Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Down the river.

Making your way from Ruby toward Galena requires patience, even when conditions are ideal. No matter how fast the trail is, the Yukon River is so huge that it dwarfs even the most herculean of efforts. Time simply stands still, or at least it makes you feel as though *you're* standing still, even if you're actually hauling ass.

Descriptions of this river's width do nothing to bring a reader closer to comprehending the true scale. Pics help, but the only way to really appreciate this feature is to spend a few days getting intimate with it.

Traveling by bike, in winter, is one way to accomplish just that.

Exhausted from the push up from McGrath, I admit that I hesitated when rolling down the ramp and onto the river at Ruby. I *wanted* a shower, a steak, and a bed. I didn't *need* any of these things, but knowing how easy it would have been to get them gave me pause. Leaving Knik two weeks ago my resolve was firm--the main experiment of the trip was to deprive myself of all that I couldn't carry in order to learn what I'd crave after 5, 10, and 20 days out, and just how bad those cravings would be. Now that the cravings were real the science behind them seemed somehow less important--I just wanted to scratch the damn itches so that I could get back to enjoying my little bikepacking adventure.

The only 'traffic' I saw all day was this solitary musher, whom passed me within a mile of leaving Ruby. Note the dogshit lining the trail--most/all of the dogs evacuate their bowels when leaving the villages (because they've eaten a big meal, then slept a few hours) so the trail is almost always easy to follow for the first few miles.

Looking back at Ruby, perched on the south bank.

I did that a lot the first few hours--looked back. I know this, now, because of the dozen pics I took looking in that direction. Was I expecting someone to catch up? Or hoping so--for the company and conversation that would take my mind off of the drudgery of looking forward?

Dunno. Perhaps the light was just good...

The trail was crap most of the day. Fresh snow mixed with some wind-affected, topped off with a sprinkling of very warm temps. I have no real right to complain--the weather wasn't out of the ordinary for this time of year. I'd simply lost patience with the slow monotony of the travel and was wishing myself out of it. Nothing good can come from that.

When it was rideable it was *just* so, and required a huge energy expenditure to keep upright and moving. At a guess I'd say I rode 6-8 miles of the ~50 to Galena. None of them consecutively...

Late in the afternoon the clouds broke and the sun shone through, lighting up the world and slowly bringing my spirits up too. It is educational (if embarrassing) to admit that my moods swung so easily--if a cloud moved in front of the sun it'd instantly grumpify me. Minutes later the cloud would pass and I'd be smiling again.

I needed a more permanent attitude adjustment, I just hadn't grasped it yet.

When it finally occurred to me how grumpy and moody I was, I took a brief break and dug through a pannier until I found these:

In everyday life if you waved a can o' Pringles under my nose I wouldn't be tempted in the least. There's a host of reasons that render them unpalatable, with trans fats at the top of the list. On this day I'd rate their value at somewhere approaching gold plated titanium, and I'd have paid any asking price for more.

Maaaaan (salivating heavily as I type this...) did they hit the spot.

Somehow a belly fulla oily, salty starch made the river seem a bit friendlier...

Pringle buzz aside, cloud pyrotechnics are always good for a pick-me-up.

Something about the day, the mood, the wind, or maybe it was the moon, caused me to keep moving deeper into the night than I had the whole trip. Each night thus far I had stopped by ten and was sleeping not long after eleven. What caused me to keep rolling *this* night may never be known. What *is* known is that the auroral display that appeared just after ten will likely remain one of the most _______ (<-put your favorite special word there) experiences of my life.

Above I wrote 'the auroral display' where most folks would have said 'the northern lights'. The difference is that they weren't just in the north--there wasn't a corner of the sky unlit and unmoving with their ethereal presence. Every point of the compass, and every point in between was alight and in motion. I dropped the bike and just stared, truly uncertain if this kind, this volume of a display could be real. I'd never seen anything like it. I'd never even heard of anything like it.

My mouth hung slack until my tongue went numb. Drool froze on my chin. I closed my mouth, but kept gawking. I shivered violently from the lack of movement. I didn't care. The waves swirled and danced, dipped and arced, shimmered and pulsed. There were reds, golds, greens, blues and even purples, but before you could gasp 'Look there, lavender!' the scene would have morphed and shifted. You couldn't pin anything down, and even with a camera capable of capturing it, I wouldn't have known where to point the lens.

The show lasted almost two hours. I *did* take several pictures. They bear no resemblance whatsoever to what I experienced that night. I even broke my own self-imposed battery limitation and burned through two whole charges shooting video of the aurora. The footage is striking and eerie, but so limited (you cannot frame the entire sky) and unable to match my memory of the event that I watched it once then deleted it.

No pictures. No video. All as it should be, for no facsimile could recreate the awe, wonder, and seat-of-the-pants shivering bliss that was shared with me that night.


  1. "No pictures. No video. All as it should be, for no facsimile could recreate the awe, wonder, and seat-of-the-pants shivering bliss that was shared with me that night."

    A perfect way to convey the experience.

    I like the pictures looking back at Ruby.


  2. My wife and I saw the aurora once, on a cold night on a trip to Vermont. It was random that we were out that late in the cold, cold air. It is an experience we will never forget. Undescribable

  3. I've heard Pringles could do that to you.

    Dave K

  4. Mike,

    Please stop posting up such amazing winter pictures. I start thinking that I can do such rides and get these crazy notions in my head. Then I wake up and check the high today in Tucson, 85 degrees.