Friday, March 27, 2015

Where the North Wind blows, part three

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 of them, but I took comfort in the idea that I wasn't alone in my misery. 

I was also starting to run light on food, having started out with what I thought was a generous three days' worth, and having surpassed day three. There were still calories left for just under two more days at the rate I'd been eating, but I'd cherry-picked all the good stuff and was down to one hot meal. A visit to the local Native Store was disappointing. In all likelihood the 21 mushers holed up in town had helped clean them out, but snack and convenience foods were surprisingly absent. I purchased two single-serving containers of instant mac-and-cheese, one can of tuna, one package of Twinkies (there was only one), one root beer, and one orange. The total came out to $23. The orange itself cost nearly $4. It was surprisingly fresh and delicious — worth every penny. There really wasn't much to restock my trail food, unless I wanted to eat raw ramen noodles. I figured that could be an option to extend my food another day, if I somehow ended up back in Shaktoolik again.

Daylight start on day four of my journey, still only 45(!) trail miles from my start in Unalakleet. My legs were so sore that I felt like I had already walked the full 350 to McGrath, and my shoulders and neck muscles burned fiercely. Principal Steve informed me the wind had died down, but the weather station at the airstrip still registered winds out of the north at 33 mph, gusting to 47. Of the 21 mushers holed up in Shaktoolik, eight set out in a paceline during the middle of the night. Among them were Lance Mackey and his brother, and another musher, Scott Janssen, who spent more than 12 hours stranded on the sea ice after his team lost the trail in "the worst blizzard I've ever seen."

Most of the remaining mushers set out after me in the late morning. I was amazed at the ease in which little dog paws could float over the snow dunes. Still, as each team approached and I stepped off the trail to let them go by, they'd run a few paces past me and stop. It was as though I'd been the one breaking trail for the dogs, and now they didn't see a reason to keep running. The musher would step off his sled, greet and pat each one of the dogs as he passed his team, and coax his leader until they were moving again. It was enlightening to see this interaction between the mushers and their dogs. I suppose I expected more of a boss/employee relationship, but the affection these mushers display makes it clear their love and appreciation for each dog runs deep.

For me, the day proceeded not much better than the day before, except for feeling even more physically beaten. However, just one more day of mental readjustment eased some of my angst, and I was more content to plod along at unconscionably slow paces. I recalled Beat's warning — "Everything that comes before the coast, prepares you for the coast." How true this is. I may have had fresh legs and a full belly starting in Unalakleet, but I had none of the experience or fortitude earned by battling the 750 miles that come before. I've spent the past few years believing the full Iditarod Trail was too much and section touring may be the best way to experience the trail, but I question that now. Yes, the full thousand miles is still too long and too far to comprehend. That hasn't changed. But in so many ways it's a race of the mind, more so than the body ... and I was vastly undertrained.

My body was not prepared for this effort either. Near mile five — which came nearly four hours after I started — I completely lost the trail. I'd followed a single teams' tracks that were rapidly disappearing in the wind, and came to a slough with drifts up to my thighs rippling across glare ice. There wasn't a single Iditarod stake in sight. After some bashing around, I found no signs of dog tracks, and scanning a 360-degree angle brought no stake sightings. Damn it. The wind was still blowing straight out of the north and I needed to go north, but even walking on the remnants of the trail base required an effort that was near my physical limit. Off trail, I stepped into drifts that swallowed my legs above my knees, and the sandy snow was so heavy that I could scarcely lift them out again. At one point both of the bike's wheels became so mired that I even as I lifted and tugged, it wouldn't budge. I felt truly, genuinely stuck — as though I really were trapped in quicksand. As though this was the way I'd die out here, and they'd find my frozen body upright and buried to the waist in a snow dune.

I often talk about my desire to become physically stronger, and promise to do the work necessary to get there, but I fall off the wagon quickly. I envy people who enjoy lifting weights and strength training, because all I want to do is be outside, moving through the world, and can't abide the indoor torture or even stopping long enough to do a few pushups. But I do understand the benefits. And out here, on the shoreline of the Norton Sound, I experienced a scenario where lack of strength could become life-threatening. If I ever attempt to take a bicycle along this trail again, I vow to come more prepared — both physically and mentally.

Luckily there were still more dog teams on the way. After what felt like an hour of maximum-effort lunging across that slough, I saw one team off in the distance and made a bee-line for their path. It still took another decent amount of time to reach that spot, and the work didn't get a whole lot easier after I regained the trail. The dogs' tracks didn't help me much; they could float on top of the dunes that swallowed my clunky legs. If anything, the dogs churned up a crust that was starting to form, but I didn't find much purchase outside their tracks, either.

In the legend of Sisyphus, the gods condemned Sisyphus to the eternal task of rolling a rock to the top of a mountain, only to watch it roll back to the bottom and have to start all over again. The lesson being that there is no more terrible punishment than futile and hopeless labor.

"At this point of his effort man stands face to face with the irrational," Albert Camus wrote. "He feels within him his longing for happiness and for reason. The absurd is born of this confrontation between the human need and the unreasonable silence of the world."

The Little Mountain cabin stands on a narrow peninsula in the Norton Sound, and is the last shelter before one must cross 35 miles of sea ice. I could see its bright orange walls for more than six miles, from the moment I dropped off the final hill on land, waded down to the shore, and began my slow plod across the first section of sea ice. That was four hours of watching this cabin never grow closer, struggling under an effort that left me dizzy and disoriented, wondering if this was some kind of strange dream — or an afterlife. I was pretty sure all of the dog teams but one had passed by now. It was a stark and lonely setting, and I became aware of this as I looked down at my boots, still mired in the snow dunes, and realized that I was still very much a human out here in this desolate place, braced against the all-powerful North Wind.

I hadn't yet reached the cabin by 7 p.m. — the time Beat and I had agreed to talk via sat phone. I turned on my phone and there was a text message from him. I read through it but didn't quite understand at first — only that Beat was returning to Anchorage, immediately.

A few minutes later, we'd connected by phone, and the message became more real. Steve had received news of an unexpected tragedy while the two of them approached the tiny Yukon River village of Koyukuk. Steve need to return to California as quickly as possible, and Beat would accompany him and remain with him until he left Anchorage. They've been friends for ten years, and they'd been through much together in their journey on the Iditarod Trail. At first Steve encouraged Beat to continue onto Nome, but Beat couldn't imagine this.

"It would just feel so hollow at this point."

I put the phone down in a state of shock. The hollowness Beat described rang through me in a cacophony of grief. It was more than my exhausted mind could handle; I dropped into the snow, pulled my knees to my chin, and wailed. Although I didn't share a direct connection to this loss, the reality of it hit at a time when I was very vulnerable, and all of my defenses and coping mechanisms were buried beneath four days of fatigue and fear. So I absorbed the news in an affecting and personal way, feeling it ripple through every fiber of my body.

After I got up again, I pushed my bike the rest of the way to the cabin, leaned it against the porch, and continued hiking toward the tip of the peninsula — a small peak that gives "Little Mountain" its name. The last few feet were a headwall, and I struggled comically in the sugar snow, sliding a dozen steps back for every step forward. Another nod to the absurd, and yet I felt a strong need to walk all the way to the "end" — surrounded by the frozen sea, at the edge of the world. At the top of the headwall, I turned and fought cold gusts to the northern end of the broad peak, then stood facing the wind.

"Hello, North Wind," I said, aloud. My voice came out as a gruff squeak, and I sputtered through another bout of kennel cough before I got any more words out. "We meet again."

A couple of years ago, I wrote about a trek up a small mountain in Nome, recalling the way the strong gusting wind atop that barren plateau evoked an unsettling acknowledgement of the impermanence of all things — the unreasonable silence of the world.

"I block a tiny stream of The North Wind for a few moments, watch my warm breath turn to a cloud and dissipate, and I call this my life. There's joy in this realization. If life is a goggle-clad figure steeling herself against a sea of cold space, then it's more beautiful and valuable than I ever imagined."

Here, at the top of Little Mountain, the North Wind still reigned. I'd fought it so long and so hard to reach this point, and this was going to be as far as I'd get. I knew as soon as I spoke with Beat that we needed to reunite, as soon as possible. I admitted I was too battered to leave that night, but that I'd eat, rest, and I'd make my way back to Unalakleet and a flight to Anchorage as soon as physically possible.

So I stood facing the wind, letting it suck the warmth out of my body, scanning the bewildering expanse of ice, and the Bering Sea coast beyond. "Why?" I coughed aloud to the North Wind, without any specific extension to that question. "Why?" The North Wind only howled and blew effortlessly around my body, draining the last of my energy, and with it the shuttering grief.

I plodded down the mountain and still didn't feel like going inside the cabin. It was the only shelter for 50 miles, and I'd left Shaktoolik in the morning with this cabin as my far-reaching goal. It had been so important to me then. Now, strangely, I wanted to avoid it. I think much of this was a reaction to the intense loneliness I was feeling. Outside, I at least had the companionship of the North Wind. So I carried a log out to a section of cleaner snow and made my dinner even as the wind stole much more fuel than necessary. I sat on the log until I shivered, and then got up and walked around as the sun set, watching dusk take over, and then faint hints of the Aurora Borealis appeared to the north.

Overnight, the North Wind all but dissipated, and the temperature dropped to -5. A group of caribou hunters passed before dawn. I'd already told Beat that it had taken me 10 hours to push the 15 miles to Little Mountain, and would likely take at least that long to get back. But a combination of new traffic, subzero temperatures, and less drifting snow set up a thin crust on top of all the snow dunes I'd battled in the previous two days. Even though my feet still punched through, I discovered early that I could ride on top of the crust — not fast, but 5 mph feels like warp speed next to <1 mph.="" p="">

I reached Shaktoolik in less than three hours, undoing two full days' worth of hard effort. About three miles outside of town I met another fat biker, Andy Pohl, who was independently riding the dog sled route from Fairbanks. His nose was scabbed with frostnip and he seemed unmoved by my explanation of why I was returning to Unalakleet. He encouraged me to reconsider and instead join him for the remainder of the journey. After all Andy had been through on the trail so far — battling the cold snap and temperatures down to 53 below — I could understand why the thought of turning back would difficult to accept.

I shrugged. "Sometimes these adventures don't work out. Maybe next year."

More caribou hunters passed on snowmachines, ripping up the thin crust and reducing me to walking again. I felt a renewed surge of angst. In my raw emotional state it was all I could do to hold myself back from throwing a tantrum, which I refused to indulge in because my dramas were so shallow and small. Still, I have to admit that it took me more than two hours to summit the one-mile-long climb of the first Blueberry Hill. Some pitches were so steep that I needed to kick deep steps to give myself enough traction to support the bike. There were many times when my body just stopped, and wouldn't start again until I sneered, aloud, "Come on. Have some courage." I needed courage, because I was out of strength.

I also have to admit I was completely elated when I finally reached the top. Bursting with joy. The weather had also become oppressively hot. My thermometer said it was 19 degrees, with just a light wind.

The trail was still fairly soft, but it was mostly rideable — except for the steep climbs, for which I was steadily losing courage.

It was strange to pedal these sixty miles backward, undoing four days of an arduous and emotional journey in a single push.

It was only sixty miles, and yet I could still feel the intensity in which each mile passed, sense a connection to certain places, and wonder at how much and yet how little time had passed.

The wind was eerily absent, and the setting richly familiar. I felt more like I'd lived in this place at some point a long time ago, rather than just passed through once a few days earlier.

The Blueberry Hills. A home at the edge of the world.

I arrived in Unalakleet just before midnight, again fully shattered by the day's effort. I'd given everything I had to make sure I returned in time to catch a flight, and continued pushing hard even after I learned the only Saturday flight was in the afternoon. Still, as I approached the blinking lights of the airport, a sadness set in. Even though this trip tore me from the inside out, it was a difficult thing to give up. And even though I believe strongly that there are many more important things in life than these adventures, it was a difficult thing to give up. I wondered if Beat felt exponentially more crushed after what he'd given up, but of course our disappointments were minuscule next to our friend's loss.

I don't know if I'll return. This journey was my test for a dream that has haunted and intimidated me for years, which is the full Iditarod Trail to Nome. Being torn apart by sixty miles of travel was not how I envisioned this "short" journey starting, regardless of the reasons why it ended. Still, I learned quite a lot, experienced some beautiful country, and gained a profound respect and appreciation for the people of this region. Although there will always be more important things than these adventures, they add such richness to the absurdity that is life. Rolling a rock up a hill is a source of joy; the lesson of the North Wind is that it doesn't matter where it ends up, because everything changes always. I'll probably be back. 

"Live to the point of tears" — Albert Camus.


  1. As always, excellent description and photographs of your journey and struggle. Amazing that you covered the entire distance back to Unalakleet in one day. Even tho' conditions were better, allowing you to ride at times, it still must have taken an extraordinary effort.

    Enjoy the White Mountains 100 and will look forward to your writing about that.

  2. Wonderful series, your experiences were harrowing and I could not wait to read each part.

    And such amazing photos - thanks for taking us along on this journey. Best of luck on your next adventure.

  3. Again, I enjoyed reading this very much. I've come to believe that the journeys that go sideways, somehow really enrich the ones that go well, make them that much sweeter.

  4. So sorry to hear about your friend's loss. It's ok for you to have tantrums. That's how you deal.

  5. Maybe a Fatbike is just not the perfect means to do this trail?


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