Saturday, February 26, 2011

Up north, headed South.

No matter how many times I step off the plane and out of the airport into Anchorage, the outside temp always seems colder than it should be, colder than I remember, and colder than I'm expecting.

Even when it isn't very cold outside.

Last night as we crossed Turnagain Arm and began final approach, one of the guys from the flight deck came on to thank us for flying Barbarian Airlines and tell us what a pleasure it had been to take our money and, as thanks, send us through TSA screening. But then he also mentioned that the local temp was minus 7*C. In the convulsive turbulence of the ensuing few minutes I stopped trying to remember the conversion for celsius to fahrenheit. And then, leaving baggage claim and stepping outside, it didn't matter anymore.

Beyond a certain point, cold is just cold. Well, cold enough, anyway.

Driving through the deserted streets of Anchorage at 3AM, gusts buffeting the car as snow snakes danced across in front, each bank thermometer agreed that the raw temps were in the teens, but the humidity carried from the ocean-next-door always makes those temps seem so much colder to me. Add in a few knots of wind and I find myself doing what I've done every year since '97, and what all of this year's rookies are doing right now too:

Wondering what the hell I'm doing here.

The fact is that I'm here to do a little bike tour. And, this year as in past years, once I'm out onto the trail I'll adapt to the cold, and the wind, and everything else that comes my way, just as the rookies (whom are trying unsuccessfully to sleep right now!) will do. It just happens, almost involuntarily.

Touring on the Iditarod has become my annual sabbatical--the one sure thing that my year revolves around. If I wasn't here with a bike and a big bag of junk food at the end of February, the sun might not rise for me tomorrow. It's just that simple.

It's a little known fact that The Iditarod Trail splits into a North Route and a South Route just shy of halfway to Nome. North is used in even numbered years, South on the off years. I've ridden the North Route before--four times, actually. But I'm 0-for-3 on the South Route. I attempted it in 2001 and had to cut the trip short (waaaaay short--at Shell Lake) due to a torn tendon in my left ankle. Then I tried again in '07 and got shut down on three different attempts to cross the Alaska Range: once at Ptarmigan Pass and twice at Rainy Pass. It just wasn't possible to get through when I was there that year. I knew then, as I know now, that I can't *not* see the South Route--it passes through the namesake village of the trail, and just how the hell do you explain never having been to Iditarod after 15 years on the Iditarod Trail? So I tried again in 2009 and an errant gear failure caused me to abort my plans early on, thus I never made it past McGrath.

For 9 years I raced along this trail--traveling light, moving fast, enjoying it on some level but knowing that I was missing a lot by sleeping little and keeping the pace high.

Then I spent the last 4 (5?) years trying to get to Nome without outside support. That was incredibly educational and rewarding, but NOW, by gum NOW I want to see what I've been missing! Thus, the theme for this year's trip seems to be morphing into some version of "How many pictures can I take while traveling cabin to cabin and breaking bread (eating MEAT!) with the locals?"

One way to find out!

There's no way I could travel this trail without taking a heap of pics along the way. Bill and Kathi Merchant, the directors of the Alaska Ultrasport race, know this. So when I mentioned that I was thinking about coming up to tour this year, they didn't hesitate long before asking if I might have interest in shooting some video too, with an eye toward creating some sort of film about the race, the trail, and the people involved. And that sounded like a pretty good idea to me.

For those that haven't seen it, there is an *excellent* film already out about this very thing: A Thin White Line was made by Canadian RJ Sauer, whom followed the 2001 race to Nome by snowmachine and airplane, documenting the scenery and travails faced by the racers on their epic trips across Alaska. Even though it's fully a decade old it seems as poignant and gripping now as it did back then. If you've read this far you WILL enjoy it--find a copy any way you can.

So here I am, sitting in an Anchorage hotel room assembling the bike and sorting gear to the tune of a cold north wind blowing down out of the mountains. 45 racers attended the pre-race meeting this afternoon, and by this time tomorrow we'll all be a few hours along on our respective missions. I'll be riding the Snoots loaded for bear with cameras, batteries, filters, tripod, and chargers, traveling elbow to elbow with the racers and killing wholesale amounts of pixels when opportunities present themselves.

I will NOT be making any effort to keep up with anyone--merely filtering my way backwards through the pack as I make my forward up the trail.

I will not be checking in here along the way--vacations and blogs don't mix!

You can (and should!) follow the race as it happens HERE.

It is usually enjoyable to follow those updates as well as all of the other places that they pop up as the race goes on. Enjoy it, as well as the impending arrival of spring wherever you are. The wind outside the window tells me that spring is on the way to somewhere southwest of here in a hurry...




  1. I'm very excited to hear all about this one along with seeing all of the visuals. As always...I'm sure it will be fantastic.

  2. All the best on your journey, Mike. I can't wait to see what you produce from the footage!


  3. Wondering...What does the Snoots weigh in at fully loaded?

  4. cant wait good luck Mike.Bruce

  5. I can barely wait to see what this results in. I'm sure it will be something extraordinary.

  6. Bummed to hear you won't be in Nome. Was looking forward to the visit. Hope you feel better, maybe next year?