Friday, February 29, 2008

Photo once again by Eric Parsons - along the Kuskokwin River

I haven't seen any points since 1:30pm this afternoon, but Mike is well past the Farewell Lakes, but it still seems to be some slow goings.

I wrote a bit more code in TopoFusion to make legitimate timestamps out of the SPOT points. So now I can do cool things like the following speed graph.

That's for his entire trip thus far. Since the points are 10 minutes a part, at best, and 3-4 hours at worst, the distance on the X axis is a gross underestimate. Mike is at least 30 miles past Rohn, which is mile 210 on the route. So his total mileage is something like 245, not 170 as shown in the plot.

However, the plot is interesting in that it shows the overall trend of speed throughout the trip. The first drop in speed is, not surprisingly, due to Rainy Pass. Things are on the up as of the last few points, but not nearly to the level of the first ~100 miles on the route.

For comparison, here is the plot for racer Brij Portnis who finished yesterday afternoon in McGrath (congrats Brij! and thanks to Carole--Brij's Groupie--for the data). He is missing the first ~30 miles of the trail, for unknown reasons, but otherwise he picked up, overall, a few more points than Mike.

Some higher speeds in there, for sure. What I see, since trail conditions should be nearly the same, is that things are about to get much faster for Mike on the way towards Nikolai, and it should continue into McGrath.

Comparing the two files there are definitely a few "dead" spots. Most notably, the Shell Hills, Rainy Pass and the South Kuskokwin River valley. I'm guessing the fact that Brij got more points, in general, may be due to placement of the unit, but it could be anything.

Here is the latest progress map, including the rest of yesterday's trek.

Conditions are taking a turn for the worse. Winds are already picking up and the forecast is for -45 with windchill in the Kuskowin River Valley tonight. Possible areas of drifting snow as well, through Saturday. Mike has sure weathered much worse in the past, but especially the wind will have an effect on progress.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Out of the Dalzell Gorge

Quick update. After spending the morning waiting for a single point to come in, I finally got two points indicating that Mike is almost done with the Dalzell Gorge, and nearing Rohn. See the map.

Best guess is that the massive Alaskan Range was blocking signals (either GPS or globalstar network sats), especially in the deep canyon of the gorge. There is a racer, Brij, who is carrying a SPOT as well. I offered to convert the timestamps and make a few maps for him. It will be interesting to compare the "dead" spots in his track to Mike's.

Everything seems to be rolling along well for Mike. He's moving above 1 mph at last count, which is definitely slow compared to the rest of the trip, but not bad considering what he's working through with his insanely heavy bike.

Let me give you some idea of how heavy it is. He told me, prior to leaving, that he is unable to lift both of the wheels off the ground at the same time--on dry pavement, with warm hands and a good grip. That means if he has to push up a blown out river bank, for example, he has to take off some number of panniers and make 2+ trips. That equates to some very slow going and a heck of a lot of work. It's likely he is doing a lot of this right now given the report of blown bridges. I can only imagine what sidesloping with such a bike/load is like.

But, he seems to have done it.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Rainy Pass

From all indications, Mike is heading for Rainy Pass this evening. He is rounding the corner to head up "Pass Creek" as I am writing this, about 3 miles from the pass.

I did notice that two points came in at Puntilla with the same location. That means he was there for at least ten minutes, likely gathering trail beta from the lodge. Imagine the conversation:

"Hi, how's the trail looking over the pass?"

"Come on in...."

"Uhh, I can't... can we talk out here?"

It seems like racers aren't having too much trouble with Rainy Pass and the Dalzell gorge, though we still haven't heard a solid report from Rohn. We will know how Mike fares tomorrow, though he will likely keep moving for another two or so hours (based on previous nights), so he may reach the pass tonight.

The other big observation is that overall speed dropped quite a bit today, mostly after Puntilla. I made a few estimates between points (by drawing an approximate trail in TopoFusion) and came up with 1.8 to 2.0 mph for some large stretches. Slow going. Possibly due to softer trail conditions or perhaps just steepening grade.

From once again by Eric Parsons:

Rainy pass is one of the few weakness that allows winter travel through the 400+mile long range of steep and heavily glaciated peaks which contains some of the highest mountains in North America including Denali (20,320’ and Mt Foraker 17,400’). From Puntilla Lake the route ascends above tree line into the broad Happy River valley which can experience severe winds, ground blizzards and has been the source of many near epic’s for both racers and mushers alike. Hooking to the North out of the main valley, the trail snakes its way up a side valley crossing many streams (with possible open water) leading to the pass. Finally at the pass at an elevation of 3,160’ the trail quickly descends like no one’s business careening down a narrow trail with overhanging branches down the backside of the Alaska Range, after a few miles the trail drops steeply into the infamous Dazell Gorge. While the gorge is feared by mushers, it is one of the most incredible, and fun sections of trail before the flat river travel in the Interior. In the gorge trail breakers usually construct bridges made from alder branches which ice up from the flowing water beneath and form a somewhat stable crossing. Leaving the gorge the trail spits you out on the typically glare ice surface of the Tatilina River for the last pull into Rohn.

And finally, a picture of Happy Valley, heading towards Rainy Pass.


Photo by Eric Parsons.

Mike is rolling by Puntilla Lake (above) right about now. That's mile 165 on the route and he's less than 72 hours into the trip. At this rate he would finish in less than 22 days. However, he is approaching Rainy Pass and things are likely to slow down soon.

I want to remind everyone a few details about Mike's endeavor that we are watching unfold. He's riding the 1,100 iditarod trail to Nome (not as a part of the Iditarod Trail Invitational Race, but on the same route). But he's doing it 100% self-supported. Meaning, he's carrying everything, down to the last M&M, for the entire duration of the trip. He won't enter any buildings, cabins, or even accept a frozen gummy worm from anyone that he happens to bump into.

This is a pretty serious test of the limits of on-snow travel, and is in preparation for bigger trips to come, where there may not be any cabins or opportunities for resupply.

So, while racers in the Inivitational are racing from cabin to cabin, warming themselves and being served hot food, Mike has been outside the entire time, cooking food packed on his bike using fuel carried on (and in!) his custom Snoots.

Above is a map of Mike's entire route, from TopoFusion. It's the header image on the blog right now, but blogger doesn't seem to want to let me link to the bigger version. But this one is clickable. The inlay detail map in the upper right corner kinda puts things in perspective.

I'll check in again during the evening. We should know whether he chose Rainy Pass or Hellsgate by then. I'm off on a ride here in Tucson, AZ, where it's sunny and almost 80 degrees.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

The last point I got yesterday evening was at 9:44pm AK time, near Shell Lake. From the race blog, Bill and Kathi (race directors) camped near the lake, so it's possible Mike camped with them. Unless there is a cabin there (help anyone?) in which case they probably went inside and Mike camped and cooked his meals out in the cold. Just the way he likes it. (!)

Another good day. Mike rolled by the third checkpoint, Finger Lake, around 1:30pm (AK time) today. That's 130 miles from the start. If you compare his time to the race leaderboard, he's in 23rd or so place. Pretty impressive considering he's not racing and carrying more weight than anyone else out there.

So it would seem things are going very well. Trail reports for the upcoming section report soft sugary snow, so it may be that the fully loaded Snoots gets a real flotation test very soon. It will be interesting to see if we notice a significant slow down or not.

Weather still looks good - about the same as yesterday. Fairly calm and warm at 9 degrees in Puntilla. No more mention of precip wednesday night.

I have Mike's GPS files for last year's trip (with the Snoots and V2 trailer), and he's running about six hours ahead of himself last year. Interestingly he camped at nearly the same spot last year (Shell Lake) on the second night. But the difference is that in '07 he started early--10am--the first day, while his start was more like 2:30pm this year.

Hard to say whether the speed up is due to good trail conditions or the new panniers version of the Snoots. Probably a little bit of both.

Those familiar with Mike's trip last year will remember that he never made it over the Alaska Range (by Rainy Pass). High winds and storms kept him on the eastern side for days while he made attempts to push his way over. No doubt this is on his mind as he makes his way into the mountains this evening.

Track points continue to be erratic. I waited for the last three hours for another point to come in so that the map would be more representative of the day's journey. But earlier in the day points were coming in at 10 minute intervals. A good guess is that the mountains to either side of him are making it harder to get a clear line to the satellites. Having said that, two more points have come in since I generated the map, separated by only 10 minutes. Go figure.

Tomorrow Mike will pass the 4th checkpoint (Puntilla) and then we will see, in real time, whether he decides to try Rainy Pass or whether he detours to Hellsgate (a 32 mile but possibly faster alternate route). One thing is for sure, the weather is a heckuva lot better than last year. The reports of the front runners having to sideslope the Dalzell Gorge (on the other side of Rainy Pass) due to overflow are a little concerning. I don't know if Mike will have any way of getting advance information, but sidesloping with his heavily loaded bike could turn into quite a deal. We'll have to stay tuned to the race news page for further info on Dalzell Gorge.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Click on the above map to see Mike's progress today. I finally had an hour to write some code into TopoFusion to convert the GMT timestamps the unit spits out to AK time. So I won't need to do math in my head anymore (yay!), and the maps are quite a bit more meaningful.

He passed the first race checkpoint (Yentna) sometime after 9am, and the second (Skwentna) around 4pm. Skwentna is mile 90 on the route, and I estimate Mike has covered over 50 miles for the day (as of 6:30pm -- he's still rolling).

Compare those times to the race leaderboard.

According to the race website "The word is that the trail from Shell lake to Finger lake is in great shape and should be fairly fast." So Mike has good conditions in front of him, and continuing good weather. He's just a few miles from Shell Lake right now.

Current conditions in Skwentna are 23 degrees, scattered clouds and calm winds. I'm sure Mike is loving it. Tomorrow looks like some clouds will roll in, but still calm. Slight chance of precip coming in Wednesday night, but it's looking like clear sailing until then.

For now, enjoy this clip (with music!) of Mike in the first miles of his ride. Thanks again to Eric for the video and pictures.

On to Yentna

It looks like Mike stopped at about 9pm (AK time) last night. I got an "OK" message from his unit, meaning he fiddled with it (apparently it takes a few steps) to send the message. No more points appeared until this morning at 7am AK time. So he's rolling again, with about 8 miles to Yentna.

There is a map of his progress thus far. The findmespot is supposed to be sending a breadcrumb every 10 minutes, but it seems they are only getting through every 45 minutes, on average. We'll have a lot more data in a few days to say something more meaningful, but they sure aren't coming in at 10 minute intervals so far.

Still, things are working well, and I was somewhat surprised to see the OK message, since he indicated he probably wouldn't use the "OK" mode (for a number of good reasons).

The leader board has been updated, with some smoking fast times. Mike is sure reaping the benefit of the fast conditions, covering ~46 miles in about seven hours. Pretty impressive considering all the weight he's hauling. He may have stopped early to let the trail clear out! I'll bet he started bumping into many a foot/ski racer out there.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Mr. Smiley

Mike is ~14 miles from Yentna Station, which is mile 57 on the route. This is as of 10:36pm MST, which is about five minutes ago! I gotta say this is pretty fun to watch the points roll in.

Picture is courtesy of Eric Parsons. Eric made the Super Pogies on Mike's bike. Check out his biz, Epic Designs. He also gave Mike a ride to the start and rode with him for the first ~hour. I'll include more pics from Eric in future updates, and also a video.

Stay tuned.

MC on the move!

Mike couldn't pass up clear skies and high pressure, so it looks like he's rolling early. I've got the first few points already - shown in the above map.

The Iditarod Trail Invitational went off at 2pm AK time, and it appears Mike waited for the dust to settle, then rolled off, likely with little fanfare. His last point at Knik was at 2:16pm.

2 hours later he's covered at least 10 miles, following many a foot, tire and ski track, no doubt. It'll be interesting to see how late into the night he rides, and how many racers he manages to pass (!) while doing so.

I'm looking forward to the first reports from the race.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Nothing left to do...

...except to go, and do.

Loose ends are tied up, hatches are battened, bike and gear have arrived safely (?) in ANC, I'll be in the air in a few hours and, hopefully, moving forward along The Trail on Monday AM.

Sick of talking about, answering questions, or speculating on how it'll go. Time to act.

I'll be carrying a beacon that should, in theory, send out a 'beep' every ~10 minutes when I'm outside of the tent and moving. Scott Morris will be monitoring that beep throughout the trip and will be posting a daily update (right here) of the progress that I've made. There will be no communication between us other than the beeps that he may or may not even receive. I write it that way because if you look at the coverage map you can see that the beacon will most likely stop being 'seen' by the satellites around about Kaltag. Potentially sooner.

For me, when out there, that's fine. The 'crux' of this trail from a remoteness perspective is the Interior from Takotna to Ruby. Once on the Yukon at Ruby there is regular (and, relative to what came before) often heavy traffic between villages. The rivers and lakes and portages that The Trail follows are the everyday highways for those living in NW AK. Point simply being that once I hit the Yukon the need for the beacon will decrease just as it's functionality takes a nosedive. At least that's what I'm expecting. There is some very small possibility that one or two 'beeps' will get through to Scott daily even as I traverse the coast--just enough to let him know that I'm still moving.

Scott has some GPS info about the route, an idea of what to expect for timing, and links to weather stations along the way. Scott is the creator of Topofusion, an impressive and useful piece of software that I've come to depend on when planning any trip. Updating my progress daily will give Scott the opportunity to showcase what TF can do. Atop all of that, Scott is a pro-level geek (<-his word) when it comes to maps, GPS, and tracking down info on the net, so I'll be amazed if what he posts here daily is anything other than mesmerizing.

There will be LOTS of on-trail coverage of the Iditarod Trail Invitational, which starts about 24 hours before I do. There are nearly 50 athletes competing in that event this year, and we'll all be following the same trail with the same end-goal in mind. I can really only guess, but I suspect that my progress will likely mirror that of the back-of-the-pack racers in that event. Only you will know for sure as it happens--by following Scott's updates here and also checking in on the many websites covering the race. If you happen to notice or find any mention of my progress on the race websites (not likely, but quite possible), PLEASE send that info to Scott so that he can update here.

Lastly, the reason for the beacon, the updates, and Scott's work is to keep those who might worry about or miss me somewhat assured that all is well. I find myself in a strange headspace today--guilty for leaving them to pursue such a selfish, hedonistic endeavor.
I just have to accept that the best part of going on any trip is getting to come home again.

Amundsen wrote that "Victory awaits him who has everything in order -- luck, people call it. Defeat is certain for him who has neglected to take the necessary precautions in time; this is called bad luck."

I don't believe that I could be any more prepared than I am, but still--I'll take all the luck I can get.

See y'all real soon.


Sunday, February 17, 2008


I didn't want to go.
It wasn't my idea.
I had other plans.
He wouldn't take no for an answer.
He was gonna shoot my dog if I didn't go!
I wanted to stay home. Really.
I had dishes to do. And laundry. And windows...

But he just wouldn't leave me alone. So I went.
And damn am I glad I did!


Friday, February 15, 2008

Snowbike timeline.

'97--Willits Townie at the start:

'98--Marin stock HT in Anchorage:

'98--approaching Puntilla:
'99--Prepping/touring in CO before heading north:
'00--Custom Marin/Sycip 'blend' approaching The Burn:
'00--"Marcip" near Tripod Flats:

'01--Willits Big Rig at the start w/Todd Scott:

'01--Big Rig buried at Shell Lake:
'02--Big Rig at home being prepped:
'02--Big Rig looks lonely while I look for the trail:
'02--Leaving Golovnin Bay en route to White Mountain:

'03--Pat and I on our Airborne B-29's. How confident we look! How clueless we were!
'03--B29 atop Eagle Summit on the Quest Trail:
'05--Moots Mooto-X approaching Finger Lake. Man was I packed light!

'05--Running to keep warm because I was packed too light:
'06--Nekkid Snoots as we got to know each other:

'06--Loaded bike w/Lenz-built trailer in the process of breaking my spirit, somewhere in the Chugach:

'07--new trailer design. Tested bunches. Failed:
'07--next trailer design. Much, much better:
Looking back through these pics I can immediately see and recite all of the shortcomings of each bike, each packing setup, each piece of gear used. That wealth of knowledge is priceless, and has led to...

'08--Simpler. Compacter. Floatier, but Heavy:
Unfortunately, try as I might, I cannot look at this setup and see with anything resembling clarity what the drawbacks are. I can guess, and then try to tweak to make up for them, but nothing can make things so plain as a week+ on the The Trail.

Just over a week from now that's where I'll be, with my learning cap on.