Posts Tagged ‘nome’

Iditarod Trail, 2018 part 3

Friday, September 21st, 2018
Topkok.. Photo complements of Kevin Breitenbach

Phil H. was stopped in the middle of the trail.  We were two miles past the Topkok shelter cabin, in the notorious “blowhole”, a windy section of trail near the coast, 30 miles or so outside of Nome.   It was several hours before sunrise, and a bit windy, with blowing snow across the trail. As I rode up to him, he asked me “Where is the musher?” We had been passed a while back by a musher who was having trouble finding the trail, and I was confused about who Phil was talking about.  

Phil then pointed to a dog sled, sitting on the side of the trail.  Soon after I noticed it, I realized there was a whole team stretched out there in the snow, the dogs curled up in little balls to protect themselves from the wind.

But no musher.

Uh-oh.


This is the third and final part of my write up on the 2018 Iditarod Trail Invitational (ITI).  The first part can be found here.

Kevin and I arrived at Shageluk at 10 am, and after we’d wandered around town a bit, someone directed us to the Lee’s house, where we had sent drop bags and might be spending the night.  We arrived in town happy to be back in civilization, and the first thing I did was use a flush toilet — hurrah! Shageluk is a small town of around 100 people situated with a range of hills on one side and vast open lowland on the other side.  Our plan was to resupply then head on to Anvik, but alas, a light dusting of snow made the trail nearly impossible to find in the flats outside Shageluk.

ITI 2018

The trail leaves Shageluk, follows the Innoko river briefly, then heads out across a series of open swamps before dropping back onto the Innoko, before crossing a few more wide open swamps, then though some mixed swamps and forest before crossing the Yukon and heading into Anvik.  

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Alas, the dusting of snow and the very flat light made the swamps really hard to navigate, especially since we didn’t know where we were going.

ITI 2018
Markers in the fog..

I had a tracklog from 2013, but that was 5 years ago. I had no idea of the trail had changed or not. Three times we left Shageluk only to be turned back in the swamps. On the upside, we were well rested and enjoyed some of Lee’s great cooking, and were able to do our laundry and take showers.   Eventually a party that was supposed to be heading to Anvik passed though, and we followed their tracks out of town, only to have them take a wrong turn and head to Grayling instead.

We pressed on, and got a bit stuck near the halfway point, where we just hunkered down for the Iditarod Trail Breakers.  We had been told they would be by that evening, but we bivied in a nice grove of trees for 18 hours, and there was still no sign of them.  The bivy was cozy, but slightly wet. We had picked up blue tarps at the store in Shageluk, and were very happy to have them, as it was near freezing and lightly snowing — almost raining.   When I got hungry I was too lazy to find real food, and just grabbed whatever was in the top of my bike bag, which turned out to be a one pound block of cheddar, which I nibbled on for a few hours, slowly eating the entire thing.  It was delicious, but hours later I woke up with “cheese sweats” – all those calories were making their way through my system. At one point I woke up Kevin by loudly complaining I was bored – which I truly was. After 12 hours it became pretty clear that even I could get sick of sleeping.  Eventually we gave up and pressed on, making it a few more miles before the trail breakers passed us.

ITI 2018

Kevin and I were very happy to see them – finally a trail! The lead trail breaker stopped and chatted with us a bit. He remembered Kevin from last year when he stayed with them in Kaltag, and seemed honestly pretty excited to have us out there.   Not as excited as we were, though. Finally we would have a trail again!

The rest of the ride into Anvik was much faster and pretty fun, though the trail on the Yukon was very punchy.

ITI 2018

Just outside Anvik a snowmachiner came up and introduced himself — it was Jay from Anvik!   

ITI 2018

Jay is apparently dating a coworker of my wife, Nancy: Malinda. Alaska at times is a very small place. Jay told us we would be welcome to warm up at the tribal hall, which was also going to be the Iditarod checkpoint, and pointed us to the two stores in town.  One shopping trip later Kevin and I were busy munching away on heated-up frozen burritos, and in my case chugging down a half gallon of chocolate milk in the comfort of the tribal hall’s kitchen. Then it was off to ride on to Grayling.

The ride into Grayling was flat and very fast.  The trail was firmest we had seen in a while and looked like it got lots of traffic, and by the evening we were wandering around Grayling looking for Shirley’s.  Shirley runs a beautiful bed and breakfast in Grayling. Kevin had called her from Anvik, and she had mentioned over the phone she was going to put on steak. When we finally found her house (Grayling turned out to be much larger than I expected; Kevin and I got the scenic tour), we found her cooking away, making huge steaks, homemade french fries, and carrot cake with carrots from her garden.  It was truly awesome! Her home is a work of art, constructed of all kinds of random odds and ends, with musk ox pelts and a mammoth tusk taking center stage. One shower later I was tucked into bed, getting the best night’s sleep I’d had in a long while.

In the morning we were treated again to a wonderful breakfast, and packed up our bikes for the long, long trudge up the Yukon to Kaltag.   Judging from the slow progress Phil was making, the trail was pretty bad, and we expected we might have to walk most of the way, so loaded up with extra food. As we were leaving, Shirley got a phone call from the Iditasport, wondering if Jan Kriska was there.  We hadn’t seen him, but on the way out of town we stopped by the Iditarod checkpoint, and lo and behold his sled was there! We ducked inside, and found Jan dozing on the floor, but he popped up right when we came in and said hi. It was great to see Jan, and to see him in such good spirits.  He had a really hard race last year, and it ended for him in Ruby with damaged hands. This year he was having a great race, and was making good time.

The trip up the Yukon was a mix of good riding and slow walking.  I had been told the wind blows down the Yukon, but it seemed like it was mostly crosswinds that would blow in the trail.  Whenever the wind wasn’t blowing across the trail it was generally very rideable. In a few sections it was even fast riding.    The first night on the Yukon, Kevin and I bivied off the edge of the trail, and a few hours later I was woken up by the crunching and whirring of dog feet and runners on snow as the leaders passed us in the dark.  In the morning we woke up to a nicer trail, and quicky rode to Eagle Island, the iditarod checkpoint.

ITI 2018

Eagle Island had a reputation of being very unwelcoming to the ITI racers, but since the trail went up into the checkpoint, and there wasn’t a good way around we headed up into the checkpoint.  Fortunately they were pretty friendly and offered us hot water and we chatted a bit, then it was back on the trail.

Alas, the Yukon dragged on, and on, with a bit of walking, and lots of slow riding.

ITI 2018

A few fast sections gave me hope that the trail would firm up, only to be dashed by more soft and windy trail.   

ITI 2018 ITI 2018

In a few of these faster sections Kevin rode really strongly, and I just about gave up on keeping up with him, but the trail turned soft again and my slightly bigger tires allowed me to keep up.  

ITI 2018
Joar Leifseth Ulsom, the eventual winner of teh 2018 Iditarod
ITI 2018
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Motivational lath..

As we neared Kaltag, the main body of the mushing field caught up with us, and mushers were passing us regularly, as well as the occasionally snowmachine. We also started seeing our first signs of the riders ahead of us since just outside Ophir, with the occasional tire track showing up.  

We arrived at Kaltag early in the morning, and headed to the school, where we unpacked our stuff, dried out, and chatted with other travelers.  In the smaller communities along the Iditarod trail the schools let travels stay in them for a small fee, as there are no other options. The Kaltag school was packed – there was a big group traveling by snowmachine, and a film crew making a documentary on Lars Monsen , a Norwegen dog musher.  When they introduced themselves I was confused, as there was another Norwegen musher, Joar Leifseth Ulsom, who was in the lead, and I didn’t know who Lars Monsen was.  Apparently he is very famous in Norway, and one of the film crew tried to correct my ignorance, filling me in with the details of his life. It was a bit of a shock to go from just Kevin and I, to lots of chatty people, though they soon left us alone, and I ended up just talking with the two guides accompanying them.  One of them operates a lodge on the Ivishak River in the Brooks Range, and we chatted a bit about summer adventures, which seemed a world away.   

Eventually we packed up our bikes and headed out, hoping to make it to Unalakleet.  

ITI 2018

The trail from Kaltag to Unalakleet is beautiful, but it tends to be slow. We were hitting it late morning, and there was a lot of snowmachine and mushing traffic, making it soft and a bit of a slog.   

ITI 2018
ITI 2018
ITI 2018

Kevin and I yo-yoed back and forth, each going at our own pace as the trail conditions changed. We stopped for dinner at the first shelter cabin, Tripod flats, where we were joined by some locals on their way back from Unalakleet.  We spent an hour or so talking, then headed on to Old Woman Cabin.

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The trail was firming up at this point, and I was able to ride pretty fast, and was soon tailgating Hugh Neff. I was pretty hesitant to pass him, as I had passed him two years before when he was finishing the Yukon Quest and his dogs went from going six miles an hour to nearly eight, and I had to pedal like mad to stay ahead of them.  I didn’t want to repeat that, and ended up just riding slower, and staying a couple hundred feet behind him. Eventually we both pulled into Old Woman Cabin, which was warm and welcoming. I apologised for tailgating him, and he waved it off and started feeding his dogs, while I headed into the cabin to make dinner. Then he joined Kevin and I , and we talked for a hour or so. That hour was one of the highlights of the race for me: listening to Hugh Neff tell stories had me pretty spellbound.  

After the hour was up he headed out to press on to Unalakleet and we went to sleep for a few hours.  In the early morning hours Kevin and I headed out, and I was ever so happy to find the trail had set up and was really fast.  Kevin soon disappeared, riding like lightning, and I rode the 30 or so miles into town by myself, enjoying the near calm and misty night sky.  The sun was coming up just as I arrived in town, and I was disappointed to find Peace On Earth closed — no pizza!! Fortunately Kevin had arrived a good twenty minutes earlier than I and  spent that time wisely, tracking down the owner and he was going to fire up the oven and make us some pizza.

We ended up spending way too much time at Peace on Earth, eating and socializing, and soon were joined by Julian Schroder  and a few other Fairbanks folks who were in town.  I called Nancy and said hi, and then noticed that the ITI’s race tracker said Phil was still in town.  Hmm.. I was a bit worried Phil had scratched, but was distracted by pizza and people. Eventually Kevin and I pried ourselves away from the food and company, and after restocking our bikes with food headed out of town.   

Alas, the trail out of town that the Iditarod used was very punchy, and nearly unrideable.  The trail leaving town heads across a bunch of small ponds, and these ponds had soft crunchy snow covering them, with a bit of salt water overflow to top it off.   Kevin and I debated taking the road but ended up staying on the marked trail, which was a mistake, as it took forever to cross the ponds. When we finally hit the road that we should have taken, we found Phil waiting for us.   

ITI 2018

He’d had a pretty rough time on the Yukon, and by the time he had arrived in Unalakleet he was pretty wiped out. Jay P was just arriving at Nome at this point, and there was zero chance of catching him, so Phil decided to wait, rest up, and ride the rest of the way to Nome with Kevin and me.  It was great to see him, and I was glad he hadn’t scratched. Our plan was to make it to Shaktoolik, and that seemed pretty reasonable until we reached the Blueberry Hills shelter cabin and called ahead only to find out it was blowing really hard, with dog teams getting turned around, and other chaos.   Deciding it was better to wait and hope the wind died down, we crashed in the cabin, then headed out, as usual in the early a.m. hours to ride to Shaktoolik and hopefully Koyuk.


Shaktoolik is a small town on a little spit of land that juts out into Norton Bay and the wide open wetlands that surround it.    The trail into town drops about a thousand feet down to the wetlands on the inland side of a narrow strip of land, and is normally icy and windy.  I was a bit worried I was going to be in trouble, as I didn’t have studded tires, but while there were a few patches of ice, it was mostly snow covered, and pretty windy.   It seemed like it took forever to get from the base of the hill to the town, but after lots of slow riding and walking we pulled into town, and headed to the school. The wind was howling, and much to my disappointment, it was blowing from Koyok.  We were going to have a big headwind all the way to Koyuk..

ITI 2018
ITI 2018
Morning pizza outside Shaktoolik

Shaktoolik is in “civilization” and I had 4g cell reception, and checking the weather report quickly confirmed that it was blowing pretty hard.  The news reports had mushers getting lost going across the bay to Koyuk.. But on the upside, the forecast was that by midnight the wind was supposed to die down.  A few mushers were taking an extra eight hour layover in Shaktoolik to avoid the wind, and after a quick discussion, we told the folks at the school we were going to stay there for the day, and made ourselves comfortable.   There is a small village store right across the street from the school, so I headed over and picked up breakfast, lunch, and dinner: two boxes of pudding packs, some Ensure, cream cheese, a bag of bagels, two microwave burritos, and a two quarts of chocolate milk — heaven!

At midnight we headed across, and hurrah, the wind had died down, and we had a bit of a tailwind!  The ride from Shaktoolik to Koyok is always a bit stressful, as the trail goes out across a shallow bay and lots of little swamps, with minimal cover.   

ITI 2018

At night you can see Koyok from a long way before you arrive, as it is on a hillside, taunting you as it never seems to get much closer, Fortunately we arrived in daylight, but it still taunted us as we could see the town in all its glory hours before we arrived.   Just outside of Koyuk, Andy Pohl, a biking acquaintance, and Kristy Berington passed with their dogs, mushing into Kokuk. At the start weeks ago (it seemed like a year ago), Andy had joked that we would meet up at Old Woman Cabin, and I had said I would be happy if it was at Eagle Island.  Koyuk was inconceivable.

We arrived in the early morning, got a bit of sleep in the school, then headed out again.  Just as we were leaving town, Andy and Kristy passed us, zooming up the hills with all that dog power.  

ITI 2018

Speaking of hills, this year the trail from Koyok was routed overland, which meant a lot of extra hills and soft trail.

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Up, down, up, down.. Eventually we made it to the main trail, and it got faster again, and we arrived in Elim in the middle of the night, a bit too late to find anyone to let us into the school unfortunately.   Peeking in the window I could see a bike in the library, and bike tracks outside the school, so I was pretty sure someone was in there sleeping, but they didn’t wake up to let us in. Eventually someone, perhaps a bit tipsy, noticed our plight and let us into the school after finding the janitor, and we crashed in the cafeteria, then headed out in the morning.  I never met the group staying in the library, but Kevin bumped into one of them while using the bathroom.

ITI 2018
Phil, enjoying a heathy breakfast..

The ride from Elim to White Mountain was awesome as always, scenic, but oh so hilly.

ITI 2018

This year the trail stayed overland when leaving Ellim, and went up and down, and up and down..

ITI 2018
ITI 2018

When I’d passed though Golovin the year before I’d noticed a coffee shop with an open sign that I almost stopped at, but I didn’t. I’d spent the next few hours sad that I hadn’t got some coffee, so this time I was pumped to check it out.  Alas, it was closed when we passed through, with a note saying the owners were on vacation. Poor timing — I should have gotten that coffee last year!

ITI 2018

The rest of the ride into White Mountain was fast, and we arrived at Jack and Joanne’s, where we were greeted by their sons Liam and Cha, and soon Jack. Joanne was away attending her mother’s wake in Pilot Station. Jack and Joanne are wonderful people, and I am always excited to arrive at their house.  White Mountain is also a bit milestone, as Nome is only 70 (ish) miles away. After a bit of sleep, I ate a big plate of eggs: the second pile of scrambled eggs I have had in the last 20 years. While I refuse to admit it to my daughters, eggs are not nearly as bad as I remembered. We headed out, Nome-bound at about midnight.

On the way into Golovin we had been passed by several dog teams, including one where the musher was sitting down smoking while making pretty good time up the hills, and another with a jacket saying the “Mushing Mortician”.   Leaving White Mountain I noticed there were several dog teams staked out at the Iditarod checkpoint, but it didn’t look like any were about to leave. The trail out of White Mountain starts flat, then after a dozen miles or so starts going up and down. On the hills were we passed by several mushers, all of whom were making much better time that we were.  Those hills are steep! We arrived at Topkok, which is at the bottom of a big hill and marks the start of the long, flat, and generally pretty windy ride to Safety.

As was to be expected, it was pretty windy, but there is a fairly big shelter cabin, and we ducked inside to get all ready for the push across the windy flats.  This area has the “blowhole”, an area where the wind is funneled into a channel, and it can be amazingly windy. I had never been through this area when it was truly windy, just windy, but we had Phil along with us, and he lives in Nome and was very used to the wind, and is very familiar with this area.   Supposedly the blowhole is pretty narrow, and if you just keep going you will come out on the other side. Tim Hewitt had told me a story of walking through the blow hole, and it was blowing so hard his sled was flying in the wind off the ground flapping around with all his gear on it. He said when he came out the other side he looked for something in his pocket and freaked out to discover there was a human hand in his pocket!  A hand that turned out to be his glove, blown full of snow.

Phil thought it would be windy, but didn’t think it would be a big deal.  At about 5:30 am we left Topkok. Almost immediately we were passed by a musher, then ran into him (or her — it was dark and windy) again, as he was zig-zagging back and forth across the trail.

ITI 2018

 Phil talked to him, and apparently he wanted to know how to find the trail. I could see Phill stomping his foot on the ground trying to convince him to look down, follow the snowmachine tracks, and stay on the hard pack.  Perhaps it is harder for mushers as maybe all the dog bodies block the view of the trail, but on a bike it is very obvious, even in the blowing snow and wind we had. While the trail is well marked with lots of reflectors, you can just look down and follow the skid and scrape marks from all the snowmachine traffic.   The musher must have gotten the gist, as he zoomed off and we didn’t see him again.

ITI 2018 – blowhole from JayC on Vimeo.

It was very windy, but we could still ride our bikes for the most part, though the trail had lots of little drifts in it and some of those were too big to ride though.  A few miles from Topkok Phil stopped suddenly in front of me and asked me “Where is the musher?” I was pretty confused — what musher was he talking about, the one that passed us a while back?  Phil pointed to something, which I quickly made out was a sled. Panic set in when we realized there was a dog team attached to it. We dropped our bikes and started looking around. Almost immediately we found another sled and dog team, and behind it huddling in the lee of it were two figures, both bundled up.  One had a facemask on, and it was impossible to see if he was conscious, but he wasn’t moving. The other was talking. Phil, Kevin, and I converged around them and tried to figure out what was going on.

The one who was talking told us that “Jim” had gotten his dog team stuck, and ran into trouble, and was now too tired to move, and he wasn’t going to leave him.  We asked him what we could do, and he said to get help, his hands were too cold, we needed to find Jim’s SPOT beacon and activate the SOS. We looked over the two sleds, and eventually located one SPOT beacon, and after triple checking with the musher who was talking (we later learned he was Scott Jansen) that he really wanted us to activate it, pushed the SOS button.  

The red lights started blinking, and it looked like it was working, so we put it aside, and asked how else we could help.  Scott asked us to find his satellite phone, which he said was in his pocket, so he could call and confirm someone was going to come out to rescue him.  He was dressed in some sort of snowmachine suit, with lots of pockets, and figuring the sat phone had to be pretty big I somewhat awkwardly patted him down.  There was no phone to be found. Kevin, Phil, and I then set out to find it, figuring it had to be someplace. Phil ended up finding it in his sled bag, and Phil placed a call for him to his wife, who much to my confusion seemed to be arguing with him about something.  At that point hopefully help was going to arrive, and we asked if there was anything we could do. Kevin was at this point pretty cold, and he needed to move, so Phil and I told him to head to the next shelter cabin, while we tried to see if there was anything we could do.  Scott seemed to be ok, just had cold hands, but he turned down my offers of hand warmers.

At that point it seemed like we had done all we could do.  Phil and I discussed getting out a sleeping bag, but those things are big, and we figured they would just blow away or immediately fill full of snow.  We checked with Scott, and it sounded like we had helped him as much as we could, so we set off to catch up with Kevin, and hopefully use my Inreach to contact Phil’s wife in Nome to call the troopers and confirm a rescue was in progress.  

Phil and I then headed out to catch up with Kevin.

Craig Medrid has a really good breakdown of the timeline on his website.

We arrived at the shelter cabin to find it the entry full of snow and nearly impossible to get into.  I was intent on texting Phil’s wife though, so I dove though a little hole in the snow drift blocking the door, and smashed down into some chairs as I slid down the other side of it into the first room of the cabin.   From there I text-ed Phil’s wife Sarah to call the troopers and please let us know if there was a rescue in progress, and if not, get one going! Sarah, being the awesome person she is, immediately texted me back letting me know that she got it, and was calling.  I climbed back out the little hole I had slid down, and fell out back into the wind, and we continued trudging towards Nome. I was feeling like a huge failure at this point, worried Jim was dead, and that we hadn’t done enough for them. So many second thoughts, so much thinking about what I could have done that would have made a difference.

Ten minutes later or so Sarah texted me back saying a rescue was in progress, the troopers were aware they needed to be rescued and help was on the way.  That was huge load off my mind, but we were a pretty sad group as we slowly trudge towards Safety. At some point a big wide track machine came very slowly up to us, and Phil talked to the driver, who was apparently out to check on the two mushers.  Later we were to learn she was Jessie Royer, a musher who had finished, then snow machined to Safety to see a friend pass though, and headed out to check on the mushers when it looked like they might be stuck. Phil told her where they were, and we continued on, only to see another group of snowmachines, this time big racing sleds come zooming up.  Phil talked to them and they zoomed off. After they were gone Phil explained they were with Nome search and rescue, heading out to find the mushers and bring them back to the Safety. A while later they came zooming back by, this time with the two mushers on the back of the sled. One of them, Jim I guess, was flopping around like a rag doll, and they stopped right in front of us as he had nearly fell off the back of the sled.   I was feeling a bit better now , as now they were at least alive and on their way to help. Hours later we pulled into Safety, the last checkpoint before the finish in Nome, and learned that both mushers were ok, which was a huge weight off my mind. Apparently after warming up in the Safety Roadhouse they were fine, and were flown to Nome.

After a few Cokes, at least one microwave “burger”, and a bit of chatting with the checkpoint volunteers, we headed out.   Everyone talks about the burgers at Safety, and the first time I was disappointed to find it was a microwave frozen burger-like thing.  Food, but not awesome food. They have Coke though, and that is like heaven.

Photo complements of Kevin Breitenbach

The last twenty miles into Nome were a bit of a slog, with slow trail chewed up by lots of snowmachine traffic, but eventually we hit the road, and zoomed into town.  I could barely keep up with Kevin and Phil, but they took pity on me and slowed down so I could keep up. There was a big group of folks waiting for us at the finish — I guess finishing with a Nome local has its perks!   Sue and Glenn, some (former) Fairbanks friends meet us at the finish, as well as Steve Cannon , and Kathi, the organizer of the ITI.  

Photo complements of Kevin Breitenbach

A few days of hanging out in Nome with Sue, Glen, and their dogs, and I headed home.

After an event like this I have a huge list of folks to thank.

First, I need to thank my family: Nancy, Molly, and Lizzy.  Thanks for your understanding and support; it means the world to me.  

Second, I need to thank everyone who helped me on the trail.  It is a huge list: the Petruskas, Tracy and Peter Schneiderheinze in McGrath, the folks in Iditarod, Lee in Shageluk, Jay in Anvik, Shirley in Grayling, the schools in Shaktoolik, Koyok, Ellim, and Kaltag, Joanna, Jack and their family in White Mountain..  Thanks ever so much!

I would also like to thank everyone I traveled with on the way to Nome this year: Nina, on the way to McGrath, and Kevin and Phil on the way to Nome.  Thanks for putting up with me, and for your company on the trail!


Finally, I really need to thank Sue and Glenn in Nome.  You guys have hosted me for the last three years in Nome, and I really look forward to the welcome.  Thanks ever so much for your hospitality!

I also would like to congratulate Jay Petervary on setting a new record and having a great race – congratulations!  Jay was so fast I think he was back home in Idaho playing with his dogs after several days of sleep when we finished.  

I will put up a follow up post with some details on the route, gear, what worked and what didn’t, etc.

Iditarod Trail, 2018 part 1

Wednesday, August 22nd, 2018
Photo compliments of Gary Baumgartner

The evening was getting on – it was getting dark, a bit of snow was falling, and the wind was picking up, blowing snow around.     Nina G and I were pushing up a little hill just before Low Lake around 20 miles from Rohn and 50 miles from Nicolia. It was the middle of nowhere, probably the remotest section of the Iditarod Trail before McGrath.  As I pushed up the hill, I noticed some new looking boot tracks, that looked a lot like bunny boots. “Thats odd.” , I thought to myself, who could that be? As I reached the top of the hill, someone popped out of the woods and said “Hi Jay, would you like some coffee?!” .    It took me a few moments to realize it was Gary Baumgartner, a Fairbanks area biker. I think Nina thought we were crazy – in the middle of nowhere someone pops out of the woods and knows who I am, and offers us coffee. Alas, we were in too big of a hurry, and passed on the coffee.   I still regret not stopping longer to chat and enjoy that coffee..

First, some background..  The Iditarod Trail Invitational (ITI) is a race on the Iditarod trail from Knik (a small town, if one can even call it that outside Wasilla), to McGrath and Nome.  The “Short” race ends at McGrath, and the “Long” race ends in Nome.   The race starts a week before the Iditarod dog race starts, and while it is on the same basic course as the dog race, it isn’t affiliated with the dog race in any way.  

I went into this year’s ITI with very mixed thoughts.   The race had a few major shakeups. Bill Merchant is no longer involved with race, and there seemed to be more than the normal level of friction with some of the stops along the way, including not staying at the Petruska’s in Nikolai.  To top it off, I was having a hard time getting excited about the first 300 miles to McGrath. There are lots of people, and the “fun” parts from Puntilla Lake to the Farewell Burn are book-ended by trail that is a bit ho-hum.

I drove down to Anchorage with a Fairbanks local, Lindsey, whom I met at last year’s Wilderness Classic.  I was a bit stressed out by the race, and I think talked her to death on the way down, but it was neat to hear her talk about the race, and see the race again from the perspective of someone new.  

Race day came, and my brother dropped me off at the race start (thanks John!), where I bounced around talking to people.  It was great seeing Bill Fleming — one of the original minds behind 9zero7 bikes — who towed me into the finish during my first ride to Nome!  I chatted with a few other people, including Andy P who had switched from his bike to mushing. Andy and I joked that we would run into each other on the trail.  Andy said Old Woman Cabin, and I said Grayling. It turned out neither of us were right..

Soon the race started, and everyone channeled their energy into pedalling (or walking if you are crazy, or skiing in the case of Lindsey). As usual, the fast group hit the road, and I didn’t see them again, zooming away at high speed, while I chugged along at a slower pace.  Eventually I hit the gas line, then Flat Horn Lake, and it felt like things were starting. The trail conditions were not awesome, but not that bad either. Eventually Yentna Station arrived, where I got the standard grilled cheese and soup, then headed out again for Skwentna.   The trail was now fast, and I zoomed along, going perhaps a bit harder than I needed to. I arrived at Skwentna a bit after Kevin B, Kyle D, and Phil H, and well after Jay P, the other Nome-bound racers ahead of me. This was the start of the pattern to McGrath: I would arrive someplace a little after Kevin and Phil, and they would leave a bit before me.  The McGrath-bound racers in the fast pack were all long gone. (Calling the race to McGrath “the “shorter race” has gotten me in trouble before.)

Skwentna is one of the few places I have found that I can get a good night sleep, besides Puntilla Lake, sometimes Rohn, and the Petruska’s in Nikoli, so I always try to get a nap there.  I have found I need at least 4 hours of sleep a day to keep things together and to stay motivated. I can do less, but for the 20 or so days it could take me to get to Nome, I have found that it is hard to stay motivated and functional if I get less. Cindy, the owner of Skwentna, is always friendly, and the last few years seems to get me confused with Tim Stern, from 2012, which amuses me to no end.   I got dinner, and headed up to find a bunk, only to find the room I was supposed to be in had a bleary looking Jay P in it, just waking up from a nap. Jay headed out, and I tucked myself in, and tried to get 4 or so hours of sleep.

In the morning I got a bit more to eat, and headed out, hoping to possibly grab lunch or breakfast at Shell Lake as I passed by.  The Shell hills are always slow for me, as I just suck at biking uphill, but I eventually arrived at Shell Lake. Nearing the lodge, I was surprised to see a bunch of signs announcing that the lodge wasn’t an ITI checkpoint, and that ITI racers were not welcome.  Yikes! The trail goes right by the lodge, so with a bit of trepidation I approached, and as I neared the lodge someone saw me, and invited me for breakfast. I sat down, enjoyed some pancakes, bacon, and a few cokes, and talked a bit with the folks helping out Zoe, the owner.  It was a pretty interesting conversation, a short summary being that fat bikers were once a novelty, but now are commonplace, and folks are getting sick of the ITI racers. Apparently the racers have become a pain, and the business they bring isn’t offsetting the nuisance they are becoming: waking the owners up at odd hours, leaving messes, breaking into their buildings, sleeping in random places, etc.  This made me pretty sad. I was left with the impression that a chunk of the ITI racers are not doing a good job of balancing their competitive drive with the need to be decent human beings on the trail. This doesn’t bode well for the long term, and I hope this changes.

The ITI isn’t a traditional race, with checkpoints staffed by the event and a closed course.  Only Rohn is staffed by the ITI; the rest are private businesses, or people’s homes. The trail is shared by lots of other users, all of whom have just as much right ot be there as we do.


Eventually I headed out, and enjoyed a nice ride to Finger Lake, and then on to Puntilla.  It was a bit windy, and some of the lakes before Puntilla were windy enough I had to walk sections, adding a bit to the experience.   Eventually Puntilla arrived, and I hit the sack, enjoying a few hours of sleep before heading over the pass with Nina G. It was a bit slow up to the pass, with a bit of riding, and lots of walking, but we hit the top at around noon, and were soon zooming down to Rohn.   

ITI 2018

It looked like someone had taken the Iron Dog route, rather than turning and heading up into Rainy Pass. Later I was to learn that Jussi Karjalainen had taken the Iron Dog route when in 4th place, and had slowly made his way across the pass until a plane dropped a note saying he was off course.  That must have been crushing.

ITI 2018


It was midday, but I lay down for a bit of a nap after eating a brat and chatting a bit with Adrian.  Kevin, Phil, and Aaron Gardner were also there, and headed out a bit before my nap finished.

After my nap, Nina and I headed out.  I had hopes of making it to Nikolai by early morning, but alas that turned out to be a bit optimistic.  The trail leaving Rohn was in great shape, and we made good time, but as we passed through the “new burn” the snow got deeper, and the riding got slower.  Near Farewell Lakes there are a bunch of rollers, where the trail goes up and down as it passes over a bunch of little lakes. On one of these hills I noticed what looked like bunny boot prints, and soon after that someone came out of the woods and said hi.  It took a few minutes for me to recognize Gary Baumgartner, a Fairbanks area biker. He offered us coffee and said hi. I passed on the coffee, and soon moved on. I was kicking myself later for not staying and hanging out with Gary a bit longer — sorry Gary!  He looked like he was in a comfortable spot, tucked away with an Arctic Oven and his Supercub on a little lake.

The trail soon degraded.  It was rideable in the treed areas, but in the open areas it was blown in, requiring a lot of pushing.   Eventually, in the early a.m., Nina and I made it to Bear Creek cabin, where we soon had a fire going, and hit the sack.   In the morning we headed out, just as Kevin arrived to warm up and dry out. The trail was much nicer from the turnoff to the cabin to Nikolai, and we made fairly good time.   The Nikolai checkpoint had moved from the Petruska’s house to the village community center, which was a bit sad for me, since the Petruskas had always been a very welcoming place to me. And it was sad to know that Nick wouldn’t be there with a warm welcome. Alas…   


The community center was easy to find, and Stephanie Petruska was there along with two ITI volunteers whose names I don’t remember.  After a burger I crashed under a table to sleep for a few more hours. There was a bit of a group there: Kevin B., Arron G., Nina, and briefly Phil H., who left soon after arriving.   In the early a.m., Nina, Arron, and I set out. It was a bit cold, slightly below zero, but the trail was fast and we made good time to the Big River junction, where the only trail in was the “overland” route.    Billy Koitzsch’s race, the Iditasport, had an Arctic Oven set up near the junction, and there was a bike and several sleds pulled out outside it. I was tempted to say hi, but I expect Billy would not have been happy to get woken up.

Last year  the miners in Ophir told me to take the “overland” route at Big River, as that is what all the locals use.  Other folks had told me it was hit or miss — sometimes it was in only half way, leading folks to spend a lot of time wandering around in deep snow trying to find a trail.  I was excited to get to try out the new route! Fortunately, the trail was in, and in great shape. At this point Kevin had caught up with us, and was zooming. Unfortunately, he zoomed ahead and took several wrong turns.  I think Billy had put in some big loops to turn around his snowmachine and Kevin explored several of them, only to come out near where he started. Soon the trail was back in woods and lakes, the side trails disappeared, and Nina and I slowly made our way into McGrath.   We arrived in McGrath in mid-morning, to a full house at the Tracy and Peter Schneiderheinze house.   It was great to sit down, eat, talk, and take a brief break from the trail.   Leaving McGrath is always hard, but there wasn’t a big hurry this year. The southern route doesn’t get much traffic (or so says common wisdom), so I wasn’t expecting a trail until the Iditarod trail-breakers came though.

I had been dreading the ride to McGrath.  I have done it five other times now, and it is sort of old hat.  The trail feels mostly the same from year to year, and I am always in a rush to stay ahead of the crowd.   This year was a bit different though, and I got to see some new faces. I was pretty impressed by Aaron Gardner in particular; he had a very good race as a “rookie”, and I loved following his “line” — that is, the tracks of his tires from Bear Creek Cabin to Nikolai.  He seemed to be always riding a fast line, and it wasn’t always the obvious one. He also bivied solo on the edge of one of the Farewell Lakes in windy, snowy conditions, which is not something a lot of rookies do.  It was also great riding with Nina Gaessler, and meeting some of the other new faces like Neil Beltchenko.

I am sorry for the high word to picture content.  I didn’t take a lot of photos, and this write-up grew longer than I expected it would be.

Next the southern 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 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

Cockpit

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

The Yentna River

Heading to Finger Lake

The start of the Shell Hills

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

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

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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.

Bison tunnels

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

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

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

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

Dan

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.

ITI 2017 Gearlist

Thursday, March 23rd, 2017

This post is strangely popular  – not sure why that is, but folks should take this list with a good deal of caution, and figure out what works for them – just because I take it doesn’t mean you will need it, and just because I didn’t take it doesn’t mean you will not need it!

 

I am planning on doing a full writeup on my ride to Nome in the Iditarod Trail Invitational (ITI), but meanwhile, someone asked what I took with me. This is an experiment – I don’t normally make lists like this, hopefully others will find it useful.

Here is my packing list and a few other details. I think it is complete, but I might have missed some odds and ends.

This perhaps obvious – but the Iditarod Trail Invitational has two forms – the “short” race to McGrath, and the race to Nome. Riding to Nome is more of an adventure rather than a race, riding to McGrath is more of a race and less of an adventure, so folks going to McGrath need much less stuff.


Please keep in mind this list works for me, but might not work for you. Also, I am very much not an expert, so take everything I say with a grain (or large helping) of salt. Just because I am doing it doesn’t make it a good idea! I should also point out I am not “a fast” rider – the fast guys pack differently.

Bike Stuff

  • the bike – 2016 vintage Fatback Corvus – I love this bike!
    • 100mm Nextie rims with Hadley hubs
    • “alt” style handlebar with ergon grips with extra padding
    • Bud tires, front and back
    • Old Man Mountain rear rack
    • Becker Gear frame bag, mini panniers, and top tube bag
    • Revelate harness
    • standard SRAM 1×11 setup, with xt 11-46 cassette
    • big vault flat pedals
    • Dogwood Designs plus pogies
  • bike tools etc
    • multi tool
    • leatherman wave knife / pliers
    • patch kit
    • two tubes *
    • chain tool
    • patch kit *
    • derailleur hanger *
    • a small segment of chain, and several quick links
    • baling wire, extra bolts, duct tape, and a few other extra “fix it” parts
    • separate long hex wrench for pedals *

Drop bags bike selfie

Clothing

  • On Me
    • Marmot soft shell pants Note: Fully windproof!
    • Keen boots, two sizes too big
    •  bike shorts
    • short sleeve top
    • Mammut softshell, ultimate hoody, with ruff Note: Fully windproof
    • neoprene socks, as vapor barrier.
    • thick wool socks
    • full finger bike gloves
    • watch with vibration alarm
  • On bike
    • North Face thermoball hooded jacket
    • Marmot baffled down jacket *
    •  Patagonia hooded R 1/2 top
    •  long sleeve top, thin
    •  Patagonia medium weight long underwear bottoms *
    •  Patagonia light weight long underwear bottoms
    • homemade fleece overshorts (awesome – thanks Nancy!)
    • Marmot Driclime full zip pants *
    •  two pairs extra socks, one thin, one thick
    • light shirt for schools etc
    • light shorts for schools etc
    • “no fog” face mask *
    •  goggles *
    • nose hat
    • extra hat + thin balaclava
    • homemade fleece mittens (thanks Nancy!)
    • Hestra Primaloft Extreme Mitt Liner Warm, light, and fairly cheap!
    • sunglasses
    • Wiggy’s waders
    • oven bags as extra vapor barriers and an emergency option to keep my socks dry in case my boots get wet
    • gaitors

Selfie

Human Maintenance Stuff

  • big med kit
    •  aleve & other meds
    • foot care stuff, tape, mole skin etc
    • bandages, antibiotic ointment etc
    •  duct tape
    •  tape adherent
    •  oral antibiotics
    • butt care stuff – diaper cream, etc
  •  foot lube (need a replacement for hydropell, I am almost out!)
  • chammois cream
  •  sunscreen
  • lip balm
  •  salt pills

Food

  • Cooking Stuff
    • XGK stove + extra pump
    • 2 quart pot (which I dropping in the South fork of the Kuskokwim, because I was being dumb – don’t do that!)
      • replaced with a 1 quart pot I borrowed from Tom Moran and a small ti pot from Dan L.
    • two fuel bottles (5-ish days of fuel, not always full)
    • ti spork
  •  Food
    • 3+ days of food on me at all times, a combination of freeze dried food and snacks
      • Note: Jeff Oatley told me I should have three days of food on me at all times before I went to Nome in 2016, and I think that was a great recommendation.
    •  coffee and/or chia mixes for the thermos, when not used for hot water
  • 40oz thermos
    • Note: I got this at the “AC” store in McGrath – it was a great purchase. It kept water really hot for at least 12 hours, so I could boil water mid day, have a freeze dried meal before bed, then have freeze dried when I got up. It is the Thermos brand, which seems to work (a lot!) better than the upscale brands. One downside was it kept coffee too hot to drink if the water was boiling when filled. YMMV
  • Sleep Stuff
    • Marmot -40f bag
    • ridge rest, full length pad
    • ultra lightweight bivy *

Electronics

  • phone with GCI sim for villages, loaded with topo software as a gps backup
  • Garmin etrex 30, with topo
  •  Sony NEX 6
  • three batteries for camera
  •  2 small usb charger + cables
  •  aaa powered mp3 music player
  • audio book player

Random Other Stuff

  • Hydration
    • Mountain Hardwear Fluid 6 backpack
    •  mylar bubble wrap insulation inside it, on the outside side
    • red MSR water bladder + hose, without a bite value
      • Note: Bite valves seem to be a source of a lot of leaks – I just have a on/off valve, and turn it on to use it, then off when I am done. Works fine for me. This system worked fine at the mid -30f weather I had on the way to Nome, and I have used it for training rides in colder weather. The bladder is right up against my back, and under all but my tee shirt. Even at really cold temps the water eventually becomes more or less body temperature.
  •  TP & hand sanitizer
  • Dogwood Designs overboots
    •  Note: These things are magic and very warm!
  •  printed FAA charts for the route
  •  printed maps for a few problem areas
  • printed contact list for route after McGrath
  •  mileage sheet
  • windproof matches, lighter, and fire starter (esbit tablets)
  •  sewing stuff, tyvek tape

That is a lot of stuff!
And no, I did not weigh my bike when it was loaded up – really, you either need something or you don’t. If you don’t need it, don’t take it, if you need it, who cares how much it weighs, you need it, take it.

For logistics, I mailed boxes (the USPS regional rate size B box is $7 for 0.4 cubic ft / 20lbs for Fairbanks or Anchorage to the villages along the route, which is a bargain) to schools along the route, after emailing the principals to make sure it was ok. Every box I actually tried to get was there, though YMMV. I tried to ship enough stuff that even if I missed half the boxes I still wouldn’t starve.

The fleece over shorts were awesome – they are stretchy enough to go over my boots, so I would just pull them over my pants, and I would instantly be a lot warmer. I was fine with thin long underwear, pants, and the fleece shorts over the top at the mid -30F, which was great. I got the idea from Kyle who I rode with last year, who had a set of “puffy shorts”, Dynafit branded over shorts. The basic idea is highly recommended!

I used a Nosehat and a ruff, and that is an awesome combination. I didn’t need any additional face covering. The nosehat dries off really fast (like in my pocket) – highly recommended.

In regards the the big puffy jacket – I brought a big baffled puffy jacket that I didn’t end up using until a got to Nome. In general, if I am not moving, I am getting ready to sleep or sleeping, so as soon as I stop for the night, I stomp a bivy spot, unpack my sleeping bag, and climb in, then from the bag do any extra chores I need to do (cook dinner, etc). Going this route, I was able to get by without breaking out the big jacket, even in the sub -30f weather. YMMV of course. I would still have the big jacket, just in case it got really cold, or if something went wrong, like I had to do extensive bike maintenance or got sick.

I slept with all my clothing on, besides my vapor barrier socks. My boots sayed out of the bag, as they were always dry (the vb socks keep them that way).

I had issues with my bag getting a lot of moisture in it – after three days it had a lot of moisture in it, and required drying out in a warm, dry place. I think if I was to do this race again, I would try a vapor barrier liner or jacket in an attempt to minimise this.

With regard to bike maintenance, I had three bike issues. I broke a plate in the chain, which I fixed by taking two links out, and patching it together with a quick link. I had a rack bolt break at sub -30F, for which I rigged a temporary fix with bailing wire, then a real fix later in the heat of the day using the Leatherman to remove the bolt remains, and rebolting with bolt from my spares kit. I had a periodic issue with my freehub making funny noises, but that didn’t seem to cause any engagement issues, so I ignored it, and it worked out.

Questions? Leave a comment.

Things on the list marked with an asterisks (*) I didn’t end up using. That isn’t to say I wouldn’t bring them – I didn’t have flats for example, so didn’t need the tubes.

If I was to start cutting gear, I think I would drop the Marmot Driclime over-pants, and go with a less warm sleeping bag, but that of course involves trade offs – on the last night before Ruby, I was cold in the middle of the night and had to put on more layers so I could sleep. Perhaps I should sleep less though 🙂

I am not an expert by any means, so take all my suggestions with a large helping of salt. This list (sort of 🙂 ) works for me, it might not work for you. Everyone has to figure this out for themselves, at least to some extent.