Thursday, April 02, 2020

Last days of innocence — day four

Photo by Amber Bethe
March 5, 2020. Finger Lake, Alaska. 18 below and breezy. 

A seemingly silent awareness of 4 a.m. arrived, and the many inhabitants of the ice-bound Finger Lake tent began to emerge from their down cocoons. I had set an alarm for 2 a.m. but ignored it. In a way, this felt a little like I was already giving up — "Jill, you can’t sleep eight hours a night if you’re going to Nome." Evening Jill, who is alert and ambitious and has spent entirely too much time crunching numbers and making plans — she’s the one who sets the alarm. Morning Jill, who must battle her way bleary consciousness beneath a crush of full-body muscle soreness and unassuaged fatigue — she’s the one who lacks willpower. Even at 4 a.m., I could barely sit up through the sheer gravity of my grogginess. This morning inertia always leaves me wondering why I even bother with the sleep thing. Perhaps if I just stayed awake and kept walking …

The air inside the tent was frosty, but I wasn’t prepared for the icy punch to the face when I opened the canvas flaps and stepped outside. I briefly convinced myself it was 40 or 50 below zero, but my thermometer would reveal an ambient temperature of 18 below. That wind, though. The wall tent had a wood-platform porch where someone had placed a couch. A person was curled up in a sleeping bag there, which I found delightfully odd. Lovely place for a nap, this random couch on a frozen lake that’s fully exposed to the brunt of wind and subzero cold.

I returned to the volunteers’ cabin to heat up a bag of dehydrated scrambled eggs that I’d found in the bin of discarded drop bag food. Many of the same folks with whom I’d shared dinner the previous night were also doing breakfast at the same time. There were at least six more people in the tent who I managed to never even see, but the Kiwis, Beth, Amber and I enjoyed one more respite together before the next leg of our journey.

The section between Finger Lake and Puntilla Lake is often regarded as one of the toughest on the route to McGrath. “The Push,” a veteran cyclist had called it during my first ITI in 2008. The name stuck with me. For thirty miles the trail climbs into the Alaska Range over a series of steep rolling hills. There’s the infamous Happy River Steps that feature 40-percent grades both down and up. And there are equally steep grades higher on the route, as the trail dips in and out of precipitous drainages along a side slope above the Happy River gorge. The final five miles into Rainy Pass Lodge are a relentless and plodding climb with one short descent in the middle, just enough to undo all of the hard-won altitude.

I started out at 5:11 a.m., after spending more than fifteen minutes hunched over in the 18-below darkness: repairing the hole in my backpack with tape, and attempting to secure my wrist brace with leuko tape. I’d started out the race with an overuse injury that inflamed a disc in my left wrist. The injury had unsurprisingly deteriorated, and my left hand had become swollen and often prone to electric shocks of pain — although, truthfully, I'd feared worse.

Still, this day would involve lots of aggressive poling to boost body and sled up 40-percent grades, so I needed to support the wrist as much as possible. My “wrist widget” brace worked best, but it was impossible to keep in place beneath several jacket and coat sleeves. My hard brace was a good for sleeping, but I couldn’t use it when temperatures were below zero. Poling irritated my wrist, but it hurt the most when I had to do anything else — eating, grabbing things out of my backpack, zipping and unzipping, unpacking and packing.

Hand pain is so frustrating, because it seeps into every action and impacts the quieter moments where I can usually find respite. If my tired legs were the lion that roared throughout the day, my wrist was the kitten that whined all night.

The long rest and two protein-rich meals in Finger Lake had done me some good, though, and I descended from the breakfast cabin feeling better than I had the previous two mornings. This was also the first morning that began in the dark. I took the opportunity to stare at the sky as I crossed scoured ice on Red Lake. Biting wind stung the small strip of exposed skin across my eyebrows, but I was determined to catch of a glimpse of Northern Lights. Alas, there was only the black sky, the splatter of stars, and vague blue light on the horizon that was either dawn or the setting moon.

Within minutes I was already across the lake and slumped over on the first climb, gaining 300 feet of altitude in a half mile and wallowing in a mire of loose snow punched with knee-deep postholes. Commence “The Push.” I must not have been the only one disheveled by morning, because I found a particularly large concentration of what Amber called “trail treasures” along this climb. A ski skin. A single glove. A hat. An unopened package of Gu. These were not useful to me and thus unexciting, just more things to carry for thirty miles and then dump on a table at the next checkpoint, likely never to be claimed. Later, eventual 350-ski winner Mathieu would express gratitude for the return of his skin, so that was worth hauling.
The sun slowly rose to a cold but stunningly bluebird day. These are the best days, and I was stoked to find myself surrounded by far-reaching views of the snowy mountains. Stoke, along with a fresh supply of trail mix and other snacks from my drop bag, fueled better energy. I felt like I was finally moving relatively well. Daylight eased my moose-a-noia, and I listened to the audio book of “A Stranger in the Woods,” about a man who lived alone and undetected in a makeshift camp close to a community of vacation homes in northern Maine for 27 years.

My takeaway from this book was that his master thievery was much more interesting than his social distancing … which, as someone who flees to Alaska each year in search of solitude, was more relatable than strange. Of course, the author’s research into the psychology of such an extreme hermit existence would return as prescient lessons for the weeks that followed. For now, still ignorant of the future, I became most emotional during the chapter that described how "the North Woods hermit" struggled to survive winters at 20 below, holed up in his camp and unwilling to start a fire for fear the smoke would reveal his location. As his sleeping bags slowly succumbed to ice buildup, he would remain awake, pacing his camp during the long nights. I could feel the pain of this: the creep of cold and the primal understanding that one must not stop walking. This was a prescient lesson for the future in itself … as the cold creeps in, one must not stop walking.

Even in the present moment, taken literally, this lesson was a hard pill to swallow. Although I was feeling better this morning, my crisis of confidence was deepening. Why did I still feel so weak? It’s been four years since I was first beset with health issues that I’d largely overcome. My thyroid levels and asthma are in check. Past struggles with breathing hadn’t once become an issue this year, even when I was pulling as hard as I could and my heart rate was pegged for long hours. Winter training had gone well, possibly about as well as it could without sacrificing too many other facets of my life to be worth it. My race management was also about as conservative as it could be; I was eating well and prioritizing rest. But I still did not feel up to the task. Possibly, this meant I’d never feel up to the task. I tried to push these unhelpful thoughts out of my head, but the image of the North Woods hermit — badly weakened by the hardships of survival, pacing his camp just to stay alive — haunted me.

As I neared the Happy River Steps, the forest closed in, the trail was stomped with deep hoof prints, and moose-a-noia returned. It was enough to turn off my audio book, and I emerged from my shadowy imagination world to the immediacy of the present — sharp beams of sunlight drawing patterns on the snow, pillowy mounds that looked like fantastic spots for a nap. Trail conditions were better in these protected sections, and eventually Beth passed while pedaling. We chatted for a few minutes, mostly about moose, and I was glad I wasn’t the only one feeling so spooked. I also was silently glad that she was now in front of me, scaring off potential attackers.

 The pillowy snow provided a nice cushion for the Happy River Steps, and descending proved to be a non-issue. I didn’t even need to remove my harness — I just walked down 40-percent grades with the sled behind me, barely nudged by gravity … such was the resistance on the trail this year. The crossing where the Happy River pours into the Skwentna River is a stunning spot, and this year was no exception. The two rivers slice through deep gorges rimmed with spruce forest, but the confluence is a wide-open area with expansive views. Overhead is a skyline of jagged peaks, drenched in snow and stretching out in all directions. It’s one of my favorite spots on the route, and all of my other visits here have happened amid overcast skies, snowstorms, or in the middle of the night. It was particularly startling to experience this place in brilliant sunlit clarity.

Photo by Amber Bethe
The climb out of the Happy River gorge is a mere 0.2 miles, but painful. The deep snow this year actually assisted in making it easier to ascend. I was able to kick steps and anchor in for the hard pull up a near-vertical embankment. Amber had been close behind the entire morning, but I didn’t notice her presence until I stopped near the top of the climb to eat a snack. I’ll admit that I was beginning to feel a bit of competitive spark with Amber, because we did so much leapfrogging. She was clearly stronger than me on the move, but I guessed she stopped more often than I did, which allowed me to hold a similar pace.
The thousand-mile and the 350 are distinctly two different races these days, and it’s pointless to try to compete with anyone in the others. Faye, the leading woman on foot, was already nearly a day ahead of us, and if even if I got to McGrath before Amber, she’d still be second in the short race. But it is funny, this racing thing. I don’t think of myself as a competitive person, but obviously I am. As we chatted, I felt this strange urge to hold my position. So as she settled in with a bag of homemade cookies — cue jealousy — I hurried to finish my handfuls of trail mix and keep walking.

Of course Amber passed again, less than a mile later. For the rest of the day I was alone, admonishing my heavy legs, running hot and cold beneath a blazing sun and shocking chill, occasionally trying to hold a conversation with my stuffed Siberian husky, Bernadette (I'll admit the imaginary friend magic that carried me through 2018 didn't quite happen this year), and pondering the baffling, or perhaps not-so-baffling, existence of the North Woods hermit. Frequently my strength flagged to the point where I'd stop to sit down on my sled, but I never let myself languish for long. I reminded my temperamental brain how incredibly lucky we were to be experiencing this place on this day, of all places and days.

 “This is the Alaska Range. The Alaska Range! It’s right over there!”

Day faded into a shadowy late afternoon. My cognitive function faded to a simple wave of climbs and descents, punctuated with flashes of determination, winces of sharp pain, sparks of awe, and occasional hopelessness. About three miles before Rainy Pass Lodge, I heard a swishing sound and turned around to see a skier. I was near the top of a punchy rise, and he was gliding toward me as though gravity somehow worked in reverse for him. It was Asbjorn, the practically professional Danish skier who was aiming to become the first person to ski the thousand miles to Nome within the 30-day limit imposed by this particular race. As far as anybody knew, this would be the first official ski of the full Northern or Southern Route of the Iditarod Trail since 2000, when a duo of skiers made the trip in 33 days.

Most other human-powered Iditarod benchmarks have been achieved, but the ski to Nome remains elusive. Why? As best as I can tell — and speaking as a particularly poor skier — skiing is the most demanding discipline. The rough, icy, often snowless terrain takes skill to navigate, and one must achieve a high level of skill before skis become more helpful than hindering. This year of abundantly deep snow was no doubt *the* year to attempt this route on skis. And Asbjorn was clearly the person to do it — even brief observation of his technique was humbling. He was skiing, parallel skiing, without a hint of struggle, up some of the steepest grades. He seemed to have no problem holding 4 or 5 mph indefinitely, moving with what looked like a lot less effort than I was expending at 2 mph. For a few days it was unclear to me why he was positioned back here with the likes of myself, but he was a smart racer who was pacing himself for success on the long haul to Nome — moving fast during the day, and resting long at night.

Asbjorn moved to pass me like I was standing still, but he did pause to mention that he was intentionally hurrying to make it to Rainy Pass Lodge by dinner time.

"I missed it last year. I'm not going to miss it this year!" he proclaimed.

I'd forgotten about dinner, and Asbjorn's mention of it caused me to bristle. Rainy Pass Lodge is one of the more luxurious destinations along the route, catering to fly-in tourists. Each night they serve a home-cooked dinner, and even the smelly racers are invited to partake if they like. The meal is $50 but incredible: Grilled steak, baked potatoes, vegetables, bread, lemonade, and dessert — all you can eat, of course, with bottomless glasses of wine. If you miss or don't want to pay for dinner, you get what the race provides in the separate mushers' cabin: Unopened cans of soup, floating in a vat of water on the wood stove. If you're lucky, there's still some pilot bread left over on the table, and maybe hot water if someone remembered to refill the electric kettle. It was getting late and I had already accepted that I was having a lukewarm can of soup for dinner. Then, here comes Asbjorn, moving as though propelled by a motor, brimming with optimism.

Just when I feel physically shattered and believe I've lost all control of my mental game, there's often a spark of inspiration that surprises me. After Asbjorn passed, I shored up my aching quads, shoved a handful of gummy candy in my mouth, and checked my GPS. "Three miles an hour. Three miles an hour and I can do it." Then I marched, mostly staring at the screen, occasionally looking up to appreciate the intense beauty that still surrounded me. The sun was setting now, and glimmers of pink and lavender light bathed the distant slopes. I could have plopped down on my sled and languished happily as darkness descended and the possibility of Northern Lights returned. But I'll admit, I was more motivated by food. Fixating on my GPS screen to ensure three miles an hour was the only way food would happen.

As sunlight faded the temperature plummeted precipitously — 8 below, then 14 below, then 19 below, in a matter of minutes. I was lightly dressed and shivering, but I couldn't stop to add layers. It would take too much time. Maybe the cold will motivate me to march faster, I thought, but no ... my shoulders were quaking and my core temperature was definitely dropping. But I was close, so close. Steak will make it all better! I lifted my knees and launched into a motion that until that moment I firmly believed I no longer had in me — running.

It was 6:38 when I dropped onto the lake, past a cozy-looking Arctic Oven tent pitched on the ice next to a small plane, and continued shuffling toward the lodge. I briefly entered the mushers' cabin to unpack a few things, then jogged to the main lodge, entering just a few minutes before 7. Dinner was just starting to be served. It took some time to peel off my deeply ice-crusted clothing and stop shivering enough to feel presentable, but eventually I joined the table with the people that had become my group: George and Graham (the Kiwi cyclists), Mathieu and Asbjorn (the European skiers), Beth and Amber.

The steak was abundant and the wine flowed freely. Pain was forgotten and happiness brimmed as we enjoyed the spoils of our small victory: We'd made it to Rainy Pass Lodge, the halfway point on the route to McGrath! Of course, for me, it was less than one sixth of the distance to Nome. But for all of us, Rainy Pass Lodge was the last respite before a critical point of no return. One we crossed over the Alaska Range, retreat would become almost unworkably difficult. And the veterans among us knew ... all of the hardest days were yet to come. 
Monday, March 30, 2020

Last days of innocence — day three

March 4, 2020. Shell Lake, Alaska. 30 below and clear. 

I was determined to sleep as long as possible; it seemed prudent to try and recover my rapidly diminishing energy. The snow out here was only getting deeper, the wind more forceful, the temperatures colder and colder. Time was the only currency I had to leverage against all of these forces that smothered my strength. So I set an alarm for 7:30 a.m. with a plan to “only” travel 25 miles today, as far as the next checkpoint at Finger Lake. I was already falling behind my ambitious race schedule, and this plan would put me back almost a full day. But no one was exactly flying this year. Alaska is nothing if not unpredictable, and Iditarod racers are nothing if they can’t adapt. 

When my alarm went off, I stuck my nose out of my sleeping bag to bitingly cold air inside the cabin. The fire had indeed gone out overnight, and the frigid temperatures found their way into the log building. I jumped up and grabbed the shirt, pants and socks I’d hung over the bed, only to find them frozen stiff. Good thing I left most of my insulating layers and shoes hanging to dry in the main lodge. I packed up and walked outside wearing only my base layer and booties. The sky was a rich shade of lavender, and the air was stunning in its chill. I darted several hundred yards to my sled, which was parked near the lodge, and went about arranging things in my duffle and grabbing stuff I wanted to take inside. As I worked, my bare fingers stiffened until they were immobile. 

 “Damn it’s cold,” I exclaimed. I walked over to my digital thermometer and hit the button with the knuckle of my index finger. “Oof, 30 below!” 

The pink light of sunrise was just beginning to frost the craggy peaks of the Shell Hills, which in any other state would be called mountains. I wanted to linger on the deck or at least take a photo, but I’d been complacent about the cold and my hand rigidity had become urgent. I rammed a shoulder into the door and entered the lodge. 

There was a large group of racers in the dining area, nursing cups of coffee at this late hour. I sat down near the wood stove to dry my icy base layer as Kari’s mom served a small breakfast sandwich and orange juice. As I took a few bites, I overheard a man at the bar recounting something about a moose. Forgetting my manners, I loudly interrupted. “Wait, what happened?” 

He turned to me. “I was stomped by a moose!” 

“Wait, what?” I couldn’t have heard that correctly. 

His eyes were wild, and he had a strange grin on his face. “Last night, on the way in, I got stomped by a moose. But I’m not hurt! The snow was so deep that all it could do was push me deeper into the snow." 

My stomach lurched and my appetite drained as the man, Greg, filled in the details. It was 2 a.m., and he was skiing toward Shell Lake on a different trail from the one I took. This alternate route was a wide path cut by piston bullies and used to transport equipment to a remote mine. It wrapped around the Shell Hills rather than climb over them. Two moose darted across the path directly in front of him. One kept going, but the other turned toward him. Without even hesitating, it charged and pushed him over into the snowbank. Greg kicked until his skis came off and stabbed at the moose’s face with his ski poles, but the hooves kept coming down on his chest, pushing him deeper into the snowbank. Finally there was a pause, and Greg darted behind the nearest tree. The moose continued to stand over his sled, ears back, head lowered, clearly waiting for the next opportunity to attack. Long minutes went by, perhaps hours, and Greg was only wearing a light skiing layer as temperatures dipped to 30 below. Finally he decided he was going to die one way or the other, and dove for his sled. The moose lurched but he was able to grab a big coat and mittens. Then, with more terrifying lunges while the moose seemed distracted, he was able to grab one ski, than the other, then his poles. When the moose turned to chew on some alder branches, he made a run for it. Disheveled and unwilling to look back, he sprinted all the way to the lodge. 

“Holy shit,” I responded. A painful chill ran down my spine. “But you’re not hurt? Are you sure? Did you check? Are you sure you don't have internal injuries? Are you going to stop?” 

Greg insisted he didn’t even have a bruise on his chest. He was rattled, but he had every intention of continuing the ski to McGrath. “I have to make it to Rohn,” he said. 

Greg’s best friend, Rob, was the ITI volunteer in Rohn for nearly a decade, until he died in 2014. Greg and Rob were teammates in that summer’s Alaska Wilderness Classic when Rob’s packraft capsized in the Tana River. Greg had entered this year’s ITI solely so he could visit the Rohn checkpoint, which now bears the name "Rob's Roadhouse." 

“You're brave,” I said. “Much braver than I would be. I’m terrified even of the phantom moose. If I was attacked by a real one, I’d be shivering in that corner right about now.”

Near the corner of the lodge, Missy was pacing, checking her phone and fretting about her friend Tab. Tab was just a few hundred yards behind Greg when the attack happened. Greg heard Tab call out, but there was nothing he could do. Now Tab had been bivied in place, just two miles from the lodge, for almost six hours. Missy was just about to go back looking for him when his tracker started moving again. Meanwhile, another cyclist, Jim, was preparing to ride back to Skwentna, where he could catch a cheaper flight out. His timeline was too tight, the trail too slow, and he hadn't reserved enough time to ride to Nome under these conditions. Shell Lake is a good spot to cut one's losses. Missy was contemplating the same.

“My head’s just not in it,” she admitted. “I don’t want to push my bike all the way to Nome.”

I admired her honesty, and shared her outlook. I’d been closely following trail reports and Alaska weather data since early January. The pattern had become predictable in its relentlessness: Heavy snow, wind, deep cold, heavy snow, wind, deep cold. Tim Hewitt was mired in these conditions during his attempt to follow the Iron Dog route from Fairbanks in February. The Iron Dog, equipped with powerful snowmobiles, was barely able to break trail through the many meters of snow that buried the Interior. Snowpack was deep and dry out there. Every time the wind blew, the trail filled in within hours. The realist in me knew that banking on better trail conditions, at least in the next 400 miles, amounted to foolishness. 

And then there was the cold. A skier named Forest also sat near the door, awaiting a flight. I was surprised he was quitting, as he too had a lot of wilderness experience — he’s a Juneau professor who was badly mauled by a grizzly bear during a mountaineering trip in 2016. I didn’t expect a guy like him to be scared of anything.

“It’s just so cold,” he said, shaking his head. “It’s not fun when it’s so cold.”

I went back to my breakfast sandwich, now ice cold, and picked at it miserably. The moose story left me spooked, and I was having a crisis of confidence. Even after a full night of sleep I still felt exhausted, my legs looked like overstuffed sausages, and the trail seemed particularly murderous this year. “I’m too damn old for this,” I thought.

I decided not to think about it now. Instead, I downed one more cup of coffee, wished Missy and Jim well, then headed into the frosty morning. The sun had climbed high into the sky, and Shell Lake glistened like a thousand diamonds. Mountainous hills loomed over the horizon. The cold air was brilliantly clear. A young man who’d been at the counter the previous night, and who I gathered was the caretaker of the lodge, was out on the porch in a flannel jacket and no gloves or hat, smoking a cigarette.

 “Not a bad place to be,” I said to him.

He nodded. “I think I'll go see about that moose today."

"That would be good for everyone," I replied.

I shouldered my harness and began climbing away from the lake. Energy surged and I hit my “sprint” stride, pulling my buff down so I could push frigid air deep into my lungs. The air felt like fire in my throat, unnerving and exhilarating. After a short climb, the trail emerged from the forest into an open swamp. This landscape would persist for the next 25 miles, as the route followed a gradual slope paralleling the Skwentna River. The swamps are lined with sparse and patchy forest that provides little wind protection. The trail was, unsurprisingly, obliterated by spindrift. I followed the deep postholes of the two Kiwi cyclists who left Shell Lake Lodge about an hour before me. The holes would frequently grab a snowshoe edge and cause me to stumble, so I gave up on the punchy “trail” and made my own through deeper snow to the right.

It was slow. It was hard. My world closed in like a tunnel. My mind operated like a ticker tape, conveying only a minimum of information in a monotonous rhythm. Hungry. Eat trail mix. Shoulder hurt. Adjust harness. Face hurt. Pull up buff. Legs hurt. Feel sad about legs. Hot. Unzip shorts. Cold. Zip shorts. Hot. Try unzip pants. Cold. Maybe cold is good, keep brain awake. Lonely. Check phone.

 I turned on my satellite phone to see if there was a message from Beat. Since our devices had minimal battery life, the texting capabilities of a 1990s flip phone, and only worked within sight of the sky, we’d had difficulty connecting. Gusting winds returned with the afternoon hours, and it was far too cold to attempt a text, so I tried calling a couple of times. A text popped up from my little sister in California, expressing pride and cheering me onward. For all of the years I’ve participated in similar events, she’d never before followed these races all that closely. But this year she was hooked — a couple of years ago she started running, participated in a few half marathons, and now she was starting to grasp what it all means. Tears clumped against my frozen eyelashes as I read her text. My fingers went rigid as I punched a stilted reply.

“Very tough year. I am weary but ok.”

I was so very weary. Every step met so much resistance; I still felt like I was wading through a swimming pool, and the water only got deeper as the day wore on. Wind drove the subzero cold into every weakness in my system, but I was working so hard that my internal thermostat remained cranked on high. Even as my cheeks tingled with windburn, I still felt compelled to open the side zips of my pants and expose the pink skin of my thighs to a brutal chill.

This day was gorgeous, though. The air had a clarity that I’ve only experienced in subzero cold. I could see sharp definition in the distant mountains, to the point where I convinced myself I could discern individual grains of snow tearing away from ridges many dozens of miles away. The foothills of the Alaska Range now surrounded me, and I marveled at the crags and couloirs, the corrugated flutes and sculpted cornices.

For blocks of time I was able to turn off the ticker tape of physical complaints and volatile emotions, and simply be in the present — the raw, unfiltered, perfect present. The sun started to set as I neared Finger Lake. By this point the trail was indiscernible from anything else. Footprints fanned out in all directions. I traced the outline of a snowmobile track over punchy crust that the wind had sculpted into petrified waves.

 A man on a snowmobile approached and told me he was a photographer for the race. I found it amusing that this grassroots race — one that still features unopened cans of soup floating in a pot of warm water as one of the checkpoint meals — can afford a race photographer. He shot a few photos as I acknowledged this was a most gorgeous evening. The wind had reached peak velocity, driving gold-tinted snow over a blue ripple of dunes.

The Finger Lake checkpoint is a big wall tent pitched directly on the lake ice. It’s sparse and I’ve made an effort to minimize my time at this checkpoint in the past, but the race directors had ensured it would be livable this year. The interior was warmed with a propane heater and a portable wood stove. I parked my sled against the canvas and went inside to claim a spot on the floor. By the time I emerged, a resident dog had discovered the stash of homemade bacon jerky in my harness side pocket, tearing open the mesh pocket and chomping through several plastic baggies. I yelled and swung my leg toward the dog to shoo him away. After coyotes tore into my harness during the Fat Pursuit and stole all of my snacks, I had to get a new pack. For the ITI, I swore I’d be more careful and secure my food when I wasn’t around. But I’d only been in the tent for a few minutes. For that oversight, I would now have to repair a gaping hole in my new pack. Stupid dog.

 Near the lodge, the race directors had rented a cabin for stowing drop bags and serving food. I went to collect my bag and lukewarm burrito, served with sour cream and salsa that were both too frozen to scoop from the containers. Crowded inside the small space were race director Kyle, the Kiwis, Beth, and Amber, who was trying to puzzle through the magic heating mechanism in an MRE meal. The mood inside was somber — we’d all had hard days — but we became more upbeat as food was consumed. Nobody seemed in a hurry to leave the cozy cabin, but I wanted to maximize sleep … the only real currency I had against my weariness.

Sure enough, the inside of the wall tent was becoming crowded with other racers. Luckily I’d claimed a nice spot near the back, where I was least likely to get stepped on during the night. On the floor the air was cold — it seemed to be below freezing — so I made sure to place my hydration pack and shoes next to the propane heater so they wouldn’t freeze. Then I cuddled into my bag, eye mask and ear plugs in place, promising myself that I would never again this kind of comfort for granted.
Saturday, March 28, 2020

Last days of innocence — day two

March 3, 2020. Yentna River, Alaska. 12 below zero and clear. 

It was a harsh awakening. A cloud of frosted breath obstructed the dimly lit room as my breath quickened. I tried to sit up, but my back was pressed in a notch between two couch cushions. The muscles had tightened so much that I felt immobilized. In a brief panic I rolled onto the hard floor; my sore knees hit first with a painful thud. My body felt clammy. I unzipped my parka and pulled down the hood, focusing on deep breaths. As my heart rate slowed I pressed my hand under my shirt to confirm a film of cold sweat pooled around my chest.

The temperature in this large, closed-off and unheated room couldn’t have been much above freezing, but the body’s internal thermostat was malfunctioning. I tend to get these night sweats when I’m deep in a recovery hole and my body seems to be desperately expelling whatever toxins build up during damaging efforts. In recent years the night sweats have become increasingly rare thanks to muscle memory and better management of my body’s needs. I’d never experienced them so early in an endurance effort.

Every joint in my body, from the balls of my feet to my lower neck, seemed to creak and groan as I stood. I removed my puffy layers and hung them on a chair to dry. Luckily these hadn’t taken on much moisture, but my base layer was soaked. I probably shouldn’t have slept in the down coat, I thought, but this room was genuinely frigid. Without the puffy layers, I started shivering profusely. Vapors of breath continued to swirl around my face.

 “I need to get a handle on this,” I thought, without any real idea how I would do so.

 I sat on the couch to pull on my pants. My calves were red and swollen, already in that phase where my legs become two uniform bulging tubes from knees to toes. When I scratched my skin it was hot to the touch, unlike my chest and shoulders, which felt like ice. My feet were still in good shape, but I had developed a few heat blisters around the base of my cankles. Heat blisters are also normal for me, a result of the vapor barrier socks I wear to protect my feet. Snowshoeing through powder means my shoes are constantly caked in snow. Even shoes with a water-resistant Gore-Tex outer layer aren’t impermeable, and eventually “breathable” fabric draws the moisture inside. Experience has taught me that a little bit of excess heat and sweat inside a non-breathable sock layer is a small tradeoff to avoid full-blown trenchfoot.

Outside the closed double doors I could hear laughter and the clinking of dishes. It was breakfast time for the many racers who spent the night at McDougall’s Lodge. My phone said it was 5 a.m., which meant I’d slept solidly for six hours. This was my intention. My race plan from the start was to move with purpose during the day and then rest as long as possible at night, while sticking to my daily mileage goals. Overall things were going to plan. So why did I already feel like I was falling apart? 

Of course, I’d dragged my overladen sled through heavy snow for a back-breaking 66 miles in 32 hours with scarcely a 90-minute lunch break at Yentna Station. One six-hour night of sleep wasn’t going to recover all of that, but it was satisfying enough. I felt energized if creaky. As I stood and moved around the room, my joints loosened and the shivering stopped.

Having put myself together as well as I could, I opened the double doors of the rec room and emerged in the brightly-lit, well-heated dining room. Racers crowded around the table, and the two women proprietors were scooping up heaping plates of eggs, biscuits and gravy. On the table they’d placed jugs of orange juice and water, and I poured large glasses of both, feeling desperately thirsty despite my body's obvious water retention and leg edema. The morning conversation was lively, even among the cyclists who had been pushing their bikes for two days. Abundant food, warmth and hospitality are the highest currency on the trail, and we felt rich beyond belief. For all of this luxury — two meals, bottomless coffee and orange juice, a bed, and a warm shower if we wanted — the proprietors of McDougall’s only charged $45 per person.
As I packed my sled outside, I noted the temperature had dropped to 12 below. It would be as low as minus 16 on the river before the sun rose, but the wind had calmed, and the air felt surprisingly pleasant. Something about breakfast wasn’t sitting right — or, more likely, my digestive system was adjusting to imbalances — but before I’d even hiked a mile, nausea swept over me. Every hundred steps or so I stopped to gather my bearings. Deep breaths stifled the urge to vomit and I held onto my breakfast, but for a few hours I was in an unhappy place.

After sunrise Janice and her brother, Matt, pedaled up behind me. I moved over to let them pass. They seemed to be in great moods, noting that trail conditions had improved substantially. They’d been able to hold speeds over five miles an hour, Janice told me, smiling wide as she spoke. I simultaneously felt sympathy that a cyclist as strong as Janice was happy with five miles an hour, while feeling a surge of jealousy because I was never going to see a similar twelve-minute-mile … probably ever, for the rest of my life. If my GPS recorded anything above 2.5 mph for even a few steps, I hadn’t seen it yet. This was the fastest speed I could achieve, a veritable sprint. My legs felt leaden, as though I was wading through waist-deep water. I was still wearing snowshoes, and I wasn’t so enamored with them anymore.

The sun rose higher, the clear sky brightened to a brilliant shade of blue, and my body slowly warmed up. The ache in my muscles abated, and my stomach began to settle. The last wisps of clouds faded and I enjoyed the big views that travel on the wide-open river affords. Denali still loomed to the northwest, but now I could see the jagged definition of closer peaks in the Alaska Range, and in front of those, the Shell Hills. The wide slopes looked like pillows of snow glittering in the sunlight.

I love traveling the frozen rivers. I appreciate the simple navigation, the sweeping views, the lack of hills. Most people in this sport think river travel is boring, but I find it pleasantly meditative … albeit still dangerous. Frozen rivers also feature open water and hidden overflow, and I’d encountered patches of slush here and there. But this year, after a winter of consistently low temperatures and heavy snow cover, the river ice seemed about as stable as it could be.

Ten miles and perhaps five hours into the morning, Missy and Beth pedaled past. They’d left McDougall’s before me, so I was surprised to see them. As it turned out Beth had the horrifying setback of two flat tires, and was now riding on her single spare tube and a prayer that the repair on her other tubeless tire would hold. Mechanicals, even simple ones, can be such a big setback out here. I’ll be honest. This is the part I will never miss about cycling the Iditarod Trail — the part where you have to depend on a bicycle.

 The day warmed and wind increased in velocity as I turned toward the Skwentna River confluence. I was still engaged in strenuous effort near the edge of what I could even sustain, and warding off sweat became a tricky proposition. I was constantly stopping to remove my hat, buff, and jacket, then replacing them once again when a chill clamped down after a few minutes. I couldn’t find a balance. My body's internal thermostat was still confused.

Skwentna Roadhouse was bustling as a dozen or so racers mowed through lunch in the big dining hall. I ordered chili but forgot to ask for no onions. Between an explosion of raw onions and the dregs of some burnt beans from the bottom of the pan, I couldn’t force myself to eat much of it, but I did appreciate a banana muffin and lukewarm Dr. Pepper.

I hung out longer than I should have, drinking at least four cups of coffee and laughing with Missy and Beth. Missy let me tether Internet from her phone and I did my only Trackleaders status check of the race, confirming that Beat was already closing in on Shell Lake and the lead bikers had only made it as far as Finger Lake, just forty miles farther up the trail. The lead runners were still with them.

“Everyone’s still held up at Finger Lake,” I said to Missy. “Must be horrible beyond there.”

 Missy grumbled something under her breath and ordered another plate of lasagna.

Outside Skwentna are several trails leading in all directions. I made several loops while looking for the outhouse (relishing a chance to use toilet paper where it was available), then started down a narrow track with chest-high snow berms on both sides. After a mile I was sure something wasn't right, finally consulted my GPS, and swore out loud. I’d ventured onto the alternate trail that leads to Skwentna, and was heading back toward the Yentna River. Turning my sled around in this tunnel of snow proved more difficult than anticipated, and eventually required removing the poles and lifting the 50-pound mass over the snow berm to point it in the right direction. Between this and two bonus miles, I lost an hour of daylight.

Back on route, I enjoyed respite from the wind where Skwentna’s single road cuts through the birch forest. Overhead, gusts howled and barren branches swayed. I knew it was going to be bad once I hit the open swamps before the Shell Hills. It would be a crosswind from the north. It was always a crosswind from the north. At the edge of the swamp, I stopped in the last remaining strip of wind shelter to strap on my snowshoes and adjust my buff. As I stood, I saw my friend Cheryl and her traveling partner Nina pushing their bikes back toward Skwentna.

 “We’re going to rest and try again in the morning,” Nina told me as she passed. “We still have time so no use burning all of our reserves tonight.”

“Good idea, going back,” I said to Cheryl as she passed, and she nodded. Her face was mostly covered but her eyes looked somewhat stricken. “Tough year,” I thought.

The trail was in terrible condition. Thigh-deep drifts swept across the path. There was only a narrow strip left unburied, and it had been punched out by others. It was difficult to hold the line, and I kept tripping over my own snowshoes. My sled jerked and threatened to tip over on the off-camber surface. Blasting gusts of wind threatened to tip me over.

These were perhaps the most annoying trail conditions yet, but I was in an inexplicably fantastic mood. Evening had arrived, my favorite time of day. The sun drifted low on the horizon, illuminating the blowing snow in such a way that it appeared to be fluid — a mesmerizing current in a golden stream. The wind carried a fearsome bite; the ambient temperature had fallen to 6 below, which meant windchills were likely 25 below. I’d layered up well but didn’t put on goggles, so facing directly into the wind incited rapid eyelid blinking, a sharp pain in my eyebrows and ice-cream headache near the bridge of my nose. But Denali was over there, glowing pink in the evening light, and I couldn’t help but glance north, again and again.

As darkness descended I began the climb into the Shell Hills, gaining 600 feet in a scant 1.5 miles. Surrounded by thick forest, the trail was well protected here. Climbing even these steep grades on packed trail felt easier than the powder-choked river and swamp slogging earlier in the day. The trail cut deep into the snowpack, with berms sometimes rising to shoulder level, high enough that I couldn’t see my most immediate surroundings unless I strained my neck. I developed a terrible paranoia, and muted my already low-volume audio book so I could fret about every crack and moan of wind whistling through branches.

This fear of darkness emerged from prior warnings about especially high levels of moose activity along the trail this year. Snowpacks neared record depths, and moose were having difficulty moving around. This left them hungrier than usual and susceptible to predator attacks. In turn, they became agitated and reactive, a threat to anyone who encounters them on these trails that they like to use. People who don’t know better think of moose as dopey forest cows, but they are so much meaner and incredibly dangerous. If a moose is grumpy and you so much as look at it wrong, it will rear up and stomp you into a bloody pulp. We’d been warned this year’s moose were exceptionally grumpy.

All the way through the Shell Hills, my headlamp would catch the gleam of a reflective marker and I’d startle, convinced I was looking an angry moose in the eye. The moose-a-noia was unnerving but effective in warding off the sleep monster. I marched with purpose through the tunnel of snow. I wondered what I’d do if I encountered a moose here. Of course I’d back off, but I’d had such difficulty turning my sled around after Skwentna that I knew I was pretty much a sitting duck as long as I was strapped to it. I’d have to drop my harness, dart behind the sled, and if a moose started coming at me, I would pick up the duffle and hold the whole thing over my body like a shield as I dove into a snowbank. Yes, that was my plan for angry moose. I unhooked the waist-strap of my harness and moved mittens and a balaclava to an outside pocket, in anticipation of frantic retreat.

For all of my vigilance and dozens of false alarms, I didn’t catch even a glimpse of what I could be certain was a real moose. Eventually I dropped onto Shell Lake and battled howling north wind and breathtaking windchill toward a friendly light in the distance. This I knew was Shell Lake Lodge. Although not an official checkpoint, the race directors had rented cabins this year, and I looked forward to another warm spot to dry out my frosty face mask and snow-caked footwear.

It was after midnight when I walked inside, so I was surprised to find two people waiting up in the main lodge. I hadn’t expected there to be volunteers here. One was Kari’s mother, a cheerful midwesterner who served soup and homemade soda bread with butter. I find it terribly difficult to socialize at the end of these long, hard days on the trail, so I remember nothing about our conversation, but the food was transcendently delicious.

 Like McDougall’s, the cabins at Shell Lake Lodge were crowded — probably with the same group of people — and I was one of the last to arrive for the night. But one walker was getting ready to leave, and I was able to score his spot, a double bed in room shared with two others in a bunk bed. I added a log to the wood stove, but suspected none of us would be motivated to wake up and stoke the fire when it burned out in an hour or two. I unrolled my sleeping bag in anticipation of plummeting subzero temperatures that wouldn’t take long to permeate everything.