Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Coasting. (Not really.)

A bluebird morning greeted everyone along the trail, and although I cannot speak for my fellow travelers, *I* knew today was going to be an exceptional day for travel.

It always is.

I briefly chatted with a group of slednecks over from Galena for the weekend.  Interesting how the concept of the roadtrip is the same in AK, but the execution and fine details are so different.

The last ~two hours into Unalakleet were delightful: hardpacked trail, not enough wind to matter, and sun on my back.  I've waited out storms here in the past and it's a great place to do exactly that.  The lack of any sort of storm had me positively jonesing to ride.  After all of the downtime in the Interior and slogging on the Yukon, it was finally time.

Not so fast.  Despite the fact that I'd shipped a box of food and camera batts here over 4 weeks before, the P.O. peeps couldn't locate it.  After some halfhearted searching on their part succeeded only in wasting time, I rolled down to the AC and re-upped on ~2 days of cheap junk food.  Peanut butter cups and Mike & Ike's featured prominently.  I narrowly avoided the jalapeño chicken corn dogs (what could go wrong?!) in the hotbox near the checkout.

On the coast, finally.

Appearances can be deceiving: it doesn't snow much in or around Unk, but it blows like hell often.  Drifts in the lee of, um, everything are common, while bare spots on the windward sides are the norm.

Friendly local with interesting stories to share.  Tires in his truck bed just arrived from Amazon.  "Free shipping--ha!"

After too much time spent not riding on a day that seemed so perfect for doing just that, I finally escaped the gravitational pull of Unk and headed for the Blueberry Hills.

Even when you're not looking directly at it, the influence of Besboro can be seen and felt constantly.  Just a giant hostile, otherworldly, alien-looking rock sticking up outta the sea.  I've vacillated between wanting to set foot on it and not countless times.  Currently standing pat at 'not'.  Scares the hell outta me for some reason.

Egavik River under there somewhere.  Looks like not much, but the well-tended fish camp at the mouth says otherwise.

My last trip through here featured the most intense bonk I'll ever be a part of, such that I had difficulty removing my bike from the trail tread before falling asleep next to it.  Riding wasn't on the agenda then--I was happy just to remain awake and ~upright the bulk of that day.  Today couldn't have been more different.  I had energy to not only ride but to borderline fly up some of the hills.  Traction and float were non-issues, meaning determination and a little skill were enough to ride pretty much everything.  After the 3rd or 4th summit I dropped all the way back to the coast in time to say sayonara to daylight.

A few hours later I found a recently constructed (and empty of occupants) shelter cabin with a commanding view of, well, this:

And that pretty much put the finishing touches on an incredible day.

I woke deep in the night with hopes of photogeeking the aurora, but they'd already come and gone or simply never made an appearance.

Morning.  Bluebird, again--after the red skies dissipated.

Minutes up the trail I got yet another stellar view looking north to Shaktoolik.  As I shot this one I wondered what the conspicuous white towers were, not remembering them from previous trips through.

Right where you exit the hills and arrive at the coast this teeny little derelict cabin sits.  Only once in my travels along the trail have I ever considered using it, but on that day I *needed* it.  During the '02 race to Nome a constant need for low tire pressures had nearly killed my rear tire by this point.  I borrowed a needle and thread from a Swiss snowmachiner and spent ~2 hours, sitting on a mangy polar bear hide, sewing the biggest holes in my tire ~shut.  During those hours a tempest raged outside, knocking riders off of sleds and even tipping some of the sleds over.  At sunset it was like someone flipped a switch and the wind just fizzled out.  Riding the next 10 miles into Shaktoolik felt like crossing a DMZ just minutes after cease fire had been declared.  A real gift, and not one to be taken for granted.

You have to wonder if the bullet holes happened before or after it crashed.

Looking back over a rock-hard trail at Old Shaktoolik.

Turns out the white towers are windmills.  Nice to see them there, in one of the windiest places I've ever been.  Curious they weren't there decades ago--the wind was.

When you live off the road system and your trash only gets taken out ~once a year, the dump can hold some pretty good finds.

Bummed musher with a young team that refused to cross the sea ice.  Heading back to Shak to scratch.

Somewhere in this pic the land ends and the sea ice begins.  Hard to tell exactly where the transition happens, and more or less irrelevant.  Squint real hard and spot a bright orange cabin just to the right of Little Mountain.  If ever you travel this way, it's a great place to plot strategy or nap a bit while waiting out a blow.  The trail *always* goes right to it before heading out onto the ice.  From there you'll not touch land again for ~40ish miles to Koyuk.

Looking back at Little Mountain, with a fata morgana of Besboro lifting itself above the horizon.

A few hours later, again looking back.

Getting the picture?  Other than minor variances in the surface (like this pressure ridge, below) not much changes on the ice.

Not to say that the riding conditions don't vary, just that external stimuli taper off dramatically.

This trip across the ice went down as easily as any I've done.  Clear skies, -15º, and not enough wind to matter.  I saw not one human, plane, sled, or dog team in the whole 7 hours out.  Quietest place I've ever been.  10th time on this trip I thought that...

Put another way, I traveled something like 7 miles an hour, for 7 hours, with moderate effort and no real breaks.

Notice anything in that last sentence?

First time I actually paid attention to speed on this trip.  OK maybe the second--after the Yukon.

In the meat of the sea ice crossing you can't see land, which had the effect of turning my attention inward.  I had time to think, and nothing to distract me from it.

After I lost interest in racing this route, I needed something to fill the writ-large void that was left.  Around that time, Kathi Merchant clued me into the South Pole traverse, and it's no longer a secret that I spent several years intensely focused on achieving that goal.  Some part of the attraction was the promise of priority--of being first to ride a bicycle from the coast to Pole.  But I really just wanted to see the Antarctic continent from the saddle of my bike, preferably with a camera in hand.

My self-supported traverse to Nome was one enormous step toward achieving that goal.  In all the years of research, prep, and planning that I did to get ready, I learned that the views down south were likely to disappoint: Once you leave the coast, with few exceptions, you're looking at flat and white from horizon to horizon.

Where am I going with this?

Time spent on the Yukon and again crossing the sea ice was enough for me, in an honest moment, to realize that I had zero real interest in heading down south.  Just two days of monotony (one and a half on the big river, half of one here on the ice) and nothing fun or even enjoyable about the riding was overwhelming.  I travel by bike to be able to see and document what's next--to explore and learn about my surroundings by simple, direct immersion.  

The Iditarod Trail has that sort of thing in spades--there is something new around every corner.  There are actually corners.

In Antartica the route would be flat, straight, monotonous, sterile.

No need to torture myself by committing to it for 3+ weeks.

Somewhere out there on the ice of Norton Sound, metronomically ticking out miles while caring less and less about them, my South Pole dream died.

More fatas approaching Koyuk.

Hours later I was across, celebrating spring with friends old and new in a town I've always had a soft spot for.