Archive for July, 2017

2017 Alaska Mountain Wilderness Classic – No Sleep ’til Wiseman!

Sunday, July 23rd, 2017

For years I have followed the Alaska Mountain Wilderness Classic, following the antics of Rocky R and Roman D, and later generations. I have wanted to do one for years, but alas, there was always some sort of conflict making so I couldn’t attend, or they seemed a bit too crazy. Finally last year the route switched to Galbraith to Wiseman, which is an area I am fairly familiar with (and shorter than some of the past routes!), and after sitting out last year due to conflicts, this year my friend Tom agreed to join me – yay!

We drove to Wiseman, spend the night camping on the lawn of the Arctic Getaway (great folks!), and the morning loaded up and drove to Galbraith. There were 14 folks and 7 teams doing the event, including another group from Fairbanks.

Alaska Summer Wilderness Classic
The Winning Edge
Alaska Summer Wilderness Classic
Lindsey and Ellen, team Giggle

Alaska Summer Wilderness Classic
Matt (I think)

Alaska Summer Wilderness Classic
Harlow in his bug proof ultra running attire

Alaska Summer Wilderness Classic
John (I think)

Alaska Summer Wilderness Classic

After a bit of futzing around and someone waving a flare gun around, it went off (fortunately pointed up and safely at the sky), and at around 12 we were off!

Alaska Summer Wilderness Classic

Our plan was to take the “direct” route over to the Hammond River, going over 4 passes, and floating the Hammond out to Wiseman.

Things started well, zooming along enjoying the fast walking..
Alaska Summer Wilderness Classic

Alaska Summer Wilderness Classic

Alaska Summer Wilderness Classic
photo compliments of Tom

Alaska Summer Wilderness Classic
photo compliments of Tom

Alaska Summer Wilderness Classic

Alas, when we reached the final pass, we couldn’t find a way over it, working from the west side to the east side. It ended in a small glacier which had a pretty shallow angel, but was a bit too steep for me to feel comfortable to walk on. Later I would find the Toby and Harlow walked straight up it.

Alaska Summer Wilderness Classic
Failing at route finding.. photo complements of Tom

It was pretty socked in, and the brief glimpses of the east side of the pass showed cliffs – so we turned around and headed back down to take the scenic route around the passes.

On the way down we bumped into Lindsey and Ellen on the their way up. We wished them luck with the pass. I was pretty sure they would find a way across, Tom was less certain. Later we were to find out they found a pretty straightforward up it on the east side.

We headed back down, and over to the Itkillik River, taking a pass over to an unnamed creek that lead to the creek. It was mostly uneventful though at 2am I got a bug stuck in my eye, and there was a few minutes of fussing before I got it and a ruined contact out of my eye in a comical bit of futzing.

Alaska Summer Wilderness Classic

Alaska Summer Wilderness Classic

Alaska Summer Wilderness Classic

We headed over to the divide between the North Fork the Koyukuk and the Itkillik, then headed down to the North Fork.

Alaska Summer Wilderness Classic
photo complements of Tom

Alaska Summer Wilderness Classic

There is a deep canyon were the north fork drops off the divide, and while I had been told it was possible to walk the canyon, we walked the benches above the river. Eventually we dropped down to the river, and followed the creek until it looked (safely!) floatable.
Alaska Summer Wilderness Classic

Alaska Summer Wilderness Classic

Alaska Summer Wilderness Classic
my styling head net replacement..

Alaska Summer Wilderness Classic

The north fork quickly turned floatable, and we put in, deciding to take the scenic route to Delay Pass and out the Nolan road to Wiseman.

The floating was fast and fun, eventually turning very fun, with lots of nice fun boulders and water features. Alas, Tom was having spray deck issues, and we ended up walking a few miles around Bombardment Creek, but soon we were back in the boats enjoying gliding along with minimal effort..

Alaska Summer Wilderness Classic

After a nap on a sandbar near mid night with a small fire, we pushed on to Delay Pass, where we took out, and grabbed another hour or so of sleep, then packed up and began the hike out.

Alaska Summer Wilderness Classic

Alaska Summer Wilderness Classic
Me, catching some sleep, and breaking the no-sleep-til-wiseman rule

Alaska Summer Wilderness Classic
signs of racers in the past..

Everyone says Delay Pass is miserable hiking, but I didn’t find much of it to be actually miserable, and while it was a bit of a slog, we made pretty good progress.

Alaska Summer Wilderness Classic

Alaska Summer Wilderness Classic

Alaska Summer Wilderness Classic

Alaska Summer Wilderness Classic

We cut off a fair bit of the winter trail by taking a ridge around the worst part. Climbing up the ridge kicked my butt, and my feet were starting to get a bit sore and waterlogged, and my achilles were starting to hurt, but otherwise everything was mostly fine. Once I loosened my shoes a bit my achilles were much happier.

Soon we were on the road out of Nolan, slowly shuffling down the road to Wiseman. These 6 miles took forever and were a bit hard on the feet..

Alaska Summer Wilderness Classic
two miles from Wiseman..

Alaska Summer Wilderness Classic

We finished Wednesday at 4:30am, 65 ish hours since the start.

It was a great experience, thanks for the company Tom, and thanks to the Hickers of the Arctic Getaway Cabins for hosting us!

I am already thinking about next year..

As a post scripts of sorts – folks often accuse me of saying things were “mellow” when they are not. This trip wasn’t mellow – but the walking was mostly good, and the floating really split things up so my body got a nice break, making for a relatively trauma free adventure. And of course, we got 4 ish hours of sleep, making things even nicer. The “harder” parts, and things I need to improve on would be to walk a bit faster, concentrate more on micro scale route finding (sticking to the bands of nice walking though the areas of not nice walking), and “staying the course” when the planned route appears to go bad, and finding a way to make it work. On the last point, I feel pretty disappointed with myself that we turned back at the first pass, assuming there was no way over, even though we knew at least one other party had gone over – Harlow’s footprints were pretty distinctive, and I saw the prints on the first climb up the pass, so I so I knew folks had made it over.

A second post script – here are some brief notes (to myself mainly) on things that worked or didn’t work:

  •  i used Gaia GPS for a bit of the navigation on this trip, and was amazed by how much easier to navigate with vs the garmin unit I normally use.  I should pre-cache satellite imagery for tricky bits, i expect that would help with navigation.
  • I brought a ultra lightweight bivy, and it was great for a little extra warmth and to keep the bugs off.
  • I pre-taped my forefoot and heels, and the tape lasted most of the trip, and I survived with only a few small blisters – success!
  • I had treated my shirt with Permethrin, and it worked great for keeping the bugs away.
  • The hmg backpack was awesome – worked great, comfortable, and light.  I wish it was made of something besides cuben fiber, as it already appears to be showing signs of wear, but I guess that is life.

A few things that worked less well:

  • My food choices could have used a bit more thought – i bought about 5 of the ominously named “Meal Pack Bars” – they are very calorie dense and pack well, but taste bad and are like eating dirt – dry and unrewarding.  Otherwise my food selection was fine, though perhaps more Snickers next time.
  • I brought a freeze dried meal, which I made before hiking delay pass – I should have brought two more, it went down great.
  • I was a bit unhappy with my footwear – montrail mountain masochist trail runners.  They are light and grippy, but need a stiffer rock plate for some of the walking – i bruised my feet a bit.  Otherwise they worked great – I just wish the forefront of these shoes were stiffer.  Otherwise they worked fine.   If anyone has recommendations I would love to hear them.  I would love to just use low top hiking shoes for these sort of trips, but alas I can’t find any that are not goretex.
  • I didn’t bring enough foot lube – I could have used a lot more after my feet dried out after the nap before delay pass.  Live and learn..
  • trekking poles would have made some of the hiking faster, and some of the stream crossings easier – next time I will bring them!
  • I really wish I had brought some sort of lightweight bug proof long sleeve top with a hood – it would have made the bug pressure a bit easier to deal with at times.
  • I suck at micro scale navigation – I need to work on finding those sections of nicer walking in sections of bad walking.  Mostly I think it just requires me to be more aware of where I am going – something to work on.

The route:

Iditarod Trail Invitational 2017, part 4

Saturday, July 22nd, 2017


This is part four – part one can be found here, part two can be found here, and part three can be found here.

Leaving Unalakleet and Kevin behind was pretty sad, but I was cheered up almost immediately when a couple from Buckland stopped to talk to me. They were on their way back from a trip to St Michaels via the sea ice, which seems to me to be a pretty crazy adventure. The rest of the ride to Shaktoolik was fast and pretty fun.
DSC08298
Just as a I crested the final hill before the descent into the bay outside Shaktoolik I was passed by Mitch Seavey, who asked me if this was the final hill. I was pretty amused, as he definitely should know better than me. His dogs were in fantastic shape with upright happy tails, which made my day.
Shaktoolik desent..
Shaktoolik truck
Arriving in Shaktoolik, I quickly found the school where I was hoping to spend the night, but when I knocked to be let in, some Iditarod media folks told me that the school was closed and they were the only folks allowed to use it – doh! A quick call soon had a very helpful local named Marvin had me inside the school and comfortably tucked into a corner. Alas, the Iditarod folks got revenge by walking back and forth down the hallway, setting off a motion control light near by and waking me up every 30 minutes.

The next morning came way too soon, and soon I rolling on the sea ice towards Koyuk.
Musher on the sea ice outside Koyuk
Shaktool to Koyuk trail
Seaice before Koyuk
The ride to Koyuk was mostly uneventful, though I was pretty fried when I arrived. After a quick stop at the store, I found the school and the very helpful principal helped me find a box of supplies I had sent out. Alas, I was having a hard time staying awake, so I arranged to spend the night in Koyuk, planning to head out in the early AM hours so I could hopefully arrive at White Mountain at a “normal person time”. At this point I had one goal- to arrive at White Mountain and Nome at hours that everyone would be awake to talk to and wouldn’t inconvenience my hosts. I was set up in a cozy room in the school, the same room I was in last year, though the school was without running water, so alas no shower. I hit the sack, planning to head out at 1am. One am arrived sooner than I would have liked, but I got moving and was on the trail quickly. The ride to Ellim was fast.
Selfie
I bumped into Paul Gebhardt just off the sea ice, feeding his dogs. He was bundled up in so many layers he looked like he was wearing a giant hoop skirt, with skinny legs sticking out from the layers. The extra layers were justified – it was a bit cold, nearly -30f. He seemed to be in great spirits, and his dogs were chowing down or rolled up into balls resting. I chatted for a bit, then rode on to Elim, where I hit the store to grab some snacks, including my new favorite foods, a quart of chocolate milk and more Fritos, then headed to the school to eat, then was back on the trail.

Just outside Ellim while pushing my bike up a hill I was surprised by a famous musher Jeff King, and in my hurry to get off the trail fell over with my bike on top of me. The first couple of dogs ran over me, then when the musher hit the brake. His leaders, who were a little over eye level with me, looked down and gave me “That is not where you are supposed to be, idiot!” looks. I will never forget the look of scorn on the faces of those dogs. Mr King was very apologetic, and we both spent the seconds it took to get me off the trail saying we were sorry to each other, before I was out of the way and he was off up the hill again.

The next leg into White Mountain was pretty uneventful until I neared Golovan.
Golovin
Golvin sea ice
Golovan is a long narrow town set on a strip of land jutting out into a bay. As I neared town I could hear the wind howling on the other side, so I knew things were about to get unpleasant. Once I rode through town it was a headwind all the way to White Mountain. Mushers kept passing me, and I tried to draft them, but I am just too big, and their draft isn’t tall enough. A musher in an orange jumpsuit kept having trouble, where his dogs kept turning to run 90 degrees to the wind. I had sympathy to their plight.

A mile or so outside White Mountain two snow machines pulled up, jumped off, and one of them offered me a fifth of Fireball – Bill and Adrian had caught up with me. Bill was planning on sweeping the course, and I had been expecting them to catch up with me ever since Ruby – and they had arrived! After a quick chat and a burrito (yay for snowmachine cookers!), they zoomed off, and I caught up with them in White Mountain. I arrived a little after 10pm, hours after I hoped, but everyone was awake. At White Mountain we stay with Joanna and Jack, who very kindly open up their home to the racers. Their house was full of activity, with their children Ki (probably misspelled), and Liam running around, Bill, Adrian, several guests, and one of the film crew, Kenton. A full house, and it was great to suddenly be around people again!

Arriving in White Mountain is always fantastic – Joanna and Jack really welcome us into their home, with lots of great food, a shower (yay!), and a place to sleep. I was very happy to have arrived. Alas, I did have to leave, so I set an alarm for 6am, and tucked myself away into one of the kids’ beds in the top of a double bunk. Kenton apparently found this amusing, and started trying to interview me while I was conking out.. I expect I didn’t make much sense. Thanks, Jack and Joanna, I will always be grateful for the warm welcome!

The next morning I rode the rest of the way to Nome, with a brief stop at Safety for a burger. Folks always talk about the burgers at Safety, so I was looking forward to something awesome – the frozen gas station style reality was a bit of a letdown.
Topkok
20 miles out..

I made it to Nome at around 6pm, and was met by a small crowd. The next few days were a bit of a blur, and I had a case of “mushy brain” making thinking a bit slow. I stayed with Glenn, Sue, and their four dogs, who kindly let me take over one of their couches for a few days while waiting for flights out. I will be forever thankful to Glenn and Sue for letting me crash on their couch – it was like heaven!

It took a few days to get out, given all the Iditarod traffic, but on the upside, I got to hang out with Glenn, Sue, and two of the other racers — RJ Sauer and Tim Hewit. I also hung out a bit with Jorge, the walker I ran into at 3am at the North Fork cabin. Eventually I was back on a plane to Anchorage, where my sister (thanks Theresa!) gave me a ride back to my folks’ house, from which I drove back to Fairbanks and back to my family. It was great to see Nancy, Molly, and Lizzy again, and to be back home.

I would love to thank everyone who helped me along the way – Scotty, Jack and Joanna, Sue and Glen, the Schneiderheinzes in Mcgrath, the miners in Ophir.. I am sure I forgot folks, but thanks!

I awe a huge thanks to the folks who organize the race – thanks to Bill and Kathi, O.E., Adrean, and everyone else who makes things happen.

I would also like to thank my very understanding family, Nancy, Molly, and Lizzy, for allowing me to do be away from the family so long – I am forever thankful for you understanding!

Iditarod Trail Invitational 2017, part 3

Saturday, July 22nd, 2017


This is part three – part one can be found here and part two can be found here.

Leaving Ruby was a bit hard – the food, the warmth, and the people to chat with were a fantastic change. I told Scotty I would leave at at 5am, but overslept, and he had to prod me awake at 7am, and I left 8:30am ish. Leaving Ruby, there were dog teams everywhere. The ride from Ruby to Galena was amazing – happy mushers, a bit crazed from lack of sleep, kept me company for the whole ride, and I was in heaven. If I rode hard I could just keep up with most of the teams. I really enjoyed the ride.

The first musher to passed me.

One of the highlights was riding along behind a musher in an orange jacket who appeared to be cooking a giant pot of something in a little box behind him, while riding the sled. He would turn completely around, facing backwards, and alternate between waving a huge metal ladle around and stirring the pot, all while his dogs were going full tilt down the Yukon River at 9ish miles per hour. The other funny encounter was a musher in dark clothing who was singing to his dogs some sort of nonsense song. It really made my day!

backwards musher

About half way to Galena a snowmachiner pulled up and started asking me about my ride from Skagway – apparently I was being mistaken for Jeff Oatley. Alas, I am not nearly as fast a rider as Jeff.

He asked me how my ride from Skagway was going, mistaking me for Jeff Oatley.

The ride from Galena to Ruby was very fast, and I arrived at around 3:30pm.

Nancy had booked me a room, as I was planning on a pretty mellow day, and texted me that Kevin was in the same bed and breakfast, and was apparently sick. There had been some sort of stomach flu going around, or at least it sounded like it. I hadn’t seen anyone with it, but it sounded like Kevin might have had it – a huge bummer. I was given directions to the place I was going to stay, but they didn’t make a lot of sense, and after asking some local kids watching the dogs at the iditarod checkpoint, I wandered around a bit, trying to locate the store and the B&B. Eventually I asked someone where the store was, and was pointed to a large, unmarked, grey building I was standing next to – duh! I went inside, grabbed a bunch of food, including several apples, added in a giant container of pedialyte, and headed back out to locate the B&B. While balancing the box on my bike while riding down the main drag, a red SUV pulled up and the driver introduced themselves – it was the owner of the B&B – hurrah! She gave me much better directions, and took my box of food, and soon I found myself back inside, saying hi to a very sad and not well looking Kevin. We chatted briefly. He was having trouble keeping food down (and in!) and was having a rough time. I gave him the pedialyte, and he went to bed. It made me very sad to see Kevin. Up to this point, he was having a great race, and should have been almost two days ahead of me.

I cooked up my food, which mostly consisted of apples and two large pizzas, and took a shower, my first since McGrath, while they were cooking. The Sweetsir Bed & Breakfast in Galena is a fantastic place, and includes full cooking facilities and laundry facilities. The shower was truly magic, and having clean stuff again was even more awesome. I chatted with Kevin before hitting the sack, and he was feeling a bit better, but he made an appointment with the local clinic to get checked out in the morning. I slept in an actual bed for the first time since the start of the race – it was like heaven. I was pretty bummed about Kevin’s illness though, and was really hoping he would be better in the morning.

Unfortunately the owner of the B&B had it booked the next day by a group from the Alaska Dispatch, and she was pretty concerned that her other guests might get ill. Instead of kicking us out, she found other accommodations for them. This was amazingly nice, and I was very impressed. Anyone passing through Galena should check out this B&B! I was pretty concerned that everything in the whole town would be booked up, but it appeared that there were still lots of places with space, which was sort of mind-blowing, as it seems to me that Galena would be the ideal place to watch the dogs race.

The next morning I got up, ate a giant breakfast, and amazingly Kevin seemed on the mend, and wanted to continue – hurrah! On the way out of town we planned on hitting the “store”, and I followed along after Kevin, and soon I was very confused, as Kevin appeared to be taking us the wrong way. Kevin insisted he knew where we were going though, and lo and behold we arrived at another unmarked building with a small but well stocked store in it. I picked up a bunch of the little babybel cheeses – very tasty and still edible in the cold, a big Dr Pepper, and a large bag of Fritos – hurrah! After checking with some locals we found the trail out of town, and were soon zooming down the river to Nulato.

Kevin, back on the bike, and zooming!

Bishop Rock (I think)

Last year the ride to Nulato was overland, and wandered through swamps and forests. This year it was entirely on the Yukon River – wide, flat, and fast. Kevin was zooming, and even sick was riding faster than I was, and slowly rode away from me. I would occasionally catch up when there was some trail confusion or someone who stopped to talk, but then Kevin would slowly ride away again.

One of the highlights of this year’s race was talking to folks on the trail. Just outside Galena we bumped into someone traveling from Koyukuk, who stopped and talked for us a bit, talking about growing up in Tanana (a village about 200 miles up river), and deciding he really wanted to see the ocean. He traveled downriver until he met his wife-to-be in Koyukuk, where he now lives.

Koyokuk snowmachiner

I spent the rest of the ride to Nulato thinking about him floating down the river 40+ years ago on his way to sea the ocean.. Several other groups stopped to chat, including Jon (I think!) the mayor of Galena, who was returning from taking a group of Chinese visitors on a mushing trip from Nome, and another Jon from Fairbanks who volunteers at the White Mountains 100. Jon the mayor told us that Jeff Oatley had ridden from Galena to Kaltag in one day on his “vacation” when he rode from Skagway to Nome earlier this winter, putting a bit of pressure on Kevin and I to get moving.

DSC08287

If Jeff could do that on his “fun” ride, we better get moving as were were racing (or at least, as in my case, pretending to).

Soon Kevin and I pulled into Nulato, making our way to the school, where I had a drop box waiting for me. We were slightly ahead of the mushers at this point, and I was amazed by all the activity in Nulato. Nulato has a bit of reputation, but everyone has always been nice to me there, and this year was no exception. The school was the Iditarod checkpoint, and there were tons of people just standing around waiting for the dog race to arrive, which meant we were the only excitement, and were offered dinner and cheesecake. I was a bit worried – we had been told not to expect or ask the Iditarod folks for anything, and I had always avoided them, thinking I would get in their way, annoy them, or otherwise cause trouble, but the folks in Nulato were very welcoming.

The Nulato checkpoint crew

A local lady plopped a cheesecake in front of Kevin and I, and told us to eat up – and we did, and it was amazing! We had a bit of confusion about how far it was to the next stop of Kaltag. The official mileage chart on the wall of the checkpoint said 50, which seemed way too far, given I think I rode it in four or so hours the year before, but a local soon corrected it saying it was only 35 miles. We headed out. Kevin soon zoomed off, and I slowly ground away riding towards Kaltag. I arrived a little after 11pm, and beelined for the school. Alas, it was locked up and dark, and I didn’t see Kevin anywhere. Expecting he headed out to the Tripod flats cabin further down the trail, which I was not up for as I needed sleep, I knocked on a nearby door, the one I thought was most likely the home of the principal, and was soon tucked away in the school, making dinner – hurrah!

The Kaltag school was the start of my troubles with motion-sensing lights. I found a nice room to crash in, and went to sleep, but every time I rolled over the lights turned on, even though I was pretty sure I had all the switches “off”. Eventually I moved a bunch of stuff to block the sensor, and got some sleep. In the morning I headed out again, a bit groggy from the interrupted sleep. I had a bit of trouble locating the trail out of town, but two kids on a very old Bravo snowmachine took me to the start of the trail heading out of town, and soon I was zooming along towards Unalakleet.
My escort out of Kaltag
I was excited to see Kevin’s tracks again, as it meant he was ahead of me, hopefully recovered. A hour or so outside of Kaltag I was passed by the Iditarod Trail Breakers – the crew that mark (and when needed break) the trail for the dog race. They were super cheerful, and told me Kevin has spent the night with them, and had left a hour or so ahead of me. It was great seeing them, as they are a bit of a legend. Hours later I pulled into the first shelter cabin on the Kaltag portage, and was a surprised to see a bike outside – I had caught up with Kevin. Kevin was looking a bit rough, and after a bit of rest and a bite to eat we headed out together.
Heading to old woman cabin
The ride to the next cabin, which was not very far down the trail took forever, as the trail got softer after several groups with giant paddle track machines passed us. We pulled into Old Woman cabin, and after finding it warm we decided to get some sleep and hope the trail hardened up overnight. Kevin was looking a bit rougher, and alas, was having trouble eating.

Tripod flats and Old Woman cabin had been just stocked with wood by a BLM crew from the Unalakleet National Wild River, and it was in great shape.

In the early hours of the morning we set out, and were happy to see the trail was much faster. We rode into Unalakleet, arriving in the early morning, and headed right into Peace on Earth Pizza – hurrah! Peace on Earth is a pretty nice pizza place in Unalakleet, and has some of the better food on the trail — besides Joanna and Jack’s in White Mountain, and of course Tracey and Peter’s in McGrath! I asked if they had any fruit, and soon they had a bowl of frozen wild Alaskan blueberries in front of me, as well as a giant pizza – heavenly! The frozen fruit was pretty awesome, and really hit the spot.

Alas, Kevin was looking even rougher, and had noticeably lost weight. He scratched in Unalakleet, and in the saddest moment of my race I left him to fly home the next day.

Kevin and I had talked about scratching earlier, and I told him of my scratch in 2012 in Skwentna, when I just wasn’t prepared to push my bike as much as I had to, and destroyed my feet. Scratching there made a huge impact on me, and molded how I approached the race in the following years, and I have always regretted not continuing. I am not sure I could have actually continued, but the ..