Saturday, March 28, 2020

Last days of innocence — day two

March 3, 2020. Yentna River, Alaska. 12 below zero and clear. 

It was a harsh awakening. A cloud of frosted breath obstructed the dimly lit room as my breath quickened. I tried to sit up, but my back was pressed in a notch between two couch cushions. The muscles had tightened so much that I felt immobilized. In a brief panic I rolled onto the hard floor; my sore knees hit first with a painful thud. My body felt clammy. I unzipped my parka and pulled down the hood, focusing on deep breaths. As my heart rate slowed I pressed my hand under my shirt to confirm a film of cold sweat pooled around my chest.

The temperature in this large, closed-off and unheated room couldn’t have been much above freezing, but the body’s internal thermostat was malfunctioning. I tend to get these night sweats when I’m deep in a recovery hole and my body seems to be desperately expelling whatever toxins build up during damaging efforts. In recent years the night sweats have become increasingly rare thanks to muscle memory and better management of my body’s needs. I’d never experienced them so early in an endurance effort.

Every joint in my body, from the balls of my feet to my lower neck, seemed to creak and groan as I stood. I removed my puffy layers and hung them on a chair to dry. Luckily these hadn’t taken on much moisture, but my base layer was soaked. I probably shouldn’t have slept in the down coat, I thought, but this room was genuinely frigid. Without the puffy layers, I started shivering profusely. Vapors of breath continued to swirl around my face.

 “I need to get a handle on this,” I thought, without any real idea how I would do so.

 I sat on the couch to pull on my pants. My calves were red and swollen, already in that phase where my legs become two uniform bulging tubes from knees to toes. When I scratched my skin it was hot to the touch, unlike my chest and shoulders, which felt like ice. My feet were still in good shape, but I had developed a few heat blisters around the base of my cankles. Heat blisters are also normal for me, a result of the vapor barrier socks I wear to protect my feet. Snowshoeing through powder means my shoes are constantly caked in snow. Even shoes with a water-resistant Gore-Tex outer layer aren’t impermeable, and eventually “breathable” fabric draws the moisture inside. Experience has taught me that a little bit of excess heat and sweat inside a non-breathable sock layer is a small tradeoff to avoid full-blown trenchfoot.

Outside the closed double doors I could hear laughter and the clinking of dishes. It was breakfast time for the many racers who spent the night at McDougall’s Lodge. My phone said it was 5 a.m., which meant I’d slept solidly for six hours. This was my intention. My race plan from the start was to move with purpose during the day and then rest as long as possible at night, while sticking to my daily mileage goals. Overall things were going to plan. So why did I already feel like I was falling apart? 

Of course, I’d dragged my overladen sled through heavy snow for a back-breaking 66 miles in 32 hours with scarcely a 90-minute lunch break at Yentna Station. One six-hour night of sleep wasn’t going to recover all of that, but it was satisfying enough. I felt energized if creaky. As I stood and moved around the room, my joints loosened and the shivering stopped.

Having put myself together as well as I could, I opened the double doors of the rec room and emerged in the brightly-lit, well-heated dining room. Racers crowded around the table, and the two women proprietors were scooping up heaping plates of eggs, biscuits and gravy. On the table they’d placed jugs of orange juice and water, and I poured large glasses of both, feeling desperately thirsty despite my body's obvious water retention and leg edema. The morning conversation was lively, even among the cyclists who had been pushing their bikes for two days. Abundant food, warmth and hospitality are the highest currency on the trail, and we felt rich beyond belief. For all of this luxury — two meals, bottomless coffee and orange juice, a bed, and a warm shower if we wanted — the proprietors of McDougall’s only charged $45 per person.
As I packed my sled outside, I noted the temperature had dropped to 12 below. It would be as low as minus 16 on the river before the sun rose, but the wind had calmed, and the air felt surprisingly pleasant. Something about breakfast wasn’t sitting right — or, more likely, my digestive system was adjusting to imbalances — but before I’d even hiked a mile, nausea swept over me. Every hundred steps or so I stopped to gather my bearings. Deep breaths stifled the urge to vomit and I held onto my breakfast, but for a few hours I was in an unhappy place.

After sunrise Janice and her brother, Matt, pedaled up behind me. I moved over to let them pass. They seemed to be in great moods, noting that trail conditions had improved substantially. They’d been able to hold speeds over five miles an hour, Janice told me, smiling wide as she spoke. I simultaneously felt sympathy that a cyclist as strong as Janice was happy with five miles an hour, while feeling a surge of jealousy because I was never going to see a similar twelve-minute-mile … probably ever, for the rest of my life. If my GPS recorded anything above 2.5 mph for even a few steps, I hadn’t seen it yet. This was the fastest speed I could achieve, a veritable sprint. My legs felt leaden, as though I was wading through waist-deep water. I was still wearing snowshoes, and I wasn’t so enamored with them anymore.

The sun rose higher, the clear sky brightened to a brilliant shade of blue, and my body slowly warmed up. The ache in my muscles abated, and my stomach began to settle. The last wisps of clouds faded and I enjoyed the big views that travel on the wide-open river affords. Denali still loomed to the northwest, but now I could see the jagged definition of closer peaks in the Alaska Range, and in front of those, the Shell Hills. The wide slopes looked like pillows of snow glittering in the sunlight.

I love traveling the frozen rivers. I appreciate the simple navigation, the sweeping views, the lack of hills. Most people in this sport think river travel is boring, but I find it pleasantly meditative … albeit still dangerous. Frozen rivers also feature open water and hidden overflow, and I’d encountered patches of slush here and there. But this year, after a winter of consistently low temperatures and heavy snow cover, the river ice seemed about as stable as it could be.

Ten miles and perhaps five hours into the morning, Missy and Beth pedaled past. They’d left McDougall’s before me, so I was surprised to see them. As it turned out Beth had the horrifying setback of two flat tires, and was now riding on her single spare tube and a prayer that the repair on her other tubeless tire would hold. Mechanicals, even simple ones, can be such a big setback out here. I’ll be honest. This is the part I will never miss about cycling the Iditarod Trail — the part where you have to depend on a bicycle.

 The day warmed and wind increased in velocity as I turned toward the Skwentna River confluence. I was still engaged in strenuous effort near the edge of what I could even sustain, and warding off sweat became a tricky proposition. I was constantly stopping to remove my hat, buff, and jacket, then replacing them once again when a chill clamped down after a few minutes. I couldn’t find a balance. My body's internal thermostat was still confused.

Skwentna Roadhouse was bustling as a dozen or so racers mowed through lunch in the big dining hall. I ordered chili but forgot to ask for no onions. Between an explosion of raw onions and the dregs of some burnt beans from the bottom of the pan, I couldn’t force myself to eat much of it, but I did appreciate a banana muffin and lukewarm Dr. Pepper.

I hung out longer than I should have, drinking at least four cups of coffee and laughing with Missy and Beth. Missy let me tether Internet from her phone and I did my only Trackleaders status check of the race, confirming that Beat was already closing in on Shell Lake and the lead bikers had only made it as far as Finger Lake, just forty miles farther up the trail. The lead runners were still with them.

“Everyone’s still held up at Finger Lake,” I said to Missy. “Must be horrible beyond there.”

 Missy grumbled something under her breath and ordered another plate of lasagna.

Outside Skwentna are several trails leading in all directions. I made several loops while looking for the outhouse (relishing a chance to use toilet paper where it was available), then started down a narrow track with chest-high snow berms on both sides. After a mile I was sure something wasn't right, finally consulted my GPS, and swore out loud. I’d ventured onto the alternate trail that leads to Skwentna, and was heading back toward the Yentna River. Turning my sled around in this tunnel of snow proved more difficult than anticipated, and eventually required removing the poles and lifting the 50-pound mass over the snow berm to point it in the right direction. Between this and two bonus miles, I lost an hour of daylight.

Back on route, I enjoyed respite from the wind where Skwentna’s single road cuts through the birch forest. Overhead, gusts howled and barren branches swayed. I knew it was going to be bad once I hit the open swamps before the Shell Hills. It would be a crosswind from the north. It was always a crosswind from the north. At the edge of the swamp, I stopped in the last remaining strip of wind shelter to strap on my snowshoes and adjust my buff. As I stood, I saw my friend Cheryl and her traveling partner Nina pushing their bikes back toward Skwentna.

 “We’re going to rest and try again in the morning,” Nina told me as she passed. “We still have time so no use burning all of our reserves tonight.”

“Good idea, going back,” I said to Cheryl as she passed, and she nodded. Her face was mostly covered but her eyes looked somewhat stricken. “Tough year,” I thought.

The trail was in terrible condition. Thigh-deep drifts swept across the path. There was only a narrow strip left unburied, and it had been punched out by others. It was difficult to hold the line, and I kept tripping over my own snowshoes. My sled jerked and threatened to tip over on the off-camber surface. Blasting gusts of wind threatened to tip me over.

These were perhaps the most annoying trail conditions yet, but I was in an inexplicably fantastic mood. Evening had arrived, my favorite time of day. The sun drifted low on the horizon, illuminating the blowing snow in such a way that it appeared to be fluid — a mesmerizing current in a golden stream. The wind carried a fearsome bite; the ambient temperature had fallen to 6 below, which meant windchills were likely 25 below. I’d layered up well but didn’t put on goggles, so facing directly into the wind incited rapid eyelid blinking, a sharp pain in my eyebrows and ice-cream headache near the bridge of my nose. But Denali was over there, glowing pink in the evening light, and I couldn’t help but glance north, again and again.

As darkness descended I began the climb into the Shell Hills, gaining 600 feet in a scant 1.5 miles. Surrounded by thick forest, the trail was well protected here. Climbing even these steep grades on packed trail felt easier than the powder-choked river and swamp slogging earlier in the day. The trail cut deep into the snowpack, with berms sometimes rising to shoulder level, high enough that I couldn’t see my most immediate surroundings unless I strained my neck. I developed a terrible paranoia, and muted my already low-volume audio book so I could fret about every crack and moan of wind whistling through branches.

This fear of darkness emerged from prior warnings about especially high levels of moose activity along the trail this year. Snowpacks neared record depths, and moose were having difficulty moving around. This left them hungrier than usual and susceptible to predator attacks. In turn, they became agitated and reactive, a threat to anyone who encounters them on these trails that they like to use. People who don’t know better think of moose as dopey forest cows, but they are so much meaner and incredibly dangerous. If a moose is grumpy and you so much as look at it wrong, it will rear up and stomp you into a bloody pulp. We’d been warned this year’s moose were exceptionally grumpy.

All the way through the Shell Hills, my headlamp would catch the gleam of a reflective marker and I’d startle, convinced I was looking an angry moose in the eye. The moose-a-noia was unnerving but effective in warding off the sleep monster. I marched with purpose through the tunnel of snow. I wondered what I’d do if I encountered a moose here. Of course I’d back off, but I’d had such difficulty turning my sled around after Skwentna that I knew I was pretty much a sitting duck as long as I was strapped to it. I’d have to drop my harness, dart behind the sled, and if a moose started coming at me, I would pick up the duffle and hold the whole thing over my body like a shield as I dove into a snowbank. Yes, that was my plan for angry moose. I unhooked the waist-strap of my harness and moved mittens and a balaclava to an outside pocket, in anticipation of frantic retreat.

For all of my vigilance and dozens of false alarms, I didn’t catch even a glimpse of what I could be certain was a real moose. Eventually I dropped onto Shell Lake and battled howling north wind and breathtaking windchill toward a friendly light in the distance. This I knew was Shell Lake Lodge. Although not an official checkpoint, the race directors had rented cabins this year, and I looked forward to another warm spot to dry out my frosty face mask and snow-caked footwear.

It was after midnight when I walked inside, so I was surprised to find two people waiting up in the main lodge. I hadn’t expected there to be volunteers here. One was Kari’s mother, a cheerful midwesterner who served soup and homemade soda bread with butter. I find it terribly difficult to socialize at the end of these long, hard days on the trail, so I remember nothing about our conversation, but the food was transcendently delicious.

 Like McDougall’s, the cabins at Shell Lake Lodge were crowded — probably with the same group of people — and I was one of the last to arrive for the night. But one walker was getting ready to leave, and I was able to score his spot, a double bed in room shared with two others in a bunk bed. I added a log to the wood stove, but suspected none of us would be motivated to wake up and stoke the fire when it burned out in an hour or two. I unrolled my sleeping bag in anticipation of plummeting subzero temperatures that wouldn’t take long to permeate everything.


  1. Thanks for making the effort to write up your experience. your words and photos lift us out of today for a few minutes of AK adventure.

  2. Thanks for transporting us to this world of solitude, beauty and adventure through your photographs and well-written words.

  3. I never cease to be amazed at what you can accomplish.

  4. You are such a good writer and have the most extreme adventures. Thank you for taking us with you.


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