Thursday, March 06, 2008

Day six: Farewell Burn to Nikolai

I've read about the horrible experience of waking up from trailside bivies to new bad weather, or petrified muscles, or a sinking cold. No one ever writes about waking up to The Smell. It's so familiar to me now that I can wince just thinking about it, but I can't really describe it - sweet and salty, faintly chemical and toxic; it's the smell of the trail, and your tired, beaten body, exuding unending hard effort, which has soaked into clothing that's been wrapped around your clammy skin for six days. Out on the bike, The Smell filters and dissipates. Inside a humid sleeping bag, it collects and ferments. I woke up to a stench just this side of death; it scared me more than it repulsed me. I groped for my candy bar breakfast and tried to choke it down in the sickening haze. I managed to stuff down about half of it and added up the calories in my head. 400. Good enough.

I wriggled out of my bag and took my first look at the fresh air outside. About three hours had gone by since I laid down, and it was now 2 a.m. The sky hung still and calm and dark - the Northern Lights were gone. The night left behind a deep and piercing cold that I could scarcely imagine, and there I was, living it. It needled into my skin even without wind and wracked me with shivers before I had even taken a few steps away from my bag. I darted for chemical warmers in my bike bag and tore open five or six. They were as solid as blocks of ice, and just as cold. I massaged them inside my mittens, but nothing happened. They were as dead as the night.
All around me, soft things had frozen to rigid hardness ... my backpack, my bike pogies, the top of my bivy sack. Everything covered in thick frost. I felt like a tomb was closing in around me and I could scarcely believe it. I was in the middle of nowhere. I did not dare, DID NOT DARE, look and my thermometer. Some cyclists who passed me at 11:30 p.m. estimated it was about minus 25 when they went by. It could have easily dropped down to minus 30 or minus 35 in that area overnight. It can definitely be worse, but that was beyond anything I had ever experienced, and I couldn't deal with it. I crawled back into my bag and shivered until I stopped. Then I ate the rest of my chocolate bar, sipped a little water before kicking the icy bottle to the foot of my bag, and went back to sleep.

I tried to get out of my bag one more time overnight with similar results. I briefly considered just abandoning my bike and sprinting what I figured to be 25 miles into Nikolai, but finally decided to wait until the sun hit my bag before waking up. That didn't come until 10 a.m., nearly 12 hours after I crawled into the sack in the first place. It was in hindsight a horrible waste of time. I didn't sleep well and didn't make any forward progress. Veteran racers still gawk when they ask, "Did you really bivy for 12 hours out on The Burn?" Yes, I really did bivy for 12 hours out on The Burn. At the time, I felt I had no choice.

I climbed out of my bag one last time into the sun, knowing something would have to happen. A stiff wind had kicked up overnight, driving down the windchill, but the sunlight at least made the air feel tolerable. I reached into my bag and grabbed my water bottle. It was frozen solid. It had frozen. Solid. Inside the bag. My Camelbak, which I had left out overnight, was almost certainly in a similar condition. I stomped around and screamed, at no one, really. There was only The Iditarod Trail. And The Iditarod Trail did not care. It had no sympathy for for the fact that I had 25 miles to grind out, into the wind across a flat frozen expanse with no wind protection, all the while with no water, and the wind blowing so hard that I was doubtful whether I could get my stove to light in order to melt snow. The Iditarod Trail did not care. And I had no choice but to accept it.

I packed up and stuffed the insulation of my frozen Camelbak bladder with the chemical warmers I had torn open the night before, which I managed to ignite by sticking them under my arms inside my sleeping bag. I then stuffed the bladder inside all the layers wrapped around my torso, an ice baby against my chest and abdomen. I hoped my body heat would melt a little of the block ice I was now hoisting as dead weight. Then I ate a little snow, and pushed on, into the wind, toward Nikolai.

Drifted sugar snow obscured the trail and made long stretches impossible to ride. Even packed stretches were a chore to grind out at anything faster than 5 mph. Blasts of wind regularly knocked me right off of the bike. Across the long, open swamps, I could often hear a gust long before it hit me. I would step off my bike, put my head down, and brace for the furnace blast that tore through the air vents in my goggles and layers and layers of clothing protection and kicked up zero-visibility ground blizzards for hundreds of feet in all directions. When the wind wasn't gusting, I would sweat profusely. My thirst was hitting fever pitch, but I was too terrified that one of those gusts would freeze me solid to take off any layers. The Burn was no longer a joke to me. I really was among the walking dead.

About 12 miles from Nikolai, I came to an abandoned fish camp with a small cabin on the shore. I joyfully sprinted up to the structure - here was a wind-protected place where I could at least melt some snow and quench my raging thirst. But snow had drifted in against the door and frozen to concrete consistency. I kicked at it and kicked at it but I couldn't get it to budge. There was no way inside. As I did this, a plane flew over my head. It doubled back against the wind and flew over again. "Oh great," I thought, "they're looking for me now." I knew I had been going really slow. I knew I had stopped a lot. I knew I was suffering, but I also knew I was OK. I did not want to be rescued. I tried to wave at the plane, but I wanted to be careful not to send a distress signal. I made a small wave with one hand that I'm unsure the pilot even saw. I then pulled the Camelbak out of my coat, opened the bladder, and tipped it up against my parched tongue. To my extreme surprise, crisp, cold water came trickling out. It wasn't much, but it tasted like the nectar of heaven and it gave me a surge of strength and sense of well-being. I knew I could survive the last 12 miles. It would likely (and in fact, did) take me three hours to traverse, but I could survive it.

I arrived in Nikolai trail-battered and humbled. The tiny community of about 60 people suffers from a scourge of economic depression and out-migration. The buildings are weather-beaten and the youth are all moving away. Those who remain live by subsistence off the land and a handful of government jobs. They get by, but they know they are very poor compared to urban dwellers. But as I stumbled into the Interior Bush town, I believed they had everything, and I was grateful for all of it. I was taken in by Nick and Olene, and older Native couple who every year open their home to battered Ultrasport racers, feed them and given them a place to sleep. I was practically in tears when Olene offered me a cup of coffee and a big bowl of moose stew with white bread. "You probably won't like moose stew," she said. "It's the most delicious thing I've had yet," I answered. We talked for a while about Nikolai and her childhood in a fish camp, how all of the families moved into the town when the school opened, and how all of their children were now moving to the cities. All the while, Nick massaged the bloody skin of a beaver before stretching it out to dry on a rack in his living room. And there I was, Jill from Juneau, home. Night descended and I was not ready to leave. I did not want to leave. Ever.