Friday, March 01, 2013

Mush in the slush

Quick update for tonight as I need to start going to bed earlier than 2 a.m. But I received a call from Beat at 5 p.m. just as he was arriving in Rohn, near mile 210. He left Puntilla Lake at 3:30 Thursday morning, meaning it took him only 14 hours to travel over Rainy Pass. This narrow pass through the Alaska Range is notorious for bad weather — deep cold, ground blizzards, foggy whiteouts, high winds and windchills lower than 70 below. The trail is usually drifted in above treeline, and the Dalzell Gorge below is full of treacherous creek crossings and other spooky obstacles. I had been anxiously anticipating Beat's report from the pass.

"It was 40 (explicative deleted) degrees up there," he said with a bemused growl. "I was down to my shirt. I had to use chapstick for sunscreen. The trail was kinda soft but mostly it was well-packed."

This year's ITI is exceptional for many reasons, but one of them is that not a single racer has scratched yet, now nearly five days into the race. "It's about half as hard as last year," Beat said of the effort, but then caught himself in his own lie. "Actually, it's just as hard because everything hurts as bad." When I offered that he was still more than a day ahead of his 2012 pace despite his Nome rest schedule, he said, "It's hard. But it would be easier if it weren't so damn hot. I'm sweating like crazy."

He said his feet hurt but there are no issues that aren't manageable. He planned to set out toward Nikolai in the early morning hours. I expect he won't reach that checkpoint until Saturday evening.

In other news, I went on my first-ever dog sled ride today. My friend Andrea has four Alaskan huskies that have been retired from competitive teams. Her lead dog, Cedar, has run to Nome three times. The other dogs are Ash ("they're both from the tree litter"), Chum ("the salmon litter"), and Volcano ("the natural disaster litter.") Andrea is a veterinarian who loves animals, so she mainly just keeps them as outdoor pets, but they do go out for the occasional jaunt on local trails.

Since four dogs can't pull two full-sized people in a sled very far, Andrea set me up to go out alone. She showed me how to set a snow hook (sort of like a dog anchor), demonstrated how to use the brake, and told me how, under no circumstances, was I to let go of the sled if I fell off during the run. The dogs would keep running, and I'd have to chase after them. She showed me the basic commands and sent me off on a loop that I hoped the dogs understood, because I didn't have a clue where we were going.

Riding a sled wasn't entirely like I expected it to be. The frame was quite flexible and the runners moved independently. I felt like I was skiing — which is not a comfortable movement for me — but I held on for dear life and leaned into the turns. I shyly called out commands that I think were largely ignored, but the dogs went the right way anyway. Whenever we ran by another dog yard, the dogs sped up to show off for their barking friends. My humorous moment happened when Volcano got her front leg tangled up in the line. I stomped on the brake but I honestly forgot the command for stop. I kept yelling "Haw! Haw!" as the lead dogs glanced back at me with confused demeanors. ("Haw" means "turn left.") I managed to set the hook and untangle Volcano's leg. When I returned to the dog yard, I dragged the brake to a slow halt. Once we were no longer moving, I asked Andrea, "I can't remember, what was the command for stop?"

"Um, whoa," she said, looking at me like I was drunk.

"Oh, yeah, whoa. That makes sense."

Later in the afternoon I loaded up my Fatback and set out for a test ride. Three friends and I are embarking on a three-day tour of the Denali Highway (in the winter just a snowmachine trail) starting Sunday, and I figured I should make sure all of my gear is in working order. I could barely lift the thing as I hoisted it out of the garage, but once we got rolling it wasn't so bad. This ride was supposed to be an hour tops, but once again I got wrapped up in my explorations, then became a little bit lost, and before I knew it, the sun had long since set and I had three hours and eleven minutes on my watch. 23.4 miles. Ah, I love this stuff. It's difficult for me to explain why churning through soft snow at 5 or 6 mph is such a soothing activity, amid a pleasant chill of evening and the last wisps of orange light creeping through the spruce forest. It's a kind of Zen peace that, for my own reasons, only the quiet winter wilderness can release.

But I'm so tired. It's probably good I opted to postpone my Skwentna tour, as a 180-mile ride just days out of my California softie gate probably would have set me way back for upcoming adventures. The effort that Beat is making right now, I can barely imagine. But I do empathize ... and envy.