Monday, March 11, 2019

Nome grown

There was a time when I was sure I'd be bored and miserable here ... I really should know myself better by now. The month is now flying by and I don't want it to end. Has the weather gotten better? No, not really. Did I embark on any great adventures? Well no, not that either. But each day is a new discovery. Inspiration has been high and I've finished a fair amount of writing between the WM100 training and my little explorations. I enjoy just walking around town, imagining life in each snow-smothered building, and playing frogger with the trucks and snowmachines on these excessively narrow streets (narrow because Nome is still far behind in its snow removal efforts.) Each evening I look at the events calendar and find something local to check out, like the Alappaa Film festival, art openings, chili fundraisers. This is the good life.

On Wednesday I thought it would be fun to ride 10 miles up Beam Road with my snowshoes and poles in a backpack, then explore the mountains above Dexter Creek. I only had five hours to spare if I wanted to make the film festival, and the 10-mile access ride took longer than expected. East winds had buried the road in intermittent snow drifts, reducing pedaling to a sandy grind. As I churned through the drifts, I was pelted by sideways freezing drizzle. After an hour and twenty minutes of squinting because my goggles iced over first, everything was encased in clear ice. I had to force open the zipper on my backpack.

Unsurprisingly, the mountains were shrouded in fog. Climbing into this one-dimensional white world was disorienting. At one point I came across a set of snowshoe tracks and wondered "who else could have possibly been up here?" Of course they were my own tracks. I now understand why Antarctic skiers have to stare at their compasses all day long. There's little sense of up or down, let alone north or south, and it's incredibly easy to walk in circles. I started to fret about finding my way back. Even my own snowshoe tracks were difficult to make out in the flat light. I spent the rest of the hike frequently consulting my GPS breadcrumb track (I carried spare batteries because I knew I might have to rely on this thing.) I thought I climbed to the top of Newton Peak, but looking at a map later, it was just a false summit.

On Thursday I logged a 16-mile run. It was another gray monotone day, and I discovered the Nome-Council route that was clear and runnable last week was now drifted in as well. I slogged through sandy drifts and rolled my right ankle badly about three miles from home. As is my tendency, I overreacted to the initial shot of pain, dropping onto my butt in the snowdrift while clutching my GCI flip phone and thinking, "Who can I even call?" (I communicate with people here via Facebook and e-mail, but on runs carry an temporary old-school flip phone that actually works in rural Alaska.)

Luckily the pain diminished some, and I was able to stand up and walk it off. But I did wake up to a slightly swollen and tender ankle, so no running on Friday. Stubbornly I stuck to my goal of putting in active time to log 20 hours for the week, but was grumpy about riding my bike through sandy snow drifts yet again. Still, this ride into the monotone gray Nome River valley was more enjoyable than I'd anticipated — it was so peaceful and quiet out there. I didn't see a soul past the landfill at mile marker three. But every pedal stroke was a battle. My quads ached by the time I finished up this 26-mile ride, as though I'd spent the whole time climbing thousands of feet.

On Saturday my ankle was still a little swollen, but felt markedly better. I had plans to join the local fat bike club on their weekly ride. Four men showed up for the ride — spending most of the time wearing face masks, so I doubt I'd recognize them if I saw them on the street. While chatting at the coffee shop, we learned the Nome-Golovin Snowmachine Race had been postponed due to an incoming storm. The guys agreed that the race route was likely to be the most rideable trail in town, so we went for it.

The trail was fun in its own way — a rodeo effort to wrangle the bike into submission over soft, punchy, unpredictable snow conditions. We were on and off the bike constantly, telling long stories between each 400-500 feet of riding. We took more than an hour to travel the first three miles, then bailed onto the road, which was a different kind of rodeo event — less bike wrangling, and more bucking bronco amid the deep drifts and 35-45 mph east wind.

Just four miles out of town, this felt like the edge of the world — a fierce and trackless place scrubbed of its last vestiges of life.

Even the seasonal fishing shacks looked like ruins of a lost civilization.

We fanned out across the crust in search of rideable base, and came up empty. Each story-telling break brought up the debate of whether to give up. Our efforts were clearly pointless. We weren't riding anymore, and the knee-deep punchy snow was not even conducive to pushing. Jeff, the guy who organized the ride, said "I have everything in here. Bivy, food, I could go all day!" Luckily, some sense ... and a desire for lunch ... prevailed, and we turned around.

I found it gratifying that in the tiny town of Nome, there are at least four other adults willing to give up their Saturday morning to flail around with bikes on poor excuses trails into objectively awful wind. I think maybe if you live here long enough, you learn to just ignore the wind. If something is always there, eventually it becomes a part of you.

Even with our backs to the wind, we flailed around an equal amount. Now we were racing the storm, which loomed ominously to the south.

Two miles outside of town. I think all of the roads must be drifted in by now.

In the afternoon I needed to walk to the store for my weekly allotment of produce, pasta, and stuff to make peanut butter sandwiches (I've taken to eating like a college student here, mostly because I just can't stomach spending so much on groceries. But I won't give up big salads, even if that means $4 for withered bell peppers.) I was glad I'd waited until the storm hit to run my errands, because the blizzard made them so much less boring.

Earlier in the day I watched a few dozen folks begin a snow-sculpting competition. They started with these blocks of snow.

And three hours later, snow musk ox! There were other fun creations as well.

Sunday morning brought beautiful dawn light at 9:45 a.m. ... I love Daylight Savings Time. Really, I do. Morning light is useless to me. Tonight the Nome sunset would be at 8:47 p.m. Score! Over extended morning coffee, I perused the calendar and saw a listing for the Mukluk Mini Marathon. Really, marathon? No, it was only a 5K. But it was only $15, and included a T-shirt. I could actually use another T-shirt right now. And I've never run an official 5K before! Of course I couldn't race it, as I have no training in that regard, and couldn't risk injuring my still-tender ankle. But walking around on it had given me enough confidence that I could probably handle a normally paced run of that length.

First I hiked over to the ice to watch the start of the Nome-Golovin snowmachine race, a 200-mile sprint out to the village of Golovin and back.

When I rode a bike here in 2016, the 100 miles from Golovin to Nome took me about 30 hours — of course with an extended stop in White Mountain to eat cheesecake, take a bath, and snooze soundly at trail angel Joanna's house. The winner of this race finished the out-and-back in 2:05. Two hundred miles in two hours. Over some really rough terrain. It's difficult for me to conceptualize.

 The Mukluk Mini Marathon brought an impressive crowd of at least two dozen runners. When the race marshal described the course to me, my first thought was, "that's not going to be 3.1 miles." One of the guys in the fat bike club was here with his girlfriend, and I decided to follow them, as my concept of the course probably wasn't correct. They kept a perfect pace — comfortable for my breathing and ankle, and for them probably less treacherous on this slush and wet ice (I have studded shoes. I noticed many folks here do not.) Sure enough, they took every turn that I'd envisioned. When we strode into the finish, the race marshall announced all three were in at 19 minutes even. The woman was excited, but I had to rain on the parade and say, "Ah, it was only 4K." My watch read 2.4 miles. Only in my dreams could I run a 19-minute 5K. But it was a fun little event. We watched some of the basketball tournament afterward. I like the shirt.

 Twenty minutes of running was not going to cut it for my weekly goal, so I went back out to enjoy the long evening with 13 more miles through the slush and punchy snow. My hip flexors are certainly getting a workout this month. This would all be great conditioning for the White Mountains 100 if I'd been doing this all winter. Right now I probably just stand to hurt myself, yet I can't help it. Even the sloggiest, most mundane outings are so fun here. Novelty is a potent drug.

I've been posting Facebook updates about Beat, but he's still doing well. He's making great time up the Yukon River right now, despite wet and warm weather. He's hardly seen temperatures below 30 degrees since he left McGrath. Today he was rained on heavily coming into Eagle Island, where the dog sled race volunteers generously let him take up some tent space to dry out his gear. The rest of the river is reported to have rougher trails and more overflow. The final stretch along the coast is still a huge wildcard. The sea ice moved out early this year, meaning most of the trail will be routed overland. Once the dog sled race moves on, that might mean no trails at all. I saw this happening in real time on the sea ice along Front Street today. I took the above photo while walking back from the snowmachine race at 12:30 p.m. Today was the first I'd seen open water since I arrived.

This photo was taken close to that same spot, also today, at 5:30 p.m. Within five hours the shore ice had almost completely broken apart. The whole staging area for the snowmachine was was gone. I'm not even sure where they're going to route the finishers of the dog sled race, as they usually mush along the ice right up until the arch. It's a dynamic, abnormal season — the new norm in this climate change era. I just want Beat to stay safe, but I trust him to make the best decisions in that regard. 

1 comment:

  1. This makes me want to do another DIY writing retreat. I try to do these in inhospitable environments so I'm not tempted to spend all day outdoors. I can't believe all the stuff going on in Nome. And if it had been a 5k you would have finished in less than 24 minutes which is respectable especially in those conditions!


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