ITI – 2013, Knik to Puntila

Ever since last year’s aborted push-fest I have been thinking about the next “Iditarod Trail Invitational”:, ITI for short. Pushing for ~70 ish miles last year got me enough of a taste of the ITI to bring me back again, hopefully to actually finish.

Things started a bit rough – my 8am flight from Fairbanks to Anchorage was canceled, and I barely made the pre-race meeting, with my new flight touching down in Anchorage at 1:30pm, followed by a half hour of hurrying to reach the meeting a few minutes before it was supposed to start. Fortunately it turned out the meetings start time was rather etherial, and it was a good 20 minutes before anything happened. I was all pumped up from all the rushing around, then slowly calmed down as folks arrived, and talked a bit to some of the racers. I was pretty wound up with pre-race jitters – pre-race meetings are a high stress time for me – too many people and too much thinking about all the unknowns about the next week or so I will be out racing. The meeting was fairly short, and soon I was with my brother John, riding to Wasilla for some pre-race pigging out — and to get a good night of sleep. I managed to get a wonderful night’s sleep, and in the morning ate a lot more, having lunch out with my sister Theresa and her fiance. Then John drove me out to the race start, a small bar on Knik Lake. I arrived fairly early, and spent some time messing with my bike, making sure everything still worked, then wandered around gawking at the racers and their getups, and drooling over all the fancy, shinny bikes.

The start was a bit anticlimactic – someone said go, everyone sort of slowly moved forward, unsure it was actually officially a go. Eventually someone zoomed off, and a stretched out pace line quickly formed. I latched to the pack, and followed along, quickly ending up biking along a paved road that eventually led to a wide snow-machine trail leading to Flathorn Lake, and eventually the Susitna River.

I was a bit surprised that the leaders were just ahead of me for most of the brief ride on the asphalt. I ended up talking a bit to whomever was riding beside me. Eventually the pavement ended, and I immediately crashed into the rider I had been chatting with, Dan from Minnesota. Dan was unharmed, dusted himself off and zoomed off along with most of the other folks I was biking with, leaving me to slowly mash my way though the soft snow. It was fantastic to actually ride this section, though, after last year’s push-fest. Eventually I had to stop to de-layer, and several more people zoomed by while I was sitting on the side of the trail with my pants down, as I struggled to take my long johns off. Once that got sorted out, I was back on the bike and riding toward Flathorn Lake. Things were a bit soft in sections, but for the most part ridable.

I could see two bikers ahead of me way in the distance, and I tried to keep pace with them, but alas, they gradually pulled away. I reached Flathorn, where things got a bit too soft to ride, and made my way across the lake. The trail was a bit confusing at this point, with tracks heading across the middle of the lake, and along the edge of the lake. It appeared that more people went around the end of the lake, so I pushed my bike along, occasionally riding for short sections, heading around the lake to Dismal Swamp.

It was starting to get dark, so out came the headlamp. Dismal Swamp was mostly rideable, so I zoomed along, heading over to the Susitna River.

Shortly before the river a snowmachine zoomed by and stopped, and I chatted a bit with the rider, Craig Medrid from the Alaska Dispatch. He, like last year, was out covering the race on snowmachine. He seemed like he was enjoying himself. I pressed on to the Su, and started upriver.

Eventually I saw a snowmachiner coming downriver, and eventually Craig zoomed up to tell me the trail turned and headed the wrong direction, and all the bikers had turned around. Craig convinced me that there was another trail that I had missed,so I turned around and started pushing down river, ignoring the blatant fact that all the foot prints (this section was fairly soft, with lots of pushing) were heading up river. After 10 minutes or so of going the wrong way, I realized I was being stupid, and headed back up river. Craig zoomed back and forth several times, each time stopping to tell me the trail was dead ending, and he couldn’t find a trail heading up river. Eventually he found a trail and zoomed off into the darkness. I continued up river and eventually encountered two snowmachines hauling freight downriver, and I turned off onto a side trail heading across the Su that they had come from. This turned out to be a bit of a waste of time, as their trail took a huge loop, circling around, and eventually coming back to close were I turned off onto, but it did lead to the main trail heading up river, and to the confluence with the Yentna. Soon I was biking up the Yentna, happy that I was biking this time around, and not pushing slowly for the second day. Biking by the old site of Luce’s Lodge was sad, as it was now a private residence – no more warm rooms and cheese burgers. Riding on the Yentna an hour or so after from Luces to Yentna Station was surprisingly beautiful, with a wonderfully bright nearly full moon and the occasional patch of mist from sections of open water.

I had to stop a couple of times to futz with the camera.

Yentna Station was quiet, with only Rich Crain, Craig Medrid, the owner of the lodge, and a biker, Eric W. from California. I sat down, had three cokes and a grilled cheese sandwich, and eventually headed out with Eric.

We biked upriver in the dark, and stopped at Slims, a small residence by the river that welcomes racers in. Cindy and Andy were there, and we chatted for a bit, and had some wonderful soup. They had a bit of a rough year, as Andy had fallen off a roof (twice apparently!) and had broken his hip. He appeared to be in good spirits, and on the mend, but was still having trouble getting around. We the first racers they had seen yet this year. I had really fond memories of them last year, coming into their place in the middle of the night, wore out by pushing my bike for two days straight. After eating for a bit, Eric and I crashed in one of their back cabins. I was out immediately, but in a hour or so I woke up freezing, as the heater had gone out. After rolling around for a bit, I got up, triggering Eric to get up as well, and we headed out. Stopping was probably a bit of a mistake, as it turned out that if you can actually ride, Skwentna is a little under two hours up river.

We arrived at Skwentna, wehre I sat down for lunch and Eric took off, zooming away. Seeing Eric bike off reminded me it was actually a race, so I snarfed down my food, had two cans of coke, and a cup of coffee and headed out. Just as I was leaving, Charlie Farrow from MN and Lindsay Gauld arrived, looking happy. Charlie in particular had a huge smile on his face, and appeared to be really enjoying life. I talked to them for a moment, then set off for the Shell Hills. It was fantastic to be in a area totally new to me, on a trail I have never been on before – the adventure had now started!

Alas, I was soon passed by a snow-machine dragging a groomer, then someone hauling freight, turning the trail from fast riding to something a bit less so. The views were fantastic though, and it was nice and sunny.

After passing though several huge, wide open swamps I reached the Shell Hills and started riding up and down a series of small wooded hills.

Soon after hitting the hills I heard the droning of snow-machines in the distance, and was passed several moments later by a huge party of snow-machines, apparently a club of some sort, judging by the small flags flying on the back of their machines. There were maybe 12 to 16 machines, half of which had large paddle tracks. I rode for a bit after taking out almost all the air in my tires, eventually deciding it was not worth it, and started pushing while waiting for the trail to set back up. I eventually dug out my music player and started listing to a “Quicksilver, a novel by Neal Stephenson”: enjoying the hijinks of 17th century England semi-scientists while I pushed my bike in the hot sun. Just about the time I reached Shell Lake things became a bit more ridable, and I pulled up to Shell Lake lodge for a bit to eat.

Eric was inside snoozing, stretched out on a bench waiting for the trail to set up. I talked a bit with Zoe the owner of the lodge, and drank 3 cokes, then stretched out for a brief nap. Cokes drunk, nap taken, Eric and I headed out in hope that the trail would be more rideable.

The trail between Shell and Finger Lake wound up and down many small hills separated by small snow-covered lakes and swamps. The riding was pretty good for the most part, though in a few places it was unclear which trail we were supposed to be on. Fortunately the fast pack ahead of us had packed a nice little bike path, making the riding pretty easy. On this section I kept thinking back to last year, and how blown in these open sections must have been with all that snow. It would have been a long, slow slog. Fortunately I was biking, zooming along – and enjoying it! Eventually we arrived at Winter Lake Lodge, on Finger Lake.

Eric was an old pro at this, and quickly lead me to the kitchen, where we checked in and had dinner, checked the times of the leaders, chatted with the cook, then headed to a small cabin to get some sleep. The cabin was a bit hot, but I was able to get some nice sleep regardless. Kevin from Anchorage and Dan from MN were just heading out as we hit the sack. After 4 hours or so of sleep Eric and I got up and headed out after having a bite to eat and raiding our first set of drop bags. Eric was kind enough to share his oatmeal with me. Eric is, in a word awesome, and it was one of the highlights of my race to travel with him. He has done the race many times (I think 9 times?). He knew a wealth of details about trail and about how to race the ITI, and is just an all-around nice guy.

Just as we left, a runner, Dave Johnston, arrived. I was amazed to see him, and he appeared to be having a fantastic race. The next section, from Finger Lake to Puntila Lake, was fantastic biking, with lots of little hills and great views, and it was almost entirely rideable. I had a blast. The Happy River steps were a piece of cake, and the trail was in great shape.

It was wonderful biking along while watching the mountains getting closer and closer. In a surprisingly short time, about eight hours, we arrived at Puntila Lake, where I enjoyed several cans of soup and three hours of sleep.

Next up Rohn! (To be continued..)

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2 Responses to “ITI – 2013, Knik to Puntila”

  1. Paul says:

    Great to see the conditions were good to ya this year Jay.
    As I recall you are riding an XL Fatback, so I’m guessing you must be a bigger rider.
    Y’know, I switched over to an XXL Moonlander with Clownshoes and Bud/Lous. Man, what a difference in terms of floatation. We’ll never float on the soft stuff like Rocky, but this combo gives us big guys a fighting chance on soft snow.

    • spruceboy says:

      Yeah, the bud and lous on wide rims seems to be the ticket. Lots of folks were running similar setups at the ITI this year, a handful on moonlanders, and some on fatback prototype frames. Seemed to work well for them. I was running 90mm rims with BFLs, which pretty much maxes out the clearance on my frame. That setup worked fine for me as the trail was pretty nice, but wider would have been nice if it was a bit softer. Hope you are having a fantastic spring!

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