Posts Tagged ‘Southern Route’

Iditarod Trail, 2018 part 2

Saturday, September 8th, 2018

Owooooo!

ITI 2018

It was 12 a.m., and Kevin and I had just left the Big Yentna Crossing cabin.  I was rolling along after Kevin down a narrow trail with dense black spruce on both sides while admiring some really large and fresh wolf tracks in the trail, when I was suddenly surrounded by an amazingly loud noise.  At first I thought it was a snowmachine, come upon me all of sudden, until my brain finally processed it as wolves howling on each side of the trail, very close and very loud. Kevin later described it as biking into a big mushing dog yard — howling all around us, loud and close.  


“Kevin don’t leave me!!” I yelled, high-pitched and panicked, having visions of the wolves, judging me to be the slow fat one, picking me off as Kevin zoomed off.  Fortunately Kevin slowed down, turned around, and waited for me. After lots of yelling, the howling moved further away. I think the wolves were as surprised as we were, and freaked out when we biked by their cozy, snug sleeping spots along the trail.    It was possible Kevin was more worried about my shrieking than about the wolves.. On the upside, I didn’t need coffee for the rest of the night.

This is the second part of a three part post – the first one can be found here

The Iditarod Trail Invitational (ITI), at least for the Nome-bound folks anyway, has two parts: the “short” race to McGrath, followed by the “long” race to Nome.  McGrath is always a bit of a madhouse. Tracy and Peter open up their home, serving endless quantities of yummy food. People are constantly finishing, and at times every surface is covered people either sleeping or eating.  For the folks heading to Nome, it can be really hard to get organized enough to leave, and then actually leave. Heading out and leaving all that company, food, and comfort behind is pretty hard. The last two years I have been in a big hurry to escape from McGrath and hit the trail, both to escape the vortex of comfort Tracy’s and Peter’s house is, and to get on the trail before wind and snow erase it.

This year things were a bit different.  “Traditionally” — that is what the old timers say — the Southern Route doesn’t get any traffic before the Iditarod trail-breakers pass though.  Alas, when I finished in McGrath the dog race hadn’t even started yet, so the trail-breakers were days away from coming through. So, I was working on the assumption there wasn’t any trail between Ophir and Shageluk.  

When I arrived in McGrath, Jay P, Phil H, and Kevin B were all there, thinking about heading out on the trail to Nome.   Local trail info was a bit mixed. Apparently some “Antler Traders” had passed through a week before, and a month or so prior, the trail-breakers had done a bunch of work on the trail, so there was a chance of a trail after Ophir.  Billy Koitzsch of the Iditasport (a similar race held a week earlier) was planning on breaking trail for his group, but it didn’t sound like his group was heading out immediately.

After getting some sleep, Kevin and I wandered around McGrath, chatting with locals and trying to figure out the trail situation.   We ended up chatting a bunch with Billy, and it was great to get some background on his event, and to learn more about his vision for his event.  

While looking for Billy we bumped into Jan Kriska, the walker whose sled I had followed for so many miles from the Innoko river to Ruby.  Jan is a great guy, and it was wonderful to meet him finally. Jan had a really hard race last year, and had to end his race in Ruby, short of Nome, but was back at it again this year, hoping to make it to Nome.  

We got a lot of mixed info, and when we headed back to Tracy’s and Peter’s it was clear we were not going to get any real details on what the trail was like.   Fortunately, Jay P was all fired up to head out, and was trying to roust the rest of the Nome-bound folks to head out. I felt a bit bad, but I tried to make it very clear I wasn’t in a huge hurry to push my bike all the way to Shageluk, then up the Yukon.  Phil seemed game though, and in the morning he and Jay P headed out.

Later I headed out to check on their trail, and was amused that they both took a wrong turn right out of the town.  By afternoon it was pretty clear they had a trail all the way to Ophir, and by evening it looked like they were making good time after that, so Kevin and I decided to head out early in the am.  I got all packed up, and ready to go, and in not so early am we headed out.

The race in McGrath was in a bit of a panic when we left; a foot racer’s gear had been seen minus the racer, and everyone was trying madly to figure out how to rescue him.  It was hard leaving on such a down note, and I didn’t find out what happened to the racer until Graying.

It felt awesome to leave town.  Kevin and I headed out together, and slowly made our way to the small town of Takotna.   Just outside town, Kevin stopped to answer the call of nature, and I continued on to give him a bit of privacy, but soon bumped into a Takotna local heading to McGrath to replace a shock on his snowmachine.  I chatted with him for a bit, talking about life, then mentioned that Kevin was using the bushes a little ways down the trail. He found that pretty funny, and shouted “Hurry up”, to which a faint “I am trying!” came back up the trail from Kevin.

ITI 2018

The trail past Takotna was pretty good, and got a bit better just outside Ophir.  

ITI 2018
ITI 2018

We stopped and chatted a bit with some folks at the Iditarod checkpoint, then continued on.  At the Ophir runway a Super Cub landed, taxied over to us, then powered down, and the pilot got out to chat.  It turns out it was “Manny”, a pilot from McGrath flying our drop bags out to Iditarod, who saw us and stopped to say hi and see how we were doing.  

ITI 2018

Alas, it looked like Phil and Jay might be outriding their drop bags. We rode into the night to arrive at the first shelter cabin on the Southern Route.  It was fantastic to be on new trail, and it was finally starting to feel like I was on a real adventure, heading out into the unknown — hurrah!

ITI 2018

Kevin and I spent the night at the Tolstoi Headwaters Safety Cabin, an awesome little White Mountains-esque cabin.  In the early morning we headed out, hoping to make it to Iditarod, where we hoped we could spend the night.

ITI 2018

This section of the Southern Route was awesome: huge views, beautiful valleys, and trail that was mostly in pretty good shape.   I had been told the Iditarod folks refer to this section as “the desert” — devoid of life and empty. I found it scenic and beautiful, though. Near one of the open sections I found a piece of lath from the last Iditarod race, in 2013.

DSC09569

It is amazing a little piece of lath could survive 5 years!

ITI 2018 ITI 2018 ITI 2018

At Dishna Creek we saw our first signs of human use since Ophir, besides a few martin sets along the trail.  There was a new-looking steel cable stretched across the creek, about 10ft up in the air, and the trail diverged a bit, with tracks going up river and down river.  The main trail was easy to follow, though.

ITI 2018


Coming down the one of hills into First Chance Creek, the trail went from awesome to complete churned mashed potatoes.  It looked like a big herd of caribou or bison (Kevin’s theory) had run down it, tearing the trail to shreds. After a mile or so the how and why became clear: some wolves had chased them down the trail, hoping to pick off one of them for dinner.  The animal tracks were over Phil and Jay’s tracks and still pretty soft, meaning it had happened fairly recently. A good reminder we were not alone out there and this “desert” wasn’t as empty as we had been told.

We arrived at the Moose Creek shelter cabin, 17 miles or so before Iditarod, after a couple of hours of post-holing around a huge open field.  

The folks making the trail appeared to have gotten lost, and veered away from the Iditarod trail markers into a wide open area with deep snow, making loops until winding back up to the actual trail and to the cabin.  The cabin was in great shape, and Kevin and I enjoyed an early dinner before heading down the trail again. Alas, it soon started snowing, the wind picked up, and the trail got very punchy, so the last few miles took forever.  

ITI 2018 ITI 2018


We arrived at Iditarod at near midnight, and quickly found our drop bags near the trail, then tried to see if we could find a place to crash in the cabins at Iditarod.  Alas, we ended up waking up some of the Iditarod checkpoint staff, but they seemed friendly, and quickly got us settled in the “mushers” cabin, and in the morning they made us breakfast.  It turned out the older fellow in charge had met Kevin at a party in Unalakleet the year before, after he had scratched, and had convinced Kevin to do it again rather than just riding the section he had missed.  We ended up talking a lot longer than we probably should have, and much to my amusement they started trying to recruit us to volunteer to staff the checkpoint next year. Initially I thought they were joking, but then one of them came and found us just before we headed out and got our contact info, so I think they were quite serious.  I felt pretty guilty; we had woken some of them up in the middle of the night, and then we had eaten their food, and yet somehow they still decided we would make good checkpoint helpers.

Leaving Iditarod, I was pumped up on a full belly and positive vibes from the cheerful Iditarod folks.  

ITI 2018

The next section of trail was awesome fun. The trail wound through a surprisingly thick spruce forest, over big open ridgetops, and across a few small creeks.

ITI 2018

ITI 2018

ITI 2018

A few of the high ridges were blown completely in, and finding the trail was a bit tricky, but doable.

ITI 2018

ITI 2018

ITI 2018

ITI 2018

Kevin and I arrived at the Big Yentna shelter cabin at around 7pm, and I suggested we crash there and head out at midnight, so we could arrive into the next town, Shageluk, at a reasonable hour.  Kevin agreed, and we crashed in the cabin, enjoying a few hours of sleep before heading out into the dark. The Big Yentna cabin was my favorite cabin on the southern route. It seemed a bit bigger, and has a huge barrel stove that heated the cabin up quickly.  It also had a radio, which I turned on, excited to hear about the outside world. The Russian language newscast that came out was a big surprise though, and I quickly turned it off, heading to bed with visions of a Russian sleeper cell hanging out in the cabin, waiting to pull off some epic caper.  

In the morning we headed out, Kevin riding a bit in front of me.  It had snowed a quarter inch or so, just a dusting of snow, and there was a set of big wolf tracks heading down the trail as it wound through a dense spruce forest.

“Hmm, those look fresh,” I thought to myself as we rode down the trail.  Shortly after that, there was a tremendous noise all around us, and it took a while for my brain to register it was wolves howling.   I think we had just biked into a pack of wolves bedded down on each side of the trail, and they were not happy to be woken up. I freaked out, and screamed like a little girl, worried Kevin would bolt down the trail, leaving me to be devoured by grumpy hungry wolves.  

Fortunately Kevin is a nice guy and waited for me, and we started yelling, and the howling quickly drifted further off.   Eventually we could tell they were a ridge away, safely away, and we continued down the trail, pumped up on the excitement of the wolf encounter.   

Nearing Shageluk we could see the lights of town, taunting us, but the trail dumped us out onto some bare ice on the Innoko river a few miles out of town, and finding the right trail into town took a while.  Soon, though, we made it to town, and were soon biking on firm packed trails, wandering through town trying to find Lee Wolvershine, who runs a small bed and breakfast and who we were hoping to stay with. Folks were friendly though, and quickly pointed us to her house, and we were back in civilization again — hurrah!  

Next up, Nome! 


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!