Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Fun in the Snowgaine

I finally pulled myself away from GMARA's Frigid Infliction for a year in order to experience the "Snowgaine" orienteering event near Syracuse.  CNYO puts on a series of endurance/navigation races and this was our first time trying one in the winter.  John was up for it, even though he's much more of a "fun in the sun" type of guy.  We registered as a coed team and strapped on our snowshoes.  Skis (or bikes or foot travel) were also legal, but being novice snow-navigators we stuck with basic snowshoes so we didn't have even more to think about.

Saturday morning we got the race map, 1 hour to study and plan, and then 8 hours to collect as many controls as we could.  Saturday night we got a break, some food and sleep, and then Sunday we had another 8 hours to finish up.  Here is the start/finish area with John's pack on the table and several folks getting ready:

We started with a group of teams jogging down the road toward our first trio of controls, #41, 64, and 56.  We opted to start on the snowmobile track instead of the direct route across the field, only slightly slower than several other teams.  Then cross-country to the 2nd point, learning how to deal with the crusty snow and varying conditions.  The snow was plenty deep but we mostly stayed on top.  Luckily we are not large people so that kept us from breaking through the crust too often.  Every once in a great while being smaller is a bonus.

Another interesting aspect of the Snowgaine was the tracks that everyone makes as they travel.  It seemed that most people went directly to #64, so although we did our own nav it certainly was nice having confirmation tracks to follow.  For the 3rd point the tracks diverged and we picked the right set which led right to #56.  We saw Abby and Brent from team GOALS several times through here, and it's always fun to greet people that you know.

Back to the snowmobile trail, we followed it south and across the road to a spur that led down to #47.  It may have been faster to take a direct bearing toward it, but we were still working out the differences in speed of travel in the woods vs. the snowmobile tracks (which were more loose than hard-packed but still allowed for some running instead of tromping).

From there we were going to skirt a large pond, but snowshoe tracks from teams ahead of us led across the iced-over lake.  Hmm, seems like a good time to see how this might work.  We stayed rather close to shore and rather away from each other (in case of issues, no need for both to fall in).  The ice was thick and solid, with an interesting top surface that oozed slightly from recent rain.  That made it hard to run and also a bit weird, so we settled for a fast walk and "island-hopped" near clumps of bushes to make us feel better.

No issues getting across, back to the road for a short out-and-back to #85.  Some teams were heading directly south from there, while we had decided we would run on roads for a few kilometers to the furthest point near a school.  We jogged while carrying the snowshoes, which helped warm up our feet.  We were the 3rd team to reach #88, after a pair of guys on fat-tire bikes (!) and team GOALS.

From there it was mostly snowmobile trail to the next set of points.  We picked up #63 near a creek and #53 on the top of a hill without issue.  Slowly we were getting used to the whole deal and getting an idea of what we might be able to accomplish in 8 hours.

Coming across a small valley we had to cross a small creek.  Unlike the pond, the creeks were moving and not covered in ice.  Or at least, not thick ice.  John tested a spot by stepping across and the thin ice gave out under his feet.  It wasn't deep, up to his knees, but it was dang cold!  I felt really bad about this, and we were also not sure how long John's feet would hold out before we needed to just head back and prevent frozen toes.

John made it across, anyway, and he found a large tree limb to lay across the little creek so I could step over it without the same cold feet fate.  Thank you John!

Up the next hill, we found #65 with only a slight hesitation.  Now for #48, which was rather in the middle of nothing else.  It was also on the other side of a marshy area with a big creek curving around it.  Hmm, not sure what to do with that.  I wondered, being gun-shy about creeks right about then, whether we should go around on snowmobile trails.  John thought it would help his feet get warm if we could run for a while, so that sounded like the best thing at the moment.

So we ran for a while, greeted a few snowmobiling folks along the way, then I managed to muck up the nav down to the point but John got us back on track and eventually we punched #48.  Not our finest hour.  Looking back, we certainly lost time taking the roundabout route.  Learn as you go!  Although, John's feet were doing OK, so perhaps the running was best under the circumstances.

Next was another long slog up the valley to the north.  We crossed a creek on a snow bridge (very cool!) and followed contours around to a root stock and #55.  A long walk uphill and we were finally back in an area with multiple controls.  It was good to get those 2 out of the way, even though they took some time.

There were tracks and other teams in the area of the next few points, and we knocked off #46, 21, 45, and 37 in quick succession.  #45 was next to a snow-covered marsh, and I marveled at the large mounds of snow that we stepped across on the way over.  It felt like a winter version of the Dead Marshes from the Lord of the Rings.  Very cool.

Then a tree branch grabbed the hat off my head, and John said something about me being decapitated...

Now we had to figure out what to try to accomplish in the time remaining for the day.  We jogged along a trail and over to #51, then took a cross-country route north to #44.  We were tiring, but almost done.  We still had energy to cross a marsh and grab #33, which was the last important one on this circle so we didn't have to make any detours on Sunday to clean up after ourselves.

And we had a bit more time so we ran and followed tracks as they diverged and converged in the direction of #43.  We were excited to find the rock wall we were looking for (especially since we now knew what rock walls looked like buried under a couple feet of snow - surprisingly different from what we are used to).  So excited that we ran downhill right past the control.  When we ran out of snowshoe and ski tracks we had to question what we were doing.  Back uphill a short ways and there it was off to the side - d'oh!

We found the snowmobile track leading up to the main road and jogged back to the start/finish.  We debated trying to get #18 in the remaining few minutes but decided it wasn't worth sprinting for at this point.  Tomorrow is another day.

It was downright luxurious having a motel room, shower, heater, and access to a pizza place for supper that night.  We managed to get most of the clothes dry, and the shoes were close enough by morning.  Sunday morning was cold and gray but we were ready to get out in the woods again.

We started with #18 and ran down the road with a group of folks again.  It was a quick catch, then across the road to start a clockwise loop.  We were pleasantly surprised to find that the snowpack was quite solid and we could move faster, at least in the cold of the morning.  It's very rare that you catch me and John being thankful for "colder" in the winter.

Another difference from Saturday was an immediate scattering of teams.  We found #15 by ourselves (well, except for a few sets of tracks in the area) and we saw a couple skiers heading toward #52 as we punched that one.  From then onward, we saw 5 other teams total in the next 6 hours.  Compared to the leap-frogging of Saturday, it was a quiet day.

At least there were plenty of tracks around, as long as we could decipher which ones made the most sense to follow.  That didn't always work out, but it helped enough that we couldn't ignore them.  Hopefully we hadn't led other teams in too many wrong directions with our missteps the previous day.

It snowed that morning, a nice light trickle of snowflakes that drifted down in a very pretty way.  We decided that was our favorite type of snow.  Then the sun came out for a while, which was even more pleasant.

We ran down the snowmobile trail and into the woods to find our final 80-pointer, #83.  The guys on bikes were schlepping their steeds back to the trail as we were going in.  I'm sure they were a lot faster in certain parts of the course, but I did not envy them having to lug the bikes around in the snow.

We had decided to go a bit out of the way for #50 at this point, since there was a nice snowmobile trail link-up which avoided a long cross-country jaunt south of #83.  When we reached the next pond, John suggested we could head directly across.  When we found bike and then snowmobile tracks across it, that sealed the deal and we ran right across.  It felt completely solid today.  Even better, John suggested we head east after punching #50, back across the pond. 

That worked great, and we followed a snowmobile track out to a road and across, heading south across a small marsh to find #62 on a strange long, narrow little hill.  We started wondering how this whole area would be for summer travel and decided that it would probably be very, very different.  And wet.

For the next point we contoured around a shallow hillside.  We had been making our own tracks for most of the past hour, and it was no different here.  Not sure if it was faster or slower than a slightly more direct route, but we were still thinking in terms of non-winter navigation.  Eventually over the course of the day Sunday we would adjust and start aiming more directly at the controls.

We climbed up a steep hill to #67 and then decided to try a straight shot at the last 60-pointer in the trio.  There was a parade of tracks coming and going in that direction, so we followed it across a large marsh through trees, over a flat island, and onto an open marsh.  This was pretty easy travel and nav (especially with the trail to follow) and we were happy to find that this strategy worked.  Along the way we saw a team of 2 adventure racers (Joe and Jeff) heading our way.  They seemed to be well on their way to clearing the course in fine fashion.

#66 was right where we expected it, then it was time to find a way out to a main road.  The tracks took a rather circuitous route, but it got us there eventually, including a creek crossing made easier by other folks in front of us finding a good place to cross.

Another team of 2 guys greeted us going the other way - hi guys!  They told us about a dog that had been following them for a bit, but we never saw him, only his tracks.  We cut across a pond and took off the snowshoes to jog for a bit down the road.  The wind made it cold, but other than chilly cheeks we were warmer on Sunday overall.

We found a good gap between a couple houses to cut back into the marshy area and across to #26.  We took direct routes and didn't avoid the creeks in this section of 3 controls, and it paid off with a quick circuit without issues.  Especially since the prior tracks were coming in our direction, that helped tremendously to know they were coming directly out of the control and that they had found a spot to cross the water each time.  John helped me traverse a couple snow and log bridges, and except for one close call where John saved his toes from getting soaked again, we did well in this little loop.

After picking up #26, #36, and #38, we moved north to run on the snowmobile trail for a bit.  I think we greeted another co-ed team in here before we moved back into the woods to find #23.  On the way to the next point we purposely headed directly toward an open pond to avoid the creek flowing out the bottom of it.  This is so much against our orienteering nature, you cannot imagine the adjustment that needed to be forced into my brain.  It paid off, as the pond was frozen solid.  As we found #39 we could see open water in the creek nearby.

We circled around on snowmobile trails to #49 and then tried a direct route to #42.  This didn't work (although the tracks led across a nice snow bridge over a creek) and we eventually found ourselves to the north of where we were aiming.  Our fault for not considering all the possible directions that people would be going and coming from in this area.  John figured it out quickly and I followed him up the hill to #42.  Nice catch.

More running on a wide trail, then a short climb up to #34.  Getting close now!  The marshy area up to #35 was fun, full of bumps and interesting terrain that I couldn't imagine skiing across (although some people certainly seemed to manage just fine).  From #35 we cut across over to #22 and then headed for home.  One last run across a frozen pond (because when else will we be able to run across a pond again?) and up the hill to the finish.

We cleared the course in a bit over 6 hours on Sunday and we were very happy with that.  It put us in 4th place for the co-ed division and 6th overall.  Not bad for our first Snowgaine!  CNYO puts on top-notch orienteering events, complete with warm food and drinks afterward.  We're lucky to be living relatively close so we can enjoy them while we're living up here.

And if you're looking for snow right about now, there's plenty of it north of Syracuse!

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