Sunday, November 16, 2014

Iditarod Again, part seven

Everything — duffle, shoes, sleeping bag, sled, harness and feedbag, everything — was either damp or soaked and smeared with mud. Tim, Loreen, Rick, Steve, and Anne had hauled out earlier, but it was still early. Maybe 4 a.m.? My mind was cloudy; the line between sleep and awake was increasingly more blurred. Beat and I procrastinated the inevitable while chatting with Rob, downing more Hot Tang, and rifling through my resupply bag that the race organizer had flown in a week earlier. I pictured the sponge-like surface outside and didn’t want to add any weight to my sled. Maybe I could just leave everything behind. That would be amazing — I could run free, like a rabbit across the snowless expanse, needing no warm gear or food because I’d be so light and fast that nothing could touch me. 

Everything in my food bag looked disgusting. Rob pointed out the pile left behind by the blazing-fast bikers. It was an enormous treasure trove — a fifty-gallon bin overflowing with any kind of energy food you could imagine: salami, Clif Bars, potato chips, Endurolytes, candy bars with Italian packaging, and some Scandinavian-looking cookies that I mulled for a minute before throwing them back in the bin. My brain was overloaded with choices but it all looked nauseating, and I didn’t want to carry any of it. My throat was raw from hard breathing dry, cold air, the roof of my mouth was scratched, and a metallic taste lingered on my tongue from gnawing on dense morsels of food until it bled. All of that, plus four days of hard effort, had eviscerated my appetite. Eating was the worst chore out there; it was worse than walking. I enjoyed my Mountain House Chicken and Noodle meals because they were warm, soft, and relatively tasteless, but everything else was crap. I didn’t even fantasize about food — real food — because I was so repulsed by the thought of eating. I rejected everything in those bins and only packed about half of my resupply; it was still more than I took from Finger Lake, and I didn’t even finish that. Ten portioned bags of food in total. It was about 10,000 calories. Seems like a lot, but we still had 130 hard miles in front of us, and only one meal remaining in the race-provided provisions. The math eluded me. 

We squished through the mud along a narrow trail that cut through the woods toward the confluence of the Tatina and the South Fork of the Kuskokwim River. It looked like an ATV trail; there were even ruts where snowmobile tracks dug into the soft dirt. Just before the river we encountered Anne, walking in the opposite direction. She explained that she couldn’t find the trail despite wandering along the shoreline for more than an hour, and was returning to Rohn and wait for daylight. I had a vague memory of riding across glare ice and gravel bars for about two miles before cutting to the left into the woods, but Anne had been here more times than me. There was always the navigational possibility of staying on the river all the way to the Post River confluence, but Anne said there was a torrent of overflow and she wanted to get off the river ice as soon as possible. I did, too. We convinced her to stick with us and we’d look for the trail together.

(Edit: Beat asked Steve about this, and apparently he was with us when we left Rohn, and also while we were on the Kuskokwim River. With apologies to Steve, for whatever reasons my memory has completely erased his presence during this time. It is an imperfect form of storytelling, trying to piece together events from memory.)

The Kuskokwim was a nightmare; there was an inch of flowing water over the ice, which snapped and moaned loudly enough to reverberate through the deadly quiet air. We could hear water gushing beneath the ice, and black holes revealed open leads near the center of braided river channels, which were already narrow to begin with.

It’s possible that some of the water evaporated from my shoes while they hung over the stove in Rob’s tent overnight, but it wasn’t going to matter and I didn’t care as I sloshed through the stream, reeling into the depths of ice phobia. Anne was stressed and her demeanor wasn’t helping, and Beat was struggling with his 75-pound sled and the more limited traction of his studded shoes. We’d scan the maze of gravel bars and alder islands, arguing like children in a playground. 

“This is the way. I see an IronDog marking,” I’d demand. 

“Those aren’t this year’s. They’re last year’s,” Anne would retort. “See, the color of the tape is wrong.” 

Occasionally we’d come across wooden stakes that had definitely been placed by the IronDog Snowmachine Race a few weeks earlier. The disintegration of the snow and fast-flowing overflow had taken most of them away, but there were still occasionally strings of reflective tape tied to branches, or the occasional hardy stake stabbed into the ice. Anne was right that some were years old, but I figured anything would keep us on the right track of this half-mile-wide river and eventually take us to the needle in the haystack that was the Iditarod Trail cutting back into the woods.

I scanned the beam of my headlamp across the river, back and forth multiple times, until I caught a glimmer of something that was far away. 

“There! Over there!” I announced, and started marching. Anne didn’t believe me and hung back. Beat was somewhere farther back, although I did not realize that at the time. I thought he was right behind us. I thought they were both following me. I marched single-mindedly toward the bright light, not looking at where I was putting my feet, whether it was on a gravel bar or a clump of grass or a shin-deep lead of overflow. I didn’t look back, either, terrified that if I moved my head at all, I would lose track of the distant sparkle and never find it again. About five minutes later I reached the wooden lath, where my headlamp had already caught the sparkle of another distant reflector. I marched harder. The growing terror of bad ice quieted and I moved in a peaceful transfixation toward these glimmers of reflected light, one after the other, until I reached an opening that was clearly a trail veering into the woods. Finally free to move my head, I looked back and saw no sign of Beat or Anne. Not even their headlamps.

Great. I took my own headlamp off and held it up, swinging the beam back and forth toward the darkness. After five or maybe even ten more minutes, there were still no lights approaching. I felt strongly I should go back, but my phobia wouldn’t let me take a single step back onto the river. When I looked down I could see ankle-deep water flowing over impossibly black ice, cracked like an ancient mirror. I hemmed and paced on the shoreline like a frightened dog, until finally I saw movement, and waved my light faster. Beat was very angry with me. About as angry as I’ve ever seen him. He’d been scouting a different braid in the river, and didn’t see me surge ahead. By the time he came back around, Anne was walking toward him, and I was gone. 

“All those times I waited for you, why couldn’t you wait for me?” he spat. He wasn’t angry that he had been left alone — he spends a lot of time alone in Alaskan wilderness, and this doesn’t bother him. He was angry at my act of abandoning him. This anger was justified, and I knew it. My actions hadn’t been intentional or malicious. Still, I believed the state of the river ice was volatile and dangerous, and it was inexcusable that I deserted the people I’d intentionally teamed up with. 

“I thought you were right there. Really, I did. I couldn’t look back because I didn’t want to lose sight of the reflectors.”

Behind the dark shadows of his headlamp I could see the anger flaring in Beat’s eyes and had to look away. My own emotions surged to the surface and I was filled with acrimony … not at Beat, but at everything surrounding us. God, this was hard. It was ever harder with other people. 

It’s a unique experience, taking on an effort like this with one’s partner. Humans stretched to the limits of their physical and emotional capacity can be exceptionally selfish, or exceptionally compassionate. Survival mode dictates the first — it’s why mountaineers can walk past a fellow climber dying on a slope. The depth of one’s sense of humanity often determines the second — and is why some climbers will attend to a dying person they barely know at the risk of both their lives. In harsh environments or dangerous situations, people often team up in groups to leverage both tendencies and maximize the chance of everyone’s survival. Of course intensive physical challenges do not have the same immediacy as survival situations, but they do generate similar emotions. There may not be pressing dangers, but stress, fear, and fatigue still gravitate toward extremes, and this can become especially volatile between two people who already share a deep emotional connection. Beat was hurt by my selfish dash off the river, and I also was shaken by the duty I didn’t act upon, both because of fear. I come to these places, to the Iditarod Trail, to face my fears, to capture anxieties that trickle into all parts of my life, and prove that fear does not control me. But it’s not a clean battle; the process is messy and it hurts when someone you love is caught in the crossfire. 

We turned away in silence, and Beat surged ahead into the woods. My sled scraped along the trail with terrible grinding noises, pulling miserably at my shoulders and lower back. It felt like there was a giant hook dragging through the dirt, and all of my strength was only just enough to battle forward. 

To his credit, for as irked as he was about me leaving him, Beat did wait while I struggled. Anne also stuck close by as we trudged up and down the steep rolling hills along the river. “This is not fun,” she said repeatedly.

Photo by Beat Jegerlehner
After two hours, we had traveled all of four miles from Rohn when we encountered Bill Merchant, the elusive co-race-director of the Iditarod Trail Invitational. Bill does the trail-breaking for this race, driving his snowmobile all the way from Knik to Nikolai, then back. Most racers meet Bill for the first time on his return trip, clad in a billowing down coat (at the time, it was zipped open to vent heat), a tattered ski cap, and a mischievous smile underneath a handlebar mustache. These encounters usually happen somewhere along this bewildering expanse beyond the Alaska Range, often in the dark, and Bill wouldn’t have it any other way.

Bill greeted us by regaling us with an in-depth description of his awful night, most of which I do not remember, but now it was 6 a.m. and he was limping his battered machine into Rohn.

“I wish I had a four-wheeler instead of a snowmachine,” he said. 

“How bad is it?” Anne asked.

Bill’s mischievous smile appeared again. “It’s bad. But it gets better. There’s about twenty-five miles of rough trail. Then there’s a little bit of snow, all the way into Nikolai. Course, if it stays warm …”

Bill shrugged, bid us good luck, and with that he was gone. A ghost in the night. 

It’s one thing to drag a sled over frozen bare ground. Ice crystals coat the dirt; even though it’s a rough ride, there’s at least a small amount of glide. But on thawed, wet dirt — mud — laced with roots, wet rocks, and clumps of slippery grass … I might as well have been chained to an anvil for how I helpless I felt. I leaned so far forward that my lower back began to ache, and still my hamstrings and glutes quivered as I trudged step by painfully slow step. Anne had done a lot of dirt-based sled training in the hills behind her Anchorage home during the dry winter (“I destroyed three sleds this winter,” she boasted. “They were completely shredded.) She was also faring better than me, and despite her desire to not be alone through this section, eventually marched out of sight. 

“Why didn’t I drag a sled around on dirt in California?” I wondered to myself. “Or better yet, brought my cart to Alaska? Damn, this would be so much easier with wheels.” 

Photo by Beat Jegerlehner
As dawn broke, we began to see the depths of this winterless wonderland. Charred spruce trunks — remnants of “The New Burn” that flared along the shore of the South Fork a few years earlier — stuck out of the brown earth as far as we could see in all directions. The 5,000-foot peaks surrounding us were utterly stripped of snow. There were streaks of white, hidden in couloirs, but the extent of brownness was boggling. 

We dropped onto the gravel bars surrounding the Post River — a mile-wide crossing of baseball-sized cobbles strewn with a spiny carpet of driftwood. The sled scraped and groaned miserably, and I thought for sure it was coming apart, but Beat assured me that the material was strong enough to handle sticks and rocks. I clearly wasn’t strong enough, however, as I leaned and yanked and made my own miserable groans. Sometimes I came to a string of logs that I couldn’t see a way around, so I unhooked my harness and hoisted the sled over the obstacles by hand. I had been mulling over ways to carry the sled on my back, but this hoisting confirmed that the load was too unstructured, awkward, and heavy to achieve this with makeshift straps, at least for any significant distance. 

The Post River itself was glare ice, and not wet and cracked like the Kuskokwim. It was nice ice. We only had to cross it, but for a hundred yards the sled became weightless, gliding effortlessly over the smooth surface. The effect was so startling that I continued looking back to make sure the sled was still attached. 

Photo by Beat Jegerlehner

The Post River “Glacier” is an infamous obstacle on the Iditarod Trail. Although just a tiny tributary of the Kuskokwim that parallels the Post River, it freezes into a steep, five-hundred-foot waterfall of ice that must be scaled. It’s possible, but not easy, to bypass the waterfall along the cliffy walls lining the shore. The ice is steeper than it looks in photos, and if you lose your grip even for a millisecond, there’s no way to arrest a fall. Since I had microspikes, I opted to march straight up the ice. Beat just had carbide studs, so he strapped on his snowshoes and hoped their dull teeth would dig in. At this point, even a near-vertical ice fall was better than dirt. 

Beyond the Post River, the Iditarod Trail climbs onto a higher plateau beside an outlying peak known as Egypt Mountain. The immensity of this place is difficult to express. It’s just “out there” in every sense of the phrase — a place beyond what lies beyond. We crossed long swamps with no hints of a trail, walking overland while skirting aquamarine puddles of ice that were rapidly thawing in the rich morning light. The swamps were carpeted in tundra grass and lined with barren birch trees, and the low-angle sun gave turned everything a reddish tint of gold. Even as my body slumped hatefully in front of its anchor, my mind was mesmerized by the strangeness of this place. 

“It’s so surreal,” I said to Beat. “I said this about the Dazell Gorge, but I take it back. This is the most surreal place I’ve ever been.” 

I slipped further into its spell, becoming more convinced of time warps. That it wasn’t just May or June of 2014, no, because spring brings hints of green. It was too quiet and odd to be the near future. No, this place was deep in the past, a desertification of tundra before the Ice Age. I looked around and expected to see mastodons; and there was a glimmer of seriousness in this expectation. Bison tracks were pressed deep into the mud. I saw canine tracks too … there certainly weren’t any dog sleds out anytime recently, so they were probably wolf. There were times that Beat disappeared from sight in the birch forests, and I would think, “Well, this is it. I’m the last person on Earth.” 

Photo by Beat Jegerlhener

As the day warmed up, we stopped to remove layers and string our wet socks across the top of our sleds, on the off-chance they could dry in the sun. I had four pairs of sopping socks and draped each one of them over the duffel, along with a hat, held down by bungees, which made my already hateful sled look like a hillbilly junk cart. Neither of us had sunscreen, but I had a wind-protection face stick, and slathered it all over my face, neck, and arms. “Welcome to the brave new world of climate change,” I said. 

The swamp ice broke apart, and we had no choice but to slosh through puddles. As we dropped off of Egypt Mountain, there were more streams to cross — increasingly, these streams were free-flowing, although at least not deep because it was still water flowing over ice. Still, it appeared that, even outside my time warp fantasies, spring break-up was actually happening, rapidly. I tried very hard not to fixate on my ice phobias. But beyond these anxieties, there were only the thoughts about sharp pain in my lower back and hamstrings, and the fatigue, and the lurching frustration of pulling a semi trailer across swamps at a blistering pace of 1.8 miles per hour (which I could track on my Garmin eTrex, and it was driving me mad.) 

And then there was the coming of night to think about — the fact that nearly everything inside my sled was wet if not soaked, my shoes were wet, and eventually we were going to decide to camp on this wet tundra somewhere down the trail. It wasn’t clear whether we’d ever find snow, which is what we needed to make drinking water. We could boil stream water if necessary, but past the Farewell Lakes was increasingly drier country, so we had to decide whether to stop and boil water now, while we could. And then there were the Farewell Lakes. We’d have to cross them. What were those like? What condition was that ice in? 

Quiet panics began to tremble in my chest, and I was losing the energy to battle them. My iPod had been playing dull, depressing music since I turned it on — because all music sounded that way at that point — but then Black Eyed Peas’ “I Gotta Feeling” clicked onto the Shuffle. It was something, and I needed anything — anything to lure my head away from this downward spiral of melancholy. I latched onto the rhythm as a way to time my steps, prompting me to march harder as I sang loudly, “I gotta feeling … that tonight’s gonna be a good night … that tonight’s gonna be a good good night.” 

“And how many people can say that about sleeping in the mud with wet feet and no drinking water?” I thought. And it’s probably going to be 15 below by morning, I bet it is. Wouldn’t be right if it wasn’t.” I laughed out loud, put the Shuffle on repeat, and kept marching to the same energetic beat. It was surprisingly calming. The Zen of resignation. 

As we dropped off the final pitch of the plateau, we neared a large tributary of the Kuskokwim. From above, it looked like a churning whitewater river. When we reached the shoreline, I realized the whitewater was just chunks of ice floating in the current, but the current was swift. The closest bank on the other side of open water was at least 500 feet across the river, and it was impossible to determine how deep these leads were. My quiet panics became louder. “I don’t know about this. I’m not entirely sure I can do this,” I gasped at Beat. 

He assured me we’d be okay. We both put on our hip waders even though both of our shoes were soaked, and Beat waded in first. At one point I could see the ice water flowing well above his knees, but he didn’t crash through any surface ice, so that was a positive thing. I ventured into the water; it was flowing over a layer of smooth ice, creating treacherously slippery conditions. The swift current pulled at my ankles as I scooted along in the hip waders, which had zero traction of their own. As I waded into the thigh-deep section, I turned around to check on my sled. There was no way I could carry it and keep my balance, so I let it drag behind and hoped for the best, knowing Beat had done the same. It bobbed along like a pool toy, floating happily, but I could see water streaming beneath the duffel. I’d reinforced my gear with water-resistant coverings, but it wasn’t full-submersion waterproof. Whatever wasn’t wet before definitely was now, I thought. My next thoughts were just an unbroken stream of silent swearing as I scooted the rest of the way across the river. 

Photo by Beat Jegerlehner
On the other side of the river, we crossed through a bison bedding area. The swath of soft mud looked like a cattle loading zone, like some sad trampled piece of land behind a barb-wire fence in Wyoming, and it was again surreal to remember where we actually were. The paddies of mud were so torn up that we couldn’t even begin to discern a trail, and since it was daytime, reflective markers weren’t easy to find. We picked our way along perimeters of the meadow, looking for diamond-shaped trail markings on trees. 

Somewhere just beyond this, we located the trail cutting back into the forest. It rolled through the birch forest beside the Kuskokwim, rippled with increasingly larger roots. My sled caught these roots every time, yanking me backward and jerking my already sore back to the point of involuntary screaming. It wasn’t long before I got snagged in one too many roots, and lost it. The long-simmering caldron of frustration and pain and fear and doubt boiled over, sending the entire landscape into a tailspin and filling my ears with deafening white noise. This was a thing that couldn’t be done. Not by me. I wasn’t strong enough. And the now-broken ice of the Farewell Lakes was waiting to swallow my broken body whole. 

Seconds, maybe minutes, were filled by only this silent screaming. Perhaps more time went by, because Beat came back to look for me. The sight of him walking backward on the trail broke the last layer of my flimsy shell apart. I melted down before he even had a chance to ask how I was doing. 

There was blubbering and sobbing, and I could’t even get a word through this mess, even as both Beat and my rational self assured me this was not so bad. Finally I was able to blurt out, “I’m … sorry. I … actually don’t … even know … why … I’m so upset.” 

Once I got my breathing back to a manageable level, we pulled forward once again. “It’s really okay if we do the whole Farewell Burn at two miles an hour,” Beat said. “It will take as long as it takes. It’s fine.”

“I know,” I said. “I just had a moment back there. I’m okay now.”

But there was still a lot of dirt … and the Farewell Lakes … left to cross.


  1. Heard so much about what a weird year it was last year but these pictures really bring it home.

  2. It's situations like these that push you to the limit, sometimes over the edge, only hanging in on sear willpower and determination that makes you fisically and mentally stronger for the next unexpected situation.


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