The roads leading west into New Hampshire were slick last Friday morning. The leading edge of the snowstorm the TV weather folks were calling the impending “Snowpocalypse” or “Deathstorm ’13″ in their typically understated fashion, was already dumping snow on me. I was astride my Russian-made Ural sidecar rig headed from Portland to Fryeburg. It was cold. My breath was freezing on the inside of my helmet shield, making it tough to see. Each time I passed a truck, whiteout conditions ensued for a few moments in the billowing powder. I was careening toward the state line to meet up with three other three-wheeled cyclists. We were going camping.
That’s right: camping.
To be fair, we planned the trip last fall when no one knew the biggest storm in years was on its way. We’re a loose-knit group who hang out online at the Soviet Steeds collective and, as of the middle of last week, we had upwards of a dozen fellow sidecar riders committed to the New Hampshire trip. But, one-by-one, they dropped out as the sounds of panic began to emanate from sweater-wearing forecasters on the tube. By Thursday night, only four were left: myself, Thermos, Keith and Mike.
We decided to go anyway.
I met them at a store on Route 302, a few hundred yards into the Granite State. I sucked down a coffee while regaining the feeling in the toes on my right foot. The sidecar tunnels the wind over my right foot, cooling it faster than my left. When my coffee was gone, we remounted and continued west. We drew thumbs-up, honks and waves from several drivers in the first few miles.
Our destination was a patch of forest on the shore of Crystal Lake in Gilmanton, N.H. owned by friends and Soviet sidecarists Tim and Linda. They had wood stacked for us and a brand new outhouse. We arrived a couple hours later.
On the way to Gilmanton, we stopped for gas. I nipped into a hardware store to grab some oil for my kerosene lamp. I figured it would keep the hypothermia away if I got desperate in my tent. I had a 40-degree sleeping bag with a 20-degree bag stuffed inside it. I had a Thermarest pad to sleep on, along with a surplus Czech cot mattress with a rubberized underside. I also brought a wool army blanket. I brought plenty of food and a Coleman one-burner stove. I felt confident.
I’m not a camping expert. I haven’t camped more than a few hundred yards from my car or motorcycle since I was a Boy Scout. I haven’t been winter camping in a tent since somewhere around 1985. But I’m always game for adventure.
My tent, which is conspicuously labelled “three season,” went up as fast as it always does. I got it as a wedding gift almost ten years ago and it’s always kept me dry. The wind was really starting to kick up as I picked a sheltered spot under a hemlock and brushed away the twigs and two inches of snow before situating it. My aluminum tent pegs whimpered and bent double as I tried to get them into the frozen ground. I appropriated a pair of cement blocks from the fire ring — one for each end of the tent — and secured a couple of the guy lines to the hemlock.
I was feeling pretty good. I wandered over to where Keith and Thermos were setting up and found them pitching vintage-looking canvas tents without floors. Once they were up, Thermos pulled a small propane heater from his sidecar, along with a cot and a carbon monoxide detector. Keith’s sidecar started to resemble a clown car. He not only had an enormous tent, but a cot, a telescoping length of stovepipe and a small wood stove.
I was not winter camping with amateurs.
Once Keith got the stove cranked up, the temperature inside his tent soared into the 60s while the outside temp hovered just below 20 degrees.
Once camp was setup, Tim and Linda came by in their bike. I hopped in Thermos’ sidecar and we all headed for the lake for some icy barrel racing where Tim and Linda had set up three metal garbage cans. A couple inches of snow on the ice made the surface slick. Around and around the bikes went, snow flying and tires spinning. They kept it up while I took pictures and video till it got dark and several of us sported luxurious snot-icicles.
Then, our gracious hosts Tim and Linda treated us to a hearty turkey dinner at their house up the road. Later, the snow continued to swirl in the increasing winds as we sat around a lovely campfire sipping adult beverages.
It wasn’t until I crawled into my tent around 11 p.m. that I noticed the lamp oil I bought was mostly parfin, and frozen solid. But, as it turned out, I was plenty warm in my sleeping bags, the wool blanket wrapped tightly around my noggin.
As the night wore on and the storm intensified, My tent shook a little, but not much. I was well protected in the trees. I woke up each time a drift of snow slid off an evergreen branch above, depositing a bucket-sized load of snow on my tent. The roof sagged, but never gave in. I kept pushing upwards, forcing the fluffy stuff off to the side.
I was faced with a real dilemma about halfway through the night. I had to go. I had to go really badly. But I did not want to leave the relative comfort of my tent. I shivered at the thought of slipping into my frosty boots and going outside in the snow. Cursing the beer, I made a plan. I would kneel, still in my sleeping back from the knees down, and pee out the door of my tent. It worked great till both my thighs cramped up, nearly pulling backwards into the tent. I’m not sure if my camping companions heard my howls over the wind.
It was still snowing in the morning. It was piled two-thirds of the way up the side of my tent. I think it may have helped insulate me, but I was afraid to leave it there as it was putting a mighty amount of pressure on my tent poles. So I scooped it away. Thermos measured the snow at 28 inches out in the open.
Keith made me coffee and bacon in his tent/mansion. I thanked him and offered him the only food I had that was not frozen solid: trail mix. He graciously declined, handing me a paper towel full of crispy pork.
Later in the day, Tim and Linda guided us around the gloriously unplowed back roads in their neck of the woods. It was some of the most fun I’ve had on a bike. Slipping and sliding, I could have ridden for hours. At one point, I came around a corner and went into a slide. A six-foot snowbank loomed up beside me. I braced for the impact. Then, poof, it was like running into a pile of feathers. I laughed, powered out with my bike’s two-wheel-drive and caught up with the others.
We pulled into a restaurant in New Durham and before we could all get our helmets off, the manager was snapping our photo with his phone. Later, he asked if he could post it on his Facebook page. We said that was OK.
My second night in the tent was colder. It was somewhere closer to zero. But I was still cozy in my double bags. I was surprised. My breath froze on the inside of the tent during the night and it sparkled in a million colors as the sunrise lit it from behind.
Tim and Linda came down to see us off as we broke camp. A more generous, hard-working, real-life couple you couldn’t find.
I understand that my camping out for a couple of nights in a snowstorm doesn’t exactly make me Ernest Shackleton. But it’s definitely a personal milestone. Plus, it’s a story I intend to get plenty of mileage out of.
The four of us rode away and stopped at a nearby gas station for coffee. A guy came in, looked at us, and asked if we were next in line to gas up our snowmobiles. We said we were on motorcycles. He blinked at us. We said we’d just come out of the woods after a weekend of camping. His mouth fell open. I told him we weren’t kidding as I added the cream.