Posts Tagged ‘snow biking’

Chena Hot Springs to Eagle on the Yukon Quest trail

Wednesday, July 17th, 2019

Preface – I have a bit of a trip write-up backlog now, and am finally getting this trip written up, over a year later. Sigh..

The Iditarod (and the “race” on the same trail, the Iditarod Trail Invitational) gets lots of press and interest, but there is another long sled dog race in Alaska, the Yukon Quest, that receives a bit less attention, but has a reputation for being remote, cold, and hard. 

In 2017 Jeff Oatley and Heather Best biked it near the tail end of the mushers, and I watched them with envy – it looked like a great snow bike tour!

Other folks have biked it, though not (to my knowledge anyway ) recently. I think Pat Irwin and MikeC from this forum did in the early 2000s on semi-fat bikes, as did Andy Sterns, so this isn’t new. 

In 2018 things aligned such that I was able to do a portion of the route with a friend David, from Chena Hot Springs to Eagle, which is about 250 miles if we skipped the section of the trail on Birch Creek (slow, winding, and really cold).

The ride was awesome fun, though cold, windy, and remote. 
We started off with Rosebud and Eagle summits… 

Meredith Mapes on Rosebud
David, climbing the last bit of Rosebud summit
Looking down from Rosebud..
Heading down..
Winter single track, heading to Birch Creek
Heading up Eagle Summit just after dark

Then spent the night in Central, enjoying the last burgers and showers we were to see for 5 days. The next day we took the road over to Circle..

The road between Central and Circle

It was much hiller than I expected, and the downhills were petty cold at the -20f to -30f weather. When we arrived at Circle a photographer told us it had been -58f on Birch Creek, which caused a bit of a freakout, as our next leg had us riding up the Yukon River, a pretty cold place. After a bit of inreach texting back and forth with some weather folks, we headed out, pretty sure those -58f were either confused or found a black hole sun cooled spot. 

This area in Alaska gets strong inversions, so low spots can be particularly cold. Alas, the Yukon river is pretty low..

The first night on the river we spent in “Brian’s Cabin”, a neat but run down shack, and in the morning we were welcomed by sub -40f weather. For the rest of the trip we tried to hit the trail at 6am, well before sunrise at 9:30, because I have always felt it is way easier to head out in the dark and cold looking forward to a warm(er) sunrise, than it is to set out in the sun, looking forward to a cold(er) sunset. Until the last day near Eagle, we saw mornings in the sub -40f, and mid day highs of -20f to -30f, sometime accompanied by stiff headwinds – it was cold!

Just as the sun rose we ran into the red lantern, camped out on the river. She had broken her headlamp, and camped when daylight ran out in a cold little hollow in the river. Quest mushers are amazingly tough..

Jennifer Campeau, getting ready to leave as daylight finally arrives.

The next three days we rode up the river, to Eagle, spending the night at Slaven’s a historic roadhouse staffed by a horde of National Park Service folks, and with a family in a giant octagon log cabin. I had been told the river was scenic, but I had dismissed this as unlikely, as I have spent a bit of time on the lower Yukon, which is wide, flat, and boring. I was wrong – it was fantastically beautiful! Alas, it was too cold to get very many photos (or any good ones at all ).. 

This section of the trail is very remote. On the 160 miles of river we traveled, we saw the Yukon Quest trail breakers once, the red lantern once, and no one else on the trail until just outside Eagle. There are a few families that live on the last 40 miles, and they were very welcoming. 

Wood island brownie stop..

At our last stop on the trail, at Trout Creek, we stopped and talked to Mike, who said over the years he has had three groups on bikes stop by stop by in the last 20 years. 

The final 30 miles into Eagle were a slog into a really stiff headwind, on bare glare ice in -10f weather. We arrived to a nearly deserted town, and it took an hour or so to find the place we stayed at. For most of the trip I was regretting my tire choice of a D5 on the back, and a Wrathchild on the front, as we had nice firm trail conditions and the Wrathchild rolls really, really slow on cold hard snow, but the last few hours I was amazingly thankful for the studs and grip. 

A really fun, but hard adventure! I have biked the Iditarod trail to Nome three times, and to McGrath three times, and this was a fair bit harder. Perhaps I was just lucky and had good trail conditions (I have been told this countless times), but the combination of shorter days and low sun angles means it is pretty cold and never really warms up, and the it is very remote.

Thanks for the company David!

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.

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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

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.

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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.

Moose Creek, from town

Monday, January 23rd, 2017

I have been (attempting to anyway) training for the Iditarod Trail Invitational, and had been feeling very under trained. This is sort of a long standing joke in my house hold – when ever I bring it up my daughters mock me unmercifully.

In an attempt to get a ride in with a fully loaded bike, I booked Moose Creek cabin in the White Mountains NRA for a friday night, and headed out mid morning from my house. The cabin is about 35 ish miles from my house via trails.

Tom joined me for the first bit, eventually peeling off to head back for other obligations.

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The ride in was a bit of a slog, and I had issues keeping my legs and feet warm in the lower areas, where the temps were around –20f. Eventually I gave up, put the overboots on, and my feet were fine. I tried to manage my sweating like all the cool kids are doing, and it was mostly successful, tough it is hard for a big person like me not to overheat on the hills.

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Last year I purchased some Wolfgars boots from 45n. They are a bit of a mixed bag – I like them while riding, but I have just about given up on them for the ITI, as they are pretty stiff in the upper, and walk not so well. After my 2012 scratch from the ITI, I have promised myself that I must always have footwear that I can push my bike in for long distances. As a replacement I used 2 sizes too large Keen winter boots, which seem to be a good compromise. At around -10f they get too cold to wear without overboots, but with overboots they appear to be fine. They walk much, much better than the Wolfgars.

About 10 miles from the cabin a musher passed me going up a big hill. Parts of my route are on regular training routes for some of the local mushers, and they generally keep the trails in great shape. On the way back down he stopped to chat a bit, and he told me the trail wasn’t in all the way. Oh, well, some pushing was going to be required. I hoped he just didn’t know the trails all that well, but alas, it turned out the musher was right.

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I had two to three miles of pushing before reaching the cabin. I was a bit worked when I arrived, and was very happy to start a fire, have dinner, and hit the sack. In the morning I headed out, and back home.

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The ride back was almost entirely in the daylight, which was fantastic.

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I even stopped to get a few photos of the notes written on the pipeline..

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The ride out was a bit faster, though it snowed a bit overnight, but this was made up much less climbing. It was around -20f for most of the ride out, and I dressed better, and had no issues.

Snow..

Tuesday, December 6th, 2016

We finally got snow, and soon after it stopped I was invited out to Eleazar’s again. The snow really transformed the world, and made it seem like winter is now here.

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It was a fun trip, and it is great to be riding on snow again. It is looking like the winter is going to be fantastic! Thanks for the trip David!