Sunday, March 30, 2008

Windy meadows to Rainy Pass.

The last two mornings it took an extra moment (after opening my eyes) to get my bearings. Not this morning! If you've ever been through Rainy Pass you'll never forget it, regardless of the time of day or the weather as you went through, even though *both* of those factors will be a big part of your memories of the event. (Every Idita-race veteran is nodding their head vigorously right now...) It's difficult to explain how the moment before my eyes opened I was already wired by the prospect of potentially making it to the pass today. The mountains between here and there were merely a scenically striking bonus to keep me entertained as I wended my way pass-ward.The trail continued as hardpacked as ever and riding was no chore even with my only-slightly-lighter-than-at-the-start steed. Easy travel, a light frame of mind, and even some fun dipsy-doodling on contouring trail near Round Mountain made the morning pass quickly and I found myself rolling across Puntilla Lake around noon.

Sharon and Dick are the caretakers of the Rainy Pass Lodge and although we're really just acquaintances who've met along the trail they seem like lifelong friends. I wouldn't dream of passing through without stopping for a spell. Dick is not to be found but Sharon comes out and shares the highlights of the winter so far. These two live a lifestyle that many would kill to hear firsthand tales of and few could ever commit to, and time passes quickly as she shares some of the latest. It seems that their children have upped the pressure on her and Dick (who are in their 70's although you'd never know it to look at them) to leave this utopia behind and reenter society to be closer to help 'should something go wrong'. I don't even need to ask if the kids that are leading this charge have visited Sharon and Dick out here. If they had they'd be clamoring to move back in with the 'rents instead of trying to force their own fears and anxieties onto two people who've truly found their place in the world. Most of us (raises hand) would give limbs to have the opportunity to live this peacefully and contentedly right up until the moment that we keel over into a drift on our way back from the outhouse.

I leave Sharon's company in an even better headspace and am able to ride the sinuous trail through the foothills north of the lake and out above treeline.Once on top the wind is up and the trail has been alternately drifted over and scoured clean, mandating the first extended Idita-pushing of the trip. Although there is a certain stigma attached to walking with one's bike I'm thrilled to be doing it here, now.
Instead of frustratedly focusing on the gossamer thin line of semi-ridable trail I stroll along effortlessly, keeping my head up and appreciating the austere alpine views, all as my creative subconscious has a field day with the whipped and whirled shapes passing beneath my feet.Abstract, yes?
But a slightly different angle gives perspective to it.
Sastrugified wolf tracks in the foreground, with the trail, a tripod, and the Alaska Range beyond.

High clouds move in and flatten the light, but before long the sun peeks through beneath and the contrast it lends makes for breathtaking scenery and (even with my gutless point and shoot) stunning photography. My soul sings and I can't think of a place I'd rather be.Working up the Happy River Valley toward Kohlsaat Peak.

In every race I've appreciated this place but never fully and I've always cursed myself for rushing through it. Today there is no cursing, merely measured breaths, even footsteps and a constant full-to-the-brim grin on my face. Too many times to count I simply stopped, sat on the top tube of the bike, and gazed at all that surrounded me. I should have adopted this mode of travel years ago...

As the sun dips beyond the range and the cloud pyrotechnics begin, it occurs to me that my mood is certainly influenced by the surrounding landscape but maybe some of it is due to the lack of mental interruption as I travel?Aside from the conversations I had back at Puntilla I've been on my own all day and haven't had to divert my thoughts to focus on another persons' needs. In my everyday world there is a constant stream of visitors, emails, and phone calls to be fielded, leaving little room for proactive thought and even less for introspection. Is it possible that the uninterruptedness of today's train of thought is more responsible for the mood than the scenery?

At the moment I have no answer, but it's a compelling thought to consider as I inch further into the mountains.

I can see a skier catching up as I approach the mouth of Pass Creek. A steady plodding pace finds me just inside the protection of this feature when Rajko the Slovenian Strongman pulls up alongside and accuses me of being an 'animal'. I've got news for you friend--I'm just out for a walk with my bike and besides, you've got a gargantuan pack and a full sled and you just caught me! Raje's English is worlds better than my Slovenian, but it's really what isn't being said that seems important. Night is falling, the wind is gusting, the valley is filling up with cloud, and (so he tells me) there's no trail down the backside of the pass. Despite all of this we chat like childhood chums, laughing over trail anecdotes in the darkness and reluctant to resume travel even though the lack of movement has started us both shivering.

Perhaps it was the day, the mood, the scenery, or some combination of factors I'm too dim to perceive, but Rajko seemed more comfortable and content being 'out here' than just about anyone I've ever met. As he pulls ahead I make a mental note that this is a person that needs to be invited on future 'splorations.

The trail zigzags up the ever-narrowing valley and I can occasionally see Rajko's headlamp as he rounds a corner or searches for a hint of trail. Some time later my peripheral vision picks up a flash up high and it could be that I've seen him atop the pass proper. Walking along my eyes stay fixated on that spot--short-term destination, icon of the route, and potential campsite all rolled into one. My focus is yanked to the inches beneath my feet as I negotiate an open stream. The situation briefly becomes emergent as the drifted bank collapses and blocks the quickly rising water with me stuck in it, but then I spot an alternate exit and splash over to it as the current slowly erodes the increasingly-slushy drift. Glancing again in the direction of the pass I spot lights again but higher than I think they should be, and have to double-take to realize my error. Instead of looking at the low-powered LED's of a Slovenian skier I'm witnessing the early appearance of the aurora only slightly farther away. The display is low in the sky but even what little I can see of it keeps me hyper-motivated as I push the final steep pitch to the top of the pass.

I walk a few steps past the summit while devouring the star-lit view above, below, and beyond, then commence to stomping out a tent platform in the compacted wind slab beneath my feet. An hour later I'm snuggled into a windless perch atop the world with a full belly, dry and happy feet, another ~20 hours worth of hot water and food ready and waiting, and a handlebar-wide grin on my face. Life's pretty good--if you're into this sorta thing...

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Shell Lake to Long Lake Hills.

Although I hadn't fully grasped it yet, the sleeping pads I'd chosen for this trip were VERY well suited to insulating me from the cold snow beneath, but they didn't have *quite* enough padding for my hips. As a result I'd have to roll over about every 45 minutes through the night. And about 2 hours before each sunrise I'd turn over and try to go back to sleep once more, but sleep wasn't so keen on coming back. So I'd lay there and semi-nap, then 'round about first light I'd start to motivate and get packed up, breakfasted and riding before the sun crested the horizon.

On this morning I'd packed the bike up and was cinching the sleeping bag tight to the rear rack when I heard a sound behind me. I turned to see Tom Jarding ("World's Sexiest Mailman") approaching from Shell Lake.You don't need to spend more than about 20 seconds around Tom to be affected by his contagious smile and what-me-worry attitude. We chatted for a bit but were both anxious to cover some ground so I hopped on the bike and took off, knowing I'd see him later in the day.

To my delight, the trail was just as hardpacked as it had been the previous two days. In fact, curiously it seemed to me that this section was even firmer than the Yentna had been. I'd heard something about a local (to Shell Lake) couple that had been grooming the trail from here to Puntilla, and it was easy to see that exactly that was happening. In an average year hundreds of snowmachines make the trek at least as far as Finger Lake, BUT slednecks seem to have an aversion to riding in someone else's track so the traffic spreads out and a 'main trail' never really materializes.This year--not so much. There was only one track, 98% of the machines had been using it, and you could have bowled a 300 on it--it was that hard and that smooth.

Honestly, I felt a bit dirty riding it. It was soooo easy, but what good is easy? I like to be pushed and pulled and torn and beaten by brutal conditions--it brings out the best and the worst in me, and fast. But this--this was just ridiculous. I made a mental note to find out if the racers were getting mints on their pillows too.

Approaching a sharp corner I came face to face with a guy cruising on a snowmachine. Normally one of two things happens: They pull up next to you, kill the engine, then chat for a bit, OR they ride off the track, pass by (sometimes waving, sometimes not) and continue down the trail. This guy did neither: He sat on his sled ~30 feet away, engine running, staring straight at me. All of the grooming had left the trail a smooth, deep boulevard with ~30" high walls on each side. In other words, I wasn't really able to lift the bike up and get off the trail right here. And he didn't seem keen to try riding around.

So we stared at each other for a few, then he made a brief, angry (from my perspective) hand gesture that let me know he expected me to move. As the thought "what a lazy mofo" went through my head I started horsing and wrenching the bike up the bank, little by little, until there was room for him to squeak by. Then I gestured that he was welcome to pass. He gunned the throttle and came flying up, then grabbed a handful of brake and stopped right next to me. Pointing toward my head he yelled over the racket of his machine, "Nice hood, sissy".

I stood there for a second processing what he'd said. Nice hood? Maybe he said 'nice head'? Nice food? Nice mood? Nah--what sense does that make? Had to be 'nice hood'. I chuckled a bit, thinking of all the 'sissy' dog mushers and other slednecks out here wearing hoods to shield them from the wind. Hell, if wearing a hood makes one a sissy, sign me up. I smiled back at him and yelled, probably a bit louder than I needed to, "Nice motor, toughguy!"

With that he pinned the throttle and left me cackling in a cloud of two-stroke exhaust.

Mid-day I passed through Finger Lake and chatted with the always cheerful crew, then enjoyed a brief but steep descent down to Red Lake before starting the climb into the mountains in earnest.

A few hours up the trail (but only a few miles--so steep I was off and pushing quite a bit) I bumped into Geoff Roes. I'd ridden a bit with Geoff on the first day--long enough that as I followed him I consciously wondered if his stride felt to him as effortless as it looked to me. Geoff floats along the trail and just doesn't look like he's putting any effort or thought into going as smoothly or as quickly as he is. I was envious of his stride as I followed him that day, but then I thought briefly ahead and realized that I'd rather push a tank-ass heavy bike than run all the way to McGrath.

It had been fun to chat with Geoff that first day and night but this meeting wasn't nearly as light-hearted: Geoff was hobbling back toward Finger Lake. He wasn't sure what exactly he'd done nor when, but was obviously having shin or ankle pain and was heading home to heal up. He was dejected at having to bail but was also savvy enough to realize how much he'd learned in the ~140 miles he'd already covered. I was sorry to see him go but I'm damn sure Geoff is gonna be back on this trail for many years to come.

Here he is limping back down the trail:


More steep climbing punctuated by some off-the-back-of-the-saddle descents led me down onto the Happy River. And then there it was--the Happy River Hill. Steep enough that it's mandatory to push even an unloaded bike (and totally impossible for any human to pedal up it), and also necessary to take several breaks along it's ~1/4 mile length, I'd been thinking about this hill for several hours already. And although I expected it to be a bit of an ordeal, it turned out to be nothing at all.

Well, kinda.

I pulled all 4 panniers off the bike and dropped them in the snow, then pushed the bike about a third of the way up. Walking back down for the bags was sufficient enough to get my heart rate somewhere sub-redline, so I grabbed the bags, walked back up to the bike, breathed for a few, then repeated the process til I'd crested the top. With an unloaded bike I'd guess that it takes ~10 minutes to push up the hill. Out of curiosity I timed myself from the moment I started unhooking the panniers at the bottom until everything was back on the bike at the top. 19 minutes. Surprisingly quick. And ~3 of those minutes were devoted to unhooking/rehooking the panniers. Cool.

Afternoon faded to evening, then to alpenglow, and dusk found me pushing the steep hill from Shirley Lake to Finn Bear Lake. By the time the stars were out I'd already negotiated the fun, swoopy trail contouring the Long Lake Hills and found a suitable camp spot in the windy meadows just beyond. I staked out the tent as a pale green aurora shimmered above the peaks to the northwest, putting a smile on my face as I pulled off shoes and climbed inside for the night.

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.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Knik Lake to (just past) the confluence

I had originally planned to start riding the morning after the race had gone off. Didn't want to interfere with the racers or steal their thunder in any way. But as anyone that was out there that day can tell you, it was not a day to sit idling away in a crappy dank motel room. It was a day to ride. So about half an hour after the dust had settled from the racers' departure, that's what I did.

I can honestly say that in a decade+ of riding around the Big Lake/Knik Lake area, I have never seen conditions nearly that good.Hardpacked, fast, with a bit of purchase so you could actually carve corners (and yes! you could actually go fast enough to carve!) instead of slipping and skidding through.

The day was marked by a festival-like atmosphere from start to finish. I worked my way through a pack of skiers andrunners near the Little Su crossing, plus lots of day-riders out tooling about, then rode solo from there out to the Big Su and a little ways up the Yentna before setting up camp. Most exciting moment of the day came when I started stomping out a place for the tent, only to look down and realize I was in calf deep water (overflow) instead of snow. Seemed like a prudent decision to move to a sandbar a little ways upriver.It was very early to be stopping (by racing standards) but seemed just right from a touring perspective: I was tired and hungry and it was dark out. No further reason needed.

I made mistakes every day out there and this one was no exception. I'd been so caught up in hurriedly visiting with old friends at the start that I never made it inside the bar for a burger/fries/rootbeer. As I melted snow for water and attended to nightly chores I realized that the glass of juice I'd had for breakfast accounted for my only caloric consumption over the previous ~14 hours. Not the best way to start a potentially calorically-limited trip, but that was where I found myself. Best just to snarf dinner and get some shut eye.

I learned while sleeping (?!) that the runners can't hear very well over the noise of their sleds. Each time one of them would chuff by I'd call out a greeting and only once (out of a dozen+ runners) was that greeting returned. Geoff Roes stopped and chatted for a few before continuing upriver into the night.

MC

Monday, March 17, 2008

Home...

..and everything associated with it. Nice to be here. Mostly unpacked, even answered some emails, but still not brave enough to pick up the phone...

Funny how long it takes to shed reality and get into character 'out there', yet how quickly it fades and then reality comes rushing back in. Just the way it is, I guess...

I've downloaded all the pics and had time to edit/crop ~50 or so of them. With any luck I'll have time and motivation to start sharing anecdotes along with the photos later this week.

This shot, however, needs no explanation.(I recommend clicking/zooming that'n...)

Twas oh-so-nice to come back to the desert right as spring finally succeeded in nudging winter aside. Ultra tacky dirt sure is fun to ride. Not as hoot-a-rific as pushing 4" tires around at 8psi for two weeks, but it might just catch on anyway...

Cheers,

MC

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

On the coast, then Home

I'm at the school in Unalakleet, Alaska. I am healthy, happy, and as alive as I've ever been. I'm also headed home in the morning.

This trip has been life changing, life affirming, and 62 other catchy buzzwords that I'm too punch-drunk to remember right now. But it is most assuredly over.

A million thanks and much debt owed to Scott Morris for his tireless monitoring of what I assume he must refer to as 'that infernal beep' coming in. Really looking forward to having the time and energy to read back through it all. Scott, I'll send you the full .gpx as soon as I'm able.

Pretty amazing trip. It would have been 'complete' from a proof-of-concept perspective at McGrath, but I was having too much fun to stop. I could have called it complete from a gear-testing perspective as of Ruby, but I still wanted more. It *was* complete from a human-performance testing perspective when I camped last night W of Old Woman Mountain. Just tickled at the outcome of all, and the hiccups are teeny and pretty easily fixed. Nome would have been nice, but... So many details, so many stories to share. Shot hundreds of pics and even a few minutes of video--can't wait to see it all and share it too...

More details when I'm able.

Best,

MC

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

25 miles to the coast...



... and still getting SPOT points. Even better conditions (speed-wise) than yesterday. Despite a late start (didn't get a point until 11:14a, near Kaltag), Mike is almost to Unalakleet.

I sent Brij Potnis (finisher in this year's race to McGrath) Mike's SPOT points, and he has created a number of charts. Seems he's quite the Excel wizard. The most interesting part (to me, anyway) is that he's computing more realistic speeds by interpolating distance between known checkpoints.

Here's an elevation and speed plot for the trip to Kaltag (everything except today's ride):



Download the following PDF for more charts along these lines:

Mike C's Journey Analyzed

Thanks Brij!

Conditions are still looking good to Shaktoolik, with some pushing over the Blueberry hills. More interesting will be to see how Pete and Carl fare through the sea ice and desolate trail north of there.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Into Kaltag



Progress continues to be steady. Mike must be finding some trail to ride.

Pete and Carl are into Unalakleet and reported even better conditions from Kaltag. More good news.

Kaltag is mile 710 for Mike, which means he's at the 2/3rds mark. With a little over 15 days on the clock, he is still on schedule to finish in 25 days or less.

Here is the speed plot for the entire trip so far:


Of course these speeds are lower than actual speed, and the distance is short since the SPOT points are widely spaced.

Mike is very near the edge of the SPOT coverage, but so far so good. No loss of points as of yet, but we will see how it goes as he nears the coast and proceeds further west towards Nome.

From alaskaultrasport.com, a description of tomorrow's ride from Kaltag:

Unalakleet will be the largest community that racers will pass through from Knik Lake to Nome and is their next destination some 82 miles from Kaltag. This section leaves the Yukon river and follows a route that has been used for thousands of years by native people in the area. The last 15 miles of the trail are infamous for sudden winds, snow and conditions that wipe out the trail in minutes. In past years the sled dog race directors have closed this section of trail or advised against traveling on it due to bad conditions. Pete does expect this portion of the trail to take a while and they will have two cabins on the route to use. About 35 miles from Unalakleet is Old Woman cabin where, as the legend goes, if you stay at the cabin you must leave some food for the old woman or she will chase you all the way to Nome with bad luck. One of the ways that people are advised of the conditions coming into Unalakleet is if they can see the airport beacon or it's reflection from about 16 miles out the weather should be good and if not use caution.

Mike won't be staying at the cabin, so he won't need to leave any food.

A final observation is that I've been getting several OK points. I am not sure how the SPOT works, but I think it gives some feedback as to whether or not the OK went through. It's likely that Mike is checking to see if the SPOT is still working as approaches the edge of the coverage area.

Sunday, March 9, 2008

Cruisin'


Great news from the SPOT satellites today. Mike is making very good progress, seemingly with conditions worlds apart from those that the racers ahead of him encountered.

He recorded the highest speed between SPOT points I have seen for the entire trip so far. On top of that he is past Koyukuk and is only 15 miles from Nulato - at 5:30p AK time.

I'll leave the speculation to you as to why things got so fast all the sudden. Cooler temps, dog teams, the magical floating power of the Snoots (it's getting lighter every day)!??

Pete is back in the race and reported good (rideable!) conditions into Kaltag. That's great news for everyone. It's amazing that Mike is not much more than 50 miles behind them. Crazy.

Saturday, March 8, 2008

On the Yukon...

... but the future is unknown.

The race update site indicates that both Pete Basigner and Jay Petervary have dropped from the race, citing endless bike pushing through deep snow.

Carl Hutchings seems determined to continue on, but he wrote on MTBR:

news is what most know,theres no trail out there.its so warm and its snowed so much coupled with the wind that you can barely find one and to push through deep snow for 22 hours like i did yesterday is just no fun.

...

im hanging here waiting for at least 3 mushers to leave and some tv crews and i should have a trail to walk on.
its a shame that it has come to this but its really no fun here.maybe with some rideable trails on the bering coast all this pushing might dilute itself and make the overall experience more of a fun one.


Sounds pretty miserable.

These racers are 80 or so miles ahead of Mike's current position, so he has not hit the worst of it yet. For now, he is still moving along and speeds have increased since he hit the Yukon River at Ruby at about noon today. It is possible that Mike will benefit from more musher traffic (and TV crews?!), as well as the slight cooling trend forecast over the next few days.

We will just have to wait and see. I should mention that the fact that he passed Ruby without stopping is a very good sign that his stove and tent difficulties are a thing of the past. He has finished one of the more remote stretches of the route, and villages will be more frequent now.

Friday, March 7, 2008

What's Mike up to?

For those wondering what these updates are all about, go here:

daily sentinel portrait of mike curiak

Today's map:



Slow conditions continue to prevail. Warm temps, soft snow and little trail to begin with.

Mike was definitely passed by many dog teams today, with all the leaders into Ruby by now. I'm sure this is causing a headache, but likely being taken in stride. When I spoke to Mike in McGrath, he mentioned how much more enjoyable this "touring" is compared to the "racing" of years passed. It's a stretch to call what Mike is doing a tour (and he's not that far behind the leaders), but it's definitely a big mental shift for him. He made reference to the summer touring that he and I have been doing in Colorado and how it's helped him change his mental outlook.

Indeed, the first Colorado Trail trip I took with Mike was similar to a race in many ways, and he's slowly been shifting out of that mode as time passes. He sure sounded like he was enjoying this trip.

From alaskaultrasport.com:

Rok arrived at Ruby at 1:00pm in good spirits after being able to ride his bike some instead of pushing. This should come as a relief to Bill and Kathi who had a chance to call in using a satellite phone at noon to report that they were still 45 miles from Ruby. Apparently they ran into some friends on the trail out there and I am sure this brightened their day. Bill also passed on that they were 'enjoying pushing their bikes'. It's all in the attitude! Rok plans to leave sometime tomorrow morning and is hoping for better trails between Ruby and Galena than the first group had.

Mike is currently (6:42pm AK time) around 25 miles south of Ruby. So the reference to the friends that Bill and Kathi ran into may have been Mike. It's possible they are riding together at the moment. I had a chance to meet Bill and Kathi when they did a tour through Utah and Arizona this past fall. That's an impressive attitude to be enjoying miles and miles of pushing in soft snow. But it's not a surprise to anyone that's met them.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Doggies

I can't log in to the SPOT web page tonight (web tracking down for planned maintenance), but I did check in at around 2:30 this afternoon. I'm a little confused as to where Cripple is. The topo maps have it further back than the lat/lon of the Iditarod's tracking page.

I believe the Iditarod coordinates are correct, and if so, Mike would have been passed by the leaders sometime during the night. However, everyone that's in Cripple has a mandatory 24 hour layover, so today should have been dog free. As of 2:30p he was beyond the coordinates of Cripple.

But they should be back on the trail early tomorrow morning, meaning he will have paw holes (and the associated brown streaks) to contend with. Once on the Yukon River, at Ruby, that should be less of an issue since the route is simply the river, and it's very wide.

No map, but here is a pic from Epic Eric once again, on the first day of Mike's trip. I was saving it for when the mushers caught him.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Leap frogging the trail breaker

Reports from the race confirm unrideable conditions into Ruby. The times of the leaders reflect this as well (they got in last night at 8pm). Ruby is mile 564 of the race, the halfway point. With over 9 days down it seems unlikely that Mike's record to Nome will fall this year.

For Mike it's been a slow day. Speed picked up for a few miles, I'm guessing due to the dog sled trail breaker, but has dropped again to pushing levels as of this evening. I see on the Ion tracker that the trail breaker has holed up in Cripple, and Mike is well past there, likely encountering the same conditions as the race leaders. Actually, there's some chance conditions are worse given the ridiculously warm weather and near rain (!) that's been going on out there.

Mike is about 70 miles from Ruby, which means he's looking good for his goal of sub 25 days to Nome. It may take him another 2-3 days to reach Ruby, but he'd still be on track, especially given the layover in McGrath.

The mushers are getting slowed by the soft conditions, but they are creeping up on Mike. On the phone he mentioned that he hoped to be to the Yukon River (at Ruby) before the dogs catch him. I'm not sure why (help anyone?) this is, but it doesn't seem like that will be the case. They may pass him tomorrow sometime, but it would be late tomorrow.



Not too much going on in the map, except that the SPOT is sending more consistent points. The Alaska Range is now in the distance, and the terrain generally more flat.

That, and not too many miles covered. Looks like a day full of stepping in Jay, Pete, Rocky, Carl and Dario's deep foot steps.

Finally, here is a "big picture" view of the trip so far:



The tents mark approximate camping spots. Note that two nights were spent at McGrath.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Slow trails



I've noticed a significant drop in speed since Ophir, as predicted by the trail reports from McGrath. Looking at speeds from the SPOT points is an estimation, at best, but the speeds we do have are almost as slow as Rainy Pass.

What does this mean for Mike? Well, as of last check, the "Trail Breaker" icon on the Iditarod Ion Tracker* was right on top of him. If it hasn't already passed him, it will soon. The trail breaker is a snow machine, so that should mean much improved conditions. I won't be surprised if we see a jump in speed tomorrow, or perhaps later this evening (Mike seems to usually ride until about 10pm, so he has a couple hours yet).

What this means for the leaders of the human-powered race is less sure. They have likely been dealing with wind blown trail for days now, but the breaker should catch up with them by tomorrow.

Weather continues to be a factor, with snow falling and very warm temperatures. Tatalina (between Takotna and Ophir) is currently reporting 28 degrees -- almost above freezing. Not much change in the forecast -- more snow and near freezing temps projected. That means soft, perhaps unrideable snow.

I'm anxious to get a report from the race leaders in Ruby.

* I wanted to make a note to anyone following the dog sled race with the tracking system: they are using a different satellite network (and units) than what Mike is carrying. It is likely that they will have positions near the coast, whereas Mike's coverage may run out. Iridium has worldwide coverage while Globalstar is more limited.

Monday, March 3, 2008

Rollin' again



Mike is all the way past Ophir and heading to where there may or may not be any trail. He's ridden almost 50 miles today, meaning conditions were good.

Weather stations are reporting light snow at the moment, with more in the forecast. Up to 2 inches accumulation tonight. Could be adding to already soft conditions. We will know tomorrow as Mike makes his way into it.

This is one of the most remote stretches of the route, with no villages for ~100 miles after Ophir. The race website reports that the dog racers should be passing Mike and the racers going to Nome tomorrow, so this should bring more of a trail.

That's all for tonight.

More from McGrath

I spoke with Mike late last night. He was hoping to be back on the trail this morning. I just got a single point from him, at McGrath, so I would guess that means he is on his way, or about to be. (EDIT: He is indeed moving, currently 10 miles out of McGrath at 11:20am AK time).

His tent pole shattered and he was able to fix it with a spoke for a time. But then that failed, and other poles have begun to crack (in a spiral manner). He was able to steal poles from an old tent at Peter's house in McGrath and cut them to the right size.

I didn't get a chance to ask what happened to his stove, but he didn't seem very concerned about it. He said after he hung up with me he was going to go fix it. I don't have any other details than that, sorry. Peter's house is full of folks wanting to communicate back home, so we didn't want to tie up the phone for too long.

He sounded really good, very upbeat and anxious to get back out there. The word is that there is no trail after Ophir (not far from McGrath), so he wasn't too worried about the time lost. He mentioned that Bill Merchant was joking about loading up extra food in hopes of making some money when he inevitably catches up with other racers waiting for trail to be broken in. Ha!

Other than the tent/stove, things have been working out beautifully. There are only minor tweaks he would make to the current bike/gear carrying setup. Eric's super pogies are "awesome"; he mentioned several times how comfortable his hands have been. He said that while he can lift the bike off the ground, he has to put it right back down. But he has only been forced to jettison his cargo (all panniers and sleeping bag) about four times -- mostly to cross creeks. He said it's set up such that it only takes 3-4 minutes to unload, cross and reload everything. Pretty impressive.

He broke a pedal at Knik Lake (!!) but has been using it gingerly and it is still holding. He has two spares, but doesn't want to pull them out until he has to. On the dietary side, he estimates that he's been eating about 3000 calories a day. He hasn't been finishing most of the allocated meals, so 3000 is less than the target consumption. Yet still he feels "just as fat" as when he left Knik. ! Same goes for fuel consumption -- he has 8 oz allocated but as only been using 5 oz per day. He mentioned that the first thing he does in camp is use some fuel to melt all the ice on his face. Sounds fun.

GPS is working well--he seems to be collecting a good track. He was happy to hear the SPOT is working as well, though he reiterated the caution about going outside the coverage area near the coast. We'll see how that goes.

That's the update for now. I still don't see a point outside McGrath, but I'll check back in during the afternoon.

Sunday, March 2, 2008

In McGrath

No new points today. I got an email this afternoon from Mike himself!!!

He spent the last two days without a stove (broken!), so given that all his food his freeze dried and all water comes from snow, his trip has come to a halt. He had no choice but to motor into McGrath and seek shelter/food/water.

Apparently his tent has also failed. He is working on suitable replacements for both the stove and tent, with hopes of heading back out.

He reports that otherwise the bike and body are doing great.

"Didn't seem like a week--seemed like one long, glorious, endless day."

More as I hear it.

Saturday, March 1, 2008

Almost to McGrath



Mike is rockin' again, covering over 50 miles today. He's currently 12 miles outside McGrath - the 350 mile mark and the end of the "short course" version of the Iditarod Trail Invitational.

Check out his speed plot.



Again, that's his entire trip, with the middle slow part showing quite a bit of bike pushing and slow travel. Yesterday evening's ride picked up quickly, lasting most of the way to McGrath. According to the race website:

Kathi reported very good hard packed trail from Nikolai until 15 miles from McGrath where the wind has filled the trail in with snow and they pushed most of the way. She described it as a slog and for Kathi to describe something as a slog.. well it's a slog.

We are seeing just that, a drastic drop in speed 15 miles out of McGrath. Time for more Snoots pushin'.

While riding a slow, sandy wash today (the closest thing to snow here in Tucson) I was wondering about Mike's thoughts on his setup as a whole. The current rig has an ungodly number of hours of planning, wrenching and "thinkering" put into it. Only a tiny fraction of those hours have been documented on this blog. But you know he's already got a running mental list with a dozen or so things that need fixin'. By now he's well aware of what he got right, and probably even more painfully aware of what he got wrong. It's all about the process for him, and I've been lucky enough to see some of that process (mostly through email).

But for now, he's stuck with the decisions he made, and so far everything seems to be going quite well. He's almost a third of the way to Nome, in less than 7 days. He's 150 miles further than he made it last year.

Finally, check out the following report and pictures on the Dalzell Gorge trail breaking from racer Dave Hart. There was slightly more of a "trail" when Mike went through, but it's still hard to imagine negotiating his pig of a bike through there. There's one pic of Jay P. shouldering his bike that made me think of the fact that Mike can't even lift his bike off the ground.