Saturday, April 11, 2020

Last days of innocence — day eight

March 9, 2020. Nikolai, Alaska. 7 degrees and partly cloudy.

I must have had a good dream during the night, because when I awoke on the floor of the Nikolai community center, bruised legs and torso sprawled well beyond the edge of my sleeping pad, I was brimming with optimism.  

"Today's going to be a good day," I thought as I sat up and barely missed bashing my scalp on the table I'd been sleeping underneath. "Just 50 more miles to McGrath, probably by noon tomorrow, most of a day and night to convalesce, then just do the 18 to Takotna, then Ophir, and hopefully by the time I need to sleep outside, the 40 below will be done.”  

Of course, I couldn’t prevent my calendar from creeping into this hopeful schedule. The “calendar” was something I’d formulated in the comfort of my home several weeks earlier, with projected progress based on my limited conception of blazing fast trail on the Northern Route in 2016. I printed the tally on a sheet of waterproof paper and carried it in my backpack. If today was March 9, then I wouldn’t leave McGrath until the morning of March 11. Leaving Ophir on the 13th probably wouldn’t put me in Ruby until the 16th or 17th, and that was if I was able to blaze through the Interior. After that, I’d be in Kaltag on the 21st, Unalakleet on the 23rd, White Mountain on the 29th, and Nome on the 31st. March 31 was the absolute cut-off for officially finishing this race, and also so late in the season that it seemed likely the trail would be well into the process of melting underneath me. And this was the best-case scenario, only possible if I was able to consistently travel 35 miles a day and endure short camps wherever I happened to collapse, rather than enjoying restful stays in villages. 

 Why, oh why, did I ever decide it would be a good idea to walk to Nome? 

 Unconsciousness was good for optimism. Everything else had the opposite effect. Laying back down so I could roll myself all of the way out of my bag, I initiated the daily struggle just to rise and stand on two feet without buckling from leg fatigue and muscle soreness. Faint violet light shone through small windows overhead. I'd again slept until daylight. I don’t know why I kept doing that, because I certainly did not have the luxury of time on my side. I suppose I thought one of these nights, sleep would actually enable recovery, and I’d be able to move well for once. But in reality the snow was still deep, the trail still soft, the temperatures still plummeting. The miles would never become easier. Ever. 

 Pushing this waking pessimism aside, I packed up my things and walked over to the kitchen to greet the volunteer, George, who was cleaning up behind the counter. Beat had raved about the French toast at this checkpoint, and I’d looked forward to a plate of sweet gooey carbs for breakfast. 

George looked up and said, “Give me a second. We’re leaving on the 9 o’clock flight, so we have to clear out.” 

 I looked at the clock. It was a little before 8 a.m. “Oh, we gotta leave? Okay!” I stood up groggily and walked to the back of the room to gather the rest of my clothing. 

 “You can stay, no problem” George said. “We just need to catch our flight. You want some burgers? We have a couple left.” 

 George handed me a plate with two cold veggie burgers and cheese, no buns. He briefly took the plate back to add a scoop of hashbrowns, also cold. 

“Sorry, that’s all we have left.” 

 “It’s great!” I grabbed the plate and started chowing down. Honestly, I didn’t really care. I’d looked forward to French toast but this was still calories and every bit as useful. The Kiwi cyclists, George and Graham, were on their way out the door, and took the rest of the Oreos out of a nearly empty Costco-sized box. I eyed this greedily, as I’d hoped to take some cookies for trail snacks. Even though I’d packed every single item from my Rohn drop bag, my own calorie supply was still  running predictably thin. That's when I noticed a discarded sleeve with about five Oreos, partially crushed and lying on the edge of the table. I took them. 

 In hindsight, I feel guilty for scavenging these last morsels. As I finished up my burgers, it dawned on me that the food was gone and volunteers were leaving. There were still a number of racers making their way into Nikolai: Kari, Mark, Klaus, Nina and Cheryl, Loreen, Donald, the two military guys from California, and possibly a few more. A couple of ITI checkpoints have established cut-offs, but this one did not. It’s certainly not the volunteers’ fault that this had been such a slow year for so many of us — Nick had been languishing in Nikolai for nearly week at this point — but if the race directors knew they'd need to shut everything down at 7 days and 18 hours, they should have disclosed that much before the start. It would be rather awful, as a back-of-pack racer battling for every mile, to cross 75 miles of Farewell Burn and arrive here expecting food and shelter, only to find the ITI had cleared out and sled dog race volunteers had taken over the space. The ITI race director has since apologized that it turned out this way — he also was surprised to learn that there was no food left over for the remaining racers. Three of them would end up scratching in Nikolai. Their reasons were unrelated to the lack of support, although I doubt arriving to an abandoned checkpoint was good for morale.

I headed out a few minutes in front of the volunteers. The sun was just beginning to cast pink light over the horizon at 8:45, and the temperature was still surprisingly warm — 7 degrees.

“The cold hasn’t found me yet,” I thought. “Maybe it won’t come.”

 I had hoped the trail would set up overnight, but the surface was just as soft as messy as ever, even through the center of town. These “streets” were all soft-churn and ankle-twisting ruts. I stubbornly refused to put on my snowshoes until I’d slogged a mile and a half to the point where the trail veered onto the Kuskokwim River, and then reluctantly conceded that snowshoes were necessary. No doubt I’d remain stuck in these foot-torture devices until McGrath. I wondered how many miles I’d end up snowshoeing. Probably at least 200 of these first 300 miles.

 Nick passed on his bike shortly after I’d stumbled to my feet again. He was in a great mood, finally on the move again, riding surprisingly well over the choppy trail, and clearly excited about his journey to Nome. Nick is the type of guy who makes everything look easy and you kind of resent him for it, but you also admire his smooth approach and laid-back attitude toward any difficulty. He’s the type of person you’d probably choose if you had to be stuck with one person on a deserted island … or, you know, quarantined during a pandemic.

Nick quickly faded into the distance. I knew this was the last I’d see him on the trail. A handful of people left Nikolai a few hours before me, and Lars and at least one other person remained at the checkpoint when I left, but I figured I’d be alone for the remaining miles to McGrath. I turned on podcasts of soothing voices that my addled mind could only process as unintelligible white noise, and slipped into a drone-like state of mandatory motion. My memories for the entire rest of the daylight hours only register as robotic awareness of decisions that needed to be made and occasional consciousness of pain. Which is to say, most of my memories of the day are not happy, but they’re mercifully limited.
Shortly before sunset — always my favorite time of day — my brain came back online. A couple of hours earlier I’d rounded the bend at Big River — one of the few decisions my robot mind needed to register that day — and opted for the overland trail. About 25 miles from McGrath, the trail forks into two routes. The Iditarod Sled Dog Race follows the river, but there's also an overland trail that locals typically use, so it can have better conditions. I’d traveled the river three times and overland once; they're about the same distance. When I arrived at the fork, both trails looked equally choppy and terrible, so I viewed the decision as a wash. But most ITI racers had taken the overland trail, so I followed this route.

 I climbed away from Big River and started to make my way across open swamps that were smothered with ten feet of snow. I could tell, because the wood tripods marking the route — which stand ten feet tall on bare ground — were little more than six-inch fans of sticks, barely jutting out of the surface. The trail itself was only as wide as a single snowmobile with a hip-high berm on both sides. It was a strangely claustrophobic situation, to be trapped in this snow tunnel amid such expansive open space. The landscape was a patchwork of soft white and jagged black, snow-covered swamps and spruce forest. The setting sun cast a golden glow, but a deepening chill defied the warm light. Wind, which cut through the background white noise as a sharp breeze, intensified to an icy gale. The arrival of real cold is probably what jolted me out of my stupor. Okay, Jill, you really need to pay attention.

 I’d been alone for nearly twelve hours and 30 miles when I finally encountered another human. They were hunched next to a small cusp of trees surrounded by open swamp. The wind blew fiercely, and the temperature had dropped to 4 below. I arrived to find Amber packing up her sled and frantically spooning freeze-dried food from a bag. She told me she stopped to melt snow because she ran out of water, and heated up some food while she was at it. Chili Mac. She offered me a bite, but the thought of stopping long enough to shovel food in my mouth was unappealing, so I declined. She looked a bit frazzled, and told me she felt cold. She asked the temperature, and seemed disappointed when I told her it was minus 4.

 “It feels a lot colder because of this wind,” I said. “It's been dropping like a rock, though. It’s probably going to get a lot colder tonight. I still think I’ll stop, somewhere up there, if I find a good wind-protected spot. I’m fading and don’t think I’ll make it to McGrath in one push.”

Amber said she was going to try to keep going, and I agreed that was probably a better plan. I wondered if I could just turn my robot mind back on and march onward in a stupor, but a larger part of me wanted to try to camp in these conditions. It was going to be cold the next night, and the night after that, and probably the night after that. I needed to prove to myself that I could manage it.

The sun set and the wind raged. Within a matter of hours, blowing snow buried the trail in knee-deep drifts. The temperature dropped to 7 below, and then 9 below. The windchill was unreal. When I punched across these drifted swamps at an unbearably slow and difficult pace, the crosswind battered my body and rattled my nerves until I feared I was on the verge of uncontrolled panic. I felt trapped with nowhere to hide. The trail entered a slough, and for several miles was constantly exposed to the wind. I fought the encroaching panic until my adrenaline tanked. The crash was slow but palpable, and resulted in fatigue so deep that I could hardly breathe. I felt helpless and frightened. 

The trail veered to the south to cross several small lakes. These areas were wide open, with only shallow berms. The windblown trail was almost completely obscured. Every step through the sandy powder was so laborious that I felt like I was swimming. I was swimming to exhaustion, swimming to keep my head above the water. Swimming just to survive.

 “Next hill, I have to stop. I just have to,” I thought. 

 After crossing a fourth lake, the trail jutted steeply up a slope lined with the stick skeletons of burned trees. I believed I was just a couple of miles from Vanderpool Road, which wasn’t maintained in the winter but would probably have some well-packed and wind-protected spots to camp. But two miles felt as daunting as 200 miles at that point in the cold, windy night. My limited cognitive function had conjured a daydream about a nice nest dug into a tree well, protected from the wind, soft and cozy. 

Near the top of the hill I spotted a potential spot underneath the thick branches of a gnarled spruce tree. I stepped off the trail and — whoosh — I plunged into a quicksand-like powder hole that swallowed most of my body. The sensation was as startling as though I’d plunged through ice into deep water. Immediately I panicked and thrashed wildly. Snow pushed under my balaclava and stung the sensitive skin around my neck. I thrashed some more, and I could feel cold water dripping down my seemingly naked back. I threw two arms onto the ribbon of packed trail and kicked my way out of the hole. Still attached to my overturned sled and now somewhat tangled in my harness, I rolled onto my side, panting loudly. Powder snow had found its way down my pants, up my coat, into my overboots. My fleece jacket was completely coated in snow. 

 “That was a terrible, stupid thing to do,” I thought. Temperatures were plummeting, and now my clothing was saturated with snow. But how to remedy this? I couldn’t parse the electrical signals misfiring in my brain. I only had an instinctual sense that thoughts could not be trusted. I untangled my harness, righted my sled and continued down the trail. Less than a quarter mile later, I came upon a spot where a snowmobile had briefly pulled off the trail, packing down a short platform. This spot was a little more exposed to the wind, but still generally well-protected in the forest, and near the top of a rise where it might not get as cold. I convinced my addled brain that this was safe because I didn’t trust myself if I kept walking. I might step into another tree well and this time plunge into snow over my head and suffocate. Or maybe I'd decide a quick sled nap was in order … and then slip into eternal slumber. It sounds overdramatic, but everything feels this way when you're convinced you’re losing your mind. 

 Feeling frantic, as though aware that I was operating on my last fumes of cognitive function, I hurried to pull my sled into the indentation and threw my bivy bundle on top. I checked the temperature — 15 below. Then I paused for a few seconds to try to parse out the remaining chores. I removed my many layers of footwear, threw them into their designated dry bag and stuffed that into the foot of my sleeping bag, along with my thermos. The snow berm I'd squeezed into was narrow and loose. Powder piled up on top of my bivy sack every time I moved, but I was able to settle in with relatively little drama, all things considered. Amber passed by on the trail just as I was settling in. 

 “That looks like a cozy spot,” she observed. 

 “Just gonna sleep a few hours. I’ll see you in McGrath,” I replied.

 When I laid down, I wondered — as I always do, every time I lay down to sleep in the cold, even though more than a decade has elapsed since I survived my first subzero winter camping experience — if I’d ever wake up.


  1. Such a life and death adventure...real for you, vicarious for me. Thanks for sharing your life and times, especially right now.
    Box Canyon

  2. I didn’t make it too much further, not to the road anyway, before I also had to bivy. Wanted to keep going but was drunkenly meandering all over the trail.

  3. So I just painfully slogged a short distance to a winter camp...a hut even...and thought that was hard. (Slinks away in shame)

  4. That was such a difficult night. My hardest on the trail ever.


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