall colors under an indecisive sky.
Delightful downhill
We agree it is one of the finest days ever spent on a bike. But we are miles from the truck, and want to avoid riding the busy highway back to Alpine. The Loop again provides, with dirt roads that turn to powerline cuts that turn to cow paths meandering along the Salt River, finally delivering us into an empty subdivision a quarter mile from our desired turn-off. We change at the truck and hightail it to the closest bar. I wash my face in the bathroom and try to absorb the weekend.
A solid crew
It is loud in my house but I go lay in the grass outside, feeling like I'm underwater. Bikepacking wiped my slate clean, pressed refresh in some essential way. The dull roar of my thoughts relented to a quiet whirring in the background. It is so thrilling to know you can travel out in the woods, carrying all you need, and just exist. You can't pack along your job worries or money troubles or crushes or grievances because you need to leave room for your headlamp and instant coffee and trowel. It feels primal and simple and good.

I am about to spout my revelations to my roommates when I realize: everyone who has ever gone backpacking already knows this. I'm just late to the game.

I am already hunting through gear websites for my own set-up.

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