Sunday, April 6, 2008

Part 5 Koyuk to Nome

We buried our bike wheels in the snow using the frame bags for a wind block. Bill said I was out after 15 min. sleeping a full 7 hours like a Baby. Only the next morning did he tell me that sometimes during those offshore winds the sea ice breaks loose and goes out to sea. What ?
I was not disappointed he didn’t bother to tell me the night before.
There was a good chance that I would have not closed an eye otherwise.
Sleeping well in the gusting wind and getting drifted in in the blowing snow I must have been pretty tired.
But I have been told that the world could come to an end while I was sleeping in total peace.
Makes me wonder If that is a good thing or not.

I was mad at the relentless wind that had taken away the trail piece by piece. Now there was no trail where there was a trail just a few days ago. I was angry we were here now and not a few days ago.
The head game had started for me now. I didn’t care about the biting cold, I didn’t care about the wind cutting like a knife in my face every time my hood slips a little bit exposing some skin, I would fix it, I can deal with it.
But “my trail” destroyed by the furious wind, gone now, slowing a progress to a crawl.
It was like slogging through a frozen cold endless Sahara. How much further is it to Koyuk?
The 15 miles we had left to walk to Koyuk took a long time. It seemed like an eternity and like we had done 100 miles , it had taken us 29 hours from Shaktoolik to Koyuk.
I was mentally fried. This section of trail had done to my head what had happened to the lead bikers when they got to Ruby and hit the Yukon River. No riding in sight, more bike pushing!
But now I was so close to Nome, I needed to get there. What the heck it just added another day to the trip, I would get some more rest and some warm ,calm time out of the wind and would be ready to go again.
There had to some more ridable sections somewhere between here and Nome.

They have a really nice school in Koyuk , very modern. It was built in 2003.
It was the weekend. We found one of the teachers that opened the door for us and we settled in the library and were able to heat water in the kitchen and use the telephone and internet.
After eating a dehydrated meal ( 1000 calories) at 4:00pm we went to a local video place
called “ Corinne’s Video” in a small trailer. The teacher had told us she also had burgers and other fast food. Another local teen hangout.
We both had 2 cokes, 2 cheese burgers and a Grande Tacos& Salsa with melted cheese each.
Stuffed to the top we went back to the school house where we had left a pencil in the door so we wouldn’t be locked out. Two little boys were playing in front of the school and were trying to follow us into the school. We quickly shut the door leaving them outside, we didn’t want to be responsible for them being inside. I felt bad, they were watching us through the big window.
We had to wait to get our box from the post office the next day since it was Sunday.

Day 22 Koyuk to Kwik River shelter cabin before Elim 23 miles

After Koyuk and the experience with the big winds our timing was more about timing the blow holes and less about getting in the villages at the right time.
How lucky we were to have those shelter cabins when needed most.
Most of them are maintained and stocked with fire wood by the local fire department.
At 9:00 am we picked up our food and batteries when the post office opened. It was not looking too good weather wise in Koyuk and the winds were blowing at about 35-40 mph .A man at the post office told us:
” Be careful in the blow” after we told him we were heading towards Elim on our bikes.
What “ the blow” means is what we got to experience firsthand, us and also the only foot racer to Nome Tim Hewitt who was a day ahead of us. He had the same conditions we had on the coast.
After Koyuk the trail follows the shore on sea ice again and we had the wind in our back for a while, in a total ground blizzard, you could see the sun as a bright spot in the sky somewhere above.
Then the trail climbs over a wooded hilly section on land which was all wind drifted and a walk.
By the time we dropped out into the Kwik River we were getting into the full force of the first blow hole.
In Don’s trail notes it says:” The Kwik River valley is a natural wind tunnel and the wind can be blowing very hard here from the north ( your right).There is a shelter cabin on the far side of the river it gets too bad. If your visibility is seriously reduced or you are having trouble finding the trail at night in the wind, STOP at the shelter cabin.

All of the things described by Don and with the warning of a local we decided to wait it out and see if the wind would die down some. We spent 14 hours here at the shelter cabin.

Day 23 Kwik River shelter cabin to Walla Walla cabin 33 miles

When the cabin wasn’t shaking anymore around 5:00 am we left with every speck of skin covered. The temperature was -20 F and we estimated that there was gusts over 50 mph before we got out of the blow hole which I looked up on a wind chill chart that creates a wind chill of about -60 F.
The outside of my legs felt extremely cold in the blasting wind from the right side. I was brave enough to take a picture of the amazing sastrugi on the trail in the dark.

Looking back now, riding the coastal section is what captivated me the most, it is what biking in the arctic is all about. Absolutely magic and total hell, the moments of horror alternating with arctic beauty. I know I have to go back there for more!
I am hooked. If you stay within your limits you can safely exist in this environment and make the journey successful.
From hell we emerged into this beautiful frozen landscape.

The full moon was setting over the mountains towards Elim and the first glimmer of red from sunrise was in the air wrapping the surreal landscape of a flash frozen choppy sea and its sharp teeth in an incredible lovely light.

The riding/bike pushing was challenging over big loose snow dunes and rock hard bump sastrugi, an interesting experience but slow until we hit the road which was good riding to Elim.
Before Elim the trail follows an unplowed road over a big hill into Elim and it was still 0 F when the sun came out, in our faces we pulled of our hoods and balaclavas and enjoyed the magical view from the top of the hill out to the Bering Sea.

We went to the post office there and then had 4 hot pockets and 2 cokes each at the small store where they had a microwave to heat up food. A little girl with a beautiful fur hat with her little friend helped us pack the bikes and talked me out of one of my reese’s cups.

The riding out of Elim with the cliffs on the right and jumbled sea ice reflecting in the sunshine on the left was spectacular and probably my favorite section.

We opted to call the day early only 8 miles past Elim with Little McKinley our next hurdle and more exposed sea ice in Golovin Bay. The next shelter cabin at the bottom after Little McKinley the friendly postman had told us had the entrance completely drifted in and the snow was rock hard. We also didn’t want to be caught in the winds in Golovin Bay, even if we made it to the village of Golovin, most likely there was no one to be found in the middle of the night or early morning hours to let us in the school. This is something for racers to think about, that you might not find a store open, not get your package right away and not be able to get inside a building despite arriving in a village.
We were grateful to have the shelter cabins on the coast and Kaltag Portage.
The sunset over the Bering Sea in the cozy shelter cabin with the wood stove going felt like little paradise that belonged to us at the moment.
In Don’s trail notes it says:” Enjoy the trees-they’re the last ones you’ll see until you get to White Mountain.
” Little McKinley takes you up to 1000 feet elevation and is very exposed.”

Day 24 Walla Walla shelter cabin to White Mountain 38 miles

We left the shelter cabin before daylight.
When we started climbing up towards the top of the 1000 feet high Little McKinley we could see that the wind had been blowing up here recently, we had made the right decision, Tim’s tracks were completely gone and again we saw the signs of high winds. We crested the top just at sunrise, again beautiful lighting and all the windswept slopes illuminated in pink.

We had a great view of Golovin Bay ahead of us and a fast decent down the other side on hard pack to the Little McKinley shelter cabin. The postmaster in Elim had told us it was drifted in at the door which had been left open and the entrance was two thirds drifted in with piled up snow and tracks going over the top. Was it Tim’s?
It was here where we got out of the wind for the first time since 13 miles before Shaktoolik and I told Bill how pleasant a day it was pulling off my balaclava and hood. I looked down at my thermometer on my bike and it was -29 F. I knew then we had some really cold winds for the last 4 days if -29 F feels really comfortable.

Riding Golovin Bay was fun again, we stayed more on the crunchy sea ice since the actual trail had more packed snow on it and was slower.

About 3-4 miles out of the tiny Eskimo village of Golovin a young man on a four wheeler came out to check on us. He though it was a villager in trouble walking back. When we got into Golovin the young man showed up again and told us we were welcome at his mother in law’s house on top of the hill.
She fed us sourdough pancakes and cereal and gave Bill black Muktuk for trail snacks.
It is made from Bowhead whale which she got from relatives from one of the islands. We sat for a while and enjoyed the local hospitality and listened to how they live on the coast and hunt Beluga whales in Golovin bay.
It is amazing to me that the native people have survived in this harsh environment for thousands of years and are such hardy, friendly people.
I called ahead to the school in White Mountain and the local teacher Jack Adams that answered the phone invited us into his home.
As we headed across Golovin Bay our constant companion the crosswind was back again.
Upon arriving in White Mountain about 5:00 pm we found out the post office had closed at 3:00 pm.

When we walked in the teacher’s house the two sons were cooking up some fresh caribou meat and King Crab they just caught. The postmaster had seen us and called the teacher’s house telling us he was back at the Post Office and could give us our supply package.
Later that night we tasted dried bearded seal dipped in seal oil, they call that black meat. We also had dry fish dipped in seal oil.

Day 25 White Mountain- to Nome 77 miles

When we were packing our bikes before daylight there was light flurries . The temperature was -15 F and the teacher had to leave the house early to get ready for a big school biathlon meet. He was concerned that with all the teams flying in from the surrounding villages the event might have to be canceled due to the wind. Here they had spent $60.000 on flight charters and the kids were on their way, the little airport was going to be busy all morning. They were worried about frostbite for these athletes. And here we went.

The trail follows the Fish River before it crossed another open area of tundra and then climbs into the Topkok hills.
It was windblown but we cranked away anyway hoping to get across that open section and over Topkok before the winds got worse again. When it was blowing 30-35 mph we were happy , it wasn’t too bad.
We got lucky over Topkok and actually got to ride quite a bit. The Bering Sea was visible in places and we enjoyed the sunny but breezy day.
Lenticular clouds were looming above the Bering Sea, we had more coming on our last leg before Nome.

We saw a fox and had a ball down the hill that takes you to the beach where you follow the shore all the way to Nome.
There is an other shelter cabin in these hills where the door was blocked by snow and it was unusable.

Our plan was to make water from snow and eat a meal at the Topkok shelter cabin and then push on into Nome that night. It had only taken us 6 hours from White Mountain to the shelter cabin.
By the time we were done eating and making water we walked outside looking towards Nome and Cape Nome had disappeared and a white curtain had come up between us an Nome.
A guy on a snow machine marking the trail for the upcoming dog race from Nome to Candle and back ( only happens every 25 years )stopped and warned us
“Don’t Go.”
“ I thought I was getting blown out to sea with my machine and sled.”
So we got our sleeping bags spread on the bunk beds and put on our parkas since there was no wood left to make a fire in the wood stove.
While I was laying there disappointed that we were stuck again I was reading the notes that covered the entire walls and bunks with notes from many past years of stranded mushers and other trail travelers.
“ Day 3 still blowing like hell.
“Day 4 still blowing …running out of coffee.”
Another one read:
“ Blowing like hell.17 people holed up here.
Running out of dog food.”
“ Day 4 got a food delivery.”
I was tired of waiting, I felt good, the Iditarod Trail was not quite ready to open the gates to let me on through to reach my goal…Nome. It had been 7 days of wind, I wanted to be finished, not add another day.
Almost there , I wanted to get there soon.

After about 3 hours we walked outside and the visibility towards Cape Nome had improved. So we packed up and dashed out hoping we had about 2 hours to get through what is known as the Solomon blow hole.
Just as we got to Tommy Johnson’s cabin the curtain came back up and a couple on a snow machine stopped after passing us to cover up every piece of skin.
The sky looked threatening with clouds and a strange color that just didn’t look very good.
And then we took off into the Vortex.
Another super blaster.
We pushed out bikes on the windy side at a 45 degree angle at times locking it in against our hip.
Bill had warned me that if I lost my bike and the wind took it out to sea I would not be the first woman cycling to Nome without the bike.
Then we got out of the blow hole with winds back to our friendly 30-35 mph breeze on our right cheek.
We passed the Safety Roadhouse in the dark, it had shut down after Iditarod and was going to reopen for the All Alaska Sweepstakes Dog Race.
Rounding Cape Nome we could see the lights of town still 15 miles away.
The last 5 miles were the longest when the wind turned into a headwind.
We arrived just before 3:00 am. I had reached my goal after 25 days 12 hours and 58 minutes as first female cyclist to Nome in the centennial year of the Iditarod Trail.
I needed to get off the deserted streets in Nome, because for the first time in 25 days I was getting cold, I knew it was ok now. We got a room at the Nome Nugget and I stood under the hot shower for a long time.
We ate the last of our dehydrated meals since there was no food to be found that hour in Nome. And it was delicious.
Phil Hofstetter, a racer from Nome had us over for a get together with guitar players at his house with a warm welcome that night.
Thanks so much Phil!

Our neighbors Pat & Frankie had made this sign for us and put it on our cabin in Chickaloon,
it meant so much to us.
I feel very lucky that I have made it to Nome. Winter Biking has been a lifestyle with me for the last 6 years, ever since I have met Bill. We have done a lot of winter biking expeditions together in Alaska and in the Canadian Arctic. Most of our base training trips are 20 to 30 day long mountain bike trips in the Southwest USA. In 2005 we did the 2500 mile long Great Divide MTB Route along the Continental Divide from Canada to Mexico in 32 days. Last fall I designed a 1000 mile route from Salt Lake City, Utah to Tucson, Arizona through the mountains that involved a lot of bike pushing with loaded bikes since some of the trail was steep horse trails in the mountains. Little did I know then how well it really prepared us for the Nome push this year.
I estimate that we pushed our bikes one third, we rode one third and one third was marginal riding in granny gear. As far as temperatures we had 35 above and down to -60 F wind chills on the coast. I am glad I had all the gear on my bike. When Northern Air Cargo weighed our bikes in Nome mine was 64 pounds without my two 1L water bottles.

On the flight back to Anchorage I was looking out the window at this great big wilderness below I had covered on a bike.
I feel very fortunate for the opportunity to organize and compete in such a unique event and bring the world's best ultra winter athletes to Alaska each year.
I think you cannot find such a challenge anywhere else in the world with a route that takes you through a road less wilderness of such great length and variety of terrain.
The Iditarod Trail is unforgiving and you cannot afford to make mistakes or wrong decisions. The trail is never the same, every year is different. The weather and conditions can change in the blink of an eye. And conditions will change for the worse of for the better, you never know.
Making the right decisions at the right time and being patient, timing things and keeping a pace are some of the keys to success and a body that will hold up to the bittersweet end under the burled arch in Nome.

After growing up on a dairy farm in Bavaria, Germany in the foothills of the Alps where I was shoveling cow poop and hauling it out on the manure pile with a wheel barrow since I was a little girl I couldn’t wait to leave home. I disliked the hard work. Many years later I find myself living off the grid in a cabin in Chickaloon, Alaska without running water. By choice!
I carry loads of firewood up on the little knob that I picked for the cabin spot, my daily routine of doing chores got me ready to push my bike for miles through the snow.
Soon here in a few days we will be cutting and splitting next winters firewood.

The Iditarod Trail is a special place. To me it is as much about meeting the people that still live in those remote places and experiencing all this winter wilderness has to offer as it is about a race.
When I am asked " Why?"
What brings these people back year after year?
It can't be explained but only experienced.
I think many veterans of this race would agree with that.

Friday, April 4, 2008

Part 4 from Unalakleet on and out to the sea ice

Day 19 Unalakleet to Skaktoolik 45 miles

After spending the night at Theresa’s house we had Bering Sea King Crab and Musk Ox Stew for breakfast.
We have known Jim and Theresa Hickerson for a long time, they both have worked for the school system for a long time.
From Unalakleet the trail heads over a series of hills, known as the Blueberry Hills.
It was overcast, but temperature was about -5 F when we left and the sun was trying to break through the clouds.
The Iditarod trail sweeps passed us here with their four snowmachines and sleds one last time and wished us good luck.
I was looking forward to the last hill that drops down to the beach and you can see Shaktoolik in a distance.

I have heard how much fun Carl Huchings had had on it in 2005. Several snow machines had gone by us this morning and two had gone up the hill, so when we finally got to the last hill, it was extremely difficult to ride since it was very washy since it was 2 inches of loose snow.
Oh well.
The bigger surprise came one we got to the lagoon that is protected by a natural wall from the ocean. I was sure we would be in Shaktoolik in no time. The trail runs along a lagoon with the Bering Sea on the other side.
The trail was drifting in and at below zero we had 30-35 mph crosswinds. We ended up pushing the last 13 miles into Shaktoolik. The wind was bitter and I put on my balaclava for the first time in the race and pulled my hood closed where I was looking out with one eye only on the downwind side.
I wondered it the beach on the other side was rideable, so we wondered over the little hump and found big mounds of crushed piled up sea ice up to 20 feet high but no riding.

We saw the most amazing sunset with a band of flames dancing in the sky, kind of northern lights at sunset. This picture really doesn't do it justice. The light kept changing until the sun went down, but it was cold in the wind, I did not want to pull my hands in just my fleece gloves out of my pagies again.

Before Shaktoolik you go through the old Shaktoolik which is uninhabited today, just a bunch of old cabins.

Arriving in Shaktoolik which is on a small spit of land the Eskimo kids where out playing in the snow drifts as high as the simple houses having fun and throwing snowballs at each other.
And it was 20 below with 45 mph winds!
Only here would you find kids out playing in conditions like these.
Tough people.
Shaktoolik is a tiny village with small houses lined up on both sides of a drifted in gravel road.

A desolate place with friendly people with big hearts and big smiles.
Why would anyone settle in such an exposed place?
We learned later that living on this spit of land right by the ocean put the natives in a place where salmon is abundant in the streams all around them and they can launch their boats into the ocean and hunt for whales and seals. They have historically settled where their food source was. Only today do humans move into cities to sit behind a desk so they can pay their bills and pay for gas to get them from home to their work and back and to buy a lot of things they really don't need.
Out here you see how simple life really is and how these people get by without a lot of those luxuries.
They have a big diesel generator for electricity and snowmobiles and modern guns to go hunting and planes bringing in supplies and food sure, but they still life a lifestyle that is much different from 99% of Americans that is more connected to the land they life on.
Reflecting back on the people I met during my trip to Nome, I feel very fortunate to have met them and their sharing.
Even though I feel that I live a lifestyle off the grid in Chickaloon.
It is not quite like living out in the bush of Alaska off the highway system.
Living in some of the villages is much like living on an island, shut off from the rest of the world. No invasion here by masses of motor homes in the summertime!
Their busy time is once a year during Iditarod, but visiting even during that time seems peaceful here.
Meeting and talking to the locals is what makes me want to go back and visit them again some time in the future.
With the sea ice forming later in the season they are more exposed to the fall storms, the drift wood line is right behind the row of homes, they might be facing similar problems that Shishmaref and other coastal Alaska villages are. Shaktoolik might face this challenge as well and the people might have to move their village further inland in the future when the waves start washing away their houses, beach and soil.

It was getting dark and the school was locked. A local guy spotted us looking lost and left out in the cold.
He started to throw snowballs at the window upstairs where the principal had her apartment.
She came down and openend the door for us. Linda was from Montana and had only been here since last May.
Across from the school was a snack shop that had opened just a week ago.
The man there said “ Come on in and have some fast food”.
Fast Food? Sure sign me up. Bill and I ordered 3 cheese burgers and 3 cokes for him and 2 cheeseburgers and a small pizza and 3 cokes for me. The small room was the local hangout for kids and youths, there is nothing else going on in a small Eskimo village of about 150 in the evenings.
About 15 kids crowded around us and watched us eat all that food we had ordered with both hands.
One girl couldn’t help, but shouted out loud: “ You are stuffing yourselves.”
And Bill’s response to that was:” Sweetie if you pedaled your bike out there all day long you can eat all you want too without getting fat”.
We enjoyed visiting with the kids and answering questions and teaching them some German, Japanese, Dutch , French and they taught us some Eskimo words.

Day 20, 21 Shaktoolik to Koyuk 58 miles

We spent the night on the floor in one of the classrooms and were able to use the kitchen to heat up some water for hot chocolate and dehydrated meals.
Linda chatted with us in the morning a bit and checked on the weather forecast for us and it didn’t look very good.
Wind, more wind.! We were prepared to push all the way to Koyuk with a drifted in trail. The lead bikers had made amazing time from here and covered this last stretch in just over 2 days.
I had figured with the same trail conditions as Pete, Carl and Rok we could get to Nome in 4 days from here.
But the race for us was only going to get harder and the toughest part in the end physically and mentally.
To our surprise we could ride out of Shaktoolik for about 20 miles until we reached the sea ice where you travel 30 miles across sea ice on Norton Bay.
It started snowing, the wind picked up, the visibility dropped to less than 50 feet.
The ground and the sky blended into one, you couldn’t tell where the ground right in front of your tire was. Everything looked the same. I got vertigo riding my bike and falling over with no sense of balance.
Our biggest enemy the wind was picking up and constantly moving more snow onto the once packed trail.
They had more snow on the coast this year than they’ve seen in a decade. There was plenty of snow to blow around and pile up into big wind drifts on the trail.
We were lucky to have the Iditarod Trail markers which is lath with orange paint and reflective tape when visibility went to nothing.

There was a brand new cabin where the old shelter cabin had been destroyed by the sea ice many years ago and we had another one of our hot dehydrated meals.

A local on a snow machiner stopped by to check on us, he was out hunting caribou, he said he only saw some wolves, too many wolves he said.

After leaving the shelter cabin the visibility deteriorated even more to where we lost sight of the next trail marker and the wind picked up reducing our bike pushing speed to about 1 mph in a ground blizzard with the snow drifts ever getting bigger.

Loosing the fading trail and wandering out to the open sea was not an option!

After looking at each other what to do next we decided to do the unthinkable: bivi on the sea ice until the visibility improved and then we would continue on to the shore where you get off the sea ice in Koyuk.

Thursday, April 3, 2008

Part 3 Ruby to Unalakleet

Day 13, 14 Ruby

We arrived in Ruby at 2:00 am and went to the Iditarod checkpoint where we sat in a corner and napped a little bit until it was later in the morning to go to Moose Camp B&B. Their checkpoint in Ruby is the community center and we were told by a local that we were welcome to step inside for a while.
Some of the top mushers were there including Martin Buser and Zach Steer, our neighbor near Eureka. Martin Buser actually gave us some of his food he had sent out to Ruby he didn't need, smoked Salmon, swiss chocolate, roast beef, good stuff! Thanks Martin!
After learning from Dan our race director it had taken the leaders 32 hours from Ruby to Galena on the Yukon River which is used by villagers and often a packed highway I was devastated that the bike pushing was to continue on the Yukon River as well.
A decision was made quickly and Bill and I were in agreement that the smartest thing was to wait and give the trail some time to set up and for temperatures hopefully to cool down to more normal temperatures for this time of the year.
We took 2 days in Ruby doing chores and eating lots of good food at the B&B. We went to the laundrymat to put our clothes and gear in the dryer. We figured we had accumulated about 6 to 7 pounds of moisture in our boots, sleeping bag and down parkas in those wet and warm conditions before Ruby.
We heard the same evening that it had taken Rok only 8 hours to Galena, but we had booked the room then and decided to give it another day despite the good news.
We spent a whole day visiting with Paul Claus a famous Alaska glacier pilot and I listened to Jeremiah that had done a 4 year motorcycle odyssee in South America.

Day 15 Ruby to Galena 58 miles

We left Ruby at about 5:00 am and found the first 4-5 miles of trail drifted in. Not again!
Then the trail was hard packed all the way to Galena where we arrived 7 hours and 45 minutes later.
It was Bill’s 55th birthday and we had a burger and coke at Archie’s Inn before settling in for the night at Sweetsir’s B&B which we had to ourselves and the owner had brought over baked salmon, potatoes and salad, Bill’s birthday dinner.

Day 16 Galena to Nulato 50 miles

It was about 20 degrees when we left and light snow. The trails were soft again, so letting air our of the tires would be something we would be doing for one third of the entire trail to Nome.
Granny gear, at times cutting 2 inches deep, but we were riding because we were tired of pushing.

This section is where we saw the most locals on snow machines. Most of them were visiting relatives in an other village and there was a Potlatch tonight in Nulato.
With every snow machine passing us the trail got worse and more churned up, especially when two future Irondoggers past us and then another young kid with a paddle track snow machine and his girlfriend on the back seat trying to impress her. Out here it is not a hot new car but a fast new paddle track snow machine that guys ride to impress girls.
A local couple stopped and chatted with us for about half an hour, then we told them that we really needed to move again. About 5 miles from Nulato the young kid had busted a the belt on the snow machine and they both had walked into Nulato. From here on we could ride again, soft but it was rideable.

When we got into Nulato at sunset, we had just missed the potlatch, but the school’s gym here was also the Iditarod checkpoint and there was still a handful of mushers there and the Iditarod volunteers had saved us some food from the potlatch and our box with food and supplies was there too.
We settled in a corner of the gym and got a good night’s sleep.

Day 17 Nulato to Tripot Flat BLM shelter cabin 71 miles

In Don’s trail notes it says
“ This is another run on the Yukon on a well- traveled snow machine highway.”
Well, it wasn’t a highway, the Yukon River this year was actually a single snow machine wide trail and soft for most of the 130 miles of Iditarod Trail on the Yukon River.
We made good time and arrived in Kaltag after 36 miles in the early afternoon. We had been mostly in light snow and bad visibility on the Yukon River since Galena and it was really pleasant just before Kaltag when the sun came out. We picked up our box at the post office and made another one of our delicious dehydrated meals that we have had every day twice since McGrath. We had added 600 calories with butter powder to those to bring the total calorie count up to about 1000 per meal and they tasted delicious.
After stopping for about 2 hours in Kaltag we felt really good and started over the Kaltag Portage towards Unalakleet, the first Eskimo village on the Bering Coast.
This route has been used by the Natives for hundreds if not thousands of years and is a connection between the lower Yukon and the Eskimo people. It is the transition from the Interior to the Bering Sea Coast. We made really good time despite some soft trails again and some windblown sections arriving at the Tripod Flat BLM shelter cabin before dark. We built a nice wood fire and settled in for the night.

Day 18 Tripot Flat cabin to Unalakleet 50 miles

There was a huge amount of snow on the trail here the outhouse at the cabin had a big hood of snow on top. Parts of the trail the sides of the trail were over my handlebars. Truly amazing.

Temperature was -5 F when we left the cabin.

We had some of the best riding that day from Tripod Flat cabin to Old Woman cabin which is 15 miles and we covered those in just under 2 hours. The Iditarod Trail sweeps were there, 4 snow machines, we stopped and snacked then headed on to Unalakleet. We saw two of the most beautiful coastal dog sprint teams out training. Those dogs have a lot more hair than the modern Iditarod dogs that wear little coats often at temperatures under 0 F.
In Unalakleet we went to Piece on Earth Pizza place and had the largest Pizza with everything on it and 3 Cokes each.

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Part 2 Rainy Pass to Ruby

Pass Creek was a bit soft with granular sugary snow, we saw the signs where the Iditarod Trail brakers and our checker Rob had had a hard time getting the snow machines through. We also saw where the lead group of bikers had been braking their own trail in the Dalzell Gorge after passing the snow machines.
The trail over the pass and into the Dalzell Gorge is a spectacular section of the Iditarod Trail if not the most beautiful. You cross Dalzell Creek several times on ice bridges, some are actually put in every year by the Iditarod Trail volunteers in Rohn. Bill was there last year as our trail braker and was helping Terry, Rob and Lisa building those ice bridges. There is a really pretty frozen waterfall in one spot. In 2005 that section was all rideable with bikes and it was a lot of fun.
This year not all the ice bridges were in place and we had to wade a couple of the creek crossing with our bikes. A section of the freshly put in trail had huge holes in it from moose using the new trail. One year the trail had even bigger holes in it from buffalos using the trail in a big snow year. The sun was just setting behind us on the Alaska Range as we rolled onto the Tatina River and we had made it into the Rohn checkpoint 16 hours after leaving Puntilla.

We got another 8 hours of rest in Rohn and left there at 9:30 am at a warm 17 degrees F.
Jasper, Terry, Lisa the Iditarod Volunteers that run the checkpoint in Rohn for Iditarod and go out there early are a super bunch of folks!
Rob is our checker in Rohn in a small tent camp we fly out every year, we are lucky to have him there with the rest of the Rohn gang!

Day 5 Rohn to Nikolai 82 miles

The gravel bars and a short stretch in the buffalo chutes were the only bare ground this year all the way to Nome. The famous “Post River Glacier” was there this year.

I have heard the funniest stories of the different ideas racers come up on how to cross this obsticle on the trail. One told me about bushwhacking around, Rok who had been traveling with us since Puntilla scrambled over the top of the rocks to scout for a route since he is a rock climber as well.
An other year a racer had strapped shark bite pedals to his feet.
It is a very glaciated area sloping gently and very slick, you have to get around a rocky corner, then you have pretty much made it past the biggest issue.
The rock was loose there and I grabbed handfuls of shist and threw it on the ice which made for great traction. Another sunny day on the trail.

This area after Rohn is very interesting in that it is very different from the section before Rohn.
It is in the "rain shadow" of the Alaska Range and most times there is no snow on the ground for several miles and you ride on gravel bars and bare ground. The scenery changes so much from the alpine scenery over the pass. You are now in the Interior of Alaska and when you look back you get a last view of the Alaska Range. From the Farewell Lakes we could actually see Mt. KcKinley and Mt. Foraker in a distance.

The Farewell Lakes are often windblown and clear black ice, when it is cold your tires stick to the icy slick surface pretty good and as long as you don't make any quick movements riding across them is no problem.
Crossing them in the dark on black ice can be pretty spooky.
This year they had a light covering of snow and the track left behind by the lead bikers made for some cool pictures.

The trail was very hard and fast after Rohn with many bumps from the Irondog Snowmobile race.
It was a little technical riding but really fun. Bill, Rok and I were flying down over the hills and had a ball!
Antonio Frezza and Jill Homer were at Bison Camp with the wood stove going.
After resting for 2 hours and melting water from snow we went on to Nikolai making the trip from Rohn to Nikolai in 20 hours. Nick and Olene are wonderful people and fed us moose stew. We slept about 5 hours before going on to McGrath. The wind had picked up after arriving in Nikolai and it was a tailwind all the way to Big River.
We made the first 22 miles in about 2 hours!

We were giggling about the tail wind and thinking how fast we would be to McGrath.
Turned out that the wind had blown in the last 15 miles and made a lot of it unrideable.
The wind blown trails were going to hunt as much later in the race. This was just a little taste of it, little did we know at this point.

Day 5 McGrath 50 miles

Our time to McGrath was just 2 hours slower than 2005 where I had set a new Alaska Ultra Sport female record, where I had slept a total of 10 hours from Knik to McGrath.
This year, my goal was Nome, Bill kept reminding me that despite the great trails I needed to focus on Nome. I slept every night and got 32 hours of rest the first 5 days.
With the same amount of rest as in 2005 I could have shaved off 12 -16 hours of my time this year and possible set a new overall time record for women. I had to let go of it because my ultimate goal was to get to Nome.
I needed to get to McGrath strong and healthy, this was only one third of the trail.
It was hard to let go thinking how long it might be where the trails would be this good again and have that opportunity again.
This year out of my three years being on the trail the conditions to McGrath were definitely the best. Bill would agree on this that the trails in the 350 mile were the best this year out of his 10 years on the trail.
I had picked a year of the Northern Route for Nome since I had heard all the horror stories of the Southern Route which is used in odd years and the section between Ophir and Kaltag only by the Iditarod Sled Dog Race. The Northern Route however is used two weeks prior to our race start by IronDog snowmobile race and they had 99 snow machines go over the trail this year.
We took two days in McGrath since the wind had been blowing and there was a chance the trail was blown in. That way the Iditarod Trail Brakers wouldn’t be far behind us.
What followed in the next 5 days to Ruby might as well have been on the Southern Route.
It was a long walk with a bicycle to the Yukon River.

Day 8 McGrath- to Ophir 61 miles

The wind drifts from McGrath to Takotna had set up and were rideable. We stopped at the community center in Takotna and had a bite to eat. At the time Rok Kovac from Slovenia and Alessandro Da Lio from Italy were traveling with us.

This section of trail goes over the Takotna Hill and is really pretty.
After Takotna you start climbing over a long hill and at some point it started snowing on us. We past Mike Curiak on his self supported trip with his 140 pound bike.
We went on to Ophir that afternoon passing old buildings and mining quipment that is actually a road in the summertime from Takotna to Ophir.
Bill, Rok and I took a big spill on a glaciated side hill that was covered under the fresh snow with Alessandro stopping in time and taking a picture of all three of us scattered all over the ice.
Luckily none of us got hurt.
The Iditarod Volunteers in Ophir invited us to stay in an unheated tent which was nice with all the snow falling that night.

In the morning there was some accumulation, but we managed to ride a little bit to about the split where the Northern and Southern Route part.

Day 9, 10,11,12 Ophir to Ruby 170 miles

This is the most remote section of trail with no habitation.
What followed after Ophir was cloudy, snowy warm weather with black spruce after black spruce indistinguishable interior country with burn area after burn area, Farewell Burn times three.
Pushing the bike hour after hour, day after day, no end in sight.
I was prepared that it could take us 5 days and that temperatures could be extremely cold and this required sleeping outside several nights in a row.
Mike Curiak had told me that the temperature had stayed at -30 F on this section of trail when we set his record to Nome. Marco Berni and Wilco van den Akker had encountered -55 F here in 2006.
This year we got rained on in march in Interior Alaska!
We didn’t have any rain gear, but we had brought some garbage bags to keep our down gear from getting wet.
The last night Rok the Slovenain biker was with us, we had gotten soaked, we had a long day of pushing behind us and found a sheltered spot in the trees where we built a big fire and dried out all the wet clothing.
Our dehydrated " gourmet" meals with lots of butter powder tasted delicious and gave us plenty of calories.
My hands looked like I had been in the bathtub too long they were totally wrinkled up from being wet all day despite having the poagies on my bike.
Rok took off the next morning never to be seen again making up a lot of time and finishing eventually just behind the winner Pete Basinger and Carl Hutchings who placed second in the 1100 mile this year.
I think his timing was the best this year to have the best overall trail conditions.
Well done Rok!
This section of trail had a lot of overflow from all the warm temperatures and I was sure glad that my Neos Overboots worked well for that.

The next days we spent time with Mike Curiak off and on. We picked up our resupply that a pilot had dropped off right on the trail a mile from the Cripple Iditarod Checkpoint.
We stopped there briefly only to bump into one of our neighbors from Chickaloon, Danielle a pilot flying Channel 2 for Iditarod. When we got there it was sunny, the trail was sugary, the temperature must have been 40 degrees above and there was a palm tree with monkeys.
After a short chat with some of the people standing outside because it was so nice out, we moved on.
One night we bivied on a small creek watching a dozen of the lead Iditarod Dog teams coming through in the dark at eye level. All we could hear was the little dog feet, the lines clipping along and the mushers whistling and their headlights. Some of the dogs smelled us and barked. It was a view and experience of the Iditarod Sled Dog Race few get to experience, even the Iditarod tourist that pay big money to see them in the villages along the route don’t get to see the Iditarod quite like that.
Much bike pushing even after the trail brakers past us, the trails stayed soft and punchy.
It was disappointing to be on a road from Poorman to Ruby with gentle but long grades and to be pushing along a 2-3 mph. The last 55 miles we covered in 19 hours with the last 28 miles into Ruby of marginal riding.
I arrived in Ruby a tiny little village on the banks of the Yukon River very tired.