Sunday, February 28, 2010

On the river

(Photo: Susitna River, February 2007)

As of 10 p.m. March 1, Mike was crossing onto the Susitna River, about 30 miles from Knik. I'm not sure when he left this afternoon; I'm guessing it was within a few hours after the racers of the Iditarod Trail Invitational started at 2 p.m.

At 2 p.m., the weather in Knik was 25 degrees and overcast. Light snow started to fall later in the afternoon, with about 2 inches expected through the night. Trail conditions where Mike is are variable — relatively fresh but packed snow in wooded areas, with wind-drifted powder out in open areas such as swamps and frozen lakes. This appears to be fairly similar to conditions last year, which means cyclists are working hard in the woods and pushing their bikes through open areas. Riding on top of packed fresh powder is akin to riding through soft mud, while wind-drifted powder is more similar to a giant, infuriating bowl of sugar. You could drive 100 snowmobiles over it, and it is never going to pack down into any kind of useable trail. Meanwhile, the round granules of snow add so much friction to the surface that pushing a 145-pound loaded bicycle through it probably feels like dragging a table through sand. It's mean stuff. And judging by his pace prior to the Susitna River, it seems Mike encountered at least a little sugar on Flathorn Lake and in the Dismal Swamp (which tends to live up to its name, although on clear days it offers fantastic views of Denali and other high peaks in the Alaska Range.)

I imagine Mike will set up his tent tonight somewhere near the banks of the Yentna River and polish off one of his 1,800-calorie dinners. At 10 p.m., weather in Yentna was 23 degrees with light snow, so it should be a comfy night out on the river ice.

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.


Monday, February 22, 2010

A storm monumental.

I don't ride the road very often--a few times a year at most. Saturday was one of those days: I chose to ride a loop that included the Colorado National Monument. Wet, heavy precip falling constantly meant that it was not, in any way, a pleasant day to ride. But cabin fever got the best of me and out the door I went.

Already you're getting the idea: Sandstone walls, massive evidence of differential erosion, heaps of juniper, pinon, sage and chamisa.

The day was fraught with intense squalls that cycled through snow, rain, snain, and fog about every 90 seconds or so. Moody.

The moments of snowfall drew my attention to how often walls tower above and around.

After an hour or so of steady ascent, you end up more or less at a static elevation and start poking along the rim.

The scent of sage was intense, even from a distance.

Boo times two.

Throughout the day, opportunities for history lessons were abundant.

Right about here it started nuking.

And then a minute or so later it let up. But didn't clear up.

Some of my favorite viewpoints were socked in when I arrived, which meant I spent more time gawking at the lesser-knowns.

Dry rock = overhung.

Aaaaand some not-so-dry rock.


Tis a super ride to have in the backyard. The views make it feel less like a true 'road ride' and that works for me. I do my best to ride it as few times as possible throughout the year, making each trip over the top a special occasion.

Thanks for checkin' in.


One wish.

If, when I die, the human race has not yet managed to abolish the afterlife, I want nothing more than to come back as a golden retriever in a loving family.

gif maker

Nothing more.


Thursday, February 18, 2010

Box? What box?

Let's say you spend some time riding a bike, on snow, in Alaska, in February.

Let's assume that the snow conditions are, for Alaska, average. You leave your starting point and the whole bike is shiny and clean. Most of the bike will stay that way, except for the wheels. After a few hours, your rear rim starts to collect snow. A little at first, then progressively more. Lots of factors affect how soon and how much, but pretty soon it starts to look like this:

At first blush you don't worry too much about it. It's just snow, it isn't hurting anything. But snow weighs something, and the more that packs in there the more weight you're pushing around and around and around.

After a few days you can end up with a pretty significant amount frozen to the rim.

I've always just stuck my hand in there and scraped it out when I started to notice the mass. But I've also always thought to myself that there had to be a better way.

I don't know that I've found that 'better way' just yet, but I've started down the road...

I started with a Zipp disc blank. Used a sawzall to get the cut started through the carbon, then finished it by hand.

After too many hours of cutting, grinding, dremeling, sizing, cutting, resizing, and then some caulking:

Curing now, should be ready to ride in the AM.

I'll do a brief fully loaded ride to triple check, well, everything, and then it all gets boxed tomorrow PM and sent north.

How's that for geekery? My only regret is that I didn't start on it sooner. Never enough time, and my black caulk skills could have used some polishing...



Monday, February 15, 2010

Smothered with relish.

It hasn't always been this way, but I've become a creature of distinct preferences when it comes to where, how, and in what conditions I like to ride. Road, racing, or rain? Thank you, no. Not now, and likely not ever again.

The reasoning is simple--I've been riding bikes long enough to know what I like, and what I don't. Given the choice between sharing my ride with inattentive drivers and not, or ripping an interesting singletrack versus plodding along on pavement or gravel, there isn't a choice to be made.

My choices are made simpler by the visible presence of the sun 300+ days per year locally, as well as the fact that when the soil is wet (during or after precip) it is so sticky as to be impassable.

So yeah, if I've got the time to get out for a ride, it's going to be done in at least partial sunshine, on trail, and the more technical the better.

However, once a year I take a trip into the unknown, and instead of picking and choosing the what/when/how, I'm forced to relish whatever presents itself.

I'm writing, of course, about my impending 'sabbatical' in Alaska.

Back in 1997 I made my first trip north. I had no idea what I was getting into, got shellacked hard with the backlash of my own ignorance, and came home with a fresh perspective courtesy of that shellacking.

I've been back up to Alaska every year since, usually for close to a month. It has become a part of *me* to spend this annual chunk of time up yonder, wandering northwest with eyes wide open and searching for answers to the questions I'm still learning to ask.

I never know which questions will present themselves. It follows that I never know if I'll have the appropriate answers until I need them. And when I don't have them, I'm forced to learn, or adapt, in a shockingly quick and often brutal manner.

No better way to make a lesson stick than to learn it in this way.

Which reminds me that, with any luck, there will be a few more occasions in this lifetime where I may yet again achieve that rarest, most fleeting, and most coveted state: That of a satisfied mind.

Details on the upcoming trip to follow...