Tuesday, February 17, 2009

A day in McGrath.

One might think that sleeping in a warm building would be the bees knees after 7 days out in the Alaskan bush. One would be wrong, if one asked me. The thing is, your body adapts to whatever you give it, so sleeping outside is uncomfortable only if you're ill prepared. My bag and pad had been plenty warm and comfy for the past week, so suddenly being within some proximity to a heat source, and between insulated walls, was honestly uncomfortable. I tossed and turned all night and woke gasping for breath on three separate occasions. Finally I threw off my jacket (I'd been using it as a blanket) and just lay there, and not a minute later Bill Merchant's grinning mug loomed over me.

We got to chatting and catching up in such a way that I'm not sure we could hear (much less process) what the other was saying. A week out in the woods, even a mundane trip like mine had been, gives you so many things to talk about that it's difficult to choose a specific order or pattern, the result of which is a form of verbal diarrhea. We both spewed forth incessantly and were soon joined by the indomitable Kathi M whom further added to the melee. We had a ball catching up on each others doings over the last week, although we all agreed it sure didn't seem like a week. To my addled mind it was one long intense day, and even today I can't quite figure the sums in my head to make what I experienced out there add up to "a week" in civilian terms.

Any time spent inside the home of Tracey and Peter always seems a vacation of sorts. No doubt owing to the means by which we all arrive here, but also because they both busy themselves with most of the prep, cooking, cleaning up, tending of the woodstove, and all of the myriad busy work that has to get done in *any* household, much less one overflowing for days on end with human eating (and stinking) machines. Although the race organization does compensate them in exchange for taking over their house (kitchen, bathrooms, bedrooms, porch, living room, couches, chairs, sheds and cars are all included under the umbrella term "house") for this period of time, anyone that has been there and seen how much love Peter and Tracey pour into the non-stop work they do to take care of the racers can understand that no amount of money could ever compensate them enough. They break their backs for us in ways we cannot even see (not just while we're there, but before we arrive and after we're gone) and they do it while smiling and engaging us throughout. In a word, these be angels. Any trip to McGrath, for me, cannot be complete without a sharp, witty retort from Tracey and a bear hug followed by Nutella-smeared-and-REAL-maple-syrup-drenched mancakes from Peter.

The day passed with much conversation between fellow racers, a year worth of laughter shared equitably between all of us (much of it coming as we shared our on-trail blunders with our peers, whom nodded appreciatively before confiding similar boneheaded acts), and, of course, much consumption of food. I ate three squares plus in the hours between waking and sleeping again, and drank nearly constantly to catch up. Not having eaten quantifiable solid food for 2+ days meant that my water requirements had dropped accordingly, and while an occasional handful of snow had technically not been nearly enough 'water', it had, somehow, been enough.

(Pic by Rajko. Note the empty plates and stunned/glazed/stuffed expressions...)

Mid-day I finally unpacked my split poles and asked Bill for ideas on repair. Bill suggested "Goldstreaking" a new pole set in from Anchorage, which essentially means that if I called REI back in ANC and got the proper item ordered today, it'd arrive on the next morning's commercial PenAir flight. Hard to argue with that kind of service, especially out here. I asked Peter if I might borrow a tape measure to get the dimensions of the poles, but instead of returning from his shed with a tape he came back with a tent. Some racer had carried (dragged?) a three-season tent all the way out here from Knik years ago, and dumped it (in disgust, I imagined) in Peter's arms before flying back to Europe. Folks in the bush don't throw things away no matter how useless they may seem, so Peter had shelved it until it was needed. He produced a sharp tubing cutter and in a few minutes I had adapted the donor poles to my tent.

Jeez. Too easy.

In a roughly similar amount of time I procured a shiny new sleep pad from Rajko Podgornik. Back home in Colorado I'd waited until the last minute before leaving to decide on which pad to bring: One homemade from sewn layers of Reflectix, or a store bought version made from closed cell foam. There were many reasons for and against each, which is why I remained conflicted almost until departure. Ultimately I chose the homemade pad and it *had* been plenty warm, but I couldn't help but to wonder how the closed cell foam version would compare. The self-support angle to the trip having been compromised merely by stepping inside the house last night, I decided there wasn't much point in thinly disguised purity when there was real science to be conducted. So I liberated Rajko's sleep pad and donated my old one to Peter's already bursting gear shed.

(Pic also by Rajko. And yes, Peter *insisted* that I repair my tent in the living room...)

The last order of business (fixing the stove) was solved in an embarrassingly easy manner. I had sought Bill's counsel when purchasing this stove years ago, and in the dozens of nights I've used it (up until two nights ago) it had been predictable and reliable. I asked Bill point blank what might have changed that, knowing that the design was simple enough that mechanical failure was unlikely. He didn't volunteer an immediate answer but he suggested that if we took it outside and lit it he might be able to guess. So that's what we did, and after a very brief simulation (pump, prime, light, flare, flame out) Bill suggested that I might have some bad fuel.


I couldn't put a reason to why that would have happened (the fuel came from new, unopened containers in Anchorage) but I also couldn't argue that it hadn't happened. So I dumped the fuel from the primary bottle and refilled it from one of the fork legs. Freshly filled, pumped and primed, the damn stove lit and burned like hellfire.

Humbled by how simple the solution had been (aren't they always, once clear thought has been re-established via shelter and food?!) but also delighted that I was ready to roll again, I repacked all gear and laid out my pad and jacket in a slightly cooler corner of the house, then enjoyed a full night of solid, restful, uninterrupted sleep.


  1. Your AHU posts made me a devoted follower of yours.

  2. I have heard so many great stories about time spent at Peter's house in McGrath. Completing the 350 and being able to experience it for myself is a definitely a goal of mine.