Sunday, March 28, 2010

Random re-entry ramblings.

Home now. Oh-so-nice to be back to spring-in-the-desert weather and dry dirt.

First, thanks to Scott and Jill for their diligence and creative speculation about what was happening out there. I've received heaps of thanks from family, friends, and not-yet-met friends, all praising the collective package that you presented. I enjoyed reading back through it and I'm indebted to both of you for the time you took out of your own lives to participate.

Second, thanks to the Hofstetters for guiding me in to Nome and providing sustenance and shelter for my wracked self. You never know how bad it really is until the shutdown begins, and having a warm, dry, clean place to crash was positively priceless. Hope that I can somehow, someday repay the favor. And, as an aside, I still think the greatest story from the whole month is that of Phil winning the race to Nome *and* finishing on his own doorstep. Awesome.

Third, thanks to all of you for the kind words and congratulations. Nice to know that there were folks following along and somehow engaged by what was happening out there.

Where to start with telling the tale? HeckifIknow. I guess I should start by saying that what I just did was probably the *worst* way to see the Iditarod Trail, or bush Alaska. Not spending time with the people in the villages really limits how much you can absorb and digest.

Having limited time to talk story with the mushers, trappers, and other on-the-trail users limits you even further. I won't go so far as to say that no one should ever duplicate this trip, I'll just say that there are certainly better ways.

That said, I really, really enjoyed myself, and I got my money's worth (and more!) with respect to gear testing and mental and physical preparation. I don't *ever* need to duplicate the unsupported nature of the trip, but I *do* think I've earned the right to do a cushy-as-all-getout muktuk and moose-fueled village to village tour someday...


I shot 1500+ stills and almost 2 hours of video while 'out there'. Early on the second day, somewhere on the Yentna River, it occurred to me each time I reached for the camera that I'd already taken (in a previous year) the shot I was about to take. So although I did still snag a pile of pixels, I mentally shifted gears and spent a few minutes of each day on a video diary of sorts.

Whether that footage ever sees the light of day will depend on my mood, sometime in July, when I finally find the time to start editing it.


For now, here's some of the post-ride randomness floating about in my head:
-Overall, the weather and trail conditions were stellar. Yes, it was slow early on (I spent 3 full days between Finger Lake and Rohn!!) but not much slower than average. Warm temps and ever increasing snow were the reason--you can only move so fast through deep drifts. But the weather improved after Rohn, and it just got better and better as the days piled up. Memory is a fickle thing but I really think the climatic and trail conditions this year were *better* than the year I made it to Nome in 15 days. Yep, that good.


-I may have set some sort of record for the longest distance 135lb snowbike bunnyhop on the way down to Takotna.
-Unfortunately, I stacked so hard at the conclusion of said bunnyhop that I lost my 3-way allen wrench. That's the only thing I lost out there.
-Well, that's not exactly true. I lost 7 measly pounds in 21 days out. So much for the hoped-for freakshow science project of losing 25+. Anyone want to trade metabolisms? I'll gladly rent mine out. Other than long distance, long duration, calorically deprived expeditions I'm not sure what mine's good for. "Hungry? Heck no--I had an almond for dinner, I'm stuffed...". Sheesh.
-I can't find much evidence (in the dog or people race coverage) of the severity of the cold snap we all had between Ophir and Kaltag. Daytime *highs* were in the minus 20's, with overnight lows in the minus 40's and minus 50's. I was desperately hoping for exactly those kinds of temps to expose all of the flaws in my gear and prep. And there were a few critical flaws that came to the surface after a week out in that kind of cold. The last night of strong cold was a grim one for me--shivering incessantly (inside the bag and wearing every stitch) and sleeping not a wink. The following day dawned clear, calm, and ~warm, allowing me to sun-dry my frozen gear. I got lucky that the snap broke when it did, and I learned some priceless lessons while it lasted.


-No frostbite anywhere. I nipped the tips of a few fingers on one of the colder nights while handling tent poles barehanded. Dolt. I have some type of superficial, um, weathering on my face. It is not frostbite, although everyone that sees it jumps to that conclusion. Nor is it windburn or sunburn. I can't say exactly what it *is*, only what it isn't. Healing fast, at any rate. Feet were pretty raw from the push/swim/crawl/drag over Rainy Pass early on, but most of that had healed by the time I hit the Yukon. Toes are bruised, (c)ankles and feet are still sore a week after finishing. That's about it for the physical woes--pretty stinkin' mild all things considered.


-I finished with 33oz of fuel left in the bike, meaning that I used slightly less than 5 oz per day. I was fanatical (<-not too strong of a word) early on about being miserly, and only when I'd amassed an extra 2-day buffer did I allow myself the luxury of drying out gear over the stove after the cooking was done. And even then I kept adding to the buffer rather than 'borrowing' against it.
-I finished with 2 full days worth of food. For anyone keeping close track, that means I ate *all* of my sweets in 21 days out (instead of 24), and I ate an extra 'day' of meals spread out over the last 5 days. I *never* got remotely tired of any of the food I had with me, I merely wished (starting around Ruby) for more. Some of the recipes were so good that I'm salivating thinking about them right now (ham teriyaki!). Shortly after Unalakleet I bonked severely. At least I *think* it was severe--I hadn't bonked since '92 so it's hard to know for sure. At any rate I knew that I needed to start eating more or I was gonna come to a grinding halt. Adding just ~500 calories per day took me from borderline bonking and fixating on food to feeling like all was right with the world and being satiated all day and night long. Amazing.
-At Nome the bike weighed roughly 92lbs. It never rode or rolled any 'lighter' that I could tell, it merely got easier to portage or manhandle when needed.

That's all of the randomness I have bumping around in my head. For now.


Please ask specific questions in the comments (below) and I'll be happy to answer them in a future post.

Last bit of randomness: Just after sunset one night on the Yukon River I bumped into two guys sitting against the south bank on snowmachines. One was a guide, the other a pro photog. They were the only two people I saw on the river that whole day, and these three shots are the result. Nice.






Right now, and for the foreseeable future, it's time to embrace spring in the desert.

All the best,

MC

Sunday, March 21, 2010

A waking dream...

As hard as it is to believe how well things went out there (relatively speaking, of course...) it is even harder to believe that its finally over.

Done. It feels very, very good to type that.

Thanks to Phil and Tom for the finish line greeting, and for tolerating my meatstravaganza needs for dinner.

At the moment I may be in more dire need of a shower than any white man in history. And it's warming up in here, so I gotta get to that.

More, so much more, later.

Thanks to all, for everything.

MC

Done!



It's official folks, Mike is in Nome. SPOT points and the above webcam shot confirm it (thanks to MonteW for sending the pic). Looks like a few people were out to greet him.

1,100 some miles, over 21 days of riding. Knik to Nome on the Iditarod trail. Purely self-supported.

Congratulations Mike! Can't wait to finally hear from you, and see some pixels.

For now it's time to eat a real meal and experience actual warmth, for the first time in over 3 weeks. That's got to be nice.

Friday, March 19, 2010

115 to go


the expanse of AK


Mike took that photo on his flight back in 2008. I zoomed waaaaay out today on the tracking map and looked in awe at the huge stretch of wilderness Mike has traversed. In Alaska. In the winter. By himself. Without so much as stepping in a building or taking a hand-out from anyone.

Pretty amazing.

He's past Elim as of this writing, and still making good headway. About 115 miles to go. His "miles per day" (average speed) has been steadily increasing, almost to 50 a day. I think there's still a very good chance he will finish by Sunday night, though the mileage suggests a more conservative estimate of early Monday.

When he can smell the fresh, cooked food available in Nome, though, I'll bet he pushes in. We'll see.

Unfortunately this will be the last update from either Jill or I for about 48 hours. Jill is participating in the White Mountains 100, a snow bike race in Fairbanks, AK. On the other end of the spectrum, I'm going bikepacking this weekend, and the high is predicted to reach 80 degrees. That's warm, even by AZ March standards.

Luckily, I think Mike would approve of both of our 'excuses' for not following along. I will check in late Sunday PM, and assuming I have functioning brain cells, will write again, hopefully with a huge congratulatory announcement (or one soon to be).

In the meantime, keep following along:

http://trackleaders.com/iditarodi.php?name=Mike_Curiak

--Scott Morris

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Floating



Mike continues to float through the Iditarod Trail, passing two towns and riding over 60 miles today (and the day is not done yet!). I knew that the trail alternates between wind blasted coastal lands and sea ice, but I did not realize, until watching Mike's SPOT points today, just how far from land the trail actually is. It's also interesting that his path mirrors the coastline, at least as shown by google maps. It almost makes me question the accuracy of the SPOT points.

Today was the most consistently fast day of the trip yet. Almost as if Mike simply stopped less, though it could simply be consistent conditions. I have one theory regarding the stopping less -- camera battery rationing. Mike's camera is relatively knew to him, and I think he had only burned through one set of batteries (4xAA) before the trip. He didn't have a good concept of how long a set lasts, so I think there's a good chance he's running out, especially given his blossoming photo geekery of late. It would lead to less stopping to set up shots, for sure.

Someone in the comments asked about Mike's base weight, without food and fuel. I don't have that answer, but we can estimate what his bike weighs now, at the end of day 19.

5.25 oz of fuel burned per day = ~100 oz
3000 calories of freeze dried food per day = ~456 oz

In the "head food" department, he wrote:

I've got 5# of Mike and Ike's, 5# of Trader Joes peanut butter cups, 36 Nestle Crunch Bars, 2lbs of Fritos concentrate, and 27 Clif Builders Bars. I've also got ~6 ounces of dried/roasted seaweed (that's a LOT of seaweed!) and ~4lbs of trail mix, consisting of Trader Joes dark and milk chocolate covered raisins, plain M & M's, and Peanut M & M's. When you think about junk food cravings, and how they can add up over three+ weeks, my stash of 'head food' is pretty inadequate. I guess I have some faith that I also have a stash of mental strength that can get me through the low points better than processed white sugar.

That's about 24 pounds, and it's probably safe to say that the majority of it is gone. I'm sure he is rationing some of the best bits (if he isn't sick of it all, who knows!). But let's say only 5 pounds of head food remain.

All together, I estimate his bike is well over 50 pounds (54 or so) lighter than when he started. He started at ~145 pounds. There's something almost civilized about a bike that weighs less than 100 pounds, perhaps for the first time all trip. But it is hard to say if the difference is really that noticeable. 50 pounds is a huge difference, but the weight has only slowly been coming off, and fatigue is setting in at perhaps an even quicker pace. I know from my experience backpacking and bikepacking that it's really hard to notice weight lost to food or fuel, though my experience only goes to ~8 days between resupply. With the flotation factor of riding a loaded bike through snow, perhaps the difference is indeed perceptible, both by Mike and by us through SPOT points and his upward trend in overall speed.

On the engine side of things, Mike started at 177 pounds, and if his estimate of 1+ pound loss per day is accurate, he is sitting comfortably (!) in the 150's now. He actually estimated that he might be losing closer to 2 pounds per day towards the end of the trip. That's ridiculously light, and inevitably a large portion of that spent weight is muscle, not fat.

He just rounded the corner in the Koyuk, and is back on land, heading west... to Nome. 170 miles to go. At present pace, we might see a finish on Sunday night, March 21st.

--Scott Morris

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

New ground



Mike passed a serious milestone today at around 1pm Alaska Daylight time. The town of Unalakleet marks the furthest point he has reached on any of his self-supported iditarod trips. 800 miles in and on day 18, this has been an incredible trip thus far.

You have to know that his thoughts were focused on the demoralized state he was in when he called it quits.

He wrote in 2008,

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.


It's now looking likely that there will be no unfinished business this year. He's obviously corrected many, if not all, of the mistakes of the previous years. Things are going very well.

Still, the first paragraph of the quote above gives a good glimpse into what his mental state must be right now. The yearning for warm places and hot food. For shelter and safety. I can only imagine how strong that pull is.

There's no speculation involved in the satisfaction he must feel in reaching Unalakleet ready for more. His SPOT points indicate he didn't even slow down and give so much as a longing glance at the buildings there. He is now some 30 miles north of Unalakleet and still ticking off the miles under good conditions.

If he maintains this pace he will finish in under 22 days, well under the food/fuel margin.

--Scott Morris

Cranking on the portage

With Daylight Savings Time come and gone, Mike seems to be traveling later into the night. He was still pedaling strong at 11 p.m. Tuesday. I wonder if he noticed — or cared — about the time change. Obviously, it doesn't really matter to him. He probably rises with the sun and pedals until he's ready to crash, the same that anyone would do when their sole occupation is forward motion.

This close to the spring equinox, he's enjoying roughly 12 hours of sunlight and 12 hours of darkness. Temperatures were near zero and east winds would be generally favorable, and it seems Mike moved at a steady fast clip throughout today despite the upward sloping terrain out of Kaltag. 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 to the west. Once he reaches Unalakleet, he Mike will be on the Bering Sea (sometimes literally) all the way to Nome. Out there, the wind blows hard and always, but it will be relatively new terrain to him, a region he hasn't traveled through since the last time he rode to Nome. (2001?) He had only about 20 more miles to ride to the coast as of 11 p.m.

— J.H.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Faster



Mike has seen a steady uphill trend in overall speeds over the course of the last several days. Conditions have been getting cold, and I have not seen any high winds or evidence of big storms. The Iditarod dogsled race and associated snow machine traffic might be helping as well.

The upshot of all this is that he's caught up to his 2008 pace, which is most definitely a good thing considering how tight his food and fuel margins are.



Here is little SPOT replay video I put together showing comparing 2008 and 2010. You can see how much slower things were in the beginning, and even though 2008 stays in McGrath for some time, it isn't enough to catch up. The "Endless Innoko" stretch of 2008 is where Mike really started gaining ground, whether from better conditions or avoiding the mental fog / demoralization that plagued him that year. He then continues to gain or hold ground throughout the Yukon river stretch.

Reviewing some of Mike's older posts, I came across this post talking about the dangers of the 'sledneck' traffic and how he has festooned his bike all sorts of reflective tape and fabric. In 2008 he recounts some interesting encounters with locals on snow machines, mostly out watching the dogsled race come by. One person he met even claimed to have run over and killed an entire pack of wolves. His post is well worth reading and can be found here.

He ends the post,

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.



I noticed that he was stopped for over 12 hours last night (perhaps a little less than that given the latency between receiving SPOT points). That's his longest snooze yet. Let's hope it was from needing a big rest from all the pedal mashing on solid trail, not from fear of being run over by a snow machine in the middle of the night!

At this writing Mike has passed Kaltag, which means he has turned off the Yukon River and is now heading for the coast. He is about 85 miles from Unalakleet, which is the furthest he has made it on any of his trips. He should be there in about 48 hours, then it is on to new ground!

Saturday, March 13, 2010

On the Yukon

On Saturday afternoon, Mike moved through the first real town he has seen in several days — if you can call it a town. Ruby, Alaska, population 188, is a native community on the Yukon River. In town, you can probably buy all the canned salmon you can eat, along with canned goods, a few packaged supplies, and, on a day well-timed with the mail plane, a non-wilted head of lettuce or a $9 gallon of milk. But Mike managed to ignore these temptations and kept pedaling right through town without stopping.

Even though the offerings of Ruby aren't exactly luxurious, it's still hard to imagine bypassing yet another opportunity for fresh food, a warm room to rest tired legs and a sponge bath next to sink in a small village school. Mike hints that he's preparing for a bigger trip in the future — presumably a trip through a large swath of frozen wilderness where there is no opportunity for resupply or even trees (rumor has it that Mike refuses to even build fires to warm himself and cook food in the evening, because he is preparing for a situation where there is no wood.) Still, the fact that he is presently moving through places where resupply and wood does in fact exist, and still has the capacity to ignore them, seems (to me) even more impressive.

After leaving Ruby, he turned west on the frozen Yukon River, where he will follow the superhighway of Alaska's Interior for a couple hundred miles. The Iditarod Dog Sled race is now in full swing. The leaders have already driven past Kaltag and are bearing down on the coast. Mike's probably had the opportunity to see a lot of the mushers go past, although I'm guessing he's looking forward to the no longer having to listen for those little dog feet padding the snow behind him. (Little dog feet, however, do help pack down the trail.)

Racers have reported temperatures as low as 40 below on the Yukon River. The dynamics of 40 below make things that much more interesting on a bicycle. For starters, even grease with a lower freezing point starts to thicken, which makes everything from the crank to derailleurs to the hub turn that much slower. Headsets freeze, making it hard to turn handlebars. The rubber in tires hardens and cracks. Tubes start to lose air, and if the temperature drops much more, they begin to come apart at the seams. Bodies move slower at 40 below as well. Even encased in a lot of clothing, at 40 below, a person's body has to work so hard to make heat that it's difficult to generate power. Muscles won't warm up and limbs move like they're pumping molasses instead of blood. It's all about survival at 40 below, and the mantra is, "Just keep moving."

And Mike seems to be doing just that — and moving really strong on the Yukon. As of 10 p.m. Alaska time he was still pedaling, making what looks to be some of his fastest average times on the trip. He's now about 575 miles into his 1,100-mile trip. I believe this is day 13. He should reach Galena sometime early Sunday.

River travel can be monotonous — wide, white and flat. But if Mike needs a little boost, he can always break out his secret stash:

— J.H.

Friday, March 12, 2010

A long haul

It's a long haul between Ophir and the next waypoint, the town of Ruby. It's interesting that even though Mike isn't getting any physical benefit from towns and cabins along the way they are very real mental waypoints (of course, they are potential bailouts should things go awry).

Mike struggled to be able to come up with any flowing prose for this section of the trail. Interestingly, both Jill and I have failed to post anything about it too, though that is perhaps more a coincidence than a function of the trail or a lack of inspiration.

At this writing, Mike is nearing a waypoint of sorts, that of Sulatna Crossing. Just a river crossing, from all I know. By the end of tomorrow he should be to Ruby, and likely more than ready to being the next phase of the trail. (If you haven't seen it here is the tracker's projection chart, that predicts arrival times).

He posted this photo from the Ophir->Ruby leg,



saying that it was about as scenic as it got the entire time. Bummer. It was a very long 'low' point for him, so hopefully this year things are staying a little more positive.

One of the Iditarod photogs captured some nice shots of Mike.







In that last one he looks a little thin to me. He estimates that his daily caloric deficit will result in losing about a pound per day. Think about that for a second -- a pound a day! That's a loss of twelve pounds so far. Also, in 2008 (when the photo above was taken) he started about 10 pounds heavier than he did this year, so he at this point I'd say he's at "race weight" and then some. As he put it to me once, if he finishes this trip, he won't be winning any arm wrestling contests at the Nome Nugget.

Otherwise, all indications point to things going smoothly. He's putting in consistent hours and consistent speeds, and still is on pace to finish (just barely!) given his allotted 24 days of food and fuel. It's amazing to think of all that has gone on in our daily lives over the last ~13 days, and that Mike has been moving forward, completely supporting himself and with an unwavering determination, this entire time. Keep it up, Mike!

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Ophir Gut Check

I was happy to see Mike continue on past McGrath, and even happier still to see that as of this moment (6:30pm AK time), he is heading out of Ophir. Though no mountains of mancakes are tempting him there, it is 'gut check' time, as he wrote in 2008:

Do yourself a favor--open up an atlas [or check the tracker's map -- SM] and check out where Ophir sits. Not much around, right? Takotna and McGrath sit ~40+ miles to the SE, and then waaaaay to the north is Ruby, and way to the WSW sit Shageluk and Anvik. Unless I turn around now, at my *best* rate of speed the next hint of civilization I'll encounter is at Ruby, and that's at least three solid days travel away.

Think about that for a second: When's the last time you left somewhere, anywhere, and knew that you wouldn't, couldn't get anywhere with a roof and four walls for more than three days?

Shageluk and Anvik are a similar distance away but positively unreachable--no one goes there from here, not in 'even' numbered years anyway.

Any phrase I choose will come off as cliche, so I'll just say it the way it comes to mind: Leaving Ophir is gut-check time. Have your mental shit in a pile or you'll lose it completely on the way up to Ruby. I dallied a bit while crossing the makeshift runway the dog folks use just west of town, mentally checking everything I needed off of many errant mental lists.


This year he did not have the down time in McGrath where tent parts, stove and other odds and ends were new additions to his kit. So perhaps his 'errant mental lists' are a little shorter and less numerous than 2008 when he new additions to his kit from his downtime in McGrath.

That downtime was almost 24 hours. Yet still his split times show him a day behind 2008's pace. It looks like he has been riding most of the day, with some slow spots of (likely) bike pushing. I think the pushing may be due to fresh snow, and perhaps things are looking a little like this:


(photo from Mike, 2008, just outside Ophir)

I'll leave you with the rest of Mike's words about the Ophir 'gut check':

I knew that I had all I needed--I wouldn't have made it this far if my gear or fortitude had been lacking. But still, the threshold between 'I am here' and 'that's way the heck out there' is slap-in-the-face obvious on the edge of Ophir. Somehow walking made me less anxious as I punched through that invisible wall and committed to heading north toward Ruby, so I strolled a few minutes until the lights, sounds, and woodsmoke were no longer sensible.

Despite the warmth of the night I caught myself shivering with anticipation. I reached down and flicked my headlight up a notch brighter, the better to see through the steadily increasing snowfall, then remounted and pedaled out into the darkness.



--Scott Morris

Past McGrath

Photo by Mike Curiak, bikes in front of the Takotna Library, March 2008

Well, it appears that Mike crossed a major crux point of his journey, passing through the town of McGrath, Alaska, without stopping for Mancakes. At about 6:30 p.m. Monday, you can see a spot on the map through town where Mike took 10 minutes to travel 750 feet on a packed road. You have to wonder if he paused for a few moments near the junction of the driveway of Peter and Tracy Schneiderheinze, wondering whether he should stop in to say hello to his old friends; wondering at the encompassing warmth of a wood stove when the temperature outside was nearing zero; wondering whether or not anyone would really notice or care if he darted inside and ate a big stack of the hearty pancakes Peter and Tracy's house has become famous for.

He didn't linger long, because 20 minutes later he was outside town and pedaling west. At 10 p.m. Monday, he was about five miles away from Takotna, which is the last community on the Iditarod Trail for nearly 200 miles. For the next few days, Mike has only a ghost town, an Iditarod checkpoint and the approach of the leaders of the Iditarod Trail Dog Sled Race to look forward to. You have to wonder if the dearth of civilization will make things harder or easier on Mike. This can be a bewilderingly remote section of trail, but at the same time, the temptations of the human world are vastly reduced. I mean, seriously, how does anyone voluntarily pass up Mancakes? Some mysteries of the mind will never be understood.

— J.H.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Rocking and Rolling to Guitar Lake

Mike seems to have finally gotten a break with the trail conditions, covering over 50 miles on Sunday. That puts him at Guitar Lake and only a day behind his 2008 pace. That year he faced very strong winds that drifted the trail into post-holing fun.


photo by Mike of drifted snow from 2008

He made up some serious ground and I think his relief/enjoyment at it can be seen by him riding a little later than usual into the dark -- until about 10pm AK time.

Last year I called him out for doing excessive amounts of night riding on what he calls a 'tour' pace. Focused touring is the more accurate term, but he still claims that his night riding is pretty minimal. He usually rides until around 9pm, which is well beyond sunset at 7pm. Twilight does last longer in AK, but there's no doubt he logged a fair amount of night riding last night.

The weather looks cold with more snow forecasted this afternoon / evening in the McGrath area. We'll see if that impacts the trail conditions, which have been good according to race reports.

If all continues well, Mike should make it to McGrath sometime on Monday. McGrath will be a key indicator of how things are going thus far. If he is able to pass Peter and Tracey's house without stopping we will know that everything is peachy. The last two years he has stopped. In 2008 he stopped to deal with broken tent poles and stove issues. In 2009 he stopped and ended his trip there.

Even if things are going fine, it will be a serious test of his resolve in sticking to the self-support credo. I have heard and read many times from Mike about how amazing Peter and Tracey's house is. Pete Basinger summed it up well in an email to me this morning:

"Their house is like your best childhood memory of home, warm cozy, lots of food, parents taking care of you.  Pretty much what I think about during the whole race."

That's gotta be hard to pass up after over a week of being outside and in the cold. But let's hope we watch his SPOT dot keep moving right on past...

--Scott Morris

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Farewell Lakes

Photo by Mike Curiak: Farewell lakes area, March 2008

Mike is truly in the Interior now, probably taking those last wistful glances over his shoulder at the mountains and contemplating the open, remote, sometimes stunningly desolate country in front of him.

On Saturday, he passed by the single-room cabin known as Rohn, and traveled across the glare ice and gravel bars of the Kuskokwim River. Judging by his evenly-spaced SPOT points, he didn't seem to have too much trouble with the Post River Glacier — a 50-meter-long frozen waterfall climb that is famously difficult for both dogs and cyclists.

Photo: Iron Dog trailbreakers, February 2010

There is little snow on this side of the Alaska Range this year, and in many places the trail is bare dirt. The trail continues past Rohn through a series of low wooded hills and ridges, and sometime Sunday morning, Mike will enter a place known as the Farewell Burn. The Burn is the site of the largest forest fire in Alaska history, charring a million and a half acres in summer 1978. The region is still recovering, and stunted trees grow in clusters amid the charred trunks and twisted branches. It can be a spooky place, as evidenced by this story Mike wrote about one of his previous trips through the area:

Rolling along through the Farewell Hills I had time to reminisce about the dead wolf that some crafty bison hunters had propped up alongside the trail a few years back. They'd found it trailside after it had apparently been stomped to death by a moose. By accident or intent I'll never know for sure, but the hunters had carefully placed the carcass behind an alder thicket so that it was invisible to northbound travelers until they were literally arm's reach away. It was early in the morning (still dark) and I was a sleep deprived zombie when it entered my peripheral vision. My brain registered the shape but didn't believe it. When I swung my headlamp over to double check, the wolf's eye reflected the light and I'll swear til my dying day that that wolf took a step forward. I emitted (100% involuntarily) a 14-year-old-girl-at-a-horror-movie scream, simultaneously sprinting and bunnyhopping (?) as I passed the wolf. I was so certain it was real and so terrified it was chasing that I didn't stop sprinting for at least 2 minutes, and simply could not bring myself to turn and look back. I didn't want to know.


Photo: Iron Dog trailbreakers, February 2010

Although no snow can mean fast trail, it can also mean no trail, as shown by this photo taken last month in the Farewell Burn. The clumps of grass are called tussocks, and when frozen feel a lot like riding on a trail covered in bowling balls. Racers in the Iditarod Trail Invitational reported some of these sections as rideable, but slow and difficult enough that riding was more work than it was worth. Mike's now about 250 miles into a 1,100-mile trip (22 percent), and a little over six days into 24 days of food and fuel (27 percent), so he's still on a solid pace, but probably hoping that favorable winds and better trails will allow him at least a few "free" miles.

— J.H.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Comparisons





I added Mike's 2008 split times to the bottom of the table on the main iditarod tracking page:

http://trackleaders.com/iditarod

The numbers don't lie -- things are a lot slower out there than 2008. That year was his most successful trip, when he made it to Unalakleet, about 3/4ths of the way to Nome. Granted, his first few days in 2008 were relatively fast, with good conditions, but it looks like his Rohn split will be over a day slower, and he's only five days in.

That's a pretty significant slow down. And yet he's still moving... even right now as I type this (9pm Alaska time). You have to admire the tenacity.

The climb over the Alaska range and into the gorge are often full of bike pushing for Mike, but he doesn't seem to mind. Just being out on the trail and in the big mountains seems like more than enough. I'll wager a guess that he's had a rough moment or two, with all the hike-a-bike, post-holing and whatever other hardships he's endured.

The good thing is that he's always got his "happy glasses":



That video is just too classic not to share. He shot that video in 2008, on the same "day" as today -- having made it over the pass and heading down into the gorge.

--Scott Morris

Night on Rainy

Photo: Nearing Rainy Pass, February 2008

It looks like Mike stopped for the night at a point just below Rainy Pass. It appears he moved fairly steadily from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. and covered about 20-30 miles of ground (This is just a rough guess. Scott is probably better at interpreting distance based on the map.) Either way, that's a brutal grind of a pace, probably a fair amount of pushing if not entirely pushing over soft and wind-drifted trail. The SPOT dot shows him about a mile from the pass, at 3,200 feet the highest elevation on the Iditarod Trail. And it's not the most hospitable place to camp. Arctic winds from the Interior funnel up the narrow canyon and blast the open tundra. It's more than 1,000 feet above timberline, so there's nowhere to hide from the wind or cold. If the weather turns or temperatures suddenly plummet, it can feel as violently exposed as a high ridge on Denali.

On Friday, Mike will head down the Dalzell Gorge toward the Kuskokwim River Valley. Reports of trail conditions on the Dalzell indicated there is a lot of open water in Pass Creek and snow bridges on the verge of collapse. Of course, 20-30 ITI racers have gone through there already, so the stomped-out trail is probably fairly stable. It may even be rideable.

This long, gradual roll over a geographical weakness in the Alaska Range is definitely one of the most spectacular and scenic sections of the Iditarod Trail. Even if you're pushing a 145-pound bike, there are few better places to do it.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Slow goings

Check out the speed plot of Mike's trip thus far.





(I highlighted the different days, but since that is a plot of speed vs. time you can see each night's rest as the gaps in the plot).

Today was a serious slow down, compared to the first three days. Actually it appears things got slow -- like walking slow -- late Tuesday night, and they didn't get any better in the morning. Likely it is the combination of warm temperatures and fresh snow. Bad conditions affect Mike even more than the Iditarod Trail Invitational racers.

Despite that, he has passed a fair number of the runners and some cyclists. I have to wonder what they think of Mike, out there touring with his tank of a bike. It's kind of funny, but I don't think it's immediately obvious just how heavy Mike's bike is, or that he's even carrying that much more than other people in the race. Here's his bike, from 2009:



To this date, I still think he uses some kind of magic to pack all his bikes. How can there by 24 days of food and fuel on that bike? Some of the racers look like they are carrying nearly as much!

Those that remember his 2004 Great Divide Race setup know the magic of which I speak. I've been on several bikepacking trips with Mike, and though I have picked up little secrets here or there, I still don't understand just how he does it.

Mike's magic packing combined with his natural humility probably lead some of the riders/runners/snowmobilers/mushers he encounters thinking he's just a racer like anyone else, or maybe on a pleasure tour, enjoying burgers and toe warming fires at all the lodges along the way. In a way, it is a pleasure tour, but he's definitely biting off a pretty serious endeavor, as always with Mike.

Finally, I am somewhat well versed in the science of hike-a-bike and these SPOT points are proof positive of it:





Took him an hour to get up that hill, yet no points are on top of each other, suggesting he wasn't stopped. It might have been a multiple trip hike -- one the required ditching some of his bags for second go 'round. That wouldn't show on the SPOT, unless he had the presence of mind to take it with on both trips, purely for our amusement!

Here's to better trail and weather tomorrow!

Into the Alaska Range

Photo: Trail near Finger Lake, February 2008.

Seriously rough trail conditions out there. Mike seems to be taking it all in stride, and moved steadily through the day to a spot about five miles north of Finger Lake, where he stopped for the night at about 9:30 p.m. Alaska time. He's about 135 miles into his 1,100-mile journey.

This would mean he rode about 45 miles Tuesday, which, given the trail conditions, is pretty impressive. There were reports of driving wind and rain, slushy surfaces and sinkholes. It takes an amazing amount of patience, and not a small level of skill, to hold a straight line on soft and ragged snow trails. Add the amount of weight Mike's trying to drag through there, and it's not surprising that many of his average speeds between points later in the day didn't break 2 mph.

Beyond Finger Lake, the trail climbs slowly but steadily into the foothills of the Alaska Range. Mike's at about 1,200 feet elevation right now. Rainy Pass, mile 165, tops out at 3,200 feet, but there are an infuriatingly large number of steep drops followed by climbs between those two points. And trail conditions aren't expected to get better. 25 mph winds gusting to 40 blew in most of the trail in open areas. The reported rain will help the trail set up a bit if the temperature drops below freezing — but it hasn't yet. Plus, rain on top of snow can leave behind unseen hazards. The drop into the Happy River Gorge, known as the Happy River Steps, has been described as a "frozen waterslide."

Temperatures in the region remained in the low-30s with light snow, but at least the wind has let up a bit.

Track Mike here.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Tracking Mike





Scott Morris here. Just wanted to chime in and give everyone the link to Mike's tracking page on trackleaders.com:

http://trackleaders.com/iditarodi.php?name=Mike_Curiak

That tracker is updated every 10 minutes, and has the route and "check points" programmed into it. You can see speed plots, where he camped, split times... maybe more information than you wanted to know!

As of this writing (9pm AK time) Mike is just west of Skwentna, about 93 miles into his 1000 mile journey. I think he may have stopped for the night, since the point is old and he has been getting very regular updates otherwise. He's getting points almost every 10 minutes -- so far it's almost the best data I've seen from a cyclist carrying a SPOT.

I think he may have forgotten to turn the SPOT on at Knik (the start line) since we didn't get any points until about 20 miles in. So we don't have his exact start time, but I estimated it close enough. It's also interesting that he appears to have taken a different route near the beginning. The red line is Mike's own GPS track from his 2008 self-supported trip.

The iditarod is an ever changing trail that doesn't stay in one place, but this appears to be a wholly different route.

I'm very excited to be following along with Mike again, and also to have Jill on board since she actually has experience on the route and with Alaska snow biking in general.

I'm wishing Mike the best and hope that this is the year everything comes together and he makes it to Nome with fuel, legs and peanut butter cups to spare!