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Archive for March, 2011

Still Having Fun

Friday, March 25th, 2011

Springtime crust skiing is one of my favorite ways to explore the neighborhood. Getting the timing correct is part of the fun. Too early and the hard frozen will not yield to the edge of the ski. Wait too long and the crust fails preventing the ski out or stranding the skier far from home.

Crust skiing is well worth the risks. The reward is moving at World Cup athlete speed and freedom from the confines of trails. Its also just plain fun.

Some of the trails in the network pass through fields discovered while crust skiing. Unfortunately, the trails altered the ability to ski randomly through the meadows and open acreage. Crust skiing is a way for me to extend the ski season when the touring centers have stopped grooming the trails.

Grooming this season has been a fantastic experience. Having ski trails twenty feet out the door has been decadent and well worth the efforts. The level of decadence is never more evident when I fire up the sled to groom out the trails enabling me to ski. Waiting for the trails to thaw so the ruts won’t grab skis is a thing of the past. I want to ski and I want to ski NOW.

On most days, grooming commences before the temps and sun rise enough to create soft snow. Most of the trails are shaded and skiing in a long sleeve shirt and without wind briefs is possible. The Tidd does a brilliant job reducing the Styrofoam crust to an inch thick layer of icy ball bearings. With the proper moisture level the super fast snowcone layer adheres to the hard snow beneath making a stable and trustworthy surface. The trails are ultra-fun to ski. Conditions have been so good the skiing would be fun if I covered the bases of the skis with pine tar. Who needs flouros; I have a groomer.

Liv skiing the freshly rejuvinated trails,Still working it.

Another benefit to extending the ski season is exercising the dog. Mud season has started and running is just plain messy. A bit of skijoring with the kids helps wear out the dog. The highest perceived speed achieved on the trails this season was my 7 year old harnessed to the dog.

Nate wearing out the dog.

Besides the skiing, the fun has also been grooming the trails. A wise skier who grooms told me at the start of the ski season that grooming can become an end in itself. To a certain extent it has for me. Groomed trails have the look of a Japanese garden. I enjoy the aesthetics created by the contrast of groomed snow and the untouched surface along the edge.

The original plan was to stop grooming at the equinox. Most of the trails still have 12”-18” of packed base. The skiing is still fun and so is the grooming so the new plan is to keep at it until it is impractical to keep going.

The end is getting close.

Sugaring and Castor Oil

Thursday, March 17th, 2011

All season long my clothes have reeked with the acrid and pungent scent of two-stroke exhaust. The smell has permeated the leather of my Sorrell’s making the rancid odor ever present when keeping my feet warm. The heat ducting in vehicles directs the warm air at our feet. This rise in temperature drives out even more of the latent smell of burned oil and the fan distributes the stench throughout the passenger area. It is awful and almost enough to cause me to reconsider if I wish to continue grooming the trails.

A 4-stroke engine will smell better but is financially not an option. There are two- stroke oils available made specifically to combat the problem of foul smelling exhaust. So far, Klotz has been the most tolerable. The exhaust smells very similar to soap. Better but not ideal. Admittedly, the smell of castor oil is pleasing to my senses. A wisp of burned castor oil brings back memories of model airplane engines along with days spent watching the Black Baron fight aerial duels with Sir Percy Goodfellow high above the Old Rhinebeck Aerodrome. The rotary engines used in WWI aircraft were lubricated with castor oil. Castor oil is pressed from the castor bean. This oil is used medicinally as a laxative and to induce labor. As a lubricant, castor oil is unmatched by modern synthetics and is the lube of choice for most people involved with motor racing powered by a two-stroke mill.The hassle with Castor oil is it must be mixed with the fuel and, being a natural product, it can turn rancid. In snow machines there is the danger of the mixed castor oil dropping out of suspension in very cold weather.

For several years there has been a bottle of castor oil taking up space in the medicine chest. If memory serves, the bottle was purchased when my daughter was three weeks past her due date and my wife wanted to become a mom and stop being an incubator. Jill was unable to choke down a shooter of castor oil and the bottle has been collecting dust for ten years.

Just for kicks and as an experiment, I decided to add in a few ounces of the medicinal oil to the final tank of fuel of the grooming season. The mix was somewhere near 100:1. Far too lean for proper lubrication and not thick enough to foul the plugs as the injected Klotz was still being used to prevent the engine from seizing up. The tank was filled with fuel in anticipation of the freeze/thaw cycles typifying the end of the ski season. As mentioned in previous posts, Mother Nature has done a fantastic job rejuvenating the trails. The rain has soaked into the snowpack building a very thick crust. Warm temps have made for some unbelievably great crust skiing so the sled and grooming equipment have sat idle. My siphoning skills are pretty bad which left behind about a third of the tank. The plan is to continue grooming as needed or as desired to burn off the end of the tank and run in the storage additives to keep the fuel from going bad.

The lubricating qualities of the castor oil in the sled are open for interpretation. The smell of the exhaust is vastly improved. The nose is rather sweet and similar to the smells lingering in the food service areas of country fairs. My guess is the heads of anyone downwind of the grooming operation are filled with visions and desires for hand cut French fries and funnel cakes.

Tidd as a makeshift firewood sled

In addition to making brilliant crust skiing, freeze/thaw cycles get the sap running in sugar maples. The yurt next to the firing range is now used to store the shooting mat and brass bucket. The original use for the yurt was a sauna for an equinox bash we hosted a few years back. The stove is still inside and the yurt is now the sugarhouse. Recent ice storms have damaged quite a few birch trees and cleaning up the broken trees has yielded a nice jag of sugaring wood. The Tidd was pressed into service as a firewood sled and the ski trails is a nice firm way to access the taps. Now I can groom and collect sap in one pass.

Grooming will continue until the fuel is run through the sled to a point where I can put it away with minimal fear of having too much old gas to dilute with fresh at the start of next season’s grooming. In short, this season was a superb experience and having ski trails right out the door is decadent and worth the effort. More on this in another season wrap-up post.

The castor oil was discovered rather late. I and others, endured a cloud of awful two-stroke exhaust while keeping the trails in good ski condition. It has paid off and I anticipate another week or two of good skiing. The only drawback to the castor oil was reading about the intrepid WWI aviators who were constantly breathing the minute particles of unburned castor oil. Evidently, the laxative qualities are still potent in the exhaust. The deoderizing qualities of the castor oil might also give new meaning to mud season.

Trumped by Mother Nature

Thursday, March 10th, 2011

Signs of the usual demise of the ski season or evidence of dificult grooming

March 6 and 7 delivered a huge amount of snow to most of Vermont. The storm was the third largest snowfall in Burlington since records have been kept starting 130 years ago. In Post Mills, the storm delivered a lot of rain, mixed precipitation (sleet and rain) and two inches of snow. I feared when the storm passed, the trails would be melted out or so icy there would be no way to rejuvenate them. I also figured it’s March and why make the effort when warm temps and mud season are right around the corner; ski season is over. Not so.

The rain did reduce the snowpack at the house by 10 inches. The mixed precip accompanied by falling temps created a very firm crust. The rounded sleet was self-leveling and filled in the hollows and edged the trails with a ski tip friendly radius. The dry snow was puppy dog ear smooth so I decided to try and ski it. Crust skiing is one of my favorite springtime activities and this seemed ideal. It was.

The trails were a blast to ski. There were a few sticks and frozen clumps of pine branch ends to remove. Besides these few bits of rubble, the trails were immaculate. The ¼” of ice coating almost everything was fantastically beautiful to look at and the sun shining through the trees made for a sparkly light show. Many of the ice laden branches needed to be ducked under since I was too smitten by the skiing to find the pole saw and cut down these obstructions.

Ducking ice covered branches

The kids came out and we chased each other around the trails. The handicap for these “races” was allowing the children to use any cutoff they wished. Eventually they cut the trails by 2/3 and at my best I was soundly beaten. A great time was had by all and we stopped when it became too dark to see.

For the past two months I worked pretty hard and took pride in delivering a smooth, firm and fast trail system. In the span of 10 hours, Mother Nature made awesome skiing. My winter’s efforts were pretty bad by comparison. The temps remained cold after the storm and the top dressing of snow was very dry remaining silky smooth and fun to ski. Rain and more snow are predicted for the next few days. With any luck the crust will become rejuvenated. Work has prevented me from taking full advantage of the crust skiing we have now and my hope is being able to go on a long ski adventure through the woods and fields.

Naturally groomed trails

The next full moon is March 19 which happens to be a Saturday. The full moon is close enough to the vernal equinox and St. Patrick’s Day to hold a party of some sort. It’s also a few weeks past Mardi Gras, another good reason to host a gathering. Trail clearing left several piles of brush in need of burning so an old fashon bonfire and full moon ski/hike/snowshoe seen fitting to close out the first season of grooming.

Grooming Experiments and Classic Tracks

Saturday, March 5th, 2011

The trail system being groomed this winter consists of 4 disconnected parts. There are trails at the house (Virtual Tour); a 250 meter sprint course loop across the road; the 4k lap located 800 meters down the road; and another 1k loop across the street from the 4k. Two of these loops are on property owned by one family and separated by a road.

It took most of the winter to contact the adjacent landowners to gain permission to cut or improve trails enabling these separate trails to become one large system and eliminate road crossings. With the pieces in place there is plenty of work to do this summer getting ready for the ‘11/’12 season.

One nice aspect of the 4 disconnected trails is the ability to experiment with the grooming. They all receive the same weather and the topography and woods are similar enough to see how the grooming effects the skiing, skiability, and groomability of the trails. During the last warm wet snowfall, the decision was made to immediately groom up the house trails using the Tidd to compact the snow. The idea was to create a hard and solid surface while the snow contained a lot of moisture, allow the cold to freeze it up and use the teeth to renovate the snow in the morning after temps fell below zero that night. This worked great and the trails were easily groomed, very fast, trustworthy and fun to ski.

Up the road a piece the trails were left alone with the idea of using the teeth on the Tidd to chop the crust and mix it with the drier snow below. The cold temps tend to dry and redistribute the moisture. Cutting the crust was thought to be easier on the sled and should be faster. Wrong on every point. The Tidd was able to cut the crust and the cold did transform the snow as predicted. The rub was having the crust fail in large chunks after breaking under the weight of the sled. These large chunks tended to slide across the intact crusts and the Tidd caught pieces and turned them into plows. The result was a huge pile ahead of the Tidd. Raising the teeth reduced the plowing but also the ability to chop the crust. The Tidd was dragged with the hope of crushing the surface crust down into the sugary snow trapped between the old ski surface and crusty top. After waiting for the next warming and freeze to pass, the Tidd was used to break up this conglomerate of icy and styrofoam crust, sugar snow and whatever mix of snow particles were mixed in.

The results of crust over sugar. The result of poor decisions regarding when to groom

This sorta worked. The easy grooming turned into a huge number of passes. The cold nights really dried the snow and it hadn’t set up as firm as I’d have hoped and the results were mixed. Some parts were fantastic and others were embarrassingly bad. The trails are not wide enough to set tracks and leave a skate lane. Most trail users are skating or using wide, metal edged no-wax classic skis and the narrow tracks won’t accept these wider boards. With rain and warm temps in the forecast the decision was made to try and set classic tracks. The trails will be rendered useless by the weather so I had nothing to lose by trying.

I’m not a very good classic skier and prefer to skate which might be another reason for not setting tracks. Seeing as I had screwed up with regards to the snow metamorphosis and how to groom it to a nice skate finish, I figured setting tracks would work in a 4’ strip of well prepared snow. A few passes were needed to determine how deep to set the teeth on the Tidd and how fast to move. To a point, slower is better. Too fast and the setter rides up, planning on top and leaving wandering and shallow ruts. The sled has too little torque going slow at what has been determined to be a good track-setting pace. Small steering input is multiplied at the setter magnifying wobbles caused by lack of focus.

Wobbly tracks.

Tracks after an earthquake? Unfortunately, Vermont is too geologically stable.

Setting good tracks is an art form. I’m no artist. The tracks look terrible and not very inviting but they ski pretty well. Tracks visually break up the tracks making them appear narrower and amplifying lines of the trails. In addition to skiing well, I like to have the trails looking good which I believe improves the overall skiing experience. The art equivalent of my track setting might best be described as vandalism graffiti.

Despite the lack of aesthetics, skis remain in the tracks except where the curves are too tight. I did my best to set best line tracks and see real value in the ability to pick up the track steer on the fly. Being able to leave tight sections free of tracks will make for a better skiing experience.

The tracks were so bad through here my 7 year old son decided to take his chances on the crust. His skate marks are just barely visible to the left of the "proper" trail.

After allowing the tracks to firm up for a few hours the temps were perfect for a layer of blue kick wax. Despite the poor track setting, classic skiing was a blast and a certain level of regret arose for not having set tracks sooner.

Tracks aside, there is still a lot of beauty to see from the trails