Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Where the North Wind Blows, part two

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 be here, squinting against spring sunlight as ice particles swirled in the air like glitter.

The leaving of the storm. This boded well for a sea ice crossing, I thought.

The final Blueberry Hill descends from a thousand feet to sea level in one mile. It afforded a sweeping view of the peninsula — which is all flat marshland threaded with frozen streams and sloughs, and that one strip of brush marking the shoreline. The village of Shaktoolik was at the end of the line, some 13 miles distant. The bike's front brake had become nonfunctional, and it was difficult to keep the bike from fishtailing wildly down the steep, loose trail. At one point I was bucked off and hit the snow like a lawn dart, burying my face and arms. I had a brief flashback that I was back in California, lifting myself out of the dirt after a mountain bike crash. Although I didn't think I hit my head all that hard, the association was so powerful that I became disoriented after I extracted myself and blinked against a blinding white expanse. "Where am I? What is this place?"

This strange confusion only became more pronounced as I left the visual familiarities of the mountains and crossed into the marshland. 

The miles across the marshland were unconscionably slow, pummeled by wind as I waded through dunes. Being habitually active in the outdoors starts to give a person a sense of entitlement when it comes to effort versus distance. I "should" be able to ride a mountain bike at something averaging ten miles an hour, and run close to an average of six miles an hour, and hike at three miles an hour, with a relatively comfortable and sustainable level of effort. Pushing a bike at 1.5 miles per hour while battling the dizziness of maximum effort caused me to lose all track of time. The equinox sun rolled into the western horizon, and still Shaktoolik was nowhere to be seen. I was flailing at the bottom of a gravitational vortex, going nowhere.

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 pulled into the Shaktoolik K-12 school and was surprised to find the doors locked. After just 18 miles from the cabin I expected it was early afternoon; in reality it was after 7 p.m. "That took more than eight hours," I thought, bewildered at the realization. I was exhausted — much more exhausted than I would be after eight hours of normal bike riding, which would be a hundred or more miles in my privileged world. No such entitlement exists out here.

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 turned directly into the wind and battled in the direction he pointed, one labored step at a time. Out on the river, I saw occasional evidence of use — an ice encrusted dog bootie, a splatter of feces — but no indication of a continuous trail. Snow was blowing too hard for my headlamp to pick up the reflective tape on the trail-marking lath ... or else I wasn't pointing it in the right direction. Either way, it was hopeless. With only obscured street lights as a guide, I waded back to town. The man at the Iditarod checkpoint emerged again.

"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.

Back at the school, I checked the weather station readings online. At the Shaktoolik airport, which is located in the most sheltered spot possible, wind from the north was blowing at 39 mph, gusting to 47. It was 8 degrees, which "feels like" -22 in those winds. What it felt like, really, was thousands of simultaneous lashes from whips woven with shards of ice. The friendly librarian came arrived at 9 a.m. She told me the local caribou hunters wouldn't be going out today. Not in this wind.

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:

It's an appropriate illustration for my feelings at the time. The bewilderment, the feebleness of my presence, the unending desolation.

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.

When I feel scared and helpless, my main coping mechanism is to dream up wild yet somewhat plausible scenarios where I can still get myself out of the predicament. In this case, my idea was to anchor the bike's handlebar and a pedal in the snow, remove each of the racks, use straps to fashion them into a pair of snowshoes, strap my bivy bundle on my back, put some food in my pockets, and leave the rest of the anchor to a proper burial by snowdrift. Of course, I didn't really want to abandon my bike. But I found great comfort in imagining this.

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.


  1. I've really enjoyed reading about your trip through Alaska. I've been folowing the Iditarod with my class and when we talked about people riding their bikes along the trail they were blown away. Thanks for sharing this story and your beautiful pics! :)

  2. cold! cool though...

    here are some vid from ottawa, canada snowshoe trail riding... yesterday

    at night

    at day

  3. btw, you're blog is amazing... love reading it!
    you're an amazing women! love the read of your blog and determination...


  4. Jill, you constantly blow me away. Facing your fears out there all alone, yet making the right decisions at the right times. "You've gotta know when to hold em, and know when to fold em" (Kenny Rogers, the Gambler). Knowing when to "fold em" in life is a priceless thing. Cuz NOT folding when you should brings disaster.

    And on that note, I can't hardly wait to hear Beat's story! Stay safe!


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