6th Place at MIX!
Posted Wed, May 20, 2009 - 11:13 PM
advracing, orienteering, navigation, paddling
We had a good run for our first big race of the year! We arrived in Traverse City on Monday night, checked in with race staff on Tuesday morning, and had our maps and instructions by 3 PM. So that was a reasonable amount of time to plot the points, choose routes, and assemble a course walkthrough in addition to getting our gear set. Chris made us a pan of chicken lasagna to make at the house so we didn't have to waste time going out for dinner.
So at 7 AM the next morning, we're all lined up at the boat launch on Elk Lake, about 10 miles NE of Traverse City. It was a water start, with all of us sitting in 2-person plastic 16-foot canoes on the water. The sun was just up and there was a stiff headwind from the ESE.
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The Big Water
We had to paddle across Elk and Skegemog Lakes to get into the Torch River and go upstream into Torch Lake. Elk Lake was difficult and slow, with choppy water and a moderate headwind, but it was only a mile and quarter across to the point. Even after this first mile, teams were starting to string out and we had dropped near the back of the pack, due to our bad initial boat assignment that left Dave and Molly as the distinctly slower pair. As we approached the point, we could hear a raging wind and see whitecaps pushing up against the narrow bar. To get to into the Torch River, we had to angle more directly into the wind, which enjoyed a five-mile fetch on the open lake and whipped up two or three foot waves. Luckily, they weren't difficult to ride, especially since I could lean back when going over the crest and minimize shipping water. However, the wind made progress extremely slow, and we fought for an hour to get into a sheltered bay filled with snags and stumps. We weaved our way through them, together with about three other boats at the back of the pack and emerged into the hevaily cabined Torch River, then at Torch Lake after a much quicker three miles.
The water in Torch Lake was extremely clear, with the sand bottom lending a bluish cast to the water. We had a little protection from the wind here and, like the teams visible ahead of us, decided to cut directly across to CP 1 instead of hugging the shore as the instructions had suggested. This was a long but uneventful paddle, although we decided to swap Brian and Dave to try to equalize the boat speed. We hit CP 1, emptied the boats, and had a quick paddle north to the outlet of Clam Lake. Dave and I had fun trying to ride the rollers as much as we could, although the boat was too short to really take advantage of them. The speed-up slow-down feeling of paddling as waves overtake you from behind is an interesting feeling.
We were working well against the wind, and actually started to catch up on a couple teams during this section. But after we turned into Clam Lake, we had to face the wind again, and gave up the ground by the time we checked in at CP 2 and continued on to the Grass River. We stopped here for our first bathroom and food break, and said hi to Elk Bones as they passed us. We would be seeing a lot more of them over the next three days.
We wound upstream on the Grass River and emerged into Bellaire Lake. Dave and I had to wait just a minute for the other boat, so I took the opportunity to refold the map. As I pulled the map out of the Aloksak, a gust of wind came up and pulled away the second map I had brought, an 8.5x11 aerial photo of the Boyne Mountain singletrack trails. As it happened, we didn't actually need that map to do the course, but Dave and I spent a comical couple of minutes chasing it down in the clear lake water. I finally snagged it with my paddle, and found very little damage, so we spread it on the middle seat to dry. Stupid mistake there.
Brian and Molly caught up and we chased Elk Bones up the Intermediate River and through the town of Bellaire to the first portage under the highway bridge. Just after the bridge there was a set of rocks causing some rough water below, and at first Dave didn't realize the portage route (which was taped) was river left. So he paddled right. Brian and Molly started to go over the rocks, and I was yelling to everyone, "stop and take out at the tapes!" Finally the other boat made it up, and Dave and I started to ferry across but got our communications mixed up and hit a rock, were turned broadside, and you can guess the rest. Everything was stowed well, though, and I got out wet to my waist and Dave a little above. We wrestled the boat onto the shore and dumped it out underneath the bridge, then pulled up the portage route. Elk Bones had snuck in while we were goofing around, and looked at us it disbelief that we could mess it up already. But the race volunteers seemed to love it!
After checking in at CP 3, and carrying the boats across a small park, we put in the pool above the dam and continued another nine miles north into and through Intermediate Lake, where we faced some very big rollers on the long, narrow lake. Luckily, they were behind us, and we arrived mid-afternoon at the first TA, in second-to-last place and glad to be off the 33 miles of water.
A Bike Warmup
We had a decent transition and got onto the bikes for a road/gravel ride over to Boyne Mountain. We picked a straighter but slightly hillier route and crossed the river at Rogers Road, and worked our way down the east side to pick up the old railroad grade and the first unmanned checkpoint, CP A. The unmanned checkpoints were denoted by letters, and had a normal orienteering flag as well as reflective tape on the nearby trees, and in case of local "involvement", the CP number and code were spray painted on the tree.
We continued on to complete the 24 miles, going up and over the Boyne Mountain ski area to arrive to the TA-that-wasn't-a-TA-yet. We still had to bike the 10-mile singletrack loop here, finding and punching eight CPs somewhere along the trail. The trail was a lot like the near areas of Telemark, with lots of steep climbs and descents alternating with rolling trails with rocks and roots. The soil was sandier, though, and that led to a number of uphill hike-a-bikes (and some downhill.) But we made decent time since Molly's a good mountain biker, and picked off the eighth control at the tippity-top of the ski hill. Then a quick descent, working our way northeast back to the real TA 2 at around 7 PM - still on the first day.
The First Test
Now we had a 33 mile trekking section to the rafting section at the Sturgeon River. While I was plotting out routes, I realized this would be the first major navigation test of the race, with some difficult points buried in the ridges and reentrants of the Chandler Hills. And for all the teams, it would be at night. It was still windy, and starting to spit a little light drizzle as we TAed and started out along the road to Boyne Falls and up Thumb Lake Road. We found CP B along a creek just off a gravel road, and unfortunately discovered that Molly had gotten the first blister - something she was surprised and irritated about (as a ultra runner, she takes good care of her feet, and knows them.) So we stopped for a few minutes for repairs, but didn't lose any ground as we trekked north and east through the manned CP 7 and onto the next four unmanned points.
I decided to attack CP C by trying to follow features to the east; along the hill edge, then down one of the spurs and around the north edge of the reentrant cluster to curve around to the CP. I took this one slowly and carefully to understand the accuracy level of the map and how navigation would work at night, and was pleasantly surprised to find the USGS map very accurate. This was a relatively safe control to experiment with, because the creek valley formed a large catching feature. I bobbled a bit at the end, hitting the dropoff and having to backtrack to the SW about 150 meters to the control. But we hit it, and headed north to the road to get over to CP D.
On the way north to the road, we had to detour west around fenced-off private property, but finally arrived at the two-track trail and followed it east onto gravel, the pavement. The rain was starting to pick up at this point, with a blustery wind. I got surprised when I turned my headlamp onto the open area north of the road and saw two pairs of red eyes looking back at me, well above the ground. And they were moving. But I mentioned them to my teammates and as more headlamps turned they way, we found that the eyes belonged to two horses who were apparently looking for something to do. They came over to the fence and let Molly pet their muzzles, and she took a picture before we continued east towards to the road intersection to attack CP D.
As we got close, we saw a team coming back down and heading north on the two-track. I had though about how to go CP D-E and thought that was a wise choice, so kept it in mind as we climbed up the hill to attack CP D. We ended up finding the North Country Trail where it joined the road, and took that a good part of the way to benefit from the easier walking. Finally we reached the point where we had to turn off and climb up to the CP, but we nailed it and headed back down the road and the safe route.
We turned off after about a mile onto another wo-track that led us up and jogged around the hill hosting CP E. We ended up going a little too far east (just to be sure) and came back SW to the hilltop, but punched it just before another team that headed back down to the W. We'd also seen yet another team continuing up east up the two-track. Now we only had CP F before an easy manned checkpoint, and the recently steady rain was starting to lighten up.
The First Mistakes
We had a team consultation on routes to CP F, and ended up going (slowly) east to the supposed two-track intersection (not really there) and worked north through the saddle and into the top of the large reentrant. Here we did encounter several old trails, and I got suckered into following them a little more than I should have. The plan was to go north, catch the narrow ridgeline, relocate along it, and drop down and back up to the hilltop beyond. Instead, I followed an easy trail too far to the NE and mucked around in some reentrants, finally ending up not far from where I started. So back to the original plan; head straight north, and of course I was able to quickly gain the ridgetop and recognized the subtle spurs sticking out from it. We reached the last spur sticking north, close to the west end, and ran into a team that was furiously trying to figure out where the CP was. They even said they had attacked it six different times. Problem was, they were attacking the wrong hilltop. We stopped to eat a bit, and as we turned our lights off I realized there was enough skylight and the trees were thin enough I could see the real hilltop, just where I thought it would be. So we let the other team walk on, and I whispered to my teammates where we needed to go. We snuck north off the ridge with our red lights on, climbed the open hill and nailed the checkpoint. We then returned to a logging trail down in the base of the reentrant and power walked NE toward the mapped trail that would take us to CP 8. We didn't see any teams behind us for a long time after that.
CP 8 was just a guy in a jeep, a long ways up a sandy road. We arrived shortly before dawn after another quick food break, and proceeded to CP G as day broke. I made my first major mistake here, not going far enough into the woods and not believing there could be such a big hill ahead, because I couldn't see it (and, it was light out!) So we fumbled around, went back to the road and reattacked only to end up at the same place. So we trudged on, and finally the ground started to rise into a fairly impressive hill. Thus satisfied, we hit the CP at a subsidiary hilltop on the far side of the main one, and headed NE into a deep valley and over a ridge to catch the road towards CP 9. Nevertheless, we wasted about 20 minutes on this one and our relatively slow split from 8-9 bears out that impression.
CP 9 was located along a pipeline cut, just one volunteer happily sleeping away in a tent. Despite how peaceful things were, we had to wake him up to check in. Dawn had just broken clear, but gave way to another rain shower that lasted about an hour. Just when we thought we were getting dried out! But by the time we left Mitchell Road, there was a streak of blue in the western sky. The sun came out as we walked up towards CP H. Shortly before the turnoff there was a new, wide logging road, and as we proceeded east off the road we could hear and see some active logging going on in the saddle just to our south. We were hoping it wasn't about to cut down the tree with the control on it (as nearly happened at Sand Dunes a couple of years back.) But the control was safe at the top of the hill, and we headed NE down the hill to catch the trail running along the narrow ridge and east to the narrow spot in the swamp marked on the USGS map.
It turns out we hit a trail just a little before the one marked on the map, and followed it SE a bit until it turned south and it was apparent it wasn't the one we had originally thought. Nevertheless, it was wide and permitted fast travel, so we continued to investigate in case it offered a way back east towards Berry Creek. Unfortunately, after crossing an open area, it started to curve back to the SW and peter out along the edge of the marsh without appearing to cross it. So we decided to cut our losses and go back to the original east-west trail on the ridge. A quick jog back and cut north brought us to the correct trail and we followed it east to the "end of the road". As expected, the swampy area was very narrow here, and we continued east until the ground rose a little into a dry, piny, blueberry bush-covered savanna area. Although there was a trail on the map, there wasn't any on the ground, so we took a bearing to the SE. I think my bearing must have been a little off (maybe I hadn't properly adjusted for declination; I don't remember), or maybe my left leg was sore, because we veered quite a bit farther east than I thought. We hit Berry Creek before hitting the two-track leading to CP 10 - so never mind the beaver dams, we just sloshed through the clear, calf-deep creek to catch the trail on the other side. We jogged south and back to the CP, confusing the volunteers, who said we were the only team to come from that direction. Even so, we made good time, slammed a couple of offered Cokes, and took off down the gravel and paved roads to the raft put-in at CP 11.
Stay tuned for Part II of MIX' 09, where we float down the Apple River, get tested again, and then get wet (again...)