Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Beyond Ophir.

There is an odd gravitational pull both inside of and surrounding the Schneiderheinze home. Try though you might, actually exiting the place always seems to take much longer than it should. Load the bike, check for loose ends inside, take a leak, nibble on something wonderful that Peter just plucked from a pot, layer up, recheck the bike, take a few more bites of something else, laugh at someone's from-the-trail anecdote, share one of your own, remember what you were doing, check the batteries in your lights and gadgetry, try to remember which bag of batts is 'dead' and which contains the live ones, eat more, chat more, fiddle more, ad nauseum.

I've been held fast by that gravitational pull 6 times now, and if anything it only seems to get harder to fight through every year.

Eventually I made it onto the bike and effectively waddled out of town. Two days of non-eating had effectively shut my system down, then the day of seemingly non-stop eating had topped me up and seemingly shut me down further. I laughed at the thought of needing to burn off excess calories, and carried that light frame of mind over the first flat miles out of McGrath. The push up Porcupine Ridge went much faster than I expected, and the swoopy, hoppy, carvy descent down to the Takotna River and town was every bit as fun as I remembered it to be.

I rolled through Takotna and out the other side, noting the bikes of Bill, Kathi, Rok, and Alessandro outside the local library/meeting place/Iditarod checkpoint and, this week, burger joint.


I laugh at the thought of merely attempting to cram more food inside of my near-to-bursting vessel, then pedal up the hill outta town.

The trail is wide and hardpacked to begin with, but as each driveway passes the traffic obviously diminishes until I'm off and walking again, so soft is the trail. There are many more spur trails and driveways then I remember, leading me to wonder if perhaps Takotna is growing? Wouldn't be unheard of, but somehow it seems unlikely. Regardless, the many unmarked trail junctions slow me down a bit and before long I'm caught up by the Burger Bunch.

My mood is light but their frame of mind is downright jovial--I wonder how many beers were consumed back in town, or if the mere act of being in motion again after a few day layoff is what has them all atwitter. Jokes are shared, pictures are taken, Rok and I even swap bikes for a short spell for grins and giggles. At the first small upgrade Rok slows, stops, dismounts, then points to his bike as if to say 'I prefer that one--give it back'. No surprise--though loaded heavy for this next stretch up to Ruby, his bike must be a solid 50lbs lighter than mine. We swap back and slowly they pull ahead as I labor up the long, mellow grade.

The trail rolls along with occasional views through thickening clouds of Takotna mountain over my left shoulder and the Beaver Mountains to the southwest. Snow begins to fall in light-then-heavy-then-light squalls and after an hour or two of this there is an inch+ accumulation. Although I had fancied that the others were just ahead, their tracks are covered and I feel (and am) alone again.

The roller coaster trail levels off a bit, not completely flat but the peaks and valleys have smoothed out some so I'm able to find a groove and just cruise along. The thickening precip limits what I can see from the high points, so my focus naturally turns inward and I find myself daydreaming and not paying much attention to the trail.

Apparently the others had done similarly, because after one fairly mellow descent there came a bridge crossing and, judging by the "tracks" left in the snow, all hell had broken loose. From what I can tell, whomever was leading caught an ice rut with their front tire and went down before they knew anything was wrong, sliding along at a decent clip on the icy trail beneath before coming to rest a solid ~30' from impact.

30 feet! They musta been hauling!

Second in line hadn't hit the same rut but had gone down in almost the same place, maybe from stabbing the brakes as #1 had slapped down. 3rd rider had also lost it on the ice but at a much slower rate of speed, and whomever was last had seen it all happen (perhaps had been minutes behind) and had managed to stop and walk through unscathed.

At least that's how it appeared to me...

I dismounted and walked through, happy for their 'warning' and immediately understanding how the slipperiness of the ice made it all come to pass.

Many minutes later I rolled into the outskirts of Ophir, past tailings piles and derelict vehicles being reclaimed by the earth and currently buried under feet of snow. A few cabin ruins appeared and then a few somewhat upkept cabins (though none had been used since at least several storms ago), and then came the hub of what remained of downtown Ophir: Dick Forsgren's cabin. Iditarod (the dog version) has commandeered Dick's cabin as their base for at least a decade, maybe longer.

I spent a memorable night curled up under the cabin's 'kitchen' table 8 years ago almost to the day, after having been served a hot dinner and as many slushy Capri Sun juice drinks as I could stand. Along with the Idita-checkers and vets, plus ham radio operators and a few individuals whose purpose I could never discern, we'd laughed and (they'd) drank and laughed some more, until sometime very late they snuffed the lantern and we all fell asleep listening to the logs slowly being consumed inside the barrel stove. Just before first light I'd tried to leave without waking anyone, but as I opened the door and tried to tiptoe out I'd tripped over Greg Blackwell sleeping across the doorway, wedged between leaning piles of seasoned cordwood. My "doh!" and Greg's "whaaah!" had effectively woken the whole cabin, whom promptly stoked the stove and set to making flapjacks and sausage before allowing us to continue up the trail.

My favorite oddball memory of that cabin is a small framed quotation hung high on the wall farthest from the main door. I can't share what it says here and it would most likely not seem all that funny out of context anyway. Should you ever find yourself in Ophir, Alaska, stop into Dick's place for the atmosphere, hospitality, and a belly laugh from that priceless quote.

On this day I rolled into Ophir just at sundown or maybe earlier, with the thick skies it was getting dark at any rate. The Burger Bunch had arrived shortly before and apparently decided to call it a night here. As the others pulled stuff sacks off of bikes and headed inside a heated wall tent, Bill walked over and somewhat sheepishly explained that they were stopping here, the Iditarod folks' hospitality having been too good to pass up. I didn't blame him one iota and felt a bit silly continuing on my contrived journey under the circumstances. Knowing they'd catch me easily in the morning we said good night (but not 'so long') and I continued out of town.

Sitting here tonight, in a heated room in the heart of a bustling town, I can't pretend to recreate the mindframe I experienced leaving Ophir. While a true wilderness it is not (it was heavily mined decades ago and the evidence is everywhere), what this region has in spades is space and what it lacks entirely is people. I don't gravitate to the word 'remote' easily in descriptions of places I've seen and been, but the sensation of remoteness is palpable here, starting just at the edge of your shirt.

Do yourself a favor--open up an atlas (this will do) and check out where Ophir sits. Not much around, right? Takotna and McGrath sit ~40+ miles to the SE, and then waaaaay to the north is Ruby, and way to the WSW sit Shageluk and Anvik. Unless I turn around now, at my *best* rate of speed the next hint of civilization I'll encounter is at Ruby, and that's at least three solid days travel away.

Think about that for a second: When's the last time you left somewhere, anywhere, and knew that you wouldn't, couldn't get anywhere with a roof and four walls for more than three days?

Shageluk and Anvik are a similar distance away but positively unreachable--no one goes there from here, not in 'even' numbered years anyway.

Any phrase I choose will come off as cliche, so I'll just say it the way it comes to mind: Leaving Ophir is gut-check time. Have your mental shit in a pile or you'll lose it completely on the way up to Ruby. I dallied a bit while crossing the makeshift runway the dog folks use just west of town, mentally checking everything I needed off of many errant mental lists.


I knew that I had all I needed--I wouldn't have made it this far if my gear or fortitude had been lacking. But still, the threshold between 'I am here' and 'that's way the heck out there' is slap-in-the-face obvious on the edge of Ophir. Somehow walking made me less anxious as I punched through that invisible wall and committed to heading north toward Ruby, so I strolled a few minutes until the lights, sounds, and woodsmoke were no longer sensible.


Despite the warmth of the night I caught myself shivering with anticipation. I reached down and flicked my headlight up a notch brighter, the better to see through the steadily increasing snowfall, then remounted and pedaled out into the darkness.