Sunday, March 24, 2013

The longest miles

On Friday evening, I got on a plane and flew to Nome. Part of me is in disbelief that this Alaska adventure has reached this point. I always had faith that Beat would complete the entire distance to Nome, but even he readily admitted the odds were against him during his rookie year. From those early calls where he expressed doubt that he would make the first hundred miles, to the incredible and yet disconcertingly anticlimactic achievement of McGrath, to the horror slush and rain of the Shageluk hills, to the deep cold of the Yukon River, to the wind-blasted coast, to here. Nome. He's only forty miles away and resting as I type this. I expect he'll finish sometime Sunday afternoon.

 This is my first visit to Western Alaska. I bought a cheap air-mile ticket and had to take a milk run flight into Kotzebue, which was awesome in itself. "Wow, I'm in the Arctic!" The flight over the Seward Peninsula to Nome was surreal — just a tree-less expanse of white hills and frozen sea as far as that high-reaching view could see. From the air, Nome itself looks like a tight cluster of city blocks pressed like a stamp onto a sheet of white paper. My flight landed at 8:30 p.m. and the sun was still well over the horizon. It doesn't get fully dark here until 10:30. The late daylight is deceiving; it's still only a few days after the equinox so there's not that much more total daylight here than in California right now. But it's so far west in Alaska's ridiculously large time zone that the sun rises late and stays out late (my kind of time zone!) And daylight is now gaining at a ridiculously large rate — seven minutes per day. Winter is officially over.


Except winter's not over yet. The temperature dropped below minus twenty with a fierce north wind during my first night in Nome. It was still fifteen below in the late morning, but the wind had calmed down and it was a gorgeously clear day. My friend Phil, a cyclist who was near the front of this year's fiercely competitive race to McGrath, graciously put me up at his house in Nome while I wait for Beat to arrive. He offered to let me borrow his bike so I could pedal out the Iditarod Trail and check out the sights of Beat's final miles into Nome.


The first ten miles were rough. The wind, although light, was mainly out of the northeast and often blowing directly in my face. I didn't bring any of my bike gear to Nome because I didn't expect to ride, so I had to wear my trail-running shoes as foot gear, and rain pants on my legs. Not quite adequate for pedaling at ten to fifteen below with headwind. Every mile or so, I jumped off the bike to run for five minutes, which felt exhausting but necessary to keep numb toes at bay. The cold wind seemed to creep into every tiny crack in my system. Ice froze painfully to my eyebrows until I could feel the sharp pounding of the dreaded "ice cream headache." My Camelbak valve froze despite being positioned near my armpit. I blew a snot rocket and it hit and instantly froze on Phil's rear derailleur (don't worry, Phil, I chipped it off.) It was tough going, and I was just out for an afternoon joy ride. The experience gave me an even deeper appreciation of what Beat has faced every day in the past four weeks. 


But I eventually found a groove in the form of a 500-foot climb onto the bluff above Cape Nome. The hard work warmed my toes, and the elevation offered a stunning vista of rolling hills and the Kigluaik mountains to the north, and the rough ice across the Norton Sound to the south.

 I descended to Cape Nome and stamped out a message to Beat in the snow (which had the selfish ulterior motive of warming my feet, which were frozen again after the descent.) I considered adding "only fifteen more miles" as an encouraging note. Even though my GPS read 16.9 miles, I knew the distance would be shorter on the coastal route, which Beat and Marco would likely take, and fifteen miles just sounded better. But then I remembered — Beat hates when I over-optimistically guestimate distance and gets mad at me every time I do it. That's the last thing he needs fifteen (to seventeen) miles from the finish of a thousand-mile journey.

 Pedaling back toward the Cape, I marveled at the beautiful desolation and thought about how strange, hectic, and green California is going to appear when we return next week.

For the return ride I took the coast route, which was drifted in spots and blown clear of snow in others. The coast had its own intriguing scenery — fishing shacks lined the frozen shoreline and long-abandoned cars and gold-mining equipment were encased in drifted snow. I veered off trail to explore and old graveyard on a hillside.

 Among the wildlife I saw were several flocks of bright-white ptarmigan and two foxes. I never got a good photo, but in this one you can see a small silhouette of a fox behind the grave markers. I do think it's strange that a predator so conspicuously red can eke out a living in a black and white landscape.

Phil borrowed his friend's old-school purple Pugsley and pedaled out to meet me about eight miles from town. It was fun comparing the performance of that bike to his green Fatback, side by side. I seemed to have an easier time cutting clean and fast lines through the snow than Phil did, even with his higher skill and strength. Fat bikes have made some impressive leaps in design during the past eight years.

I hope head out the trail again tomorrow to greet Beat. I'm excited to share that moment when he marches under that burled arch and unhooks his burdon of a sled for the last time.