Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Iditarod Trail fly-over

Beat about 10 miles south of Skwentna on the Yentna River.
This afternoon, my friend Dan Bailey and I set out from Anchorage to fly over the Yentna River in his Cessna 120. Our goal: A bird's eye view of the Iditarod Trail Invitational. We knew most racers would be bunched up in the 32 miles between Yentna Station and Skwentna Roadhouse, and the wide Yentna River was a great place to spot the racers.

We took off from Anchorage and flew over the Sustina Valley, spotting familiar landmarks such as Point McKenzie, the survey cut that serves as part of the Susitna 100 course, and Flathorn Lake. Even from 500 feet above the ground, the trail told a story of its own. The thin line across the Dismal Swamp was a mess of deep, staggered footprints. It looked like a herd of drunken moose had forged through the drifted snow.

An aerial view of Luce's Lodge. This spot is always a welcome sight in the cold, lonely night.

Yentna Station, the first checkpoint in the race at mile 57. Beat took about a six-hour rest here last night and left around 3:40 a.m. Based on that and his prior progress, I expected to see him some 20 miles farther up the river during our 2 p.m. flyover. I projected this well, as he appeared to be about 10 to 12 miles south of Skwentna (mile 90) when we spotted him.

Two cyclists push their bikes along the river. A thin snowmobile track threaded through the deep snow, but it appeared to be too soft to ride. We could see footprints in the snow from 500 feet up — again, not a good sign. As we flew north, we occasionally spotted cyclists trying to mount and ride their bikes, but this swerving effort usually ceased before we passed. Most of the cyclists were pushing their bikes, still, seventy to eighty miles into the race.

At least trail conditions were "pushable" today. From accounts I've heard, on Sunday and Monday conditions weren't even that good. The frontrunners broke trail through untouched snow, but even those behind them couldn't fare much better in their tracks. From the Susitna Flats to Yentna Station, I gathered, much of the course was a "bike carry" condition, meaning bikes couldn't just roll through the soft snow — they had to be hoisted and nudged. Such an effort is monstrous for anyone, but especially for smaller people (such as women) or racers with heavier bikes. I love a good slog as much as anyone, maybe more than anyone, but I don't blame the racers who dropped at Yentna Station. So far, this year's ITI has favored the mentally strong and also the physically strong (as in larger humans who can handle big loads.) This has not been a year for "fast" athletes, no matter their mode of travel.

This photo gives a good overview of the trail — just a single track through the expansive river. Those who understand what a highway the Yentna River can become can see just how badly the weekend storm obliterated any signs of the old trail.

And then, about a mile north of Fish Creek (where Beat, Anne and I stayed on the second night of our December trek) we spotted Beat! I was so excited. Dan buzzed low and I opened the window so I could stick my bare fingers into the 10-degree air with 90 mph wind chill and wave frantically at his hunched figure. Despite all the difficulties this year, I would so love to be out there right now. This is such an inexplicably intriguing adventure, and I'm so proud of him for persevering this far. I didn't receive any messages from him today. I expected the sat-phone contacts might taper off or even cease once Beat really started to get into trail mindset, a survival mode that blocks outside concerns as a coping mechanism. But that doesn't mean I won't fret about the lack of updates all the same. Ah, well.

Dan and I had been planning to fly over and back, but he caught a glimpse of the Skwentna airstrip and realized it was clear enough to land his plane. We touched down and hiked into Skwentna Roadhouse to say hello and leave a message for Beat, as I already understood that he wouldn't arrive at the checkpoint before we had to leave to beat sunset back to Anchorage.

Unsurprisingly, Geoff had already made it into Skwentna, along with two skiers. The leader of the race, veteran Nome hiker Tim Hewitt, checked out fifteen minutes earlier. Geoff was in a fantastic mood, possibly because of that giant hamburger and fries, and had great trail stories to share about the first day. Apparently a group of sixteen bikers and hikers, led by cyclist Pete Basinger, worked together to essentially plow a trail through the waist-deep snow across the Dismal Swamp. They took turns breaking trail out front, although Pete did the lion's share because he was navigating. It took them four hours to cover less than three miles across the swamp. They split up to bivy on the banks of the Susitna River before continuing in the morning. "I wouldn't stick around if I were you, there's going to be a lot of sadness here tonight," Geoff said, implying that the trail conditions on Tuesday were also quite tough (and confirming what we saw from the air), and others might be dispirited by the time they arrived at Skwentna. But Geoff was in great spirits, and that was fun to see. I was bummed I couldn't see Beat as well; I can only hope he doesn't feel sadness.

Dan and I hiked back to the airport in what I viewed as awful trail but Geoff called this short Skwentna section "awesome — the best of the entire course." It gave me the smallest of tastes of what these incredibly tough sled-draggers and bike-pushers are going through out there. After a half mile of this I was drenched in sweat, and Dan's back hurt. As much as I love slogging, would I be able to slog through ninety miles of this and worse with no end in sight? That's a good question that I'm still asking myself. I'm not sure.

But from trail reports we heard, it should get better. The valleys north of the Shell Hills received much less snow in the weekend storm, and the ITI trailbreakers have been working on the trails since it snowed. Geoff and one skier set out optimistically at about 3 p.m., and Dan and I prepared to leave for Anchorage. I left Beat a quick note telling him how proud I am of him, and to keep faith.

Thank you, Dan, for the fantastic opportunity to view my favorite adventure race from the sky.