Saturday, January 04, 2014

The Fairbanks Journals, days 7-9

December 28 to 30. Sunrise 10:57 a.m. Sunset 2:50 p.m. Temperature -3 to -25. 

 Back in Fairbanks after the Tolovana trip, the temperature was near minus 30. A smog-saturated ice fog hung over the streets like a dirty curtain, empty cars idled in parking lots, and we pulled on our down coats and went out for a burrito because this was quickly becoming our new normal. We had only about twelve hours to shop for new supplies, eat, and sleep before it was time to pack up in the pre-dawn chill and head north again, this time for a three-day trip to the White Mountains Recreation Area. This trip plan had me especially excited, as I love the White Mountains. With all of the beautiful spots in Alaska, it's difficult to explain while this particular space holds my heart so tight — the Whites are a small mountain range, dotted with anemic spruce trees and large swaths of burn, not immediately remarkable in any way. But my time here has always been filled with joy, and awe, and just enough fear and fatigue to strike a memorable chord.

On December 28, it was hot. Those words did come out of my mouth. "It's hot." Wispy clouds moved in and the temperature shot up to a few degrees below zero F. Thanks to the clouds, we actually convinced two friends to join us for the first night — Jay on his fat bike and Tom on skis. Both were not particularly interested in spending a night at the cabin, which sits in a low-lying valley on the banks of Beaver Creek, if the temperature was as low as it had been at Jay's house two nights before — minus 45 (as it turned out, the Tolovana winds prevented us from experiencing the depths of the cold snap, which dropped into the minus 40s in Fairbanks and as low as minus 58 in Chicken, Alaska.) We got a particularly late start so we could convoy with Jay and Tom to Wickersham Dome, and let them speed on ahead and warm up the cabin as we made the twenty-mile march to Borealis-Lefevre.

Beat drops down the Wickersham Wall, a 1,200-foot descent off the Dome. You can see the trail snaking out into the valley for miles ahead.

Dressing for the cold is an art, and in my experience it's not the same in similar temperatures even for individuals, depending on a multitude of other factors. I put on the same layers that felt perfectly comfortable a mere six days earlier at 11 degrees above zero, and felt uncomfortably hot at 3 below. I did the usual — took off my hat, unzipped the insulation layers, pushed down my trekking pole pogies, and made an effort to vent as much as possible without exposing my more sensitive parts or bare skin to the still-subzero cold. Along the Wickersham Creek it dropped to 9 below, which felt nice, but I was still pumping out more heat than I thought was prudent, pretending I was in a universe where a warm cabin didn't lie just a few hours away. Heat means sweat, and sweat eventually means chill. It's great to feel warm, but bad to feel hot. Still, I felt pressed to continue the strenuous output. The boys, especially Liehann, were pumping out a break-neck pace and I was determined to keep up with them. It was such hard work, this sled-dragging at three miles per hour, and again I tried to push future implications of such slowness out of my mind. "Think of Jehu, the little pony," I thought to myself. "Keep up or end up as dog food."

We arrived at Borealis after six and a half hours of marching, feeling great. I'm not sure I could afford that same high level of effort during the long march of the Iditarod, but overall it does feel better to move "fast" rather than "slow." I felt so good toward the end that I even chased after the boys, who had gotten about a quarter mile ahead of me before the descent into Beaver Creek. I looked up my pace for that downhill sprint on Strava. 7:16-minute-mile pace! Who says this stuff has to be a slog all of the time?

Spending the evening at Borealis with Jay and Tom was good times. Thanks to their faster methods of travel, they had a good fire going by the time we arrived, as well as wood gathered for the night. In this BLM area, cabins are as bare-bones as they come. There's a Coleman two-burner stove and propane lantern — you pack in the propane and matches. You also pack in your own dishes and supplies, and gather all of your own wood from the surrounding forest. Cabin etiquette stipulates that you gather and split enough wood for one extra night before you leave, so there's a fair supply when the next party arrives. This is much less work if you arrive with a snowmachine and a chainsaw than it is if you're on foot with a cabin hatchet and a small saw. Drinking water is acquired by either melting snow in a pot on the wood stove, or chopping a hole in the ice on Beaver Creek and boiling the stream water. In the 12' by 16' foot log structure, there's a small table, a counter, two bunk beds, and a heat-trapping loft that Tom calls "the dehydrator." Rather than squeeze onto one of the thin upper bunks, Liehann opted to sleep on the floor where there was a slick of ice that never melted. It's rustic living out there, but the rentals are only $25 a night, and you can't beat the awesome location at any price.

The next morning, defying a weather forecast that called for more warming and some snow, the clouds cleared out and the temperature dropped to 20 below. Tom, who was on skis, was especially annoyed by this, as cold temperatures reduce glide and make for a slower and harder ski out. "It could take seven hours," he lamented. We pointed out it would probably take us seven hours to hike out, which did not make him feel any better. I was honestly glad that it was cold again. Cold meant clear, and clear meant magic light.

Our plan for the layover day was to hike farther out the trail toward Windy Gap, as long as we felt like hiking, before turning around. Only one set of tracks had been laid since the last big storm, and the trail was very soft and — because our sleds don't glide well in cold temperatures either — extremely slow.

But I was so blissed out, comfy cozy in my fleece jacket, tights, and primaloft shorts. And while my hamstrings did ache from the hard march the day before, I quietly hoped this day's march would go on for a long while.

As the day swiftly waxed and waned, the temperature continued to drop, even though we were gaining elevation. At mile four it was down to 25 below. Beat suggested we go one more mile.

Beat and Liehann at our agreed-upon turnaround, mile five, still 25 below. "I'm really enjoying myself," I announced. "If it's all right with you guys, I'll keep going for another mile or so and then turn back."

Beat did not seem to like the idea of me striking out alone. "If you don't come back, we're not going to come looking for you," he said gruffly.

"I'm going to be spending a lot of time in the Iditarod by myself," I argued. "I have everything I need. I'm fine."

I won the argument to go on and Beat decided to accompany me. Liehann opted to turn back. We were marching toward these sun-kissed mountains and the devil on my shoulder prodded me to find a way to keep going, to continue pushing toward those mountains, deeper into the Whites. But Beat was the angel on my other side, reminding me what might be at stake. "With it clearing like this, it might drop to 40 below overnight," he reasoned. And he was right that getting too tired out the day before a twenty-mile march would not be prudent. The game really begins to change at 40 below, and operating at anything but full energy and alertness is a gamble. My worst moments in my first Iditarod Trail Invitational happened because of fatigue in the deep minus 30s. I remember them all too well. 

So Beat won the argument to turn around. The trail on the way back was considerably harder to negotiate, because a bunch of moose had come through and stomped it full of holes. Oh wait, that was us. I took the obligatory daily selfie, this one at minus 25. I'm wearing a fleece balaclava that I've owned since I was a senior in high school. I love using fleece balaclavas in cold temperatures because they can be easily adjusted to warm the skin on my face as needed, and all of that frost buildup can be beaten away to the point that it's almost dry. The front face piece does soak through with breath moisture, and of course freezes solid. But without wind, the resulting ice mask is not uncomfortable. It still catches heat from my breath and redirects it toward my face, which means no goggles are needed unless it's windy, or possibly when it's colder than 40 below. (I hate wearing goggles with a fiery passion. I do like my eyes so I will wear them if necessary.) Beat is considering a fur ruff, and that's definitely a good idea. But for something that cost $20 back in 1997, the fleece balaclava has to have the highest value ratio of any piece of gear I've purchased.

Thanks to clear skies, the Northern Lights again came out to play. We never had a spectacular display during our time in Fairbanks — activity remained moderate to low. But they were consistent, often still out hours later as we made midnight dashes to the outhouse.

I need to point out that Beat took all of the aurora photos. One of the reasons I do not consider myself a photographer is because I have no patience for fussing with camera settings. Luckily Beat took over and captured some decent ones.

Ah, Borealis. So many good memories here. This cabin serves as checkpoint four in the White Mountains 100, at mile 78 of the race. The first time I arrived at this cabin was around midnight during the 2010 race. The trail had been very difficult — lots of wind and overflow — and I was rather undertrained because, well, I had been fairly depressed during the winter of 2009-2010. As night deepened, the temperature dropped to 25 below — somewhat rare for late March — and all of the racers were suffering. The cabin was full of people with varying degrees of fatigue, some sickness, and some frost-nip. I stomped in after also letting my core temperature drop way too low. A volunteer handed me a cup of coffee, and a half minute later I became so wracked with convulsions that I spilled every last drop of it onto the floor. I spent more than an hour there thawing my butt and feet, chatting with the growing crowd, and generally soaking in the awesomeness that is the White Mountains 100 race, and the White Mountains in general. My experience in 2010 was deeply affecting. I made peace with my decision to leave Juneau, and accepted the uncertainties of the future at a time when I felt most frightened and alone and ready to retreat back to the world I knew even though it was making me unhappy. In many ways, the White Mountains changed my life. Maybe that's why I love them so much.

We were relieved when we woke up and discovered the temperature hadn't dropped much lower — 28 below on the creek bed, but the sun was on its way up, promising what minimal warmth it could bring.

Another day, another noon "sunrise."

Beat soaking up some rays as temperatures climbed into the minus teens.

I was again very comfortable and happy on this day. Twenty miles is a decent march but not outrageous. A half day in relatively friendly conditions doesn't quite venture into the territory of adversity, and thus offers its small enjoyments — a long gaze toward the pink hillsides, a frozen peanut butter cup nibbled with bare hands in the cold sunlight, indulging in some iPod listening as the boys marched on ahead. I love listening to music most when I am in a good mood, singing out loud if no one is in earshot. A song that has been one of my favorites since the PTL, "Humiliation" by The National, got put on repeat a few times. "Tunnel vision lights my way. Lead a little life today."

The Wickersham Wall loomed, and the Wickersham Wall has broken me many times. But on this day, I felt only a small hint of sadness — because this march would be over soon, and soon we would be leaving Alaska.

But for the moment, we were still in the Whites.

Maybe marching just a little bit slower, lingering on the fading pink light.

Couples selfie — a little too late for the Christmas card.

With 2,400 feet of climbing, the march out took just over seven hours. Although we'd planned to leave early so we'd get back in the afternoon, fears of 40 below caused us to skew our schedule to leave 90 minutes before the sun came up. We finished about 90 minutes after sunset, and never once had to use our headlamps in seven-plus hours outside. I know that it's dark in mid-winter in the North, but here, in the Whites, sometimes not so much.

I made it onto the roster for the 2014 White Mountains 100, so in theory I get to come back in late March, with my bike! I'm so excited. But first, the Iditarod. A daunting prospect so close and yet so far, all at the same time. 


  1. Loving the chance to read the details of your trip. Thanks for sharing, Jill!

  2. YAY! I did pretty much the same trip last year and loved it. I feel the same way about the subzero landscape, frost clings to everything in a different way than warmer versions of winter.

    Also, I've got a fleece buff that a friend made for me that I prefer above pretty much everything else. So warm and cozy and I think of her every time I wear it. :)

    1. I saw your entry in the logbook from February. Looks like you had a cold but cozy trip to the Whites as well. Isn't it funny how we grow attached to certain, seemingly random pieces of gear. I actually acquired a new, almost identical balaclava to the old one recently, but I still use that pilled 17-year-old fleece, mainly because of emotional attachment. I mean, I learned to snowboard wearing that thing. I wore it while riding across Pennsylvania on my cross-country bike tour in 2003. I love that balaclava. I can't believe I haven't lost it yet.

  3. As always a wonderful read and photography. Envious of the Northern Light sightings. Favourite pics of this post were - the 2nd with trail into the distance and the last. Goodluck for safe completion of the Iditarod and White Mountains.

  4. I'd love to return to the White Mountains when it's not blizzarding and actually be able to see this all in person. Beautiful.

  5. Thanks for having Tom and I out there with you guys! Best of luck with the rest of your winter adventures, and good luck preparing for the ITI!

  6. Thanks for sharing, it is beautiful (hope this doesn't appear twice, I hit the wrong button..)

  7. Incredible pictures, Jill. "Humiliation" has been on my repeat list, too…"This Is The Last Time" is the other winner from that album.

  8. Fur:

    I don't like trapping, but protecting your face is the one place synthetics just can't do as good of job. A wolf or wolverine ruff that can form a tunnel might be just the thing. Beat could attach it to a custom lightweight hood so you can control the insulation on top with caps or maybe removable panels.



Feedback is always appreciated!