Thursday, February 02, 2017

This disappearing world

I've had a bout of writer's block lately. The kind where I stare at a blank screen for twenty minutes before relenting to Twitter browsing, and repeat. The main problem, I think, its that I'm a hopeless news junkie. Lately my morning coffee reading has left me with malaise bordering on despair. What do I do that matters? Nothing. What do any of us do that matters? We're just digging deeper holes. Well, you see where I'm at. It's that existential despair that all of us battle, with varying degrees of optimism and denial and faith. And it's not like this every minute of the day. I'm happy where I'm at and generally excited about the future. But the trepidation remains.

 I was in a rut and I wanted to get away. When my friend Corrine mentioned she had Cache Mountain cabin reserved for the last weekend in January, the wanderlust began churning. Beat and I skipped the Christmas training trip for good reason. Could I justify an admittedly frivolous trip one month later? Still, my Iditarod training hasn't been going particularly well, and my confidence has been similarly smothered. One short trip in similar conditions as the Iditarod — altitude, climate, and terrain — would help me understand my readiness one way or the other. And three days in the wilderness with no electricity or cell phone reception or access to the Internet? It wasn't long enough, but I believed a forced information blackout was necessary.

 On Friday, we set out from the Steese Highway on a "quick" route to the White Mountains. The Whites are a small mountain range, stunning in their own way, about 30 miles north of Fairbanks. The summits climb to 4,000 feet, the hillsides are peppered with spindly spruce trees and alder, and the creeks are flanked with limestone spires. I think the White Mountains are one of Alaska's best-kept secrets — managed by the BLM, the area's restrictions are few, wilderness is expansive, and a relatively well-kept network of winter trails travels to recreational cabins. It's one of my favorite places in the world. Why do I love the White Mountains so much? Sometimes I wonder.

 Corrine skied and I borrowed her bike. Although I wavered on taking the sled and hiking, I decided that biking and bike-pushing would be more appropriate testing/training for the Iditarod. Indeed, the trail was steep with a soft base and wind-drifts. In twenty miles there was more than 3,000 feet of climbing, which is light for a Boulder recreational ride, but pretty steep with a loaded fat bike on snow. The soft base meant I could grind along at a maximum effort and 3 psi in the tires, but it was nearly as fast and a lot less effort to walk. Over the course of the trip I pushed probably 80 percent of the time and 60 percent of the distance, and a moving average of 3.5 mph made a 64-mile, three-day weekend feel like a tough effort. Of course, I loved every second of it.

 Cache Mountain cabin is nestled in the shadow of its namesake mountain, from which flow narrow drainages with cool names like Brachiopod Gulch. This cabin was nicely equipped with a shed full of firewood, many pots for melting snow, an ax, a saw, wooden bunk beds, and a propane lantern for which a previous occupant left a can of propane. We basked in faintly foul-smelling light and slept like logs on the hard wooden bunks (well, I did at least.) I read through the entire cabin log and a book titled "Welcome to the Goddamn Ice Cube," which I didn't love. We ate bland Mountain House meals, talked about adventures and life, and for the most part left politics out of it.

 With two nights at the cabin, we had a free day on Saturday to travel unloaded to Cache Mountain Divide.

 It was a beautiful morning, about 5 degrees above zero, with a patchwork of clouds and subdued sunlight. Having visited Fairbanks in December, March and June — I was surprised by the extent of both daylight and darkness. There's a lot of light compared to just a month earlier, but the night still spreads across 15 hours, opening views of faint Northern Lights behind the patchy clouds.

 The "ride" to Cache Mountain Divide was strange — I stumbled along, taking about five hours to cover 11 miles, and in all that time I didn't acknowledge the passing of time. It was a beautiful sort of mindlessness, putting one foot in front of the other with my shoulders hunched over the handlebars, acknowledging my surroundings and nothing more. The forest was cloaked in a primordial silence that echoed in my impassive mind.

Corrine stayed ahead of me the whole time on her skis. I saw her on the return near the pass, and informed her that I was going to spend as much time as possible on the divide, because I never had a chance to explore while racing the White Mountains 100. I parked the bike on a tripod and attempted to hike toward one of the bald peaks looming overhead. I hoped I'd find a wind crust, but every step off the "trail" — which had only been first broken by two BLM machines, two days prior — sank to my hips in crusty snow. Instead, I walked down the other side of the pass and found a nice place to sit on my backpack, gazing at the peaks until I began to shiver.

 Four to six inches of snow fell overnight, coating the trail with feather-light powder. I didn't think it made the trail any worse, but it did add quad-burning resistance to the parts I could ride.

 Temps started around -5 and rose to 0 by mid-day. This felt toasty at quad-burning pace, and I spent the day gloveless and sometimes hatless with my jacket wrapped around my waist.

 One foot in front of the other.

 The woods near Beaver Creek.

 Corrine skiing out of Beaver Creek.

 That long downhill where I nearly caught up to her. A few snowmachines went through, which really only served to stir up the loose snow and make riding even more difficult and squirrelly.

 Snow-bikers do a lot of complaining about trail conditions. We're finicky to an extreme. Variations that are almost indistinguishable to the eye can make the difference between a 10mph spin and a 3mph grind. That's one thing I don't like about this activity, and I'm guilty of becoming frustrated about uncertainty and lack of control. I daydreamed about my snowshoes and sled, and remembered that I was walking anyway.

 The fresh snow did make for beautiful scenery. Although I mention the typical frustration, it didn't really set in on this trip — I was mindlessly blissful for most of the early miles.

 Of course, as I neared the Steese Highway, reality began to creep back into my thoughts. The world, current events — everything that leaves me staring blankly at a computer screen each day — were still out there.

 And then there were recent observations, in regard to Alaska changing more rapidly than I ever imagined. Recently a friend showed me a current photo of Mendenhall Glacier in Juneau. I compared it to one I took in 2009, and felt shaken by how much ice had disappeared in a time period that I regard as a blip. On the Iditarod, people used to worry about 50 below temperatures and hurricane-force winds. You still have to worry about these things, of course, but now there's rain, snowless tundra, rivers with collapsing ice, open leads that could swallow me whole, never to be seen again. What will Interior Alaska become, once it melts for good? Parched spruce forest and swamp, burning where it's not flooded. The White Mountains would be thirsty, low-lying hills — one of my favorite places in the world, but I'm fairly certain winter is what gives them their magic.

And then I realized I'd slipped into negativity again, and tried to shake it off. The White Mountains were still frozen, it was 0 degrees and alder branches were coated in frost, and I was one of the few humans lucky enough to experience it.

 Near the top of the final climb, I stopped to sit on my backpack and eat one of my last remaining granola bars (I mowed through an enormous amount of food over the weekend. Actually enough to run out of food, which is rare for me on a camping trip of any length.) I looked out over hints of sunset light fading on distant hills, and realized that I felt fantastic, physically. There were no hints of breathing problems, and without those, I don't experience much in the way of fatigue. (My arms were sore. I still lift weights twice a week, but yeah, nothing really trains you for hours of pushing a bike, except for hours of pushing a bike.)

The White Mountains can do amazing things for both body and soul.

Corrine near the end of a five-mile descent, where I finally caught her. She has amazing control on those skinny skis. I envy her. Honestly, I would ski if I thought I could. I gave it a chance for years when I lived in Homer and Juneau, but usually I was either shuffling along, miserably bored, or careening with pale-faced terror down some rather benign hill. Still, I do love snowshoeing and snow hiking. Perhaps it's the mindlessness of this activity — predictable steps through an unpredictable world. And snow biking, in many ways, has qualities of both. The careening, the freedom, the frustration, and the slow grind.

Now I'm rambling again. But it was a wonderful respite, worth every air mile. I loved every predictable and unpredictable step. And, even more, I loved spending three days in the wilderness without outside contact. The news I returned to on Sunday was the most dispiriting yet, and I wanted to run back to Cache Mountain as fast as my legs would carry me.

Instead I headed home to Colorado, where life is still good.


  1. Looks like you and Corrine had a great trip! I've been doing the exact same thing with the news-- alternating between feeling a responsibility (and curiosity, mixed with despair) to be aware of the mess that's going on, versus wanting to stick my head in the sand (snow) and run away to the wilds forever. Your post rang so true to what so many others are feeling, but you put it into words and pictures so eloquently. The White Mountains can be a good cure for the ills of the world (and a month on the Iditarod Trail would be great, too!). And as always, your pictures are amazing. Thanks so much for sharing.

  2. Skiing is great when the stars align. I like the shuffle but not the terror. I didn't really like that book either.

    1. Of course I'm a terrible cross-country skier, but when I finally gave up on it, I was still able to keep up with my friends on snowshoes during our outings (snowmachine trails and hiking trails, not the groomed ski-area terrain.) I just don't understand why you'd want to strap slippery sticks to your feet when walking is so much easier. Clearly I don't get it. ;)

  3. Hi Jill. Fantastic photos as always. I don't know if this was the intention of you post, but you highlight two technology aspects: one is the omnipresence of news, bad news mostly. As someone who grew up in a socialist country without even a landline and propaganda as the only source, it is not difficult for me to block the media out. It works.
    Second, it is the technologies that we use in the outdoors. I bike, ski and occasionally snow bike. I know a little what you mean about trail conditions for fat bikes. More of then than not, they become a wheeled luggage. Too narrow usability specs. Skis rule all the time. Cheers from rainy Bay Area!

    1. I understand the psychological advantages of avoiding media. I definitely need to cut back on social media, specifically Twitter. (How did I get addicted to Twitter? I hate Twitter. All it is, is shouting into a void.) Still, I don't see myself simply blocking everything out. Over time, I would be just as uneasy about the knowledge that I had no idea what was happening in the world.

      I agree that bikes are limiting on snowy terrain. Pushing a bike is definitely more difficult than walking with a sled on marginal trail, and it only becomes worse as snow piles up. On this trip, if I had been on snowshoes, I would have been able to hike up a ridge at the pass. However, I think if you had witnessed any one of my many flailing and grumpy attempts at skiing, you would concede that skis are not for everyone. Also, if you saw the bumpy mogul ice rink that much of the Iditarod Trail was last March, you might also concede that skis do not rule all of the time.

  4. Hey, fantastic post WITH pics...(like the "good ol' days")! I'm currently in CO Spripngs, and boy did Punxatawney Phil really give it to us yesterday! (though I'm sure you and Beat are LOVING this current blip of cold weather). I'm quite sick of news in general, from BOTH sides...I'm quite sick of it actually, and don't want to hear ANY of it. So I do my best not to. Yeah I'm sticking my head in the sand so to speak, but life is so much less stressful if you just say NO (to the media).

    SO GLAD to hear your breathing problems were nonexistent in Alaska...that's wonderful to hear! I'm riding my ancient heavy 2003 Blur while I'm here in the Springs...likely still MUCH easier than a loaded fatbike (with my 2.3" wide 26" tires and up to a foot of snow as of last weekend...which is SO not easy...but it's fun to imagine for a few hours what you must feel like for DAYS on end in your Alaska 'vacations'). Hopefully (for me) it's warming up over the weekend and I hope to be out both days on my bike NOT freezing to death (I'm not really equipped like you are) and getting in some altitude while I'm at it. Have a great weekend, ditch the media and get out there and RIDE!

    1. I loved these past couple of frosty days. I read on my favorite local weather blog that this weather pattern — freezing rain and inversion — is very atypical for Colorado, and may not be seen for another decade. So we had the fortune to experience it! ;-)

  5. Fantastic pictures! And a great way to escape the rest of the world for a few days.

  6. Did you use the same skis most of the time in Homer?

    It's more common with skate skis, I think, but if the skis are too stiff for your weight and you aren't compressing the camber, they become very unstable because you're riding on just the tips and tails. Years ago one of our top (and light) skijor racers was often falling. When she got softer skis it pretty much solved the problem.


    1. I use to own a pair of skis, just a basic pair of fish-scale classic skis. The boots were a bit too big for me. Although I'd love to blame the equipment, everything about skiing escaped me. I used to shuffle along attempting the kick-and-glide, while my boyfriend at the time pointed out I was just shuffling (and thus, I was slower on skis than I was on snowshoes.) Ups and downs just exacerbated the frustration. I'd fail at the herring-bone, so more often than not I took my skis off for both the climbs and descents. Or resort to hopping and crashing.

      I disliked skiing so much that I eventually made it my purpose to keep up with skiers on my snowshoes. Yes, I had to run the downhills and occasionally the flats, but I made it work and I had more fun. Perhaps someday I'll give skiing another try.

  7. I can't decide whether I'm happy or sad that I missed that trip...? I think sad. But then I look at that 4" of powder and think happy. Ha.

  8. Beautiful pictures of that area! I've explored in AK a bunch, but never knew of the White Mountains. Thanks for sharing!


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