Saturday, February 22, 2014


Jimmy P was up early making breakfast for the trailbreakers, and knowing that they were moving had everyone else up early too.

Outside it was warm, humid, downright wet, and smelled more of late April than early March.

Billy Koitszch walking some newly broken trail.

Down into the valley then up onto The Big Ridge.  I haven't mapgeeked hard enough to find out the actual name of this feature, but all whom referred to it did so in hushed tones, based (best I could tell) on the ferocity of the storms that often rake it.  No storms greeted us this day--overcast, warm, calm.

Bob Ostrom assuming the position a few minutes back.

The only places that The Trail is marked this heavily are those with frequent ground blizzards.  I mouthed a quiet 'thank you' for good visibility and easy, if slow, travel.

I stopped an hour or so after dark at an empty shelter cabin.  Kindled a fire, melted snow to hydrate a meal and fill my reservoir, then crashed out.  Woke to take a leak and the place was overflowing with people--inside and out.  Easily 15 bodies had arrived while I snoozed.  Huh.

It took an extra minute to step over and around them to get out the door.  While admiring the stars and relieving my bladder, it occurred that the night had sharpened enough to allow the trail to set up hard.  Even though my body wanted nothing more than to climb back in the bag and sleep, I knew that once that horde inside got moving, the trail would be shredded and I'd be back to walking.

  I enjoyed a few hours of cloudless, windless, lightless pre-sunrise riding on the way to Shageluk.

Never having been there before, it took an extra few minutes (and several wrong turns) to find the Post Office for my resupply.  Freshies on the bike and in the belly had me smiling as I rolled down the slough out of town.

That smile was replaced by a tolerant grimace as I alternately walked, pushed, carried, and only occasionally rode.  There was a firm base underneath, but the top layer of snow had been whipped to a drifted froth and was rarely able to be ridden.

Dumping off of a quaint, winding wooded trail and onto the Yukon can only be described as shocking.  

Andy Heading put it best way-back-when: 

"That's not a river, that's an ocean!"

Low ceiling, high humidity, and temps hovering right at freezing had most of the pilots grounded.  I kind of like it that way--it's a lot more peaceful on the trail.  

With the impending arrival of the dog race leaders, and with clients paying to see the race *from the air*, the pilots seemed, at best, stressed.

Nuclear headwinds and intermittent snow were my constant companions all the way up to Grayling that night.  Good sleep and an even better meal in the school there had me energized for the next reach up to Eagle Island.

Alas, the weather didn't cooperate.  Maybe 90 minutes up the river from Grayling it started to *rain*, and would continue to do so through the day.

Rain is not a common occurrence in Interior AK in winter.  As such, it isn't an eventuality that one plans heavily for.  Which is one way of saying that long before sundown I was soaked through, a consequence of choosing breathable and windproof clothing over waterproof stuff that makes no sense at sub freezing temps.  

I walked into the evening, looking for overhung river banks that might provide shelter at least from direct rain.

Throughout the day I saw not a single structure worthy of the name--nothing where I might build a fire to dry out.  Lacking a better idea, I kept walking.

Late that afternoon I heard what sounded like canine yipping.  I stopped pushing and calmed my breath to confirm.

What I originally suspected to be a pack of wolves turned out to be the leader of the Iditarod Sled Dog Race.

Martin Buser motored past with his ever-present cheeky grin, pressed a baggie of cashews into my hand as he did, then was gone around a bend.

Although at this point Martin had a comfortable 5-hours-plus lead, he was shadowed by this fella: A cameraman tasked with providing shots of the race leader.  I suspect that the mushers run so much at night partially to get a little peace from the media.

The paddle-track equipped machine obliterated any semblance of a trail platform, leaving me no choice but to high-step it through unconsolidated and barely frozen soup.

I hunkered down for ~3 hours under a crumbling, dripping, overhung section of riverbank that night.  When my bag became so soaked that it clung tightly to my already sopping clothing, I had no choice but to get up and *move* to stay warm.

Knowing that the Iditarod checkpoint of Eagle Island was something like 20 miles ahead, I set my sights on it and planned to hover over a woodburner for as long as it took to dry things out.  With another 60 shelter-less miles to go from there to Kaltag, I didn't see any choice.  Going into another night with no survival gear seemed stupid.

The trouble with that plan is that there was simply no room at the inn.  Eagle Island is a checkpoint in name only--consisting of a handful of tents and those in place to serve the mushers--not random tourists like me.  When I arrived I was greeted by a polite but firm checker explaining that "I have nothing to offer you".  Uncertain what he meant and not willing to simply give up, I pressed: "I don't need food, just want to dry out some gear before moving on."

He shook his head, sympathetic but unwavering, "We're already standing room only inside--there's not even room for me to go back in".


He pointed me toward a hole in the river ice to fill my water, then I walked on in ever-deepening slush, slop, and overflow.

For the next 60 miles to Kaltag, this is as good as it got:

Needing badly to arrive at shelter before stopping, I removed breaks from my agenda, kept myself hepped up on an assortment of Trader Joes chocolate, walked when I had to and adopted the mantra, "If your knees *don't* hurt, you're doing it wrong" when riding.

The day was long and often frustrating, just *this close* to rideable for miles on end.  In the last ~10 miles before Kaltag, just after dark, the trail firmed up and I was able to ride somewhat easily up the river, along the bank, then up the ramp into town.

Completely exhausted and mildly euphoric, I found the school and crashed out on a tumbling mat, happy to be someplace with a heat source.