Friday, February 26, 2010

Touring Alaska, 2010.

Starting Monday I'll be out on the Iditarod Trail with my bike.

I've been there before, pretty much every February since 1997. From a certain perspective, it is the *one* constant in the annual cycle of the seasons for me. Ten years ago I stunned myself by completing the whole Iditarod from Knik to Nome. No one really thought it could be done as a race (hence the original "Impossible" moniker), but relatively favorable weather conditions allowed a handful of us to squeak through the Interior and along the coast despite how ill-prepared and ignorant we were of what we'd find out there.

That trip, and the lessons it taught about my own adaptability and capabilities, remains one of the brighter defining moments of this lifetime.

That was then, this is now.
Going back to cover old ground is not the point. I have no hope nor intention of reliving past glories with a trip down memory lane. What I have in mind is far too ambitious for any of that. Even the idea that the ever-changing Iditarod could be considered 'old ground' is comical.

I'll be traveling under a strict self-supported credo, the reasons for which are obvious to few. I'll leave Knik with everything I need to live, move, and survive out there for 24 days. No resupplies, no warm buildings, no nothing.

I have it, or I don't.

The self-supported nature of the trip *is* the point. More on that in a bit.

Precursory type details.
As I type this the Irondog sledneck racers have left Big Lake and are headed toward Nome. The trail they leave is the trail that the ITI racers, and myself, will be following and depending on. Local traffic, where it exists, is critical to keep the trail in and packed, but without the Irondog we wouldn't get far.

Then, a week after the ITI racers start, the Iditarod starts. This isn't serendipity--the races are stacked the way they are on purpose. There's a very brief window each winter, just before it morphs into spring, where the weather and climatic conditions can be favorable enough for the trail to stay open and allow our passage through it. As with anything weather related, that window is unpredictable. The dogs and the sleds always make it through, partly because they're better adapted to over the snow travel, and as a result they cover ground so much faster. They don't much notice the conditions that slow us human-powered types to a literal crawl. The human powered types don't always make it through.

So, um, what's the plan?
I am not racing. The racers start on Sunday afternoon, and I'll leave ~a day later. My departure is timed precisely to stay out of their way, but also to keep me ahead of the dogs, hopefully until the Yukon.

Although I am emphatically not racing, in a manner of speaking, I have to move as fast as I can. 'Fast' may be the wrong word, and 'efficiently' may be the best replacement. The reason for this is simple--the amount of fuel and calories I can schlep is finite. I have to cover over 1000 miles of trail. I can carry 24 days of *limited* food and fuel. 24 days worth just might not be enough if the weather is anything less than perfect.

The reality is that this is Alaska. In March. There's roughly one half of a snowball's chance in hell that it's gonna be perfect.

As much as I've adapted to my new mein of touring and taking it all in, I don't *quite* have that kind of luxury on this trip. I need to keep moving constantly toward Nome, covering as much ground per calorie as I can given the wildly changing conditions. Scott Morris called it 'focused touring' and that hits the nail pretty squarely. I'll be taking as many pictures as I can, enjoying the views, thinkering hard on all of the things in my life that need to be thunk upon. And moving consistently through every daylight hour.

Round about now many of you are thinking that this sounds a bit contrived. If the point is to tour, why not pick up a resupply or six along the way, maybe stop for a shower and a bed and some moose stew? The explanation for why I'm doing it the way I am is complicated, and really only makes perfect sense to me. In brief, this Idita-trip is a shakedown ride for another, bigger, future adventure. If I can complete this self-supported ride up the Iditarod, in this style, then I'll have learned, grown, adapted enough to move forward to the big-one-yet-to-come.

More details, please.
A few years ago I shared many of my thoughts about food consumption for a trip like this. If nothing else, that journal entry marks a necessary point in the evolution of my learning and thinking about how much and what I needed to eat. I did not, as you may have guessed, end up gaining 28# pre-trip. You can read a little about why here.

My thoughts on food for this venture have lately swung 'round to include the revelation that limiting caloric intake during a solo endeavor where food is the one sure thing that makes you feel good (not to mention keeps you going) is a tough row to hoe, mentally speaking. But you have to limit the food you’re carrying as that’s the bulk of the weight on the bike, and the bike is already too heavy to make good progress on. Especially the first few days. Conundrum.

~10 days into it it’s hard to think about anything other than the things you can’t have. Bacon. Bell peppers. Ice cream. A bottle of root beer. Pizza, even cold! And chocolate. I’ll be carrying ~11 lbs of the good stuff, which might seem excessive but once out there it’s frightfully inadequate. Space is not much of a concern, but weight is already ridiculous at ~145# for the loaded bike. As much as I’d like to have 25 (or 30!) pounds of chocolate with me, that’s another 15+ pounds to push up every hill, drag through every drift, portage across unrideable stretches, etc…

I believe you’re getting the idea. Yes, this will be a physically demanding venture, but the hard part is really in my head.

And finally...
I will be Spotcasting. Meaning that Scott Morris can perform his own brand of magical map geekery, allowing anyone that so chooses to follow along right here in darn near to realtime. Scott has provided this service to me the past two years, as well as added verbal commentary when appropriate. His commentary has always been insightful and accurate, which speaks volumes about his bikepacking savvy given his lack of experience with snowbiking and the fact that he's never seen so much as a foot of the Iditarod.

An added bonus is that I was able to drag Scott out for a snowbike overnighter a few weeks ago, significantly increasing his understanding of what it is we do out there. Simply put, when Scott can find the time to chime in here I think his observations and speculation will be more astute and insightful than ever.

But wait, there's more!
In an effort to provide an even clearer picture of what might be happening out there, I've invited Jill Homer to contribute any and every thought that she wishes to! Jill has successfully prepared for and ridden Knik->McGrath, and has also dealt with the harsh reality of making a mistake that caused an unplanned and premature exit from the course. Simply having seen the route while schlepping a loaded bike uniquely qualifies Jill to speculate about my progress out there. But, for all 1.6 of you that aren't already aware, Jill is also an extremely talented Alaska-based writer and photographer. She has a gift for drawing you deep into *any* moment and then captivating you with the details of that moment. I hope that this doesn't put too much advance pressure on Jill, but I think that her observations and speculations about this trip will be so good as to be out of place on this, my otherwise verbally challenged journal.

So that's the scoop. I'm at the airport and should be on the ground in AK in a matter of hours.

Go time.



  1. This is the raddest thing I've seen in so long!
    Thanks for the inspiration.
    Best of luck to you out there.


  2. Mike, good luck to you.

    I have become a fan, and a customer, of yours over the past year and what you do is nothing short of awe-inspiring.

    I will be paying close attention to your travels and am looking forward to "your side" of the story when it's all said and done.

    Good luck again, my friend.

  3. Good luck to you. You inspire us to get out and ride in all conditions. Your photos are a work of art and I am so curious to find out what camera handles the conditions you ride in.

  4. This will be good. I don't think you'll read this until much later, but I always look forward to this, and follow along, trying to learn something myself along the way, without having to schlep a 145lb bike through a snow drift. Humbled I am.

    I won't ever claim to know why you do what you do and how you do it. But I would be lying if I said I didn't have some clues as to the reasons why as well. I've seen that gleam in your eye before. I've paid attention some.

    Thanks Mike. Good journey to you....

  5. You are one crazy cat and deserve the admiration of those of us who just dream. Best of luck on your journey Mike and I look forward to following your progress and learning.

  6. Woa dude, that's going to be insane!

    It will be sweet to follow along on here and get an idea about what you're up against.

    Ride hard and ride safe man! Good luck!

  7. Good luck!


  8. Best of luck Mike. Hope your trip goes well.

  9. This is pure adventure...looking forward to following you, seeing the photos, and reading the stories of the trail.

  10. I have followed you on this trip for the last 3 years. I look forward to the live updates and the write up at the end. This trek is nothing short of amazing.

    I can't wait until the day the "bigger trip" is revealed. I can only imagine what you are planning and what a show of intestinal fortitude even this trip requires.

    Safe travels Mike


  11. good luck getting to the North Pole Mike, you won't be alone