Wednesday, March 05, 2014

Iditarod, again

In 2008, I wrote this passage about the Iditarod Trail for my book, "Ghost Trails:"

The trail was soft and deep now, but eventually the cold would sink in. The trail would set up and harden, only to be blanketed by fresh layers of snow. The racing dog teams would come through and stamp it out again, followed by recreational snowmobiles tracking it out until the warm air of spring left the surface rotten and unusable. Then summer would come and take the rest of the snowpack with it, leaving behind only open tundra and narrow passages through the alder where the trail wound through a canyon below Rainy Pass. In a few short months, there would be no sign of the winter trail or anybody who followed it. The Iditarod Trail was a ghost itself. But that night, beneath the moonless twilight of the Northern Lights, the Iditarod Trail was more of a ghost than any trail I had followed before. Not in the way it frightened me or battered me, but in the way it haunted me, even as I lay beside it, like it was some distant part of my past and inevitable part of my future.

Six years later I was back, traveling the trail by different means, seeing the landscape through different eyes, experiencing the world as a different person. But just as the trail and life are ever-changing, so much remains, and I'm grateful for the opportunity to return. Beat and I stayed together for the duration of the 350-mile trek to McGrath in the Iditarod Trail Invitational, and finished together in 7 days, 7 hours, and 50 minutes. There's more to say about the experience, of course, but for now I wanted to post a few of my favorite pictures from the race.

 Carole Holley and Beat run the rollers of the Susitna Valley, heading toward Mount Susitna.

 On the Yentna River, looking toward Mount Foraker and Denali.

 Finnbear Lake.

 Rainy Pass.

 Tim Hewitt enjoying some alder shwacking in the Dalzell Gorge.

 Sketchy passage at the bottom of the Dalzell Gorge — wet, thin ice and open water for more than a mile.

 The "new burn" heading up Egypt Mountain. We saw barely a skiff of snow for more than 40 miles, and the surface ground had thawed after two days of temperatures nearing 50 degrees. We dealt with dry dirt, roots, rocks, puddles, bison-stomped mud, tussocks, knee-deep stream crossings, wet swamps, gravel bars, and glare ice. Muscling my 45-pound sled through this section was by far the most physically difficult segment of the race. It was the most mentally challenging as well, because I am deeply afraid of open water in winter travel, and we had to deal with a lot of that, all while knowing that it could easily drop back to 30 below on the Farewell Burn overnight. Still, traveling through this kind of terrain, on the northern side of the Alaska Range in February, was downright surreal, and became the most memorable part of the journey.

 Crossing one of the Farewell Lakes. Race director Bill Merchant scratched this "trail" for us on his return snowmachine trip from McGrath that morning, which was helpful.

 Approaching the village of Nikolai with Loreen and Tim Hewitt, and Rick Freeman. The five of us more or less traveled in a pack, with our friends Steve Ansell and Anne Ver Hoef just a few hours ahead. This made for a fun and social journey through a remote part of the country.

 On the last morning on the Iditarod Trail, with Denali and Foraker behind us now.

A wonderfully rejuvenating mid-day bivy on a slough of the Kuskokwim River, during the final leg into McGrath. Even an hour of rest does wonders for resetting tired legs and hurty feet, making for a more enjoyable afternoon. 


  1. Beautiful pictures! Congratulations again on a huge accomplishment!

  2. Love these photos, especially the one of Rainy Pass. You've definitely piqued my interest about the Iditarod!

  3. I can't even begin to imagine dragging those sleds for miles over bare dirt and rocks. Not to mention the rest of the 350 miles. It awesome Beat designed and built some of the gear. Please include some info on that in your future reports. You two are awesome!

  4. Rainy Pass looks gorgeous! Okay, maybe you aren't so crazy after all.

  5. Yeah, I love all the photos but the Rainy Pass one is particularly drool-inducing. Congratulations on the finish, looking forward to the report.

  6. Looks like it would have been helpful to have wheels on the bottom of your sleds at times! :-) Rainy Pass photograph is wonderful! Beautiful light, great composition. Congratulations, again! Look forward to your more detailed report.

  7. I didn't envy you guys having to pull those sleds over all that dry ground. Congrats on a great race Jill, best of luck to Beat on the rest of his adventure, and for you in the Whites!

  8. Admiring your wonderful photographs. Just a small question: Are beasts of the carnivorous persuasion a problem there?

  9. Congratulations. Wonderful photos.Looking forward to how you compare it to your other races here.

  10. Kudos Jill and Beat!!! Watched your progress on the I website now can't wait for your full race report.

    Please include how you folks were able to do 40+ miles aday. How little did you slep, etc. What was your avg walking speed when traveling? CURIOUER


  11. Congrats Jill on another Iditarod Trail finish. It was fun to follow your progress each day. Looking forwarad to some stories from the trail.

    Doug in Duluth

  12. Open water scares the crap out of me too. I can't imagine 40 miles of it. Did you wish for shorts and flip flops for the 50 degree days? Congrats on your finish! I can't imagine staying awake for that long.

  13. Wow, talk about gorgeous, dramatic shots! And how does one get an owl to photograph so nicely?


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