Wednesday, February 27, 2013

A glimpse of the Great Land

On Monday afternoon, a weather window opened wide enough to allow my bush pilot friend Dan Bailey and I to fly over the Iditarod Trail toward Skwentna. We made the exact same flight during the race last year, notably a full day later as everyone was moving considerably slower due to a storm at the start. This year the lead cyclists were already pedaling into the Alaska Range, but Dan and I were able to catch the action in the foot race. I posted more photos on my Half Past Done blog, but here are a few of my favorites:

Dan flying his little yellow Cessna beside Mount Susitna. It's funny, but I used to have a visceral fear of flying. This fear increased over the years until I had to psyche myself up to deal with the most benign of commercial flights. Small planes terrified me. But racing in the 2008 Iditarod Trail Invitational had a deep effect on my sense of what qualifies as scary. I remember sitting on that PennAir flight out of McGrath and thinking, "Wow, this is nothing at all." Flying hasn't bothered me since. Which is good, because it's so fun to fly over frozen swamps and spruce forests in little planes.

We were able to catch most of the runners who were spread out along a 40-mile section of the Yentna River, and also quite a few cyclists. Dan buzzed low and we waved at everyone from the air. Most were still enthused enough to wave back.


To the north, the air was clear enough to reveal an incredible view of Denali, Mount Foraker, and the Alaska Range skyline.

We landed at the Skwentna airstrip for lunch and a brief chat with racers at the Roadhouse, and again caught the lead runner in the race — this time Dave Johnston. Dave arrived just after 3 p.m. — meaning he ran 90 miles in 25 hours, in soft and punchy snow, dragging an expedition sled. Dave is ever the character, sporting a woolly hunter cap, a homemade face mask, camo shirt, elbow warmers,  and a rather minimalist looking pair of running shoes. He indulged in a few cans of Budweiser before his lunch. I'm actually spending a few days with Dave's wife Andrea in Willow, so I asked him if he wanted me to relay a message to her. After the usual miss-you-love-you, along with the expected "this is really hard," he said, "Remind her not to change the cats' litter box." (Andrea is six months pregnant.) I said, "Well who's going to change it while you're gone?" He just shrugged. "I don't know. But she shouldn't." That's the kind of laid-back attitude Dave has — no worries about logic. Something will work out. He's having a strong race this year.

On the way back, we finally caught a glimpse of Beat, who we'd missed on the way out. He looked good and was moving well, although later he told me he's having tendinitis issues in his big toe, a kind of non-serious but nagging pain that is gnawing away at his tenacity. I hope it's one of those pains that works itself out. He sounded downright despondent during a Tuesday morning phone call outside of Skwentna after a long rest. But he perked up several hours later when he called from Shell Lake, even though the trail was so soft he had to wear his snowshoes (which he strongly dislikes wearing.) I appreciate these early days of the race when Beat still calls me often. That tends to change as the days drag on.

 A couple of setbacks have prompted me to defer my Yentna River bike tour. The first is the warm weather, which climbed into the upper 30s in Willow today. Susitna Valley trails are mush right now. Pedaling out to Swentna and back was dependent on decent trail conditions — I don't necessarily want to spend twelve- to fifteen-hour days pushing my bike. Also, my Garmin eTrex 30 suddenly died. I can't even power it up to troubleshoot anything — it turns on and then shuts off within seconds. When I'm traveling alone in big wildernesses, GPS serves as my main security blanket. Even if I know where I am, I like GPS to confirm my position. I could likely navigate this route on my own with my maps and a compass, as it effectively involves two big rivers. But still I lack confidence and I don't like to feel lost. In fact, I'd rather feel cold than lost. I hate when I'm lost. So I'll see if I can hold out for another three-day span with cooler weather and a new GPS.


I sat down today with the intention of getting some work done, but Alaska has proven time and again that I am just not a productive self-motivator in the vicinity of so much adventure possibility and beauty. I reasoned a quick afternoon outing would allow me to determine just how bad snow conditions are right now, so I pedaled away from Andrea's house and onto the Parks Highway. Within a mile, I found my way to the most wonderful trail system I've seen yet. It was well-marked, groomed, and extended for miles across the valley.

 Anchorage has become such a snow-biking mecca that its multi-use trails can feel crowded and contentions with other trail users can run high. Willow is still the realm of dog mushers, who are friendly as long as you give them their needed space. The musher trails are well-maintained, open to everyone, lead to some wonderful views, and see little traffic. I was all alone for much of my ride. I passed three mushers and two snowmachine groups. The second group stopped to ask me if I checked out a nearby Willow Creek trail system that they were building. "It has ramps and berms and would be a great place to ride one of those snow bikes," a guy said. I hadn't checked it out — but a snow bike park? Really? I must have found fat bike heaven.

 With sun baking the open swamps, I felt like I was back in California. At one point I had stripped down to the same layers I use to go for rainy trail runs in the Bay area (tights, a long-sleeve shirt, and a vest) and had my pogies pushed down so I could dry my hands. It was still cooler than 40 degrees, but with the sun reflection off the snow, it felt summertime hot. Even the well-groomed trails turned to mush. I worked a consistent zone-four heart rate just to pedal an average of 5 mph, and swerved wildly with my out-of-practice snow handling, making plenty of snow angels as a result. Even churning through mashed potatoes, I was enjoying myself so much. I veered off the trail system onto the Susitna River and pedaled nine miles up the Big Su, basking in the sun.

My 5.5-hour ride netted me 35 miles of snowbiking bliss, weaving through the spruce forests and climbing small bluffs. This kind of riding is hard work, right up there with dirt trail running, and I'm exhausted. I'll probably go for a run tomorrow to give myself a break. (And because my two foot races would benefit from some specific snow training.) Still, I am enamored with Willow trails and the exploration capabilities of the Fatback. I'm not sure I can stay away.