Alpacka Explorer 42 review

We spent a lot of time thinking about this one.  Our need for a second large packraft, to compliment our Double Duck, was obvious.  You really can’t paddle more difficult water with a kid in your lap, one previous option to getting both kids out of the front of the Duck, and we needed to get both kids out of the Duck.  That boat wasn’t made for hauling, and the small tubes in the front start to drag and drastically reduce maneuverability with much above 50 pounds.  Both kids (now 3 and 6) do fit in the Duck, and can often get along in tight quarters, but being able to separate them is a key strategic asset. 

I saw two distinct approaches; a smaller boat to minimize weight for backcountry stuff, or a bigger boat that would be able to carry both kids well into the future.  This last approach could minimize weight as well, if the second adult came along in a smaller raft.  

We thought long about the Mule, at 7.3 pounds (plain floor with cargo fly) and 52 inch inner length.  That size would carry one kid, for at least a while.  We thought less long about the 70 inch long and 13+ pound Forager, mostly due to weight, but also the reduced options committing to a big raft would involve.  We eliminated the Oryx over concerns the length/width ratio and seating would not be good in whitewater.  The Ex42, with 62 inch and 8.3 pound (with cargo fly), seemed like the ideal compromise; big enough for two kids, more than big enough for one, probably big enough for two adults occasionally, and small enough to paddle solo when need or desire dictated, and well suited to hauling that moose out of the Bob when I finally draw.  The Ex42 is also a good bit cheaper than the Forager or Oryx.  

All that has proven to be a wise estimate.

The high volume cargo hull has performed exceptionally across circumstances.  Two kids, one kid, one kid plus mountain bike, two kids plus overnight gear inside, a second adult, or just alone with day gear, the Explorer 42 paddles well everywhere.  It is fast, for a packraft, on flatwater, but pivots well and navigates class III no problem.  The long flat section of the hull does tend to spear into waves and features of a certain size, an inevitable tendency given the dimensions, one notably not meaningfully exacerbated by weight and or passengers in the bow.  On class IIish scale features the boat is quite dry.  I do appreciate how the hull design packs a lot of float into modest length, a relevant consideration for running skinny water, and for reducing the consequences of a wrap.  My only issue is the extent to which the stern section protrudes further into the waterline than other packrafts, and thus is more likely to get hung up than seems strictly necessary.  The same long flat section of hull makes it almost, sorta possible to edge the Ex42, canoe style.   It still paddles like a packraft, but varies enough from the main line to be interesting for the packraft connoisseur.  

Detailing, such as it is, is primarily good.  The long, thick seat works well providing additional stiffness (laterally and longitudinally) and keeping two passengers off the rocks and out of the water.  The kids do dispute the right to sit on the leading edge, suggesting that the ideal two kid outfitting would involve a full length seat, or an additional scout seat to take up that forward space.  For our use thus far, I don’t mind the lack of any sort of backband or support, but those with less ideal seated posture have wanted this.  The only modification I’ve made is gluing in a rear grab handle right above the end of the cargo zipper.  I find the roll out and grab maneuver essential on swift and tight creeks, and the lash points down near the point of the stern are utterly useless in this respect.  Perhaps they are down there to provide a grab loop for rescuing swimmers?  Speaking of that cargo zipper, for all the irritation it can create with micro leaks, having one on a family boat is mandatory.  Packing for an overnight with multiple kids is dead easy with the cargo fly, approaching or perhaps exceeding the ease of a canoe or big raft.  Most encouragingly, the build quality seems to be improved over out past Alpackas.  This is the first of the now six boats we’ve had from them that didn’t have some sort of wrinkle or oddity in the taping.  

We anticipate having the Ex42 still in heavy rotation many years hence.  We may not need to buy another multiperson raft again, as LB has been keen enough building his solo paddling skills that by the time both kids don’t fit in the Ex42 together, he’ll more often than not be paddling himself.

Summer

A month ago I knew we were in trouble.  In the dead of winter I had plotted a lookout/packraft/hiking trip, hoping the agency optimism in opening slots so early in the summer would lead to cool isolation.  The final road was drifted in, but the scorching days I was there sublimated those into hollow, slushy nothing, and the hot afternoons back up steep bald ridges and over and through one tree per 10 meter deadfall left me hollow, in a way even the most careful retroactive application of salty fries, gatorade, beer, steak, and salad would not cure for a week or more.  At two weeks until the solstice my sun-hollowed eyes were those of August.

Summer in Montana, and I imagine in all higher latitudes, is not the same.  Sudden, excessive daylight, along with the opening of rivers and mountains via preferred human temperatures and the imminent contrast of short December breeds a mania.  A full day can end in a long dinner and still accommodate a decent bike ride or river trip before dark.  With the fullness of spring lingering green and brown and fat, there is little incentive towards moderation.  Once this June I left a long day in the office, took a non-frantic stop at home to load gear and see everyone, drove an hour, did a 12 mile ride to 10 mile paddle, and was almost back home before turning the lights on.  For me there aren’t enough electrolytes or hours of sleep or minutes for processing, and eventually I have to take a pause.

Which is less than ideal when it is this hot outside.

The other weekend that pause was an escape to the mountains and a cabin next to a cool brook.  We stopped at the splash park in Dillon, a mandatory kid destination, which was suddenly made too cold by a thick, 30 minute thunderstorm.  That night I slept out on the porch, and reveled in being woken by lightning at midnight, and in the dawn being almost too cold for my blanket.  That afternoon we launched the family circus on a new-to-us river, wife and big kid in the older big packraft, me and small kid and shuttle bike in the bigger big packraft.  Early in the run I committed the first sin of boating and waited too long to decide to not skirt the submerged log that was almost entirely blocking the right slot, and hit the left line too slowly.  The boulder drop was sucky at those too low, too early flows, and stopped the boat cold, turned us sideways, and poured in 10 gallons in a second or two.  M, whose brace hasn’t been fortified by several months of frantic river trips, spent longer in the embrace and had her boat filled to the virtual gunnels.  That afternoon it was warm enough that no human, be they 22 pounds or 170, minded being soaked.  Later on I misjudged a tight line and smashed my rear dropouts into a boulder, amazing myself with the abuse aluminum will take, and the passing bank fisherfolk with what exactly we were doing.

Riding back to the car I looked forward to guzzling a beer, not realizing until I started driving that I hadn’t looked for my watch in hours, and that somehow it was already well past the kids bedtime, and we had minimal food left in the car.  We drove 40 minutes to civilization for burgers, and the kids stayed awake the whole drive home which took until the very edge of darkness.  I cannot fairly blame them.

That evening I fumbled in our mudroom for the alley lightswitch, having in the past 6 weeks of disuse forgotten its location.

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Normal

This weekend Little Bear and I did something we hadn’t done for over a year; we made the drive down to Bozeman, hung out, ate good food, visited the dinosaur museum (aka the Museum of the Rockies), rode bikes, and went skiing.  We also made an unexpected, late drive back home through darkness and a few snow squalls after we found the road to the cabin unexpectedly drifted in, which made for a good opportunity to discuss flexibility and managing disappointment.  It was a very pleasant day, a reminder that in central Montana one can ride bikes on dirt and ski deep snow within a fairly short span of time and distance.  It was also an expansion of a world which has felt, logistically and more relevantly, psychologically, cloisteredContinue reading “Normal”

The best thing

A new packraft is the most exciting piece of gear.  As of two days ago we have four in the gear room, and have owned six in total.  Skis have an outer purity of purpose, but in practice this is circumscribed to a startling extent by how sucky traction devices are, and how contextual proper snowpack has become in the 21st century.  Bikes are similarly boxed in by needing prepared surfaces, most of whom (for either practical or juridical reasons) are shaped by human imagination.  Waterways, by definition, are not; and a boat that can easily travel on foot from one body of water to the next allows for the ideal blend of human agency and immersing us in how thoroughly environment creates us.

The new boat is an Explorer 42 from Alpacka, its place in the quiver a larger, more whitewater capable, and cargo fly equipped version of the Double Duck we purchased (also in the holiday sale) 5 years ago, when we were only preparing for a family life on the water, rather than today, figuring out just how much we can do with two young kids.  Based on a 30 minute evening test paddle, it is big, stable, and carries two kids and one adult with ease.  I’m very excited to push it in all matters of challenging water this year.

The only thing more exciting is having a president that isn’t a thug and a narcissist.  Cheers everyone.

The next year

I did not much miss travel this past year.  Or, to be more precise, I was more than content with staying in Montana (two trips excepted), and ran out of both energy and creativity before I ran out of options.  As I think about 2021, my eye keeps coming back to the home state, and the many places I would still like to go, and the ways I might fit those trips into the next 12 months.  My resolution from the beginning of the pandemic has only grown stronger, after a summer of a few intensely memorable trips within a couple hundred miles of home.

So why not do more of those?

There is a mountain range near to town, which tends to hide in plain sight, and has some truly exceptional canyons and trails that very few human eyes ever see.  I’ve done a few trips there, each one having been exceptional, and while I’ve yet to settle on the exact route, something a little more extensive in early summer will be a priority.  I’ve made a reservation to spur me along towards that end.  I’ll share impressions when it happens, but never details, there being enough knows out in the world as is.

There are also a lot of rivers in Montana, with many hiding in plain sight once they put the mountains below the horizon.  Again I have no definitive plans, but with the smaller child getting big enough that backpacking will become ever more difficult, the boating phase of family development should be in full force this year.  We bought a canoe this past year, and have another packraft on the way in a few weeks, so we should use them a bunch.  On that note, a full Escalante float really ought to happen this year.

And on the subject of packrafting, there are still two major creeks in Glacier I have yet to float.  And I’m pretty certain that both of them will be very worthwhile.  Restrictions in the park this past year took both off the table, so there is a special urgency and poignancy to being able to get into those pieces of backcountry, one of whom is amongst the handful of named drainages in the park into which I have never set foot.  And on the subject of packrafting, a year with minimal socialization has me contemplating the privilege of being around likeminded folks.  Spending the summer solstice in the center of the universe with the relevant folks and as much beer as we dare to carry is an idea that won’t quite leave my head.

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I am also hopeful of, finally, having some more packs go out the door.  Tamarisk 0.2, above, is headed out the door tomorrow.  While I did not intend to put a full year of testing into version 0.1, having the confidence that it both works so well across applications and that the individual components hold up so well is an unexpected luxury.  Mark 0.2 is a wee bit bigger (as requested) than 0.1, and than the production model will be.  It scales nicely, looks good, and carries (with the final alterations to the hipbelt) even better.

On that commercial note, I should mention that stock of gold packraft straps has grown quite thin after the holiday surge. 3 pairs, to be exact. Anyone who has been wedded to that color but not moved to act ought to do so now. Anyone with thoughts about what color should appear next, to compliment the rainbow (which will be stocked perpetually), do comment.

Things I loved this year

Add.; Not long after publishing this yesterday evening I received a text, and then an email, stating that extra vaccine doses would be available to direct care workers outside hospitals and clinics, in other words, me. So I woke up in the dark and waited in line at the fairgrounds and got Moderna stuck into my arm. That medicine went into clinical trials the first day our schools went virtual back in the spring, and is both a great story and a reminder that for all the navel gazing, flatearth mugwumpitude of 2020, contemporary science is quite amazing. Can’t really leave that off such a list as this.

DMR Deathgrips

For over a decade I’ve struggled to see the point of any mountain bike grips which are not either Oury or Ergon. When buying parts for the Marin I wanted to try something new, and ordered a pair of Deathgrips in thin and flangeless. The tactile experience, along with the ease of removal while futzing with components, have been very nice indeed. Nice enough that I recently put another set, thick and flangeless, of my fatbike. I don’t have enormous hands (generally right between medium and large gloves) and the thin versions are both a bit low on cushion and a bit too little to hold well in the rough. These are emphatically a gravity oriented grip, without much squish. But the ribbed thumb section is super comfy with or without gloves, and encourages body english and three dimensional steering. Not necessarily the most versatile bike grip, but a very fun option.

Bialetti Moka pot

Under ordinary circumstances I don’t do much to restrain my coffee consumption, provided I drink it black. Caffeine being after all an almost universal performance enhancer with no socially consequent downsides, and precious few downsides at all. The chemical and psychological benefits have been even more important this year, and the Moka pot quickly makes just the kind of coffee I prefer. This fall especially it has been rare that I don’t fire it up at least twice a day.

My chair

When we moved in 3.5 years ago the little garage out back was in sad shape, and half full of odd junk. The door had long since ceased to work, and the dirt floor became vital that spring, as a record snowpack melted through the walls and flooded down under the door. Boxes stored in there were frozen to the floor for over a month. That summer I built a stone wall between the opening and the alley, demolished the door, and built a wall cutting the interior in half. The dirt floor of the bike room is handy when I spill oil, or don’t want to go back inside to piss, but a nuisance when I drop a bolt. I also dug out the three feet of wooden wall decades of erosion had placed underground, and installed layers of flashing. So now our garage keeps snowmelt out.

Among the items moved out to make way for bikes and the car was an old wooden bakers chair, which rolls, swivels and tilts on an iron base. I didn’t really look at it for another few years, until this February when I restored the base with grease, screws, and wood glue, and the seat and back with pints of linseed oil. I had intended to move it to my office at school, and finished it the weekend before the stay at home order took effect in Montana. Instead it went into the new home office, and I found that the unpadded seat was more comfortable than the succession of old and modern plush chairs I’ve used over the years. It was a happy day when I moved it into school at the end of August, and in October, when things finally got cold enough for the baseboard heater to run hot, the scent of linseed oil reemerged and lingered for days. For practical and now, nostalgic reasons, I can’t imagine ever getting rid of it.

Fire lookouts

Through both planning and luck spent more nights in lookout towers this year than any other to date. Some, like Christmas Eve in a tower just north of town, required advanced planning. Others were vacancies that popped up days in advance, and seizing them just required awareness and being flexible. Picking a favorite is not possible, as every trip was important and unique. Like this one, and this one.

In this case scarcity has always been somewhat the driver of interest, and this year more than most, the silence of the wind and a long view were especially welcome. If a lot of my internal conversation at the beginning of the summer concerned what I would do when the pandemic had passed, my looking back at these photos and memories now has me struggling to think of trips I’d find of more interest or value, and has me psyched to plan more, close to home, for 2021.

The bakery

One of the sadder days of the stay at home order was when our local shut down for several weeks. They had stayed open with much of their usual range for the first few weeks, and taking the usual walk downtown in the afternoon only to find a note saying they’d be shut for at least a while did more than most things, I am sad to admit, to bring home what we had lost. Ever since they reopened I’ve been less likely than usual to shy away from an anise biscotti or slice of lemon sake, and less likely in general to take our little city for granted.

OR Feedback flannel

This is a nice shirt. You would not know it was polyester until it dries much faster (and stinks more) than wool. Fit and build are ideal. Durability is decent. My 14 month old one has developed a few picks at seemingly random times, none of which have impacted presentability from a distance or not been easily sorted with scissors. That shirt still qualifies as Montana formal, and is the rare thing I can both wear to the office and on a hunting trip. Neither wicking nor insulation are quite at the level of true performance clothing, but is ideal for bike commuting, winter walks that turn cold, resort skiing, and everything in the category of lifestyle. At least around here, it counts as a Zoom shirt too.

Patagonia Slopestyle hoody

There are a lot of sweatshirts very similar to this (discontinued) piece, but as is often the case, Patagonia does the details better. The hard faced, brushed interior polyester is both more weather resistant and more cuddly than similar pieces from other companies, and the big three panel hood, roomy but not excessive cut, and pockets (there are zippered, mesh lined pockets inside each hand pocket) make it infinitely practical. I had one years ago, sold it, regretted doing so, and picked up another this summer on Worn Wear (which is a very fun place to browse). Until things get really cold around here, it is my coat every day.

Next year

We would do well to dispense with the cliche of 2020 being a horrid year. This horror is real, and will be with us for decades. In my psychotherapy practice I’ve been flat out since late September, with a wave of tweens whose existing dis-ease has been slapped without regard into the skillet of virtual schooling, social distance, and diffuse, suppurating, omnipresent ambiguity. Just as with heights, every human fears the unknown, and our ability to manage such things is drawn equally from past strength and present comfort. For many COVID created direct distress, through death and loss. For many, many more, it has created indirect distress which has, after nine months, begun to stain the floor of daily practice. The resultant coping skills, maladaptive, appropriate, and in between, unearth the past of our own lives and those who came before us as surely as a flood cuts a new river channel; with an almost instant surety that is ruthlessly un-living.

Put another way, the pandemic has washed bare far more antecedent distress, individual, familial, and societal, than consequent tragedy. Ringing in the new year with another drink and a middle finger towards the virus that must not be named quickly passes from self care into denial.

It is therefore fitting that this was the summer of Black Lives Matter, of a renewed reckoning with the bedrock of structural inequality. It is equally fitting that it was the autumn of Trump and Johnson, pusillanimous and unselfaware dumplings of privilege. The patina of this year will endure for decades, be it Barret in Ginsbergs seat, figurehead of internalized toxic masculinity, or in the middle schoolers who, due to Autism or family trauma, will likely never have slack enough to catch back on, and will in years to come keep stretching the rope which links their childhood entitlement to infinite possibility with the adulthood of their future, and whose breakage will be seen as inevitable, and not the result of some virus at all.

COVID has shown us how all our lives are subject to history. 2020 marched, uniformitarian, turgid, stretched thin to unseeingness, through all of us. Everyone had their turn. Places like Montana, who came out of lockdown largely unrippled, had to merely wait. Those places who did better (New Zealand) or worse (USA) than average did so, in retrospect, for reasons set in motion centuries ago.

This sense of our own powerlessness is not all bad. My enduring memories of 2020 center around an especially crystalline start of spring here, and unstructured evening picnics with the boys on nights M was at work. I’d put the laptop away, commute downstairs to throw dinner, water, and layers in a backpack, and we’d go out into the woods, somewhere to gather rocks, paddle the packraft, cook sausages on a fire. Often we went for a walk. Rarely did we go further than a mile. One time we saw a mountain goat. My own ability to manage uncertainty, never especially extensive outside the most favored and cultivated areas of expertise, was in April worn ragged, and the sense of constancy those evenings gave still today lingers with a clarity that has rendered normal down to a single point of light.

The other most enduring memory of 2020 is all the things I let myself not do. I’ve written about the house we live in, and how it has started to mirror in me patience. This fall, after the rush to seal up the redone mudroom, I mostly let patience soak through me like a lemon drizzle. I made a bench, and finished up insulating the plumbing for the washer/dryer, and the half wall which hides it, but mostly I let things, like half empty backpacks from outings past, pile up, and soon enough my appreciation for what we had done, and our new ability to all four prepare to depart at once and without stepping on each other, make the crumbs of daily life more scrummy.

These are all things I intend to remember next year.

Old dread

These words, two months ago, have proven to be good guidance, and underline one of the more astounding things about my 2020; that I haven’t been sick at all.  Not with COVID, we’ve been quite cautious with that, but with a cold or a flu.  Between working in schools and having plenty of stress upon occasion, I can’t recall the last winter, to say nothing of a whole year, without at least a little illness.

When it comes to stress I must be doing something right.  Given the volume of stress this year, and the omnipresence, I haven’t had a reasonable alternative.

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Our daily routines hadn’t changed that much, back in September, which was a handy benefit, as local COVID cases have escalated drastically.  We had more new ones last week than we had all spring and summer, which has only served to reinforce habits, most of which existed BC (before COVID).  I’ve altered my arrival and depature at school, avoiding people even more than I used to.  We only get takeout, and eat it outside.  We don’t see other people, which again, isn’t that far from things as they were before.  We go on vacation, cook our own food, and sleep outside.   In all of this we are fortunate.  Precious few habits and dreams have been definitively out of reach this fall.

The combination of small people and the cold, long evenings of November have made things more difficult.  Easy refuge at the library or kids museum are not options this winter, and our children’s energy does not fit easily in the house for too many hours at a stretch.  30 pound humans get cold easily, and we just happened to come home last month, after a week in the desert, to two feet of snow and temps below zero.  Since then the snow has melted, fallen again, and melted, and I’ve put serious effort into training the children, and to providing ways to make being out in the dark and the cold appealing.

The snow melting has made that much easier.  Little Cloud is finally runbike obsessed, and several good wrecks on ice patches have yet to dampen his enthusiasm.  He’s also, verbally and conceptually, come to know what hunting means.  Long walks through deadfall are beyond him, but short walks to a nice tree where you can cook sausages and ramen over a fire (top) are great fun.  On that outing I was somehow the only one to step on a cactus.  Being out in the moment isn’t just a vital way to put kid energy to good use, it is an essential distraction from how thoroughly our leaders and neighbors are failing us.  Optimism grows more easily in starlight.

The best trail

Last month I bought a new bike, my first brand new one in almost a decade. That one, nine years ago, was the first generation Salsa Mukluk, the first broadly available fat bike not called Pugsley. It has, because it still works great, a lot of things my new bike does not: straight steerer, one choice in headset size, external cable routing. I bought the Mukluk as a frameset, meaning I got a frame and fork in a box, bought everything else I didn’t already have separately, and put it all together. This also is an increasingly dead way of getting a bicycle, with few of the options I considered last month available frame only, and none of those making economic sense on the face of it. The new economy of scale gets you all the relevant components for less than the price of the frame over again.

And scale is another thing that has changed in the bike industry this year. I almost missed out, and ended up hunting down a shop in Mississippi which had a San Quentin 1 left, in XL. Numbers I’ll cover in a later post, save to mention that I called that shop, again, at the beginning of October to inquire if I might get my new bike before we left for the Colorado Plateau in a few weeks. I did barely, as they had sold through their whole 2021 stock in a matter of days, and were weeks behind in building them. And no, they could not (due to warranty reasons) just send me the whole mess to sort out myself. So 52 hours before we left a very large box arrived, and I had that time to assemble, alter, trouble shoot, figure out that I’d need a new headset to mount the rigid fork I’d purchased, make a trip to the local shop out of utter confusion at what headset that would be, then finish component swaps and tubeless conversion, atop packing all the other stuff we’d need for 11 days away from home.

The new bike worked great, and having it stowed day to day on the roof rack, rather than on a hook in the bike room, took me forcefully away from the discontent and the fiddling which bridge a new machine, eventually, into familiarity. Instead I rode it on an almost daily basis, often in dirt circles around camp, but also on the practice loop at Gooseberry, up the road to the lodge in Zion, on a pump track in West Salt Lake (wiggle break on the drive home), and down Thunder Mountain, the best trail in the world.

Thunder Mountain is on the west side of the Paunsaugunt, with Bryce on the east. It starts in rolling, sand bottomed ponderosa forest, snakes its way through liminal drainage heads to the ridge, above, before plunging down a few sets of steep, loose, and very dusty switchbacks and ridge drops in the process of going north to the ridge next to the road. At which point I was late, and at which point one encounters a trail sign. 1.4 miles that way, to the road, and untold miles the other way, into the unknown. Over a decade ago I experienced that unknown, and had a cold night out as part of my trouble. On this trip I tucked into the subtleties of the descent to the road, glad that it was very quick, and that my new bike came alive on it’s first full force outing.

Everyone loves a new bike, it just takes a while to finally know each other.

Small bikes

Yesterday proved to be a momentous one; Little Bear pedaled his 20″ wheeled Commencal Ramones unassisted, for the first time.  Over 20 minutes he went from tentatively agreeing to try it, in the extended flat grass near the bike park, to pedaling circles with me assisting, to gleefully upshifting for sprints along the paved path, downshifting to grind through the volleyball sand, and plowing through ditches once he realized how much stability the larger wheels and knobby, 2.6″ tires gave him, compared to the 12″ singlespeed he’s been riding all year.  He easily transitioned to the pump track, and then the larger bump line amongst the dirt jumps.  From a distance, I saw him intentionally swerve off line descending the start hill, plowing through the weeds on a steep and loose roller.  For all the joy and freedom the previous two bikes had brought him, it seemed like this one was matching technology with his capability and imagination in ways which put it into the next realm, big kid bikes, with adult possibility on the horizon.img_0408

We started the bear with since discontinued Yuba run bike (green, top), for his first birthday.  He pushed it around and then walked around astride it for close to six months, when his legs got long enough and something clicked, and he wanted to ride it everywhere.  For his second birthday he got a Cleary Gecko, a 12″ wheeled singlespeed with v brakes.   The Gecko proved invaluable, but the contrast between the two mostly served to highlight the virtues of the Yuba.  It’s light, with an aluminum frame and solid foam tires.  The hubs and headset are built of the most rudimentary bushings, the seat drops low, and the head angle is notably slacker than most.  It is less than half the weight of the steel Gecko.  Until he was past 3 pedaling seemed quite beyond the bear, and watching him foot brake the Yuba down the steeps hills around our house was scary enough that I pulled the cranks off the Gecko, and the bear happily ran it as a strider for over a year, getting very good at braking points very quickly, and consistently getting close to 20 mph zipping downtown.  Happily that was, until he had to get it back up those hills.  If I had a bike half my weight, I’d whine about climbing, too.61003435180__4b2ea8f7-f913-423b-b730-11283a3bb6c3

At the end of last summer, a bit beyond his fourth birthday, I put the cranks back on, and he easily pedaled down the slanting walk in front of what is now his elementary school, but it wasn’t until this spring that everything came together, and suddenly he was starting, stopping, and generally navigating the complexities of the pedaled world all on his own.  He and I could ride to the bike park from home, detour downtown to get a cookie, and take the scenic route home at a less than glacial pace.  Not too long after the Commencal went up for preorder, which we fortunately did, as they sold out in a matter of hours after coming into stock.  I messed up the first ride, as even after aggressively trimming the seatpost he could only just get toes on the ground.  I didn’t stay close enough, and his first ride in the alley resulted in a crash, and the Ramones being on a hook in the garage for 5 months.

It’s a tough balance, being a parent and seeing kids physical capability be so far ahead of their mind.  The complete ease with which the bear has transitioned up with both pedal bikes is the best reminder I could imagine for me to not be impatient in the future.

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For his part, Little Cloud has reminded us that every kid is different when it comes to bikes, often drastically so, for reasons not always well accounted.  He is a good bit shorter than his older brother was, at 2.5, though probably stronger and more coordinated, but in spite of (or because of?) the modeling and involvement in outings has been radically slower in adopting the run bike.  His proclivities here are 12 months behind, certainly a lesson in patience, and obviously at a least a good bit due to his character and preference.

Were we to do it over again, we’d buy something like the Yuba as early in a kids life as we did.  It can’t hurt to have it available, as a gesture of your belief in their possibilities.  A few companies make one with a rear v brake, which could be first taken off and then added back as speeds increase.  For anyone who lives in a hilly place I’d say that is mandatory.

I don’t think we’d buy the Gecko again.  Singlespeed is a good way to go for the first pedal bike, but I think 12″ is too small for most kids by the time they have the muscle and bravery to pedal.  On the other hand, a small bike (or at least one with massive standover) is a huge advantage for a first pedal bike.  I’m also quite convinced that training wheels and coaster brakes are evil inventions which have held countless kids back from biking confidence.  It would also be nice to find something at least a little lighter than the steel Clearys.

Kid sized components are fantastic, things like pedals that don’t stick out a mile, and brake levers with reach short enough for 4 year old hands.  A bike like the Ramones is a screaming value, too.  I can’t imagine Commencal has much margin on it.  A few items have been a bummer in this regard.  The 1″ threadless steerer on the Gecko prevented us from using adult stems to adjust the fit, and the tires which can stock are heavy enough in the sidewall that ~40 pound Little Bear can run low single digit pressures on 1.75″ wide tires.  They have been quite flatproof though.

More than anything, I wish there were an intuitive equivalent to a run bike for things like skiing.  Aside from shifting, and to a lesser extent braking technique, there’s been almost no didactic instruction in the Bear’s biking journey.  He just grabs the tool and goes and learns by doing, which I’ve always though is the most enduring way to learn anything.