Sunday, March 1, 2009

High on the portage.

Heavy snow fell all through the night. When I first woke at daybreak all was quiet, muffled, due to the new snow accumulation. I knew better than to just rush right out into it--no chance of making any sort of progress through snow that deep. Instead, I did something I hadn't done once the whole trip: I went back to bed.


Further sleep was fitful but it did count as rest, and when I finally packed up and got rolling (I let three mushers pass then waited a solid hour to follow them) the trail was in stunningly good shape. A hard bottom could be felt (and *ridden* on!) underneath all the fluff.

Although the day started slowly and seemed to hold little promise for much movement, it turned out to be a barnburner. The farther I got from the river the firmer the trail became.

Hard-bottomed trails and a bluebird day were not enough to make things happen for this musher. Her team had quit a few hours out of Kaltag, and seemed reluctant to move even with her at the front and walking them along. Dog teams love to hunt and chase, so I offered to play 'carrot' for her team by riding just out ahead of her to get them interested in moving. She declined, seeming resigned to return to Kaltag to scratch. Bummer.


The trail between Kaltag and Unalakleet is known as 'the portage' because it traverses between two bodies of water--the Yukon in the east and the Bering Sea out west. The first third is a steady climb to a summit, characterized by a park like setting with thin spruce glades giving way to striking peaks beyond.


Each time I've traversed through here I've thought that the backcountry skiing would be phenomenal and, from Kaltag, easily accessible. Someday I'll find out, after the third book deal and the fifth million have been banked...

tee hee...

After weeks of Super Cubs, 206's and 185's buzzing about like mosquitoes it was engaging to see (and hear) this turbine Otter come lumbering past. He flew close (and low, and slow) enough that I recognized the Ultima Thule logo on the tail of the plane, and flashed back to a night 16+ years ago when Paul Claus (whom owns the lodge and was probably flying this aircraft) gave a slideshow in Crested Butte. Paul's slides and tales were mesmerizing and all-too-inspiring for a recent college grad with lots of ambition but little direction. I never did take him up on his offer of a winter caretaker job but I often wonder if that offer still stands...


The scenery was far too engaging to bother looking at the GPS, so I don't really know how fast I was travelling nor how many miles I covered. I caught up to and (much to his chagrin) passed one musher near Tripod Flats, then overtook another near the first Old Woman cabin. Recharged by the firm trail and stunning scenery, I motored across the summit then started down towards Unk as the sun set ahead.


Not more than two miles past Old Woman Mountain (pictured just above) the trail went to pot. Punchy underneath a wind-drifted top. Doh--back to the grind. No amount of effort could keep the bike moving forward under pedal power, leaving no choice but to walk. Seemed somehow familiar.

The farther I walked into the darkness of that evening, the worse the trail and weather conditions became. Continuous snowing and blowing as the temperature dropped made it easy to climb into the tent after a relatively short eleven+ hour day.

Notable from that evening inside the tent: For the first time since Knik I finished my dinner and didn't feel remotely satiated. In fact I felt strangely, alarmingly empty. Knowing that my caloric demands would increase as the trip progressed, I'd packed my dinners so that I was adding about 200 calories *per meal* every 5 days. I hadn't been able to finish a few of my 1500 calorie dinners in week one, yet here in week three I could power down 2100 calories in one sitting (seemingly in one breath) and it just wasn't nearly enough.

Sleep was eventful as wind whipped the tent and gnawing hunger whipped my mind. Also worth mentioning about sleep is that the closed cell foam pad I'd brought onboard at McGrath was not adequate (and certainly no better than the homemade version it had replaced) at keeping me comfortable through the night, or even for more than 30 minutes at a time. Horizontal rest is absolutely beneficial, but tossing and turning is not conducive to real recovery in this sort of effort. Not only was I burning myself up with constant motion during the days, but I wasn't coming close to refueling my fatigued body before settling down for what amounted to very poor rest. You could say I was burning the candle at both ends and had even found a way to ignite the wick at the middle...

MC