Thursday, March 22, 2018

Overnight in Denali

Typically I love roadtripping, but I retain a stubborn amnesia about driving in Alaska during the winter — the frost-heaved pavement, rutted ice, endless winding two-lane highways, aggressive trucks barreling up from behind, slush spray and grit coating the windows, snow, blowing snow, more snow. Planning my post-race time in Alaska as a road trip felt like a mistake, especially as I headed north from Talkeetna. Drizzling rain turned into another heavy spring blizzard, with thick flakes accumulating on the road at a noticeable rate. Driving involved many tedious hours of squinting into a whiteout at 30mph and skidding to a precarious stop to let trucks go by. By the time I reached Cantwell, I was frazzled to my limit. I know this holds true for most people, but stress seems to heavily exacerbate my physical issues. My heart was pounding and my legs were burning, even after a couple of days of no hiking. I wished I could just quit. 

But the guy at the Cantwell gas station reminded me of something I'd also forgotten — the Denali National Park entrance was only about 20 miles farther down the road. I crept back onto the Parks Highway, and within three miles the snowstorm began to abate. Ten miles later, the pavement was dry and sunlight was burning through thinning clouds. Alaska is a huge state where one need not travel far to see rapid change.

Since the weather was suddenly nice, I continued out the park road to the day-use area where winter maintenance ends, about 10 miles past the visitors center. The day's driving had taken so much out of me. I was really left with no choice but to unwind by going for a hike.

The Savage Alpine Trail was only broken for 0.75 miles, so I strapped on the snowshoes and continued on the crusted, thin snowpack up a gentle slope. Meadow slogging, with some incredible mountain views.

Denali is a vast place. Photos can't depict the expansiveness of the landscape — the sprawling glacial valleys dotted with scrub spruce and alder, the bald slopes and jagged peaks rippling toward a 20,000-foot giant that 300 days a year is hidden behind fearsome weather, the depth of silence on a windless March afternoon. It was truly windless — something I'd long imagined was impossible in this region. The temperature was in the low 20s. As evening light saturated the valley, I felt comfortable enough to lie down on the snow crust and elevate my legs as I watched golden clouds stream across the sky. Where the clouds flew, it was windy. Down here, it was heaven. 

Driving back down the park road at sunset. It was after 8 p.m. Just a few days before the equinox, daylight was rapidly expanding at a rate of six minutes per day. Broad sun angles also add a good two hours of civil twilight, meaning days are already 14 hours long. Temperatures might hit 25 below or lower in the White Mountains 100 next week, but it's not winter anymore.

I decided to spend the night car-camping at the Riley Creek campground. It was awesome. Skies were mostly cloudy, but there were occasional glimmers of green from the aurora through wispy breaks. The night was so warm that I used my sleeping bag as a blanket, and emitted enough body heat into the car to keep my water jugs and vegetables unfrozen. It was amusing to see how quickly ice formed in one jug when I hauled it outside to have breakfast on the picnic table at 10 degrees. It was still warm enough that I only needed my small puffy.

In the morning, I set out for a favorite hike to the Mount Healy overlook. My post-race emotional funk had largely faded, but there remained a state of feeling much more calm and content when I was on the move — under my own power, at least — rather than sitting still. I thought my leg muscles were finally starting to heal. As it turned out, this was delusion, but this overnight trip to Denali was a single point where everything clicked — joyful, energetic, pain-free, no longer needlessly fretting about Beat, optimistic about my own upcoming adventures, and enjoying beautiful views in a relaxed state thanks to astonishingly perfect weather with hat-free warmth and no wind.

It was incredible while it lasted. It never lasts, but I suppose this is the reality that adds priceless value to the best moments. 
Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Reminiscing the Kenai

Coming off the Iditarod Trail, I was quickly swept into an emotional tempest, and not a good one. Why such a negative response? I couldn't fathom it myself, but it's always a little difficult to predict how we will respond to experiences. Conquer a big challenge, vanquish some demons, and be happy, right? If only minds were so simple. 

McGrath was wonderful, as it always is. Carole and I rolled into the warm house of Peter and Tracy — longtime residents who have been hosting the finish of this race for two decades — just before 2 a.m. Carole's feet were a mess of blisters and soft-boiled skin. I had been riding an endorphin high for hours, but the minute I stopped moving, a multitude of leg and feet muscles buckled and cramped, and then I was wracked with limb pain. The race directer Kathi greeted us outside and took photos. Inside, Peter made a big plate of chicken and pasta. I managed a couple hours of sleep, but for most of the night I writhed with a rapidly beating heart and leg pain. 

The following morning we hobbled downstairs for fresh coffee and mancakes — massive, dense pancakes that have become the sought-after "prize" for McGrath finishers. I enjoyed sitting around the table with Carole and a couple other walkers — Lars and Alex, along with biking sisters Melissa and Jennifer — and swapping trail stories. It's the kind of decompression we need and crave. But it was short-lived, as we quickly had to catch our flight to Anchorage. Continued heavy snow delayed the flight for several hours, and during this time I made mostly futile efforts to stitch my brain back together to attempt some Tuesday on-deadline work that I agreed to attempt. Amazing how much effort this took, forming cohesive thoughts. I decided would have been easier to keep walking. I imagined Beat, somewhere west of the Takotna hills, still walking. I didn't see him at the finish. I didn't expect to, being a day late as I'd been. But I admit there was that glimmer of hope.

The plane took off into a tunnel of wind and snow. There'd be no views of the terrain we'd traveled this year. The noisy flight ate up all of that mileage in less than an hour. Eight days of unraveling myself, finding the end of the rope, and reaching into shadowy corners of my soul for more ... done, just like that. I stepped off the plane into a warm and sunlit Anchorage evening and realized that what I felt was more like despair than joy. Of course I didn't understand. 

I spent a few more nights decompressing in Anchorage, which mostly involved sitting quietly by myself and feeling baffled by sadness. On Wednesday, I loaded up my toxic laundry into a backpack and walked a mile and a half to a laundromat, where I sat in an empty corner and indulged in a quiet little cry. Walking back, I felt better. My legs were still a pulsing mess of muscle soreness, but I think it was better to walk than to not walk. 

That night I had drinks with several ITI racers — Donald, Carole, Jennifer, and volunteer O.E. That was a welcome respite. I finally had chances to talk with Beat on his sat phone — he was doing well, enjoying himself on the early miles of the Southern Route. My brain slowly came back online, and I was finally able to respond to e-mails ... at the very least ... again. The following day I met up with friends from college, Chris and Becky. But it was becoming more apparent that I needed to get out of Anchorage. 

Being in that weird introvert state where I improved emotionally when I was with friends, and yet intensely craved more alone time, I booked an AirBnB in Hope, a tiny town on the Turnagain Arm where I don't know anyone. Having not yet regained enough brain power to glance at the news, I had no knowledge of a snowstorm that had buried the Seward Highway in two feet of snow. The rental Chevy Tahoe and I set out as Anchorage rain turned to Girdwood sleet, with a major accident blocking oncoming traffic. Turnagain Pass was a frightening whiteout. I hadn't been behind a wheel for a couple of weeks, and Colorado's winter has been so mild that driving in these conditions felt strange in an out-of-body way. I didn't know what to do. There were no cleared spots to pull off the road, so I kept driving. 

Finally I reached the Hope Highway junction, which hadn't been plowed all day. Instead, there was bumper-high heavy powder with a double-track trench down the center, just wide enough for one vehicle. There were still 16 or so more miles to Hope. Normally I wouldn't attempt to drive a road like this, but I didn't want to go back over Turnagain Pass. There was nowhere else to go. So I veered into the trench, hoping those lousy rental summer tires held onto the straight and narrow path, and hoping even more that I didn't meet an oncoming vehicle.

Somehow I made it to Hope. As I walked into the BnB, the owner, Cheryl, gave me a hug. "You made it!" she exclaimed. "I did not think you were still coming today." I beamed. I may have felt more proud, in that moment, than I did about arriving in McGrath.

Hope was everything I needed. Cheryl was very sweet and cooked amazing waffles with fresh strawberries and wild blueberry syrup for breakfast. Her husband, Bruce, gave me all the beta on local trail conditions. Avalanche danger was very high during my visit there. Left to my own devices, I wouldn't have set out at all. But local knowledge holds that the unmaintained Palmer Creek Road is safe — away from avalanche runouts — for the first four miles. "I'm not going to hike eight miles," I assured Bruce. I was looking for an hour on my hurty legs, tops.

A few snowmachines had been up the route, and although the soft base still required snowshoes, it was generally easy walking. It felt so good to just walk again. My foggy head cleared some more. I actually thought about phrases I might like to write down (I'd hoped this post-race solo time would work out well for a writing retreat, but it didn't, at all. Oh well.)

I felt happy again. I may have walked the full four miles, until the road turned to switchback up a mountainside and my inexperienced avalanche radar started to buzz. Admittedly, I didn't even want to turn around there.

On Sunday, my BnB reservation was up. I thought about staying another day, but then fixated on the idea of visiting Seward. Although roads were much better, the weather was still bad, with sideways blowing snow that discouraged my plan to camp. So I rented a room at a cheap hotel. Another guest there kept bumping into me and striking up long conversations, until I felt creeped out by him and hid in my room without dinner to avoid running into him again. Instead I refreshed the ITI tracker and stewed over concern about Beat, at whom I'd directed an undue level of anxiety. Seward was gray and sad and I didn't want to be there, but that's the way things work out, sometimes.

Seward is still beautiful, though. Earlier in the afternoon I did get out for a nice walk through town and out the road to Lowell Point. It wasn't very cold but the wind was harsh, and I was walking so slowly that I had to bundle up more than I ever did on the Iditarod Trail. Still, I enjoyed this immensely after I veered off the road to walk along the beach, with the salty sweet smell of the ocean and the screech of bald eagles to help me feel calm and nostalgic. Wading through the sand made my legs hurt all over again. Just when I felt increasingly grumpy about the prospect of walking four miles back to town, a nice German couple drove by and offered me a ride. Sometimes, things do work out.

By Monday I was on my way to Homer to visit friends. Avalanche danger had lessened some, and popular trails along Moose Pass had seen a ton of use over the weekend. I was reaching acceptance that if I didn't stop hiking, my legs weren't going to stop hurting. But what's another four (steep) miles to Carter Lake and back?

Although still cloudy, it was a lovely morning. I was happy again.

Monday afternoon brought me to the incredible guest cabin of friends Bennett and Dawn, a couple from Louisiana and Mississippi who now live in Fritz Creek, a community east of Homer. Their house sits on the edge of a state park, high above Kachemak Bay. The views were jaw-dropping.

In the morning I donned my puffy coat to sit on the porch with coffee and enjoy the sunrise after a light snowfall. I wanted to move in forever. In fact, my next project will be to convince Beat we need to plan a summertime visit to Homer. Unfathomably, Beat has never experienced summer in Alaska.

Working on Tuesday afternoon, trying not to be constantly distracted by the views.

Dawn and Bennett's house was close to the Caribou Hills, a vast area of snowmobile trails. I used to come here for long winter training rides on my 26er mountain bike, back when I was living in Homer in 2006. So many lifetimes ago. These trails also are part of the Homer Epic 100K course, so I had a good GPS track from 2013. By Wednesday I was starting to think about the White Mountains 100, another race that I in great folly still plan to start on March 25. Optimism was improving at this point, and I decided to do a bit of a "training run" in snowshoes, because temperatures were searingly hot (low 40s) and the trails were soft. This outing turned into 13 miles with not nearly enough food, and I was tired. I think I look tired in this selfie. While battling my legs for 2.5mph, my optimism about the White Mountains 100 again withered to nothing. But I was still happy.

Happy, yes, but of course there still were plenty of moments on the return, slogging yet again across endless soft swamps, when I became aware of my muddled emotions quietly wailing, "Why?" Why, oh why, oh why.

I enjoyed a few too-short days with Bennett and Dawn, helping them feed their chickens, eating locally caught halibut for dinner, talking about their burgeoning homestead lifestyle, drinking coffee on the porch of the tiny cabin, and people-watching at the Fritz Creek Store (no, I did not spot a Kilcher.) In the end I spent very little time in Homer proper. I didn't even stop into the Cosmic Kitchen, which I regret. Still it's always cathartic to return to places from my past, especially places such as Homer that had such a huge impact on the person I've become.

I couldn't leave town without visiting the beach, so on Thursday I made a quick jaunt down Diamond Creek on my way out of town.

It was a warm day at the beach. Dinner plans with friends in Palmer meant I couldn't spend much time here, but it was wonderful to take off my shoes and bury my sore feet in the sand, dip the leathery skin of my soles in frigid water, and take big breaths of salty, oxygen-rich air. There is a spot in California's Marin Headlands called Pirates Cove, a hidden cove surrounded by sheer bluffs, that always brought back happy memories of Diamond Beach in Alaska. Standing on Diamond Beach in 2018, I reminisced about running in the Marin Headlands, feeling the exhilaration of still-free legs pounding down the steep trail as waves crashed against the shore at Pirates Cove. Life is just a cycle, spinning through time.

Yet it remains forever difficult to discern which life experiences will ultimately anchor in my heart. I walked 300 miles to McGrath to find joy, and it was here, all along. 
Thursday, March 08, 2018

Photos from the Iditarod Trail

I hiked into McGrath after 1 a.m. Tuesday, which I think puts my finish around 8.5 days — more than a day slower than my first foot effort in 2014, nearly five days longer than my ride into McGrath in 2016. But I made it! I spent much of the time between mile 35 and 100 believing there was no way I was going to finish, as I waded through snow drifts into a 30mph headwind and struggled to keep my breathing under control. 

Labored breathing on the second evening required frequent breaks where I threw on my big parka and sat on my sled with my back to the raging wind, took puffs from my inhaler, and waited until my breathing normalized. Each time, this took long enough that my feet became alarmingly cold. The whole process was frightening, because I didn't feel I had much control. 

I found a better rhythm on day three, but again struggled mightily when the wind picked up before sunset. I barely made it across Shell Lake, where Zoe of Shell Lake Lodge graciously offered to let me sleep in one of her unheated cabins, even though she was closed for the night. Although I hadn't planned to stop so early, I took advantage of this kind offer. As I removed shoes and socks to crawl into my sleeping bag, I noticed that my feet were very swollen, and a number of blisters ringed both of my lower legs. It was just as bad as the "Susitna feet" I sustained during the 2012 Susitna 100, when I could barely walk for a number of days afterward. My leg muscles ached from hard effort, and I couldn't fall asleep because of the pain. Instead I had a good, long cry, convinced I was falling apart. I doubted whether I'd make it to the next checkpoint at Finger Lake. 

Things did get better ... a lot better ... even as trail conditions became more difficult. Ultimately I had an incredible experience, and absorbed so much beauty and awe as I trudged across frozen swamps, lakes and valleys at 2.5mph. I'm not sure when I'll write about my experience. My goal for the next two weeks is to engage in a solo writing retreat of sorts, with more focused writing efforts and less time on social media and my blog. But I did want to post some photos from my trip.

Beat and I at the start on Knik Lake. I did not see him again after this.

Multi-year champion Dave Johnston moving up the trail.

Swamps of the Susitna Valley, with the sleeping lady — Mount Susitna — in the background.

Halo around the sun.

Hiking in freezing rain up the Yentna River on the morning of day two. I camped on the banks of the Susitna River after taking an alternate route to avoid Flathorn Lake, which I loathe crossing ever since I dunked my right leg into deep overflow and got frostbite in 2009.

Freezing rain and snow persisted until evening. Then winds picked up and stirred all of the new snow around. The trail became difficult to follow in spots, and I occasionally wandered into thigh-deep unbroken snow. Carole Holley became lost as well; I encountered her walking toward me, backward up the trail. We teamed up to bust through some waist-deep drifts, and spent the night at Cindy's cabin — Cindy is a 30-year resident on the Yentna River who has become a trail angel of the ITI — inviting us into her private home, baking cookies and serving homemade soup, and giving up her own bed. When I startled awake after 1.5 hours and made motions to pack up, Cindy — still holding 4 a.m. vigil over the cabin — told me to go back to sleep. This was welcome advice.

Swamps beyond Skwentna. The trail had drifted in.

The nearly full moon sets on the morning of day three, a few hours after I left the unheated cabin at Shell Lake Lodge.

Approaching the Alaska Range at sunrise.

Bernadette doing her thing. I'm glad I took her along. I spent a lot of time solo on this journey, and Bernadette became a welcome companion, always willing to listen to my complaints. I made up a long backstory for her. The gist of it is that Bernadette dreamed of running the Iditarod with famed musher Aliy Zirkle's team. Everyone told her, "You can't run the Iditarod. You're a Siberian. You're too slow." But Bernadette was determined. She trained hard. She was winning races. Then she was involved in a tragic accident that left her unable to run. So she recruited me to help her see as much of the trail as possible. It was up to me to not let Bernadette down.

Morning light over the "zig-zag swamps."

Persistent headwinds left frequent knee-deep drifts across the trail, all the way to Finger Lake.

Blowing snow over Red Lake.

Climbing into the mountains toward Puntilla Lake. This evening was my favorite segment of the trip, as the full moon cast the landscape in surreal silver light. The contrast of light and shadow on the snow-covered crags gave the mountains astonishing depth; I think of this as a "fourth dimension" only visible on the clearest, brightest nights. Trail conditions improved in this forested section, and I walked for hours with my chin to the sky, often with my headlamp switched off, slack-jawed at the views. Crossing the Happy River Gorge, I said, out loud, "This is the most incredible place I've ever been." I wish I could have taken photos, but even with a better camera and tripod, I doubt I could begin to capture what I experienced. It was magical.

I actually planned to walk through the night, but neglected to replace calories because the burrito I ate at Finger Lake upset my stomach. After six hours without snacks I bonked hard, and decided to bivy near the shoreline of Shirley Lake. I didn't notice how much the temperature had plummeted until I woke up from a half-hour doze to alarming gasping and inability to breathe, and wrestled out of my bag into 20-below, breezy air. I should have just started walking again, but I was so exhausted. The next four or five hours was a sequence of gasping for air inside of my sleeping bag until I wrestled my head out, dozing off for a few more minutes until I woke up shivering heavily, repeat. Waking up to shivering puts the fright in me, and I was scared to get out of my bag. In hindsight, I wish I didn't put myself through this rough bivy. It took way more out of me than simply continuing to walk.

Sometime after dawn, still 20 below, wearing three coats and feeling like a moose stomped my legs and chest.

It was a beautiful morning for the final miles into Puntilla. Too bad I didn't enjoy them.

Rainy Pass Lodge in its stunning setting on Puntilla Lake. Again arriving mid-day — around 1 p.m. — I thought I'd have to check in and out and head up Rainy Pass for another brutally cold and windy bivy. At the cabin, I found three bikers — Donald, Melissa and Jen — who effectively told me, "no, you don't have to do that. We're not leaving." So I heeded their wisdom and took a long "reprieve" at Puntilla, enjoying lunch and gourmet dinner with the entertaining caretakers at the lodge, and getting a good amount of sleep before checking out at 3 a.m. This decision made a world of difference for my health and enjoyment of the rest of the race.

I left Puntilla under cloudy skies and blissfully mild single-digit temperatures. The wind was gone.

Then, as an added bonus, skies cleared up after dawn and opened incredible mountain views. I was so blissed out that I scarcely noticed the climb (also, since climbing is about the only thing I trained for, it felt good to engage my quads rather than sore hamstrings and calves, for a change.)

"Look, Bernadette, we made it!"

Starting down Rainy Pass. Not even a whisper of wind. Amazing.

Happy, happy, happy.

Descending into the Dalzell Gorge. Admittedly this was one section of the trip where I really missed my bike. It was still fun hiking, though.

Semi-sketchy waterfall crossings over Dalzell Creek.

Donald Kane descending Dalzell. He gave me a handful of gummy bears on the way down, and I was stoked. I didn't bring gummy candies on this trip, because 100 percent sugar is too quick-burning, and not efficient for my limited food supply. This was a huge mistake.

I dread traveling the Tatina River, with its volatile and unpredictable ice conditions. This traverse was relatively tame, although I did see open leads across older trails on river right.

I left Rohn fairly early — around midnight — and it began to snow almost immediately. By dawn, there was at least four inches of new snow over the trail, and it was still coming down hard. New snow over a soft base makes for slow, strenuous walking, with or without snowshoes (I tried both, on and off, throughout the day.) Whenever I took a selfie, I made an effort not to change the expression on my face, so I could photograph my actual demeanor at the time. Yeah, this looks about right.

Endless snow. By the time I crossed the Farewell Lakes, there was up to eight inches of soft powder across the trail. Much of this was likely drifted snow, but I was astonished that so much snow could fall in the Burn, which was utterly dry during my last two visits. The trail across the lakes was 100 percent obscured. I found my way by staring at my GPS and weaving to and fro, frequently punching into thigh-deep snow off the invisible trail base. Originally I planned to take a short bivy at Farewell Lakes, to avoid burning myself out and possibly losing control of my breathing again. But I became terrified that if I didn't put miles behind me, I was going to be stranded out here in impenetrable snow. So I kept moving.

The eerie remnants of Bison Camp.

Toward evening, skies mostly cleared, and still snow flurries continued to waft through the air. A trapper had snowmachined the trail beyond Bison Camp, which compacted the soft powder just enough to necessitate snowshoes at all times, because I couldn't break through it to the base anymore. Grrr. At least I began to see tracks from another sled-dragger, who I assumed was Carole, and this helped me feel a little less lonely after a day entirely alone. I connected with her at Bear Creek Cabin, at the tail end of a 20-hour and 45-mile day for me. We also shared the cabin with five rowdy trail-breakers who were working with the Iditarod Sled Dog Race, and passed me just a mile before the cabin. They were nice and brought firewood, but they were also loud and stayed up drinking past midnight. I crawled into my sleeping bag thinking, "Well, I won't get any sleep, but at least I can get my feet up for a bit." Amazingly, I was out like a lightbulb just minutes later. Carole, unfortunately, did not get any sleep in the noisy cabin.

Morning came and I was back on the move, feeling chipper despite a deep ache in every single one of my leg muscles. Walking through soft snow proved to be less of a challenge than dragging the sled through it. This snow was heavy yet gritty in a way that made it feel more like sand than something with any sort of glide. Again the snowshoes went on and came off, not making much of a difference in the strain of the walk, or my speed. However, each foot-rolling step was slowly wearing away both peroneal tendons.

Sunrise over the Alaska Range.

More beautiful mountain views. You have to look back to see them.

The Farewell Burn. Although I enjoy the sparse landscape and wide-open spaces of this remote region, this day contained the most mental tedium. I passed time by "live-tweeting" my slog from my InReach device, resolving to send a message every hour, and feeling pleasantly surprised if two or more passed before I thought of it again. The new snow and warm temperatures created a lot of wet overflow, which kept things exciting. I managed to get through all of the open water and icy sections without incident, and then somehow snapped my trekking pole on the soft snow of an open swamp. It was a clean break in the center of the shaft, and seemed unrepairable. I had a big meltdown over this, "my worst Iditarod Trail mechanical yet." I had more temper tantrums over the weirdness of my gait with one pole that brought on the realization of how much my ankles hurt. Then I borrowed an Iditasport stake. It was the perfect length, but obviously had no handle, so it wasn't comfortable to hold. Still, I made reasonably good time for the 35 miles into Nikolai (by this point I'm thinking 2.5mph is a good pace), where Donald rigged up an incredible fix for my broken pole using a piece of his stove windscreen, rope, and Carole's Gorilla Tape. Ultimately, that pole got me to McGrath.

Then, in the morning — ah, I don't even know what day this is anymore — it was snowing again. The temperature was near freezing, and this was heavy, wet snow.

Again, the trail became obscured. Across wind-drifted lakes, it was again nearly impossible to discern broken trail from anything else. In those spots, my one saving grace was Carole's faint sled track.

Leaving one storm, heading into another. The weather this day was a weird mix of warm (above freezing!) sunny skies and heavy snow squalls. My feet were extremely wet, and I changed socks four times — utilizing all of my socks — to mitigate a return of painful Susitna feet, which had only just started to improve.

Why can't it just stop snowing?

Eventually the snow did stop, and I spent the last 20 miles in a blissful reverie that I will definitely have to write about eventually. All of my nagging soreness and pains went away, for the most part, and I was coursing with energy that continued to build in the later miles of a strenuous and long (52-mile!) day on soft trails. Finding so much strength at the tail end of so much weakness and hardship was incredibly rewarding ... this surge made all of the hard effort worth it, even if the scenery and people and fun moments weren't enough in themselves (which they were.) About two miles from McGrath, I caught up with Carole. She left Nikolai more than eight hours before me, but had horrible trench foot (really — blistered, detached skin ... the worst I've seen.) She was in agony. I hobbled in the last couple of miles with her, and we finished together. It was an incredible journey. I'm so glad my body put up with this adventure, despite all of my doubts.