Monday, March 30, 2020

Last days of innocence — day three

March 4, 2020. Shell Lake, Alaska. 30 below and clear. 

I was determined to sleep as long as possible; it seemed prudent to try and recover my rapidly diminishing energy. The snow out here was only getting deeper, the wind more forceful, the temperatures colder and colder. Time was the only currency I had to leverage against all of these forces that smothered my strength. So I set an alarm for 7:30 a.m. with a plan to “only” travel 25 miles today, as far as the next checkpoint at Finger Lake. I was already falling behind my ambitious race schedule, and this plan would put me back almost a full day. But no one was exactly flying this year. Alaska is nothing if not unpredictable, and Iditarod racers are nothing if they can’t adapt. 

When my alarm went off, I stuck my nose out of my sleeping bag to bitingly cold air inside the cabin. The fire had indeed gone out overnight, and the frigid temperatures found their way into the log building. I jumped up and grabbed the shirt, pants and socks I’d hung over the bed, only to find them frozen stiff. Good thing I left most of my insulating layers and shoes hanging to dry in the main lodge. I packed up and walked outside wearing only my base layer and booties. The sky was a rich shade of lavender, and the air was stunning in its chill. I darted several hundred yards to my sled, which was parked near the lodge, and went about arranging things in my duffle and grabbing stuff I wanted to take inside. As I worked, my bare fingers stiffened until they were immobile. 

 “Damn it’s cold,” I exclaimed. I walked over to my digital thermometer and hit the button with the knuckle of my index finger. “Oof, 30 below!” 

The pink light of sunrise was just beginning to frost the craggy peaks of the Shell Hills, which in any other state would be called mountains. I wanted to linger on the deck or at least take a photo, but I’d been complacent about the cold and my hand rigidity had become urgent. I rammed a shoulder into the door and entered the lodge. 

There was a large group of racers in the dining area, nursing cups of coffee at this late hour. I sat down near the wood stove to dry my icy base layer as Kari’s mom served a small breakfast sandwich and orange juice. As I took a few bites, I overheard a man at the bar recounting something about a moose. Forgetting my manners, I loudly interrupted. “Wait, what happened?” 

He turned to me. “I was stomped by a moose!” 

“Wait, what?” I couldn’t have heard that correctly. 

His eyes were wild, and he had a strange grin on his face. “Last night, on the way in, I got stomped by a moose. But I’m not hurt! The snow was so deep that all it could do was push me deeper into the snow." 

My stomach lurched and my appetite drained as the man, Greg, filled in the details. It was 2 a.m., and he was skiing toward Shell Lake on a different trail from the one I took. This alternate route was a wide path cut by piston bullies and used to transport equipment to a remote mine. It wrapped around the Shell Hills rather than climb over them. Two moose darted across the path directly in front of him. One kept going, but the other turned toward him. Without even hesitating, it charged and pushed him over into the snowbank. Greg kicked until his skis came off and stabbed at the moose’s face with his ski poles, but the hooves kept coming down on his chest, pushing him deeper into the snowbank. Finally there was a pause, and Greg darted behind the nearest tree. The moose continued to stand over his sled, ears back, head lowered, clearly waiting for the next opportunity to attack. Long minutes went by, perhaps hours, and Greg was only wearing a light skiing layer as temperatures dipped to 30 below. Finally he decided he was going to die one way or the other, and dove for his sled. The moose lurched but he was able to grab a big coat and mittens. Then, with more terrifying lunges while the moose seemed distracted, he was able to grab one ski, than the other, then his poles. When the moose turned to chew on some alder branches, he made a run for it. Disheveled and unwilling to look back, he sprinted all the way to the lodge. 

“Holy shit,” I responded. A painful chill ran down my spine. “But you’re not hurt? Are you sure? Did you check? Are you sure you don't have internal injuries? Are you going to stop?” 

Greg insisted he didn’t even have a bruise on his chest. He was rattled, but he had every intention of continuing the ski to McGrath. “I have to make it to Rohn,” he said. 

Greg’s best friend, Rob, was the ITI volunteer in Rohn for nearly a decade, until he died in 2014. Greg and Rob were teammates in that summer’s Alaska Wilderness Classic when Rob’s packraft capsized in the Tana River. Greg had entered this year’s ITI solely so he could visit the Rohn checkpoint, which now bears the name "Rob's Roadhouse." 

“You're brave,” I said. “Much braver than I would be. I’m terrified even of the phantom moose. If I was attacked by a real one, I’d be shivering in that corner right about now.”

Near the corner of the lodge, Missy was pacing, checking her phone and fretting about her friend Tab. Tab was just a few hundred yards behind Greg when the attack happened. Greg heard Tab call out, but there was nothing he could do. Now Tab had been bivied in place, just two miles from the lodge, for almost six hours. Missy was just about to go back looking for him when his tracker started moving again. Meanwhile, another cyclist, Jim, was preparing to ride back to Skwentna, where he could catch a cheaper flight out. His timeline was too tight, the trail too slow, and he hadn't reserved enough time to ride to Nome under these conditions. Shell Lake is a good spot to cut one's losses. Missy was contemplating the same.

“My head’s just not in it,” she admitted. “I don’t want to push my bike all the way to Nome.”

I admired her honesty, and shared her outlook. I’d been closely following trail reports and Alaska weather data since early January. The pattern had become predictable in its relentlessness: Heavy snow, wind, deep cold, heavy snow, wind, deep cold. Tim Hewitt was mired in these conditions during his attempt to follow the Iron Dog route from Fairbanks in February. The Iron Dog, equipped with powerful snowmobiles, was barely able to break trail through the many meters of snow that buried the Interior. Snowpack was deep and dry out there. Every time the wind blew, the trail filled in within hours. The realist in me knew that banking on better trail conditions, at least in the next 400 miles, amounted to foolishness. 

And then there was the cold. A skier named Forest also sat near the door, awaiting a flight. I was surprised he was quitting, as he too had a lot of wilderness experience — he’s a Juneau professor who was badly mauled by a grizzly bear during a mountaineering trip in 2016. I didn’t expect a guy like him to be scared of anything.

“It’s just so cold,” he said, shaking his head. “It’s not fun when it’s so cold.”

I went back to my breakfast sandwich, now ice cold, and picked at it miserably. The moose story left me spooked, and I was having a crisis of confidence. Even after a full night of sleep I still felt exhausted, my legs looked like overstuffed sausages, and the trail seemed particularly murderous this year. “I’m too damn old for this,” I thought.

I decided not to think about it now. Instead, I downed one more cup of coffee, wished Missy and Jim well, then headed into the frosty morning. The sun had climbed high into the sky, and Shell Lake glistened like a thousand diamonds. Mountainous hills loomed over the horizon. The cold air was brilliantly clear. A young man who’d been at the counter the previous night, and who I gathered was the caretaker of the lodge, was out on the porch in a flannel jacket and no gloves or hat, smoking a cigarette.

 “Not a bad place to be,” I said to him.

He nodded. “I think I'll go see about that moose today."

"That would be good for everyone," I replied.

I shouldered my harness and began climbing away from the lake. Energy surged and I hit my “sprint” stride, pulling my buff down so I could push frigid air deep into my lungs. The air felt like fire in my throat, unnerving and exhilarating. After a short climb, the trail emerged from the forest into an open swamp. This landscape would persist for the next 25 miles, as the route followed a gradual slope paralleling the Skwentna River. The swamps are lined with sparse and patchy forest that provides little wind protection. The trail was, unsurprisingly, obliterated by spindrift. I followed the deep postholes of the two Kiwi cyclists who left Shell Lake Lodge about an hour before me. The holes would frequently grab a snowshoe edge and cause me to stumble, so I gave up on the punchy “trail” and made my own through deeper snow to the right.

It was slow. It was hard. My world closed in like a tunnel. My mind operated like a ticker tape, conveying only a minimum of information in a monotonous rhythm. Hungry. Eat trail mix. Shoulder hurt. Adjust harness. Face hurt. Pull up buff. Legs hurt. Feel sad about legs. Hot. Unzip shorts. Cold. Zip shorts. Hot. Try unzip pants. Cold. Maybe cold is good, keep brain awake. Lonely. Check phone.

 I turned on my satellite phone to see if there was a message from Beat. Since our devices had minimal battery life, the texting capabilities of a 1990s flip phone, and only worked within sight of the sky, we’d had difficulty connecting. Gusting winds returned with the afternoon hours, and it was far too cold to attempt a text, so I tried calling a couple of times. A text popped up from my little sister in California, expressing pride and cheering me onward. For all of the years I’ve participated in similar events, she’d never before followed these races all that closely. But this year she was hooked — a couple of years ago she started running, participated in a few half marathons, and now she was starting to grasp what it all means. Tears clumped against my frozen eyelashes as I read her text. My fingers went rigid as I punched a stilted reply.

“Very tough year. I am weary but ok.”

I was so very weary. Every step met so much resistance; I still felt like I was wading through a swimming pool, and the water only got deeper as the day wore on. Wind drove the subzero cold into every weakness in my system, but I was working so hard that my internal thermostat remained cranked on high. Even as my cheeks tingled with windburn, I still felt compelled to open the side zips of my pants and expose the pink skin of my thighs to a brutal chill.

This day was gorgeous, though. The air had a clarity that I’ve only experienced in subzero cold. I could see sharp definition in the distant mountains, to the point where I convinced myself I could discern individual grains of snow tearing away from ridges many dozens of miles away. The foothills of the Alaska Range now surrounded me, and I marveled at the crags and couloirs, the corrugated flutes and sculpted cornices.

For blocks of time I was able to turn off the ticker tape of physical complaints and volatile emotions, and simply be in the present — the raw, unfiltered, perfect present. The sun started to set as I neared Finger Lake. By this point the trail was indiscernible from anything else. Footprints fanned out in all directions. I traced the outline of a snowmobile track over punchy crust that the wind had sculpted into petrified waves.

 A man on a snowmobile approached and told me he was a photographer for the race. I found it amusing that this grassroots race — one that still features unopened cans of soup floating in a pot of warm water as one of the checkpoint meals — can afford a race photographer. He shot a few photos as I acknowledged this was a most gorgeous evening. The wind had reached peak velocity, driving gold-tinted snow over a blue ripple of dunes.

The Finger Lake checkpoint is a big wall tent pitched directly on the lake ice. It’s sparse and I’ve made an effort to minimize my time at this checkpoint in the past, but the race directors had ensured it would be livable this year. The interior was warmed with a propane heater and a portable wood stove. I parked my sled against the canvas and went inside to claim a spot on the floor. By the time I emerged, a resident dog had discovered the stash of homemade bacon jerky in my harness side pocket, tearing open the mesh pocket and chomping through several plastic baggies. I yelled and swung my leg toward the dog to shoo him away. After coyotes tore into my harness during the Fat Pursuit and stole all of my snacks, I had to get a new pack. For the ITI, I swore I’d be more careful and secure my food when I wasn’t around. But I’d only been in the tent for a few minutes. For that oversight, I would now have to repair a gaping hole in my new pack. Stupid dog.

 Near the lodge, the race directors had rented a cabin for stowing drop bags and serving food. I went to collect my bag and lukewarm burrito, served with sour cream and salsa that were both too frozen to scoop from the containers. Crowded inside the small space were race director Kyle, the Kiwis, Beth, and Amber, who was trying to puzzle through the magic heating mechanism in an MRE meal. The mood inside was somber — we’d all had hard days — but we became more upbeat as food was consumed. Nobody seemed in a hurry to leave the cozy cabin, but I wanted to maximize sleep … the only real currency I had against my weariness.

Sure enough, the inside of the wall tent was becoming crowded with other racers. Luckily I’d claimed a nice spot near the back, where I was least likely to get stepped on during the night. On the floor the air was cold — it seemed to be below freezing — so I made sure to place my hydration pack and shoes next to the propane heater so they wouldn’t freeze. Then I cuddled into my bag, eye mask and ear plugs in place, promising myself that I would never again this kind of comfort for granted.


  1. The moose story would have been enough for me to call it quits...especially when it's such a snowy, cold year. I can imagine the "ticker tape."
    Box Canyon Mark, sheltering in Lovely Ouray

  2. The keyword this year was indeed resistance, from every direction. But it's always interesting to hear all these stories, be it the weather or something else, like moose this year. I was lucky with moose, only two of them. One with Beat and Chris and another just before McGrath but it ran in front of me on the road.

  3. I watched the film "Safety to Nome" last night. In addition to your writings and photographs, it certainly gives a feel for what the experience is like for the participants. I enjoyed the aerial views of the landscape and seeing details of some of the checkpoints. I was interested to see your brief interview but annoyed that they didn't identify you, as they did nearly everyone else.

  4. As I checked in each day to see if you were still moving, I couldn't even begin to imagine the strength of your will power and determination required to keep going. Another spell binding read.

  5. I sometimes wonder if you are doing more harm than good to your body and mind...

  6. Beautifully written! Just love all the vivid descriptions of the snowscapes and the colours of the icy skies. The fluted snow in your pictures looks like icing on an old fashioned Christmas cake. Looking forward to the next chapter.


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