Out on the frozen tundra, sleep can be as elusive as wisps of Aurora, pulsing and fading. This shelf above the Susitna River wasn’t terribly cold — 5 degrees, according to my thermometer — which was warm enough to keep my face pressed out of the bag and breathe freely. But my heart continued to beat rapidly, prompting frantic leaps between exhaustion and alertness. Almost as soon as I dozed off, my lungs would fill with chilled air and my unadjusted panic response would jolt my brain awake — what is this cold fire? Where are we? But nuzzling into the sleeping bag was worse; I couldn’t shake off the panic response that now thought I was suffocating. Still, my body was reclined, my feet — encased in Nunatak down booties — were so toasty, and actually this whole not walking thing was pretty damn wonderful.
I was still lying there, staring at the outlines of birch branches in search of green light, when the group began to rouse. A couple moved out and then a couple more, and I continued to lie there because I was still stoked on not walking. Finally Beat started rustling in his bag, so I sat up. “What time is it?” I asked.
He looked at his watch. “Almost 5 a.m. We slept four hours.”
“I didn’t sleep at all,” I said. “Pretty sure not at all.”
“It will come,” Beat said. “Don’t worry.”
I peeled the used socks off my torso. They were still damp to the touch, so I stuffed them back in and zipped up my down coat to pack up. My head was foggy, there was no coffee, and I was forgetting all the steps. I rolled up my bivy bundle before I remembered to extract my water bottle from the interior, and packed up the mittens I intended to wear.
“I didn’t practice this enough,” I said to Beat.
“It will come,” he assured me again.
We trundled to the lip of the Wall of Death, which is not really all that scary if you’re not riding wheels or skis, and broke out into sprints as our sleds chased us down the steep pitch. Temperatures plunged as we dropped onto the river, and I gasped at the sudden stabbing sensation in my throat. I pulled up my face mask and looked at my thermometer. “It’s minus 10 now,” I announced, though Beat was marching too far ahead to hear.
I shivered and started marching harder because I believed hard efforts would help me warm up. And then I remembered that, yes, breakfast would help me warm up too, so I reached into my feed bag to fish out some dried cherries and pistachios. My “feed bag” was a chalk bag that I fastened to the chest strap of my harness, for easy access. Subzero cold doesn’t really afford the luxury of stopping, so it’s wise to figure out simple ways to eat while walking. Strategies include choosing food that’s bite-sized, high-calorie-density, doesn’t need to be unwrapped, and won’t break your teeth when frozen solid. In my opinion (an opinion that some disagree with), high-carb food is best for endurance efforts in subzero cold, because it burns fast and warms you up quick. Others swear by high fat — and these people are lucky because they get away with half of the weight in food — but I’ve never made fat work for me as an energy source for strenuous activities (majority-fat foods usually just sit like an unignitable log in my gut and make me feel ill. Peanut butter and some nuts are about all I can stomach.) I had pre-prepared thousand-calorie Ziplock bags of Jill Feed. Half were marginally healthy — dried fruit and nuts. The other half were unapologetically all candy — peanut M&Ms, mini peanut butter cups, chocolate-covered pretzels, bite-sized Twix, and bite-sized Snickers. It was simple enough to pull my hand briefly out of the pogies on my trekking poles, cram fifty to a hundred calories into my face, and jam my hands back in my mitts before fingers went numb.
Five in the morning seemed like something that should be vaguely close to dawn, but darkness persisted as we marched for miles along the fortress-like bluffs of the Susitna. A breeze kicked up and I began to regret not adding more layers when I had the chance. When I crawled out of my sleeping bag that morning, my capilene shirt and windproof tights were damp and clinging to my skin, and my polartec pullover felt clammy. But these layers had been good enough for all of the day before, so why not now? I didn’t account for the depletion in glycogen stores, the muscle fatigue, and a fifteen-degree drop in temperature on the river, which kept on dropping. I had added a windproof fleece jacket, but needles of cold found their way into openings around my neck and minimal fabric around my knees and butt until an electric chill reverberated down my spine. It happened so suddenly; one minute I was debating whether it was worth stopping for a few minutes on this wind-exposed river to put on another hat, mittens, primaloft shorts, perhaps my Gore-Tex shell — and the next minute, it felt like stopping for any amount of time was not an option.
This clothing was all readily accessible inside my sled, but my panic response warned me that any pause in motion would be the tipping point between uneasy discomfort, and violent shivering. I had the means to recover from a bout of violent shivering — and if I were trekking across Antarctica, I would have no choice. But we were only twenty miles or so away from Yentna Station. And the sun would surely come up soon. Oh, beautiful sun. Even though logic told me just a few more layers would help me overcome this urgent discomfort, I was terrified of violent shivering, and couldn’t bare the thought of stepping over the narrow margin my body was straddling. So I marched harder.
We took a hard left at the confluence of the Yentna River. The breeze bit my nose, so I pushed my frozen face mask closer to my skin. My hands went numb, so I decided it was no longer an option to take them out of my pogies. My feed bag bounced against my chest, taunting me. I felt very hungry, but exposing my hands and face to move a few calories from the feed bag to my mouth was not an sacrifice I was willing to make. My core temperature was dangling, slipping, and every minute seemed more dire. I should have stopped back there on the Susitna, I thought. But now it really wasn’t an option. I kept marching. And darkness persisted.
Blame pressed at this sense of urgency. “You need food. You need a coat and mittens. It’s not hard. They’re right there.” So I fired back, “It’s the first morning. I wasn’t ready. I live in California. It takes some time to remember what it means, this cold.” My jaw began to quiver and teeth chattered softly. My core temperature was still dropping. Beat was just a hundred feet in front of me this whole time, and sometimes right behind after waiting for me to catch up. He’d ask me how I was doing and I’d reply that I was fine, because I was embarrassed that I was so cold, that my fingers had become stiff, that I’d stopped eating and drinking. It was silly, of course, but stopping to ask Beat to help me grab a coat still meant stopping. So I kept marching.
Lavender light filled the sky, followed by a pink strip across the southern horizon. Finally the sun slumped over distant mountains, but bluffs kept the Yentna River interminably in shadow. It was funny, really, that I’d decided waiting for the sun was the best solution for my miserable state of cold, as though I’d forgotten I was in Alaska and maintained a delusion that sun’s 9:30 a.m. arrival on the low horizon had any capacity to warm this sink of frigid air. But the anticipation had its own unique quality — a futile optimism that stretched toward the river bends where sunbeams touched the ice. Always stretching, always marching.
When we reached Yentna Station, there actually was a spark of solar radiation, and my fingers began to tingle. I hadn’t eaten or drank anything in five hours, and traveled more than twenty miles since I “woke up” from a sleep I hadn’t actually had, and yet the only thing I’d really felt since then was cold. Food, water, and rest are nice luxuries when they’ve only been missed for a few hours. But when it comes down to it, the body knows what it needs first.
Heat. Fire was roaring in a wood stove when we stepped inside the snowmachiner stop-over at the far end of the Yentna's oxbow bend. I peeled off the ice helmet that my balaclava had become, and took off my shoes to make sure my toes still had hints of color. They were faintly blue, but they weren’t gray, which is what matters when you’re looking for frostbite. The black blisters come later, after thawing. I whispered a quiet “yay” and vowed to do better every morning from here on out.
Anne and Shawn were slumped on the couches next to the stove, eyes half closed. Tim, Loreen, and Rick were waiting at the dining room table for the breakfast they ordered.
“Why do I keep doing this to myself?” Tim asked rhetorically as Beat and I joined them at the table.
“I’m trying to make an executive decision,” Loreen said as she held two freeze-dried meals in her hands, deciding whether to pitch the eighteen ounces of extra weight. I was ravenous. Beyond any kind of ravenous I was familiar with, spilling over into the kind of hunger that can drive a civilized person to start spooning handfuls of goop out of Crisco container … which, incidentally, was something I caught myself eyeing greedily when I glimpsed the label on a shelf in the kitchen. Loreen said she could never eat much during these types of efforts because she felt too sick. I felt bad for her, but couldn't emphasize. My body was telling me to eat all the food, so it could store it away in glycogen and fat — the biological version of stacking firewood in anticipation of a long, cold winter.
I ordered breakfast, and the roadhouse owner asked if I wanted hash browns or toast with my scrambled eggs. “Um, yes?” He brought me a heaping plate that I mowed through with several cups of coffee, then ate Loreen’s unwanted toast. All of the distress and discomfort I’d endured drained away. This was the ticket. Kilojoules. Kilojoules are everything.
We left Yentna Station just a few minutes behind the Pennsylvanians. By early afternoon there was real warmth to the air, with solar heat radiating off the white expanse of the river. We had thirty more miles to travel to the tiny “town” of Skwentna, following the lazy curves of the Yentna to its confluence with the Skwentna River. From an outside perspective, dragging a forty-five-pound sled for thirty miles up a wide, flat river probably seems like a torturously boring task. Like the anchor that it is, the loaded sled and higher resistance of snow cancels out inefficient attempts at running strides — making running an unwise expenditure of energy. A good comparison would be attempting to run up all the hills in a hundred miler — you might move 25 percent faster at first, but the chance of burning out too soon is high. A small number of athletes, such as Dave Johnston, can and do run on snow with loaded sleds. But for me, and I imagine most people who engage in this foolish activity, sled-dragging is a walking motion that drains as much energy and stresses the cardiovascular system and many muscles as much or more than running on trails. So not only are you traversing a wide, flat, and almost colorless landscape, but you are “running,” sort of hard, at three miles per hour, and it’s going to take a long damn time to get anywhere. Once the danger cold retreats under the afternoon sun, there’s not even an immediate survival factor to keep the mind engaged. I think people have nightmares like this sometimes, in which they’ve died of boredom and gone to Sisyphean Hell.
I’m not sure how to even qualify this statement, but I love the frozen river slog. It’s like a white curtain draped over my mind, a soothing place where my heart beats fast and rhythmically, my legs move robotically, and my mind is as open and blank as the surface of an ocean. I’ve never made an effort to meditate in the traditional sense, but I imagine this is what meditation is like. The cauldron of thoughts and emotions simmers down, and on this rare smooth surface I briefly glimpse what’s reflected from beyond rather than what’s churning from within. I breath. I walk. I’m at peace.
It’s not always like this, out on the river — and wouldn’t it be wonderful if I had the discipline to harness this mindset in my own home? But I slip into this state naturally when my body is tired from exertion, and my mind is tired from battling fear and anxieties, and the wide, meandering trail brings no immediate obstacles to concentrate on, no sudden turns to navigate. The body and mind say, “let go,” and I do, and these interludes are too wonderful to attempt to qualify with outward justifications such as, “The views of the Alaska Range were amazing,” or “It was clear and the air had this sharp sweetness to it,” or “I had fun conversations with friends.” But these things were true, too.
For most of the afternoon we walked with Tim and Loreen, sometimes talking, sometimes just enjoying the scenery. Our friend Dan flew over in his Cessna, circling back several times and tipping his wings as he passed overhead. For the past two years I’ve been in that plane with him, watching racers traverse the Yentna River from above. “The view is actually not so different from down here,” I thought. But the journey had been much deeper than an hour-long flight from Merrill Field in Anchorage. And this was still, almost unfathomably, just the beginning of this race.
Shortly after the sun set, we passed another bend in the river inviting Iditarod racers inside. Cindy has lived on the Yentna for nearly two decades, and recently became took on the role of a “trail angel” for human-powered travelers. I still don’t fully understand what compels a person to become a trail angel — to invite exhausted strangers into their home to disrupt their evenings, devour their food and spread stinky bodies across their furniture and floors — but I do know that trail angels are wonderful people. Maybe that’s all there is to it. Cindy offered a delicious soup and homemade bread, and cake for desert, and then offered her own bedroom for Tim, Loreen, Beat and me to lie down for an hour or two. Someone else would later curl up on a couch in the small front room/kitchen, and this and the upstairs room were about all there was to Cindy’s tiny cabin. Anne and Shawn had taken an unheated cabin outside.
“Where will you sleep?” I asked.
“I’ll be all right,” Cindy replied.
The people who live in rural Alaska have no choice but to work very hard just to maintain the most basic amenities, for something that most Americans would view as a spartan and impoverished existence. When just surviving is a full time job, no one would fault you for looking out only for yourself and your own family. At yet, rural Alaskans are some of the most generous people you’ll ever meet.