Saturday, February 28, 2009


I'd laid awake if not alert through the night, expecting mechanized screams that never materialized. Ultimately I *did* awake to screaming, but these came from a fox. The sound was unlike any animal vocalization I've known, unmistakable in its unique hoarseness and positively impossible to ignore while lying in a sleeping bag. I roused, unzipped bag and tent door, and let my gaze follow the tracks past the tent and into the eyes of the animal just 40 or so paces away. It had obviously heard my stirring so it's eyes were locked on me before I saw it. I couldn't place whether it's cries had been in indignation, alarm, or some other fox emotion. After a moment it turned and trotted silently upriver.

Thankful that the long night had ended and sunrise was near enough, I set about the now familiar routine of packing gear. When temps are bitter and/or a wind is blowing, the task always seems to stretch out miserably. On this calm morning there seemed, for the first time since Knik, to be no sense of urgency. I attributed that not just to the warmth, but to the sense of relief I felt at the end of the long night. With gear stowed and breakfast festering in the thermos I walked south toward Nulato.

Relatively warm overnight temps meant that the trail had not set up into a rideable platform, a fact that I found myself curiously detached from. Looking back from the comfortable distance of a year, I suspect that I'd finally unhooked myself from caring about the things I had no control over. Only so much mental energy can be mustered up on any given day, and I'd finally arrived at a state of exhaustion where drawing the circle of focus in tighter to myself was mandatory. A hard won lesson and not an easy one to duplicate. Through all my years of racing and even now in my 'touring' phase, this is perhaps the biggest psychological leap I've accomplished, and one that cuts across the grain of my everyday MO of dotting every i and crossing every t, often before they've even been written.

The sun's appearance over the east bank cast a delicious radiance across the river.

I smiled at the first soft kiss of warmth on my left cheek, realizing almost instantly that warmth at this hour meant scorching heat this afternoon. A soft trail at dawn does not get better with heat. As I mulled over the possibilities of how the day might pan out, I chuckled softly at how shortlived my 'letting go' of control had been. 'bout 22 minutes--a new record.

The GPS told that from camp to Nulato was less than 10 miles, giving me an intermediate goal to focus on. I plodded and schlepped more than 9 of those ten miles, somehow summoning the energy to pedal briefly in the warm glow of that first direct sunlight.

Fast-twitch muscles exhausted themselves quickly, then it was back to walking.

Nulato was strangely quiet as I walked up the bank.

I paused outside the Iditarod checkpoint to chat briefly with an old friend loitering there. Eric seems to always find some sort of guiding gig this time of year, allowing him to travel the trail (by snowmachine) and experience the people and spectacle along the way. We share a few anecdotes from our respective trips then I roll out of town and back onto the river. 38 miles separate Nulato from Kaltag, and me from the end of this sub-arctic treadmill.

The day heats up quickly. Before noon I've shed and stashed my windproofs and by one I'm in shirt sleeves, bare headed and bare handed. I spend at least some of the time staring at the ground 10 feet in front of my wheels as I walk, occasionally preferring the short, uninteresting view to the long, demoralizing one. From a certain perspective the Yukon possesses an ethereal beauty unmatched by the surrounding terrestrial regions. For a 1mph traveler it is difficult to find this perspective.

For the briefest glimpse into what I'm trying to explain, consider that the above shot as well as the three below were taken over a three hour span. In that time the obvious bluff went from a dot on the horizon to much closer but still several miles distant.

For a guy like me that likes to have as many fires as possible burning at the same time, just to keep things interesting, having to do just this one thing (walk) is a difficult sort of retraining to accomplish. Juggling is easy, patience and singleminded focus is, apparently, not.

The afternoon dragged on. At one point, making little progress while dragging the bike through the equivalent of a quagmire, I just laid down in the snow for a 5 minute catnap. I awoke, unsurprisingly, shivering because I was dressed so light. But the sleep felt so good that I pulled out my puffy jacket and sleep pad, walked another quarter mile to an Iditarod tripod, then hung all my gear out to dry in the roasting sun while napping. Somewhat less than an hour had passed when I packed up dry gear with a recharged attitude, the back of the torrid afternoon seemingly broken.

Many more ravens (or maybe they were the same ones, just leapfrogging?) accompanied me through the afternoon and into evening, scavenging anything not nailed down. Dogshit, dog booties, cigarette butts, candy wrappers, red bull cans, beer bottles--all of it presented a fascinating playground for the ravens to investigate and possibly eat, so for better or worse (better for me--I enjoyed watching them figure things out, worse for them because I constantly interrupted) we kept each other company until darkness rose.

Late in the evening I passed through Kaltag, energized at having finally left the river behind. Wet snow fell heavily as I arrowed into the hills WSW of town, riding less than an hour before selecting a spot to set up the tent and dive in for some much needed rest.