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.
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.
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 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.