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.