Posts Tagged ‘arduous’

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.

I will probably update this later with gear and food details later.

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 ..

Iditarod Trail Invitational 2017, part 2

Thursday, April 20th, 2017

Leaving McGrath was pretty hard last year. It was even harder this year…

Tracy and Peter Schneiderheinze host us in McGrath, and they provide a nearly endless flow of tasty food. They are amazing folks. When Dan and I reached this haven of warmth and socializing, there were a few folks there, though the leaders were long gone. Other racers rolled in throughout the rest of the evening, including John, Amy Breen, and Tom. Tom finished with minimal additional damage to his frostbitten feet, but he was going to have a long recovery process ahead of him.

I was a bit on the fence about going on to Nome. At this point, only Kevin was ahead of me, with a sizable lead, time-wise, and the nearest folks behind me had not reached Nikolai yet, so it looked like I would traveling to Ruby by myself. I guess that wasn’t entirely correct; Tim Hewitt, who is normally a walker but was riding a bike this year, arrived in McGrath a half day or so after me. However, he is the very model of slow and steady: biking slowly and not sleeping. It didn’t look like our paces were going to be similar.

Continuing was not the most exciting prospect. That section of trail is pretty lonely, and without the dog race, there would be no traffic. I was also a bit mentally fried from assisting Tom with his frostbite, and worried I was not prepared enough to manage my own disasters.

I had talked about just flying to Kaltag and continuing from that point, or perhaps flying back to Fairbanks and biking with the dogs. But at this point I think I know myself pretty well, and I knew that if I didn’t go on, I would regret it forever. So I chugged along, preparing to head out.

In order to leave McGrath, I had a few chores to do, including packing up food, sewing up my overboots, and picking up a few things at the local store (the “AC” as the locals call it). I started the race with slightly ripped up overboots, and alas, they quickly became very ripped up, so I spent several hours sewing, while chatting with folks. I finished them up, then hit the sack. In the morning I dropped by the AC to get a bit more food, some more fuel for my stove, a cheap thermos (actually Thermos brand), and my new favorite trail snack, a big bag of Fritos. Tim left early in the morning, and I am still amazed how fast he was able to get in and out. I guess after eight times to Nome you become really time efficient!

I became a big fan of Fritos on this trip. I could get them at all the village stores, they are pretty calorie dense, and they taste good. I also grabbed a Budweiser for Dave Johnston, who the tracker said was coming in soon. Dave is an amazing guy – I have seen him finish at McGrath three times now, and he is always cheerful and happy. I slowly packed up my bike, watched Dave finish, and prepared to head out.

I finally got on the trail at 2 p.m. or so — much later than I expected. The trail was in great shape, and I zoomed along to Takotna, a small community 20 or so miles out of McGrath. Just before reaching Takotna, I bumped into Billy Koitzsch, who had put on another event a week before on a similar route. He and a few other guys were returning from breaking trail for the two racers still in his event, and he told me they had broken trail to Poorman and it was “a highway!”. Or so I thought. I apparently misheard, or there was some sort of misunderstanding — as I was to find out later.

Billy K

Takatna

Outside of Takotna there are a series of hills as the trail follows a road over to Ophir. The climbs seem to take forever. My plan was to bike until I reached the first cabin, Carlson Crossing, but the trail was a bit slower than I expected.. Fortunately, on one of the hills I was passed by two guys on snowmachines, who invited me to stay with them in a cabin in Ophir. Hours later, I passed Tim sleeping on the side of the trail, and pulled into the cabin at Ophir.

It was heaven: a small 10ft by 10ft shack, with two cheerful miners named Chris and Chuck on their way to work on a cabin on their claim further down the trail. They put me up in the loft above the cabin after feeding me dinner, and I fell asleep to them discussing life. It was a great way to end the day.

In the morning I headed out — after thanking Chuck and Chris — and zoomed down the trail. I soon passed Tim, who was looking chipper but seemed to be having issues getting the right pressure in his tires.

Tim

Leaving Ophir

I arrived at Carlson Crossing in mid-afternoon, where I had lunch, loaded up my drop bag onto my bike, and headed down the trail.

Drop bags bike selfie

My plan was to ride to the North Fork cabin, 40 miles or so farther down the trail. It was a long, bumpy 40 miles, and I arrived in the middle to the night.

Bumpy..

I was pretty surprised to see a walker’s sled outside, and when I stuck my head inside, I saw someone bundled up in a sleeping bag. Alas, the cabin was not very warm, so I hunted around to find more wood, restarted the fire, and alas woke up Jorge in the process. As soon as I got the fire going I hit the sack. I had been warned the North Fork cabin’s stove doesn’t work well, and it definitely doesn’t put out that much heat. Even loaded with nice dry spruce, it still wasn’t generating that much heat.

In the morning, I had a sleepy and disjointed conversation with Jorge. Apparently he was one of the two remaining racers in Billy’s Iditasport race. He left an hour or so before me, leaving me to melt snow and prepare for the day. Eventually I left, and rode for a couple of hundred feet before the snowmachine tracks turned around and the trail ended. Alas, I guess I misheard Billy when I talked to him in Takotna, as the broken trail ended here, well short of Poorman.

Pushing..

It wasn’t too bad, just six inches or so of snow over a nice firm base, but not very rideable. I tried riding, but there wasn’t a chance, and so it was walking. I walked for the next two days, following Kevin’s tracks and the tracks of the two Iditasport walkers. I felt very guilty as I walked long in Kevin’s tracks as he had done all the hard work by breaking trail. After a few hours I passed Jorge, who very kindly offered me some bread and cheese, but I passed as I had lots of food with me at this point.

The was definitely the hardest section of the race for me. Walking the bike wasn’t bad, but the trail was lonely and isolated, with nighttime lows in the mid negative-30s. About half way there I figured I was taking a plane home as soon as I arrived in Ruby.

I was really glad I purchased a Thermos in McGrath. My original plan was to fill it with a hot drink, like chai or coffee, in the morning and drink it during the day. Alas, the Thermos kept stuff too hot to drink, so instead I tried filling it was boiling water and using that for a midday freeze-dried meal, and one for the evening. That worked so well I started skipping filling it in the morning, and started filling it in the heat of the midday sun, and using it for dinner and breakfast. That worked fantastically! I should point out this is a cheap “traditional” Thermos, which appears to work much better than the more upscale ones like Hydroflask .

The trail winds through flat swamps and fields from the North Fork cabin, eventually reaching the abandoned town of Poorman. Poorman is nothing more than a series of dirt roads winding through piles of old tailings and giant heaps of 50 gallon drums. I believe the Iron Dog has a building here, though I have not seen it. At Poorman the hills start, and the trail winds up and down little hills and ridges though old burns, across a giant old bridge at the Sulatna River, then onto an old road that leads to Ruby.

I was amazed Kevin pushed through this section by himself. When he left Mcgrath he had no idea who was going to be following him, and how far they were behind him. He was truly alone in this section, and I will be forever impressed that he pushed through it alone, breaking trail for almost 60 miles. To me, this was the stand-out performance in this year’s race.

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After Jorge, I didn’t see anyone for another 36 hours, when I bumped into Kenton, one of the guys filming the race.

Jon and Kenton of Asymetriq were trying to make a film of the race, and had been following the race since the start, though I hadn’t seen them for a while. Kenton had snowmachined out to the end of the trail outside Ruby, then hiked a few miles to watch me push my bike. It was a bit surreal, but nice to see another person. Once I saw Kenton I knew I had good trail nearby, so I kept pushing, and soon I was on a nice firm snowmachine trail. Alas, as soon as I started riding I noticed a few issues: my free hub was behaving a bit wonky and my rack was all wobbly. A quick inspection told me I had sheared off one of the rack bolts, alas. I used bailing wire to sort of secure it, and rode on to the top of the nearest hill, pulled off the trail, and bivied. Kenton had caught up with me, and set up a camera to take a time-lapse of my bivy spot, hoping (I think) to catch some aurora. I don’t think there was any aurora, but I did have to go pee in the middle of the night. Hopefully that doesn’t feature in the film.

In the morning I packed up, and headed down the trail. Alas, when I bivy I am so comfortable I have a tendency to oversleep, and I didn’t get moving all that early. At midday, it was warm enough that I tried to actually fix my rack, and with a bit of fiddling I replaced the broken rack bolt and I was back in business. I was still having issues with the occasionally funny noise from my freehub, but it was still working, and that was all I needed at this point. The next 30 or so miles were super boring, going up and down, up and down on a wide snow covered road until I reached Ruby. I was very happy to arrive at Ruby, and wandered around town a bit, trying to find the home of Scotty, a local teacher who offered to host me. Eventually I found Scotty’s house, just as he arrived from school. He let me into his place, sat me down in front of the fire, and handed me a huge bowl of soup. It was heaven, and soon the thought of bailing and flying home was gone.

I am sorry for the lack of photos. I had a fair bit of trouble with my Sony Nex 6 in the cold, and thus I was not very motivated to take photos.

More come.

Iditarod Trail Invitational 2017, part 1

Tuesday, April 4th, 2017

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

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Tolovana to Minto, on skates

Friday, November 4th, 2016

Skating from Tolovana Hotsprings To Minto

A year or so ago, the cool kids did some neat trips on nordic skates, a sort of skate blade attached to a ski binding apparently common in Scandinavia. I was seriously tempted to join in the fun and get a set. Eventually, the number of folks I know who have them grew enough that I decided I must get some, as it looked really fun and a neat way to explore. Soon after my set arrived I was invited on a skating trip from Murphy Dome to Minto, which was quickly turned into a Tolovana hot springs to Minto trip. Our plan was to hike into Tolovana, enjoy a nice mellow evening, then leave early and hike and hopefully skate to the town of Minto. Minto is in a windy place, (hopefully) windy enough to blow the snow off the ice, and from the trail into Tolovana, you can see nearly endless expanses of bare ice just outside town. I have often wondered if it would be possible to explore that area with ice skates – I guess I was going to find out! The plan was to hike into the hotsprings, enjoy the nice warm water, then the following day hike down to the flats, and skate from lake to lake, eventually hitting the Tolovana river, and hopefully reaching Minto. I headed out with Ed, Heath, Seth, and Patrick mid morning, making the several hour drive to the Tolovana trailhead.

The hike into Tolovana was mellow, and we arrived with plenty of time to soak and hang out. It was a bit odd to be there in the fall without the family..

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In the morning we headed out early-ish, and hiked down to the flats, hoping to arrive at around dawn.

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We arrived at the flats after a brief bit of stumbling through an old burn, but nothing too epic. The flats greeted us with a nice smooth lake, and we quickly put on skates and zoomed across. For the next hour we hopped from lake to lake, taking the skates off between. Eventually we arrived at some lakes connected with a small stream, but alas, the stream had some beaver dam issues, and soon Heath and I had wet feet.

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It appeared the stream we had planned on following hadn’t frozen up enough to be skate-able..

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We soon bailed on following the small stream, and headed overland, crossing fields, swamps, and a few old burns..
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Eventually the narrow stream widened out into some large old channels, and these were frozen, with lots of hard, smooth ice.

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The skating was amazing – fast smooth and fun.

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Patrick, who is originally from Sweden, told us his parents use very similar skates to travel on a 60 mile lake just outside his home town.

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I was pretty worried I was going to be holding everyone back, as everyone else had a lot more experience skating both on ice and on skis, but it didn’t seem to be an issue, or at least everyone slowed down to my pace.

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We arrived in Minto at around 5pm, well before dark, making our selves at hope in a local teacher’s house before getting a ride back to our cars at the Tolovana trailhead.
A huge thank you to Scott and Cassie for making this trip possible!

A few gear and route notes
It was about 27 miles, give or take a bit. I think we walked about 8 to 10 miles, someone of which could have been skated if we were more willing to take the skates on and off for frequently. The rest was skating.
The ice was, for the most part, great skating, with no open water on the main river. I am not sure how common this is.

As far as safety gear, Ed suggested shin guards, so I picked up some soccer shin guards which were a bit too small for me, and some knee pads. Most of us had some ice picks to get out of the ice if we fell in – I think that is 100% (perhaps 1000%) required, so you can get out if you break through the ice. The knee pads were also too small for me – I think they were intended for woman playing volleyball, and by the end of the day my knees were hurting from the pressure. Ed also brought a helmet and a life jacket, both of which were a good idea. If I was to do this again, I would also take a helmet and a life jacket, just in case of ice issues. We also had several throw bags.

Skate wise, I think we had the full gamut of boots and bindings – Heath was using some sort of mega boot combo with AT or Tech bindings, I used NNN-BD, Ed Pilot, Seth NNN skate bindings, and Patrick SNS-BC. They all seemed to work ok. My boots were a bit floppy, especially after I got my feet wet, but I added more socks and tied them as tight as I could and things were much better.

This was my first trip with everyone navigating solely by smart phone.
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I used Backcountry Navigator, several other folks used GAIA. At least Ed and I had pre-cached satellite imagery. It worked fantastically – at one point we realized that grassy fields (fantastic walking) showed up in a particular color in the imagery, and we aimed for bits of that while navigating. It works amazingly well – I am totally sold on phones as a replacement for GPS at this point, at least for this style of navigation. It is truly fantastic to pull up imagery of your location and use it for planning in the field.

I would like to thank Cassie for the ride from Minto, and Steve at Minto for the route information, and letting us crash at his place for a few hours when we arrived at Minto. Thanks!

Angel Creek 50, the ultra walk

Monday, July 18th, 2016

Late this spring, in a moment of weakness, I signed up for a local 50 mile running race, the Angel Creek 50. It was a bit of an experiment for me – I don’t have any big biking plans this summer, and wanted to try something different. I run a fair bit, but don’t enter in to running races all that frequently, mainly only shorter races with the family.

Alas, despite my best intentions, my training up to the race was a bit spotty – I got several months of running in, trying to get lots of short runs in and a few longer (so like 12 miles) run in a week. My right hamstring started giving me issues though, and I got distracted by fun trips, and so my running died off a bit. Eventually race day arrived, and I showed up a bit under trained, but since my only goal was to make the mile 42, 13 hours, 30 minutes cut off time, which is slightly under my walking pace, I figured I should make the cutoff.

The race is in the Chena River State Recreation Area, on a mix of single track and atv trails. I have been on most of the trails before, but there are a few sections that I had never been on, and I was looking forward to it!

The race starts at Twin Bear Camp and ends Chena Hotsprings, which are a little over 20 miles apart, so I took advantage of the race’s shuttle the evening before the race start, and camped at the start. I had brought a tent, but Twin Bears turned out to have quite the facility, and I ended up staying in one of their bunk houses, with Ned. There were so many bunkhouses I think each racer could have had one to themselves. The race start was a nice and early 5am, so we got up at 4am, eating and getting ready. There was a brief pre-race meeting, and before I knew it we were off!

The race sort of went by in a blur.

I ran the first 10 miles or so, then slowly started walking more and more. I didn’t run more than a few miles after mile 25, as my quads were shot, and my right knee was super unhappy after the big downhills around mile 20.

It was raining lightly at the start, then by mile 8 ish it started dumping. No big deal, the weather was not that cold, and I am almost always too hot. I tried to eat every hour or so, and drink every 10 minutes or so. That seemed to work, as I stayed hydrated for most of the race, and didn’t have energy issues. At mile 18 the climbing started, and I learned the hoka stinsons I was using had really poor grip on wet muddy rocks. No big deal, it just required a bit more care than I would have liked. The miles 18 – 20 ish were on trail I had never been on before, and I enjoyed it, though I was now mostly walking, with a few bits of running. The visibility on the ridges was pretty poor, but the trail was pretty easy to follow, in my opinion at least.

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Folks made fun of me at the race finish for saying that, but I didn’t have any trouble finding my way. I had to stop a few times and look around for the next rock cairn, but that only took a few seconds, nothing major, but that might have only been because I was going so slow.

I didn’t take very many photos, as I only had my phone, but I did get a selfie..

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Andy and Chris were at the Chena Dome trail shelter, and Andy was as cheerful as ever.
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I had been by myself for most of the race, but Andy said my friend Tom was only 10 minutes ahead, with a “big group”. Alas, I never caught up with them.

The rest of the race sort of zoomed by, and I walked the next 25 miles. I would have loved to have run more, but alas, my legs were not up for it.

I made the mile 42 cut off by an hour and a half, and finished at 14 hours, 20 minutes ish.

It was a super fun event, and I think I will try doing it again next year, though hopefully I will be able to run a lot more of it.

I used the Strava app on my phone during the race, and it worked great. It told me my pace every mile, which provided lots of motivation. The few times I was around other people I muted it, but since I was by myself for most of the race, it didn’t annoy anyone. When I finished I still had over 50% of the battery left, which was good news.

I walked/ran everything but the last 8 miles in some hoka stinsons, which was a mixed success. They are super comfortable, but they are hard to tighten down fully, and get next to no traction in mud or wet rocks. I have run a lot in them, but never in this much rain and wet. The left shoe started feeling funny after mile 25, and after the race I noticed it had “blew out” in a section.

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It is hard to tell from the photo, but there is big dent and soft spot where my thumb is.

The final 8 miles of the race I ran is some montrail road shoes, and they got much, much better grip.

A huge thank you to my family for letting me disappear for this race, and to the folks who put it on – Drew Harrington, Karen Taber, and George Berry. You guys rock, I really enjoyed it.

A few more photos can be found here:
Angel Creek 50

I learned a few things, mainly I walk at roughly a 17 minute mile pace, which is slightly slower than I would have expected.

An update: 5 days after the race, I am fully recovered, except my feet which are still a bit destroyed. I ended up with blisters on the ball of both feet, and they are taking a while to heal up completely.

Nabesna To McCarthy

Sunday, July 17th, 2016

A long time ago, in the late 1800s and early 1900s, gold miners hauled supplies from McCarthy to Chisana and Nabesna. I have always wanted to visit the area, and when Heath suggested hiking and packrafting it, I jumped at the oppotunity! The “original” route folks used went from McCarthy to Chisana and the Nabesna/Slana area, but we planned to reverse the route so we could float a bit. The route has a pretty storied history – it was a wilderness classic route in the late 80s, and folks have even taken bikes on it. I was beyond excited for this trip! Another major bonus was that Heath did all the planning, making this the first trip in a long time I didn’t need to think about all that much – hurrah!

We headed out of town midday for the 5 hour drive to Nabesna. Nabesna is on the end of a 40 mile dirt road, and the trip got off to a bit of a rough start when, after passing a couple of small wash-outs on we came to a much deeper one – one that I wasn’t brave enough to drive across. It was a beautiful blue sky day, but apparently it had been raining earlier. We parked the truck safe from the water coming down the wash-out, and after checking out the nearby Jack River, decided to start the float a bit early.

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The Jack was near bank-full, and had enough water to be fun, but not too exciting. Besides a bit of wood, the floating was fun. We eventually camped at 11pm or so, a few miles short of our planned put-in spot. In the morning we awoke to clear skies and continued floating, eventually reaching the Nabesna River. The Jack was very scenic, and had a wonderful rock wall section that was pretty amazing. Alas, the water had a lot of sediment in it, and wasn’t clear, but still a fun float. The Nabesna was huge, much bigger than I expected. There were a few big boils and eddy lines that while no big deal, still got my heart racing. On the upside, the water was moving fast, averaging almost 10 mph (I think), and we quickly reached our take-out, near Cooper Creek.

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The wash plain of the Nabesna was super wide here, and while we were on the bank of the river, Cooper Creek was still over a half mile away – it is pretty amazing how wide the floodplain is for these large glacial rivers. As we were transitioning from floating to hiking mode I noticed a small plane parked in the distance. The pilot noticed us, and walked over to talk. After a brief conversation shouted over a side channel of the river, we discovered he worked for NPS, and had flown some rangers out to retrieve some equipment, and they were using packrafts. Hmm, perhaps we had packed up the boats too early. We headed out only to discover the rangers were using the boats to float a side channel of the Nabesna that ran right near the far side of the floodplain, and quickly determined it was too deep to ford… and out came the boats again.

Eventually we made it across, and started heading up Cooper Creek. The walking was fantastic, though a bit cobbly. A mile or so up the creek we ran into a porcupine, which appeared to really want to cross the creek, but didn’t want to get wet.

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We watched it a bit, as it slowly walked down the creek, checking occasionally to see if the creek had gone away yet or not. Not the brightest creatures. We also saw a small black bear, but managed to skirt around it without it noticing us. The rest of the day we hiked up Cooper Creek, bouncing from bank to bank, and eventually camped near the confluence of nine mile creek.

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Heath had brought a little wood burning stove, which we had fun using. It was a bit slower than a traditional setup, but the ideal of unlimited hot water was pretty tempting..

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In the morning we kept heading up the creek, and I was excited to find my first artifact – hurrah!

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I love bits of history that show how places have been used historically and currently. Finding “rusty bits” became a running joke for the rest of the trip.

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Eventually we topped out at a little pass, hitting Blue Lake, a wonderful little lake that would have been an awesome camping site, but alas, we had to get the mileage on.

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We headed over Cooper Pass, and down to Notch Creek, where I found an old collapsed cabin filled with more rusty bits. Notch Creek was pretty shallow, bumpy, and steep, so we walked down it, enjoying more fine cobble walking. Much to my surprise, I saw a set of fat bike tires on the creek bed – it appeared there were some bikers ahead of us!

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We camped near William Creek, hoping to float in the morning. We camped right next to a small clear stream. I enjoyed an experimental dinner of ramen noodles, dried coconut milk, peanut sauce, and coconut oil. Heath was a bit skeptical – “That is a lot of coconut oil.” was his take on it. I fell asleep to the sound of the water… only to be woken up when my pad deflated at 2am. Morning came two more rounds of inflation later, and my stomach was not happy. Apparently, while dinner was delicious, it did in fact have too much oil in it. I packed up camp and inflated my boat while trying not to be sick. The floating was fun, when Notch Creek had enough water. It bounced between wide braids and a single channel. When it was floatable, it was super fast and fun. Eventually we reached Cross Creek, where everything spread out and got too shallow, so we packed up our boats and headed off for the overland crossing to Chisana. Alas, I discovered that I was so distracted by not getting sick I had left my camera in a pouch on my pack, and it had gotten wet, and much to my disappointment, didn’t want to take photos – sadness! We forded Cross Creek, and headed overland to Chisana. We quickly found a marked trail, and were surprised to see horse prints – apparently folks use pack horses in this area – and we followed the horse trail over to the Chisana River. Alas, the Chisana river was too deep to ford, and so we inflated again, and floated across, then hiked over to Chisana. After hiking seemingly forever across the floodplain, we ran into a small pack of horses who seemed pretty scared of us, and who quickly ran off into the trees. We followed them, finding an ATV trail, that led us to a big complex, where the horses were waiting for us. They couldn’t seem to decide if we were something to be interested in, or scared of, so we carefully headed around them, and walked into town. We had discussed crashing at the public use cabin in Chisana, but we found it occupied by a couple touring Alaska by plane, so we headed out. After several false starts we found the trail heading out of town, eventually passing a clear(ish) stream near town that Heath said would be fantastic camping. I pressed to keep going, as there was another stream, Geohenda Creek, that was only a few miles away. Heath was very unamused to find Geohenda was thick with mud and far from the perfect campsite. We setup camp just as a huge thunderstorm passed by, just getting tents up before the deluge. The rain stopped fast though, and a bit of searching found some clear water, and soon we had dinner cooking, and enjoyed a nice bonfire on a dry channel of the creek. The next day we hiked up the creek, enjoying yet more cobbles and many muddy crossings of Geohenda. Gradually the water level dropped as we headed up into the higher country, and eventually we passed the source of the mud, a tiny creek coming in from a glacier. The country up high was beautiful, and very, very scenic. Our destination for the evening was Solo Mt. Cabin, a small historic cabin near Solo Mountain. A mile or so before the cabin we passed a huge grizzly munching away on the hillside, and I was very happy to reach the cabin just as a rainstorm arrived. I was a bit surprised to see shape the cabin was in – it is obvious at some point the NPS spent some time fixing it up – it looked like the foundation had been replaced, but having the door held shut by baling wire seemed a bit sad. We hung out in the cabin, and after collecting a bunch of dry alder from a nearby creek bed, we enjoyed a nice warm evening with the rain intermittently ringing off the roof. I had a great time reading the “log book” graffiti on the cabin walls, which was sort of a who’s who of all the crazy endurance folks and adventures in Alaska.

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The morning came, and with it sunshine, and my camera was sort of working after an evening of sitting next to the fire – hurrah! Alas, sort of working meant that while it took pictures, the display wasn’t working, so it was hard to frame photos.

We hiked across to the wash plain of the White River, and were surprised to see trail markers, leading to a pretty well used winter and horse trail, that eventually turned into an ATV trail that appeared to head to a cabin complex on Solo Creek. We turned off the ATV trail onto an old game trail, as it was heading in the wrong direction, only to find an even bigger one headed in just the right direction. Just as we reached Lime Creek we saw a large herd of horses grazing on the floodplain. I really felt like I had stepped into the old west. Lime Creek was a bit too big to ford though, so we had to inflate to cross it. Once across we hiked a few more miles, then camped. Heath declared it the perfect campsite, with yellow flowers on one side, and purple on the other.

In the morning we headed up into Skolai pass, skirting the Russell Glacier, and slowly working over to upper Skolai Lake.

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It was fantastically scenic. We worked our way across and over to Skolai Lake, eventually
camping near the headwaters of Skolai Creek. The valley the creek originates from is a neat place, wide and marshy, with lots of standing dead willow.

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In some willows I found a round ball of grass, which turned out to be a birds nest of some sort – very neat..

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I spent an hour or so exploring the valley, and checked out the “cabin” marked on the map, which was more of a three-sided shack.

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In the morning we headed up to Chitistone Pass, where it was a near complete white-out.

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We also ran into the first people we had seen since Chisana, two hikers wandering around in the rain and mist near their tent who refused to return our waves – a bit creepy. Fortunately, we dropped out of the mist, and enjoyed some fantastic walking along the Chitistone River. We eventually saw another party ahead of us, and shortly after that startled a little brown bear who headed off at high speed. We eventually overtook the party, and learned it was Nate and Krista who are also from Fairbanks, and much to my surprise – Krista works with my wife Nancy, and knows my daughters Molly and Lizzy. It is a very small world. Soon we were at the crux of the trip – the legendary scree of the goat trail!

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(Heath, checking out the goat trail..)

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I had been told everything from it was a fairly tame walk across a scree slope, to it was a scary walk along a rock wall above a huge drop, separated by the “gorge of death”. It turned out to be a mostly tame scree walk. I think it could have been possible to fall to your doom, but mostly I think you would have just rolled to a stop before any doom, with lots of bruises and scrapes. I didn’t test this idea though..

We stuck to the “yellow band”, as most folks seem to recommend, and came out without any issues.

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(Photo compliments of Krista Heeringa)

Skolai, hole, to Nazina 304
(Photo compliments of Krista Heeringa)
Skolai, hole, to Nazina 235
(Photo compliments of Krista Heeringa)

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Nate and Krista took a completely different route, going quite a bit higher than us, so perhaps we did it wrong. Regardless, it was a super scenic walk, with waterfalls everywhere! After the scree slopes it was just mellow downhill alpine walking, complete with a huge herd of sheep grazing on the hillside in the last valley we passed.

In the evening we camped on a nice bluff, in sight of a glacier and Chitistone Falls – best campsite ever!

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In the morning we hiked down to the Chitistone, inflated and crossed the creek when we found we couldn’t get across, and started hiking downriver.

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The hiking was mostly pretty fantastic, besides a mile or so of willow thickets that Heath just breezed though, and I had to smash though like a ogre, getting constantly stuck. Very helpful for my self-image…
We eventually made it to Glacier Creek, where we planned to float. The weather had been very warm, and the Chitistone was now running very fast and a bit high, so we put in with a bit of trepidation, but it worked out – the creek was fun, splashy, and fast. After a hour or so we pulled out and camped, as at this rate we would be at the final takeout before we knew it. The evening was spent mellowing out and exploring the Chitistones floodplain.

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In the evening we were buzzed by a Supercub. Later we learned someone in a wing-suit had flown over us, and had been picked up by the plane. In the morning we packed up and floated the last of the Chitistone, taking a side channel around a new section of river where the river is chewing into a forest. We floated the Nizna to May Creek road, where we packed up and hiked into town.

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Fortunately the really long and boring road hike was shortened when we hitched a ride with Greg from Kennicott Guides on a double-wide ATV.

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McCarthy was as charming as ever, with folks stopping to talk to us nearly constantly. The upcoming packrafting festival appeared to be the talk of the town. Heath and I grabbed lunch, then caught a slightly earlier flight back with McCarthy Air to Devil’s Mountain lodge.
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We jogged back to the truck, and Heath joked that with my very holey shirt, it looked like I was “A homeless guy chasing a yuppie.” After nearly 6 miles of running, we made it to the truck, drove back to get our stuff, then headed back to Fairbanks – hurrah!

A couple of notes:

  • Don’t use Thermarest with stupid patches. My pad kept deflating, and I was up to two inflations a night before I taped over the patch with duck tape.
  • This route has lots of tricky water crossings. Folks thinking of replicating it should make sure they are ok with big-ish stream crossing, and budget extra time in case some of the creeks (like flood creek, or lime creek) are running high.
  • The Chitistone was flowing pretty big when we did it, and above Glacier Creek it looks pretty burly – lots of water moving fast. Below Glacier Creek it was class II with a few big obstacles, and near the Nizana, lots of wood. Very manageable though. Some bikers from Spain flipped someplace in the Chitistone, and one of them lost his gear, making the last few days of their trip pretty epic.
  • There are several re-supply options – the solo creek runway, skolei runway, and Chisana. I was told by McCarthy air that if they had other flights going that way, a small drop bag would be $100, which seems like a fairly good deal.
  • I should have brought a fair bit more food – I lost around 6lbs on this trip.
  • At the last minute, I brought a dry suit. That was, I think, a good call, but added a few pounds of extra weight. YMMV.
  • I am done with non-waterproof packs for packrafting. I have an old Arcteryx pack, that while nearly 4lbs empty, is completely waterproof. Alas, the hip belt is coming off, and the suspension sucks, so I replaced it with a big osprey pack. I was happy with the pack, but wasn’t happy with how much water it sucked up, all the extra zippers it had, and how many dry bags I brought with me. A pack made of some sort of waterproof material is on my list. It looks like mt hardware makes several, as does HMG. Alas, HMG’s packs are not as big as I would like. To bad all the newer arcteryx packs have so many gizmos – the one I have from them is a very simple affair, just a big single compartment body and a top lid.
  • I really love my Inreach – it was fantastic to txt Nancy and the twins at the end of the day and check in with them, and kept me feeling connected with them. Alas, the last day I swapped out the batteries, and didn’t notice the shell wasn’t completely dry, and got water in it.. and it stopped working. Duh! Hopefully it will come back to life.
  • Smart phones are now a nearly complete gps replacement – Heath did all his gps stuff using his phone, and it seemed to work very well. I brought a standard garmin etrex 30, which worked fine, but occasionally fired up Backcountry Navigator. Andrew Skurka has a discussion of the various options that is worth reading. On the flight back I noticed that the pilot used an android tablet running a mapping app rather than the specialized garmin aircraft nav widget I am used to seeing. The end of the stand alone gps?
  • I should have brought a better system for quick and easy access water, and some electrolyte drink mix. I was dehydrated a lot of the trip.
  • I sunburned my lips (!!) something I wasn’t even aware was possible. Next time I will bring some lip balm with sunscreen.
  • Heath found the birding to be awesome, with lots and lots of different species. Adding a few days just to birdwatch might be a good idea, if you are a birding sort of person.
  • Trust the Maps – I was getting pretty antsy near the end, as a write up I read said it was 35 miles from Skolia landing strip to Glacier Creek, and was thinking we didn’t have enough time for that. It turned out to be much less than that, more like 20. I should have mellowed out and trusted the maps – sorry Heath!
  • I can’t think of anything else at the moment.. will add anything else that comes to mind later.

I would like to thank Nancy and the twins for allowing me to disappear for 10 days, and Heath for doing all of the planning for this trip. Normally it is my job to do a lot of the trip planning, it was awesome to have someone else do that – hurrah!

Heath’s writeup can be found here, and is filled with truly awesome photos.

A interactive map of our route can be found here.

A few more photos can be found here:
Nabesna to McCarthy

Chena Dome..

Tuesday, May 31st, 2016

In a moment of weakness, I signed up for the Angel Creek 50, a local 50 mile foot race. The cut off for the race is 13.5 hours for the last checkpoint at mile 42, which is pretty close to my walking pace. To see if I could make it, Tom and I headed out to hike Chena Dome trail, a very hilly local 29 mile hike.

The weather was fantastic..

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I ran the easy bits, but alas, my knees didn’t enjoy the downhills.. fortunately there was still some snow, which felt so good on them..

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The trail was in great shape, but it was baking hot. I am not really a hot weather person, so climbing up some of those hills nearly scrambled my brain.

There was a fair bit of water on the trail, and a bit of snow still. In a few weeks it might be hard to find any water besides what is in the catchment system at the shelter.

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The shelter at mile 17 was looking a bit beat up.. and, alas, the hole in the floor was a bit bigger than it was when I last visited, and lots more had been chewed on by porcupines…

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The last few hours were even hotter.. Fortunately a few hours before we finished we ran across a small clean snowfield, which we used to top off our water supplies. The cold water was heavenly.
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Tom, Shiloh, and I were very happy to reach the car, and headed off for a sock and dinner at the hotsprings.

In end, it took us 9 hours to do the 29 miles, which is just barely over the cutoff. I was beat when I finished! Hopefully I can run of more of the actual course than I can of Chena Dome!

This was the first time in a very long time I have done a hike without Remus. Remus is now 13, and getting a bit too old for long days. When I left in the morning with Shiloh, he started barking and was not happy to be left behind, but was consoled by being let into the house and being given a huge rawhide chew. Rumor has it when the twins woke up they gave him an old bagel with bacon and provolone. It is tough getting old..

Thanks for the company Tom!

ITI – 2016 Part 2, This time to Nome!

Wednesday, April 6th, 2016

A bit of a warning – this post is on the long side.. ok actually its very long side..

Part 1 can be found here.

In the morning we woke up to a wonderfully clear day in Ruby, with what appeared to be a tailwind – hurrah!
After a breakfast of pancakes and some final packing, Bill, Kyle, and I headed out.

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I had been dreading riding on the Yukon river, as I have never found traveling on rivers to be all that exciting.  Too much flat endless white stuff, stretching out seemingly forever in front of me..  It always seems to like I am not going anywhere.

We did hear via the grapevine that Phil H., who should have been two days ahead of us at this point, had suffered some bike trouble just outside Galena, and had lost half a day there, but had apparently made good time.

We left The River’s Edge B&B, dropped down on the river, and headed downriver to Galena.

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The ride from Ruby to Galena was very fast.  The Yukon River was not what I expected, with lots more bare ice, silt, and rocks than I anticipated.

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Soon after we  left Ruby, Bill zoomed off ahead, while Kyle and I chugged along.   I felt a bit guilty at this point, as I think I was slowing Kyle down a bit – he is definitely a faster rider than I am.

The ride to Galena was mostly uneventful, besides some funny signs warning about a “bump” just outside town.

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The bump appeared to be a slight bulge in the ice, which was pretty funny, as the ice is anything but flat, and the trail on the river was filled with larger bumps.

We were meet just outside Galena by Bill and Larry, a local who was following the race, who directed us to a local B&B which had a room set up for the racers to crash in.   Bill had wandered around Galena a bit, and had picked us up  microwave hamburgers, which tasted awesome!

We spent the next hour or so repacking our bikes from our drop boxes, mellowing out, and eating.  Before we took off, Larry called ahead to Nulato, the next stop on the route, and got us permission to crash on the floor of the Catholic Church.

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Leaving Galena

The ride from Galena to Nulato was pretty interesting — a bit of river, a bit of swamp, a few narrow sections of nice trail looping though the trees, and tons of long, narrow beaver ponds.

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I think this section is normally on the Yukon, but the river hadn’t frozen up completely, and the trail was routed overland.

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About halfway from Galena to Koyukuk we started seeing lots of snowmachines, and we eventually bumped into the owner of the Galena B&B. After thanking her, and talking for a bit, we learned there was a basketball tournament that evening in Koyukuk, and folks were headed back to Galena and Nulato.

We passed Koyukuk in the early evening, all lit up in the dark, and it was back on the Yukon.  About halfway between Nulato and Koyukuk we stopped briefly and then noticed there were lots of eyes staring down at us, reflecting the lights of our headlamps.   Kyle thought they might be wolves, but it is hard to say.  Regardless, they didn’t seem too traumatized by us, and kept watching.

Just before arriving at Nulato, my bike made a grinding noise, and my gears started freewheeling without any resistance — not a good sign.  I took my wheel off, and was amazed to see the lower 10 gears on my cassette had fallen off.  I fiddled with it a bit, but I wasn’t sure how to get it back on.  I was pretty sure at this point I was hosed. After shifting around a bit I found my lowest gear still worked, and after telling Kyle and Bill to continued on to Nulato, I slowly followed them, spinning away.  We ended up spending the night in a Catholic Church, getting a wonderful meal cooked for us by Brother Bob at 1am, and a fantastic pancake breakfast at in the morning.

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Brother Bob, and a fellow who gave me some bailing wire.

Bill, who owns the Trek Store in Anchorage, helped me try to put the cassette back together, and we set off in the morning, only to have my cassette fall apart again immediately.
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We headed back to Brother Bob’s, where we fiddled with it a bit more, but I couldn’t figure out how to get the lower 10 gears of the cassette to stay on.   Eventually, I gave up, and told Kyle and Bill to head out.

This was the lowest part of the race for me — I was pretty sure at this point I was going to end up flying back to Fairbanks to swap out the wheel.  I had been told there was a 11am and 3pm flight in from Fairbank, and started spinning slowly up to the airport, which is on a bluff overlooking the river, or so said my gps.   After a bit of 3mph spinning, I quickly realized that as it was just after 11am, and I had seen the flight land at 20 minutes ago, I just wasn’t going to make it.

So I made the demoralizing trip back to Brother Bob’s porch to hang out and wait until the next flight.  While I was waiting, I took the cassette apart again several more times, and eventually figured out the cassette only fit on in one orientation, and once I got it lined up correctly, the lower 10 gears snapped on – and I was back in business!  It was still unclear how it snapped off in the first place, but it seemed solid, and after a few hard mashing sprints to test it out, it looked like it would hold up, and I set off to go catch up with Kyle and Bill. I did pick up a length of baling wire — if worse came to worst I could wire it together, which would hopefully hold until I reached the nearest town.

The ride to the next town of Kaltag was fast, but very uneventful, and a bit boring.

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This was the Yukon I was dreading — flat and seemingly endless.  Fortunately, it was warm, I had a slight tailwind, and the riding was very good.    I tried to put on an audiobook, but my player was malfunctioning, alas.

Eventually I made it to Kaltag, where I just missed the Post Office closing, and ended up stopping by the store to grab some snacks  — mainly a bag of bagels, two small containers of yogurt, and a small jar of peanut butter.  I ate two bagels and the yogurt which was fantastic for dinner, and after asking for directions on the way out of town from a young guy manning the store, I headed out.

The next section of trail was the Kaltag portage, which leaves the Yukon river (yay!) and heads overland to Unalakleet, on the coast.  As I was heading out of town, I was very surprised to see Kyle and Bill riding on a road paralleling me a mile or so off, then watched as they turned off and continued down the Kaltag airport’s runway.   I turned around and headed after them, but quickly decided it wasn’t going to happen — it was going to take a while for me to get to the trail they were on, and with that lead, I wasn’t going to catch them.   I could see trail markers on the trail I was on so I knew I was headed the right way, and headed back down the trail.   A mile or so out of town, I remembered I was supposed to call the ITI organizers when we leave the Yukon river, and stopped  to get out my cell.  After wasting a bit of time screwing around with my phone I discovered I couldn’t get cell reception, gave up and headed back down the trail.    After 20 minute or so, I ran into Bill and Kyle – hurrah!  They were super surprised to see me and were pretty happy my bike was working again.  They had taken a long break at Kaltag, and were pretty well rested, and quickly disappeared down the trail.  

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Hopefully I would catch up with them again at one of the shelter cabins along the trail.  At the first cabin, the Tripod Flats cabin,  I could smell smoke, and knew they were inside, warming things up – hurrah!   After a nice evening of dinner and a good night’s sleep, we headed off to Unalakleet.

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The Kaltag Portage trail is pretty spectacular — very scenic, and very beautiful.  The trail was in fantastic shape, and it was warm and calm, with clear skies and fantastic views.  I think this was one of the highlights of the race for me.

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About 15 miles or so outside Unalakleet we ran into some bikers headed the other direction.

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It turned out two guys were on a overnight trip to Old Woman Cabin to spectate and say hi to the ITI racers as they passed by.   After a bit of chatting we parted ways, and we continued on.  Unalakleet is famous for Peace on Earth pizza, and we were determined to make it there before they closed!

As we neared Unalakleet, the snow started disappearing, and soon we were riding on bare ice and dirt.  

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Soon we were riding down the main street of Unalakleet, where I stopped to get some more white gas and some ice cream for later, while Bill and Kyle attempted to figure out where the Post Office was.  I came out and they were chatting away with some folks who had been following the race and had come out to say hi as we passed through.  They directed us to the Post Office, where we had drop boxes waiting for us.  I had been warned the Unalakleet Post Office wasn’t the most friendly, so I was expecting trouble, but as we were waiting in line to get our boxes, the postmaster walked up and excitedly started talking to us about the race, and before we knew it he was outside with us looking at our bikes, and asking questions.  

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As we talked to him, there was suddenly a deep voice from seemingly out of nowhere asked us if we would like some coffee.  After a quick bit of searching for the source of the voice I looked up to see a man leaning out of a small second storey window above the PO looking down at us.  I passed on the coffee, but thanked the disembodied voice for the thought.  After a bit more chatting with the super friendly postmaster, we headed off to have pizza.

We arrived at Peace on Earth only to discover they were closed for another 45 minutes.  Two phone calls later the manager arrived, opened up, and we sat down to unpack our drop bags, and gorge on pizza.  The pizza was fantastic, though I was sort of overwhelmed by all the food and supplies in my drop box.  I felt a bit like a child on Christmas Day, confronted by too many new toys and unable to decide which to play with first.   I only had a limited space on my bike, and picking what I was going to take with me was a bit overwhelming.

Eventually, we dragged ourselves out of pizza heaven, and headed down the trail.  Our plan was to stop at the Foothills shelter cabin.   The ride out of town was gorgeous, and I got my first real views of ocean from the west coast of Alaska — one of the highlights of the trip!

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There wasn’t a lot of snow, and the trail mainly seemed to consist of a strip of ice in ATV ruts, but it was scenic.  I was pretty surprised how hilly it was — we seemed to either be going up or down, without a lot of flat in between.  

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Perhaps I had been spoiled by all that flat river.. We arrived at the cabin in early evening, warmed it up, and enjoyed leftover pizza, and for Bill and I, icecream.  Kyle is alas, lactose intolerant, which I wasn’t aware of when I picked up the ice cream as an evening snack.

In the morning we headed out and made our way to Shaktoolik.  As we left the foothills, we headed out across a lagoon to the village, and finally hit some real wind.  This was my first encounter with any strong wind so far, and I quickly had to rethink a few things.  First, I needed more layers on my lower body, and second, while the ruff I had on my puffy jacket was awesome, wearing my puffy jacket while biking at these fairly warm temperatures (teens F)  made me much too hot.

At Shaktoolik we biked through town, eventually finding the school.

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After asking if it was okay to come inside, we came in, and talked to the kids, had lunch, and re-shuffled our layers for the next section, the ride to Koyuk across the sea ice of Norton Bay.   The students and teachers were super friendly, and very excited about the upcoming Iditarod dog race.  I ducked out briefly to run across to the store, where I wandered around in a daze, overwhelmed by all the food options.  Eventually I grabbed some junk food and snacks, and joined Bill and Kyle in an empty cafeteria for lunch.

I took the time to swap my ruff over to my shell jacket.  When I purchased the ruff, I was given the option of setting it up so I could move it from jacket to jacket.  I had been given mixed advice about this – several people told me it was a good idea, and others had told me it just made it heaver and harder to deal with, and I would not want to switch it anyway.   The option to switch it turned out to be pretty awesome — the ruff turned out to work great on my shell, and it was way too warm (around 5F for most of our ride from Shaktoolik to Koyuk) to ride in my puffy jacket.

The ride to Koyuk was neat, but took forever, and I soon got sick of the novelty of riding on sea-ice.  

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The wind, while not blowing super hard, was pretty relentless blowing into our faces, and the trail was mostly firm, but had sections where it was too soft or the crust wasn’t strong enough to hold my weight.   Bill and Kyle had the advantage of being much lighter than I am, and could float over the soft stuff like angels, while I bogged down like a pig wallowing in mud.   The final 10 miles to Koyuk seemed to take forever.   We could see the lights of Koyuk, but they just didn’t seem to get any closer.  Finally we arrived, and connected up with someone affiliated with the school.  Alas, I forget his name — he was super helpful though, fantastic guy!  He let us in, and set us up in the preschool room, where we made ourselves at home.
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Photo by Kyle Amstadter

Koyuk really reminded me of my home town of Skagway.   We arrived at around 10pm, and there was a basketball game going on, giving me flashbacks of being a kid in a small-town in Alaska.  The school even had the same feel..

In the morning we headed out, making our way back onto the sea-ice, though this trail seemed much firmer and the riding was much faster.  The ride from Koyuk to Elim was a surprise — it was really interesting, with diverse scenery, with sea ice, forested hills, wide open, and wind blasted fields.

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Bill got a bit antsy about the idea of missing his drop box waiting for him in the Elim Post office, and possibly a bit frustrated with my slow pace, and he took off.  Hopefully Kyle and I would meet up with him again in Elim.    Eventually I stopped and added a bit more air to my tires, and immediately I sped up considerably.   Kyle and Bill were both running tubeless setups, and I was pretty amazed by the difference they had in their rolling resistance.  I definitely had to do more tire pressure adjustment.  I think tubeless fat bike wheels must just roll easier than their tubed counterparts.  Some tubeless wheels are in my future, I think!

As Kyle and I neared Elim we started seeing signs of civilization — in this case, lots and lots of boats, of various sizes and states of repair.

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The last mile into Ellim involved, much to my surprise, biking up a huge hill on a plowed road, but it did provide some awesome views of the ocean.

Elim was a fantastically welcoming town. As we biked, a fellow on an ATV stopped to ask us if we needed directions, and he pointed us towards the school, where Kyle and I had drop boxes waiting for us.  Unbeknownst to me, my wife Nancy had called a village elder she knows from the Alaska Forum on the Environment conferences to let her know I was coming in, and she had a group of kids waiting for us to direct us to the school, and help me find the store.  Just outside the store I ran into a lady who told me she was just checking to make sure the store was open and was going to check to see the school was open, as Nancy Fresco’s (my wife) husband was biking in.   I laughed and introduced myself as Nancy Fresco’s husband, and thanked her.  It was surreal experience, being escorted through the village store by a group of 3rd to 5th graders all asking me questions about what I was doing, while I was asking them questions about life in Ellim, all while trying to quickly pick out food from the small but still overwhelming selection in the store.  On the upside, I eventually just started asking the kids to help me find stuff, and once I started that I quickly got what I needed and was ready to check out.  Just after I checked out, the checker handed me the phone, saying it was for me , and it was the village elder, Emily Murray, calling to let me know my drop box was at the school, and the door was open, and I should just come in and get it, and make myself at home.  A fantastic welcome to Elim!

We spend a few hours in the school, snacking and talking to the principal and his family about life in Elim.  The discussion reminded me a lot of growing up in Skagway, with the same problems of being an authority figure in a small town, and being unable to escape that role in such a small community.   Eventually we pried ourselves away, and headed off to White Mountain, though not before calling ahead to Joanna, a local in White Mountain, which was hopefully our destination for the evening.  Joanna has an almost mystical reputation in the ITI.  Folks always talk about how fantastic it is to arrive at her house at White Mountain, and I was eager to experience this!

The next section was a bit of a blur.  We headed out onto the sea ice briefly, where the for the first time I could actually see the ocean from the ice I was biking on, which was a bit disconcerting.  

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Fortunately we headed back onto land, where we headed up and over some large hills, before descending down to Golovin Bay and across to Golovin.  Golovin Bay was a bit surreal.  Last year some of the Irondog folks had major trouble here. I think one team ended up ditching their snowmachines in the middle of the lagoon in several feet of water and having to walk to shore.  Fortunately, the ice seemed thick and sound, and the trail was more of a hard-packed runway than almost anything we had been on for most of the way so far.  We zoomed across the bay to Golvin, where we briefly stopped out of the wind for a snack, then biked across town and onto more ice for the final stretch to White Mountain.   The ride from Golovin to White Mountain seemed to take forever.  Although we where making good time, it just didn’t seem like we were going anywhere, possibly due to the featureless terrain and darkness.   A few miles outside White Mountain, a snowmachine pulled up, and a woman introduced herself as Joanna.  We were unbelievably excited to see her.  I think Bill told her “I could hug you,” and she said, “While that would be nice, you should keep biking, White Mountain is just around the corner.  She headed off and we followed, and soon enough we pulled up into White Mountain, where we were welcomed into her home, in the early hours of the morning. I ended up crashing on her couch, having I think the best sleep of the race, after a fantastic bowl of soup.  Joanna and her family — Liam, Cha, and Jack — are amazingly nice, and it is hard to describe how fantastic it was to be welcomed into her house.   While chatting with Joanna, it turns out we have many mutual friends in Fairbanks, and she is even familiar with the neighborhood I live in — it is such a small world!

In the morning we had a wonderful breakfast, and headed out for the last push to Nome.   I didn’t know what to expect for the remainder of the trail, but I was pretty surprised by all the climbing there was.  After winding through some river and swamp, we were soon climbing up and down some large hills, giving us fantastic views, but a lot more climbing than I expected!

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 Eventually we descended down to Topkok, where we ducked into the shelter cabin for a bit of lunch.  After Topkok, the amount of snow dropped considerably, and soon we were zooming along on firm, hard-packed trail.   The next day was the Nome to Golovin snowmachine race, and lots of folks were out riding fast, getting some last minute practicing in.  

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We didn’t have any close calls, but some of the snowmachines were going pretty darn fast.   The rest of the ride to Safety was pretty fun, but largely uneventful.  This area is notorious for a short section where there is occasionally a “blow hole”, where the wind can be very strong.  Fortunately, while it was windy, the blow hole didn’t seem to be in action when we passed through.  Eventually we arrived at Safety, where I hoped to maybe get a bite to eat or at least some pop, but alas, they were not open yet.  We were welcomed inside though, and we chatted a bit with the owner, who was in the process of getting things ready for the dog race.  They had a very comfortable couch, but while I would have loved to just crash on it, we had to get going if we were going to finish!

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Photo by Kyle Amstadter

The last 20 miles were all on a road, which was a mix of very fast, and slow, depending on how much traffic and drifting there was.  There seemed to be at least two other options, and I was a bit sceptical that the road was the most reasonable, but it worked out in the end.    Parts seemed to take forever.   Some old friends of ours from Fairbanks, Sue and Glenn,  had offered to let me stay with them in Nome when I finished, and I was on a mission to arrive at a reasonable hour and not get them up in the middle of the night!  A few miles out of town, a truck pulled up, and it was Sue and Glenn! After a brief chat, we got back going again — the finish was just around the corner!   As the miles counted down, I watched for each mile post.. five, four, three, two, then, alas, there was a loud pop, and I didn’t have any gears anymore.   A little over a mile from the finish, my lower 10 speeds of the cassette popped off, leaving me just the big ring again.  And since the road was now completely snow free, spinning away at 3 miles an hour was going to be torture.  I tried to fix the cassette the same way as before, but no dice.  I couldn’t get it back on.  The frustration!  I suggested that Bill and Kyle continue on, but they weren’t having it, and soon had a tow system set up.  Bill towed me into the finish.  

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Photo by Kyle Amstadter

It was fantastically nice of him, and one of the highlights of the race for me.  Thanks, guys!

We were met by a small crowd of folks, including the winner Phil H, who finished just a day slower than the record.   I sort of wandered around in a daze, glad to be done, but not quite processing everything going on around me.  Eventually we all loaded up into Sue and Glenn’s truck, and drove over to their house, where we spent several hours talking and enjoying some fantastic homemade pizza!   Bill and Sue in particular were in heaven — they are both super social folks who love to talk.  Eventually we headed off to bed, and in the morning we toured Nome a bit, got our bikes headed back to our respective homes via Northern Air Cargo, had lunch with Phil H and his family and, I saw Bill and Kyle off at the airport.  I hung around for the next day, then flew back to Anchorage, where my sister gave me a ride to my folks’ house in Wasilla.  I mellowed out for a day before driving back.

Phil had an amazing race. I think he would have broken the record if he hadn’t had two serious issues with his bike. He had a crank fall apart on him outside Galena, and his chain fell apart on the sea ice outside Koyuk. Both times he had to wait for replacements to arrive. A huge congrats to Phil for such a fantastic race!

Just in case it isn’t clear – we had amazing trail conditions. It is hard to imagine the trail being nicer, any my fast time was due entirely to that, so my sub 13 day time should be put in that context. Snow bike riding is mostly about conditions, and I lucked out, the conditions were as good as I think it is possible for them to be!

I finished mostly physically intact.  One hand was a bit numb, but otherwise I had no major issues, besides having sore legs for a solid week to 10 days after the race.   My knees gave me trouble for the first half of the race, then I didn’t seem to have any issues.

I would like to thank my family for allowing me to take time away from them to train and to do this race. I really appreciate your understanding, and I love you guys!  I would also like to thank everyone I spent time with on the trail: Frenchie (Alan), Ken, Morris, Bob, and of course Bill and Kyle.   Spending time with you guys on the trail was one of the highlights of the race — thanks guys!   I would also like to thank all the folks who helped me along the way: the folks at Yentna Station, Skwentna, Shell Lake lodge, Winter Lake Lodge, the crew at Rohn (Adrian I hope you got your whiskey!) , the Petruskas in Nikolia, Tracy and Peter in Mcgrath, the folks at River Edge B&B in Ruby, Larry in Galena, Brother Bob in Nulato, Emily Murray and the school principal and his family in Elim, Joanna and her family in White Mountain, and Sue and Glenn for welcoming us to Nome.  Thanks everyone!  You guys made this experience possible for me, and I will be forever thankful for your kindness along the way.

Last, I would like to thank Bill and Kathi for putting on this race.  I am sure it is tons of work.  Thanks for doing it — it is truly a unique experience!

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Photo by Kyle Amstadter

A Post Script of Sorts..

When I finished at Nome, and took a glance at the news, I was saddened to hear about Jeff King and Aliy Zirkle’s encounter with a drunken snowmachiner outside Nulato.  When I got back home, I got questions about it.  I didn’t spend much time in Nulato, but the 12 hours I was there, I found it to be a perfectly normal place, filled with helpful, nice people.  This was true of all the communities I passed through and everyone I encountered on the trail and in the villages.  Everyone was friendly and helpful, and I had nothing but positive experiences. That isn’t to say what happened to Jeff King and Aliy Zirkle wasn’t horrible – it was, it just wasn’t the experience I had.

Improvements

There are lots of things I wished I could have improved on, but mostly I think I was under-trained for this race.  I think if I do something like this again, I need to work in some structured training of some sort.  I also need to think more about the food I put in my drop boxes.  I think if I ever have to eat another Snickers bar I will puke!  Otherwise I was mostly pretty happy with my performance in the race. I did feel like I was slowing Bill and Kyle down, something which I feel quite guilty for.   I might update this later, as I think over what I would do differently if I do this race again.


Folks who are gear phobic, should skip this bit — it is just a discussion of what gear I took.  Please, note I am not an expert, and we had really good conditions this year, so your mileage may vary.

You have been warned..  🙂

The bike

I rode to Nome on a Fatback Corvus, which I was super happy with.  The bike isn’t perfect — I wish the bottle cage on the down tube was further down, and I wish the fork had mounts for bottle cages as well, but it rides great, and the carbon fork’s flex is awesome in bouncy tussocks. I love that bike!  I was amazed how much more comfortable the carbon fork is vs the aluminum fork I used last year.  My setup is a pretty normal stock SRAM XO based setup, with a few unusual bits — a b17 Brooks saddle, and groovy Luv Handles handlebars.   The Brooks sort of grew on me — it squeaks, but it is very comfortable, and I had no butt issues of any sort when I finished at Nome.  The handlebars are awesome — just the right amount of bend, and I don’t have to worry they will snap in half if mistreated like carbon bars might.   If anyone knows of anyone selling one, I would love to buy it!

The one serious issue I had with the bike is the SRAM 11 speed cassette fell apart on me at Nulato, and again a mile from the finish.  These “xdome” cassettes come in two parts: the lower 10 gears, and the big 42 tooth cog.  The lower 10 gears just fell off the rest of the cassette.  I could pedal in the big 42 gear, but it was geared very low, as I run a 26ish (it is an oval ring) front, so if I spin hard I can get up to 4mph —  better than walking, but not by much.  I was able to get it back together after some fiddling in Nulato, but when it fell apart again a mile from the finish, I could not get it back together. I might be done with SRAM’s cassettes.

I used Northern Air Cargo to ship my bike back from Nome, and alas, they didn’t do a very good job.  The bike arrived heavily scratched with a dinged up derailleur.   If I ship stuff with them again, I am going to see about insuring it, or at least some “do not scratch, be careful” labels.  I think they must have strapped it to something with metal hooks around the fork, as the scratches are deep!

Food

I sent drop boxes to all the villages I passed through on the Yukon, plus all the villages on the coast.  I quickly ran out of ideas, and just randomly stuffed the boxes with whatever candy and junk food I could find.  Belvita breakfast crackers/cookies, and Oreos were the surprise hits — I ate pretty much all of the ones I sent out.   I got pretty sick of Snickers, and of beef jerky.  A major oversight was that the drop boxes ended up at places I often spent the night in, and they often didn’t have food there. I should have packed some heavier dinner and breakfast foods in the boxes to eat when I opened them up.   Otherwise I was mostly pretty happy.  I packed way more freeze-dried food than I used, but that probably was good, as we had fantastically good trail, and if things had taken longer that extra food would have been appreciated.  Several times I ended up having freeze dried food for breakfast, which while okay, wasn’t the most awesome — in the future I will pack something for breakfast besides Sweet and Sour Pork!

Gear

For sleeping gear, I packed a minus 40 bag and a regular length Ridgerest pad.  For clothing, a light weight puffy jacket , a puffy down jacket, puffy pants, two sets of long underwear pants (one light, one heavy), a long underwear top with a hood, and two sets of underpants.  I also packed some “town clothing”:a lightweight shirt and a superlight set of shorts Nancy sewed for me.   I was very thankful for the shorts, as they gave me something to wear when staying at schools etc, or when my clothes were getting laundered, which I did once at Ruby and once at Mcgrath.  For rain, I packed a rain jacket and rain pants.   I wore some Marmot pants that worked great, and a Mammut soft shell that has now seen four ITIs.  I love that jacket!  I had been warned that I should get a ruff for the wind on the coast.  I was initially pretty skeptical, but ended up getting one, and was amazed how big of a difference it made.  I didn’t wear a facemask the whole time!  Admittedly, it wasn’t very cold, but in the windier sections I probably would have needed something, and the ruff completely avoided this.  That was money well spent!  I brought some Primaloft mitts, and two facemasks/balaclava, and an extra hat.

For cooking gear, I packed a titanium pot and a new style XGK with an very old pump from one of the original XGKs.  I had been told the new pumps don’t work well in the cold, so I used an old one I had lying around.  It worked great, though it was loud and heavy.  I might take a Whisperlight if I do it again.

For more photos check out my Flickr gallery:
ITI 2016 - Nome