Monday, February 10, 2014

Up north, heading south: Iditatour '13.

My life as a 9-year-old, at least the big picture, wasn't much different than it is now.  I lived to play with my dog, ride my bike, and spend the rest of my waking hours out noodling in the woods.  In the past 35 years the fine details may have changed, but those 'big 3' remain inviolate.

In those days there were no TV remote controls--you had to get up and change channels manually.  Whenever my Dad wanted to see what else was on, he'd yell my name and I'd drop what I was doing and come running.  We had an agreement of sorts where under most circumstances I wasn't allowed to run in the house, but if the channel needed changing he and Mom would look (er, listen) the other way as I thundered down the hallway and jumped down both flights of stairs.

On one such mission I stood panting by the TV set, deliberately clunking the dial around, when a fuzzy black-and-white image resolved to be a frosty-bearded dog musher working his team up a mountain pass.

I plopped down next to the TV and watched, enthralled, through that entire episode of ABC's Wide World of Sports.  Though our grumpy labradoodle never saw things in the same light, objecting violently whenever I made motions to harness her to my bike or skateboard, I knew, canine companion or not, that someday I was going to see the Iditarod.

'Someday' started in 1997, when I made my first attempt at riding a 100-mile section of the iconic trail.  The mushers no longer cracked whips by then, and bicycles were still seen as a curious and harmless novelty.

In the ensuing 17 years I've ridden parts of the Iditarod trail on many different bikes, with greatly varying objectives, to vastly differing results.  My rough calculations say that I've rolled over 6,000 miles just on this trail--on 26" singlespeeds with 2.3" tires, 29" fullies with 2.2"ers, and a whole host of fatbikes with tires ranging from 3" to 5".  I've used rim brakes, drum brakes, and disc brakes out there, seen warm, snowy, low-pressure years, endured -60* temperatures, been flattened by 100+ mph winds.  I've raced in a sleep-and-calorie deprived blur and toured at a leisurely pace while ingesting local game at every opportunity.  Not to mention that whole self-supported thing.

Despite all of those years on the trail, as of February 2013 I had, somehow, never seen the South Route: the ~300 mile section of the Iditarod that goes overland between Ophir and Shageluk, through its namesake (ghost) town, then up the Yukon River through Anvik, Grayling, and Eagle Island.  I'd tried, and failed, to ride this route in 2001, 2007, 2009, and 2011, alternately stopped by an injury, equipment failure, sickness, and once due to the unamused whims of Ma Nature.

5th time the charm?

Along with Scott and Brian, I was surely hoping so.

Our adventure started at Revelate World HQ, where we assembled, tuned, and packed our bikes for departure.  

We continued our gear-sturbation that night out at Big Lake.  Here Scott debates whether it's actually possible to carry too much chocolate.

The next morning my friends helped celebrate the start of my 43rd year on this planet, with potentially my all-time-favorite birthday 'cake'.

And then we saddled up and rode.  Val Vanderbacon joined us for a few miles before turning back and leaving us to plow through freshies on our own.

Soft snow and flat light were the conditions du jour.  You know you're going to get them at some point--getting them early on makes you wonder how much they'll worsen before improving.

The Sleeping Lady makes her first appearance.

"Glad I don't have to ride one of those…"

-thought by all four pictured, simultaneously.

Near the confluence of the Big Susitna and Yentna rivers we spotted a wolf loping into the woods.  Seemed odd for it to be so close to 'town' and heading even closer.

I expected trail conditions to worsen once we hit the river systems, because they always have in the past.  Somehow that wasn't the case this night, and we rode easily and quickly up the Yentna as the sun fell and darkness rose.

"Scott, meet overflow.  Overflow?  This is Scott."

Dinner and entertaining stories at Yentna bled into an evening spin up the river before throwing out our bags for the night.  

Temps were in the +20's when we woke--downright balmy--and would stay that way for a few more days.

Breaking camp and making breakfast simultaneously, my stove wouldn't burn long enough to melt snow, so Brian and I improvised a cold meal and I spent the morning working through solutions in my head.

A not-uncommon sight: Open water on the Yentna.  At least it was visible this time.

Climbing into the Shell Hills.

Arriving at Shell Lake Lodge in heavy snow.  We stayed long enough for Zoe to feed the boys while I got some quality time with (her golden 'triever) Tanner.

Then back into the night for a few hours of riding before stomping out a trench to sleep in.

The next morning dawned grey and murky, with continued soft riding.  Less than a foot of snow had fallen since we'd started, but very little traffic had been out to help pack it in.

Whenever the trail is forced into a natural constriction--like here, passing through a stand of trees--all traffic is forced to use the same path, so it gets packed well and is easy for us to ride.

But when the trail is unconstrained--like when crossing lakes, swamps, or meadows--sledneck riders like to fan out and break their own trail.  As such all options remain soft and we alternate between riding and walking.

The rocky ridge that I've come to know as "3-miles-out" from Finger Lake.

Sustenance for the long haul: heavy-on-the-M&M's gorp, plus a man-sized bottle of Mike & Ike's.

As bright as it got all day.

Information overload.

Heading for the barn, at least for a bit.

Although he's been coddling us human-powered-types for almost two decades, this was Carl's first ride on a fatbike.  I think he's got a Nome trip in him.  If he could convince his wife to supply a few weeks' worth of her homemade nutterbutter's, it'd be a walk in the park.

We rolled out the backdoor,

down the big hill,

then out across Red Lake.

Up ever-steepening hills and into the dark and deepening snow we rode and pushed, stopping to camp only when Brian and I managed to drag Scott off of his bike late into the night.

And our trip was really just beginning.

Over the next several days I'll share words and images from our collective ride to McGrath and then my solo continuation on toward Nome.

Stay tuned...