Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Iditarod Again, part four

In the loft of Cindy’s cabin, we offered the bed to Tim and Loreen, and Beat and I made a nest of blankets and one pillow on the floor at the foot of the bed. One important aspect I forgot to explain in my last installment is the fact that Beat and decided to abandon his unsupported goal for this leg to McGrath, and joined me for indoor stays. He and I have discussed this since, and neither of us can remember exactly why he made this decision so early in the journey. He was still hauling his 75-pound sled and eating frozen peanut butter out of Ziplock bags and freeze-dried meals spiked with butter powder. I think ultimately it boiled down to a desire to hang out with me and “have fun” rather than suffer for an arbitrary goal. Beat told me, “I’m good at racing; I’m not so good at training.” What he meant is that it’s easier to maintain outlandish goals when there aren't opt-outs, even if such requirements are only maintained by the arbitrary but rigid parameters of a race. “Training” efforts are more fluid, and open to adjustments. 

I was quietly glad Beat made the decision to stick with me. I tossed and turned for ninety minutes, still not sleeping, before we got up to leave around midnight. As we repacked our sleds and dropped back into the frigid sink of the river corridor, I battled a gnawing fear of nighttime, dark and cold. I was considerably more prepared for cold temperatures than I was in the morning, wearing extra layers that would be much easier to remove from a warm body than add to a cold body. Yet I remembered how I cold felt all morning, and was shaken by the experience. The fatigue of nearly eighty sled miles and forty-two hours without sleep weighed on every emotion, giving unjust power to doubt and apprehension. Yawning blackness spread all around, wisps of high clouds shielded the stars, and when I looked over my shoulder, I could no longer see the amber-tinted light pollution of Anchorage. It was very dark. 

When I looked ahead, my headlamp caught the glare of reflective tape on Beat’s trekking poles and backpack, swaying back and forth with an outline that looked just like a hockey goalie anticipating a shot. The rhythmic motion was soothing and reassuring; I matched Beat’s long stride even as the pace tugged at my hamstrings and revved my heart. The effort wasn’t too difficult as long as it meant I wasn’t alone. Memories took me back to 2008 and the many hours I spent entirely by myself, just me and the Iditarod Trail, going as long as a day without encountering another human being. It still amazes me that I managed that deep of solitude in such a menacing environment without falling apart, and didn’t succumb to panic that I still felt creeping around the edges, even with six years of experience beyond that, and with Cindy’s cabin just a mile or two behind us. I managed it then because there were no opt-outs. No one was coming to help me, so I had to help myself. And yet, as I chased Beat into what looked and felt like infinite darkness, I was incredibly grateful for the fluidity of life, the option to have him here with me, now. 

I fixated on the glowing hockey goalie and slipped further into a trance until twelve miles passed and we crossed into the comforting aroma of wood smoke. Surrounded by tall spruce trees and not much else, the Skwentna Roadhouse is a most welcoming oasis, with a friendly proprietor named Cindi. You don’t have to be a racer to enjoy Cindi’s hospitality; she served up chili and cornbread for my pilot friend Dan and me after we landed on the snow-covered landing strip for visits in 2012 and 2013, and free Christmas cookies when Beat and I walked in for a visit during a New Year’s training trip with Anne in 2011. After an extended stay at trail angel Cindy’s, we hadn’t planned to stop long at this official race checkpoint just four hours later. But the heated interior of the building hit me like an anvil, and I collapsed in a chair in the front room. 

“I’m just really tired,” I told Beat. “I’m shattered.” 

Photo by Shawn McTaggart
We decided to rent a room at the roadhouse, set an alarm for 8 a.m., then have a quick cup of coffee and go. Although grateful, I felt guilty about this second extended stop. That’s just what happens when you put your mindset in “race” mode. We may have chosen the slowest mode of travel, and we may have not even been in the running to win that division — but we were still there to test ourselves and our limits, we were still determined to finish as well as we could, and we were still most assuredly racing. But I was crashing. Cindi led us upstairs to a cozy private room with a queen bed, crisp sheets, a fluffy quilt. I peeled off all of my clothing except for my underwear and wrapped myself in the incredible snugness of this bed, feeling the cool sheets against the hot tingling of my skin. Skwentna beds are the ultimate guilty pleasure — “it’s like we’re comfort touring the Iditarod Trail” I mumbled to Beat as I slipped into three hours’ worth of deep, dreamless sleep. 

I woke up stiff with a swollen face and knees, but if you asked me about my health I would have told you I felt like a million bucks. Beat and I savored bottomless cups of coffee and ate a piece of Cindi’s famous pumpkin roll. After that, I probably would have claimed that I could easily go another ninety miles — although I still had nearly three times that mileage to travel, at this point in a long race, bold assumptions about any distance are an invitation for disaster. No matter, because I felt great. We packed up our sleds as golden beams from the rising sun streamed through the trees. Carole and Shawn were just arriving, Steve was eating breakfast, and Tim, Loreen, and Rick left just an hour or two earlier. We were still a roving party. 

The views of the Alaska Range were becoming more extensive and clear. The mountains seemed to wrap all the way around the valley as we crossed a long swamp before climbing into the Shell Hills. After sixty miles of terrain that was almost entirely flat, it felt great to finally engage the glutes and do some real climbing, even though the sled tugged my harness so aggressively that I thought it might pull us both backward down the hill. Rick caught up and joined us for the hard climbs followed by giggling — complete with real running — descents. When we passed Rick earlier, he was lying next to his sled with a sleeping bag draped over his body like a blanket. Rick didn’t like to waste too much time indoors, and developed a clever strategy of stopping at the warmest time of the day to nap and dry his down bag in the sun. Temperatures were in the single digits above zero, which was still about twenty degrees too cold for my always-chilled feet. I could never stop for long on the trail, but I fantasized about lying down on my sled and closing my eyes, just for a minute. 

One snowmobile passed on a steep corner, and the three of us stepped off the trail together. As I shimmied to pull my sled out of the way, I plunged my leg into a thigh-deep pillow of snow that ended in a creek bed. When I pulled the leg out, my men’s-size-11 shoe was missing. Beat and Rick had already started back up the trail, and I held my sock foot up in erratic one legged hopping until I gained enough balance to kneel down on the drift and dig frantically with my bare hands (during the “warm” part of the day, my trekking pole pogies provided ample insulation, and I didn't wear gloves.) I fished out the shoe, which was sitting in a trickle of flowing water beneath the snow — luckily shallow enough that it didn’t submerge anything above the Gore-Tex barrier. 

In a deeper stream or in the frigid night, this little mishap could have easily turned into a small disaster — if it was too dark to find the shoe, or if I froze my fingers digging for it, or if it became soaked. But in this context, it was just funny. I didn’t say anything to Beat or Rick, because it was still embarrassing that I was marching through a 350-mile race in clown shoes so large that they slipped off my feet freely. 

The giggling and running got us eighteen miles to Shell Lake by early afternoon, and we stopped into Shell Lake Lodge for a can of Pepsi. The proprietor Zoe, a gruff older woman who is fiercely independent and generous to all Iditarod travelers, has a reputation for taking her time in the kitchen. We wanted to make the most of the remaining warm daylight, so we didn’t order any food. Despite this rushing, the friendly sun was already well into its downward arc when began the gradual climb into toward the foothills of the Alaska Range. 

On this shelf above the Skwentna River, the Iditarod trail traverses a series of swamps that I call the “Zig-Zag Swamps,” because this section involves crossing a long, open plain, taking a hard right to cut through a forested strip of spruce trees, then a hard left to traverse another long, open plain. This process goes on perpetually, sometimes skirting the edge of little lakes instead of swamps, although you’d never know the difference. While marching I occasionally slipped into beautiful Zen mode, which was too easily broken by the jarring scenery change of the forests. Other swamps invited long bouts of fixating on sore shins and feet. The friendly sun gave way to a gorgeous sunset, with luminous silver and gold streaks across the sky. 

Then it was dark and cold again. Perception of time became fuzzy. We crossed through a row of trees and entered another swamp, and I was taunted by a suspicion that we were walking in circles through the same forest and the same swamp. Beat and I discussed our individual foot pains and decided to stop, add lube, and change our socks. I made quick work of the chore and laid down on top of my sled with my down coat draped over me, dozing off Rick-style. My feet woke me up after three minutes with needling pain. 

“What time is it? What year is it?” We crossed through a forest and into a swamp, again. The zigs remained short but the zags grew longer. My headlamp would catch the glare of reflector tape on distant wooden lath that officials from Irondog snowmachine race used to mark the trail a few weeks earlier. I’d see the sparkling glow of the tape and convince myself it was exterior light of building, that we had finally reached Finger Lake — but time after time, this wasn’t true. 

Beat marched ahead, and I struggled to keep pace as I fell farther behind, until I could no longer see the soothing reflection of a hockey goalie swaying from side to side. The Irondog reflectors must have been especially powerful, because I continued to catch these in full brightness even though all I could see of Beat was a faint headlamp beam cut in half by his shadow. These bright glares just had to be electric lights, I told myself — but time after time, they weren’t. 

Only iPod was left to break the monotony of an incessant loop. I listened to “Reflektor” by Arcade Fire and sang out loud, because no one was close enough to hear me, and time had stopped anyway — “Trapped in a prism, a prism of light. Alone in the darkness, the darkness of white.” 

I zigged, the swamps zagged, and there were more bright reflectors fastened to what turned out to be more wooden lath.

“I thought I found a way to enter. It’s just a reflektor. I thought I found a connector. It’s just a reflektor.” 

The sky opened up. The cold sank deeper, but there were stars, finally, and enough ambient light to reveal the profiles of river bluffs along the Skwentna. The canyon was narrowing. 

“I want to break free. But will they break me? Down, down, down. Don’t mess around.” 

Still there were zigs and zags. Only zigs and zags.  “There is just no way, no way we’re not there yet. Finger Lake is only twenty miles from Shell Lake. This is impossible,” I thought. Out loud, I sang. 

“It’s just a reflection! Of a reflection! Of a reflection! Of a reflection!”

Oh, iPod. At least you understand me. 

Finally we reached a wooden lath with a sign next to it, and an arrow. It was too good to be true. Winterlake Lodge sits on the far edge of Finger Lake, behind a bluff, so the buildings remain hidden from the trail. Darkness persisted. It had been too good to be true. But what was that sign? A reflector? Fatigue and fuzziness reigned, and there were no longer any assurances about what was real and what was imagined. I was flabbergasted. Then I heard a dog bark. Five minutes later, we finally saw buildings. They were eerily dark — a generator hummed, but no energy was being wasted on exterior lights. It was just as well. Finger Lake was an official race checkpoint, which meant someone there was probably waiting up, and would be willing to give us something to eat at 1 a.m. Warm food vindicates all. 


  1. I hate being cold! And I live in a cold place. But at least you are rocking a cute down skirt. Enjoying the read so far.

  2. I think next year I'll try to do it the way you guys did, stopping at Cindy's briefly and then getting another sleep in at Skwentna. That trek all the way from Cindy's to Winterlake in one day is too long.

    1. Dude, you're going to Nome. Get as much rest as you can get while it comes easy. Those 4 or so hours won't make a difference (actually 2, because you'll move faster well rested :).
      Ah, can't wait!

  3. Well, that is bothersome, going from point A to point B in the dead of night with all those constraints, while experiencing foot pain. That was quite a tough deal. I think you should consult with a chiropractor to smoothen out all the hurt you got from those walks when it's a struggle to simply maintain balance. Take care always!

    Mark Wallace @ Chiropractic Memphis


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