Saturday, March 22, 2008

The Yentna and the Shell Hills.

I woke at first light, smiled when I realized where I was, then simply laid there for a few minutes savoring the quiet comfort of the sleeping bag. As the sun rose and weakly warmed the tent I set about clumsily repacking my gear. I *hate* being disorganized and stumbling through any process, but those are both good descriptors for how I was moving and thinking this morning. What if it had been 50 degrees colder than the -10 it was? What if the wind had been howling?

I tend to be exceptionally hard on myself in situations like this, because dicking around and making mistakes means losing fingers or having gear blown away, and I've gotten kind of fond of mine--fingers *and* gear. I made several mental notes on how to streamline my tear-down-and-pack-up-process, knowing full well that the worst case scenarios were going to find me at least a few times in the next few weeks.

Once packed and moving I was tickled (second day running!) to find super-hardpacked trail conditions. Nothing to it but to keep the pedals turning and watch Alaska come rolling beneath my wheels. Clear skies meant the day warmed up to a comfortable riding temp by late morning. And although there always seems to be a headwind rolling down the Yentna, my windproof outer layer and pogies kept me from noticing anything other than the exceptionally striking views of the Alaska Range to the north.

Many (Most? All?) of the racing runners had passed me during the night, and as I passed Luce's and Yentna Station (two riverside roadhouses that attract late-night racers like moths to a lamp) it was obvious from the tracks in the snow that many of them had checked in for some rest and had not yet made it back onto the river. No difference to me either way--just a fun observation to make as I rolled along.

A dozen or so miles past Yentna Station I caught up to a 4-pack of fast moving walkers cruising up the river.They were making good time and returned my greeting but seemed more interested in their own company than that of an interloper so I just kept rolling. Something about one of them stuck in my craw and after a few minutes of riding it occurred to me that I knew him. Well, sorta. Although I'm not sure if we'd ever met before, I knew the face and voice of Tim Hewitt very well from watching it so many times in A Thin White Line, RJ Sauers' documentary of the 2001 Iditasport Impossible. I hopped off the bike and waited for the 4-pack to catch up, then walked and chatted along with Tim for a half mile or so. He sorta introduced me to the group as we walked, and made a point of letting me know that his wife was traveling with him as far as McGrath.

I asked, 100% jokingly, if she'd lost a bet. He responded, only slightly less jokingly, "No, *I* did..."!

We talked strategy and details halfheartedly for a few, then I hopped on the bike and got back into my own groove for the rest of the day.

I've ridden this section of the Yentna at least 7 times (maybe 8?) and because they were almost all in race situations they were almost all executed in the dark. Riding a river is a lot like riding a wide road, which means that you go to autopilot pretty quick because it just isn't necessary to pay much attention. When you're not required to pay attention, and it's dark, you get bored. Veteran racers often curse the Yentna because it is a ~6 hour (much more if the conditions suck) stretch of mindless riding that you'd really rather avoid. That mindset never found me this year, quite simply because I'd slept through the night and was actually able to enjoy upriver views of the Alaska Range throughout the day.

Note to current racers: the Yentna is actually pretty!

At the confluence of the Yentna and Skwentna I decided to try a route I hadn't done before (there are many, many route alternatives in this area), only to waste ~an hour of daylight and end up back where I'd started. Like an accountant unsure of where to file a receipt, I ultimately shrugged off the lost time to 'exploring' and continued past the Skwentna airstrip and on toward the Shell Hills.

I came into a tunnel of willows that is normally thick and low, requiring you to dismount the bike and duck as you walk along and whack yourself repeatedly. Only this year the tunnel was trimmed high and wide and I could easily pedal along without even ducking. It took precisely 1/4 mile to learn whom was responsible for the trail beautification project: 4 meese.

The first one bounded off the trail before I'd gotten within 300 yards. She lunged and leaped and quickly exhausted herself in the deep rotten snow, and I whispered a 'sorry critter' under my breath as I passed her. Moose struggle to find enough food through the long winters and many of them endure the agonizingly slow process of starvation and death as a result. Although I enjoy the taste of the meat it doesn't sit well with me to torture or harass one that's still alive. Further along this route I've ridden/walked through small herds of meese laying on or adjacent the trail, all of them too weak to stand, most too weak to even lift their heads, and all of them so thin their skin was stretched taut over their ribcages. Some of them were dead, and the rest were merely waiting for death to come.

Having seen that more than once I always, always give meese the right of way: if they want to stay on the trail, I'm happy to posthole around to save them a few calories. They need 'em a lot more than I do.

As I got nearer to the three others they seemed to want to keep moving down the trail away from me, so I kept talking to them as I rode, ("I've heard that Skwentna meese are the best behaved in all Alaska...") always keeping about 150 yards between us. They'd stop for a quick breather so I'd stop, then after ~90 seconds or so I'd start back up with "Yep, I've been told that Skwentna meese have never been known to charge..." and with that they'd start moving again so I'd shadow 'em until they stopped. A brief pause then, "Some folks say they're downright docile...". In this manner we moved through the tunnel and out into the big swamp, where they promptly dove off the trail and looped around behind me. Relieved and suddenly aware that I'd been sweating heavily, I resumed riding at a leisurely pace and almost wrenched my arm out of socket while patting myself on the back for my 'moose whispering' abilities.

I'd made it all of about 1/2 mile when I noticed another moose out ahead. She appeared to be ambling along at about my pace and going in the same direction, so I was barely gaining any ground on her and as such wasn't yet concerned. The sun was low and I'd been focusing my attention and camera on the shades of alpenglow working across the faces of Denali and Foraker
(more or less behind me at this point) when I suddenly became aware that she was close and getting closer and all at a very fast pace. Shee-it. A quick survey showed that I didn't really have an exit strategy, and she was closing fast. All around was untracked snow, so I could leave the trail in hopes that she'd pass but if she was ornery I'd be a sitting duck wallowing in the untracked fluff. I put my bike between us and studied her intently as she got to within 50 feet, and it was 100% clear that she was pissed and not about to stop. I've heard many stories of cyclists standing down pissed meese but at that moment I had a hard time envisioning her stopping for anything short of a many-layers-thick brick wall or an elephant gun. So I bailed. Off the trail and postholing with my ~135+ lb bike as fast (NOT fast at all!) as I could. When I'd made it ~15' off the main track I found an old sled track to stand up on. So I lifted the bike onto it then turned towards her.She was standing where I'd just been and it *looked* like most of the piss and vinegar was gone. Apparently she'd just wanted to get back to the willows and I was in her way. We studied each other for a few minutes--from my perspective we were both waiting to see what the others' next move would be. After a few minutes she looked away, looked back, looked away for a bit longer, looked back, then finally started walking sloooowly back towards Skwentna. I let her get ~60 yards down the trail before I postholed back over to the main trail and continued riding.

The rest of the evening, as they say, was uneventful.I pushed my bike up and over the Shell Hills, rode down onto and across Shell Lake, then pushed about a mile past Shell Lake (on rideable trail that was too steep for me to pedal the load up) before setting up camp for the night. As I'd expected/hoped/planned, each night the camp setup and chores (doctoring feet, melting snow, drying/mending gear, etc... ) became part of a routine and, at least to me, that routine was both welcome and comforting.