Friday, November 21, 2014

Iditarod Again, part nine

As dusk faded, a thick, subzero cold oozed back into the Kuskokwim Valley, as though daylight had been the only force holding it at bay. We were coated in frost by the time we arrived in Nikolai, barraging the Petruskas all at once with five hungry walkers who hadn’t stepped inside a building in three days. The house was just a few notches below roasting thanks to a cavernous wood stove, and we clustered in the doorway as we raced to remove as much clothing as possible before the sweat glands kicked in. 

Anne had already returned to Nikolai and flown out — we waved to her from the ground as her husband's small plane passed overhead. Steve was there and had been for a few hours, but he was already packing up to leave again. It was just after 8 p.m. and this night promised to be insidiously cold. There was much commotion in the room, and I was about to tease Steve for being antisocial, when he informed us that he just learned his father had died. He’d made phone calls and determined there were no flights out of McGrath until the day after next, and so he still planned to finish the journey to McGrath and wait for the next flight. He said he was leaving now because “I’m not going to sleep anyway” and he wanted to be alone for a while. 

I did not know Steve’s father, but I was stunned by this news. These long journeys already have a way of unveiling every crack in the armor, ripping away defenses and exposing your raw core to the brutal, indifferent world. This is part of the “why” of doing them, because of everything we stand to learn about self and life and love. But in the midst of the battle, we’re completely vulnerable to the wild swings of emotions, to the point where the simplest frustrations can trigger a meltdown. I couldn’t even fathom what it might be like to learn that my father died, feel my whole world crumble away underneath me, and then pick up my already emotionally and physically exhausted body and head out into the frigid, exceedingly dark night to walk fifty miles to McGrath, on no sleep, alone. My chin started to quiver and I had nothing to say, so I joined Beat and wrapping my arms around Steve and imploring him to be careful. 

After Steve suited up and left, I told Beat, “I’m really worried about Steve. I mean, not just worried, but scared for him. Do you think he’s going to be okay?” 

“I hope so,” Beat said. “He’s capable. If he gets tired he can stop and bivy.”

I was haunted by this image of Steve out on the frozen swamps, alone with his grief. Not only because Steve is my friend, but my own splintered emotions magnified the empathy. I'd imagine myself in his place until I was almost overcome with sadness, and then switch off the tears and fixate on base physical needs: hunger, fatigue, and the weird grayness of emotion (which I might call indifference for lack of a better word) surrounding everything else that didn’t address these immediate desires. It was a strange emotional state, swinging on the pendulum between these two extremes. 

We sat down for dinner — spaghetti with moose meat sauce and yellow cake, which was delicious but portioned out a bit smaller than I would have liked when divided among the five of us. Still, my appetite had reached a place of wild swings as well — I was either ravenous or repulsed, and often one would follow the other within seconds. For the first few bites I was wolfing down my spaghetti greedily, and after that I had to force it down. I did enjoy the cake, though. It’s not something I’m proud of, but I can nearly always pound some sugar. 

Rick, Loreen, and Tim took one bedroom, and Beat and I shared the other with Donald the Scottish biker. I haven’t mentioned Donald much in my reports because for us he was like a ghost — he’d be asleep at checkpoints when we arrived and when we left, and then he’d pass us somewhere on the trail, spinning pedals with his big overboots and grinning, and by the time we reached the next checkpoint, he was asleep again. “I like my sleep,” he told us. “You runners never sleep. I don’t see how you can do that.” Tim especially seemed bemused by Donald’s marathon sleeping, but I couldn’t fault him for enjoying himself. 

I sprawled my half-wet sleeping bag onto the bed (to dry) and plopped on top. We set an alarm for 2 a.m., and I woke up three times in three hours to pee. I couldn’t even figure out where it was all coming from, since I’d had all of maybe four liters to drink, if that, in the forty hours since we left Rohn, and maybe another liter and a half since we arrived in Nikolai. And yet more water than that seemed to be gushing out of me. It was mildly alarming. 

When the alarm blared, my body made it clear that it had every intention of shutting me down. As I sat up I was overcome with nausea so severe that I had to immediately lay back down, and started hyperventilating. I was gasping and gulping and struggling with the effort of breathing while not vomiting at the same time. I laid in bed, doing just that for about five minutes when Beat shook me again. “I need to … lay here … for a while longer … to not … throw up,” I gasped. Beat said okay, and then my small child emotions kicked in. 

“Why do we have to get up so early?” I whined. “I mean, really, why?”

Beat asked me if I wanted to sleep longer. I did! But at the same time, I knew that more sleep wasn’t actually going to remedy whatever I had going on, and wasn’t going to put me any closer to being done with the task in front of me. It seemed my mind decided fifty miles was “nearly done,” and it let the misconception slip to my body, which unleashed the toxic flood of recovery chemicals. Electrolyte imbalance or caffeine withdrawals or any number of chemical reactions were the real culprit for my malaise, but the endurance game is a mind game, and I needed to reign in control. 

As we packed up, I partitioned out my remaining food and realized there was not much left — a bag and a half of Jill Feed, and four single-serving peanut butter containers. It amounted to about 2,500 calories. “How did I eat all of my food already?” was my first thought. I hate eating. I didn’t remember eating it. But it was gone. 

Rick was making peanut butter sandwiches in the kitchen. There was only a small portion of bread left, and I never want to be greedy at the Petruskas, who live in a remote region where resources are scarce and expensive, and who are so generous to take the whole lot of us in during this race. I resolved to eat one sandwich, but was not having success in forcing the thing into my churning stomach. I’d take a few bites, audibly choke and cough, wait a half minute, and take another bite. This process again was going very slowly. Tim and Loreen hauled out more than a half hour before we finally made our way into the pre-dawn stillness.

The frigid depths had indeed returned to Alaska; stepping outside from the Petruskas’ balmy house amounted to nearly a hundred-degree swing. The cold shock pumped some life back into my blood and curbed the nausea to some degree. My shoes, which I’d left propped on a chair next to the wood stove for five hours, were still pretty much soaking wet. Putting them on my feet and stepping outside was horribly uncomfortable; I liked them better when they were frozen solid. The sled and bottom of the duffel were still coated in thick chunks of ice left over from the stream crossings. I tried to break off as much dead weight as possible before my fingers froze, and then it was time to haul out. 

Nikolai is typical of rural Alaska villages — a cluster of somewhat disorganized streets, pre-fabricated buildings and log cabins, crude outbuildings, snowmobiles and four-wheelers, few if any trucks or vehicles. We made our way through the maze underneath the eerie yellow glow of flickering street lights before dropping back onto the Kuskokwim River. Out on the ice the temperature was 20 below zero, and the lights of meager civilization quickly faded into a yawning darkness. 

My body, which had rebelled so violently from a 2 a.m wakeup call, was swiftly beaten into compliance. I don’t even know what achieved this — the blast of cold, the brick-like peanut butter sandwich in my stomach, or my brain finally saying to my body, “Psych! We actually have fifty more miles to go.” But I was grateful for whatever fixed it, because I was no longer sick or gasping, and my legs were moving pretty well. The pain in my shins had been excruciating when we started out, but a mile of walking beat those into submission as well, and I morphed back into the forward motion machine that I wanted to be.

The first ten miles passed in a seeming instant. Darkness persisted and the river meandered lazily as headlamp-illuminated puffs of breath added swirling clouds to the starry sky. I was indirectly aware of the passing of time, but the absence of change put me into a kind of hypnosis, walking and gazing at stars, and, yes, still stopping to pee every twenty minutes (I really don’t get it. Where does it come from?) Beat was ahead, his reflectors still resembling a hockey goalie forever maneuvering to block my shot. I fixated on the swaying glow until I was free of thought and emotion. The meditative disconnect left me feeling deeply content, as though I’d ventured away from my own consciousness to touch a greater form of understanding, and returned with no memory of what I learned, but the satisfaction remained. 

When emotions did start to creep back in, however, they were filled with darkness. I again felt unfocused grief, and frustration for this pace that was so hard to keep above three miles per hour, and my feet were cold, and my shins hurt, and I had to pee, again, and this made me angry. Malaise, grumpiness and despondency closed in like a pack of wolves  … and that’s when it occurred to me that I should eat something. I’d already resolved to ration Jill Feed and only eat the peanut butter servings as “meals” every three or four hours. I popped a few pinches of nuts and fruit into my mouth, and after a hundred or so calories, that airy, happy feeling soon returned. 

It was quite the revelation — I was essentially running in bonk mode, taking in just enough sugar to keep the pilot light burning. Once that went out, survival mode turned back, using all of its emotion-wringing tactics to urge me to find more food. When I did feed the furnace, it was only just enough to turn the pilot light back on — but this was a beautiful thing. Not so much food that I became a hundred percent alert and aware, but not so little that I was clawing and desperate. Finding that balance became an overarching goal — and I did succeed in it for quite some time. 

Dawn emerged as we passed through the swamps of Guitar Lake, with far-ranging horizons drenched in warm light. When I looked over my shoulder I could once again see Mount Foraker and Denali, dominating the open landscape much as they had on day two of the journey. But their profiles had changed and their positions had switched, because we were now on the opposite side of these great mountains. The distance of our journey had a tangible, awe-inspiring perspective.  

We passed Tim, Loreen, and Rick as they rested on the trail, with Loreen curled up in her down coat on top of her sled. I looked at her feet, sticking out of the coat in the 20-below air, and was amazed that she could achieve a stop of any length — let alone sleep — without being menaced by foot pain. My feet always hurt, and it wasn’t the kind of pain I could just hope “went numb,” because numbness meant my toes really were freezing, not just cold. The mesh of my shoes was coated in thick ice, but the insides were still felt wet. I’d actually tried my vapor barrier socks the previous day, after our dawn bivy, and decided they did little to help my comfort level and only pruned the skin and caused new pain, so I didn’t put them back on after our lunch stop. It seemed as though there was nothing more I could do for my feet, but I think the lesson here is, “Don’t soak your shoes and then go hiking at 20 below.”

As the landscape opened up with the expanding daylight, we saw another figure in the far distance. At first I thought it was a moose, and it took a few minutes for it to become clear that it was not only another human, but another person on foot. It had to be Steve. This was cause for some concern, as he’d left Nikolai nearly six hours earlier than us, and had been out all night at 20 below or lower. Although the likeliest outcome was that he’d stopped to bivy for a few hours, we couldn’t be sure that he wasn’t in distress or injured, so Beat was determined to catch him. These open swamps stretch for miles, and Steve was at least a mile ahead, if not more. 

Beat increased his stride and I rushed to follow, digging my poles into the snow and stretching out my tired hamstrings and painful shins. Really, all we were doing was slightly increasing our walking pace, but it was amazingly strenuous. If 20-minute miles were just on the edge of sustainability, then 18-minute miles were a sprint. My heart rate increased and I had to pull down my buff as I gulped icy air. My muscles were searing and I wasn’t even running, but wondered if I should just run, like I had in the Farewell Burn. Maybe it was my limited access to carbohydrates or a subconscious resistance, but my body seemed incapable of running and had to struggle for this fast walk. Still, I wanted to catch Steve, too, and it was going to be a race until we did. 

We marched and I narrowed my focus as though I were running a marathon, concentrating on breathing, pace, and the gradual reeling in of a tiny silhouette in a broad, white landscape. I turned on my Shuffle and found comfort in “Team” by Lorde, so I put it on repeat, singing along to the lyrics with my raspy exhalations. “And you know, we’re on each other’s team.” I thought about our little group of Iditarod walkers — now down to the Pennsylvanians and the Californians — and how we loosely banded together as we moved across this vast swath of empty space. I went through my first Iditarod experience utterly alone, and this time around was very different — not by virtue of walking instead of biking, or by virtue of the inevitable differences in weather and trail conditions, but by virtue of the people around me. 

And of course, Beat is the one who made all the difference. With my body wrung out and the core of my soul exposed, I felt new depths of love and appreciation for him that I couldn’t adequately express, but could wholly absorb because he was right there. Admittedly, sharing raw emotion is not well-trodden territory for me. I do tend to hold the people I love at arm’s length, and up until recently was more adamant about taking on endurance challenges on my own. This is because I’m not fully comfortable confronting emotional and physical vulnerabilities in the presence of others, nor expressing feelings until I can adequately absorb, process, and organize them (which is what I do with writing, even in public spaces such as this blog. I’m not a private person, just a reserved person, if that makes any sense.) In the 2014 Iditarod, Beat stuck by my side through the whole messy process — the wild elation, the meltdown, the anxiety and the tedium. Even though we ultimately had to deal with our own issues in our own ways — just as we do in day-to-day-life — bonding together in shared joy and misery is the core of our most valuable experiences, and meaningful partnerships. 

As I pushed my body beyond perceived physical limits in an effort to catch Steve, I was filled with a sense of camaraderie for everyone in our clan, and an admittedly silly wish that we could all finish together holding hands and hugging and crying. Most of us, however, weren’t actually headed for a finish. Except for me and Steve, everyone else was only making a pit stop in McGrath before they went on toward Nome, which was still a long, long, long way away. I could not fathom it. 

Beat caught Steve while I was still a hundred or so meters behind, and I slowed down because I genuinely thought I might black out from exertion. Steve and Beat walked together while I shadowed them for more than a mile. While I inferred that Steve wasn’t in distress, I didn’t hear how his night went, or how he was coping with his father's death. I finally caught up when they waited for me at a small bluff off the river, where Steve seemed to be in good spirits. Maybe his night out on the river alone had helped him work through some of his grief. 

We walked together for a while and Beat talked more about taking a break soon. We’d agreed to it earlier because fifty miles is a long continuous push, and it wouldn't serve Beat well for his ongoing journey to Nome. Just getting off the feet and resting tired bones for one hour can make a big difference between an enjoyable day, and an enjoyable half day followed by another half day of aching-leg death march. Strategically timed rests can actually help a person move faster overall. I was seeing my own loss in efficiency firsthand with the display on my Garmin eTrex. Even though I thought I was working just as hard, my pace was on a downward curve below a self-imposed three miles per hour. Soon 22-minute-miles were feeling pretty hurty and difficult. Beat and I found a nice spot in the sun on a slough paralleling the Kuskokwim, and bid Steve goodbye one last time. 

I enjoyed this final bivy immensely. It wasn’t entirely useful for me — it was only sixty minutes of "sleep" where I didn’t sleep at all, and still involved the usual thirty minutes of set-up and break-down. But just laying in the cold sunlight wrapped in my cocoon, which had mostly dried in Nikolai, left a lasting feeling of satisfaction. I snuggled in deeper with one single-serving container of peanut butter, nibbled on the rich, fudge-like morsel, and realized I actually wasn’t quite ready for this journey to be done. Nome may have been an unfathomably long way away, but McGrath was just too soon. 

Everyone else, including Donald the biker, passed as we rested. Beat and I were in the back of the group again. As we packed up I mentioned that the clan went by, and Beat suggested that we should push for a while to try to catch Loreen. 

“Why? We’ll see them again in McGrath,” I replied.

“Maybe you can win?” he said.

Win? Win what? Oh, this race! It was weird to think of this journey as a race, but it was still an organized event where times were recorded and weighed against others as part of the overall challenge. Five women had started the Iditarod Trail Invitational in the foot division, and now we were down to four. Shawn and Carole were still somewhere behind us, but Loreen was the only one ahead. I was bemused by the thought of trying to compete with another person when the "race" had been this grueling, seven-day march across the barren mountains into Interior Alaska. Loreen was aiming for the long haul of Nome, so it was hardly a fair point of comparison. And anyway, I didn’t want to chase any more people at strenuous 18-minute miles today, nor did I want to subject Loreen to head-to-head “racing” if she was feeling at all competitive about it, given she had to get up and do it all over again the next day. Tim and Loreen also passed by near the beginning of our nap, and now had more than an hour on us with only 25 miles left to go. But Beat thought our rest would give us a boost to push for a while, and I agreed. 

When I started walking again, the pain in my shins was excruciating. At this point, a stop of any length would require a half hour or so of warm-up, wherein every step was nearly unbearable. Then, as I forced more steps, the throbbing tissue along my tibia would slowly loosen and I could walk more easily, although not comfortably. I told Beat about my shin splints and how it seemed utterly impossible to endure this for another seven hundred miles to Nome. He replied, “It would go away, eventually.” 

We marched along the sparkling river, and I continued nibbling on just enough Jill Feed to stave off grumpiness. I thought often about how magical this day had been. “Someday I will go to Nome,” I decided. “But not on foot. It is way too far to walk.” 

The sun again sank low on the horizon, closing the curtains on my final night on this journey. I was full of nostalgia for my first trip into McGrath, the grueling slog through wind-drift on the Kuskokwim River, as well as more recent, fonder memories — finishing the 2011 Susitna 100 with Beat, greeting him and Marco at Cape Nome before his first thousand-mile finish in 2013. The Iditarod Trail has been such a meaningful entity in my life. In many ways, it’s been the “stage” for every major life change I’ve embarked on since I moved to Alaska in 2005. It's remained that way even now that I've lived away from Alaska for nearly as long as I lived there. 

Over the past few months, I spent a lot of time thinking about how I could write about this latest experience on the Iditarod Trail to convey its connections to past experiences and the ongoing significance. In the end I failed to find words to express this. This long-form, nine-part, mini-novel is my race report — what we did, how I felt. But someday I will figure out a succinct way to express what it has meant, and what I’ve discovered and continue to discover amid these returns. Although I haven’t found the distillation of words to express the "why," I can't shake this strong desire to loop back to the proverbial point of no return, to pound myself against my limits until pieces are scattered all over the tundra, then to gather them back up with only enough time in the cold air to keep the pieces that matter, the ones that remain. 

It's true that "You Can’t Go Home Again.” But you can embrace the relentless march of time in the pursuit of experience, and shared experience, knowing that ultimately, meaning is not something we find, but something we create. 

Ten miles from McGrath, we turned off the Kuskokwim River and made our way through the woods in the fading light. I’d actually rationed my Jill Feed well and had a fair amount remaining, so I indulged in a higher calorie intake than earlier in the day. This soothed the gnawing hunger pangs, but it also kickstarted the part of my brain that was hell-bent on complaining loudly about every other physical discomfort. I saw the sign that said “McGrath: 10 Miles” and told my body, “Yay! We’re Done!” when actually three hours of difficult marching still remained. I soon resented every step, and was angry at myself for lapsing into this bad attitude here, so close to the end of the journey. I tried to cling to the reflective awe of it all, but I admit once we hit that last three miles on the road into town, I thought mostly of what I always end up thinking about at the end of these long foot races, which is, "Ow, my feet hurt." 

We arrived the home of Peter and Tracy at 9:50 p.m. Sunday, March 2, for a final time of 7 days 7 hours and 50 minutes. Loreen and Tim arrived more than an hour earlier, having kicked it into an impressively high gear into McGrath. As others have written about before, Peter and Tracy maintain a wonderful oasis on the tundra, offering finishers an endless supply of warm food, hot showers, and spots to curl up in front of a wood stove, and they welcome you to stay as long as you'd like. We enjoyed a big plate of lasagna warmed up for us by Jason Buffington, a fast runner who had been basking in the hospitality for two days.

Loreen went on to set a new women's record in the thousand-mile race to Nome, finishing alongside Tim, who logged his eighth complete journey to Nome. Later this summer Tim and I released a book about his adventures. If you enjoyed this account of my little journey to McGrath, you'll be amazed by Tim's story. (Link here.)

Beat was second overall in the race Nome, logging his second thousand-mile finish in 25 days, 12 hours, and 52 minutes. He'll be back next year aiming for a third — just as hooked as anyone.

Rick decided to stop in McGrath, declaring that he found his limit and was happy where he stood. We'll see. This trail has a way of luring people back.

Steve is signed up for the 2015 race to Nome on the notoriously difficult Southern Route. I'm sure his dad would be proud.

Dave Johnston was the first runner to arrive in McGrath, shattering the limits of what most of us in this community believed to be possible: 4 days, 1 hour, and 38 minutes. Breaking four days — once the realm of the fastest bikers — is his next goal.

54 racers started the 2014 Iditarod Trail Invitational and 49 finished in McGrath, with another disqualified for a rule violation. Sixteen went on to Nome, and of those, all finished.

Bike records were shattered across the board thanks to low- to no-snow conditions. 2014 will go down in race lore as the amazingly fast year for everyone, because no one will remember the runners who are not Dave Johnston. But we did not have it easy out there, of that much I'm certain.

As for me, I once again found myself gazing out the window of Peter and Tracy's house, watching a bright moon light up the frosty yard and pondering the experiences I keep circling back to, and the ways everything has changed. I'm not done with the Iditarod Trail, and I already have new ideas and ambitions for next season. Perhaps in 2016 Beat and I will find ourselves standing side-by-side on Knik Lake once again, looking toward Nome. If I have my way, we'll both be straddling bikes.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Iditarod Again, part eight

Photo by Beat Jegerlehner

My post-bison-mud-bog outburst drained away whatever reserves of energy I had left to spend on angst. Despite continued concern about the Farewell Lakes, I no longer cared whether I fell through a crack in the ice and drowned, or not. The Zen of resignation. The silent self-coaching did continue, however. I decided that, minute for minute, this section of the Iditarod Trail in these conditions had been the most continuously strenuous thing I had ever tried. PTL was tough and frequently scary, but it didn’t have twelve solid hours of hauling a refrigerator up a steep mountain slope. This was sort of like that.

I couldn’t help but look at my watch. “It’s been twelve hours since we left Rohn,” I lamented. “We haven't even hit the Farewell Lakes yet, not even 25 miles.”

Beat just shrugged. I already knew our average pace had fallen below two miles an hour, but the math was discouraging. 

We reached the edge of the first Farewell lake, which is called Low Lake, rendered a bottomless shade of indigo in the late afternoon sunlight. I stopped to put on microspikes and gazed into the ice rimming the shoreline. It was so clear that I could see grass beneath the frozen water, sharply defined as though I were looking through a window. This ice surely didn’t look like a solid thing. I reminded myself that this ice had upwards of four months in predominantly sub-zero temperatures to set, and that one or two days of heat wasn’t going to break apart ice that was likely a meter thick. But when a surface looks like liquid water and even smells like liquid water after a day in the sun, it’s difficult to turn off the internal alarms. 

There were fresh scratches in the ice from Bill Merchant’s snowmobile, which proved to be an invaluable guide across the lake, leading to the point where the trail cut back into the woods. Otherwise we might have had to wander along the perimeter for long minutes looking for an opening. I gazed into the fathoms of the lake, fascinated by the fractured pattern along the surface, the opulent shades of blue, and the entirely visible subaqueous environment of grass and sunken logs. I even looked for fish swimming beneath the ice, but started to feel that woozy vertigo one feels when peering over a railing of a high bridge. The sled coasted behind me, and I marveled at the sudden weightlessness of my steps — as though the sled and I were floating across a tranquil pond. 

“I guess that wasn’t so bad,” I announced to Beat when we reached the other side. “I don’t know what I was so freaked out about.”

We returned to the grassy tundra, and the canoe sled morphed back into a refrigerator. Somewhere around the second lake, which is called Steele Lake, we reconnected with Anne. She apparently had spent some time trying to rig a repair for her sled, which was in the process of tearing in two. Anne's sled was custom-made from carbon fiber. It was light and strong but not designed to be dragged across dirt and rocks for 35 miles and counting. She showed us the gaping hole at the bottom and explained the repairs she tried. Beat, ever the engineer, had a few more suggestions that Anne waved off, lamenting that this was it for her. She was aiming for Nome this year, and there was no way her sled would make it that far. 

Beat tried to encourage her, and we came up with a plan that if she could limp her sled into McGrath, I could give her my sled to take to Nome. Anne seemed upset and fearful that her sled would fall apart before she even reached the safety of Nikolai. She was considering camping on the shoreline and using her satellite messenger to contact her husband, who is a pilot and could land his plane on one of these lakes. We convinced her to stick with us a little bit longer. 

Photo by Beat Jegerlehner

We crossed the third Farewell lake, which is called Submarine Lake. I gazed into the depths with rapt fascination, no longer afraid. I knew that one we crossed Submarine, we were beyond the last of the major water hazards. From here we would traverse the final remnants of Alaska Range foothills before dropping into the low, dry basin known as the Farewell Burn. The three of us stopped to look back at the mountains, an impressive contrast of snowfields and naked slopes. An addled mind can achieve wild and rapid swings between emotions. Just five miles from meltdown, I’d already oscillated back to my other extreme, manic joy. 

The sun sank low on the horizon and the temperature took a nose-dive, which was a welcome development. Finally below freezing again, ice crystals formed on the dirt and the sled's drag wasn’t quite so bad. Although still a mild twenty or so degrees, my wet feet began to ache. They’d been uncomfortable at forty degrees; at zero or lower, I might not be able to sustain blood flow to the extremities at any pace. This was not a welcome development. 

We began to see patches of snow again, as petrified as solid ice. I remained worried about the drinking water situation, so I’d break pieces off branches and suck on them. The ice chunks had the strong, distinct flavor of spruce with hints of smoke, which I found gratifying. “This is what the Farewell Burn tastes like,” I thought. 

About an hour after sunset, we came upon an encampment amid the low brush off to the side of the trail. Rick was sitting over his stove, melting water. Tim and Loreen were asleep in their bags. Anne, Beat and I been discussing when to stop for a few hours, and this seemed as good of a time and place as any. “Mind if we join you?” Beat asked. 

Rick was in a fantastic mood. “Not at all,” he said. “If you can find a bare spot.” 

Beat had his sled to sleep in, and I located a dry patch of dirt amid the brush. I pulled my bivy bundle out of the now hard-frozen duffel. The bundle is comprised of a wrap-like piece of material with compression straps, which I covered in a trash compactor bag that was too short to pull all the way over the bundle. I expected the stream water submersion had soaked through this as well. The material was rimmed with ice, but happily when I popped open the compression straps, my sleeping bag was dry. Anne set up next to Tim and Loreen and disappeared into her bag almost immediately. 

“What did you think of today?” I asked Rick. And before I could even add “what a nightmare,” he blurted out, “It was great. I mean, yeah, it sucked. But it was interesting, right? Sometimes you just have to go two miles an hour, but it isn’t so bad.”

I was a little dumfounded by the implication that he found the mud "fun" ... but at the same time I realized that I needed to cultivate that attitude. The trail is what it is, so you do what you need to do and don’t fixate on things that don’t exist, like snow. 

“Hey, you want some water?” Rick asked. He had gathered all of the nearby snow clumps, like sticks for a campfire, and stacked them next to his stove and pot. He had enough to make water for everyone.

“Yeah, thanks. Thanks a ton,” I said, handing him my Hydroflask bottle. I looked around at the scene — a half dozen people cowboy-camping among the spruce and brush, Rick cooking up some water, and the last hints of dusk lingering in the sky. It felt far away from the desperate situations that I tend to associate with Alaska bivies. It was more like actual camping ... as Rick would remind me, this was fun. It was fun! I took a gulp of tepid, spruce-and-smoke-flavored water, and smiled. 

We crawled into our bivies and I stuffed the Hydroflask at the foot of my sleeping bag, like I always did to prevent the water from freezing. I snuggled in, still basking in the peaceful atmosphere, when I realized my feet had suddenly become cold. Not just the aching cold I was becoming more accustomed to, but icy cold — as though I’d submerged them in ice water. As the sensation intensified, I realized they actually were submerged in ice water. I exploded out of my sleeping bag and in a single motion opened the zipper and shook the bag wildly, slinging the bottle and a large puddle of spilled water. When Rick refilled my bottle once more after I took a drink, he pushed the lid down but didn’t screw it tight. I didn’t think to check it. Dumb, dumb, dumb. Most of a 40-ounce bottle had leaked into my down bag. 

I knelt down on the icy mud and and ran my hands along the inside of the bag. I had managed to fling some of the water away, but quite a bit had soaked in. For several seconds I knelt in a state of shock. I’d just severely compromised the insulating capacity of my bag. Some people's races end for lesser reasons than this. It was such a dumb mistake, and out here it was a serious one. I looked out over all of the seasoned veterans surrounding me. I certainly couldn’t say anything about this; it was hugely embarrassing. The night was still reasonably warm, in the sense that temperatures were still above zero degrees — although probably not much above zero degrees at this point. But it wasn't forty below, where a mistake like this really could be life-threatening. I decided I could crawl into my bag and see how it went. If I became too cold to sleep, I’d just have to get up and keep moving. I’d say something about it to Beat then, but not until then. 

I crawled back in and curled up into the tightest fetal position possible. The position ripped new streaks of pain through my tight lower back muscles and hamstrings, but at least it felt fairly warm. My feet were still cold — the down booties and my last pair of dry liner socks had also taken on water in the melee, but the booties were already wet from walking through the swamps of Rohn, so I left them on anyway. I smirked about the fact I’d taken so much care to keep my sleeping bag dry through the rains of Rohn and forty miles of swamps and streams, only to dump half of my drinking water into it when I was finally clear of the thaw. All I could do now was hope this ragged body of mine found a way to sleep in this wet bag, and that I’d never have to tell Beat about this rookie mistake. (And in fact, in writing this I realize I never did tell him. I remained extremely embarrassed about it, but now months have gone by and it’s too funny of a story to leave out of the blog report. Sorry, Love.) 

We woke up around 11 p.m. to Tim yelling loudly that it was time to go. He didn’t realize that Beat, Anne and I joined them in the night, even as we began stirring and moving to pack up our own stuff. Beat finally said something to him and Tim responded, “When did you get here?” My feet felt like blocks of ice, but the toes were still pink as I applied a fresh coat of lube. I was stoked on getting what amounted to two hours of solid sleep. 

As usual, Beat and I were slow to pack up and the last to leave. Anne waited for us to finish, dancing around to keep her own Raynaud’s-Syndrome-affected digits warm. I felt bad because Beat and I promised we’d stick with her and help if her sled had a catastrophic failure, but I couldn’t help that I was still a novice at bivy break-down. And our promise to stay with her didn’t change the fact that Anne was still a fair amount faster than me. She surged impatiently ahead, and I just shrugged. As long as she remained in front of us, we hadn't left her behind.

We marched up and down steep, undulating hills. The trail had some snow cover now, but exasperatingly it was all on the north-facing slopes, which were downhill in our direction. So we had to haul the refrigerators up bare dirt, and then battle to keep from slipping on the hard ice descents. I had to run fast to avoid being mowed down by the sled. Every pounding step felt like a ripple of electric shocks through my legs. These jolts of pain had an exhilarating effect, and were just what I needed to bust out of “morning” drowsiness. 

About forty miles from Rohn we passed through Bison Camp — the former site of a wall tent camp set up by bison hunting guides from Nikolai. After fuel prices went up and the economy tanked, their clientele dwindled and they mostly closed up shop. All that was left were some strewn logs and a drying rack of some sort. By this point there was a consistent layer of hard snow covering the trail, and we were moving more easily now. After Bison Camp, we dropped off the plateau into a wide-open basin. This final leg-shocking descent was the border of the “old burn." The Farewell Burn. 

Anne was becoming increasingly more agitated. She again talked about calling her husband. She told me that she couldn’t take my sled in McGrath, that it was against race rules to use gear from another racer. She seemed deeply upset. I couldn’t figure out what was wrong now that wasn’t wrong earlier. We were on snow again, and on the flat basin there was good reason to believe that the trail conditions would be consistent until Nikolai. By all outward observations, we were out of the worst of it. But then Anne said something that brought her attitude into perspective — “The Burn is trying to kill me.” 

Anne has had some harrowing experiences out on the Farewell Burn. In 2008 she was caught out in a windstorm at 30 below without goggles. The gusts froze her corneas and rendered her blind. She might have died had it not been for an Italian biker who just happened to be right behind her at the time. He put her in a sleeping bag and rode into Nikolai to get help. She spent months recovering from frostbite to her face and eyes, but did make a full recovery. After two more failed attempts, she returned again in 2012 to the worst conditions the Iditarod Trail Invitational had ever seen. By the time she reached the Burn, temperatures dropped to 50 below and she again battled for survival. She finished the race that year and set a new women’s record to McGrath the next. But it was clear she was still deeply impacted by her memories of this place. Just as I had post-traumatic stress issues with bad ice and fear of falling through ice, Anne had similar reactions to the Burn. 

She eventually resolved to contact her husband, and enlisted Beat to help her figure out how to do so on her device. After five minutes of standing still in temperatures that were now five below zero, my feet were ice blocks and I announced that I had to keep moving. I was the slow one so I knew they’d catch me soon. I marched into the darkness, surrounded by a forest of nearly identical spruce trees. This entire region burned to ash in the late 70s, and the new generation of trees are all roughly the same age and the same size. The spruce growth is so thick that you couldn’t bust through the forest if you tried, not without a chainsaw. Here the Iditarod Trail is only as wide as a single snowmobile, slicing through walls of twisted branches and frost-coated needles. It has a spooky atmosphere, like merging a haunted mansion with a Christmas tree farm. I find this weirdly comforting. 

Beat and Anne didn’t catch me for a while, and it was strange to be alone out there — and invigorating. I relished the solitude, the cold air and the silence. I’ve been terrorized by the Burn myself; I was caught in that same flash-freezing windstorm of 2008, eight hours earlier than Anne. I still remember hearing thunderous roars and looking up to see a wall of white rushing toward me like a freight train. All I could do was step off my bike, crouch down with my hands over my face, and hope the hurricane-force blast and accompanying ground blizzard went away before I flash froze. I know the Burn. And yet, I secretly love the Burn. 

Maybe it’s the endearingly ragged little Christmas trees, or my fascination with wide-open spaces, but I feel genuine affection for this strange place where I would never want to live. The Farewell Burn is the closest I have felt to visiting another planet. It’s the bald face of nature’s indifference — an expansive, frozen wasteland. From a small rise, one can look across the Farewell Burn and see the blinking light of the McGrath airport some eighty miles distant, knowing all the land between is untrammeled and unwanted. Nikolai is a little spur off to the east, but look west and there’s nothing but a land so distant and so hostile that a world of seven billion humans left it almost entirely alone. I find that captivating. 

Anne and Beat caught up shortly before the turnoff to the Bear Creek Cabin, a public-use cabin that the BLM put up as an emergency shelter. Anne planned to wait there for help. I was still a little confused by her decision, as it seemed to me that limping her sled to McGrath on this now-smooth trail was plausible. She might not be able to go to Nome, but she had a good shot at finishing the 350-mile sprint distance. Anne had her reasons and I didn’t question her decision. It was hers to make. 

Rick, Tim, and Loreen were bivied at the trail intersection of Bear Creek Cabin — which is a mile off the main trail. Beat and I were also in the throes of sleepwalking. Eleven p.m. was far too early of a wake-up and we wanted another nap, but decided to push on for a couple more hours. A little while later, Steve caught up to us. He had spent the night in the cabin after a long nonstop push of more than fifty miles. Steve has a climber’s build and a good amount of upper-body muscle mass. He didn’t seem all too perturbed by the trail conditions that had wrung out the upper-reaches of my strength and patience. Steve was in an upbeat mood and glad that there were “only” about 25 more miles to Nikolai.

“Only?” I responded. “Twenty-five miles is a long way.” I suppose eventually context starts to kick in, but I was not ready to pretend we were nearly done with this section. Twenty-five miles still meant half of a day of hard travel. 

Just as glimmers of dawn light appeared on the southern horizon, we found a clearing on the hard crust. Steve moved on, and Beat and I set up our bivies just a few feet from the trail, knowing no one was traveling this way anytime soon. 

The lower half of my sleeping bag was frosty and rigid, confirming that there was still quite a lot of ice clumped in the down insulation. The down booties were basically ice blocks; I don’t know why I even bothered to put them on, but I think I held onto hope that my heatless feet would somehow dry them out. By now temperatures were nearing 10 below, which is low enough that I couldn’t unpack all of my camp stuff before my fingers locked up, and had to pull on vapor barrier mittens. I was again nervous about attempting a stop with my compromised gear, but knew that the worst that could happen is waking up with painful feet and having to move on before our planned wake-up, which was only ninety minutes away anyway. 

Sleep was becoming this ethereal presence that always lingered at the periphery of consciousness, and unconsciousness was absolute and binding. This is why it’s so intimidating to submit to sleep when exhausted in a subzero wilderness, because on some level it's difficult to trust that your body can and will wake itself up if things start to go terribly wrong, like frostbite. I closed my eyes and opened them again in a seeming instant, only to learn the ninety minutes had indeed gone by. The sun had come up during that ninety-minute moment, casting its pink glow across the Burn. Tim, Loreen and Rick passed again as we packed up. I stood on the crust in my ice booties and stretched out my arms. 

“Have a nice sleep?” Tim asked.

“It’s a beautiful morning for sleeping,” I proclaimed. I wished I could do a lot more of it. 

But, on some level, one needs to find a balance that isn’t entirely comfortable. Too much rest could cause the body to sink into recovery mode, accelerating tissue repairs and releasing hormones that can open a floodgate of soreness and pain. By sustaining momentum, the body takes signals to maintain the status quo and patch things up as best as it can without putting up the scaffolding that can lead to weeks of recovery. It’s my strong belief that human bodies are built for higher levels of endurance, and instinctively do what needs to be done to sustain forward progress as long as required. It’s true that longer periods of rest and rebuilding will eventually become necessary to return to full strength, but a subzero wilderness is not the place to lapse into this process.

Still, I was really beginning to “feel it,” and had specific and constant complaints from my lower back, hamstrings, and now my shins had joined the chorus. My feet, which I knew would be an bother from the first day and accepted that, were indeed throbbing and sore from 275 miles of pounding. But what was more disconcerting about my feet is that they were now always cold. I wedged them into my solid-ice shoes and ran a short distance before slowing to a forceful walk. They didn’t even begin to warm up; it was a searing kind of cold, but I knew as long as toes hurt, they weren’t frozen. It was just another thing I would have to endure. 

The day warmed but not too much, which was a relief — not so much for my feet, but for the agony of The Wallow. We were moving relatively well again on the hard surface of a strip of snow that still clung to the trail, and the glare ice of wind-scoured swamps. Beat was setting a blistering pace. Even with a heavy sled he’s a strong walker, with a stride that’s difficult to match. As we gradually descended the wide-ranging river valley, the haunted Christmas tree forest thinned and the swamps expanded. I’d watch Beat surge ahead as I faded farther and farther back, until he was nearly gone from my sight. Then I’d pick up my frigid feet and sore shins and start running. Once I caught up and returned to walking, I’d fade farther and farther back until I repeated the process. Running was somewhere at the edge of my physical limits; every footfall hurt something fierce and striving yanked the drain from my already low energy reserves. At one point, I complained to Beat about feeling lousy and he responded, “Well, you’re moving really well today.”

“Haven’t you noticed I’ve been running to keep up with you?” I asked. “It’s not easy.”

Still, with this pace, we managed to catch back up with Tim, Loreen, and Rick. The five of us moved together through the birch forests, laughing and chatting much the same way we had on the second day. We stopped for a twenty-minute break to melt snow, and I enjoyed the last of my Mountain House meals. The Petruskas — a wonderful Athabaskan family from Nikolai who host Iditarod Trail Invitational racers — passed on snowmobiles while the four of us were plopped down on the side of the trail. Tim was cooking freeze-dried meals and I was wearing booties (I was still making futile attempts to dry my feet when I stopped.) The three Petruskas — Stephanie, her husband, and the family patriarch Nick — looked at us bemusedly while we chatted about weather and trails. They’d received a call from Anne's husband and were headed out to Bear Creek to pick her up. 

“It’s sixteen more miles,” Nick said, with a tone that made it seem as though he expected to meet us there in an hour or two. Tim was incredulous that it was still that far, but even he knew we hadn’t passed Salmon Camp — which was twelve miles out — so I wasn’t sure what he expected to hear. Still, Salmon Camp came after not too long. The tiny log cabin and fish racks were still there, but I was shocked at how much they had deteriorated in six years. When I was last here, I badly wanted to take refuge from the wind and melt some snow, but the cabin door was frozen shut and there was no way to go inside. Now the roof was collapsed and the walls were barely standing — just a pile of logs that wouldn’t provide shelter from anything. A lot can happen in six years. 

We remained with the Pennsylvanians for the rest of the march into Nikolai. I was lost in a daze, gazing up at the sky and the tops of trees that grew taller as we plodded our return to the Kuskokwim River. In forty hours we had traveled eighty miles, but on that ethereal edge of sleep I could feel and almost believe that millennia had passed. It was a long, long way.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Iditarod Again, part seven

Everything — duffle, shoes, sleeping bag, sled, harness and feedbag, everything — was either damp or soaked and smeared with mud. Tim, Loreen, Rick, Steve, and Anne had hauled out earlier, but it was still early. Maybe 4 a.m.? My mind was cloudy; the line between sleep and awake was increasingly more blurred. Beat and I procrastinated the inevitable while chatting with Rob, downing more Hot Tang, and rifling through my resupply bag that the race organizer had flown in a week earlier. I pictured the sponge-like surface outside and didn’t want to add any weight to my sled. Maybe I could just leave everything behind. That would be amazing — I could run free, like a rabbit across the snowless expanse, needing no warm gear or food because I’d be so light and fast that nothing could touch me. 

Everything in my food bag looked disgusting. Rob pointed out the pile left behind by the blazing-fast bikers. It was an enormous treasure trove — a fifty-gallon bin overflowing with any kind of energy food you could imagine: salami, Clif Bars, potato chips, Endurolytes, candy bars with Italian packaging, and some Scandinavian-looking cookies that I mulled for a minute before throwing them back in the bin. My brain was overloaded with choices but it all looked nauseating, and I didn’t want to carry any of it. My throat was raw from hard breathing dry, cold air, the roof of my mouth was scratched, and a metallic taste lingered on my tongue from gnawing on dense morsels of food until it bled. All of that, plus four days of hard effort, had eviscerated my appetite. Eating was the worst chore out there; it was worse than walking. I enjoyed my Mountain House Chicken and Noodle meals because they were warm, soft, and relatively tasteless, but everything else was crap. I didn’t even fantasize about food — real food — because I was so repulsed by the thought of eating. I rejected everything in those bins and only packed about half of my resupply; it was still more than I took from Finger Lake, and I didn’t even finish that. Ten portioned bags of food in total. It was about 10,000 calories. Seems like a lot, but we still had 130 hard miles in front of us, and only one meal remaining in the race-provided provisions. The math eluded me. 

We squished through the mud along a narrow trail that cut through the woods toward the confluence of the Tatina and the South Fork of the Kuskokwim River. It looked like an ATV trail; there were even ruts where snowmobile tracks dug into the soft dirt. Just before the river we encountered Anne, walking in the opposite direction. She explained that she couldn’t find the trail despite wandering along the shoreline for more than an hour, and was returning to Rohn and wait for daylight. I had a vague memory of riding across glare ice and gravel bars for about two miles before cutting to the left into the woods, but Anne had been here more times than me. There was always the navigational possibility of staying on the river all the way to the Post River confluence, but Anne said there was a torrent of overflow and she wanted to get off the river ice as soon as possible. I did, too. We convinced her to stick with us and we’d look for the trail together.

(Edit: Beat asked Steve about this, and apparently he was with us when we left Rohn, and also while we were on the Kuskokwim River. With apologies to Steve, for whatever reasons my memory has completely erased his presence during this time. It is an imperfect form of storytelling, trying to piece together events from memory.)

The Kuskokwim was a nightmare; there was an inch of flowing water over the ice, which snapped and moaned loudly enough to reverberate through the deadly quiet air. We could hear water gushing beneath the ice, and black holes revealed open leads near the center of braided river channels, which were already narrow to begin with.

It’s possible that some of the water evaporated from my shoes while they hung over the stove in Rob’s tent overnight, but it wasn’t going to matter and I didn’t care as I sloshed through the stream, reeling into the depths of ice phobia. Anne was stressed and her demeanor wasn’t helping, and Beat was struggling with his 75-pound sled and the more limited traction of his studded shoes. We’d scan the maze of gravel bars and alder islands, arguing like children in a playground. 

“This is the way. I see an IronDog marking,” I’d demand. 

“Those aren’t this year’s. They’re last year’s,” Anne would retort. “See, the color of the tape is wrong.” 

Occasionally we’d come across wooden stakes that had definitely been placed by the IronDog Snowmachine Race a few weeks earlier. The disintegration of the snow and fast-flowing overflow had taken most of them away, but there were still occasionally strings of reflective tape tied to branches, or the occasional hardy stake stabbed into the ice. Anne was right that some were years old, but I figured anything would keep us on the right track of this half-mile-wide river and eventually take us to the needle in the haystack that was the Iditarod Trail cutting back into the woods.

I scanned the beam of my headlamp across the river, back and forth multiple times, until I caught a glimmer of something that was far away. 

“There! Over there!” I announced, and started marching. Anne didn’t believe me and hung back. Beat was somewhere farther back, although I did not realize that at the time. I thought he was right behind us. I thought they were both following me. I marched single-mindedly toward the bright light, not looking at where I was putting my feet, whether it was on a gravel bar or a clump of grass or a shin-deep lead of overflow. I didn’t look back, either, terrified that if I moved my head at all, I would lose track of the distant sparkle and never find it again. About five minutes later I reached the wooden lath, where my headlamp had already caught the sparkle of another distant reflector. I marched harder. The growing terror of bad ice quieted and I moved in a peaceful transfixation toward these glimmers of reflected light, one after the other, until I reached an opening that was clearly a trail veering into the woods. Finally free to move my head, I looked back and saw no sign of Beat or Anne. Not even their headlamps.

Great. I took my own headlamp off and held it up, swinging the beam back and forth toward the darkness. After five or maybe even ten more minutes, there were still no lights approaching. I felt strongly I should go back, but my phobia wouldn’t let me take a single step back onto the river. When I looked down I could see ankle-deep water flowing over impossibly black ice, cracked like an ancient mirror. I hemmed and paced on the shoreline like a frightened dog, until finally I saw movement, and waved my light faster. Beat was very angry with me. About as angry as I’ve ever seen him. He’d been scouting a different braid in the river, and didn’t see me surge ahead. By the time he came back around, Anne was walking toward him, and I was gone. 

“All those times I waited for you, why couldn’t you wait for me?” he spat. He wasn’t angry that he had been left alone — he spends a lot of time alone in Alaskan wilderness, and this doesn’t bother him. He was angry at my act of abandoning him. This anger was justified, and I knew it. My actions hadn’t been intentional or malicious. Still, I believed the state of the river ice was volatile and dangerous, and it was inexcusable that I deserted the people I’d intentionally teamed up with. 

“I thought you were right there. Really, I did. I couldn’t look back because I didn’t want to lose sight of the reflectors.”

Behind the dark shadows of his headlamp I could see the anger flaring in Beat’s eyes and had to look away. My own emotions surged to the surface and I was filled with acrimony … not at Beat, but at everything surrounding us. God, this was hard. It was ever harder with other people. 

It’s a unique experience, taking on an effort like this with one’s partner. Humans stretched to the limits of their physical and emotional capacity can be exceptionally selfish, or exceptionally compassionate. Survival mode dictates the first — it’s why mountaineers can walk past a fellow climber dying on a slope. The depth of one’s sense of humanity often determines the second — and is why some climbers will attend to a dying person they barely know at the risk of both their lives. In harsh environments or dangerous situations, people often team up in groups to leverage both tendencies and maximize the chance of everyone’s survival. Of course intensive physical challenges do not have the same immediacy as survival situations, but they do generate similar emotions. There may not be pressing dangers, but stress, fear, and fatigue still gravitate toward extremes, and this can become especially volatile between two people who already share a deep emotional connection. Beat was hurt by my selfish dash off the river, and I also was shaken by the duty I didn’t act upon, both because of fear. I come to these places, to the Iditarod Trail, to face my fears, to capture anxieties that trickle into all parts of my life, and prove that fear does not control me. But it’s not a clean battle; the process is messy and it hurts when someone you love is caught in the crossfire. 

We turned away in silence, and Beat surged ahead into the woods. My sled scraped along the trail with terrible grinding noises, pulling miserably at my shoulders and lower back. It felt like there was a giant hook dragging through the dirt, and all of my strength was only just enough to battle forward. 

To his credit, for as irked as he was about me leaving him, Beat did wait while I struggled. Anne also stuck close by as we trudged up and down the steep rolling hills along the river. “This is not fun,” she said repeatedly.

Photo by Beat Jegerlehner
After two hours, we had traveled all of four miles from Rohn when we encountered Bill Merchant, the elusive co-race-director of the Iditarod Trail Invitational. Bill does the trail-breaking for this race, driving his snowmobile all the way from Knik to Nikolai, then back. Most racers meet Bill for the first time on his return trip, clad in a billowing down coat (at the time, it was zipped open to vent heat), a tattered ski cap, and a mischievous smile underneath a handlebar mustache. These encounters usually happen somewhere along this bewildering expanse beyond the Alaska Range, often in the dark, and Bill wouldn’t have it any other way.

Bill greeted us by regaling us with an in-depth description of his awful night, most of which I do not remember, but now it was 6 a.m. and he was limping his battered machine into Rohn.

“I wish I had a four-wheeler instead of a snowmachine,” he said. 

“How bad is it?” Anne asked.

Bill’s mischievous smile appeared again. “It’s bad. But it gets better. There’s about twenty-five miles of rough trail. Then there’s a little bit of snow, all the way into Nikolai. Course, if it stays warm …”

Bill shrugged, bid us good luck, and with that he was gone. A ghost in the night. 

It’s one thing to drag a sled over frozen bare ground. Ice crystals coat the dirt; even though it’s a rough ride, there’s at least a small amount of glide. But on thawed, wet dirt — mud — laced with roots, wet rocks, and clumps of slippery grass … I might as well have been chained to an anvil for how I helpless I felt. I leaned so far forward that my lower back began to ache, and still my hamstrings and glutes quivered as I trudged step by painfully slow step. Anne had done a lot of dirt-based sled training in the hills behind her Anchorage home during the dry winter (“I destroyed three sleds this winter,” she boasted. “They were completely shredded.) She was also faring better than me, and despite her desire to not be alone through this section, eventually marched out of sight. 

“Why didn’t I drag a sled around on dirt in California?” I wondered to myself. “Or better yet, brought my cart to Alaska? Damn, this would be so much easier with wheels.” 

Photo by Beat Jegerlehner
As dawn broke, we began to see the depths of this winterless wonderland. Charred spruce trunks — remnants of “The New Burn” that flared along the shore of the South Fork a few years earlier — stuck out of the brown earth as far as we could see in all directions. The 5,000-foot peaks surrounding us were utterly stripped of snow. There were streaks of white, hidden in couloirs, but the extent of brownness was boggling. 

We dropped onto the gravel bars surrounding the Post River — a mile-wide crossing of baseball-sized cobbles strewn with a spiny carpet of driftwood. The sled scraped and groaned miserably, and I thought for sure it was coming apart, but Beat assured me that the material was strong enough to handle sticks and rocks. I clearly wasn’t strong enough, however, as I leaned and yanked and made my own miserable groans. Sometimes I came to a string of logs that I couldn’t see a way around, so I unhooked my harness and hoisted the sled over the obstacles by hand. I had been mulling over ways to carry the sled on my back, but this hoisting confirmed that the load was too unstructured, awkward, and heavy to achieve this with makeshift straps, at least for any significant distance. 

The Post River itself was glare ice, and not wet and cracked like the Kuskokwim. It was nice ice. We only had to cross it, but for a hundred yards the sled became weightless, gliding effortlessly over the smooth surface. The effect was so startling that I continued looking back to make sure the sled was still attached. 

Photo by Beat Jegerlehner

The Post River “Glacier” is an infamous obstacle on the Iditarod Trail. Although just a tiny tributary of the Kuskokwim that parallels the Post River, it freezes into a steep, five-hundred-foot waterfall of ice that must be scaled. It’s possible, but not easy, to bypass the waterfall along the cliffy walls lining the shore. The ice is steeper than it looks in photos, and if you lose your grip even for a millisecond, there’s no way to arrest a fall. Since I had microspikes, I opted to march straight up the ice. Beat just had carbide studs, so he strapped on his snowshoes and hoped their dull teeth would dig in. At this point, even a near-vertical ice fall was better than dirt. 

Beyond the Post River, the Iditarod Trail climbs onto a higher plateau beside an outlying peak known as Egypt Mountain. The immensity of this place is difficult to express. It’s just “out there” in every sense of the phrase — a place beyond what lies beyond. We crossed long swamps with no hints of a trail, walking overland while skirting aquamarine puddles of ice that were rapidly thawing in the rich morning light. The swamps were carpeted in tundra grass and lined with barren birch trees, and the low-angle sun gave turned everything a reddish tint of gold. Even as my body slumped hatefully in front of its anchor, my mind was mesmerized by the strangeness of this place. 

“It’s so surreal,” I said to Beat. “I said this about the Dazell Gorge, but I take it back. This is the most surreal place I’ve ever been.” 

I slipped further into its spell, becoming more convinced of time warps. That it wasn’t just May or June of 2014, no, because spring brings hints of green. It was too quiet and odd to be the near future. No, this place was deep in the past, a desertification of tundra before the Ice Age. I looked around and expected to see mastodons; and there was a glimmer of seriousness in this expectation. Bison tracks were pressed deep into the mud. I saw canine tracks too … there certainly weren’t any dog sleds out anytime recently, so they were probably wolf. There were times that Beat disappeared from sight in the birch forests, and I would think, “Well, this is it. I’m the last person on Earth.” 

Photo by Beat Jegerlhener

As the day warmed up, we stopped to remove layers and string our wet socks across the top of our sleds, on the off-chance they could dry in the sun. I had four pairs of sopping socks and draped each one of them over the duffel, along with a hat, held down by bungees, which made my already hateful sled look like a hillbilly junk cart. Neither of us had sunscreen, but I had a wind-protection face stick, and slathered it all over my face, neck, and arms. “Welcome to the brave new world of climate change,” I said. 

The swamp ice broke apart, and we had no choice but to slosh through puddles. As we dropped off of Egypt Mountain, there were more streams to cross — increasingly, these streams were free-flowing, although at least not deep because it was still water flowing over ice. Still, it appeared that, even outside my time warp fantasies, spring break-up was actually happening, rapidly. I tried very hard not to fixate on my ice phobias. But beyond these anxieties, there were only the thoughts about sharp pain in my lower back and hamstrings, and the fatigue, and the lurching frustration of pulling a semi trailer across swamps at a blistering pace of 1.8 miles per hour (which I could track on my Garmin eTrex, and it was driving me mad.) 

And then there was the coming of night to think about — the fact that nearly everything inside my sled was wet if not soaked, my shoes were wet, and eventually we were going to decide to camp on this wet tundra somewhere down the trail. It wasn’t clear whether we’d ever find snow, which is what we needed to make drinking water. We could boil stream water if necessary, but past the Farewell Lakes was increasingly drier country, so we had to decide whether to stop and boil water now, while we could. And then there were the Farewell Lakes. We’d have to cross them. What were those like? What condition was that ice in? 

Quiet panics began to tremble in my chest, and I was losing the energy to battle them. My iPod had been playing dull, depressing music since I turned it on — because all music sounded that way at that point — but then Black Eyed Peas’ “I Gotta Feeling” clicked onto the Shuffle. It was something, and I needed anything — anything to lure my head away from this downward spiral of melancholy. I latched onto the rhythm as a way to time my steps, prompting me to march harder as I sang loudly, “I gotta feeling … that tonight’s gonna be a good night … that tonight’s gonna be a good good night.” 

“And how many people can say that about sleeping in the mud with wet feet and no drinking water?” I thought. And it’s probably going to be 15 below by morning, I bet it is. Wouldn’t be right if it wasn’t.” I laughed out loud, put the Shuffle on repeat, and kept marching to the same energetic beat. It was surprisingly calming. The Zen of resignation. 

As we dropped off the final pitch of the plateau, we neared a large tributary of the Kuskokwim. From above, it looked like a churning whitewater river. When we reached the shoreline, I realized the whitewater was just chunks of ice floating in the current, but the current was swift. The closest bank on the other side of open water was at least 500 feet across the river, and it was impossible to determine how deep these leads were. My quiet panics became louder. “I don’t know about this. I’m not entirely sure I can do this,” I gasped at Beat. 

He assured me we’d be okay. We both put on our hip waders even though both of our shoes were soaked, and Beat waded in first. At one point I could see the ice water flowing well above his knees, but he didn’t crash through any surface ice, so that was a positive thing. I ventured into the water; it was flowing over a layer of smooth ice, creating treacherously slippery conditions. The swift current pulled at my ankles as I scooted along in the hip waders, which had zero traction of their own. As I waded into the thigh-deep section, I turned around to check on my sled. There was no way I could carry it and keep my balance, so I let it drag behind and hoped for the best, knowing Beat had done the same. It bobbed along like a pool toy, floating happily, but I could see water streaming beneath the duffel. I’d reinforced my gear with water-resistant coverings, but it wasn’t full-submersion waterproof. Whatever wasn’t wet before definitely was now, I thought. My next thoughts were just an unbroken stream of silent swearing as I scooted the rest of the way across the river. 

Photo by Beat Jegerlehner
On the other side of the river, we crossed through a bison bedding area. The swath of soft mud looked like a cattle loading zone, like some sad trampled piece of land behind a barb-wire fence in Wyoming, and it was again surreal to remember where we actually were. The paddies of mud were so torn up that we couldn’t even begin to discern a trail, and since it was daytime, reflective markers weren’t easy to find. We picked our way along perimeters of the meadow, looking for diamond-shaped trail markings on trees. 

Somewhere just beyond this, we located the trail cutting back into the forest. It rolled through the birch forest beside the Kuskokwim, rippled with increasingly larger roots. My sled caught these roots every time, yanking me backward and jerking my already sore back to the point of involuntary screaming. It wasn’t long before I got snagged in one too many roots, and lost it. The long-simmering caldron of frustration and pain and fear and doubt boiled over, sending the entire landscape into a tailspin and filling my ears with deafening white noise. This was a thing that couldn’t be done. Not by me. I wasn’t strong enough. And the now-broken ice of the Farewell Lakes was waiting to swallow my broken body whole. 

Seconds, maybe minutes, were filled by only this silent screaming. Perhaps more time went by, because Beat came back to look for me. The sight of him walking backward on the trail broke the last layer of my flimsy shell apart. I melted down before he even had a chance to ask how I was doing. 

There was blubbering and sobbing, and I could’t even get a word through this mess, even as both Beat and my rational self assured me this was not so bad. Finally I was able to blurt out, “I’m … sorry. I … actually don’t … even know … why … I’m so upset.” 

Once I got my breathing back to a manageable level, we pulled forward once again. “It’s really okay if we do the whole Farewell Burn at two miles an hour,” Beat said. “It will take as long as it takes. It’s fine.”

“I know,” I said. “I just had a moment back there. I’m okay now.”

But there was still a lot of dirt … and the Farewell Lakes … left to cross.