Sunday, April 6, 2014

Re-entry.



Winter lingered a good long while for us this year.  Depends on your elevation, of course, but we saw our first snow mid-November and it was still falling (within sight if not *on* us) at sundown tonight. 


When some of the local trails melted out enough to ride a few weeks back, we dusted off mountain bikes then got lost in the chaos of trying to relearn what to do with them.




As temps continue warming gauges are slowly bumping into action, as are we along with them.








J: "Is this what you call a gravel grinder?"




M: "It would be if we had our fatbikes."





Wild horses couldn't have made her happier.  Oh, wait...




First of many trips down the Gunny Gorge for the year.  All in a day's work for Ben.








Moab season officially ended for us when the lifts at most CO and UT ski areas stopped turning last weekend.  See ya in the fall.
















Allergy season arriveth.








Surfing season too.




Still a few hours of god-light to work with at the ends of the day.





Greg meant to do that.  Kinda.




"Now what?!"








50mph tailwind through Buttermilk rapid.  We hit very few of our lines that day, but man did we make good time!



Talk among friends revolves largely around how big runoff is going to get this year, how much recent dust storms will affect how fast the water comes down, whether Big Sur will actually rear it's head, and when (with all of this impending water) we're going to find the time to ride our bikes.




Fang is always bummed to see the end of winter, but like the rest of us is enjoying the running start into spring.




Thanks for checkin' in.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Idita-epilogue.

As I reclined comfortably in my first-class seat, fizzy beverage in hand, looking down from 30,000' at the country I'd just spent 3 weeks toiling across, the thought process rolling through my brain went something like this:




I'm pretty sure I'm done Idita-ing.  There are lots of enjoyable sections of The Trail that I would love to see and experience again, but given what a gamble it is with weather and trail conditions, as well as how much $$$$ goes into just trying, I feel like I've seen what I need to see.  4 complete trips to Nome, 5 as far as Unk, 7 to McGrath.  

Enough.




That, and there's a lotta this big wide world I haven't seen yet, and that doesn't smell like diesel fuel and dogshit.  





I did have a wild-hair type idea while slogging from Iditarod to Shageluk at .2mph: Why not organize a relay of sorts to see just how fast the Iditarod Trail can be done under human power?  

Inspired by the Serum Run way back when, we'd assemble 15 or 20 past/present racers, let them choose the section they want to ride, have Red Bull foot the bill and film it, and be able to ride fast and light across one of the most incredible backcountry routes on this planet.  Across the whole damn state of Alaska.

Over the course of a day-and-a-half of postholing I imagined then addressed each of the attendant parts of such an undertaking.

Then an opportunistic badass named Jeff Oatley crushed the living hell out of the course this year, going faster than anyone ever imagined possible with course conditions that were, honestly, unimaginable.  10 freaking days.

I believe that right there is the answer to 'how fast can it be done'.  I don't believe anyone will come within 4 or even 5 days of that pace again--at least not in my lifetime.

So that answered that.



If someone else gets a wild hair to organize such a relay, I'll throw my hat in for Elim to Golovin.

You can reach me here.

Monday, March 10, 2014

No place like Golovin. Or Nome.



The evening I spent in Golovin, in the company of the Punguk's, was among the most memorable of any I've spent in Alaska.  Or anywhere else.  Walter plucked me from the storm and brought me inside.  Kathy made sure I had plenty to eat and drink.  Tommy talked ceaselessly and for hours about hunting, fishing, war, intra-village communications, and every other subject that seemed dear to him.




Tommy's hearing isn't as great as it could be, meaning all I had to do was sit back and listen (maybe an occasional nod of recognition) to the way things used to be, as well as why they are the way they are now.  He flitted back and forth between past and present, describing Golovin and White Mountain in the 50's, learning to hunt, fish, trap, and skin, occasionally whipping out his cell phone to share pictures of friends and family outside.


I stayed up hours later than I should have, enraptured with this gift of a glimpse into the way things used to be in this very place.  Squint real hard and it doesn't look much different on the surface.  The most obvious change?  Snowmachines are faster, better able to take you deeper before breaking down and leaving you with an even longer walk home.





The wind hadn't abated much by morning, but at least now I could see.


Sastrugified puppy prints.








White Mountain sits on a hillside with some protection provided by both topography and trees.  It always feels good, warm somehow, to arrive here.  Even in a wind, even if you don't enter a building.








Knowing the wind was waiting for me in the hills, I didn't stay long.




Trails are marked for the dog race with orange-topped lath, which doesn't last very long.  Typically the locals begin to 'harvest' it minutes after the last musher leaves their village.  Tripods are much more common, as they are much more resistant to being blown down, over, or away.  The tripods through the Topkok Hills and along the coast to Nome are built closer to structures, and closer together, than anywhere else along the trail, testament to the frequency and force of the local wind.




The Topkok's aren't big but they are steep, especially with tired legs.




One of the few times on the trip where I legitimately envied those on snowmachines, and particularly their ability to throttle up to skip/surf across overflowed creeks.




I've never been seriously tempted to dig into this A-frame for shelter, largely because it seems like such an uninviting place to stop and then have to restart from.




Clouds billowing offshore signal your proximity to the coast.  This was the last hill before descending back to sea level for the final time.




If it's ~100 miles to get to Nome from Golovin, the trail is already drifting over, my flight out is in 24 hours, and a 'major wind event' is already happening (and forecast to increase), how long will it take me to get there?

The answer, of course, was "two fistfuls of Trader Joe's peanut butter cups, three of Mike & Ike's, a smattering of deep fried onions smunched into a wad of eskimo fry bread, all washed down with two Pepsi's, a Coke, and a Sprite."



Nomeite Phil Hosfstetter woke in the wee hours, checked my SPOT beacon status, then dressed and drove a handful of miles out to greet me where the trail meets pavement.  I'd be lying if I said I wasn't thrilled to be greeted.  Little things mean a lot in the middle of a storm in the dark of night.




I followed Phil home and slept briefly on his couch before waking to share toys, stories, smiles, and blueberry pancakes with his lovely wife and beautiful, funny, gregarious kids.

Epilogue to follow.

Friday, February 28, 2014

Well blow me down.


16 hours spent in Koyuk waiting for the P.O. to open allowed ample opportunity to rest, socialize with the mushers and checkers, mend some gear, even time to get online and book a flight outta Nome.  This last is a critical detail: At Iditarod time all outgoing flights are full well in advance.  Sneaking onto one last-minute simply doesn't happen.




So I took a long look at the weather forecasts, made some educated guesses about what the trail might be like (based on what it had been like), gave myself what felt like a reasonable buffer in case something changed, then went ahead and booked a flight.




In an odd twist, First Class tickets cost less than coach.  What the hell I thought, I'm worth it...


Chores done I rolled back onto the ice and skirted the coastline heading west.  Getting over the Isaac's Point headland was work, punctuated by nearly getting creamed by a sledneck in a blind corner.  Before I got too riled up about our near-miss I realized that I'd probably been descending *at least* as fast as he'd been climbing, and as such deserved half the blame.

Nice to have such good trail conditions to cause 'problems' like that.




I poked my head into the Kwik River shelter cabin, found it a bit out of sorts, then spent ~30 minutes paying it forward.  I've been stuck here in ground blizzards and know how nice it is to find dry kindling and wood stacked inside, and the drift shoveled away from the door allowing easy access with numb fingers.  




Moments after leaving the cabin the trail changed course, heading more WSW, and with that change the wind had instantly filled in the trail tread.

At least it was a nice day for a walk.







Moses Point aka Old Elim.  Must be good fishing still.







As the afternoon wore on the wind increased.  The walking never got any harder, nor did the routefinding.  You just had to be patient and unwind the miles a step at a time.










At roughly dark thirty I reached a recently bladed road and was able to motor the last ~mile into Elim.  Hordes of kids greeted me, all outside playing and laughing in the twilight.

(Remember when kids played outside?!)




Although the volunteers at the Elim checkpoint were gracious and kind and funny, doing everything they could to entice me to stay the night there, I had a sense that the wind was only going to increase and as such I was going to need extra time to get to Nome.

So I wolfed some leftover pizza then excused myself for a few night miles.

The trail out of Elim vanished immediately, blown completely in since the last musher passed ~40 minutes before.  But it was well marked and I simply walked a few miles til the Walla Walla shelter cabin came into view in the wee hours.

Later I woke to pee, and the first thing my barely-open eyes focused on was the window.  




Figuring I could catch up on sleep in June, I chose to burn a few hours out under the influence of the aurora.




In the morning I woke to the jingling of dog harnesses, then breakfasted while learning from Mike.  He's mushing because he enjoys it, and lives in a place where it makes some sense, but he also uses it as a platform to advocate for sobriety.




Watching his dogs pull him out of sight was the first time my attention fully collected on the ripping ground blizzard outside the door.

The shot below was taken out the window of the cabin, looking up at Mount Kwiniuk several miles away.  That plume is a few miles long, and the taller tendrils at right are a few hundred feet high...




Having been in exactly this spot in exactly these conditions before, I had zero illusions about what awaited.  

As I collected gear and loaded the bike, I dressed myself not for the big climb up Little McKinley but instead for the 100+ mph winds that awaited near the top.    




Loading the bike in the lee of the cabin caused me to giggle with nervous anticipation: Even sheltered as I was the wind knocked me around with ease.

I went back inside for one last look around, and to have a little talk with myself.  13 years ago nearly to the day, I left this cabin and walked blithely up this hill into an ever worsening tempest, figuring when it started to get really bad I'd just layer up.

Things worsened so fast I never got the chance to do that, and found myself in a tenuous position--hypothermic and unable to move to get warm.  If I ever finish writing my damn book I'll share that story in detail.

I wondered if I'd learned anything from that experience?  Or in the ensuing decade+?  




The climb starts innocuously enough--you work away from the coast and slowly out of treeline.   Winds were less than 60mph here--I couldn't pedal through it (couldn't keep the bike on the trail) but walking was fine.

As I was leaving the last stand of spindly trees a gust caught me leaning, knocked me to the ground.  It pressed harder and harder on my back, squeezing me against the snow.  I waited 3, 5, 8 breaths for it to lull, then stood and levered the bike back up.  

Before I could resume motion a snowmachine appeared out of the drift, stopping inches from my front tire.  The rider opened his shield and leaned right up next to my ear, then shouted to be heard, "You're about to head into some really bad shit!"

I wondered how much worse it would get, but conversation was nigh-on impossible so I didn't ask for details.

I leaned over and grabbed his helmet, shouting back into his ear, "I know--but thanks for the warning."

His eyes got real wide and he shook his head slowly as I resumed pushing up.




Wind does the darnedest things with dogshit.




Once out of the trees it's go-time.  You can't stop to fiddle, pee, adjust, or eat, you just have to keep going.  The concept of 'trail' across the top of McKinley is different: Because the wind blows so often and with such force there is no loose snow left, merely a scoured surface not unlike styrofoam.  You do what you can to follow the markers that haven't blown away, but your course is dictated by the wind.  

About here I stopped trying to photogeek--my hands would be numb before I could get the camera unholstered.




I expected (and hoped) that as I topped out and started down I'd find some sort of protected hollow that I could pause and collect myself in.  That never happened.  In fact the wind just kept getting stronger and stronger, pushing the bike (with both brakes on) faster than I could run (looong loping strides) along with it.  Repeatedly I'd stumble and augur in, then lay still for a moment, letting my heart rate come down a bit but also pausing just long enough to convince myself that I still had some semblance of control of the situation.

I was as prepared as I knew how to be but things just kept escalating and there was no way out but to keep moving deeper into it.  I haven't been ragdolled like that since my college football player/neanderthal roommate tossed me around 20+ years ago.  Really memorable experiences, both of them.




About the time that my adrenal gland had been slapped empty I bottomed out onto Golovnin Bay, then fought the now-quartering wind for a few clicks into Golovin.  Knowing that there were friendlies in White Mountain I rolled right through town, wanting to make it ~18 more miles before shutting it down for the night.

I was less than 1 minute out of Golovin when I got knocked down the first time.  I stood and levered the bike up against the wind, started pushing again, got flattened again.  While attempting to lever the bike up after the third one, I heard a mechanical screaming and cringed--reflexively assuming I was about to get plowed by a snowmachine.  Instead it was an ATV, and the man driving it knew I was there.  He jumped off and shouted at me, "I don't think you should go.  It's gonna get worse the farther you get.  Come stay with us--my Mom just threw a pork chop in a pan for you."




I'll always wonder if he was genuinely concerned or just gambling on what a sucker I am for pig.