Saturday, March 28, 2009

Rock rocks.

I jumped at the chance to head a bit west and meet some friends for a ride. Until 15 minutes before liftoff we didn't know exactly where we were riding, only that we had a (gorgeous) day to spend and wouldn't mind seeing something new.

A few short minutes of spinning on actual trail brought us to our jump off point. We knew where we'd been, and we knew where we wanted to get to, but in between lay several miles of desert and rock. I wouldn't go so far as to say that any of us were worried about getting truly lost out there, but we emphatically didn't know where we were going nor what exactly we'd find en route.

The best rides always seem to start with some level of uncertainty.

We left the main trail and promptly portaged up a steep rock ramp. Bad omen for the rest of the day? Not if you ask Pivvay or Ion--both were smiling then and pretty much every minute thereafter.


Once onto the rock our options were plentiful. What's around that corner? What's over that haystack? Is that a peninsula or can you roll off it and onto that next slab? Is that as steep as it looks? Steeper?


We didn't know any of the answers, but we had an awesome time satiating our curiosity each time another question presented itself.


As the only true local to this area, His Fredness seemed most comfortable all day, probably because he always knew ~roughly where he was.


Each time we dropped into another rock bowl or slot and lost sight of the horizon, I'd get momentarily turned around and couldn't reset my bearings until I'd ground back up to where I could see the big picture. That kept the day exciting and always fresh, at least for me.

Many times we'd come to a point, regroup, discuss briefly where we thought it made the most sense to head, then we'd head off again--in differing directions.


Right way? Wrong way? Fah. Many ways.

"This one doesn't go..."


"But I think this one might..."


"It's never as smooth as it looks..."


Sometimes a dead end would set you back a minute or two behind the guys, which worked out great because then you could simply keep your head up and really look around until it was your turn to go scouting again.


"Oooooooo, what's this...?"


"That was fun!"


At several points we stopped to debate or discuss how certain features had come to pass. I don't think any of us really knew the answers, but that didn't stop us from tossing out random suggestive verbiage.


Sometimes, captions really aren't necessary.


Having spent the winter on snow and skis far more often than rock or bike, Ion started the day a bit hesitant.


That hesitancy didn't last, quickly morphing into smooth confidence and big grins.


"Honest, it gets worse thataway..."


What appears to be a wall to Ion's right is actually the head of a slot, with a several hundred foot drop and about as far across. Superman could cross it, but I'd wager heavily against Spiderman making it.


In case it wasn't clear: A day to spend, some likeminded fellas to spend it with, and nothing more than a rumor of a route to follow...


On a (very) few occasions we got flat stymied and had to walk across sand or downclimb.


Some techniques were less efficient than others...


Eventually we did in fact find some trail markings--painted dots on the rock. They'd clearly not been placed by human powered types (STEEP!), but they did get us to some pretty places.


In a way, following the dots was acceptable in that you could pay a bit less attention to where you were headed and a bit more to where you actually were.


Seconds after this shot was snapped we were treated to a precious first: a 'dot cul de sac'. Maybe you had to be there...


Back up the way we'd come.


"This has to be the mountain bike equivalent of powder skiing..."


Amen to that.


A little more climbing, some headscratching, and a little more bushwhacking brought us to a very familiar and much anticipated spot: The Portal.


Not having ridden it in over a decade, I let the flow take over and couldn't be bothered to stop for pictures.

Simply put, descending it was fun, fast, slow, chunky, exciting, inspiring, and not nearly long enough.

Awesome day guys--thanks for letting me tag along.

MC

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Touring Alaska, condensed version.

I was lucky to spend a bit more than 7 days and nights out camping and riding in Alaska this month.

I had planned an ambitious journey. I did not successfully complete all that I set out to do. I made a few mistakes in planning, and had no choice but to learn a few hard lessons on the trail, as well as to then alter and abbreviate the journey.

I'm nothing but thankful for the opportunity to participate in such a raw, unfiltered learning process, and for all that I've learned from that process.

One aspect of the trip that was successful was the cameratography. A new unit this year gave me a steep learning curve, but the results are decent and again--I got to learn a lot really quick. Image quality aside, I shot over 400 stills and about 5 minutes of video all on the same two AA lithium batteries. That's unprecedented, and a good reason to keep this camera around for winter use even if I end up not liking it much in the warmer months.

Worth mentioning is that they are the same two batts I used to snap pics at the ITI race start, as well as to take the ~70 or so shots on this day. Same two batts that I used to review (and re-review) all of the AK pics while driving back down the highway with Moobs last week. Same two batts are in the camera now, as I get ready to head out for a spring dirt ride here in the Junkyard.

I believe I've made my point--this camera has astounding battery life with lithiums.

I'm not affiliated in any way with Canon. But I'm willing to learn...

There are roughly 90 shots included in the slideshow below. Each has (IMO) a great story to go with it. Some have several stories worth sharing. And yes, I love to tell stories.

Alas, not enough time in the day these days, so these pics and some tunes will have to suffice until the pace of life mellows a bit next winter.



Until then, enjoy.

MC

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Guest blogger.

Worth reading for those interested in fatty fat fat tire bikes and bike fit.

Cleek.

MC

Monday, March 16, 2009

Turning the page, for now.

Big thanks to Scott Morris for the time, energy, and creativity that he put into not just updating this page, but also for all that he did to advance the way that SPOT units are and can be used proactively. Above and beyond as usual, Scott--I owes ya a frozen pizza or three...

No real secret what happened out there this year--an errant, somewhat unpredictable gear failure on the second night of my ride changed the entire flavor of the trip. In many ways that failure was a godsend, as the weather and trail conditions were emphatically not well suited to making it much farther in the style I was attempting. I'm honestly not sure if I could have made it to Finger Lake with the load I was hauling.

Once the mental shift was made (and gear/food was unloaded at Shell Lake) I really enjoyed the trip. It was sort of like going through the motions in many ways, as the conditions were never terribly harsh or slow or difficult, they simply required (and taught) patience. I got to spend time with friends that live or work along the trail, got to see and experience some of my favorite places on this planet, and got to be 'out in it' for over a week.

All in all, nothing like what I set out to do, but really enjoyable and satisfying at the same time.

Photos are all edited and ready to go, but I just don't quite have the gumption to do a 'ride report' about what I did out there this year. Hard to explain why. A big part of it is that after spending much of the last 4+ years enthusiastically pursuing this endeavor, only to have it end prematurely on all three attempts, I need to back off and regain some perspective before deciding how to proceed.

Meanwhile, Moobs and I are driving down the Alaska Highway, hoping to be back in Dysfunction Junction in another day or two. Somewhere down there I hope to find L and D, and maybe even some springlike weather including silky corn snow and tacky dry dirt. From there I'll just do what comes naturally.

All the best,

MC

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Fin



I just got an email from Mike. He's done, flying back to Anchorage this morning.

Rather than try to summarize, I'll give it to you straight from the horse's mouth:

My camelbak broke open inside the sleeping bag on night 2.
Woke up to a very strange and very alarming sensation of being soaked
from ~mid-thigh on down. I don't think I noticed immediately because
the camelbak was full of warm water, and you just get so used to feeling
warm, squishy toes up here that although I *did* notice it, it didn't
ring alarm bells until much later. Wrung everything out then shoved it
all back inside my top layer to 'dry' with body heat while laying there
(still soaked) and trying to reason out potential options.

Making a dash for Skwentna woulda been too easy, so I packed up (takes
forever with frozen gloves) and walked forward toward Shell, with the
hope of drying out my gear enough that I could just keep moving.
Probably woulda worked (albeit slowly--mighta taken 2-3 days to get
everything dry) *except* that somewhere in the Shell Hills the snow
turned to rain for ~2 hours, then back to snow. When I got to Shell I
was warm inside my armor plated clothing, but everything that hadn't
been wet from the camelbak was now thoroughly sopping. I didn't see
any choice but to stop there to dry things out. While inside I
started to get filtered versions of what was happening up the trail,
and it became obvious (from what I was hearing + what I'd already
seen) that this was neither the year to go to Nome nor even to try to
make it to McGrath in this 'style'. I ditched the tent + all but 8
days of food before leaving. In hindsight it's easy to see that had I
remained loaded I wouldn't have even made it to Finger.

Foot problems started while walking in soaked socks with 'dishpan
feet' on the way to Shell. Once it's started there's no way to stop
the process while on the trail--you can only (slightly) delay the
inevitable.


He added earlier, "Odd/difficult year, but maybe not in obvious ways. Very rewarding on so many levels. Learned bunches I didn't even know I had to...

With the exception of raw toes and ankles (had to peel my socks off
tonight, and lotsa skin and scabs came with 'em--doh!) I feel great.


Kathi's comments about Mike drying gear out at Shell Lake now makes more sense. I figured it was due to rain and warm temps, but a leaking camelbak in the sleeping bag is bad news indeed.

This was definitely a challenging year on the trail, and I'm glad Mike was able to make it to McGrath -- quite an accomplishment right there. The race winner to McGrath was about two days (about 50%) slower than usual. Not the kind of conditions that are conducive to what Mike was trying to pull off. As he said, "In hindsight it's easy to see that had I remained loaded I wouldn't have even made it to Finger" [let alone over Rainy Pass].

I'll still keep the tracker hosted on topofusion.com (http://topofusion.com/spot.php) going, watching Billy's progress on the southern route to Nome. I've put quite a bit of work into it, and I hope to see it used in other self-supported events this year (whether officially or not). I'm also looking at adding direct support for SPOT tracking in the TopoFusion windows application itself. That way things like the playback feature I posted a video of and a whole bunch of other geek-o-rama stats and charts would be available to everyone. There's no way all that stuff is ever going to make it onto a web-based tracker.

Thanks for reading along with these updates (and thanks to Mike for the opportunity/idea for this sort of thing). It's been fun!

-Scott Morris

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Pushing to McGrath

It looks like slow going along the Kuskowim River today. Mike has covered 30 miles so far, with what looks like constant movement (my track data is showing no stops). He's been moving for about 12 hours straight. That's an average of 2.5 mph (adjusted for GPS track distance, not SPOT distance).

My guess is it's fresh snow causing the slow down. Here's the current forecast:

Snow in the area to the east of Sleetmute will continuing through the evening. An additional 1/2 to 1 inch of new snow fall possible through the period...expect larger amounts of snow fall to the east of McGrath. Visibility reduced to less then 1 mile during heavier periods of snow. Variable winds 5 to 10 mph with temperatures in the mid 20 to lower 30s. Conditions continuing through 10 PM.

Nobody said it was going to be easy. Mike walked most of this stretch last year, and I'll wager he keeps pushing on through the night to reach Peter / Tracey's place in just a couple more hours.

Here's a close up shot of Mike's candy filled waterbottles:



Thanks to Eric P. for the pic and the correction on 4.75lbs of Mike and Ikes, not 5lbs!

I updated the TopoFusion tracker with the full route to Nome (I had the north route from last year, but had to piece together the southern route, thus the delay). It looks like Billy is at Ophir tonight.

I just checked in with the Iditarod dog race (tracker here) and they are catching up to Mike. According to that tracker the trail breaker already passed Mike (it was into McGrath 5 hours ago), but it doesn't seem to have helped him much.

I'm looking forward to hearing from Mike soon. I'm sure I'll have plenty to write in tomorrow's update.

-Scott

Monday, March 9, 2009

Rounding the corner to McGrath

Mike made some good headway today. He bypassed Nikolai (mile 300) a few hours ago, rolling through the turn to the west towards McGrath. That's about a 50 mile day -- not bad for the Snoots on snow.

Speaking of the Snoots, Mike's amazing wonder bike, here's a close up shot of her all loaded and almost ready to roll:



Mike should make it to Peter and Tracey's 'oasis' in the Alaskan 'desert' tomorrow. I'll bet mancakes are already on his mind, though this year he did significantly change the 23 day Alaskan wilderness menu. When I heard what was he was bringing last year I was shocked that it contained so little "head food." Sweets, basically. You know, stuff you want to eat. This year he changed that, adding "5lbs of M & M's (all varieties mixed together), 5 lbs of Mike & Ike's, about a half pound of roasted seaweed (one item where a little weight goes a LONG way), little over a pound of elk jerky that was handed to me at the last second, 24 peanut butter eggs (one for each day plus a bonus for making it to Iditarod), 4 lbs of chocolate chip cookie dough, 2lbs of Frito concentrate, 1 lb of Sun Chips concentrate, and 1.5 lbs of Tostitos concentrate. I poured the chips into the blender and ground 'em into almost-dust. So that 2 lbs of Fritos (two large bags from the grocery) fits into a quart sized ziploc with plenty of room to spare."

On the last (summer!) tour I did with Mike, he introduced me to 'Fritos concentrate' and I gotta say that it hit the spot. It's amazingly compact, yet filling (?!). By the third day of eating out of my rucksack, I coveted nothing more than Mike's little bag of 'Fritos.'

A remaining question is how much of these items (plus his freeze dried meals) he may have ditched back at Shell Lake, and how far he plans to continue. I should learn more when he gets to McGrath, where he has promised to call.

On another note, I just noticed that Billy Koitzsch is riding to Nome this year (I had assumed McGrath for some reason, not knowing Billy). He left today, which puts him not that much ahead of Mike. It will be interesting to watch his SPOT, still shown on the main TopoFusion tracker here:

http://topofusion.com/spot.php

It seems he may have figured out how to change the SPOT to tracking mode (before his points were very sporadic, only sending a signal when he actually hit the OK button). Mike's SPOT is collecting quite a track this year -- due mostly to a different placement on the Snoots. No problems with signal thus far. Most points seem to be no more than 30-40 minutes apart, and often the minimum 10 minute interval.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Vid

Here's a video of Mike at the start of his trip. Special thanks once again to Eric of Epic Designs. Some nice angles and shots in there.




Mike is rolling again after yesterday's push/pull over Rainy Pass. Speeds are definitely up, as shown on the tracker. The new version of the TopoFusion tracker adds a speed plot like the one shown below.



Speed is higher, but numerous zero values indicate he was stopping a fair amount (for him, anyway). Could be his feet/ankles bothering him or perhaps he's just setting up some photos. Hopefully the latter.

Mike passed the informal Iditarod checkpoint of Rohn today. It's reportedly getting busy as the dog race ramps up. For sure Mike has started bumping into the tail end of the ITI racers (mostly on foot, but perhaps a few bikers too).

The new version of the tracker also shows little tent icons where Mike stopped each night. Kinda fun to look at his progress in terms of days. Right now his stop at Shell Lake also shows as a tent, though, since it was longer than 4 hours.

I'm developing this tracker both for Mike's trip and for future use in other events. I'll be testing it in this year's AZT 300.

Tomorrow it's on to the Farewell burn.

I leave you with Mike's eloquent prose on today's trail, written last year:

A friend and fellow racer refers to trail/situation-induced highs as 'white moments' and in the fleeting alpine light of the ensuing afternoon they flowed freely. These moments are, to me, so priceless and so rare that it's difficult to find words for them and photos do nothing to bring them back. They merely get enjoyed in situ and then you move on, glowing. Glowing is the most appropriate word I can think of, now, to describe the way I felt as I passed through Rohn, traversed the South Fork of the Kuskokwim, then worked out past the Post River and Egypt Mountain before bivying on one of the Farewell Lakes. I have no recollection of time passing, nor of energy expenditure or caloric intake, they all coalesce into one fluid moment that lasted for hours, the recollection of which brings out goosebumps and a certain detached/glazed expression punctuated by a vacuous grin.

Just priceless.


Timing is very close today. Perhaps frame of mind, too.



Saturday, March 7, 2009

Over the pass


Photo once again by Eric Parsons from the start of Mike's ride


Mike has crossed Rainy Pass! If you've been following along with the TopoFusion tracker you've seen some pretty slow speeds today -- sub 1 mph in places. This is definitely bike pushing, which is why I thought the above pic appropriate.

However, I compared his 2008 and 2009 ascents of Rainy Pass (and the first 2 miles of the descent, which is often not safe to ride despite being downhill). I was surprised to find that he's only about 20-30 minutes slower this year.

The trail must be in much better shape than the racers experienced. We're getting some firsthand reports of waist deep snow and strong teamwork. Check the race updates for more (huge congrats to Jeff Oatley!).

Reports from both Anchorage and McGrath seem to indicate that Mike got a clear day to experience the alpine. I'm sure his camera was working over time and that we'll get to see the fruits of his keen camera eye in due time.

-Scott

Inside



'Mr. Smiley 2' picture by Eric Parsons


I just got an email (!) from Mike. He spent the night at the Rainy Pass Lodge with Sharon and Dick and Bill Merchant (race director and trail breaker this year).

He's heading up the trail as I write this, and said all is well except for raw ankles and bad socks. "Duct tape and super glue are holding them together for a few hours at a time--hopefully that'll keep working."

Sounds none too pleasant. Perhaps a product of the warm/wet conditions? He says the trails are slow, but I think he's been more disappointed with the lack of clear weather for picture taking.

He will try to call from McGrath, so this suggests he's still planning on riding beyond. No word on how much food and fuel he is still carrying.

I'll be watching the SPOT today, willing it over the Alaska Range.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Puntilla, Rainy Pass looms

As of about a half hour ago, Mike is in the vicinity of Puntilla, having traveled some 160 total miles.

No doubt he has stopped to talk a bit. Here is what he wrote last year:

Sharon and Dick are the caretakers of the Rainy Pass Lodge and although we're really just acquaintances who've met along the trail they seem like lifelong friends. I wouldn't dream of passing through without stopping for a spell. Dick is not to be found but Sharon comes out and shares the highlights of the winter so far. These two live a lifestyle that many would kill to hear firsthand tales of and few could ever commit to, and time passes quickly as she shares some of the latest. It seems that their children have upped the pressure on her and Dick (who are in their 70's although you'd never know it to look at them) to leave this utopia behind and reenter society to be closer to help 'should something go wrong'. I don't even need to ask if the kids that are leading this charge have visited Sharon and Dick out here. If they had they'd be clamoring to move back in with the 'rents instead of trying to force their own fears and anxieties onto two people who've truly found their place in the world. Most of us (raises hand) would give limbs to have the opportunity to live this peacefully and contentedly right up until the moment that we keel over into a drift on our way back from the outhouse.


After Puntilla the Iditarod Trail quickly climbs above treeline, which is a mere 2200' or so that far north. Shelter can be hard to come by, but the scenery is 'pretty OK' as Mike would say.







That pic was taken by Mike last year, working his way up the Happy River Valley, towards Rainy Pass. He writes last year that it was here that he did his first extended Idita-pushing, but that he didn't care because of the place he gets to do the pushing in. I'm sure he has been looking forward to this section, with its alpine scenery and otherworldly barren landscape.

It's still not clear what kind of shape the trail is in. The good news is that over twenty racers have made it to Rohn, on the other side of the pass. But others are still crossing it, and it has taken everyone a considerable amount of time. It remains to be seen how Mike fares with his Snoots-pig-of-a-bike. In 2007 he never made it over the pass. We don't know how much food (and fuel?) he may have dropped, but it's still safe to assume his bike is heavy enough that major portaging requires removing panniers from the bike and taking multiple trips. He has his setup such that this process is about as fast as it could possibly be (literally only a couple minutes to remove and reattach), but it's still not a fast way to travel.

Tomorrow should be interesting to watch. In 2008 it only took him about half a day to reach the pass (where he bivied) from Puntilla.

Speaking of 2008, here's a fun little video comparing '08 (red) and '09 (cyan) trips.





Sorry about the jerkiness at the start. It was smooth when I made the video, but somewhere along the way something got a little funky. It's pretty clear that he's behind last year's pace, but remember conditions were primo last year. It's fun to see where he camped each night.

Upgrade

I finally had a few hours to work on the TopoFusion tracker:

http://topofusion.com/spot.php

Mike's last 50 points are now shown on the map, all clickable. At the bottom I also added a table that shows the last 50 points with the distances and speeds between them. In the next upgrade I'll work on making the points in the table clickable.

Once again, that page is updated automatically every 15 minutes, but you'll need to 'reload' the page to get the latest version. I hope to find more time to work on it -- plenty more cool stuff to add. I'm picking up some PERL hacking skills.




Mike made it just beyond Finger Lake (mile 130) last night. I'll bet he was feeling 'guilty' about the stopped time at Shell Lake, so he rode/pushed until 11:30p AK time to make up for it. Or perhaps he was just taking advantage of the cooler nighttime temps.

-Scott

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Some word from Mike

Things are getting interesting on the Iditarod Trail. Check in with the race news for the latest scoop. There's so much snow that they haven't been able to establish a trail over Rainy Pass. The race pretty much stalled out, though finally there is word that some have made it to Rohn (over the pass). It's been an extremely slow year, to say the least.

Mike seems to be having his own issues as well. According to his SPOT unit he spent about four hours in the vicinity of Shell Lake Lodge. Then I got an email from Kathi Hirzinger (race director of the Iditarod Trail Invitational):

I just talked to Mike Curiak at Shell Lake Lodge, that is between Skwentna and Fingerlake.
He was drying out his gear, leaving some food and getting ready to head up the trail.
He said the conditions were wet out there, and punchy slow trails.
He is trying to lighten up his bike and heading up the trail.


I'm not sure exactly what this means. I do know that he had a very tight margin for the amount of food he carried to get him to Nome. So if it's true that he was leaving food at Shell Lake, he might be shortening his trip. It's hard to say, and we'd be speculating as to why. But that's what I'm here for, right? Speculation! I do know that the Serum Run stopped this year due to deep snow on the Yukon River. Kathi wondered if anyone in the ITI would go on to Nome this year. This might be working into Mike's thinking.

Things have slowed down today for sure. Here's his speed plot for the trip so far.



(X axis is miles. Keep in mind that these speeds are underestimates since SPOT points are not very frequent. His real speeds are likely 1-2mph faster).

It doesn't seem too heinous to me yet, though. (Easy for me to say, sitting in a warm room with no 100lb bike to drag through the snow!). He definitely experienced slower conditions (for many days) on last year's trip. But getting over the Alaska Range (through Rainy Pass) with a 100lb bike is no small feat, and it may just not be possible this year. I think he felt lucky and amazed that he made it last year.

We'll know more as he rolls down the trail. I will eventually quiz Kathi a bit more about her conversation with Mike. I don't want to bother her since she has her hands full at the moment.

Stay tuned.

PS - Google maps is loading very slow for me (if at all). I'm having trouble getting either the SPOT or TopoFusion trackers to show much. Hopefully it'll resolve itself soonly.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Touring?


photo by Eric Parsons

I'm starting to remember (from last year), that I can never stay up late enough to see Mike's last point for the day. Sure, it's two hours earlier in AK, but the sun still went down hours ago, and Mike is still riding. Last night he rode until about 10pm AK time.

That's ~3 hours of night riding. And he calls it 'touring.' (!)

Mike passed Skwentna today, and is now about 100 miles into it. He's actually nearing the same spot he camped last year on the second night. That's a little hard to believe because last year's conditions were reportedly in the 'best ever' category. So far the racers have been struggling with the fresh snow, but Mike seems to have chosen a good time to start.

He's certainly got no hurry to make it to the Alaska Range (Rainey Pass crossing) as the racers are getting seriously stalled there. We still haven't received any word that the leaders have reached Rohn.

There are a couple things that might be contributing to Mike's pace despite slower trails. Mike's total bike weight is down from last year, a product of gear refinement and meal/fuel optimizations. His body weight is also a fair amount lower than last year. You might remember his theory on starting 'fat' from last year. I guess he didn't like that idea much, citing a sluggishness and feeling of doing 'extra work' throughout the first week+ of the trip. So this time he is starting light and if he makes all the way "it won't be pretty and I won't be winning any arm-wrestling contests at the Nome Nugget."

At any rate, things appear to be going well thus far. There is snow and possible warm temps (even rain!) in the forecast, though, so it might get interesting very soon.

-Scott

Trackers



I'm working on adding some more info to the tracker on TopoFusion:

http://topofusion.com/spot.php

I'm hoping to add quite a bit of info there eventually, but it'll be a work in progress.




It looks like the trails are in good shape so far. Definitely better than what the racers experienced two days before. Mike made it past Luce's last night, riding until about 10pm AK time. He's already on the move this morning, nearing Yentna Station (mile 57).

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

So it begins...



photo courtesy Eric Parsons


Mike's trip is underway as of about noon today. Eric Parsons of Epic Designs was kind enough to drop Mike off at Knik Lake, the same spot the Iditarod Trail Invitational starts. He tagged along for the first 10 miles to Burma road with Mike, snapping some pictures that I'll include in these updates as Mike rolls along.

Eric reports that temps were in the "high teens with overcast skies borderline on snowing lightly." So far it looks like he's experiencing somewhat better trail conditions that the racers did Sunday. He's making better time and seems to be cruising right along.

I've set up a SPOT tracking page that is updated every 15 minutes (the minimum interval allowed by SPOT) with Mike's position. I'll get it on the sidebar, but for now the link is:

http://www.topofusion.com/spot.php

The blue dots are race checkpoints. Of course Mike won't be utilizing any of the checkpoints, but they are still useful for reference, and they give the total mileage along the route, as well. There are two riders (red dots) right now on the map -- Mike and Billy Koitzsch. (You can click on any of the dots to see what it is)

Right now you can see that Mike is at the confluence of the Yentna and Susitna rivers, about 35 miles in. Racers ran into heavy snow drifts starting at Flathorn Lake, so Mike had been considering taking a different trail that cuts off near the Little Susitna river. It looks like he didn't take it, meaning the trail ahead must have looked reasonable to him.

I want to take a minute to describe what it is that Mike is attempting, and my awe at the whole prospect. This is his third attempt at a 100% unsupported traversal of the 1100 mile Iditarod Trail from Knik to Nome. 100% unsupported means exactly that -- he is completely on his own. He is carrying all necessary gear, fuel and food for some 23 days on the trail. No warm buildings, no hot meals at the lodges, no filling up bottles in the sink. He's either got it now or will do without. To those that know Mike, he takes this unsupported credo very seriously. He won't so much as accept a frozen gummy bear from someone he might meet out on the trail.

Think about that for a minute. 23 days outdoors. In back-country Alaska. In subfreezing temps. 23 days of carried food without so much as a bonus taste treat.

It's pretty hard for me to get my head around. I'm no stranger to traveling and camping by bike, but there are always towns to limp into and recharge at. I can't tell you how much you depend on towns, how much a humongous meal and a night on a bed can revitalize tired muscles and psyches. Even on the Iditarod Trail there are quite a few lodges with rooms for rent and burgers ready to throw on the grill. But Mike is passing all this up and will just keep... riding.

It's pretty hard to imagine.

Last year Mike made it to Unalakleet at mile 721 on the trail. He just finished telling the story of that ride (scroll down an entry or two to read how and why his ride ended there). In 2007 he rode with a trailer and got snowed and stormed out of every attempt to cross Rainy Pass.

Since Mike won't be entering any buildings he has no way of communicating with us, or us with him. All we've got is his SPOT unit, faithfully sending tracking signals of his whereabouts.

I'll be following along, shooting for at least one post per day. I've got some info on the gear he's carrying and some other insights to share along the way. Other than that I'll see what I can glean from the SPOT data and try to come up with some interesting maps and charts. I'm looking forward to it.

For now, I hope Mike is making the transition from 'civilization mode' to 'wilderness mode' (not so easy to do sometimes) and is finding a good groove. As of 7:43 pm AK time, he's still rolling (well past sunset) which is a good indication that he might be doing just that.

-Scott

Monday, March 2, 2009

Afterthoughts. Forethoughts!

I woke up inside the Unk school the next morning. Sleep had been fitful. As in McGrath, I felt stifled by the heat and lack of a breeze on my face (I know, I know--too hot, too cold, too windy, blah blah blah) and as a result had tossed and turned incessantly. Still, to wake with a bare head and bare feet and be able to walk around with only a base layer and socks on--sheer bliss.

Until I stepped outside. There's something about 'stopping' (whether it be prematurely or when actually finishing a race) where your body effectively shuts down. No more heat production, no more tolerance to wind or cold, no more thermoregulation, period. I wore every layer I had and all three hoods were up--I hadn't been this bundled even once over the last 18 days. Yet walking less than ten minutes over to the airport left me shivering to the core and with numb fingers. I marveled at how quick and complete the shutdown had been this time.

Booking the flight back to Anchorage was simple, I needed only to wait 2 hours to board and then, through an odd stroke of luck, I'd have a very brief window in Anchorage before hopping a Colorado bound jet. If the schedule stuck I'd be home less than 24 hours after leaving Unk.

Despite my sudden inability to tolerate cold, I went for a walk. There isn't much to Unk--a cluster of buildings surrounding the airport, then two parallel main drags running north/south along the spit. The rest of the town consisted of a handful of homes, post office, community center, seemingly more buried-in-snow boats than people, a grocery, radio station, one open restaurant and one closed, and the school. Plus a whole lotta space in any direction you chose to look.

Bet your school parking lot doesn't look like this:


I stepped inside of the one open restaurant and sat savoring the heat, a hot chocolate, and a cookie. Stir crazy, I walked back outside and came face to face with Tim Hewitt. Don't tell him I said this, but man did he look awful. More tired than a person has a right to be, but still with a somewhat upbeat attitude. I tried to lure him inside to talk but he just wanted to get back on his way. When I told him I was headed home (I tried, but couldn't hide my happiness when making the announcement) he said nothing but his face told that he'd been considering doing the same. He looked like he'd lost his puppy. Although we talked for less than 2 minutes Tim started shivering and needed to move. I wished him luck and with a wave over his shoulder he walked north.


Shivering myself, I wandered back toward the airport, sat inside, and started writing 'the list'. Everything that needed to be changed, tweaked, resewn, redesigned, or simply rethunk got scribbled down. By the time I arrived in Anchorage I couldn't think of anything else to write.


By the time I got back to Colorado I'd forgotten about the list.

I ignored that list while enjoying the soft, sensual warmth of spring. I spent time with family, ate, rode bikes, ate, napped in the sun, ate, roadtripped a bit, and then consumed some food. It took almost 2 months to gain back the 17 pounds I lost on the trail. Not that I was trying...

Sometime in July I started thinking about the list, making phone calls and sending out emails to get things rolling. All through the fall and into the winter I tinkered, sewed, fiddled with recipes, rode a bunch, and tinkered some more.

It took until this morning, but every item from that list is now checked off. I'm back in Anchorage, the bike is here, the gear is loaded, and Eric Parsons will drop me off in Knik to get started in the morning.

Scott Morris posted from-the-trail updates right here last year. He has graciously offered to do the same this year. Scott is a Class-A tech geek with a map fetish, whom also happens to have oodles of experience with multi-day riding and racing. He'll be updating this blog with my progress as it happens, adding insights of his own as well as sharing a bit of what was on 'the list' as I make slow but hopefully steady progress up the trail.

I'd be lying if I said my chances at success are any better this year. The trail is long, the temps are cold, the wind is up, and I'm a year older and a year softer. I'd also be lying if I said I was anything other than anxious, jittery and yes, a bit scared right now. That slim chance of finishing and the butterflies have always been a good indicator that I've got a whopper of a challenge ahead.

How will I respond to this looming challenge?

Frankly, I wish I knew.

Stay tuned here to find out...

All the best,

MC

Unkle.

If someone has found a way to relax and rest inside of a wind-whipped tent I'd like to hear about it. Although I wasn't using ear plugs I tend to think it'd take quite a bit more than that to block out the sound of tent fabric flapping and wind-driven pellets of graupel and snow slapping the tent.

So to say, I awoke exhausted and ravenous, and didn't get any better through the day.

The only comparisons to be made between yesterday and today need to be drawn as contrasts: Bluebird vs. whiteout, alpine vs. swampland, fast, exhilarating riding vs. slow, demoralizing pushing.

Many mushers and a few snowmachines caught and passed me. Because we were burrowed into our clothing to protect faces from the wind and stinging snow, a simple nod or half hearted wave were all that could be called communication. 'Alone, with others' seems somewhat apropos.

As I trudged through the morning and into that afternoon I slowly came to grips with the fact that I was done in. Every person that has pushed themselves physically for long enough knows that when the mind has gone the body stands no chance of continuing on. Yogi Berra had it wrong--the game is more like 190% half mental.

Over the last two decades I've learned a thing or two about my mental state, physical capabilities (and more appropriately, limitations), and how to plan and prepare for multi-day rides, races, trips, and tours. Staring me in the face was the simple fact that, on this trip, my arrow had fallen quite a bit short of the target.

Half a day (something like 7 hours of nearly non-stop movement) of schlepping the Snoots over and through drifted snow brought me to the edge of the lagoon.


Standing on that teeny little rise, looking across the drifted slab of ice at Unk, I confess to feeling little other than relief. It was finally, blessedly over. Less than a mile to walk until I could lean the bike against a structure, any structure, then walk inside to feel genuine heat. And minutes after that I'd be eating food. Glorious, hot, real food in any quantity I desired.

Weeks ago I'd guarded against this temptation with the simple knowledge that to step inside of any building, to take any sort of outside support at all would be a failure of the objective, followed by the need to start all over a year later. Looking back at the failure of the tent poles, the contaminated stove fuel, the poor assumptions on food quantity and type, the disintegrating tires and lately the seized bottom bracket made it clear that I needed to come back regardless. Too many mistakes. Too much unfinished.

Unwilling to end on a sour note, I started across the lagoon while mentally putting the trip into perspective. I'd achieved an enormous feat, if only in my own mind. Leaving Knik on that 140+ pound monster I gave myself about a 10% chance of making it into the foothills, and virtually no chance at all of crossing the Alaska Range. Mistakes aside, I had managed to get myself through the mountains, across the Interior, down the Yukon, then pedaled/pushed/dragged the rolling gear pile all the way to the coast. I had a lot to be proud of, and a solid foundation on which to build for next year.

I rolled up the ramp, pushed through town and out the other side, then snapped this self-portrait with the sea ice behind.


The moment was neither touching nor memorable. A humid offshore wind cut right through me just as the camera battery died. I stashed the camera, rolled a few blocks to the community center, then stepped inside to call Lenore.

MC

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