Thursday, March 13, 2014

Alaska rambling

 Good thing no one reads blogs any more. I may never get around to my Iditarod report. But I might as well keep up with the Alaska scrapbooking and bike photos. After I booked a month-long trip to Alaska earlier this year, I didn't make any plans past the ITI. Instead, I hoped to just organically flow where the wind happened to take me. Rambling through Alaska. I recommend it.

 Of course, all good rambling requires the kindness of friends who are willing to put up with you for a few days. I spent a few days in Anchorage with Dan and Amy, an awesome couple who have generously let me and others set up winter race base camp at their home for the past three years.

 On Sunday they took me on a tour of their favorite trails in the foothills east of the city. Everyone was tired from weekend adventuring (Dan and Amy biked 68 miles of the Denali Highway in tough conditions.) But I looked at the weather and realized this would be the last bluebird day for a while, so we rallied for a ride.

I guess no Dan-and-Amy ride is complete without a stop at the Hillside Ski Area for snacks. It was such a nice day that I ordered a jug of Diet Pepsi with ice, my favorite, and gulped the whole thing down in less than ten minutes. Of course my core was frozen for about an hour afterward. "You need to remind me not to drink the big soda on a winter ride," I told Dan.

On Sunday afternoon I headed north to Willow to spend a few days with Dave Johnston, the undisputed master of sled running. Dave tells the best stories, and his 2014 Iditarod experience is mind-boggling. I really need to get it down in type, and hope to, eventually.

Willow is largely a mushing community, and is criss-crossed by a maze of fantastic trails. I did spend a too-short time exploring them on Tuesday (without the camera, sadly.) But as a visitor with only a short month to spend in Alaska, I feel drawn to destination rides. So on Monday I set out to climb Hatcher Pass Road, which is closed in the winter but well-traveled on the Willow side.

 It was a blustery day, and the road was in not-great shape for riding: Lots of wind drifts over solid ice. Imagine deep sand on top of ice: You're swerving all over the place and suddenly the wheels wash out from underneath you. I did wipe out once. Luckily Dan let me borrow a helmet, because I smacked the side of it reasonably hard. Although the road climbs 1,600 feet in ten miles, the grades are rarely steep, and I found enough traction in the spindrift to do most of the climbing in the saddle. The wind was blasting in my face at upwards of 25-30 mph; I had to wear a full face mask and goggles even though it was a balmy 27 degrees. Still, the harsh wind gave the ride a raw and adventurous feel, and I love this kind of stuff (in small doses.) I pedaled ten miles up to Lucky Shot Mine, turned my back to the wind, and rode a full-throttle rocket ship downhill. I wanted enough momentum to plow through the deeper drifts, so I let the bike go. Traction felt solid in the fluff, and I was shocked how fast I could coast with that wind.

I had ambitions to make my way up to Denali this week, but the turn in the weather discouraged me from bothering with the long drive. Scenery is sort of the same everywhere when it snows. I still wanted to explore a new area, so this morning I pulled out Dave's gazetteer and decided to check out Petersville Road, which is near Denali State Park and is also unmaintained in the winter (and thus a logical snowmachine route.)

 There was a trail. It was soft. But I drove an hour to get there, so I gave it a shot. The route started out with lots of rollers that would climb 100 to 150 feet and lose nearly that much elevation in a half mile. This new bike of Beat's impresses me with its grippy churning abilities, though. I was actually able to ride most of the climbs, even though I still had to pedal hard to maintain momentum downhill.

 After five miles the snowmachine tracks veered off to a lodge. So I struck out on my own, briefly, with predictable results. At least it was a solid White Mountains training ride. Those measly ten miles required well over two hours of sustained hard work. Nothing like pedaling a bike at running efforts for walking speeds.

With plenty of daylight left in the afternoon (thanks, March and Daylight Savings Time!), I still had a few hours to head over to Talkeetna and check out the winter trails that I'd heard were great for biking. They probably are, but it seemed no one had used them since this latest storm. Even over a nice base, 4 to 6 inches of wet powder is sure to make you earn every inch. I got in another seven miles in 1:45, and I was wiped. Today was my first sustained hard effort since the race, and my lungs reminded me that they're not quite recovered yet. Surprisingly, my legs feel strong. Anything that's not walking, they're fine with. I may attempt my first post-ITI run tomorrow, just to see how it feels.

I've been chatting with Beat every day, but because I post updates on Facebook, I didn't think to repeat them here. He's doing well. Since he left McGrath he's been traveling in close proximity to Tim and Loreen, and camps with them, much like we did before McGrath. It's been tough going since they reached the Yukon River. A cold snap moved in with temperatures down to 30 below, followed by a wind event that drifted in the trail, slowing their progress and forcing them to walk through their exhaustion all night a few days ago because it was just too cold and windy to stop. They're approaching the coast now, less than thirty miles from Unalakleet, but now a winter storm is moving in that could dump 5 to 10 inches of snow on the region. Fans of this race will probably always remember 2014 as the "easy" year for human-powered travel on the Iditarod Trail — but things are *never* easy for the walkers, and they're out there long enough that the weather can and will throw everything their way. I toss and turn every night because I feel so anxious for Beat out there. I get wiped out by four hours of biking, and I just can't imagine how he keeps going everyday, taking care of himself while dealing with such dangerous weather conditions in such a remote area. But every time he calls, he's bursting with positive emotions, and hasn't yet revealed any hints of resignation or despair. He loves this, and of course I relate to his feelings, but it's still difficult to really understand everything he's going through mentally and physically.

On some levels, I wish I was still out there as well. But I'm also glad to be curled up in a warm bed this night, planning small these small adventures.