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.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Unexpected meanders.

For the first time in almost a week the temps dropped sharply overnight and although I slept great and woke comfy, stepping outside the tent made me instantly realize that I needed an extra layer NOW.

Layer added and gear stowed, the obvious benefit of the cold temps was a firm packed trail. I was stiff and sore and didn't have much gas in the tank, but being able to pedal a bike at 7+ mph gave me a little extra oomph and I covered a few miles pretty quick.

Approaching Galena I noted a shape shuffling ahead on the trail which slowly resolved itself to be Tim Hewitt.

Tim had passed me as I slept then bivied on the river for a few hours. His voice was cheerful but his body english was in full-on beat-down mode. There are no words to describe the respect I have for Tim (or anyone else that has made this trip on foot). The simple fact that every step is earned and coasting doesn't happen is a big part of it, but when you factor in that he doesn't have a bike to lean on (when riding or walking) and has to drag instead of roll his gear, you start to get a bit better appreciation. What Tim is doing is levels harder than what I'm doing. No comparison.

We chat briefly but Tim chills off quick and needs to keep moving, so I trot/walk to try to keep pace and chat a bit longer. We've both been living inside of our own heads long enough that conversation is labored. The most important of what we share is that yes, last night's aurora was indeed one of the most silently intense experiences either of us have had the luck to witness, and no, neither words, video, nor pictures could ever do it justice. We wonder aloud how many other humans (2? 20?) in the entire Arctic witnessed what we did last night. We smile at the idea that it may only have been us.

The trail pops up off of the river into Galena, then continues along a local ice road through town then out to the airport before resuming as a trail. Rolling back down onto the river I expect the same soft, slow slog that I've had for the last ~week, but am pleasantly surprised to find the hardpacked trail continues.

For the next ~two hours I motor westward, comfy zipped inside my windproofs but aware of the pervasive chill caused by the negative temps as well as the sharp breeze kissing my right cheek. The trail angles first N, then NW, and eventually veers due west. On this last trajectory the wind is just *slightly* behind me, and the GPS reports a solid 8 mph average for over 40 minutes. Unprecedented speed (!) since leaving Knik.

Before I can really enjoy or savor that speed, however, Bishop Rock comes into view and as I round the bend nearest to it, the low ridge along the north bank that has protected the trail from the brunt of the wind tapers down to meet the river bank. At the exact spot where that ridge ends the trail is drifted over. Bubbye 8 mph, hello 1.5. Gah.

I walk through the morning, impatient longing for the firm trail goading me into trying to ride anywhere that the platform is even marginally firm. I waste lots of energy but make no real headway other than when plodding afoot. By early afternoon the trail is so drifted that I resign myself to walking indefinitely.

Because the main pack of the dog race is traveling down the river today, there are herds of locals out on snowmachines to spectate their passage and cheer them on. As the afternoon winds on and more and more machines pass and engage me, it becomes clearer and clearer that spectating the race is a good excuse to tie one on. For the most part I'm greeted and chatted up by group after group of 'happy drunks', offered sips from countless bottles or flasks, and invited to join bunches of informal gatherings along the bank, the biggest of which has congregated around a bonfire burning into the snow near the Koyukuk summer fish camp. I laugh uncomfortably at the increasingly aggressive and derisive jokes tossed in my direction, unwilling to incite the jokers further but unable (due to my slow rate of speed) to get out of range or sight quite fast enough.

The hours pass faster with the increased anxiety.

Near sunset a snowmachine slowly catches up to me, notable because the driver lurches forward for a few seconds at a time, pauses for a few seconds and even stops, then hammers the throttle again. Following each acceleration he slowly eases off the throttle and comes to a stop, pauses momentarily, then hammers it. Because he is on a parallel trail I'm not terribly concerned about his erratic driving, but I *am* curious. Just can't quite figure out what the hammer/pause/hammer routine is about. As he pulls abreast, perhaps 40 yards to my right, I get to see and understand exactly what's happening. The accelerations come during his awake/alert moments--his eyes are open so he punches the throttle to get himself closer to home. Then he effectively passes out, chin bobbing down to touch his chest and hands falling from the bars into his lap. He leans precariously, perhaps unconsciously fighting to stay upright, then his eyes open, head rolls ~upright, and he grips the bars and punches the throttle again.

This goes on for several minutes until he pulls far enough ahead that I can't hear the machine, can only see his taillight brighten each time he hits the gas.

I make a mental note to pick a protected spot when setting up camp tonight.

Sometime after full dark a machine approaches from ahead. My headlights are both on high even though little light is needed to see the trail, and I'm relieved when it veers off the main track to pass before getting too close. But instead of passing the driver comes to a stop and kills the engine, offering me a pull from his pint of huckleberry schnapps before the machine is completely quiet. I hold up a hand to politely decline, he responds by taking a quick nip then stashing the bottle inside his chest pocket. The next few minutes are spent with him talking rapidfire about whatever idea comes into his head. He insists that all of the human powered racers have quit, frustrated by the conditions and nagging injuries. He knows this to be true because he claims to have personally taxied Jay and Rocky "and lotsa others, ya" to the airport at Galena. I perk up a bit at this, aware for the first time that others might be suffering or demoralized as I am. I ask about Carl or Pete and he insists that 'they're all gone, all of 'em, you're the last one on the river...". I'm skeptical but before I can think of a way to get verification he changes the subject to wolves.

His tale rambles and I'm not entirely certain that I'm following all the twists and turns. I gather loosely that a week or so ago a pack came down from the hills to the south, napping along the bank in the heat of the day then rousting themselves to cross the Yukon as the last light faded. He and his cousin were sledding home from the nearby liquor store (a story unto itself, and the reason for the volume of traffic as well as the drivers' oft-impaired state...) when they caught sight of the trotting canines and gave chase. As his yarn wandered on I found my heart racing, cheeks flushed, and hands tightly clenching the handlebars. He said that they'd chased the wolves for almost a mile (no animal can outrun a snowmachine in soft snow, meaning that the wolves' hearts and lungs were probably near to exploding) before his cousin took the lead and ran over the slowest straggler. His voice rose and his excitement was palpable as he leaned toward me to share the ultimate moment:

"We kill 'em all bro...

...all of 'em!

You shoulda seen it! Shoulda been there!

Beautiful--jus' las' week...".

Unable to contain my anger and confusion I stomp away as fast as I can. Hyperventilating, incapable of rational thought, increasingly afraid of how I might react if forced to listen to any more.

Some time later, deep into the evening, I walk along exhausted from the plodding but equally spent from the uncomfortable realizations I've come to. Modern natives face an uphill battle in so many directions, constantly battling unemployment, alcoholism and errant substance abuse, as well as maddeningly conflicting pulls from their rapidly fading subsistence past and a far more compelling and exciting modern present. Nothing in their feast-or-famine past has taught them how to cope with unrestricted access to booze, nor have they any reason to heed the sobriety warnings of the non-native teachers (read: outsiders) that have seen the big picture.

If his tale is to be believed I can only guess that it is no longer an uncommon story. While I want to take the easy, obvious route of condemning him for his actions, ultimately I cannot bring myself to pass judgement. I'm human too, and there's no guarantee that, when faced with his reality, I'd choose any more wisely.

(Required reading for an inside, in-depth and shocking-but-not-for-the-reasons-you'd-expect view of the modern Alaskan native's conundrum: Seth Kantner's "Ordinary Wolves").

Over the last hour of walking I head due south, following the main, broad channel of the Yukon toward Nulato. Lacking energy to posthole the bike ~1/2 mile off the river and up the bank into the protection of trees, I pluck one of every ten Iditarod trail stakes and stash them on the Snoots' rear rack. After a few miles of this I have a sizable hoard. I drag the bike ~30 yards off the main trail, then use the stakes to form a stockade of reflective-topped "X's" in the snow, inside of which I erect the tent. As I'm kicking in the tent anchors a pack of 4 machines roars up. They slow enough to shout unintelligibly in my direction, one of them lobbing a can of Keystone at my feet. Two teenage girls, holding tight to the drivers in front of them, giggle uncontrollably as the machines race away.

Supper is a somber and anxious inhalation of hot but tasteless freeze dried goop. I quench the stove, click off the light, then burrow into the bag.

The night passes as a series of brief, anxious 'sleep' episodes, each abruptly ended by the imagined scream of approaching snowmachines. In reality not a single machine passed in the night.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Down the river.

Making your way from Ruby toward Galena requires patience, even when conditions are ideal. No matter how fast the trail is, the Yukon River is so huge that it dwarfs even the most herculean of efforts. Time simply stands still, or at least it makes you feel as though *you're* standing still, even if you're actually hauling ass.

Descriptions of this river's width do nothing to bring a reader closer to comprehending the true scale. Pics help, but the only way to really appreciate this feature is to spend a few days getting intimate with it.

Traveling by bike, in winter, is one way to accomplish just that.

Exhausted from the push up from McGrath, I admit that I hesitated when rolling down the ramp and onto the river at Ruby. I *wanted* a shower, a steak, and a bed. I didn't *need* any of these things, but knowing how easy it would have been to get them gave me pause. Leaving Knik two weeks ago my resolve was firm--the main experiment of the trip was to deprive myself of all that I couldn't carry in order to learn what I'd crave after 5, 10, and 20 days out, and just how bad those cravings would be. Now that the cravings were real the science behind them seemed somehow less important--I just wanted to scratch the damn itches so that I could get back to enjoying my little bikepacking adventure.

The only 'traffic' I saw all day was this solitary musher, whom passed me within a mile of leaving Ruby. Note the dogshit lining the trail--most/all of the dogs evacuate their bowels when leaving the villages (because they've eaten a big meal, then slept a few hours) so the trail is almost always easy to follow for the first few miles.

Looking back at Ruby, perched on the south bank.

I did that a lot the first few hours--looked back. I know this, now, because of the dozen pics I took looking in that direction. Was I expecting someone to catch up? Or hoping so--for the company and conversation that would take my mind off of the drudgery of looking forward?

Dunno. Perhaps the light was just good...

The trail was crap most of the day. Fresh snow mixed with some wind-affected, topped off with a sprinkling of very warm temps. I have no real right to complain--the weather wasn't out of the ordinary for this time of year. I'd simply lost patience with the slow monotony of the travel and was wishing myself out of it. Nothing good can come from that.

When it was rideable it was *just* so, and required a huge energy expenditure to keep upright and moving. At a guess I'd say I rode 6-8 miles of the ~50 to Galena. None of them consecutively...

Late in the afternoon the clouds broke and the sun shone through, lighting up the world and slowly bringing my spirits up too. It is educational (if embarrassing) to admit that my moods swung so easily--if a cloud moved in front of the sun it'd instantly grumpify me. Minutes later the cloud would pass and I'd be smiling again.

I needed a more permanent attitude adjustment, I just hadn't grasped it yet.

When it finally occurred to me how grumpy and moody I was, I took a brief break and dug through a pannier until I found these:

In everyday life if you waved a can o' Pringles under my nose I wouldn't be tempted in the least. There's a host of reasons that render them unpalatable, with trans fats at the top of the list. On this day I'd rate their value at somewhere approaching gold plated titanium, and I'd have paid any asking price for more.

Maaaaan (salivating heavily as I type this...) did they hit the spot.

Somehow a belly fulla oily, salty starch made the river seem a bit friendlier...

Pringle buzz aside, cloud pyrotechnics are always good for a pick-me-up.

Something about the day, the mood, the wind, or maybe it was the moon, caused me to keep moving deeper into the night than I had the whole trip. Each night thus far I had stopped by ten and was sleeping not long after eleven. What caused me to keep rolling *this* night may never be known. What *is* known is that the auroral display that appeared just after ten will likely remain one of the most _______ (<-put your favorite special word there) experiences of my life.

Above I wrote 'the auroral display' where most folks would have said 'the northern lights'. The difference is that they weren't just in the north--there wasn't a corner of the sky unlit and unmoving with their ethereal presence. Every point of the compass, and every point in between was alight and in motion. I dropped the bike and just stared, truly uncertain if this kind, this volume of a display could be real. I'd never seen anything like it. I'd never even heard of anything like it.

My mouth hung slack until my tongue went numb. Drool froze on my chin. I closed my mouth, but kept gawking. I shivered violently from the lack of movement. I didn't care. The waves swirled and danced, dipped and arced, shimmered and pulsed. There were reds, golds, greens, blues and even purples, but before you could gasp 'Look there, lavender!' the scene would have morphed and shifted. You couldn't pin anything down, and even with a camera capable of capturing it, I wouldn't have known where to point the lens.

The show lasted almost two hours. I *did* take several pictures. They bear no resemblance whatsoever to what I experienced that night. I even broke my own self-imposed battery limitation and burned through two whole charges shooting video of the aurora. The footage is striking and eerie, but so limited (you cannot frame the entire sky) and unable to match my memory of the event that I watched it once then deleted it.

No pictures. No video. All as it should be, for no facsimile could recreate the awe, wonder, and seat-of-the-pants shivering bliss that was shared with me that night.

What would you do?

I mean if it's February, and it looks like this:

What choice do you have--you saddle up and go ride, right?

We had a brief pow-wow and decided there was no other choice...

Naturally, we've been riding icy pavement if at all, so we started slow and just sorta proceeded into the day...

Dry dirt, dry rock, good friends, well-tuned bikes, and some *slightly* better than ho-hum views made it a good day to skip MacGyver re-runs...

Doc spotted a fun wraps-in-on-itself sequence and proceeded to smooth it:

Believe it or not, that one ^^^ *is* STIL.

As the day warmed up we did too. Layers of clothing came off as layers of cobwebs were shed. Pissboy hadn't touched his bike since mid-November, so it was fun to watch his early botched efforts morph into increasingly smooth successes.

I had the undeniable advantage of knowing the alternate lines on this trail better than either Doc or Pissboy, and I used it to maximum advantage in scaring the pee outta both of 'em. Hey--what are friends for?

A fave that photos can do no justice to:

The undercut on this one messes with your head on the approach:

Although our day wasn't even half-over, by the end I think that Milly was the freshest of the bunch, even though she never got to coast and covered double the distance of the rest of us:

Crowd favorite for sure: The wall ride.

"If only my family could see me now..."

Scooby-snacks were consumed as we caught our breath from each successive run at the wall, and it was hard not to just plain giggle as you arced up, across, and then felt the inexorable pull tugging you back down.

After the snacks were gone we saddled back up and continued in a northerly, funnerly direction.

The light was good so the cameras always seemed to be going, but it was really the riding that was going on this day. Awesome traction and no people to distract--we just rode, and rode, and rode...

Doc buggered his knee mid-way through the day, but you'd never have known it from watching him ride. Point (or even nod) at a move and he was already lining it up.

I couldn't help myself, I had to play a bit too...

At some point Doc ran outta time and had to skedaddle, at which point Milly staged a sit-down protest.

As soon as he got 60 yards away she caved and ran after him, and that left myself and Pissboy with a few thousand acres of red rock to enjoy.


So we did.

Ancient trailside flora:

Round about here Pissboy hit his stride and really started clicking. He arced a few turns up onto and off of this wall that blew me away. I had bigger, stickier, lower pressure tires than he did, and I wouldn't even consider going where he'd gone.

Sure was fun to watch him do it though...

Did I mention that the light was good all day? It only got better toward sunset...

Cognizant that the friendly daytime temps were fading as the sun slid lower in the west, we savored the last of our northward march then happily whipped a u-ey to head back the way we'd come. Tis a totally different trail in reverse, both scenically and in terms of the moves and the fun to be had.

El sol finally dipped behind Canyonlands to our west, allowing us to ride the last 20 minutes wrapped in this stunning warm glow.

Come to think of it, this day beat the tar outta any MacGyver episode I've seen...