Thursday, April 02, 2020

Last days of innocence — day four

Photo by Amber Bethe
March 5, 2020. Finger Lake, Alaska. 18 below and breezy. 

A seemingly silent awareness of 4 a.m. arrived, and the many inhabitants of the ice-bound Finger Lake tent began to emerge from their down cocoons. I had set an alarm for 2 a.m. but ignored it. In a way, this felt a little like I was already giving up — "Jill, you can’t sleep eight hours a night if you’re going to Nome." Evening Jill, who is alert and ambitious and has spent entirely too much time crunching numbers and making plans — she’s the one who sets the alarm. Morning Jill, who must battle her way bleary consciousness beneath a crush of full-body muscle soreness and unassuaged fatigue — she’s the one who lacks willpower. Even at 4 a.m., I could barely sit up through the sheer gravity of my grogginess. This morning inertia always leaves me wondering why I even bother with the sleep thing. Perhaps if I just stayed awake and kept walking …

The air inside the tent was frosty, but I wasn’t prepared for the icy punch to the face when I opened the canvas flaps and stepped outside. I briefly convinced myself it was 40 or 50 below zero, but my thermometer would reveal an ambient temperature of 18 below. That wind, though. The wall tent had a wood-platform porch where someone had placed a couch. A person was curled up in a sleeping bag there, which I found delightfully odd. Lovely place for a nap, this random couch on a frozen lake that’s fully exposed to the brunt of wind and subzero cold.

I returned to the volunteers’ cabin to heat up a bag of dehydrated scrambled eggs that I’d found in the bin of discarded drop bag food. Many of the same folks with whom I’d shared dinner the previous night were also doing breakfast at the same time. There were at least six more people in the tent who I managed to never even see, but the Kiwis, Beth, Amber and I enjoyed one more respite together before the next leg of our journey.

The section between Finger Lake and Puntilla Lake is often regarded as one of the toughest on the route to McGrath. “The Push,” a veteran cyclist had called it during my first ITI in 2008. The name stuck with me. For thirty miles the trail climbs into the Alaska Range over a series of steep rolling hills. There’s the infamous Happy River Steps that feature 40-percent grades both down and up. And there are equally steep grades higher on the route, as the trail dips in and out of precipitous drainages along a side slope above the Happy River gorge. The final five miles into Rainy Pass Lodge are a relentless and plodding climb with one short descent in the middle, just enough to undo all of the hard-won altitude.

I started out at 5:11 a.m., after spending more than fifteen minutes hunched over in the 18-below darkness: repairing the hole in my backpack with tape, and attempting to secure my wrist brace with leuko tape. I’d started out the race with an overuse injury that inflamed a disc in my left wrist. The injury had unsurprisingly deteriorated, and my left hand had become swollen and often prone to electric shocks of pain — although, truthfully, I'd feared worse.

Still, this day would involve lots of aggressive poling to boost body and sled up 40-percent grades, so I needed to support the wrist as much as possible. My “wrist widget” brace worked best, but it was impossible to keep in place beneath several jacket and coat sleeves. My hard brace was a good for sleeping, but I couldn’t use it when temperatures were below zero. Poling irritated my wrist, but it hurt the most when I had to do anything else — eating, grabbing things out of my backpack, zipping and unzipping, unpacking and packing.

Hand pain is so frustrating, because it seeps into every action and impacts the quieter moments where I can usually find respite. If my tired legs were the lion that roared throughout the day, my wrist was the kitten that whined all night.

The long rest and two protein-rich meals in Finger Lake had done me some good, though, and I descended from the breakfast cabin feeling better than I had the previous two mornings. This was also the first morning that began in the dark. I took the opportunity to stare at the sky as I crossed scoured ice on Red Lake. Biting wind stung the small strip of exposed skin across my eyebrows, but I was determined to catch of a glimpse of Northern Lights. Alas, there was only the black sky, the splatter of stars, and vague blue light on the horizon that was either dawn or the setting moon.

Within minutes I was already across the lake and slumped over on the first climb, gaining 300 feet of altitude in a half mile and wallowing in a mire of loose snow punched with knee-deep postholes. Commence “The Push.” I must not have been the only one disheveled by morning, because I found a particularly large concentration of what Amber called “trail treasures” along this climb. A ski skin. A single glove. A hat. An unopened package of Gu. These were not useful to me and thus unexciting, just more things to carry for thirty miles and then dump on a table at the next checkpoint, likely never to be claimed. Later, eventual 350-ski winner Mathieu would express gratitude for the return of his skin, so that was worth hauling.
The sun slowly rose to a cold but stunningly bluebird day. These are the best days, and I was stoked to find myself surrounded by far-reaching views of the snowy mountains. Stoke, along with a fresh supply of trail mix and other snacks from my drop bag, fueled better energy. I felt like I was finally moving relatively well. Daylight eased my moose-a-noia, and I listened to the audio book of “A Stranger in the Woods,” about a man who lived alone and undetected in a makeshift camp close to a community of vacation homes in northern Maine for 27 years.

My takeaway from this book was that his master thievery was much more interesting than his social distancing … which, as someone who flees to Alaska each year in search of solitude, was more relatable than strange. Of course, the author’s research into the psychology of such an extreme hermit existence would return as prescient lessons for the weeks that followed. For now, still ignorant of the future, I became most emotional during the chapter that described how "the North Woods hermit" struggled to survive winters at 20 below, holed up in his camp and unwilling to start a fire for fear the smoke would reveal his location. As his sleeping bags slowly succumbed to ice buildup, he would remain awake, pacing his camp during the long nights. I could feel the pain of this: the creep of cold and the primal understanding that one must not stop walking. This was a prescient lesson for the future in itself … as the cold creeps in, one must not stop walking.

Even in the present moment, taken literally, this lesson was a hard pill to swallow. Although I was feeling better this morning, my crisis of confidence was deepening. Why did I still feel so weak? It’s been four years since I was first beset with health issues that I’d largely overcome. My thyroid levels and asthma are in check. Past struggles with breathing hadn’t once become an issue this year, even when I was pulling as hard as I could and my heart rate was pegged for long hours. Winter training had gone well, possibly about as well as it could without sacrificing too many other facets of my life to be worth it. My race management was also about as conservative as it could be; I was eating well and prioritizing rest. But I still did not feel up to the task. Possibly, this meant I’d never feel up to the task. I tried to push these unhelpful thoughts out of my head, but the image of the North Woods hermit — badly weakened by the hardships of survival, pacing his camp just to stay alive — haunted me.

As I neared the Happy River Steps, the forest closed in, the trail was stomped with deep hoof prints, and moose-a-noia returned. It was enough to turn off my audio book, and I emerged from my shadowy imagination world to the immediacy of the present — sharp beams of sunlight drawing patterns on the snow, pillowy mounds that looked like fantastic spots for a nap. Trail conditions were better in these protected sections, and eventually Beth passed while pedaling. We chatted for a few minutes, mostly about moose, and I was glad I wasn’t the only one feeling so spooked. I also was silently glad that she was now in front of me, scaring off potential attackers.

 The pillowy snow provided a nice cushion for the Happy River Steps, and descending proved to be a non-issue. I didn’t even need to remove my harness — I just walked down 40-percent grades with the sled behind me, barely nudged by gravity … such was the resistance on the trail this year. The crossing where the Happy River pours into the Skwentna River is a stunning spot, and this year was no exception. The two rivers slice through deep gorges rimmed with spruce forest, but the confluence is a wide-open area with expansive views. Overhead is a skyline of jagged peaks, drenched in snow and stretching out in all directions. It’s one of my favorite spots on the route, and all of my other visits here have happened amid overcast skies, snowstorms, or in the middle of the night. It was particularly startling to experience this place in brilliant sunlit clarity.

Photo by Amber Bethe
The climb out of the Happy River gorge is a mere 0.2 miles, but painful. The deep snow this year actually assisted in making it easier to ascend. I was able to kick steps and anchor in for the hard pull up a near-vertical embankment. Amber had been close behind the entire morning, but I didn’t notice her presence until I stopped near the top of the climb to eat a snack. I’ll admit that I was beginning to feel a bit of competitive spark with Amber, because we did so much leapfrogging. She was clearly stronger than me on the move, but I guessed she stopped more often than I did, which allowed me to hold a similar pace.
The thousand-mile and the 350 are distinctly two different races these days, and it’s pointless to try to compete with anyone in the others. Faye, the leading woman on foot, was already nearly a day ahead of us, and if even if I got to McGrath before Amber, she’d still be second in the short race. But it is funny, this racing thing. I don’t think of myself as a competitive person, but obviously I am. As we chatted, I felt this strange urge to hold my position. So as she settled in with a bag of homemade cookies — cue jealousy — I hurried to finish my handfuls of trail mix and keep walking.

Of course Amber passed again, less than a mile later. For the rest of the day I was alone, admonishing my heavy legs, running hot and cold beneath a blazing sun and shocking chill, occasionally trying to hold a conversation with my stuffed Siberian husky, Bernadette (I'll admit the imaginary friend magic that carried me through 2018 didn't quite happen this year), and pondering the baffling, or perhaps not-so-baffling, existence of the North Woods hermit. Frequently my strength flagged to the point where I'd stop to sit down on my sled, but I never let myself languish for long. I reminded my temperamental brain how incredibly lucky we were to be experiencing this place on this day, of all places and days.

 “This is the Alaska Range. The Alaska Range! It’s right over there!”

Day faded into a shadowy late afternoon. My cognitive function faded to a simple wave of climbs and descents, punctuated with flashes of determination, winces of sharp pain, sparks of awe, and occasional hopelessness. About three miles before Rainy Pass Lodge, I heard a swishing sound and turned around to see a skier. I was near the top of a punchy rise, and he was gliding toward me as though gravity somehow worked in reverse for him. It was Asbjorn, the practically professional Danish skier who was aiming to become the first person to ski the thousand miles to Nome within the 30-day limit imposed by this particular race. As far as anybody knew, this would be the first official ski of the full Northern or Southern Route of the Iditarod Trail since 2000, when a duo of skiers made the trip in 33 days.

Most other human-powered Iditarod benchmarks have been achieved, but the ski to Nome remains elusive. Why? As best as I can tell — and speaking as a particularly poor skier — skiing is the most demanding discipline. The rough, icy, often snowless terrain takes skill to navigate, and one must achieve a high level of skill before skis become more helpful than hindering. This year of abundantly deep snow was no doubt *the* year to attempt this route on skis. And Asbjorn was clearly the person to do it — even brief observation of his technique was humbling. He was skiing, parallel skiing, without a hint of struggle, up some of the steepest grades. He seemed to have no problem holding 4 or 5 mph indefinitely, moving with what looked like a lot less effort than I was expending at 2 mph. For a few days it was unclear to me why he was positioned back here with the likes of myself, but he was a smart racer who was pacing himself for success on the long haul to Nome — moving fast during the day, and resting long at night.

Asbjorn moved to pass me like I was standing still, but he did pause to mention that he was intentionally hurrying to make it to Rainy Pass Lodge by dinner time.

"I missed it last year. I'm not going to miss it this year!" he proclaimed.

I'd forgotten about dinner, and Asbjorn's mention of it caused me to bristle. Rainy Pass Lodge is one of the more luxurious destinations along the route, catering to fly-in tourists. Each night they serve a home-cooked dinner, and even the smelly racers are invited to partake if they like. The meal is $50 but incredible: Grilled steak, baked potatoes, vegetables, bread, lemonade, and dessert — all you can eat, of course, with bottomless glasses of wine. If you miss or don't want to pay for dinner, you get what the race provides in the separate mushers' cabin: Unopened cans of soup, floating in a vat of water on the wood stove. If you're lucky, there's still some pilot bread left over on the table, and maybe hot water if someone remembered to refill the electric kettle. It was getting late and I had already accepted that I was having a lukewarm can of soup for dinner. Then, here comes Asbjorn, moving as though propelled by a motor, brimming with optimism.

Just when I feel physically shattered and believe I've lost all control of my mental game, there's often a spark of inspiration that surprises me. After Asbjorn passed, I shored up my aching quads, shoved a handful of gummy candy in my mouth, and checked my GPS. "Three miles an hour. Three miles an hour and I can do it." Then I marched, mostly staring at the screen, occasionally looking up to appreciate the intense beauty that still surrounded me. The sun was setting now, and glimmers of pink and lavender light bathed the distant slopes. I could have plopped down on my sled and languished happily as darkness descended and the possibility of Northern Lights returned. But I'll admit, I was more motivated by food. Fixating on my GPS screen to ensure three miles an hour was the only way food would happen.

As sunlight faded the temperature plummeted precipitously — 8 below, then 14 below, then 19 below, in a matter of minutes. I was lightly dressed and shivering, but I couldn't stop to add layers. It would take too much time. Maybe the cold will motivate me to march faster, I thought, but no ... my shoulders were quaking and my core temperature was definitely dropping. But I was close, so close. Steak will make it all better! I lifted my knees and launched into a motion that until that moment I firmly believed I no longer had in me — running.

It was 6:38 when I dropped onto the lake, past a cozy-looking Arctic Oven tent pitched on the ice next to a small plane, and continued shuffling toward the lodge. I briefly entered the mushers' cabin to unpack a few things, then jogged to the main lodge, entering just a few minutes before 7. Dinner was just starting to be served. It took some time to peel off my deeply ice-crusted clothing and stop shivering enough to feel presentable, but eventually I joined the table with the people that had become my group: George and Graham (the Kiwi cyclists), Mathieu and Asbjorn (the European skiers), Beth and Amber.

The steak was abundant and the wine flowed freely. Pain was forgotten and happiness brimmed as we enjoyed the spoils of our small victory: We'd made it to Rainy Pass Lodge, the halfway point on the route to McGrath! Of course, for me, it was less than one sixth of the distance to Nome. But for all of us, Rainy Pass Lodge was the last respite before a critical point of no return. One we crossed over the Alaska Range, retreat would become almost unworkably difficult. And the veterans among us knew ... all of the hardest days were yet to come. 


  1. I never could get a hold of my stopping time. I'd try every day to walk faster, jog more, and stop less. And every day I'd still average 2 miles per hour with a lot of time stopping to change layers, fiddle with gear, get out the thermos, etc. Something to strive for?

  2. So happy you made it to dinner! Good luck, Jill!

  3. Love this metaphor: "If my tired legs were the lion that roared throughout the day, my wrist was the kitten that whined all night."

  4. I am just reading that book of yours into the north wind. It's good to have your pictures.


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