My black bed of roses.
I'm going to bring 'em all back
With hypnosis. Ho."
A few numbers to start:
47- number of poor souls who left the start line in Knik
18- number of finishers in McGrath
0- number who decided to go on to Nome
55- percent of finishers on foot
3- number of partial toes Billy had cut off in McGrath due to frostbite
1- the number of miles the sign SAYS it is to Skwentna
2- number of times I was actually in the lead of the race
180- miles we snowshoed
30- packs of Reece's Big Cups I ate
1.5- number of Mancakes I was able to eat at Peter's
Everyone keeps using the word "epic" to describe this year's ITI. It's not that I wouldn't agree. But to me, epic things happen when people are wearing sealskin boots and are forced to eat the expedition dogs. I guess for me it was just hard. Really hard. But this whole winter was really hard. So par for the course, I guess. Maybe that's why we made it. We made it, and it wasn't pretty. Or fun. Unfortunately my cautions to those people out there who think they want to do this will go unheeded. They always do. They did for us.
Knik to Luce's- The Disappearing Trail
Well, we knew we were in for some snow at the beginning because we were shoveling two feet at home in Willow the morning of the race. Snowshoes? Check. Thomas dutifully came to pick us up and shuttle us to the race. As we drove farther to Knik, the snow dwindled and stopped completely. Hmm.
In years past, when Dave and I have attended the start, people were always milling around, none of the racers stop to chat. Well, that was us this year. It was a bit frightening knowing it was us going out there. No trip back into the bar for a juicy burger after all those crazy people leave. No juicy anything for a while, in fact.
Notice the wide eyes, the fresh faces, the naivity just oozing from our pores:
We said our goodbyes and headed out. The start of this race is so funny. Everybody just kind of hurls themselves onto the lake and heads out. With all the foot folks, it was a cool sight:
I have to say, the trail was incredible the first few miles. We meandered along, talked with folks. It was fun to travel on trail I'd never been on before, so close to home. But, nobody said anything about the hills in the first 10 miles. 9-mile hill is a doosy. Lesson learned: if there is a sign for a hill, it's going to be somewhat challenging:
At about the 10-mile mark, we could see the snow adding up and new it was only going to get deeper. But we didn't count on the wind, too. By the time we got to the Nome sign, it was blowing wind, snowing and blowing snow. We were re-breaking trail that people not more than 30 minutes in front of us had already gone through. At the Nome sign:
So by this point, I already had my snowshoes on. And to tell you the truth, this did not make me happy. Snowshoes are made to add color and adornment to a sled. They are not supposed to be functional. Dave was resisting the snowshoes and succeeded until we turned the corner onto the straightaway to Flathorn Lake. Finally, the snow was just too deep. We kept trudging along, noting the wind seemed to howl a bit up above the trees, but nothing was bad in the cover. After a couple miles we saw someone pulled off the trail. I thought, "Man, it seems a bit early". Note to self, when Eric Johnson pulls over to bivy, what you are dealing with up ahead is not pretty. After we passed him, I said, hey Dave that was Eric Johnson. We thought, Hm, weird, and just kept on going, obviously too naive to realize the situation. Yeah, there was deep snow. Duh. On the hill down to Fish Creek Slough and onto Flathorn, the snow was crazy:
So the day before the race Anne was talking about a shortcut everybody should take across the slough instead of going around and across Flathorn. So when we dropped onto Fish Creek, there were circling trails everywhere, one runner with an east coast accent and two bikes sitting by the trail. "Annie said the cut-off's right here" Annie? Oh, Anne. Made me think if a little singing girl with tight red curls. This chaos prompted Dave to quickly turn tail and head down the slough. He said "I'm not getting lost, I know the trail this way". I was in complete agreement. That mess looked like a time suck.
Ah, yes. The reason for Eric's Bivy- it was blowing so damn hard across the lake, we could barely make out any tracks. We were following a pushing biker making a horrific trail to follow (sorry guys but your trail breaking sucks for foot folks).At one point we heard an Italian accent yell across from the darkness "No Trrrail! No Trrrail!". No shit, no trail. Following a blown in biker and my snowshoes, the trail looked like this:
Now I'm not one to shy away from hard work but this is a bit more than I was hoping to do by this point, about 20ish miles in. Spread it out a bit, I say.
From this point on, things get a bit surreal. The wind dies down in the trees after Flathorn for just a bit, enough time for us to meet awesome Lindsey from Winnipeg, almost get lost on the "straight" trail and pass some bikers bivied. Really? Yikes. I honestly have to say, I was NOT hallucinating when I saw their bikes lined up, but they looked like those big metal spider artwork thingys you see places. Yup, crazy. So of course, after Flathorn is the Dismal swamp. I was already not looking forward to it because it generally is one of the worst parts of the Susitna 100. Hahahahahahaha. Well, no more. The dismal swamp is actually quite short as far as swamps go, I've come to find out, and it can get worse than just windy. It was windy, with 3 feet of snow to plow through. So not only did we have to keep snowshoeing, but we had to wear our Googles, too. Yup both pieces of what I had hoped to be ornamental gear:
Don't worry, that's not panic, just some early onset shell-shock. So for anyone who has cruised along the Dismal swamp before, the one good thing about it is that the trail is really straight. So we get out there and the damn trail is weaving all over the place like a blind person was in charge. Nope, not a blind person, but the lead group of bikers who can't see any markers. Because in a place like Dismal, there is nothing to pin a marker to. For three miles. So we keep moving along and we we keep passing bikers. "Excuse me, sorry, pardon me", "No, thank You" they all keep saying. I'm not clueing in on the meaning of this until we pass a couple bikers that look like they would be fast riding a bike and then butt up to some...runners. Oh, hi guys, Geoff, Beat, Anne and a couple other guys I don't recognize. Man this sucks, huh? They all look back at us a bit dazed. So we volunteer to break trail for a while. Geoff has a GPS with fairly good coordinates (if I only knew Right from Left) and points the way. Finally we see a marker, and another and another. I'm of course, thinking, how could the trail fill in so fast over the lead bikers and runners? I ask Dave this and he just looks at me and says "Babe, we ARE the leaders." Oh, really? What about Tim? He's back there. What about Pete? He's way back there. Oh. we had just entered Bizarroland for me. Kind of fun actually. After we start finding markers, the line gets a bit straighter and we are able to somewhat find the old trail with a more solid bottom in some places. Suddenly, Geoff turns around and says the dreaded words "we're going to bivy here". AHHHHHH! I looked at Dave. We had planned our race checkpoint to checkpoint to avoid bivying at all cost. Our minimal practice sessions were so awful, we knew we'd freeze. I told Dave that we were going to have to because I couldn't keep breaking trail with only the two of us. He quickly found us a great bivy spot under a spruce tree (it was STILL snowing) and we got to work looking like we knew what we were doing. Dave, in his sleeping bag, expressing our feeling about the situation so perfectly:
And both of us, trying to make the best of it:
Thank god it wasn't cold that night. I shivered for a while, then I think I slept. I have issues with the bivy sac thing because I can't breath in hot air or have my face covered while sleeping or I think I'm being suffocated. Dave said he thought he heard me snoring a bit but I think it was the hyperventilating. Either way, we were both glad we got the bivying out of the way. It didn't seem so intimidating after that. I headed and saw people pass us by in the night, all the bikers and a couple walkers, including Shawn. Awesome, they'll break out the trail when we get up. Actually, they all ended up stopping just past us to bivy, too. They just got up before we did. Bright and early Monday morning, we packed up our gear (all wet) and heading to the Susitna River. According to our gameplan, we should have been waking up at Luce's around this time, some 20 miles down the river. Instead we found some open water just at the Susitna, filled up our camelbags and marched down the Big Su. Monday mid-morning and I look well rested, huh?:
Dave leading us down the vast Big Su, with Frank just in front of him:
We finally caught up to Tim, then Anne, Beat and Geoff. Beat and Geoff were stopping for a quick snow melt and Anne decided to go ahead with us. Yup, still snowing:
So the trail is still crap and we can see a couple bikers ahead of us. Finally a snowmachine flies by with some crazy guy on the back. Later I found out it was Craig Medred but he looked just like a crazy local that finally broke out of his cabin after a long winter. Once we hit his trail, it gets going a bit easier and we pass the lead bikers, Pete, Phil and some other guy. At this point, Dave, Anne and I are in the front of the race again. Here I am, in the lead. Crazy!:
Just a quick reminder- we haven't even gotten to Luce's yet. Luce's isn't even the first checkpoint, Yentna Station is. The lead bikers usually reach Yentna about 7 hours after the race start. At this point, it's about 24 hours into the race. I think this weird reversal of fortunes is one of the things that kept us going- the novelty of it all, really. Pretty soon, Geoff and Tim caught up to us and passed us by, both on a mission:
One of the great things about the deep snow was that we actually got to see people we never would have, like Tim and Geoff. We were all in it together for a while.
After several "it's just around the corners", Luce's finally appeared. We all sat down for a much needed rest and burger. Since I was a novice, I asked Tim, "when's the last time a runner was in front of the bikers?". "Never!" he said, quite surprised himself. I don't think Tim had ever even been to Luce's given his attempt at following Dave Luce back into his kitchen to fill his camelbag- "Get out of my kitchen!". Yikes. Ah, Dave, the Soup Nazi of the Yentna.
Taking a break at Luce's:
Back to our gameplan- we had rented a cabin at Luce's to stay the night. LAST night. Then we planned to push on to Skwentna the next day. At this point, it's late afternoon-evening and we are about 12 hours behind schedule. Then someone mentions that it's only 7-8 miles to Yentna Station. Decision made. We packed up and headed out to Yentna that night. By that time, the bikers had just reached Luce's and a few snowmachiners had made their way from Yentna, making a bit better trail. This short section was pretty easy, compared to previous trail conditions. It had finally stopped snowing and there was a bit of a sunset:
On To Yentna Station- Where everyone is stranded except for us:
We traveled a bit with Frank before he passed us. This was his first ITI, too, but he has completed the Yukon 100, 300 and 450. Impressive. That's why he looks so relaxed. After too many turns around the Yentna, we finally arrived. This was my first real lesson of 8 miles can equal 3-4 hours in wind and snowshoes.
Yentna was our first night sleep, or nap, 57 miles from the start, over 24 hours later. There was a crowd of both racers and Jr Iditarod volunteers, stuck there due to weather. Yentna is a true bush lodge, crowded with big dogs, old Iditarod signs on the walls and a mix of lodge for guests and home for the family that owns it. The stairs were steep for a clumsy person like me and I had wet clothes and shoes hung everywhere. Dave warned me to keep it together. He could see a trainwreck coming when we got up, me leaving all kinds of things back. We slept for a few hours, cutting short by about 2-3 hours. With our schedule change, we hoped to make it to Skwentna for our next rest, 33 miles away. We had to adjust our thoughts about how far to go each day. Thankfully, by nature of the first day we switched to a schedule where we were moving from the early morning, midnight to 2-3 am to late afternoon/evening, with sleep at a reasonable time of day.
Packing up at Yentna, always my favorite chore:
Yentna Station to Skwentna: River River River
Out of sheer stubbornness, Dave and I tried to start out without snowshoes. Didn't last long. Beat scoffed at us when he saw us putting them back on a couple miles out. This was a tough, dark morning for me until the sun came up. Actually, this was always a tough time for me, sleepy from Not Enough the night before- not enough sleep, not enough coffee, not enough of a cool room temperature. There was never enough coffee to make up for it and a crabby attitude I didn't want to foist on Dave.
Famous Yentna Signage:
The nighttime pics are always the most frightening, and true to the situation. Early morning on the Yentna, this was not a fun section in the dark. River, river, river, yet it felt like we were going uphill the whole way:
Once the sun was up, morale improved, googles and all:
We passed a little town called McDougall- several buildings on the right side of the river, some inhabited with smoke coming from the chimneys. Now, I'm as unsociable as the next ultrarunner but dang, that was out there. To me it's the chicken and egg situation- are you crazy so you move out there or does living out there make you crazy? Don't get me wrong, everybody we met at all the checkpoints was just fabulous, helpful, made great food etc, BUT special.
Still on the Yentna, boring I tell ya, but finally the sun came out:
So I forgot to say that that it was still windy here. Actually I don't remember that it was but obviously the pictures tell the story:
I only wore my googles if Dave forced me to and his nose was only covered as a last resort.
So there was an unofficial checkpoint at a place called King Bear Lodge with Cindy and Andy. They were both great- chicken stew and hot chocolate with bags of cookies. Now Cindy is a good example. She said she only gets out a couple times a year. To Wasilla. Oh my. That's isolated.
Cookie monsters, on our way out, with only 14 more miles to Skwentna:
I was ready to be off the Yentna, even if it was for climbing the next leg. We were steadily following Rick's tracks along the river and looking at some visible elevation up ahead, a sign of things to come. Trail, still a slog:
In case you didn't notice, there aren't any markers. We would occasionally see an Iron Dog marker, but they were few and far between. So it was nice to finally see some signs to Skwentna, indicating that we were going the right way. For most of the race, actually, we followed either blown in foot prints or sled tracks, not trail markers. We knew Rick had finished the race 2 or 3 times before. He seemed a normal, together sort of guy, so we trusted his route.
Then, there's this sign, that says 1 mile. Yeah, not so much:
Finally, it comes into view, still in daylight:
Checkpoint #2 accomplished:
Hey, this place was great! Warm and welcoming with nice owners, ready to serve you some food. We bunked here and had some dinner- good chili and cornbread muffins. The Italians were spread out in the living room in their underwear. Loved it. Dave didn't sleep very long, only a couple hours, so we packed up and headed out. When we came down for breakfast, Shawn was there. It was so good to see her, as she was sort of our anchor for the race. If we saw Shawn, everything was still going ok. Our next stop was Finger Lake with a stop at Shell Lake Lodge, 18 miles in. We headed out with Rick, but he soon took off. Yup, snowshoes:
Skwentna to Shell Lake Lodge: Let the elevation and real wind begin!
So after Rick took off, we eased into our snowshoe pace and traveled through the trees for a while. Then, we started into a 6 mile swamp (take THAT Dismal!). Thank god it was dark. We could see Beat's headlamp a couple miles behind us. Once we cleared the swamp, we started to get into some bigger trees and crossed a couple of river sloughs and this:
This is a stinky sulfur spring. We were always looking for open water so we didn't have to melt water. Not here. A couple of bikers had left Skwentna before us and shortly after this, their tracks dissappeared. Dave said, well, yeah, they were bivied just back there right next to the trail. So much for my keen sense of observation. I got better, though. We immediately started to climb into the Shell Hills after crossing back over the Skwentna River. I wish we had climbed this in the day because I actually enjoyed the terrain here, not too steep but gradually going up for a couple hours. Then, the wind and snow started again. Blowing, like crazy. See, Googles:
Just as an aside, I gotta say that little orange jacket of mine is stellar. It this thin little Houdini wind jacket from Patagonia (thanks, Nelson!) and I wore that almost the entire race, for half on top and for the other half as a layer and it rocked.
Back to the wind and trail and snow. So when Dave and I were doing trail research (totally half-assed mind you), We took a lot of info from the Iditarod site. So we were expecting at some point to cross a lake with a big fat rock in the middle. Onestone Lake right? Nope. As we climbed and the wind kept blowing we kept crossing swamp after swamp, head down, googles fogging up following a barely discernable Rick trail:
Rick was barely 10 minutes in front of us, but his trail was already blown over by the time we got there. Luckily there were permanent markers around and Iron Dog lathe we could follow. I knew it was just too early to be hallucinating but I saw light from a cabin about 1/2 away up and to the right. I had to keep asking Dave if he saw it too. He did but we weren't heading in that direction. Suddenly I smelled wood smoke. I lifted my head up into the wind and there was Shell Lake Lodge. Wierd. It was suppposed to be 1/2 mile off the trail. Nope. Anne set us straight. It's right on the way. We slept here for about 1-2 hours on the benches in the dining area. While I was sleeping I vaguely heard someone say they were going to groom the trail ahead of Anne, Rick and Frank because it was blowing in already. Turns out it was Anne's husband, Mike, helping out with the race. I finally woke up to dawn and Zo. Not ZoE, just Zo. She makes a kick ass breakfast with fried toast. And she made eggs over easy, my favorite, and I didn't even have to ask!
Shell Lake Lodge to Finger Lake: 40 miles an hour (the winds, not us)
We teamed up with Beat for the trip to Finger Lake. Poor guy, he was a great sport, putting up with all my stops. As we climbed out of the Shell Hills into the open valley up to Finger Lake, the winds really started up again. I HATED my googles by the point (can't you tell? I still refuse to spell it right). So this is what you wear when the winds are howling and you are comfortable in your masculinity:
Beat, modeling the short version:
We meandered through swamps and some short wooded areas but through this section we were mainly trekking through open, wind-blown swamps. We broke trail for most of this trip, with short sections of tree-protected trail. My right ankle was starting to get pretty sore, slowing me down. Good pic of the trail, or what's left of it:
The sun was the only redeeming quality about this day. It was pretty mid-day. Great day for hitchhiking the hell out of there when Mike came back by on his snowmachine to confirm the 40mph winds (I thought Dave was just joking, but he was really paying attention on the day they taught wind speed in the Coast Guard):
Great view of where we were headed, finally some mountains:
I'm not one for giving unsolicited in areas not of my expertise, but here's one. If you know you are on the right trail, resist the urge to look at your GPS. It will only depress you. Especially do not do this if you have been snowshoeing any significant distance. Beat gave us the sad news of a long way to go about 12 miles out. Our goal had been to try to get into checkpoints before night fall. We knew we'd be tired and trying to find places in the dark in this mental state is not always easy. Trying to keep a stiff upper lip while eating trail mix in one of the few sheltered tree breaks (whaddya looking at your GPS for, man?):
So if I ever do this race again, I'm going to bring little lake name signs for this leg. There is a series of lakes and you just think they are all Finger Lake. Nope. If you put a small sign, labeling the lake right as you get to it, it will save a lot of heartache and disappointment. Instead, you anxiously look for a lodge, to the left, to the right and then your shoulders drop. Not it. I went through a very irritating series of stops, fiddling with sled, gear etc through the lakes, resulting in Dave's hands getting reeeeally cold. He was jogging to keep warm as I walked as fast as I could in snowshoes to get to Finger Lake and Winter Lake Lodge, just after sundown:
We arrived here, Dave frozen, me tired and Beat, tired too, I guess (how were you feeling, Beat?). So Winter Lake lodge is on Finger Lake. It's a high class joint (read- not a place we could afford) that caters to people who can pay about $1500/day to stay there. We were in a nice staff cabin around back for sleeping and gear fiddling-around-space. The lower back kitchen was available for us to eat and warm up when we arrived. It was a fancy place and evey time one of us came in, they would immediately sweep and mop up right behind us. They made us a great plate of chicken burrito fixins (Rick had been talking about the burrito for two checkpoints!) and they had a plate of "ultrasport energy bars" on the table (the recipe can be found at alaskadispatch.com by Kirstin Dixon). So we arrived to a letter with our names on we thought, how cool! A friend sent a letter of encouragement ahead! Awesome! Uh, no. Some kind of critter chewed into out drop bag while there and ate some trail mix and other goodies. They said they had to throw it away, but will replace it. So they handed us an awesome bag of "house" trail mix (it was great, by the way, especially the pecans)and another bag of goodies with candy bars and fruit chews. Dave was not happy. He thought they threw out EVERYTHING, including his hand warmers. He had just spent 2 hours with freezing hands and was not happy about leaving with the same. I cleared it up for him (he doesn't see very well without his glasses :-). Big sigh of relief. We headed in to sleep with only a handfull of racers already there. Three bunk spots left, thankfully. We decided to sleep about 4-5 hours, then get up and leave by 2AM. I slept pretty good here, Dave a couple hours short of me. When he finally woke me up the place was full with about 3-4 people sleeping on the floor. I stumbled over people around the stove to find all my gear and headed into the kitchen. I ate my Pop Tarts and off we went, tired face and all to take on the Happy Steps and head to Putilla Lake and Rainy Pass Lodge. Beat, brave soul again, decided to head out with us:
Finger Lake to Rainy Pass Lodge: No Snowshoes!
We decided to head out without snowshoes because the trail had set up so well. We left behind the lodge and traveled through the trees on a hilly course for quite a while. The trail we really blown in on any parts that were open. I gingerly walked on top of the crust as much as possible while Dave and Beat broke down and put their snowshoes back on. No way. I would rather punch through for a couple miles before looking at those things again. Besides, when I packed up my sled that morning, they off-handedly told me they were retired, and not to call for a while. The sun came up and we reached the Happy Steps. With a lot of snow and a small sled at the rear, they were certainly not the scary drops moaned about by mushers. I think there were 4 or 5. Dave and Beat instantly reverted back to 10 year olds and ran down as fast as they could, hooting the whole way. I am a chicken shit when it comes to hills so I pussy-footed my way down, taking the last hill right on my ass (I think Beat has some pics of this on his blog). It was still fun, especially with lots of snow. Dave and I at the top of the first step:
This was a crazy hilly section with a lot of big ups and downs. It was a nice change because it wasn't windy. Beat, climbing up another long ascent:
It started to snow again, big surprise. And the wind was blowing, again, not shocked. We were finally passed by the two lead bikers, Pete and Phil, for good this time. They are just ahead of us on the lake- Shirley Lake? Snowshoes, still retired and half buried in snow:
After the lake, we just kind of started climbing in a valley with scattered trees and swamp. And climbing and climbing. My beaker was down so it was either sunny or windy:
And a picture of the climb for several miles up to Puntilla Lake:
I guess at this point of the race one should be in a groove, be one with the trail and all that existential crap. Yeah, not so much. I can't concentrate well on yoga and meditation is for other people. I was raised in the Midwest. Bit more of a realist, I guess, so for me this race was a bit more of a Willa Cather novel, or maybe Gertrude Stein: here's your life situation. It sucks. Keep plodding along because it's not going to get any better. I don't want to ruin the ending for you but really, there was no great epiphany, no moment of sun through the clouds with singing yada yada. It didn't get better. It got worse in a new and different way everyday, until the last day. We'll get to that. Back to climbing. So we climbed forever, until we finally hit the lip of a lake. And it was the lake we wanted- Putilla Lake with Rainy Pass Lodge visible, on the other side of course:
It's funny, once you see the checkpoint, it's always about 15-30 minutes away. As we finally came up to the conglomeration of buildings, we saw Rick starting to head back out on the trail. We stopped him for a few words on the latest race news and a quick photo op. Rick and Beat on the left:
We checked in at the main lodge (again, nice and fancy) and then headed up to the cabin for racers. There was a food area where you could sit and warm up by the fire, hang your gear and eat canned soup. The rest of the cabin consisted of bunks where racers were again sacked out. The other Andrea, a skier from Italy was laying down, icing his arm. He had already scratched but was waiting for a plane ride out. Good luck with that, buddy, not with this crappy weather. Dave decided to take the lodge owner up on a pasta dinner. I ate some canned clam chowder and went to bed after hanging my gear. I had yet to have dry shoes at the end of a rest, so I hung them up, hoping for a better airing. Dave came back from his ($40!) dinner and tried to get some sleep. That didn't go well as somebody kept throwing more and more wood in the fire, turning the place into a sauna. We gave up and started packing again. Beat had decided to leave with Anne a few hours before us, so were we on our own. I'll admit it's easier this way as you don't feel as bad if you need to stop alot or want to eat something or need to poop or pee or want to stop for tea. See, Dave didn't have a choice to stop for these things because he lives with me. And we were in it together.
Rainy Pass to Rohn: Where are we, the Moon?!
So now, you will see a void of pictures for several hours. We left before sun-up again, around 2am. We headed northwest to the other end of the lake and started to climb up to the pass. To be honest, we didn't know much about this section of trail other than we figured it would be hard to get lost as there is only one pass you can legitimately go through to get to the other side. Right? Theme of the last few days, we started climbing and soon lost tree cover. Then, the wind started. Bad. Then the trail started to disappear in earnest. Soon, we were walking on hard crusted trail, following faint snowshoe and bike tracks. We'd lose them fast because 1. There was a 40-50 mph headwind 2. We had our heads down because of said wind 3. Our googles were fogging up faster than we could scrape them off 4. It was dark 5. The trail was turning into a landscape of hard crusted cliffs, people are apparently calling them something like "zastrugi". Well, they suck. I fell and banged my bad ankle so bad I almost vomited, it hurt so bad. Fun times, Fun times on the moon. There was not much talking. Lots of Cursing Loudly. Good thing because I'd be afraid of the conversation. This 12ish mile section took us about 12 hours. Yup. For these particular conditions, we were not so prepared. As light came, the wind also let up a bit. I thing we both finally stopped holding our breaths. Sunrise, back down from where we came ( we affectionately called it Hell):
I'm checking to make sure I'm in one piece...:
...and Dave gives his official report of the recent events:
We stopped to collect ourselves, made some tea and regrouped. Whew. We didn't think it was going to get worse than the last few days. Guess we better throw that idea out the window since over the pass it's just plain f*cking cold. So we discussed exactly were we where. That was the pass, right? Oh good, we should start going downhill from here. Here's good picture to give you some perspective. That little green thing is Dave:
So when it was dark and scary, we saw a couple of headlamps behind us for a while. Then, they disappeared and we never saw them again. It was the Italians. They came in behind us at Rohn, so they must have been moving at our pace. Slow.
Turns out, we were not over Rainy Pass, and instead had just been traveling in Ptarmagin Valley. Damn. The trail kept climbing. And climbing. Then, we saw a cabin over to the right and chicken scratch trails everywhere. It looked like people were trying to avoid overflow that didn't exist, so I just traipsed right across and it was nice and dry. We then had the unfortunate luck of following someone's tracks who clearly did not know where they were going. Instead of traveling around rocky cliffs, they went up and over them. Somehow we had missed the correct trail branching off to the left. Maybe it was blown over? Maybe the light was a little off? Maybe we were failing "Tracking 101"? Anyway, we saw the correct trail down and to the left over a cliff and met up with it halfway. If I had followed the general rule of "Can you take a dog team there?" we'd not be off course. No matter, we were in a valley with steep sides and only one way to go. Finally we saw what looked like an actual pass. And guess what? There's a goddamn sign. In the middle of nowhere. We were both quite excited. Dave's "Excited":
No. I'm not very outwardly demonstrative. Obviously.
Well, downhill from here, into the Dalzell Gorge, another hot spot for the dog teams. Promised to be fun for us.
One of my favorite pics of the trip, Dave with our next trail in sight:
And of course, the ever elusive (really, they were hard to see sometimes) Iditarod Tripod. They were kind of artistic to me:
We slowy weaved our way through a valley. I'd get pissed if we even had to go up a slight incline at this point. The look on my face says it all- confused, tired, disgruntled. Who's idea was this again?:
The Gorge was the best part of the race. We were able to shed clothes and stress in equal measures. It was a gradual downhill with great rocky cliffs and open water for views:
Nice open water:
The sun came out. A great second half of a really shitty start: Dario, an Italian biker passed us in this section, across one of the glaciated river crossings. He looked really tired but happy to be riding:
Frozen waterfalls, though the picture doesn't due it justice as the color was a deep turquoise blue:
As we wound down from the gorge, we got closer to the Tatina River. It got colder and clothes went back on. In the spruce forest before the wind came back, another of my favorite pics:
We were hoping to reach Rohn before the sun went down and when we hit the Tatina River, we knew we were pretty close. The wind hit us and I had to whip out my warmest layer. A bit scary when you haven't even gotten to the cold sections yet. A beautiful spot, just before sunset:
We cut into the trees, following the markers. I was skeptical. I knew there was an airstrip at the Rohn cabin, but it didn't look like anybody could fly into that tiny valley. Wrong again:
We knew Rohn was a tent camp, and had heard that if it was crowded, we'd have to bivy outside. It was already pretty cold and we were hoping to snag a spot indoors, even if in a tent. We got there and only one person was inside, sleeping. Beat was already on his way out, the two Italians yet to get there. We had plenty of room to sleep. The Italian biker was curled up, napping for about an hour, then heading out again. The checkers here were great. They had soup ready before you almost sat down, hot tang, hot chocolate. And they made it clear that if you didn't like noise, you'd better sleep outside. And if it got too crowded, sleepers were also outside. I didn't think that would be a problem as apparently people were scratching in record numbers. We saw everyone who would finish the race, between Luce's to Peter's at the finish. That's how few of us there were and how close we all were from start to finish.
Our checkers routinely mingled with the Iditarod checkers at their cabin and sometimes doubled up to help each other. Our checkers were staying in our cabin due to an intesitnal bug going on at the log cabin. More on that later. Inside our tent:
It took me a long time to wake up and get going here. I slept pretty good, though. While cozy, the cramped space made it hard for me to organize anything. We also couldn't get a straight answer on the distance to Nikolai, if Bison camp was open or how far it was. Shawn had told me it was about 40 miles. Rohn to Nikolai is listed as a 100-mile stretch. We heard varying reports of 75-90. This made it hard to decide how to break it up. We decided to go to Bison camp and stay there if open. If not, we'd go to the BLM cabin, 51 miles in. As we were packing up, the checkers kept saying how we've got it from here on out. The hardest part of the race is finished, blahblahblah. Yeah. Next year, I'm gonna tell them to pack up a sled and head out for a 100-mile training run to Nikolai from there so they can give some accurate advice. 200 miles accomplished but I felt we were just getting started.
Rohn to ????: Burn this, bastards
Again, we started out in the dark, dumping almost immediately onto the South fork of the Kuskokwim River. Time for the Spikes. Yikes, these were not comfortable but made going on the river easier. An early morning picture. The hazziness speaks exactly to how you feel when you start these early morning jaunts:
Well we found out quickly that there was going to be no easy day thus far. Crazy hills, up and down in the dark as soon as we left the river. At dawn, we encountered some shallow overflow. Our first and only time throwing on our hi-tech waterproof waders- trash compactor bags. Once we crossed the creek, we came upon the Post River Glacier. I'll admit, for me a bit scary. I have some mental issues with falling through thin ice (shouldn't everyone, I say?) and it looked somewhat sketchy. It was still a little dark so we couldn't see tracks well, but we also couldn't see how scary it may have looked. A fair trade I guess. We put on our ice spikes and gingerly trotted across. No worries. Piece of cake, actually. As the light came up we opened up into mile after mile of post-apocalytic scenery:
The trail was reasonable, in that we did not have to wear snowshoes. Otherwise, it was a constant barrage of hills, first through a Hunger Games-like movie set (or what I would imagine it to be. Haven't read the book yet- who has time to read?!) with the charred remains of miles and miles of trees, then finally something green. Whew, glad we're on the right track:
We crossed several lakes, one of which was Farewell Lake. Shawn and Doro spent 7 months there at the old lodge (recently burned down in a new fire) as winter caretakers and calling in daily weather reports. I had always thought how romantic and idyllic that must have been for them, baking their own bread, no one to bother them, free reign of all the great scenery and trails. Nope. This was not what I was thinking once I saw it. It was definitely not the nicest section of the trail. But we did get to walk side by side for a while across the lakes, so Pinky and Jiggs II could spend so time catching up and compare notes. Our wonderful, trusty, loyal sidekicks:
Back to the trail- so we had hoped to get to Bison camp and hole up in a wall tent there as was the trail folklore from years gone by. To be honest, through here and on to our next stop was by far the hardest section of trail for me. My knees and ankle were all really sore and the hills did nothing but make it worse. Someone in their infinite trail making wisdom, decided to put the trail exactly straight. Now, that's ok because it gets you to point B theoretically faster. But not if you have to go up and down constantly instead of possibly of riding ridges for a while. I couldn't wait to stop for the night. I had looked at the GPS (because I'm stupid, that's why) earlier in the day and the news wasn't good. We passed a tiny, old sign that had "Bison camp" scratched on it. We didn't see much and figured it was all packed up. Well, we'd just head for Bear Creek Cabin and have a jump start on the next day. Heh heh heh. About 3 hours later, as the sun was setting, we arrived at Bison Camp. We started to head over to the group of broken down buildings when We spotted a note in the snow- "NO" with a big X. Okaaay. Those are the kind of warnings we generally liked to heed. Low mental point for me here. We knew Bison camp was 10 miles from the BLM cabin and I was just not prepared to go that far in my head. I had to stop for a minute, take a deep breath, and start trudging along. Dave didn't say much because he knew I was having a hard time. Oh, and we're eating this whole time by the way. Every couple miles you grab something from your sled to choke down while walking. Sometimes we'd stop and have a seat on Jiggsy and eat something meal-like. That's about it. It got dark and reallllly cold. I had all my layers on except my snowpants and had to keep moving. We were not going fast here, maybe 2.5mph? It was our longest day so far and I had trouble keeping up. Dave was really cold and getting tired, too. All of a sudden we saw and heard a snow machine. It was the mysterious Bill Merchant! We didn't think he existed. Everyone kept saying we'd see him on the trail coming our way from Rohn and he never materialized. He stopped to talk to us (I think because we looked quite a fright) and offered us some snowmachine-heated taquitos. The diesel fumes definitely added to the flavor. He shared with us that the cabin turn off was only about 2 miles away and it was currently occupied by the regulars- Rick, Frank, Beat and the Italians who had passed us earlier in the day. We were happy to hear the two mile report, but once we started going again, I realized how long two miles was taking us. And then another mile in to the cabin.
At the turn off to the cabin, no caption necessary:
This was the longest mile (0.9ml, they say) of the race for me, much longer than the supposed mile to Skwentna. Now, if you could see this place in the light, you'd have to question BLM's choice of location. There's nothing out here. Swamp and scrubby black spruce. There's nothing at the cabin site that would necessitate putting it a mile off the trail. No higher ground, no water source, no view. I'll admit, these are the things I was bitching about to myself that night. You gotta think about something, I guess. We tumbled into the cabin, to everyone cooking dinner. Some fancier than others- Frank was eating some Mountainhouse pasta while one of the Italians was roasting cheese over the fire. I'll admit that we called him Chef Boyardee after that night. Well, in the midst of trying to cut his gourmet cheese, he sliced his hand open, luckily it was fleshy part between the thumb and index finger (not many nerves, but lots of blood). I was observing all this from the bench by the door. I was out of it when we came in, enough that Frank looked at me, and ask me "are you ok?" At this point in the race, I think you have to look pretty trashed for anybody to say anything. I hung up my wet clothes and we reserved a bunk for sleeping. We had our fancy meal of salami and crackers and I fell into bed. Frank and Rick were on their way out, Beat undecided and the two Italians going to bed, too. Outside, it was around midnight, -45 and the wind was howling (you learn a lot on a quick potty run). I was glad we were staying a while. I woke up to a cold cabin a couple hours later. Dave and I and the Italians were the only ones left and the fire was out. Oops. They said we had to load it every hour to keep it going. Dave and Chef got it going again and they decided to head out. I was actually sleeping through all of this, my best night's sleep of the trip. We woke up to Walter coming in and we were the only ones left. We thought we'd see Shawn as usual but she never showed up. dawn was breaking and we packed up and headed out. I actually felt great that day. We had hopefully an easy trail of 30 miles (way off) and so far nice weather. At the BLM cabin, with Walter collecting wood:
Bear Creek Cabin to Nikolai: the Bug catches us
The upside to cold weather (one of the few) is that the sky is clear and the mornings are beautiful. We set out from Bear Creek feeling pretty good and finally, well rested:
See, pretty desolate out there. We planned our rest well this time around as the trail had set up really firm overnight in the cold, so we had fairly fast feet. Our goal was Nikolai by evening, going about 3.5-4 mph. So here's another tip to get you through (if it's a fast year and you have one of those fancy things with two wheels, just disregard)- It's a lot easier to finish this race if you set little goals of getting to the next checkpoint, not looking forward to the end of the race and how many days etc. It keeps your accomplishments (and failures) within a reasonable amount. If you set a goal of 40 miles a day, just stick with it, day to day.
So I was trucking right along, enjoying the blue skies, singing The Cars (thanks, Thomas!) stopping for photo ops (still cold!):
and suddenly we were already at Sullivan Creek. THAT was fast. It was weird to see a nice, man-made bridge in the middle of nowhere:
From here, it was a pretty straight shot to Nikolai, past Salmon Camp about 10-15 miles away then 12 more miles to town. Once it warmed up enough, we stopped for tea. These were my favorite parts of the trip- sitting down, starting the stove and having our Chai tea, backs to the wind:
So there are a few general rules to traveling with someone, start to finish, on one of these endeavors:
1. If someone has to stop to adjust clothes or get in their sled for food or a peanut or whatever, you should also stop. Take advantage of it and do some fiddling or eating, too.
2. A bathroom break should always be abided. Sometimes, with your gut all screwed up from eating shit all day, it's an emergency.
3. You travel together, you arrive together, and you leave together, as a team.
4. Share your food, or you may get eaten yourself.
5. Share your kleenexs, too.
6. Keep checking on each other, because in an effort to not inconvience each other you may put off getting food or extra clothes because you don't want to stop because you know your partner has cold hands. "You warm enough?" "You need some food?"
8. If your partner is having a bad day, you don't get to.
I'm sure there's more.
So #8 is probably the most important. I got to have about 6 bad days, physically and mentally. I realize this does not add up evenly and for that, I'm very sorry, Dave. Dave's bad days kicked in just before Salmon Camp:
We thought we had passed Salmon Camp a few hours before, so when we got here, everything went downhill. Dave stomach had been bothering him, with nausea and no appetite and now 12 more miles we were not expecting. We first thought he may have picked something up from the pots we melted snow with at the Bear Creek cabin- they were grungy and not very clean. He couldn't eat anything and barely drank the rest of the way to Nikolai. I of course was feeling great and suddenly had to wait for him, which was very unusual.
Beautiful sunset, dejected Dave:
This was really a tough section for Dave, for me too because I actually didn't know how to help him, other than making sure he was drinking something. I was a bit out of sorts as the strong one. I'm always the slow disaster, stopping all the time, messing with my clothes or sled. Now it was a complete switch. We finally dropped back onto the Kuskokwim into Nikolai. It was a relief to see the town up on the hill. Finding our host house was another story. All of the sled tracks were run over by snowmachines. Kathi, the race director said "oh just stop at someone's house and ask". This is not fun when you are tired and it's 10pm. We happened to knock on the door of a relative (everyone is apparently related here) and they sent us past the airport to Nick's house. We lugged out bags inside to a warm stove and bunk beds. Dave was not looking or feeling very good. I knew things were bad when he gave me the rest of his spaghetti. He couldn't keep anything down and was making multiple trips to the bathroom. My first trip to the bathroom afforded me my first glimpse into a mirror in several days. Wow, that was me. I looked like death warmed over and a bit fried on the outside. No wonder Dave kept telling me to cover my face. We also found out that both Rick and Frank were dealing with the same stomach bug. Ah, Rohn. The Iditarod stomach flu had made its way to our tent in Rohn and passed around everybody. I generally have a gut of steel and only felt a bit of queasiness when I got to McGrath. Dave and I shared a bunk in a side room. I slept great while Dave puked all night. We stayed quite a while to try and help Dave rest enough to keep going. Funny, we never talked about quiting. I asked Dave if he really wanted to keep going, feeling so bad, and he never hesitated. At that point, I think we both needed to finish, just out of spite.
Nick's place was great and very hospitable. After some good, greasy breakfast, we left with some PB&Js, Snickers bars and the rising sun:
Nikolai to McGrath: Mother Nature repeats herself
Everyday up to this point threw something new and equally crappy at us: 3 feet of snow with a bivy, snow and wind, snow and blown in trail, moon travel, bitter cold, stomach virus. We looked forward to getting going because it was going to be the nice, last trek, finally a benign daytrip. Well, we left about 6-8 hours too late. We passed Frank coming back into town, At first, we thought it was Shawn, boy was she hauling ass. As he got closer, we realized it was Frank- he said he was vomiting and unable to keep anything down. He'd been out 2 hours with Rick, turned around several times before he finally made it back. For us, it started off fine, with good trail, flat, nothing strenuous, good for Dave because he couldn't keep anything down and could barely drink water. Then...it started to snow. And snow and snow and snow. What was a trail became a white out with a completely invisible trail after a couple of hours. Iditarod trail breakers were still behind us, so we had to make due with any tiny faded pieces of survey tape, or nothing at all. Dave with one of the few tripods:
I was not happy. I thought we'd already dealt with the snow. It's not supposed to snow this much in McGrath. When we finally reached Guitar Lake, we couldn't see a thing. We also couldn't see how to get across the lake. So we just started walking forward, moving backward when we fell into 2 feet of snow. We were following a snow machine track from someone in Nikolai who went to McGrath to pick up a dropped sled and return it to McGrath. He's going to take the shortest way, right? Nope. We missed the road. The paved, plowed road everyone was talking about. Bill even mentioned it to us last night (did we look coherent enough to remember his directions?). Apparently 12 miles from town (by the way, there is no sign that says "you are 12 miles from McGrath!") there is a road everyone hops on from the trail that is shorter and easier, taking you into McGrath. Since it had snowed almost a foot that day, the trail was not marked or visible. So we just dropped down onto Big River, followed the trail to the Kuskokwim and kept heading to town. We found Rick sled track at one point and decided against stopping because we were afraid the snow would completely wipe it out. And of course, words from Shawn earlier in the race kept our hopes high- she said there was no way it was 50 miles to McGrath. Oh, yes, it was. When the road is not an option, it's far. And a lot of river. Again. Once it got dark, we were both having trouble staying awake. Did I mention we were in snowshoes again? Just how we started. Poor Dave. He was actually able to keep down the PB&Js, but couldn't even look at any other food we had left. I got to eat all of the Matador, Reece's cups, Smarties and Pringles. And we were still short on food. I was trying to conserve as we went but was starving. I finally broke down on the river and made Dave stop so we could melt some water for tea. He didn't argue. After we started up again, we finally came to Stewart's bend. We saw the cabins on the right and headed into the woods. The trail was narrow and curved around, up and down, quite fun actually. All of a sudden, the Iditarod trail breakers cam screaming through the trees, like a gang of thugs. I was having trouble getting my sled off the trail and instead of waiting, the lead guy tried to move it for me. Unfortunately, I was still attached to my sled and fell face first into 4 feet of snow. He could tell I was pissed and hurried away. Digging yourself out of 4 feet of snow, wearing snowshoes, after 8 days of various crap, does not improve one's demeanor. Especially when for once, this debacle was not your fault. Needless to say there was a lot of cursing.
This last 10 miles or so was awful. A new kind of awful in its own special way. Neither of us could stay awake, so we alternated leading. We came upon a back with a small, cardboard handwritten sign that was distinctly made by a germanic european hand: "UltraSport: 14km, 9 miles". Though it's nice to know that there is a finite distance left, it didn't need to be so far. We followed the signs (so had Rick) and started on a land trail winding to town. Peter's signs came agonizingly slow, revealing our abyssmal speed. We had been going for over 20 hours at this point with no bivy. Suddenly, it started to get light and we knew we were almost there:
We hit the road and it was quite a shock, not a pleasant one. The hard road was painful on my knees and ankle and brought me back about 3 days. No happy medium, In guess. As we dodged teh big gravel trucks we woke up a bit and looked for Peter's small signs. eventually we meandered into town and started stopping cars for directions. "Just around the next corner". Ah, my favorite, from way back on family canoe trips. And 20 minutes later, we arrived at Peter's humble abode, sign as proof:
We walked up to the porch that I'd seen in so many pictures and noticed the graveyard of bikes and sleds, all of whom we could name person for person. We looked around and didn't see anyone. We spied Kathi, cleaning out an old Subaru around the corner. "Um, hi! We're finished!" We'd obviously caught them off-guard. "Oh! It's you! Oh!" She hustled us into the house. It was in complete chaos with people trying to pack and leave for the airport. Pete and Tim were both still there. They had just decided to pack up and head home after news of another incoming storm was on its way. I hadn't even sat down before Peter pushed a hot cup of Hot Chocolate into my hand. Ahhhh, everything was already falling away- the snowshoeing, the lack of sleep, the lack of a shower. As soon as I sat at the table, a sausage omelet appeared with a salsa garnish. I was already making plans in my head to move in with Peter and Tracey when people came over to congratulate us in the midst of their packing. It was funny to see them clean and bright eyed, like they'd never even been out there. We thought about trying to fly out that day but Kathi convinced us to relax and enjoy ourselves in McGrath for the day. We reserved tickets for the next day with Penn Air and headed for the showers. I've never had a more satisfying shower in my life. As I was getting dressed I realized that none of my clothes fit me. I lost about 15 pounds in 8 days out there (all of which save 2-3 I've gained back). Dave and I slept for a couple of hours, then got up to re-pack, chat with racers and Peter and Tracey and of course eat again. There was a never-ending supply of great food and drinks with Peter and Tracey the best hosts around. We stayed up to see the first Iditarod musher come through (Aliy) and then went back to bed. We set the alarm to go and catch DeeDee but slept through it, big surprise.
As far as race news around us went, the Italians came in before Rick, having left before him out of Nikolai. Frank scratched in Nikolai, along with Walter and flew straight to Anchorage on a cargo flight. Shawn came in early the next morning, the last racer to decide not to go on to Nome. It was fun getting to know these guys. You do feel a comraderie that is quite special and unique. People kept asking us if we were getting along- apparently race uipdates had us coming in and going out hours ahead or behind each other. No such drama. We travelled great with each other and never found anything worth fighting about.
The next morning we said our goodbyes and all crowded in the car for the airport. We found a map of the state and re-traced our route:
It's taken me at least three weeks to finish our story, way longer than it took us to complete the race (8 days, 17 hours and 47 minutes). I'm still working on some aches and pains. The dreams of traveling down a dark, snowy trail with only my headlight to follow have finally stopped. I'm getting somewhat caught up on chores and spring cleaning. I've started a book! (The Angel's Game-it's great) and I realized I remembered how to read. So life does return to normal. We're still waiting to hear from Matador and Dave's got about 15-20 patented ideas in his head from the race. Yup, back to normal.
It's been an interesting trip, for sure. Apparently I was a long shot at finishing the race. I guess a stellar running resume isn't all it takes to tough it out. Mental toughness is certainly what got me through this race, compartmentalization in droves. And for me, having the best partner around to share in the misery and more misery made all the difference in the world.
People ask us "was it fun?" Nope. Sure wasn't. But I'd still do it again.
"I'm on the other side
I'm a spirit dove
I'm looking for your love
I'm simple as a matter of fact
A punch in the nose don't overreact
I will still love you to death
And I won't ever forget how."