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Showing posts from March, 2015

Where the North Wind blows, part three

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Overnight, ground blizzards swirled and mushers continued to stack up at the Shaktoolik checkpoint. As morning approached, there were 21 teams holed up in around the small armory. Some had been there for more than 24 hours — the kind of layover even mid-pack mushers aren't known to take — and still no one was moving north into the wind. One of the school teachers took her kids to visit the checkpoint, and described a scene of hundreds of dogs on the ice, and mushers crammed into every corner of the building. The stench, she said, was unbearable. 
As for me, I'd developed a bad case of the kennel cough. It started with persistent hacking and developed into a full-blown riot, doubled over in pain as gobs of mucus ripped through my lungs. I was concerned I was developing bronchitis, but I didn't feel too bad otherwise. Maybe this was the price of heavy breathing in the wind. Rumor also had it that lots of mushers were sick as well. It was unlikely I caught anything from one …

Where the North Wind Blows, part two

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I awoke to the unpleasant whistling of the wind against plexiglass windows, and shifted my sleeping bag just enough to peer into the bright light streaming into the cabin. I had stayed up late reading, and since I only had 18 miles to travel to the village of Shaktoolik, I let myself sleep in. The wind was back but the sun was out; it looked like a beautiful day. I cheerfully squeezed into my stiff, frozen tights and socks, and hummed as I melted snow for instant coffee while shoveling in handfuls of trail mix. 
The previous night's storm dumped three or four inches of new snow, which the wind had already blown into rippling dunes. As I walked down the porch stairs, a chorus of sharp pains rippled through my muscles. It is way too early in the trip to be this sore, I thought. The morning commenced with a long climb and the trail was punchy. Another day of slow, heavy labor awaited.

Still, I didn't mind. I breathed in sharp gulps and reminded myself what a privilege it was to …

Where the North Wind blows, part one

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If the world had edges, they'd be sharp and rimmed with ice, overhanging the abyss of outer space. For all practical purposes, the northwestern coast of Alaska is an edge of the world — only made livable by centuries of human ingenuity and our fierce if inexplicable will to survive wherever it's remotely possible to survive. This has long been a region of nomadic residency, where people followed the whims of nature to better opportunity. In the past several decades, folks built a few permanent towns, and a trail linking them together. The towns have all the modern amenities, but the trail is still mainly just an idea — a fragile thread woven by travelers who came before, endlessly fraying under the whims of the weather. It's hardly the lifeline one wants to cling to at the edge of the world, but it's all there is, out here.

Beat warned me not to start a solo trip at the coast. Better to attempt the whole Iditarod Trail than just the coast, he said. "Everything th…

Frozen in place

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After months of abnormally warm winter, a deep cold snap descended on the entire state of Alaska, just in time to catch Beat and company out in the most remote segment of the Iditarod Trail — the vast and uninhabited Interior. Beat left McGrath six days ago, and in that time has only managed to cover about 150 miles of distance, breaking trail through a foot of new snow and deeper wind drifts. This difficult travel coincided with this cold snap — if he's lucky the daytime temperature climbs into the -10s, only to drop below -40 overnight. Along this route there are only two shelter cabins, and at each one he wasn't able to gather enough wood to heat up the inside above freezing. The other nights, he slept in his bivy sack as the liquid cold seeped through clumps of frozen insulation in his sleeping bag. Every task is a small trauma, from cooking dinner to packing up his gear in the morning, racing to finish before his fingers go rigid, then exerting himself as hard as he pos…