Sunday, March 18, 2018

The Åland Ice

I'll return to last week's ride to Åland on ice, since there seem to be so many misunderstandings about sea ice and riding on it with a reasonable degree of safety. When assessing ice, the history of the ice is of importance, and hence I will take a look at that.

The winter started pretty late, one week into January. The weather wasn't very cold for the most part, but we got snow and had  a nice winter. By 17th February most of the snow had already fallen and after it snowed only small amounts of fluffy cold snow. At this moment the inner bays had ice, but there was nothing further out. At the same time, however the temperature dropped down to -15 - -20°C. There was no wind and the sea water was already very cold. The ice cover started to grow. On Wednesday 21st there was already ice on larger open places. It was still thin enough to limit skating, though.

The weather continued to be cold and the wind got stronger, but was mostly from northeast, meaning that it didn't cause any waves affecting the ice. Instead it just transferred heat away from the ice more efficiently, causing the ice to grow rapidly. By Saturday 24th large areas of the archipelago was frozen, but there were still weaker places and occasional open wind wells.

I did follow the ice charts, mainly for Nordic skating, and on Monday 26th I noticed that there was an ice cover all the way to the Åland islands, over Skiftet/Kihti to the Brändö archipelago and further through Kumlinge to the main Åland islands.

At this point I contacted the usual suspects for a possible ride on ice to Åland, with very preliminary plans. At this point it would have been suicide to go, but I decided to give the ice a week to grow, since the weather forecast showed cold and stable weather for that to happen, and review the situation.

The following weekend three different groups of Nordic skaters skated from the Rymättylä island west of Turku to Åland, see e.g. Eva-Lotta's trip report in Swedish, and I got access to real life ice observations. On Sunday 4th March some wind wells with too weak ice were still found closer to Långnäs, in part probably because the big ferries passing nearby do affect the ice, but otherwise it looked nice. At this point I had already assembled a group for starting from Långnäs Saturday 10th, riding back to Turku in a nice and relaxed manner with one night in tents somewhere on the way.

However, on Monday 5th the weather forecast changed abruptly with good amounts of snow forecasted for Thursday 8th, which would make the trip unsafe. The snow would slow bike riding down, possibly down to bike pushing, but above all it would mean going on the ice essentially blind, which is far from acceptable from a safety perspective. You need to see the ice well enough in order to discover possible weak spots, like wind wells.

I came up with a plan to ride from Turku to Långnäs on Åland in one day, going light and (relatively) fast. At first the usual suspects didn't respond, so I asked for company in the MTB-Turku Facebook group. A rather desperate measure with very small chances of getting anyone previously unknown to me that I would trust enough for a demanding and potentially risky trip like this one. The changed plan was however met with good response from the usual suspects and five of us eventually did the trips. We had done outdoor stuff together for ten years and trusted and knew each others capabilities, which is a big safety factor in demanding situations. And I think five is a good number: The safety probably continues to rise with a group size up to five persons, more persons would probably again mean more risks. Five persons give some redundacy in case of emergency.

The trip was made without problems and in my opinion with a good safety level. The snow arrived on Thursday 8th as forecasted and the trip would no longer have been possible to execute safely. Afterwards, requests for a GPS track of the trip started coming in and I refused to give them, forcing me to be a bit blunt in some answers. I did however refer to the policy made by the Nordic skater's association, which has persisted through many years and much discussion. A GPS track from ice isn't necessarily valid any time outside the trip, since the ice is so dynamic, and misused could give a false sense of security. Essentially it is of the category "if you have to ask, you're not ready for it". The blog report anyway contains enough information for retracing the trip with reasonably accuracy.

As a sidenote, I dislike the trend to ask for GPS tracks for everything. If going by the GPS all the time, there is no opportunity for discovering anything new, which for me is one of the best things of the outdoor disciplines.

On Monday 12th the ice fields east of Åland were marked as drift ice, meaning that something had happened and the uniform ice field broken up. Probably nothing more that a lot more cracks and possible ice channels, but at that point the weather was warmer, it snowed and rained a little and there was likely water on the ice. Definitely not safe conditions.

At the time of writing 18th March, the trip would again be possible, judging from ice charts and satellite images. It has been cold for a few days, and the ice east of Åland should be free of snow. Currently demanding Nordic skating trips are made far out in the archipelago, but there are no ice observations from the ice east of Åland. I wouldn't be as confident in the ice now as one and a half week earlier, though. The ice is thick, but there are potentially more surprises.

Finally, I recommend anyone who is interested in being on ice to join the Nordic skaters association (Skrinnari in Finland and Skridskonätet in Sweden). It is the best and safest way to learn what to do and not to do on ice and to practice necessary skills like the one below:

Friday, March 9, 2018

Riding to Åland on Ice

At the end of February it happened: The cold weather and weak winds combined with the lack of snowfall got the southwestern archipelago covered with ice. I did nice skating trips, like this one, and also decided to investigate if one of the many trip ideas I have in my mind would be possible. I started to look at ice charts and satellite images on a Monday and noticed that there indeed was an ice cover all the way from Turku to Åland. I thought I would give the ice a week to grow thickness before going out there, since I have no interest in being far out on weak ice with a fatbike, and started to check for possible trip mates. No one could come in the beginning of the next week, but we got a small gang together the weekend after. I settled for this, since the weather forecast looked good, and started planning for a nice relaxed trip starting from Åland with a first night at Långnäs after having arrived there with the night ferry. A nice day of riding followed by a night on a nice island and finally arriving back to Turku sometime the day after that. It would have been an extention of a trip I actually had done once before in more difficult conditions.

The Monday before the trip the forecasted weather changed rather abruptly. Snow was forecasted for Thursday, which would make the trip impossible, since you need to be able to see the ice reasonably well to be able to assess it. Wednesday was the last day possible and due to the time frame I came up with another approach: Starting from Turku and going fast and light to Långnäs on Åland in one long day. The weather still looked good and the ice had grown stronger and stronger, though a little snowfall on Monday closer to Åland had me a little worried. I called out on the MTB-Turku Facebook group for comrades, knowing that there was only a very small chance I could accept someone I didn't know into a demanding trip like this one. The different trip format, however, yielded result and I got four companions that I knew well and trusted, people I have done outdoor stuff with for almost ten years. The trip was a go!

On Wednesday morning we met up at 06:00 in the morning close to my place and started riding towards the Hirvensalo bridge, where we would meet up with our fifth member, JJ.

He was a bit late, and it was a bit cold waiting with riding clothing in a temperature a little below -10°C, but a little before seven we entered the ice at Pitkäsalmi.

The ice had a a little snow cover here and was hence a bit slower to ride, especially for Pete who had a 29er instead of a fatbike, but we still made good progress. The sun rose...

... and the slick hard ice of Airisto began.

This section had the weakest ice of the entire trip. I had been skating there a few days earlier and had encountered several places were the ice pole went through fairly easily.

I went to check out the ice lane that was between us and Nagu, but deemed a crossing unnecessarily risky, especially when we had the opportunity to take a ferry with a fairly short detour. With skates this one wouldn't have been too difficult, but bikes are not skates.

We continued to Lillmälö and took the ferry over to the Nagu side.

We continued on the north side of Nagu on excellent ice in tail wind. Everything went very well.

That is until we came upon the first ice lane that was too weak to cross. I had information that these ferries no longer were running, but was obviously wrong. I chose to go to Själö/Seili to get passed this obstacle, which turned out to be the wrong choice and we soon turned back. About a half hour was lost to this.

We followed the ice lane back towards Nagu city only to find out that it took us a good bit back towards east.

We then rode on slow ice south of Nagu...

... and when we got to the road we had already passed Nagu with a good bit and rode directly towards the ferry to Korpo. We thus missed part of the ice north of Nagu.

The good thing that we now had time for a good lunch at Hjalmar's Restaurant and Pub before the ferry to Houtskär. These last two ferries were absolutely necessary, since both cross very big ice lanes that are not passable with fatbikes. In the best of circumstances a skater could get over by carefully crawling over, but not at this particular place.

After the Houtskär ferry the biggest ice section began, around 70 km to Lumparland of Åland. The first leg would be to cross Skiftet/Kihti to Kumlinge, around 40 km. It was now quite warm when riding with the tail wind.

Though the goal was to keep away from weak ice, we were prepared to handle a situation where the ice would break, since sea ice is a dynamic medium that seldom is 100 percent safe. We all had ice prods around our necks, everyone had spare clothes packed in waterproof bags and all but one had a backpack to aid floatation in water. Two of us also had throw lines, as can be seen on me to the left in the next picture. Breaking through ice would thus have been unpleasant, but no emergency.

What was less nice was the snow on the ice, which had fallen on Monday. The amount was small enough not to hinder assessment of the ice too much, but it was very tighly packed and slowed us down a lot.

Matti at the middle of Skiftet/Kihti.

The ice was so thick that it was utterly pointless to use the ice pole, but JJ, who had less experience with ice insisted I try. I got through 15 cm of the very hard ice before giving up: There clearly was more that 20 cm of ice under us.


Arriving at Kumlinge at bit before sunset.

We now decided to use the bailout card, since we had agreed prior to the trip not to ride on ice in the darkness. We would wait for the ferry to Vårdö at Kumlinge, where a heated waiting cabin was available. Also, we definitely were in need of a little rest and food at this point.

After having waited for over three hours, suspicion started to arise. A bit after the scheduled ETA of the ferry I made a call and was informed that the ferry currently was on another route. Looking at the web site I later found that information, but it wasn't directly visible. This presented us with a little problem. The following possible ferry would be the next morning and would be late enough that the slightest delay or problem would prevent us from reaching the ferry back to Turku the day, meaning we wouldn't be home before Friday morning. The booked return trip early Thursday morning would of course have been impossible. It would have been no problem to sleep in the waiting cabin, though it is not meant for that. After a brief discussion we found ourselves continuing a little after half past nine in the evening. There was still the possibility to abort and return to the cabin if the ice would seem sketchy in the beginning.

Continuing at this point was a school book example about both what not to do and what to do: Most accidents happen when a time schedule pushes you to continue beyond tiredness and what is reasonable. On the other hand, we were now rested and had eaten. I was also very sure about the ice, having studied the topography and followed ice reports from the area for over a week. As long as we would keep our distance to Långnäs, which has unsafe ice due to the boat traffic, the ice was expected to be fine.

We started with 5 km on road on Kumlinge, before entering the ice. There was snow also on this section, a 30 km crossing of Delet/Teili. It greatly affected our speed and robbed us of energy.

Going through the ice at this point could have become an emergency, since we were now quite tired. I tried to assess the ice as we rode on, but found nothing suspicious. The ice made some sound when being close to islands, but that is normal. It was only a for a short moment I heard an unfamiliar ice sound close to a small skerry, but couldn't figure out another reason for it than ice settling.

When nearing Långnäs the ice started to consist of ice floes frozen together, a sure sign that something affects the ice greatly. This was not the time to take further risks, so we immediately went to the shore and took a detour on roads to Långnäs. This last section of 10 km on roads was very tough. The entire section from Kumlinge to Långnäs took almost four hours, with 30 km on ice and 15 km on road.

With a little under two hours until the ferry home would arrive we had time to eat a little and change to dry clothes. Slowly our energy started to return and we started to appreciate the trip, which in my opinion definitely qualifies as an epic one. The distance we rode was 180 km of which almost 130 km on ice. It is also a trip that is not possible to repeat very often. The previous opportunity was 2011 and the one before that 2003, all due to the ice, or rather lack thereof.

A big thanks to the trip comrades. This is the kind of trip few can be trusted with. I also thank JJ and Jarkko for some pictures, since mine were a bit lacking.

Jarkko's blog report in Finnish is here.

Here is a very rough map of the area. I'm not publishing the GPS track, in accordance with the policy of the Tour Skater's association in Finland. There have been a lot of discussion of that and the consensus is that exact locations and ice observations are kept out of the general public due to safety reasons.

Sunday, March 4, 2018

Nordic Skating on the Gullkrona Bay

The Archipelago Sea is covered with ice. Here is a little video from yesterday's skating trip.