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. 


  1. I can't imagine battleing the tag-team of "physical" and "mental." And to have to overcome both at the same time...

  2. Once again I feel like a big wimp. Congratulations.

  3. Just amazing!

  4. It's such a big and beautiful place and you are so fortunate to experience it in such an intimate way. Whatever the outcome, you're a winner in my book! And I love Bernadette!

  5. You're incredible. I love that you take so many pictures and share the experience with us.

  6. Way to go! There was a time when I remember you fearing that you couldn't ever do this type of event again due to Graves and asthma. You did it! I love when people break through their own perceived barriers. It takes a lot of courage and strength. Congrats.

    As for Bernadette - you know how I love my dogs so you know that I adored the whole back story that you made for her and then took photos of her along the way. I love it!!!!

  7. Congratulations, Jill. This is a truly great accomplishment. Well done!

  8. Great write up, Jill. I loved the back story of Bernadette! And the feeling stronger on that last day. I can't believe what a big push you did that day. I hope Carol's feet are recovering. I'd love to hear her story, too.

  9. Congratulations to your accomplishment! Seems that your asthma got better when air got warmer / wetter? That would make sense, as most EIA is triggered by dry cold air. As an older adult who has been living with asthma for 25+ years, I cannot help but warn you that *any* bout of asthma contributes to cumulative airway damage by fibrosis, which is irreversible. Thus making sure asthma attacks don't happen is critical. I get it though that under your trek conditions such control is probably impossible. Cost / benefits...

  10. Wow! Congratulations, Jill! This long-time reader is amazed by your accomplishment and impressed by the connection you have with that landscape. After all the ups and downs with your body, I can only imagine how wonderful it must feel to have survived this test.

  11. Well done Jill! Good to see you stay strong and finish feeling good about it all. Love the Bernadette backstory - i think in setting up your responsibility to her, it reflects in how much inspiration you bring to others with your adventures. Enjoy the retreat; all the best to Beat on his journey.

  12. For 5 years I've been content with my one trip to McGrath...this year for some reason I was jealous of everyone out there (Iditasport and ITI) making their respective trips. FOMO fo-sho! That said, I would have whined a lot about the snow :-)

    Thanks for the pictures. I was wondering what it looked like between Rhon and Nikolai this year.

    Congratulations on another and hope to see you soon

  13. OMG! Bernadette was in an accident?! I hadn't heard. Is she all right? Well, of course she's not all right. She can't run! Oh, my poor little baby! What happened? What happened? Details! Details!

  14. Yay, way to go, Jill! Congrats on a great race, toughing it out at the start and sticking with it and then finishing so strong at the end. I thought your dot was moving well on the stretch into McGrath! I'm glad you gave Bernadette a great tour of the Iditarod trail-- I'm sure she was super excited to go along for the journey!

  15. Awesome, Jill! I looked at your dot on the tracking map many times - it's great to hear the story behind it and to see some of the wonderful things you saw.

  16. Congratulations, and thanks for so diligently sharing photos and writing about it. I am glad you got in safely but hate to hear of the physical cost or it. Hope you will recover well from this grueling walk. 52-mile day! Wow!

  17. An amazing achievement and a huge credit to your mental and physical strength. I have never experience an environment similar to that but greatly admire what you have done.

  18. What an incredible accomplishment, to once again face your doubts and fears but to push beyond them to the rewarding experience that followed. I love Bernadette and her back story and can imagine how comforting a companion she was along the way.

  19. Totally awesome Jill. Congratulations. As always, your photographs and this post are exceptional. I hope your body is recovering well and Beat making good progress.

  20. great job and great write up! perseverance beyond belief !

  21. Way to go, Jill! I followed your dot every day; it's great to hear the story and see pictures. So stunningly beautiful. What a great accomplishment.

  22. As usual you totally blow my mind! Your pics are just amazing, as is your perseverance. It takes a mental GIANT to do this...I am not one of those. Love your pics but I can see that I'd be absolutly terrified to be SO alone...(also I'm not a 'cold weather' recreation type of guy). Your pics are awesome and utterly terrifying all in one! Loved following your walk (and Beats too). Way to go Jill!

  23. My gosh, watching Beats track, starting just 19 hours ago (as of 10am Pacific time) he slowed to a virtual CRAWL! The trail conditions must be TERRIBLE! Fill us in when you can Jill...sending him all the strength I can!

    1. Hi Matt. I'm not sure which reading you are referring to, but he's been moving reasonably well for the past few days. Mind you, the difference between bad and good for walker is about 1mph. ;-)

  24. Hey Jill...just peeking in again at Beats track, and what I WAS seeing last Friday isn't there anymore! (what I HAD seen on Friday when I commented was the spot marks for each update had been spaced further apart showing pretty good speed, and suddenly for 19 hours they were really packed close together (like when you go from flat/downhill to suddenly steep climbing and very slow forward motion). I know that it was his track I was on, so no idea why it looked like that on Friday and then today when I followed back on his track it wasn't like that anymore. No idea what that was all about. (my wife uses that save visual 'spot spacing' to determine roughly how fast I'm moving on my long weekend rides).


Feedback is always appreciated!