Iditarod Trail Invitational 2017, part 1

The Iditarod dog race has two traditional routes – the Northern route, which passes though Ruby, and the Southern route, which passes though the abandoned town of iditarod. The Southern route has a mystique to it, and common wisdom says it is the harder. When I finished my ride to Nome last year, I really wanted to do the Southern route the following year. The Southern route is slower, as the sections from Ophir to Shageluk and from Grayling to Kaltag aren’t used outside the dog race, so the trail isn’t generally in very good shape.

Alas, a few weeks before the Iditarod Trail Invitational (ITI) started, the Iditarod dog race announced they were moving to a Fairbanks start, because of limited snow on the south side of Rainy Pass. This put a bit of a damper on my interest in riding to Nome, as it meant the ITI was going to take the Northern route again.

Some background: in the normal course of events, the Iron Dog race occurs a week before the ITI, then the ITI starts, then a week later the Iditarod starts. The Iron Dog snowmachine race takes the Northern route, and is normally the only traffic between Ophir and Ruby, besides the Iditarod. Since the Iditarod was starting in Fairbanks, that section looked a bit iffy. In 2015 the Iditarod also started in Fairbanks, and a few of the ITI racers got stuck between Ophir in Ruby when it snowed, then dropped to really cold (reports of -50F). So, I was not super excited about the route change. On the up side, the ITI was not going to take the normal route though Rainy Pass, but instead continue around Ptarmigan Pass and down the South Fork of the Kuskokwim, through the ominously titled Hell’s Gate. This route hadn’t been taken by the ITI since 2008, so I was excited to see it!

The ITI has three “versions” these days – a race to Finger Lake, which is about 130 miles, the “short” race to McGrath, which is around 300 miles (using the standard route though Rainy Pass), and the “long” race to Nome.

It is pretty hard to describe how different the ride to Nome is compared to the race to McGrath. The race to McGrath is so “controlled” by comparison, with nice, regularly spaced checkpoints that you know will be staffed, that you know will have food, water, and warmth. After McGrath, there are 140 miles of nearly nothing from Takotna to Ruby. This section is pretty barren. In 2016 it was fast riding and warm, but it has the potential to be amazingly cold. It is very remote – we didn’t see anyone after Ophir in 2016 until we arrived at Ruby. Folks have had to push their bikes from Takotna to Ruby, and I have always worked under the assumption I would have to, too. After Ruby there are communities pretty regularly spaced, but there is none of the certainty you get in the shorter race that you will arrive to a welcoming warm place. So much unknown… The shorter race also has a frantic quality to it – so many racers. I always feel like I have to keep moving along, that if I slow down I will be “swamped” in the checkpoint by other racers and swallowed up by the pack. The Nome race has none of of this – there are so few folks riding it, and they are so spread out that when you bump into them it is a call for excitement. “Yay – someone to talk to!” – not panic you are about to be jostled out by a crowd. For me, it is a completely difference experience.

In the weeks before the race, I sent out drop boxes and otherwise got ready to head to Nome, but I definitely had mixed thoughts about going past McGrath.

A few days before the race I said good by to Nancy and the twins, then headed down to Anchorage with my friend Tom who was also doing the race. After the normal pre-race stuff, including a last minute panic when I discovered I’d left all my long underwear tops and tee shirts at home and some quality time with my siblings in Wasilla, I found myself at the start on Knik Lake, zooming down the trail.

The start of the Shell Hills


The first day or so of the race was a bit of a blur.

The Yentna River

Heading to Finger Lake

The start of the Shell Hills

Yentna, Skwentna, Finger Lake, and Puntilla all zoomed by pretty fast. The trail was mostly in pretty great shape, and I started to regret my last minute tire change to Buds. The weather was nice, and the trail was pretty fast. I arrived at Puntilla with Dan Lockery, a chipper fellow from Winnipeg, and Tom Moran, a friend from Fairbanks. It was a bit windy, and the little cabin they have us stay in for the race was a bit drafty. A few other racers were crashed there trying to get some sleep, including Phil, Kevin, and John. Ominously, it was pretty cold in the cabin, even with the stove burning away – the wind really seemed to be blowing though the walls, which I don’t think I had noticed when I have stayed here before – I guess it was windy! I grabbed a cot, and tucked myself in for a few hours of sleep after a few cans of chili.

After a few hours of sleep, Tom, Dan, and I headed out. John headed out to go eat breakfast – apparently the lodge serves an all you can eat breakfast, which was pretty tempting. After a false start into a horse corral, one of the folks who run the lodge pointed us in the right direction and told us the leaders still had not make it to the south fork, and had bivied in the pass. Everyone in the race now has trackers, and that has changed the race a bit – for the slower folks like me it can be very helpful to know how fast the folks ahead of us are traveling, so we know what to expect. Knowing the leaders who had a good 12 hour head start on us were not yet to Rohn let us know we had a bit of a slow slog ahead of us. It was pretty windy, so we bundled up expecting the worst. But it turned out to be not that bad. It was windy, but not epically so.



The trail was soft, and more hilly as it wound up and down to avoid brush in the bottom of the valley, so there was lots of pushing. It was very scenic though, and it passed though some pretty interesting areas.


Eventually the trail firmed up enough it was rideable, and soon after we were joined by John, powered on by his all-you-can-eat breakfast.


As we neared the turn towards the south fork, we were passed by three snowmachines pulling a large sled – apparently some bison hunters heading to Rohn and Farewell. They made a noticeable improvement to the trail, and soon we were zooming along. The final climb and decent into the south fork of the Kuskokwim was amazing fun. The rest of the ride to Rohn was mostly uneventful, besides a short section of mid calf deep overflow. Dan and I broke out our Wiggies overboots, Tom just walked though in his Neos, and John just walked though fast. It was mostly uneventful, but a reminder that things could get ugly. The wind was on and off again, coming and going around each bend in the river.

After seeing several places where folks had dipped water out of open areas, I stopped and got out my pot to dip water, as I was out. John stopped to watch me after suggesting what I was about to do wasn’t a good idea – and duh, it wasn’t. I lost my pot as soon as I dipped it into the stream – it was moving much faster than I anticipated! I felt like a complete idiot. Probably because I was – that was amazingly stupid. John took pity on me, and dipped out some with an empty thermos, giving me a nice drink of really cold water.

The rest of the way to Rohn I didn’t do anything stupid, and we arrived intact, though for the last 5 miles or so we had a stiff headwind. I was pretty surprised by the headwind – normally there is a tailwind out of Rohn, which I thought meant a nice tailwind down the south fork – but this was not to be. There were a lot of open leads near the Rohn, and it took a while to find a way across. We arrived at Rohn dry, but tired, at around 5am. Kevin, Phil, and another racer, Adam I think, were there, though Phil started leaving as soon as we arrived, and was quickly followed by Kevin. Unfortunately, Tom discovered he’d slightly frostbitten his toes – yikes!

We hit the sack, and in early afternoon, Dan, Tom, and I headed out. The trail to the Farewell Lakes was in pretty good shape, with a bit more snow than the last few years.

Bison tunnels

We stopped briefly at “Pike Camp”, Phil Runkle’s camp. It was great to talk to Phil and hang out for a bit in front of his wonderfully warm fire. It wasn’t that cold, around zero, but the fire was very welcome. Alas, we had to go, and a bit ominously, Tom mentioned his toes had warmed up and were hurting. Soon the sun set and we were riding down the trail, enjoying the many small hills. Up and down. Up and down. It was starting to get a bit colder, bottoming out at around -30F, and Tom was starting to slow down. After a while it became apparent he was having trouble keeping his feet and hands warm, so Dan headed off to go warm up Bear Creek Cabin, and I helped Tom warm up his feet, putting several packs of insole warmers in his boots. Hours later, a little after 1 am, we pulled into Bear Creek Cabin, where Dan had it warm (thanks Dan!), and warmed up Tom. Alas, his feet were a bit more frostbitten now. On the upside, Bear Creek Cabin was pretty nice, and once it warmed up, a very cozy space. In the morning… or early afternoon as the case might be, we headed out, enjoying a fast ride into Nikolai, arriving around 7pm.

I always love reaching Nikolai. At Nikolai we are hosted by the wonderful Petruska family – Nick, Olene, and Stephanie. It is hard to describe how awesome it is pulling into Nikolai, knowing their place is just around the corner, with warmth, food, and welcoming faces. Alas, Nick has terminal cancer, and it was sad to see him, knowing it might be the last time. The world needs more folks like Nick and his family, and he has made it a better place.

At this point Tom’s feet were a bit messed up, and he was debating whether he should scratch or not. If he continued on, he would have to travel during the heat of the day, such as it was. The forecast was for overnight lows between -20F and -30F – a bit chilly. Dan and I decided to head out in the early AM, and in the morning headed out, making it out on the trail at around 3am.

The ride to McGrath was a mix of nice fast riding, and slow, soft slogging. I was very happy to see the sunrise.


Sunrises are an awesome time, filled with the promise of a nice warm sun to beam down and take away the -30F temperatures we were enjoying. The last 40 or so miles to McGrath are never that fun of a ride – lots of swamp and river riding, with not much to see.

Nearly to Mcgrath

It took a while this year, as sections were blown just enough to be slow riding, or in some cases, slow walking. Eventually Dan and I pulled into McGrath, arriving at around 5:30, a good two days after the leaders finished.

More coming. Meanwhile, Bikepacker has a photo essay from my ride, you can find it here.

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