Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Salmon River Swamps to Guitar Lake.

I had the presence of mind to be repeatedly thankful as I packed my gear in the anxious darkness of the wee hours. A place for everything and everything in its place rings hollow in our chaotic world (or merely as the mark of an OCD mind run rampant) but with 60+ mph winds and way-below-zero temps this was no dress rehearsal. Having refined my gear and carrying 'systems' umpteen times over the past several years paid untold dividends all in the few minutes between departing the bag and pushing the loaded bike away from camp. At those temps and with those winds one mistake can cost minutes but only seconds are needed to freeze digits. Gear was stowed, fingers didn't freeze, and I was moving toward Nikolai before a single shiver worked itself 'neath my layers. Small victories = priceless.

No surprise that continued movement still meant pushing the bike--the wind still raged out of the east while the trail arrowed NE. Every loose granule of snow from Talkeetna to Nenana was headed this way, and as those granules crossed The Trail some of them decided to stop and hang out for awhile.

After ~12 hours of big winds it was still easy to see where the trail had been, but because it sat under 8+ inches of unconsolidated (and unwilling-to-be-consolidated) drift, riding the bike was impossible. No choice but to push, so push is what I did.

Honestly, pushing was fine. I was happy to have a simple, concrete purpose to work toward instead of fruitless mental meandering inside the tent.

That sense of purpose lasted almost to sunrise. The return of el sol didn't bring much in the way of warmth, but it *did* allow me to think past the immediate situation and realize that this kind of wind would make tent and stove repair simply impossible. The conundrum worked out like this: I couldn't fix my shelter without shelter, and until the former existed I couldn't properly address fixing the stove.


Dwelling on the seeming hopelessness of the situation only served to depress me, but without a clear cut solution I couldn't put my limited mental capacities to work on anything else. A mountain or a cloud to stare at might have been enough to allow my mind a degree of two of lateral drift. Sort of like using peripheral vision to navigate on a dark and cloudy night--you need to be able to focus on something else for a spell in order for what's front-and-center to become apparent.

But there were neither mountains nor clouds visible--nothing to remove my focus from the downward spiral I'd allowed it to begin.

But then there was something else: A sled and sleeping bag stretched onto the trail. My first reaction was an agitated verbal "WTF?". Besides being a good way to get run over, spreading your camp onto the trail is just inconsiderate. Before my agitation ran away with itself the thought occurred that maybe all was not well ahead. With each step closer it became obvious that all was not well. The gear in the trail wasn't incidental or accidental, it had been placed there to make this spot unmistakable. Something was wrong.

It was Anne. Sometime in the night her eyes had gotten funny on her. Whether she couldn't see at all or merely couldn't focus was unclear. She'd slowed to a stumble and at some point Alessandro had caught up to her. She explained that she'd communicated her problem well enough that he had at first tried to lead her along (him walking his bike, her holding the back of it) but that hadn't worked so he'd helped her bivy and then took off to get help.

Hearing her tell it and seeing her lying there comfy in her bag made me wonder how bad it could be? She sounded fine. She looked fine. She'd been napping when I rolled up, and seemed annoyed that I'd interrupted. Impatient seems a more apropos description but they both fit--she didn't want to talk, at least not to me. I can't put words to the exact thought process that followed, but her actions, words, and body language led me to wonder if she'd just gotten demoralized last night and given up?

If she had merely thrown in the towel I wasn't here to pass judgment. IMO Rohn to Nikolai is the crux of this course and the traveling conditions hadn't been easy. I offered eye drops but she didn't want to try them--seemed to not want me there at all. Huh. So I verified that she had all she needed, dropped a waypoint on the GPS, then walked on up the trail.

A mile or so later it occurred to me that Alessandro's limited English might prove a hindrance in motivating anyone in Nikolai to come to Anne's rescue. So I doubletimed my marching pace, unsure if she really needed help but unwilling to let my doubt have an impact on the outcome.

A few hours later I walked up the bank into Nikolai, then tottered awkwardly onto the bike and out the plowed road toward Petruska's. As I approached the house two men left it on a snowmachine with a basket sled. They stopped and asked if I'd seen her, I nodded yes then glanced at the GPS and gave them the exact mileage. Their body language made it plain they didn't want to be out here for any reason, but they dutifully headed out of town in Anne's direction.

That done, I turned the bike around and headed for McGrath. Remember the wind? That which had kept me awake all night, collapsed my tent, and impeded my progress for much of the last day? It was suddenly, giddily at my back as the trail turned due west.

Translation? Absolutely flying. The outbound river trail had been scoured clean so rolling resistance was nil--I even took the time after a pee break to air back up to 15+, and then went even faster.

Motoring along (mostly on the Kuskokwim) for the next two hours was effortless--so much so that I was shocked to realize I'd be into McGrath (assuming current pace) in about 3 hours. Mid-afternoon, at any rate. Thinking about *that* made me realize I'd been subconsciously considering what I'd do when I got there. I knew only that I needed the tent and stove functional and dependable to continue beyond McGrath, and fixing them before I arrived would eliminate the need to ask for help.

It was just that simple--I had to act as if there was no help available, and solve the problems myself.

Easier said than done, always...


  1. Glad to see this story resuming. Just in time for the next chapter to begin. Keep going.

  2. Hey Mike,
    I'm glad you started it up again. Maybe I'll get motivated to write up my GLR tour last summer.