2nd at the Fat Otter Raid!
Posted Wed, May 26, 2010 - 8:55 PM
Ahhh... the joy of looking back on finishing another expedition-level adventure race! Gnome Hunters fielded a three-person coed team at the (hopefully) first annual Raid put on by Team Fat Otter this past weekend. The venue was central Wisconsin, in the Black River Falls area. Rick, Val, and I were all tempted by the close location and reasonable price, and signed up despite knowing little about the reputation of the race organizers. It turned out that was absolutely nothing to worry about - in fact, it was one of the most well-designed 3-day races I've ever participated in.
I might as well spoil the results right now, and say that we did better than we expected - but needed a little help to get there. We ended up in 2nd place overall, 1st in the open division. The only team to gather more checkpoints than us (since the time was filled out with a rogaine section) was Team Goretex, who came east from Colorado, Utah, and Oregon to go after the Checkpoint Tracker points this race offered. But still, we weren't far behind. We were also pushed quite a bit by Midwest Mountaineering, who had a strong performance, took 3rd overall and 2nd in division to Goretex, and further showed their sportsmanship at the end of the race.
I took some helmet cam video at this race too - not as much as I'd like turned out, and my battery ran down too early - but to see our route on Google Maps, read the play-by-play, and check out the video I did get, click on the link for Part I!
The window needs to be visible if you want to use the links in the narrative below.
Rick, Val, and I drove down on Wednesday evening and spent the night at the Super 8 in Black River Falls (quite nice for a Super 8.) Check-in was from 7-10 AM, about 20 miles away at the oddly named Smrekar trailhead east of Millston. We arrived around 9 AM, got the first set of instructions and maps, and puttered around with final gear packing until the 10 AM pre-race briefing. The trailhead was quite nice, with a good parking lot, a wooden shelter building, and a nearby water pump. It turned out to be a "home base" of sorts for both the racers and the organizers.
Our instructions were marked "Set 1" and described eight different sections of the race. We also received a blank MyTopo map of the surrounding area, but we were only told about the first three checkpoints that formed the "Prologue". We'd receive further maps and instructions later in the race, and this turned out to be the rule rather than the exception - we knew the next few legs in a qualitative sense (which discipline), but didn't know the quantitative parts (length, number of checkpoints, and route) until the start of each leg. I quickly plotted the Prologue points and got ready for the noon start.
Goretex in the orange, Gnome Hunters standing behind.
Rod had said that we could leave our packs and mandatory gear behind for the Prologue, so we did. Several other teams still brought their gear, but we only took water bottles (and I had the map, of course). The first three checkpoints were mandatory, but could be punched in any order. I decided to start out with the easiest control, number 3, and go clockwise to 1 and then to 2. That way we could get into the map and terrain without risking any mistakes. A number of teams agreed with us, and all of a sudden it was a footrace down Smrekar Road with Goretex, Orion, and MM. Goretex pulled ahead on the road run, and had a quarter mile lead at the dogleg coming out of CP 3. Orion was hanging on our tail, and we took a shortcut trail we had earlier noticed to get back out to the road. Then we ran up Slate Road and ducked onto the Wildcat Mound trail at the top of the hill. Goretex was out of sight, but we reached the top of the mound, and punched CP 1 at the same time as Orion. I chose to go back east to the saddle, where we picked up an "overlook trail" running east along the spur. We ran right through the overlook and downhill to the road, and by the time we were halfway down Kling Road, looked back to see a quarter mile lead on Orion. So far, good micro route choice. We could see Goretex another third of a mile ahead of us on this straight segment. We kept the pace up to the corner and onto the obvious ATV trail, and punched CP 2 without seeing anyone either behind or ahead. We continued out to the main road, and decided to continue the road running because the trails, so far, had proved quite hilly. So we ran down Yonkers Road to Hill Road and Whitney Road, then headed west up the reentrant at the corner. It was a quick, moderate slope up to the saddle, where we caught a trail that took us directly back to the start area with a minimum of elevation change.
The Southwest Tour
At this point we received the first bike map, and I plotted the three points and we headed out on before Orion arrived. It was a long road ride dubbed the "Southwest Tour". The route was pretty straightforward - under the freeway, through Millston, and west on CR-O until we had to turn off to the south on lesser traveled roads. Rick was the workhorse up front, breaking the wind for us, although there wasn't much of it to speak of. There was a flag in Millston laying dead on its pole. We easily found CP 4 at a road intersection and continued south and west through a hillier section and crossed SH-27, a forbidden route. It was sunny with light clouds and the temperature was cool enough that we kept a good pace. CP 5 was another road intersection, and a few miles later we descended into the valley of the Black River and picked up Hawk Island Road, a beautiful, narrow, wooded two-lane highway that wound around and offered occasional glimpses of the river. We paused for a few minutes at CP 6 to get our first chance at eating something substantial, since we hadn't had any time before with the hectic pace of the race start. Then we continued back up out of the river valley to the main highway and around to the Castle Mound campground for a score-O section. We pulled in around 5 PM and found that Goretex had just left on foot, after dropping their bikes and plotting the points on the new map. I got our copy and proceeded to do the same, while Rick and Val refilled water from a nearby fountain. Within ten minutes, we too were off.
The points for this section were rather interesting - the first two were on opposite ends of Castle Mound, a long east-west hill not far from the TA, and the remaining three were a couple of miles to the southwest in an area called Perry Creek Park. We weren't required to get any more than one, but of course we were planning to retrieve all checkpoints offered until we ran out of time. It was way too early in the race to think about strategizing or skipping. We headed over to the big obvious sign that said "Trail", and I took a look at the posted trail map of the area. It turned out to be a pretty useless map, but at least it showed there was a trail along the southern base of the mound, which looked useful. So we headed for CM-1, overshooting it a bit before coming back and climbing straight up to the rocky outcrop. Then we came back down the same way, not without a few slips and slides on the pine needles, and jogged around the base of the mound to the opposite end. I stopped us right near where it should be, and as we looked up to the base of the bluff, Val's keen eyes spotted the orange and white for CM-2. We gave her the passport and she rushed up to get it as Rick and I followed at a slower pace. I spent the time figuring out the approach to the remaining controls. As soon as Val got back we bushwhacked south to the road and headed west. About a half mile down we suddenly saw a team emerge from the woods on the right side of the road, about 400 meters ahead of us. They started to jog also, and since there were only three people, we figured it had to be Orion. Aha!
Both teams took Buckeye Road to the southwest, which ran through a residential area that got less and less affluent the farther we went. Near the end there were mostly trailer homes, a number of dogs about, and even a bratty little kid on a bike who yelled "Hey stupid!" at Rick as we passed. By the time the road ended and petered out into a trail, we had cut Orion's lead to about 50 meters, and I was ready to start navigating.
Unfortunately, my approach to CM-4 wasn't the greatest. I was looking for the reentrant on the left and planned to go around the top as soon as I spotted it, then down the narrow spur. Either there was a little more detail on the ground than on the map, or I started off the trail too early. Actually, both. The end result was that we veered too far off the trail and came around the second, wider spur. As we headed down, I did notice that it seemed wide, but figured we'd verify it anyway. Sure enough, it finally flattened out and we dropped onto the flats near the creek. At that point it was easy to locate the checkpoint, but a little slow getting there because of all the deadfall. But we got it, and headed back across the trail. Molly was standing there with the map, looking into the woods, and Gregg was heading southwest down the trail. Molly turned to us and said "He doesn't believe me." (uh-oh, is that a disagreement I smell?)
Luckily, my teammates believed me, and so we continued west and crossed a mucky marshy murky low spot with huge skunk cabbage leaves. The visibility was down a bit here, but I trusted my compass and soon found the small hill with CM-5 on its summit. Then we headed south to cross the creek and catch the road for a run to the next CP. As we reached the creek, we saw Goretex working their way across it - it wasn't so wide that you couldn't avoid getting your feet wet, with enough care. We did the same, but in the opposite direction, and of course, I slipped and stepped in, with both feet. Oh well. We clambered up a steep slope on the other side, almost having to kick steps into the dirt, and came out on the road. My attack from the road was gauged by distance from the intersection, and it worked well - we hit the creek right at the bend and worked around till we saw CM-3. It was hanging on a branch in the river, and since my feet were already wet, I took the passport to go get it. Due east to the road and a long run later, we were back at the TA before dark and ready to remount the bikes for a trip to the first ropes section - a traverse.
Wish It Was Light Out!
Val on the rope!
Midwest Mountaineering ran back into the TA right before we headed out on the bikes, so we knew we had to get a move on to prevent them passing us on the way to the ropes. Goretwx had left about 25 minutes ago. It got dark as we towed and drafted towards town, crossed the freeway on SH-54, and turned north on CR-K. We arrived in Hatfield at dusk, stopped for a quick Gu or two, and continued out of town and onto Riveria Ave. I still wasn't sure which side of the river we were supposed to be on, but this route was as good as any, and it wasn't difficult to get to the other side because of the SH-95 bridge nearby. And to put any doubts to rest, we ran into a volunteer driving the other way who slowed down and told us "You know, you're supposed to be on the other side of the river!" OK, no sweat, we continued on and only took about six minutes to get over to the traverse on the east side of the river. Good thing we hurried, though, because we saw a series of four bike lights crossing the bridge as we took the hairpin turn at the end. That meant MM and not Orion, who was a three person team. So we dropped the bikes and hurried into our harnesses just as they arrived, and I made sure to be pushy getting onto the rope, to claim our team's spot, even though Val and Rick might not have been completely ready at the time I clipped in.
Just as I thought, it was a traverse over the Black River, but it was disappointing that we couldn't see very much in the darkness. It seemed like there had once been a bridge here (perhaps an older bridge replaced by the newer span to the north), and we were standing on a concrete pier about 20 feet above a short jumble of rocks at the water's edge. I guessed there might be another pier on the other side, and shined my light across to get a good estimate of the distance. The first half of the rope was easy (as it always is), and I skidded down on the pulley without any effort. As the rope flattened out, I started to go hand-over-hand and work up my momentum for the other side. It's unfortunate I didn't have time to brief Val and Rick on the importance of velocity on a level traverse like this. The rope slowly started to slant upwards, and I kept cranking my arms to keep going, slower, and slower, and slower. I finally lost all forward velocity, and looked back over my head to see a concrete ledge about 20 feet away. I hooked my legs onto the rope and started to ratchet my way up, pull, grip, pull, grip, and so on. I reached the edge quickly but the rope was too taut for my feet to reach the ground. I continued to the stump that was set up for a dismount, but couldn't reach that either. I ended up having to go another few feet and hook my legs into a convenient tree, then wriggle around until there was a little slack and release the pulley and safety sling, before I could finally drop onto solid ground.
Val came over next, and since she's lightweight, managed to pull herself within reaching distance. I grabbed her hand and yanked her up to the stump.
Rick came over last, and the poor guy was cursed by his 200+ pounds. He had to make a massive effort going up the second half of the traverse, and his sling was also too long, which forced him to lever his arms out away from his body. Val and I flung our combined weight onto the rope to reduce the angle of attack, and with much shouted encouragement, Rick finally arrived within arm's reach of where I was standing on the concrete. On this side is was also a 20 foot drop, and you can hear in the video how I grabbed Rick's hand and he said "It's not gonna work, Pete, I don't want to pull you over the edge." My response managed to avoid any NSFW language, and I was able to dig my heels in and pull him the few feet to the ledge. He didn't even need the stump to get off the rope; his weight and the long sling allowed him to stand flat on the ground.
Rick about to push off. You can definitely see the sling is too long.
Well done team! We took off our harnesses and stuffed them back in our packs as we walk-jogged the two miles back down Riviera Ave to the boat launch, where we would be starting our first paddle section of the race.
Yet to come: a beautiful night paddle; an epic trek; and some gnarly biking. Stay tuned for Part II!