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.
This strange confusion only became more pronounced as I left the visual familiarities of the mountains and crossed into the marshland.
Shaktoolik appeared as a mirage in the sand, shimmering in the early evening sunlight. The Inupiaq village is home to about 250 people, who all live on a single street that stretches along a narrow spit of land between a river and the sea. Wikipedia tells me that Shaktoolik is derived from the Unaliq word "suktuliq," meaning "scattered things." People here live a subsistence lifestyle, with fishing, berry gathering, and caribou hunting. The land is rich but exposed; storms rage year-round. The wind blows relentlessly.
I walked around every door of the building until I caught the attention of a group of children practicing skills for the Indigenous Games. One demanded to see my face, and when I pulled my mask down he was disappointed because he thought I was Aliy Zirkle. They showed me to the Principal's office, who was still at his desk. Steve welcomed me warmly, offered an emergency mat, and helped me set up a nest in the school library. Because there are no inns in town, the schools provide overnight shelter to travelers for a reasonable donation. My nest in the library was better than any luxury hotel, especially considering the alternative of curling up in a bivy sack and being buried alive by wind drifts on a frozen swamp.
I set my alarm for three hours before sunrise, determined to tackle the sea ice in one hard push. My mind held stubbornly to effort entitlement, and I still hadn't conceptualized the reality of 50 miles of intensely exposed terrain at 1.5 mph. The predawn darkness was a stage for my deepest nightmares — wind raged with a high-pitched howl, driving a hurricane of spindrift that rendered my headlamp useless. The battered buildings of the village looked precariously braced against house-sized snowdrifts, and drifts across the road — which had been clear the previous evening — were three feet high. I groped around blindly for the trail out of town, finally shining my light into the sparkling eyes of dozens of dogs. I'd reached the Iditarod checkpoint. A man came outside.
"I'm sorry to bother you," I said. "But can you tell me where the trail goes from here?"
The man pointed into the blackness. "Goes that way," he said. He drew a breath as though he wanted to say more, but only nodded.
"I can't find the trail," I said. "I'm going to wait for daylight."
"Just so you know," the man said, "the trail's going to be drifted like that, probably all the way to Koyuk."
"I realize that," I said. "I'll try again in a few hours, after I can see and more traffic goes out."
The man again looked like he wanted to say more, but simply nodded.
Standing in the heated entryway of the school, I re-checked every nook of my scuba suit, making sure my goggles were secure, duck-bill fog protector in place, balaclava tucked into my collar, gloves pulled over my cuffs, boot laces tightened and overboots under windpants. I was ready and determined.
At the checkpoint, I again turned to face the tyrannous North Wind and wrestled my bike down a steep embankment, onto the river. After crossing the heavily drifted ice, I located the trail tripod, where I took this photo:
In the daylight it was easier for me to pick out the bright orange stakes, but several had already blown over. Underfoot the trail was clear for short sections, then covered in knee-deep snow dunes for short sections, like waves in a frozen ocean. Plodding against the 50 mph gusts, I could only just take continuous steps across the clear sections of trail. Once mired in the snow dunes, I might as well have been sinking in quicksand, kicking wildly and wrestling my bike for no forward motion at all. When I turned my body to attempt to wade sideways out of drifts, the wind would sometimes grab the bike and throw it off its wheels. My sense of entitlement had only just come to accept 1.5 mph as a reality, when in fact now I could only dream of such speeds. The North Wind whistled and cackled, relentlessly.
I worked as hard as I could, as I absolutely could, for three hours. My GPS told me I had traveled 3.5 miles, and not in a straight line, as I frequently snaked back and forth in search of the trail base or some semblance of a firm crust. I came to what looked like a trail intersection with two crossed stakes next to a single stake, and couldn't locate the next one. I scanned the far horizon and found nothing amid a ground blizzard that had increased in velocity since morning. In three hours I had seen no one — no snowmachines, and no mushers, even though it was mid-day and there were still at least 40 mushers behind. I also had neither eaten nor drank anything in those three hours, because I was terrified of lifting my face mask and possibly fogging my goggles, which I could not function without. A gelatinous bonk had set in, and I was very thirsty. I anchored the bike on its side and pulled my down coat out of its stuff sack, then plopped down on one of the panniers to eat a snack. With thick mittens, I fumbled around with fruit snacks before stuffing the entire package in my mouth, extracting the candy with my teeth. I bit my lip trying to free the frozen morsels, and could taste blood with the sugar trickling down my throat.
"Taking care of yourself in the wind is really hard," I thought. All the while, the North Wind raged at my back, whipping the life force out of me. There was no shelter, and there was no rest. Attempting 47 more miles of this with my experience level in this kind of wind would be like attempting to finish a hundred-mile run after only successfully completing a 10K. Only here, the price of failure was almost certainly grave injury, if not death.
Still I waited, about twenty more minutes, telling myself if a snowmachine or musher went by, there would perhaps be enough of a trail to salvage a hard effort and reach the only shelter on this stretch, the Little Mountain cabin, some 12 miles distant. No one went by, and no one was going to, so I began the slow and strenuous process of retracing my steps, already long blown away by the wind.
Principal Steve generously welcomed me back to the school and said I didn't need to pay for a second night, but I did anyway, because I know how hard life is out here. I checked the weather constantly, said little prayers to the North Wind, and promised myself that I'd try again tomorrow.