Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Iditarod Again, part eight

Photo by Beat Jegerlehner

My post-bison-mud-bog outburst drained away whatever reserves of energy I had left to spend on angst. Despite continued concern about the Farewell Lakes, I no longer cared whether I fell through a crack in the ice and drowned, or not. The Zen of resignation. The silent self-coaching did continue, however. I decided that, minute for minute, this section of the Iditarod Trail in these conditions had been the most continuously strenuous thing I had ever tried. PTL was tough and frequently scary, but it didn’t have twelve solid hours of hauling a refrigerator up a steep mountain slope. This was sort of like that.

I couldn’t help but look at my watch. “It’s been twelve hours since we left Rohn,” I lamented. “We haven't even hit the Farewell Lakes yet, not even 25 miles.”

Beat just shrugged. I already knew our average pace had fallen below two miles an hour, but the math was discouraging. 

We reached the edge of the first Farewell lake, which is called Low Lake, rendered a bottomless shade of indigo in the late afternoon sunlight. I stopped to put on microspikes and gazed into the ice rimming the shoreline. It was so clear that I could see grass beneath the frozen water, sharply defined as though I were looking through a window. This ice surely didn’t look like a solid thing. I reminded myself that this ice had upwards of four months in predominantly sub-zero temperatures to set, and that one or two days of heat wasn’t going to break apart ice that was likely a meter thick. But when a surface looks like liquid water and even smells like liquid water after a day in the sun, it’s difficult to turn off the internal alarms. 

There were fresh scratches in the ice from Bill Merchant’s snowmobile, which proved to be an invaluable guide across the lake, leading to the point where the trail cut back into the woods. Otherwise we might have had to wander along the perimeter for long minutes looking for an opening. I gazed into the fathoms of the lake, fascinated by the fractured pattern along the surface, the opulent shades of blue, and the entirely visible subaqueous environment of grass and sunken logs. I even looked for fish swimming beneath the ice, but started to feel that woozy vertigo one feels when peering over a railing of a high bridge. The sled coasted behind me, and I marveled at the sudden weightlessness of my steps — as though the sled and I were floating across a tranquil pond. 

“I guess that wasn’t so bad,” I announced to Beat when we reached the other side. “I don’t know what I was so freaked out about.”

We returned to the grassy tundra, and the canoe sled morphed back into a refrigerator. Somewhere around the second lake, which is called Steele Lake, we reconnected with Anne. She apparently had spent some time trying to rig a repair for her sled, which was in the process of tearing in two. Anne's sled was custom-made from carbon fiber. It was light and strong but not designed to be dragged across dirt and rocks for 35 miles and counting. She showed us the gaping hole at the bottom and explained the repairs she tried. Beat, ever the engineer, had a few more suggestions that Anne waved off, lamenting that this was it for her. She was aiming for Nome this year, and there was no way her sled would make it that far. 

Beat tried to encourage her, and we came up with a plan that if she could limp her sled into McGrath, I could give her my sled to take to Nome. Anne seemed upset and fearful that her sled would fall apart before she even reached the safety of Nikolai. She was considering camping on the shoreline and using her satellite messenger to contact her husband, who is a pilot and could land his plane on one of these lakes. We convinced her to stick with us a little bit longer. 

Photo by Beat Jegerlehner

We crossed the third Farewell lake, which is called Submarine Lake. I gazed into the depths with rapt fascination, no longer afraid. I knew that one we crossed Submarine, we were beyond the last of the major water hazards. From here we would traverse the final remnants of Alaska Range foothills before dropping into the low, dry basin known as the Farewell Burn. The three of us stopped to look back at the mountains, an impressive contrast of snowfields and naked slopes. An addled mind can achieve wild and rapid swings between emotions. Just five miles from meltdown, I’d already oscillated back to my other extreme, manic joy. 

The sun sank low on the horizon and the temperature took a nose-dive, which was a welcome development. Finally below freezing again, ice crystals formed on the dirt and the sled's drag wasn’t quite so bad. Although still a mild twenty or so degrees, my wet feet began to ache. They’d been uncomfortable at forty degrees; at zero or lower, I might not be able to sustain blood flow to the extremities at any pace. This was not a welcome development. 

We began to see patches of snow again, as petrified as solid ice. I remained worried about the drinking water situation, so I’d break pieces off branches and suck on them. The ice chunks had the strong, distinct flavor of spruce with hints of smoke, which I found gratifying. “This is what the Farewell Burn tastes like,” I thought. 

About an hour after sunset, we came upon an encampment amid the low brush off to the side of the trail. Rick was sitting over his stove, melting water. Tim and Loreen were asleep in their bags. Anne, Beat and I been discussing when to stop for a few hours, and this seemed as good of a time and place as any. “Mind if we join you?” Beat asked. 

Rick was in a fantastic mood. “Not at all,” he said. “If you can find a bare spot.” 

Beat had his sled to sleep in, and I located a dry patch of dirt amid the brush. I pulled my bivy bundle out of the now hard-frozen duffel. The bundle is comprised of a wrap-like piece of material with compression straps, which I covered in a trash compactor bag that was too short to pull all the way over the bundle. I expected the stream water submersion had soaked through this as well. The material was rimmed with ice, but happily when I popped open the compression straps, my sleeping bag was dry. Anne set up next to Tim and Loreen and disappeared into her bag almost immediately. 

“What did you think of today?” I asked Rick. And before I could even add “what a nightmare,” he blurted out, “It was great. I mean, yeah, it sucked. But it was interesting, right? Sometimes you just have to go two miles an hour, but it isn’t so bad.”

I was a little dumfounded by the implication that he found the mud "fun" ... but at the same time I realized that I needed to cultivate that attitude. The trail is what it is, so you do what you need to do and don’t fixate on things that don’t exist, like snow. 

“Hey, you want some water?” Rick asked. He had gathered all of the nearby snow clumps, like sticks for a campfire, and stacked them next to his stove and pot. He had enough to make water for everyone.

“Yeah, thanks. Thanks a ton,” I said, handing him my Hydroflask bottle. I looked around at the scene — a half dozen people cowboy-camping among the spruce and brush, Rick cooking up some water, and the last hints of dusk lingering in the sky. It felt far away from the desperate situations that I tend to associate with Alaska bivies. It was more like actual camping ... as Rick would remind me, this was fun. It was fun! I took a gulp of tepid, spruce-and-smoke-flavored water, and smiled. 

We crawled into our bivies and I stuffed the Hydroflask at the foot of my sleeping bag, like I always did to prevent the water from freezing. I snuggled in, still basking in the peaceful atmosphere, when I realized my feet had suddenly become cold. Not just the aching cold I was becoming more accustomed to, but icy cold — as though I’d submerged them in ice water. As the sensation intensified, I realized they actually were submerged in ice water. I exploded out of my sleeping bag and in a single motion opened the zipper and shook the bag wildly, slinging the bottle and a large puddle of spilled water. When Rick refilled my bottle once more after I took a drink, he pushed the lid down but didn’t screw it tight. I didn’t think to check it. Dumb, dumb, dumb. Most of a 40-ounce bottle had leaked into my down bag. 

I knelt down on the icy mud and and ran my hands along the inside of the bag. I had managed to fling some of the water away, but quite a bit had soaked in. For several seconds I knelt in a state of shock. I’d just severely compromised the insulating capacity of my bag. Some people's races end for lesser reasons than this. It was such a dumb mistake, and out here it was a serious one. I looked out over all of the seasoned veterans surrounding me. I certainly couldn’t say anything about this; it was hugely embarrassing. The night was still reasonably warm, in the sense that temperatures were still above zero degrees — although probably not much above zero degrees at this point. But it wasn't forty below, where a mistake like this really could be life-threatening. I decided I could crawl into my bag and see how it went. If I became too cold to sleep, I’d just have to get up and keep moving. I’d say something about it to Beat then, but not until then. 

I crawled back in and curled up into the tightest fetal position possible. The position ripped new streaks of pain through my tight lower back muscles and hamstrings, but at least it felt fairly warm. My feet were still cold — the down booties and my last pair of dry liner socks had also taken on water in the melee, but the booties were already wet from walking through the swamps of Rohn, so I left them on anyway. I smirked about the fact I’d taken so much care to keep my sleeping bag dry through the rains of Rohn and forty miles of swamps and streams, only to dump half of my drinking water into it when I was finally clear of the thaw. All I could do now was hope this ragged body of mine found a way to sleep in this wet bag, and that I’d never have to tell Beat about this rookie mistake. (And in fact, in writing this I realize I never did tell him. I remained extremely embarrassed about it, but now months have gone by and it’s too funny of a story to leave out of the blog report. Sorry, Love.) 

We woke up around 11 p.m. to Tim yelling loudly that it was time to go. He didn’t realize that Beat, Anne and I joined them in the night, even as we began stirring and moving to pack up our own stuff. Beat finally said something to him and Tim responded, “When did you get here?” My feet felt like blocks of ice, but the toes were still pink as I applied a fresh coat of lube. I was stoked on getting what amounted to two hours of solid sleep. 

As usual, Beat and I were slow to pack up and the last to leave. Anne waited for us to finish, dancing around to keep her own Raynaud’s-Syndrome-affected digits warm. I felt bad because Beat and I promised we’d stick with her and help if her sled had a catastrophic failure, but I couldn’t help that I was still a novice at bivy break-down. And our promise to stay with her didn’t change the fact that Anne was still a fair amount faster than me. She surged impatiently ahead, and I just shrugged. As long as she remained in front of us, we hadn't left her behind.

We marched up and down steep, undulating hills. The trail had some snow cover now, but exasperatingly it was all on the north-facing slopes, which were downhill in our direction. So we had to haul the refrigerators up bare dirt, and then battle to keep from slipping on the hard ice descents. I had to run fast to avoid being mowed down by the sled. Every pounding step felt like a ripple of electric shocks through my legs. These jolts of pain had an exhilarating effect, and were just what I needed to bust out of “morning” drowsiness. 

About forty miles from Rohn we passed through Bison Camp — the former site of a wall tent camp set up by bison hunting guides from Nikolai. After fuel prices went up and the economy tanked, their clientele dwindled and they mostly closed up shop. All that was left were some strewn logs and a drying rack of some sort. By this point there was a consistent layer of hard snow covering the trail, and we were moving more easily now. After Bison Camp, we dropped off the plateau into a wide-open basin. This final leg-shocking descent was the border of the “old burn." The Farewell Burn. 

Anne was becoming increasingly more agitated. She again talked about calling her husband. She told me that she couldn’t take my sled in McGrath, that it was against race rules to use gear from another racer. She seemed deeply upset. I couldn’t figure out what was wrong now that wasn’t wrong earlier. We were on snow again, and on the flat basin there was good reason to believe that the trail conditions would be consistent until Nikolai. By all outward observations, we were out of the worst of it. But then Anne said something that brought her attitude into perspective — “The Burn is trying to kill me.” 

Anne has had some harrowing experiences out on the Farewell Burn. In 2008 she was caught out in a windstorm at 30 below without goggles. The gusts froze her corneas and rendered her blind. She might have died had it not been for an Italian biker who just happened to be right behind her at the time. He put her in a sleeping bag and rode into Nikolai to get help. She spent months recovering from frostbite to her face and eyes, but did make a full recovery. After two more failed attempts, she returned again in 2012 to the worst conditions the Iditarod Trail Invitational had ever seen. By the time she reached the Burn, temperatures dropped to 50 below and she again battled for survival. She finished the race that year and set a new women’s record to McGrath the next. But it was clear she was still deeply impacted by her memories of this place. Just as I had post-traumatic stress issues with bad ice and fear of falling through ice, Anne had similar reactions to the Burn. 

She eventually resolved to contact her husband, and enlisted Beat to help her figure out how to do so on her device. After five minutes of standing still in temperatures that were now five below zero, my feet were ice blocks and I announced that I had to keep moving. I was the slow one so I knew they’d catch me soon. I marched into the darkness, surrounded by a forest of nearly identical spruce trees. This entire region burned to ash in the late 70s, and the new generation of trees are all roughly the same age and the same size. The spruce growth is so thick that you couldn’t bust through the forest if you tried, not without a chainsaw. Here the Iditarod Trail is only as wide as a single snowmobile, slicing through walls of twisted branches and frost-coated needles. It has a spooky atmosphere, like merging a haunted mansion with a Christmas tree farm. I find this weirdly comforting. 

Beat and Anne didn’t catch me for a while, and it was strange to be alone out there — and invigorating. I relished the solitude, the cold air and the silence. I’ve been terrorized by the Burn myself; I was caught in that same flash-freezing windstorm of 2008, eight hours earlier than Anne. I still remember hearing thunderous roars and looking up to see a wall of white rushing toward me like a freight train. All I could do was step off my bike, crouch down with my hands over my face, and hope the hurricane-force blast and accompanying ground blizzard went away before I flash froze. I know the Burn. And yet, I secretly love the Burn. 

Maybe it’s the endearingly ragged little Christmas trees, or my fascination with wide-open spaces, but I feel genuine affection for this strange place where I would never want to live. The Farewell Burn is the closest I have felt to visiting another planet. It’s the bald face of nature’s indifference — an expansive, frozen wasteland. From a small rise, one can look across the Farewell Burn and see the blinking light of the McGrath airport some eighty miles distant, knowing all the land between is untrammeled and unwanted. Nikolai is a little spur off to the east, but look west and there’s nothing but a land so distant and so hostile that a world of seven billion humans left it almost entirely alone. I find that captivating. 

Anne and Beat caught up shortly before the turnoff to the Bear Creek Cabin, a public-use cabin that the BLM put up as an emergency shelter. Anne planned to wait there for help. I was still a little confused by her decision, as it seemed to me that limping her sled to McGrath on this now-smooth trail was plausible. She might not be able to go to Nome, but she had a good shot at finishing the 350-mile sprint distance. Anne had her reasons and I didn’t question her decision. It was hers to make. 

Rick, Tim, and Loreen were bivied at the trail intersection of Bear Creek Cabin — which is a mile off the main trail. Beat and I were also in the throes of sleepwalking. Eleven p.m. was far too early of a wake-up and we wanted another nap, but decided to push on for a couple more hours. A little while later, Steve caught up to us. He had spent the night in the cabin after a long nonstop push of more than fifty miles. Steve has a climber’s build and a good amount of upper-body muscle mass. He didn’t seem all too perturbed by the trail conditions that had wrung out the upper-reaches of my strength and patience. Steve was in an upbeat mood and glad that there were “only” about 25 more miles to Nikolai.

“Only?” I responded. “Twenty-five miles is a long way.” I suppose eventually context starts to kick in, but I was not ready to pretend we were nearly done with this section. Twenty-five miles still meant half of a day of hard travel. 

Just as glimmers of dawn light appeared on the southern horizon, we found a clearing on the hard crust. Steve moved on, and Beat and I set up our bivies just a few feet from the trail, knowing no one was traveling this way anytime soon. 

The lower half of my sleeping bag was frosty and rigid, confirming that there was still quite a lot of ice clumped in the down insulation. The down booties were basically ice blocks; I don’t know why I even bothered to put them on, but I think I held onto hope that my heatless feet would somehow dry them out. By now temperatures were nearing 10 below, which is low enough that I couldn’t unpack all of my camp stuff before my fingers locked up, and had to pull on vapor barrier mittens. I was again nervous about attempting a stop with my compromised gear, but knew that the worst that could happen is waking up with painful feet and having to move on before our planned wake-up, which was only ninety minutes away anyway. 

Sleep was becoming this ethereal presence that always lingered at the periphery of consciousness, and unconsciousness was absolute and binding. This is why it’s so intimidating to submit to sleep when exhausted in a subzero wilderness, because on some level it's difficult to trust that your body can and will wake itself up if things start to go terribly wrong, like frostbite. I closed my eyes and opened them again in a seeming instant, only to learn the ninety minutes had indeed gone by. The sun had come up during that ninety-minute moment, casting its pink glow across the Burn. Tim, Loreen and Rick passed again as we packed up. I stood on the crust in my ice booties and stretched out my arms. 

“Have a nice sleep?” Tim asked.

“It’s a beautiful morning for sleeping,” I proclaimed. I wished I could do a lot more of it. 

But, on some level, one needs to find a balance that isn’t entirely comfortable. Too much rest could cause the body to sink into recovery mode, accelerating tissue repairs and releasing hormones that can open a floodgate of soreness and pain. By sustaining momentum, the body takes signals to maintain the status quo and patch things up as best as it can without putting up the scaffolding that can lead to weeks of recovery. It’s my strong belief that human bodies are built for higher levels of endurance, and instinctively do what needs to be done to sustain forward progress as long as required. It’s true that longer periods of rest and rebuilding will eventually become necessary to return to full strength, but a subzero wilderness is not the place to lapse into this process.

Still, I was really beginning to “feel it,” and had specific and constant complaints from my lower back, hamstrings, and now my shins had joined the chorus. My feet, which I knew would be an bother from the first day and accepted that, were indeed throbbing and sore from 275 miles of pounding. But what was more disconcerting about my feet is that they were now always cold. I wedged them into my solid-ice shoes and ran a short distance before slowing to a forceful walk. They didn’t even begin to warm up; it was a searing kind of cold, but I knew as long as toes hurt, they weren’t frozen. It was just another thing I would have to endure. 

The day warmed but not too much, which was a relief — not so much for my feet, but for the agony of The Wallow. We were moving relatively well again on the hard surface of a strip of snow that still clung to the trail, and the glare ice of wind-scoured swamps. Beat was setting a blistering pace. Even with a heavy sled he’s a strong walker, with a stride that’s difficult to match. As we gradually descended the wide-ranging river valley, the haunted Christmas tree forest thinned and the swamps expanded. I’d watch Beat surge ahead as I faded farther and farther back, until he was nearly gone from my sight. Then I’d pick up my frigid feet and sore shins and start running. Once I caught up and returned to walking, I’d fade farther and farther back until I repeated the process. Running was somewhere at the edge of my physical limits; every footfall hurt something fierce and striving yanked the drain from my already low energy reserves. At one point, I complained to Beat about feeling lousy and he responded, “Well, you’re moving really well today.”

“Haven’t you noticed I’ve been running to keep up with you?” I asked. “It’s not easy.”

Still, with this pace, we managed to catch back up with Tim, Loreen, and Rick. The five of us moved together through the birch forests, laughing and chatting much the same way we had on the second day. We stopped for a twenty-minute break to melt snow, and I enjoyed the last of my Mountain House meals. The Petruskas — a wonderful Athabaskan family from Nikolai who host Iditarod Trail Invitational racers — passed on snowmobiles while the four of us were plopped down on the side of the trail. Tim was cooking freeze-dried meals and I was wearing booties (I was still making futile attempts to dry my feet when I stopped.) The three Petruskas — Stephanie, her husband, and the family patriarch Nick — looked at us bemusedly while we chatted about weather and trails. They’d received a call from Anne's husband and were headed out to Bear Creek to pick her up. 

“It’s sixteen more miles,” Nick said, with a tone that made it seem as though he expected to meet us there in an hour or two. Tim was incredulous that it was still that far, but even he knew we hadn’t passed Salmon Camp — which was twelve miles out — so I wasn’t sure what he expected to hear. Still, Salmon Camp came after not too long. The tiny log cabin and fish racks were still there, but I was shocked at how much they had deteriorated in six years. When I was last here, I badly wanted to take refuge from the wind and melt some snow, but the cabin door was frozen shut and there was no way to go inside. Now the roof was collapsed and the walls were barely standing — just a pile of logs that wouldn’t provide shelter from anything. A lot can happen in six years. 

We remained with the Pennsylvanians for the rest of the march into Nikolai. I was lost in a daze, gazing up at the sky and the tops of trees that grew taller as we plodded our return to the Kuskokwim River. In forty hours we had traveled eighty miles, but on that ethereal edge of sleep I could feel and almost believe that millennia had passed. It was a long, long way.

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