Thursday, March 14, 2013

Riding the invisible highway, part two

Our first night in the Lake Cabin was my fourth or fifth night without significant sleep. Around 4 a.m. I had read enough Jack London and hiked out the road to search for Aurora. I was wearing my pajamas, down booties, a thin down coat, and fleece mittens. The night was immensely quiet, and filled with a piercing cold that I shrugged off as the overreaction of an unacclimated Californian. I stood on the bridge across the Maclaren River, staring out into the mountain-ringed expanse with faint green light undulating in the northern sky. But stars stole the show, with the full-spectrum depth of the galaxy in clear view. I stood with my neck craned upward until I started shivering heavily, and my hands and feet were numb. I scolded myself for being a wimpy Californian, but in the morning, after sunrise, the lodge thermometer read -18F.


On day two, we decided to take a stress-free day of sightseeing, knowing our hoped-for big day to Alpine Creek Lodge and back would take us the better part of 24 hours to ride in these conditions. Jill M. was invited on a snowmachine trip that she happily accepted. Jenn, Sierra and I opted to pedal down the road. Trail conditions beyond the lodge were even softer and slower, but the route climbed into increasingly more spectacular scenery.

There's a bigness to the land out there that's futile to try to capture in photographs, and even more futile to try to describe. I was beginning to feel the sensation that we'd ventured onto another planet, a moonscape surrounded by the brightest stars of the galaxy, bathed in the severe light of a heatless sun.

I lost myself in the dreamscape, churning along at three miles per hour, imagining Antarctica.

Jenn turned back a few miles early. Sierra and I pressed on until our time cut-off had passed — two and a half hours — in which we traveled to mile marker 51, which was about nine miles from the lodge. As we rode back, it became clear that Sierra was a much more skilled snow rider than me, choosing clean lines and cutting a straight track through the snow more often than not. I, on the other hand, swerved around like a drunk driver, nearly pitching off the trail more times than I care to admit. Sierra's been riding in Whitehorse all winter and I am dirt-spoiled, clearly out of practice. Snow biking isn't all high-resistance slogging. There's a lot of technique, maneuvering, and bursts of power involved.

Thanks to rusty technique, I did take one spectacular crash that no one was around to see. Sierra had a quarter mile on me during the final descent into the Maclaren River valley, and I was laying into the pedals to catch up. The rear wheel washed out and experienced a dramatic few seconds of fishtailing in which I could actually hear the "whoosh, whoosh" of the bike leaning into the swerves. It dipped one last time and tossed me into the snow in an eruption of powder. I wish someone was there to witness that crash. It would have earned me a great nickname, perhaps even better than the one I received ("Jilly-Ho," spoken as though saying "Land Ho.")

On day three we got an early start out of the lodge — the benefit of understanding there was a ten-hour day ahead of us. Jill M. had developed a good rapport with one of the young lodge employees, Sean, and he offered to give us all a snowmobile "bump" up the first 1,200-foot climb to Maclaren summit. I resisted vehemently; I would rather wake up at 4 a.m. and sneak out than take any sort of ride on a bike tour. Jenn and Sierra wanted to pedal but were open to hopping onto the trailer if the climb took too long. Jill M. was happy to take the bump. It's funny — and likely caused by an abnormally high-strung state due to lack of sleep — but during the night I lied awake stressing about this. I didn't want to sprint ahead but I was resolved to reach the top before the machine passed us and made me get on. It was kind of like a race ... but only to me.

It was a cold morning — -11F when Jill looked at the thermometer at breakfast, possibly four or five degrees colder right at dawn. I admit I was nervous about feeling chilled again all day, so I stripped off all of my insulation layers to the point of being uncomfortable just so I wouldn't soak them in sweat during the long climb. I knew body heat would kick in soon enough, but the first twenty minutes are always tough.

I remember seeing road signs such as this during my summer ride on the Denali Highway and thinking, "Great, forty miles, only four hours." On this morning, it was more like, "Wow, forty miles. That's ten hours."

Thanks to the cold morning, the trail was well frozen and in the best shape I'd seen yet. The climb seemed to take less effort than riding downhill had the previous day. We were able to pedal the whole five-mile ascent without pushing, which felt like a victory for my imagined solitary race. Extended climbs really are my favorite kind of pedaling. We stopped to soak in the gorgeous sunrise view at the summit sign — which is actually about two miles and 300 feet below the actual summit. I hastily applied a bunch of layers, which is perhaps why I look so disheveled in this photo.

The morning had a nice rhythm to it, and everyone was in a good mood. We were still traveling just as slow and working just as hard, but we had adjusted our expectations to match reality. Attitude is the majority of the challenge in endeavors such as this, whether racing or touring. The rest is attention to physical needs — food, water, and warmth. Neglect any one of these things and the landscape quickly shifts to a hateful, scary place. But when all needs are filled and expectations are matched, this cold and desolate landscape is pleasant, even friendly.

Jill and Sean caught up to us at mile 13. We were well ahead of our expectations — which we had set so low that even after three hours they thought they might find us only reaching the top of the pass.

We decided we had much more time on this day, so we spent more time goofing off. Sierra even stopped at one point to make coffee, which I enjoyed immensely after our semi-early start, where the caffeine tends to wear off by noon.

We marveled at the amazing weather we had, having planned this trip months in advance and set the exact dates a month earlier. More often than not in the winter, the Denali Highway is pummeled by high winds, ground blizzards, real blizzards, and deeply subzero temperatures. As soon as the sun came out, the air warmed to a few degrees above zero — not warm by any means, but perfectly comfortable without the presence of wind. I managed to stay much more comfortable than I had two days earlier, although I sometimes ran laps when stopped just to avoid the dreaded chill.

Photo by Jenn Roberts
The most incredible moment of the trip happened when we were descending into the place that Jill M. termed "Low Morale Valley" on day one. I admittedly had earphones in, and heard a strange sound that caused me to hit pause on my iPod. Jill M. was stopped on the trail, and I stopped behind her to see the origin of that echoing rhythmic sound — dozens of caribou running across our path just a few hundred yards away. The herd continued moving up the slope, glancing back in our direction occasionally as we continued down the valley. The whole hillside was mottled with caribou tracks, which appeared to me as a kind of abstract snow sculpture. Beautiful, awe-inspiring experience.

And while my rather holey trip plan has since been picked apart by the group as a whole, everyone was forgiving of my unrealistic ambitions and nobody had a meltdown or fight the entire trip. We shared our cozy lake-side cabin ("Oh, I see, it's the Lake Cabin because it's by a lake. I couldn't tell. It looks like every other blank white expanse out here.") We poked fun at each other and told dirty jokes. We enjoyed the wonderful hospitality of the Maclaren River Lodge and left our mark in the form of a one-dollar bill scrawled with images of fatbikers. Pecha Kucha is a gregarious group, and I sometimes feel like the odd person out ... the token introvert. But they are accepting of me and my quirks, and I love that we are making a tradition out of this. Sierra wrote a great description of everyone in our "pack" on her trip report. Here's her take on my role:

"Jill Homer is through and through a husky.  Not a fancy, prancy show-dog husky, a true-blue sled dog husky.   There is no doubt in my mind that she could keep moving for days, or perhaps even weeks; surviving on whatever she needs.  In a husky’s case this would probably involve foraging for garbage and small rodents.  For Jill, it’s foraging for Sour Patch Kids and frozen salami.   If there had been no lodge on the Denali Highway, I imagine we would have eventually come upon Jill curled up nose to tail in a snow bank; or sitting with her nose pointed in the air, smiling at the sky."

Thanks girls. I hope we can do it again next year.