Friday, April 29, 2022

We’ll cross that bridge sometime and see

The 2022 Iditarod Trail Invitational. Part three of four.

Gazing back toward Egypt Mountain and a sky streaked with lenticulars.

Rohn is a friendly place, a strange sort of outpost in Hell. Beneath an old spruce forest at the confluence of two rivers sits a single-wall tent, about the size of a large bathroom, with a portable wood stove and spruce branches stacked to make a bed that covers three-quarters of the indoor space. A race volunteer, Adrien, often waits outside to greet racers with hot bratwurst and as many shots of Fireball whiskey as they'll accept. There’s enough room for five people to lie down on the wet branches, perhaps six if they squeeze. 

Rohn is an uncomfortable place to sleep, and it was still early in the evening. But I was frightened about the upcoming crossing on the South Fork of the Kuskokwim River and couldn’t coax myself to leave alone. Bobbette and Becca had arrived about an hour before me and were settling in for a nap. Troy and Bob Ostrom would soon arrive. I laid down with one proverbial eye open, ready to jump up and start packing so I could leave with the group.

This is a crappy photo I took of the South Fork of the Kuskokwim at 4 a.m.

The unspoken alarm rang at 3 a.m. The group shoveled in oatmeal and suited up in silence. Bob left first and I followed closely behind him. Troy, Bobbette, and Becca came soon after. We immediately popped out of the woods and descended onto glare ice. The Tatina empties into the South Fork of the Kuskokwim River here, spreading into a wide delta of braided gravel bars and turbulent channels. In early March, it’s one big expanse of black ice. At 4 a.m., this expanse looks and feels eternal. 

I hung close to Bob’s wheel as a fierce headwind buffeted our bikes. My studded tires began to slip out; I teetered and slowed just as Bob's bike spun sideways, slamming him into the ice. He quickly stood and said he was okay. The wind was howling; both sky and ground were the deepest shade of black. The horror flick vibe was so visceral that I all but expected a mask-clad murderer to appear on the scene. Indeed, the trail Bob was following dead-ended at the riverbank. An apparently abandoned campsite was strewn with empty fuel cans, shredded canvas bags, and other murder-adjacent trash. I finally checked my GPS. 

What the South Fork of the Kuskokwim looked like in daylight. Photo by Beth Shaner.

“We’re going to wrong way,” I announced. “We’ve been riding back up the Tatina.” 

 Bob thought this was impossible. There was no other trail. But my GPS clearly showed a line heading toward the Dalzell Gorge. We weren’t far from the open channel I’d crossed the previous evening. 

Troy turned away to follow a trail cutting farther up the river. I announced I was going back to Rohn. Bobbette, Bob, and Becca followed me. I was shaking with fear and disinclined to become a leader, but I wasn’t willing to leave the comforting purple line of my GPS. Soon we were back at the river bank closest to Rohn, where I located the correct line of snowmachine scratches leading down the South Fork. 

As soon as we turned northwest, the headwind became a destabilizing crosswind. My studded tires scratched and slipped along the black ice. The trail scratches didn’t precisely follow my GPS track from the 2020 race, so I occasionally looked up to scan the black abyss for reflective tape or an Iron Dog lath. There were none — likely they’d all been swallowed by the river in an ongoing cycle of overflow and freeze-up. Thin, barely refrozen ice crackled beneath my tires; it was all I could do to focus on my breathing and not erupt into a full panic. 

Another daytime shot of the South Fork, showing where the trail leaves the river. You can see a cyclist wading in the background. Photo by Beat Jegerlehner, taken about 12 hours after we crossed.

I was still leading when a gust of wind knocked my rear wheel sideways. For a moment I was suspended in eerie silence before a jarring thud echoed in my ears. My body had slammed onto hard ice. Becca wasn’t far behind and rushed toward me because she thought I’d been badly hurt. The fall must have looked bad. My adrenaline was surging and I felt little pain, although later a bruise would spread across my entire left hip and buttock. 

As I stood, my headlamp caught a permanent reflector stapled to a tree on the far shoreline about a quarter-mile away. "Finally," I thought. This comforting trail marker indicated the point where we could finally leave the South Fork for good. But my heart sank when I realized that there was nothing between us and the trail marker but the blackest of abysses — no ice to catch a headlamp beam, no gravel bars sparkling with frost. This was all open water.

Four of us sat down on the ice and pulled on our waders. Troy took off in another direction, likely determined to find a better crossing. I still felt strongly that known open water was preferable to unknown ice over potentially deeper channels. Bob went first, wading into water that soon encompassed his thighs. Bobbette and Becca were close behind. I, having struggled with my waders, trailed a bit. I could feel the cold current pressing against my legs as I waded into the channel. The ice underfoot was soft. I carried my bike at shoulder level; the floating tires removed much of the weight, but the wind was strong enough to push it like a sail. To make my balance issues even worse, a strong river current was pushing against my legs from a slightly different direction. The tractionless soles of my waders slipped and I flailed, maintaining my upright position but dunking most of my bike. Luckily, nothing important got wet — I’d waterproofed most of the bags on my bike — but the entire frame was caked with hard ice for much of the day. 

At this point, I didn’t care too much about a wet bike or wet legs. I just wanted off the river, by any means necessary. I followed the group’s exact line but the holes were becoming deeper with each pass. Fast current and the terrible crosswind continued to shove me sideways. Bob climbed up onto the shore; I could see him removing his waders and pouring large amounts of water out of them before I’d even exited the river. 

The group packs up after exiting the river

The sense of relief I felt when climbing onto the bank was almost overwhelming. I expressed my gratitude to Bob and his willingness to lead. Without the group, I doubt I’d have worked up the courage to face this — the real prospect of a winter swim in Alaska. My greatest adventure fear. At best I would have returned to Rohn and cried until daylight. The group dynamic was empowering. 

Bob didn’t seem too fussed that he’d gotten wet. The temperature wasn’t terribly cold — probably about 10 degrees, but the chill became searing in the wind. Troy emerged from the woods and sat down to remove all of the clothing from his lower body. Apparently, he hadn’t found a dry crossing, either. 

Morning swamps north of Rohn

I took my time removing my waders and was the last to start pedaling again, only to discover my rear derailleur was encased in ice. The gear I was stuck in was “terrified pedal mashing on flat glare ice” — one of the hardest gears. Beyond the South Fork, the trail immediately climbs into the foothills and undulates steeply in and out of drainages all the way to the Farewell Lakes. The trail itself was rippled with icy snowmobile moguls, adding a technical element to the already-steep climbs. 

Stuck in high gear, I couldn’t have pedaled much even if my legs were strong. I fell into a morning rhythm of pushing for 10 minutes, stopping to massage the derailleur and cables with my warm hands, blowing a bit of hot air onto the ice-caked cassette, giving up, pushing for 10 more minutes, and rolling down a hill. My efforts to thaw out my drivetrain seemed futile, but every other time I was able to downshift into a new, lower gear. When this happened I’d praise my bike with vocal encouragement. “Good job! You’re doing great!” 

Soon I had broken up enough of the ice to locate the final chunks inside the mechanism. I couldn’t get at them with my hands, so I finally relented to sacrificing my prized possession: the thermos of hot coffee I’d carried from Rohn and intended to consume when the late-morning sleep monster arrived. But my bike needed coffee more than I did. 

The hot liquid did the trick; the ice was finally gone and I could shift through all of my gears. “You are the best bike!” I exclaimed in a sing-song voice. 

In a land of swamps, there's no end to the ice

Dawn light finally appeared along the horizon as I was crossing the Post River, a short but also scary span of glare ice. It was here I first realized the gusting wind was now a tailwind. I hadn’t made much use of it when I was pushing my bike through the woods. The climb away from the Post River is extremely steep. In past years, the trail cut over a veritable waterfall that was colloquially called the Post River Glacier. Crews rerouted the trail to a nearby ridge a few years ago, but the pitch is no less steep and only slightly less icy. 

Because the packed snow was almost petrified, I had to veer into deep powder surrounding the trail to gain traction. I was essentially using my legs as anchors, punching a knee-deep hole in loose sugar, digging in with my toes so the leg wouldn’t slip out, then pulling my nearly overturned bike a few inches up the slope. Repeat. The danger of slipping backward or losing my grip on the bike and letting it slide down the hill was pressing enough that my heart was pumping near its maximum just to maintain momentum. 

Arriving at the top of the Post River Glacier, V.2

I’d been listening to my iPod Shuffle for most of the morning, since leaving the South Fork at least, to soothe my anxiety. As I was crawling up V.2 of the Post River Glacier, “Wooden Soldiers” by Modest Mouse provided an apt soundtrack. 

Modest Mouse is my favorite band of all time; I’ve consumed their music avidly since I was a junior in high school in 1996. It seems that every time I’m working through a particularly volatile period in my life, Modest Mouse releases a rare new album that I will proceed to consume on repeat for months. When I was a high schooler with a faith crisis, my treasured CD was “This is a Long Drive for Someone with Nothing to Think About.” Transitioning from college to early adulthood was “The Moon and Antarctica.” The quarter-life crisis that prompted me to move to Alaska was “Good News for People Who Love Bad News.” Discovering my passion for endurance racing and the subsequent upheavals that led to moving away from Alaska were accompanied by “We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank.” Then eight years went by with no new Modest Mouse music. It was a time of relative prosperity for me, but “Strangers to Ourselves” arrived just in time to carry me through my illness during the 2015 Tour Divide and the health challenges that have followed since. Then again, there was no new Modest Mouse until 2021, when “The Golden Casket” dropped just days after my father died. 

 “The lyrics are kind of depressing,” my friend Danni observed about this album, specifically citing the opening to Wooden Soldiers: “Making plans in the sands as the tides roll in.” 

 “I don’t see how anyone can make it to middle age and not write depressing lyrics,” I replied. 

 “Wooden Soldiers” is a wealth of cathartic lyrics that I devoured on repeat during the summer. 

"Hashtagging, photo bragging, no one who’s even sorta real 
No wonder no one feels better than before."

And a line that reminded me of climbing to White Pine Lake with my friend Raj in July so he could spread his father’s ashes. Raj carried a beautiful earthen pot and showed me the ash and bone fragments inside. When he tossed the pot into a waterfall, I felt an electric tingling in my veins, a whisper of the eternal within this ritual of impermanence.  

"In India they make mugs, you throw them down, they turn to mud 
Pull it out and make them as they were before."

 Yes, "Wooden Soldiers" is a song about despair but also rebirth. As I battled my bike to the top of yet another impossible climb, I was first struck by the hopeful tone at the close of this song. 

"It’s level at the peak 
Even death just may not be 
We’ll cross that bridge sometime and see 
But just being here now is enough for me."

Just after I cleared the steepest pitch, my legs began cramping badly. I propped the bike against a tree and sat on the trail. Behind me, thick clouds were beginning to clear, revealing the morning light. The burned forest somehow softened in this violet glow. Views extended to windswept mountains that few ever see. I thought about the rivers surrounding Rohn and how much I hate them. Why do I keep coming back here? I already know too much of the fear and pain. But sometimes, I find myself immersed in immense beauty, the depth of which I don't experience in my comfortable life, where pushing my bike to the top of a hill is so trivial but the withering stare of a stranger can ruin my day. I come here to see through my cracks, to gaze into the void, and embrace my minuscule place in the universe. And although it's impossible to articulate this soaring sense of smallness, a quiet refrain comes close:

"Just being here now is enough for me. 
Just being here now is enough for me."

The perfect flow trail

Awe revitalized my mind, but my legs wobbled like a newborn moose when I tried to stand. Since incurring a back injury in the October truck collision, I’ve experienced what I suspect to be related neurological symptoms. Hopefully, this is temporary? But sometimes when I sit cross-legged on the ground or bend at my hips while standing, I experience intense tingling and occasional numbness in my legs. This never happened to me before last October. The sensation is jarring enough that it sparks a brief panic as my amygdala prepares for nerve failure and paralysis. My logical brain writes this anxiety off as utterly implausible, but still conjures its own useless command: “Legs this is not a good place to fail.” 

Leaving the mountains behind

My legs didn’t fail, but between the muscle fatigue and nerve weirdness, I couldn’t have asked for a better place to have a bike in my possession. Where the trail cut through a windswept burn, much of the surface had been scoured to dirt. A tailwind blew with such force that my wheels started rolling before I even threw a leg over the saddle. Suddenly I was screaming through the burned forest, an effortless ride over rocks, roots, and tundra. The route wrapped around Egypt Mountain, a pyramid-shaped summit that stands alone, then plunged toward the Farewell Lakes. I was riding so fast that I momentarily heard nothing of the wind; we were moving the same speed, always the eeriest of silences. 

 It would be the last time this trail cut me any slack, but it came at the most opportune moment. I was terrified, and then both bike and body were broken, and then, awed by the scope of the landscape, the wind caught my astonishment and carried me effortlessly for 10 miles. 

A lake covered in refrozen overflow and jumbled ice.

Just when it felt like redemption, I nearly crashed into the shoreline of the first Farewell Lake. A steep descent ended in a jumble of broken ice; the bike bucked sideways as I grabbed the brakes and threw my weight high-side, barely avoiding a header. The tailwind would no longer be my friend. For the next five miles, the trail crosses lakes and frozen swamps, where much of the surface is glare ice. Recent thaws had flooded the lakes in overflow. Back when the surface was still wet, snowmachines whipped the slush into a bumpy mess. It was all technical and all very slippery. This ice was difficult enough to negotiate without the wind shoving me forward with frequent surprise blasts from the side. And I was lacking a helmet. 

After clearing the South Fork of the Kuskokwim, I’d become complacent. No matter what happened now, I had at least passed the last of the “scary” ice. But I felt almost equally unnerved crossing the Farewell Lakes, knowing it wouldn’t take much of a mistake to crack my skull or break an arm. Anxiety begged me to reduce my risk and walk, but my minimally studded boots didn’t provide enough traction on glare ice in this wind. I had to ride. My back muscles were as tight as a steel cable. I was beginning to believe I’d really messed up my back while pushing my bike up Rainy Pass. Adrenaline and then bliss masked the pain all morning, but my entire upper body was sore and my legs were tingling from that weird neuropathic issue. To round everything out, my left hip was painfully stiff after slamming into hard ice on the South Fork that morning. And now I had to somehow propel a heavy bike across this messy nonsense. It was all so risky, and here in the middle of nowhere. If I did break an arm, it seemed unlikely a rescue plane would be able to land in this wind. I’d likely have to wait for a half-day or more for a snowmachine ride (and little did I know at the time, even a ground rescue was nearly impossible at the time, due to trail conditions.) 

I forgot where I found this photo. Taken by someone else, it shows the moguls in the morning.

To soothe the stress, I daydreamed about the absolute sailing I’d be able to do once I was off the lakes. I couldn’t have been more wrongly optimistic. The moguls began the minute I’d cleared the final lake. Moguls are bumps that form when snowmachines throttle their engines to gain speed, kicking up snow in their wake. This snow gathers in piles, which increase in size as more machines rev their engines to clear the moguls, until the trail is a rippled mess. It’s a similar phenomenon as washboard on a gravel road — but to an extreme. These were some of the worst moguls I’d ever encountered. Each bump was as much as two feet deep and only as wide as a snowmachine track — about 15 inches — with narrow ski tracks forming a rutted high side. It would be one thing if this was packed snow, but a freeze-thaw cycle had encased the moguls in hard ice. 

 So how to ride the moguls? I am somewhat familiar with pump tracks, although I’ve never ridden one. But I know you must throw your weight into the descents to clear each climb. Not much pedaling can be done. But if you do need to pedal, you’ll only have time for one really hard stroke on the downside of each mogul. This will need to be enough to propel you up the next mogul, some of which are as good as vertical. And when your bike weighs 70 pounds, this needs to be a really hard stroke. I’m thinking 500 watts. Not exactly the kind of power that can be reliably generated by a fatigued 40-something female endurance cyclist with back pain. The next option was to attempt to ride the ski track to the left. This track was also rippled, but much less so. It was also the exact width of a fat bike tire, so any hairline diversion meant slipping off the track. And if this happened above the trench of the moguls, the dab alone could be a three-foot fall. If my shoulder caught a tree branch near the edge of the trail, it meant tipping over. Same with catching my left pedal on the snow berm. The crashes started within the first mile and only compounded from there. 

A daylight photo of the moguls. Sorry if this is your photo; I didn't take any of my own.

At first, I was careful, remembering that my unprotected head was skimming within inches of trees. But as frustration and adrenaline surged, I stopped caring. Ongoing crashes continued to pummel me until I felt nothing but rage. Hot, white rage. This rage might have carried me to Nikolai, but then I tipped over and landed on my right hand. The throbbing pain from a wrist that I needed, really needed, whether I rode my bike or pushed it, was the jolt of reality that finally ended this crash bender. 

 The throbbing subsided and my wrist was okay. At least, it was okay enough to grasp the handlebar and maneuver the bike while walking. Pushing a bike over these ridiculous bumps was hardly easy, but I’d already resigned myself to walking most of the way to Nikolai. Somewhere in this section, I passed Becca and Bobbette, who were heating up meals for lunch. 

 “I have forgotten how to ride a bike,” I lamented. 

 “Us too,” Becca said, although they passed me again 20 minutes later, confirming their skills were better than mine. Between the final Farewell Lake and a remote outpost called Bison Camp are 12 miles of short but steep hills. These hills are utterly endless. I go into this section thinking there are maybe 10 hills and leave convinced there must be 100. I became impatient, and the three of us continued to leapfrog as I commenced my riding attempts. 

 “Every year, every year, I come to a hill and think this must — MUST — be the last hill. And there are at least 20 more!” I exclaimed breathlessly to Becca. “I am no longer going to tell myself this is the last hill. They will go forever, and I will learn to live this way.” 

 Becca laughed and said something about how she had Bobbette had been giggling for most of the afternoon. Everything was uproariously funny. That’s what happens to desperate brains, I thought, when forced to either despair or embrace the absurdity. It’s liberating to embrace the absurd. 

We both laughed and I suddenly felt 12 years old, the way I felt when sleeping over at a friend’s house. We’d watch a horror film to scare ourselves on purpose, and then we’d stay up all night wandering around the neighborhood, playing small pranks on our neighbors and hoping not to get caught. We were simultaneously frightened and fatigued, exhilarated and exhausted. These sensations were their own kind of high. We craved that intensity. Sometimes, when I’m in the midst of sleep-deprived nonsense that I subject myself to in endurance racing, I wonder if some part of me deep down just wants to be 12 years old again, to again see the world the way I saw it then. 

The top of the final hill, just before descending into the "old" Farewell Burn

Bobbette and Becca surged ahead before the true final hill. After that, I felt dejected — like the girl at the sleepover who couldn’t stay awake and got left behind. Pain returned to the forefront of my mind. I no longer tried to chase it away. The moguls didn’t end with the hills. If anything, they became worse as the trail cut through a densely wooded area, the regrowth of the “old” Farewell Burn. Later, I heard a rumor that Iron Dog racers created these moguls on purpose to slow down their competitors. The bumps were so bad that locals who need the trails for subsistence hunting couldn’t even use them. Indeed, an ITI cyclist, Lindsay, tore a hamstring in a crash near this location. When Lindsay called (using Beat’s satellite phone) to request a pickup, even with his wife in Canada insisting they would “spare no expense,” it was still a massive undertaking to rescue him. No ITI volunteer had access to a snowmachine that could handle these trails. 

I finally took a good look at my bruises six days later.

I lost energy for rage and frustration and gave into the long walk. Even hiking was a stumbling, awkward affair, and I noticed my previously broken toe hurt a lot. Had I rebroken it in a crash? I would come to believe this, but I suppose if that’s all that happened, I got away mostly unscathed. However, about six days later, I finally took the time to look at myself in a mirror after a shower and discovered that my entire body was a startling patchwork of black and blue. Even six days later, I looked and felt as though somebody had pummeled me with a small baseball bat. 

A lovely spot for dinner

Still, I have walked the length of these monotonous spruce swamps many times (well, three times), so despite the pain and mounting boredom, I settled into a pleasant rhythm. And while in my memory I pushed my bike the entire way from Bison Camp to Nikolai, I doubtlessly rode quite a bit, as I made reasonable time. But it was a lot like a terrible night of sleep. Even though many of the hours blur together, you feel as though you were awake the entire night. 

 I did have one more truly enjoyable hour, about an hour before sunset. I was nearly out of drinking water so I stopped at the shelter cabin turnoff to melt snow and heat up a bag of Chili Mac for dinner. The sun was out and despite a stiff breeze, it felt almost warm, so opted to rest here rather than ride down to the shelter cabin. I hung my ice-crusted waders on the tripod — they actually thawed and nearly dried — and removed my boots and socks to air out my feet in the sunshine. I made a nice chair in a snowbank and sat wiggling my toes in the wind, never wanting to move from this perfect position in paradise. 

Sunset over a swamp. The moguls were not bad in these open areas but returned in force through every forested section.
The sun set and the light was gorgeous for an hour, and then the forest returned to dark and menacing. I dimmed my headlamp so the shadows on the moguls weren’t quite as dramatic. At some point Troy passed; I had been certain he was ahead and I was the last person out there. His approach through the haunted woods was far too startling. Even when he pulled up beside me I half-believed he was a ghost. Troy was weirdly perky and said something about finding a flow through the bumps. I may have quietly grumbled something about brute force and technical prowess mattering more than Zen mastery. Troy surged ahead; whatever he was doing didn’t look like flow; his bike was bouncing all over the place and he was riding it like a rodeo horse. But he managed the turbulence without tipping over, so I had to concede that Troy had found the answer. 

Sunset south of Nikolai

My 72-mile “ride” from Rohn to Nikolai encompassed a 22-hour day — up at 3 a.m., into Nikolai at 1 a.m. The only real stop I made was the hour-long dinner break. It would have been a tough day without dumping all of my adrenaline first thing amid the terror of the river crossing, then taking a day-long beating from my bike, and then stumbling into a small village in the middle of the night. I was deeply befuddled and became lost for at least a half-hour while trying to find the checkpoint. I may have wandered around for most of the night if I hadn’t encountered Ethan, who was leaving the checkpoint at that hour and followed my tracks the wrong way up a long hill. 

 I have doubtlessly described crushing fatigue in many of these race reports, but I swear to you, I have never been so tired in the ITI as I was on this night.

Part one: It's level at the peak

Part two: Even death just may not be

Tuesday, April 26, 2022

Even death just may not be

The 2022 Iditarod Trail Invitational. Part two of four.

Rainy Pass, 2022

I was surprised it was already 6 a.m. when I finally woke up, blinking in confusion. What year was it? Where was I? The small cabin was quiet, but the wood stove was warm with recently stoked flames. I pulled on my clothes and stumbled over to the lodge. Becca and Bobbette soon joined me for breakfast. Bobbette had a small amount of reception on her phone so we took turns checking the weather and scrolling through Trackleaders. 

 “Oh shit, Beat’s only about three miles away,” I announced. "He’s going to lecture me about being lazy.” 

This is true — if Beat caught up with me when I had a bike and he was on foot, with trails as good as they’d been, he’d undoubtedly tease me about sleeping too much. I wanted to see him but also felt shame about snoozing for 11 hours, so I packed up quickly and left. 

Soft trails and a hint of pink morning light

The trail remained windblown and punchy, cutting across open swamps with brief diversions into patchy spruce forests. If I could maintain my momentum the front wheel would plow through the drifts, but it became more difficult to generate this kind of power. I certainly felt better after 11 hours of sleep, but not as great as I deserved to feel. Bobbette and Becca soon passed, and then I was riding near Robert for a bit. I stopped three or four times to let air out of my tires and pump them up again. I couldn’t decide where the sweet spot landed. Probably nowhere. 

Robert May with the Alaska Range in the distance.

The morning was stunning though — cloudy overhead with strips of ethereal light illuminating the sharp summits of the Alaska Range. This is the point where the mountains become close, and it always feels like a monumental threshold. It’s also a place where the wind always blows — a ceaseless and eternal wind, of this I am convinced. The trail was coated in several inches of spindrift, enough to make riding more arduous than my legs could handle. I could see bootprints in the snow and took some comfort in this evidence that I wasn’t the only person walking. The distant silhouette of Robert pushing his bike also brought a sense of camaraderie. 

The checkpoint at Finger Lake, a wall tent with a view

 The tent at Finger Lake was fairly empty in the mid-afternoon, at least relative to past experiences of squeezing into that drafty and basically unheated wall tent at midnight. Bobbette and Becca were still there. Robert and Ethan had rejoined forces. Lindsay, a 70-something Canadian adventure hero, was sitting on a bundle of hay and telling stories to apparently no one, as his partner Phil had gone outside.  Troy, a four-time Nome finisher from Australia, was sitting cross-legged on the floor. Troy apparently left Finger Lake several hours earlier and then returned to the checkpoint, but spoke as though he had no issues and was getting ready to head back out. I didn’t ask questions. 

I unzipped my pant legs to expose bare shins and feet, then propped my legs up on two of the three available chairs while taking mouse bites from an enormous burrito. My stomach was clenched and churning; I could only handle the tiniest of mouthfuls, but I promised myself I wouldn’t leave until I’d finished the thing. Maybe if I was lucky, I'd lose consciousness and end up on a helicopter back to Anchorage. I wasn’t having a bad time, really, but I was so tired. Did endurance biking always leave me this tired? I felt old, but Lindsay and his loud, enthusiastic demeanor openly defied the little voice that told me it was time to retire. And to be fair, Beth and I were the babies in the women's bike field at age 42, which blows my mind.

A perfect half-mile of trail skirts around Red Lake

I managed to both finish my burrito and maintain consciousness, but it was long after everyone but Troy left. He now had his socks off and seemed settled in, so I packed up to set out alone. As expected, the trail was in fantastic shape for the one mile where Winter Lake Lodge runs sled dog tours. Just beyond the Red Lake turnaround, the Iditarod Trail deteriorated into a foot-stomped morass. The next 30 miles cut across steep and rolling terrain to climb into the Alaska Range. The trail here is seldom used and usually windblown. I expect this section to take 10 to 12 hours whether I have a bike or not — basically, I already expected to walk the entire way, so I wasn’t too bothered by poor trail conditions. 

Just before the climb out of Red Lake

I pushed up the long hill and wove across narrow swamps. The punchy trail, broken solely by bikers and skiers since the most recent snow, looked potentially rideable at super low tire pressure. I decided to test my hypothesis. Sure enough, nearly flat tires glided over the morass like a rolling pin over mashed potatoes — that is, the wheels would roll if I pedaled hard enough. This was predictably a lot of work. 

Everything about riding this trail was a lot of work. I was beginning to understand that the energy demands of ceaselessly high-resistance surfaces were the reason I was so tired. My muscles weren't trained to pedal near their threshold all day without relief. It didn’t even matter how much I slept or how many enormous burritos I consumed because as soon as I started pedaling, my body instantly became overtaxed. I had to engage my highest internal gears just to keep the 70-something-pound bike rolling. It was like attempting to power a tractor with a Toyota Camry engine. Four-cylinder. 

This section is exhausting but it is beautiful

And yes, some would criticize me for bringing so much gear and loading my bike with arguably more weight than I could handle. It was "only" the race to McGrath. But those critics weren’t there with me in 2020 when my brain lost the plot at 45 below zero, after days of trail and weather conditions that challenged even the most experienced Nome racers. The "short" race offers no guarantees that you won't have to manage the worst Alaska can throw at you. The more experience I gain, the more I realize what it truly means to rely on only myself in the wilderness. And the more I understand what this means, the more lifelines I carry. 

The view west from Shirley Lake

I’ve never quite understood those who insist that more experience should result in fewer reasons to "pack my fears," as though accumulating years’ worth of scars should placate fears rather than create more. The former ITI race director, Bill Merchant, coined a phrase now popular in the community: “We go into the Alaska wilderness to find cracks in ourselves. We go back a year later to see if we’ve done something about them.” Like others who repeat this saying, I used to believe that “doing something” meant fixing my cracks. Now I believe the opposite. So why return to Alaska, if the experience is only going to deepen and widen my cracks? There’s also a saying about cracks being where the light gets in. 

The face of someone who is feeling pretty cracked.

As I battled my abundant weaknesses, late afternoon light saturated the towering peaks. Whenever I’m here, standing beneath the steep canyon walls surrounding the Skwentna River, I’m convinced this is the most beautiful place I’ve ever been — probably because my fissured mind is so receptive to light. Winding my way to the Happy River had been a frustrating affair. Where the trail cut through the woods, Iron Dog snowmachines had chewed the surface into a minefield of moguls. The ripples were often so steep that it became nearly impossible to ride. The tiered descent down the Happy River Steps involved lowering my bike by hand down a vertical embankment, an action I might compare to trying to lower a 70-pound sack of cement from the roof of a single-story home to the ground without breaking it. My shoulders were screaming.

The view from the Skwentna River at its confluence with the Happy River. A perennially favorite place.

I was swearing up a storm on the Steps, but all was forgiven once I dropped onto the river ice. Big views returned. Sunlight filtered through a low ceiling of clouds, shimmering from every fleck of snow. My heart fluttered as I pedaled across the snow-covered ice. It's a short-lived respite of bliss before the long climb out of the Skwentna, where the trail leaves this river behind for good. In past years, the river embankment formed a nearly vertical wall that had been scraped to ice and dirt by snowmachines. I barely got my sled up it in 2020, so I was prepared to break down my heavy bike and carry my gear up the embankment in stages. This year, heavy machinery had bulldozed the trail to a manageable grade. It was still a steep push, but by becoming doable rather than impossible, this year's climb out of the Happy River Steps felt like cheating.

Still a seldom-traveled trail. 

In my exhausted state, an easy out should have been a relief, but the bulldozed trail soured my mood. This meant the ice road was expanding. “The ice road” refers to the West Susitna Access Road, a project that would provide road access to a mining district at the foot of the Alaska Range. While the route doesn’t follow the Iditarod Trail precisely, there are enough parallels that the 100-mile largely private mining road would all but destroy the wilderness experience of the trail. Most people in the Iditarod community strongly oppose this development, which will have heavy environmental as well as local economic impacts. But it seems to be going forward, and just like an enormous dam expansion project near my home in Boulder, I feel resigned to witness the bulldozing of places that I love. 

Another view from Shirley Lake

This sadness feels like a widening crack in myself. As I pushed my bike up the wide-tracked path, another figurative scar opened. To soothe the sadness and fatigue, I indulged in nostalgia. I gazed up at vistas and tried to remember what I was experiencing "in this place in 2008.” My memories of this first year on the Iditarod Trail remain the sharpest, as often happens with life's most intense experiences. That year, I left Finger Lake at dusk and traveled most of this section in the dark. I didn’t see any of these gorgeous mountains; what I did see were menacing woods and endless hills. I remember dropping onto Shirley Lake, still 15 very slow miles from the Puntilla Lake checkpoint, and thinking I was “almost there.” 

Finn Bear Lake

Now, arriving at the lake an hour before sunset, I knew the ceaseless hills between here and Puntilla meant I would be lucky to arrive before midnight. Indeed, the hill dividing Shirley and Finn Bear lakes might as well be a wall. The grade is nearly vertical. I didn’t break down my heavy bike to climb the hill, but I should have. Instead, I spent long minutes kicking platforms into the snow so I could anchor my boots before chest-pressing the bike with all of the strength I could muster. Then I'd grab the brakes, catch my breath, and repeat the steps. At the top of the hill, my shoulders and calves burned with such force that I needed to sit down for a 15-minute break, taking tiny sips of water while I waited for my muscles to stop cramping. 

“Achievement unlocked,” I mumbled as self-encouragement. I thought about how, in real life, pushing a bike up a small hill would be such a trivial thing as to hardly matter. But out here, where forward motion is my only means of survival, each step is everything. 

One more Finn Bear view

The trail continued along a bench high above the Happy River gorge. This section follows a ceaseless ripple of drainages, plunging into and steeply out of wooded gulleys. A lot of the trail is rideable if you’re feeling strong, but again, you have to feel pretty damn strong. My expectations were set low and my legs had started protesting loudly, so was happy to hike. I scanned the sky for Northern Lights and listened to “The Memoirs of Stockholm Sven” on Audible. I don’t typically read fiction, but this novel held me rapt with its descriptions of the beauty and isolation of the Arctic. My concentration shifted from the ache in my shoulders to the brilliant night sky. 

Puntilla Lake at dawn

I arrived at Puntilla Lake around 11 p.m., again the last in a large conglomeration of cyclists. In past years, the lodge offered a historic trapper’s cabin as a checkpoint. It was dilapidated, but I actually sort of miss that tiny log building that leaked snowmelt onto my head. The trapper's cabin finally collapsed three years ago, so the lodge built a spacious bunkhouse with two wood stoves. On this night, the bunkhouse interior was heated to at least 85 degrees. Nearly every bunk was full. As I shined my headlamp through the darkness in search of an open bed, I cast a spotlight on a man sleeping in the nude, legs fully splayed. I’m certainly not a prude but the unexpected full-frontal caught me by surprise and caused me to let out an unexpectedly loud "eep."

 “Ah, probably one of the Italians,” I thought with a smirk. I threw a few items on a top bunk in the corner and waited for a meal to rehydrate while I sat and savored hot chocolate. I was 100% content; there was nowhere I’d rather be. It is interesting how wide emotions can swing during these endeavors. I didn’t admit this earlier because it didn’t fit the narrative of happy hiking, but there was more than one hill after Finn Bear Lake that reduced me to exhausted tears. Now I was spooning noodles from a bag and averting my eyes from potential nudity — in other words, paradise.

Ptarmigan Valley as morning clouds settle in.

Nearly everyone was up and out of the bunkhouse earlier than me; I found it difficult to care about my progress and still believed sleep might save me. I was packing up around 6 a.m when another wave of cyclists and the first runner arrived. The runner wasn’t Beat. I admit to being both disappointed and relieved about this. I realized this new wave meant I had slipped from the mid-pack to the back-of-pack, but again, I wasn’t sure this was important to me … although I did still care about Beat's opinion, I admit. 

 The morning was breezy and cloudy, probably about 10 degrees. I quickly broke a sweat climbing away from the lake, right before my cramping hamstrings demanded a return to hiking. Beth passed and then I was alone for a long while. Hints of pink light briefly skimmed mountain tops before the clouds engulfed the landscape in a white pall.

Hints of sunlight

Before this year I’d say I was “five for five” in landing perfect days on Rainy Pass. I always seem to leave Puntilla Lake between the hours of 5 and 8 a.m. and then enjoy the crossing in daylight under bluebird skies and downright friendly temperatures. Rainy Pass can hold some of the most fearsome weather imaginable. I’ve heard stories of hurricane-force winds and 70-below windchills but I’ve yet to experience the teeth of the Alaska Range. 

Ethan searches for the trail near one of the hardy spruce trees of the Ptarmigan Valley

This year the weather was overcast with strong winds and occasional flurries. Still, the moody skies made crossing number six somehow even more perfect. The light was ethereal; the shifting contrasts of white on white were mesmerizing. As it climbed through the Ptarmigan Valley, the trail became increasingly windblown. The light was so flat that it was difficult to discern what was packed trail and what was bottomless powder. I took a few tumbles, usually because I threw a foot down while swerving and punched a chest-deep hole into unconsolidated snow. Ethan passed and I found some success following his line, but he too was having only marginal luck with route-finding. The wind quickly buried his tracks in spindrift, and after a mile or so there was no evidence he’d been through. 

 🎵"Step out the front door like a ghost into the fog" 🎵

By the time the route turned into the drainage below Rainy Pass Lake, there was no longer visible evidence of a trail. Even pushing my bike, the packed trail was difficult to find. I had to go by the feel of the surface under my boots. Strangely, I enjoyed all of this. The flat light obscured the white mountains and gray sky, causing a near-absence of visual stimuli. There was nothing to taste or smell, and only a soft, cloud-like feel of snow under my feet. The low, moaning wind was so monotonous as to become white noise. 

It was very much a place of sensory deprivation, and yet I felt rhythmically in tune with the present. A flock of white ptarmigan flushed out of an alder thicket and returned. Thick snowflakes swirled in the wind, creating a similar pattern of white flashes on a gray background. Glimmers of sunlight cut through the pall and faded. Jagged mountain ridges emerged and disappeared behind clouds. 

 “Heaven,” I thought. Isn’t this what we’re taught of heaven? Peaceful, celestial, eternal? My thoughts were a peaceful murmur. My burning calf muscles and tingling nose spoke a more abrupt truth. I was still a mortal soul in a merciless wilderness. 

This was my first year the weather was actually a bit "sporty" on Rainy Pass.

I took a selfie and a brief break at Rainy Pass — always too cold and windy to linger — and fired a quick satellite text to Beat. He hadn’t replied to any of my messages so far and I doubted he was receiving them, so I mainly used these texts to cry into the void. I complained about fatigue and back pain. Although I did, in hindsight, enjoy my time in Heaven, the difficult push had hobbled my back. I felt shooting pains in the problem area — the spot where I’d been slammed by the side-view mirror of a truck four months earlier. My lower lat muscles were spasming and tightening. 

Not many views; still beautiful.

Rainy Pass is the point of no return — if I retreated to Puntilla, it would be a relatively easy out. But descending into Rohn is pretty much committing to McGrath. It’s extremely expensive and difficult to get out from the uninhabited land beyond this point. I gave brief consideration to turning around and quitting. Can I really do this? Should I do this? The cold wind discouraged rumination. Without making any decision one way or the other, I was soon fishtailing down the invisible trail on a precarious plunge toward Pass Creek. 

The Dazell Gorge

Soft and punchy trail conditions persisted. The route wound through alder thickets and crossed over Pass Creek, which was open and flowing with ankle-deep current. My back spasmed painfully but it was better to ride than push my bike, so I took some chances I might not otherwise take (resulting in at least one hard crash on a hidden patch of ice while I was leaning into a sharp turn.) 

The Dazell Gorge was a moose-stomped minefield — like riding on inverted boulders, but slippery. Again I tried to pretend I am a decent technical rider (I’m not) and kept the pedals turning. Few cyclists wear helmets in this race — the old-school reasoning being that fat bikes are slow and snow is soft — but I have never wanted a helmet so badly as I did on this journey. It was extremely poor planning not to have one. With as much as I crashed (all of my hardest hits were yet to come), I’m lucky I didn’t incur a head injury. Head injuries are definitely being added to my growing list of fears.

Dropping onto the Tatina River. It looks fine. It's not.

The steep gorge emptied into the Tatina River. The six miles of river travel before and after Rohn are by far my most hated section of trail. I dread the Tatina. It’s a fast-flowing mountain river with ever-changing, often dangerous ice conditions. One person’s smooth-sailing ice can be another’s minefield of knee-deep flowing water. Obstacles can change in a matter of hours. And there are eddies deep enough that a truly unlucky person could fall through the ice, get sucked into the current, and drown. Sure, the Tatina is surrounded by incredible mountain scenery and enough quiet to impart a false sense of peace. This is all part of the diabolical nature of the Tatina. If Rainy Pass is Heaven, the Tatina is Hell. 

The Tatina River Narrows, photo by Ethan Harrison

But it’s only four miles to Rohn, so I try to put on a brave face and get it over with. A strong crosswind threw me off balance as I pedaled gingerly over scratched glare ice. Open water began to appear along the edges of the river. At the Narrows, an ice bridge had collapsed. There was no choice but to cross the open channel if I wanted to stick to the trail, which I did. Crossing open water on a known path is preferable to feeling out an untested route over potential instabilities. 

 I stopped and removed my Wiggy’s Waders from my bags — these are the lightweight nylon hip waders that nearly every Iditarod Trail racer carries these days. Sitting on the snow, it took some time to pull the material over my legs, especially because I wanted to take care not to rip the material with the carbide studs embedded in the soles of my boots. By the time I stood again I was shaking profusely, both from cold and fear. 

The ice underfoot was soft and seemed to shudder as though it too was on the verge of collapse. I had little traction from the soles of the waders and dragged my feet in a sluggish shuffle as the current pushed around my knees. Water climbed as high as my mid-thigh — nearly to the top of the waders. The bike bobbed almost weightlessly beside me, floating on its tires. I was certain this was the end of dry anything — I was going to crash through the soft ice, or if not, the channel was going to be chest-deep and I’d swim either way. But I managed to climb out the other side without dropping my bike or flooding my waders 

I didn’t bother removing the waders. I jumped back on my bike and pedaled frantically toward Rohn, fearful that if I stopped moving I’d crash through the ice for sure.

Part One: It's level at the peak

Wednesday, April 20, 2022

It’s level at the peak

The 2022 Iditarod Trail Invitational. Part one of four.

Rainy Pass, 2022.

Fourteen years. It’s a third of my life, and it’s jarring to realize that I’m as far away from the wide-eyed 28-year-old who first crossed mile zero of the Iditarod Trail, as she was from my ninth-grade self. In many ways, I feel closer to that 14-year-old. She was anxious and insecure, jarred by the sudden distance from the child she once was, and straining to hold onto the assurance of religious beliefs. She’d reach for hope but also quietly ruminate on a future of seemingly inevitable catastrophes for which she’d developed more faith than the glossy, Christian version of the apocalypse she believed as a child. 

Shirley Lake, 2022.

That ninth-grader grew jaded and a bit resigned, but then she wandered North. Here was a vision of renewed hope, a place seemingly far from human destruction — the frozen Alaska backcountry, beautiful and wild, a surreal expanse that held the unbroken silence of a subzero morning and the deafening blast of Arctic winds. Now I see this place in my dreams, when I meditate to calm my brain to sleep, when I wake up blinking and confused, what year is this again? In these moments I see mountains, white and glittering beneath the winter sunlight. Even when the cacophony of life overwhelms my senses, this image grounds me. 

Finn Bear Lake, 2022.

The North seemed inevitable, my “calling.” The Iditarod Trail Invitational, the human-powered race that travels Alaska's most storied trail, was the perfect expression of this passion, a benediction if you will. For nearly a third of my life, I was all in — even through relationship upheavals, health setbacks, career diversions, and relocations. I roped in my partner, who fell harder than I did. He’s returned to mile zero of the Iditarod Trail nearly every year since 2012. So even when I didn’t race, our lives still revolved around preparations for the North. It began to feel like this intense ritual, like going to church on Sunday but for six months out of the year — testing gear, buying supplies, training, and preparing. Burnout began to sear the edges of my passion even before 2020. I feared this lapse of faith, so I doubled down on my commitment to the North with the ultimate challenge — attempting to walk the entire thousand miles to Nome. 

Dragging my sled toward Finger Lake in 2020. Photo by Mark Smith.

 The 2020 Iditarod Trail was a difficult test by any standard. Windchills and then ambient temperatures dipped below minus 40, several feet of snow buried the route, every ITI veteran agreed this year was one of the toughest. I fought because this had become part of my identity, to face the worst Alaska could dish out even when everything else about life frightened me. But this time I went too far; I pushed too hard, let my executive functions falter, fell asleep on my feet, and tumbled into a tree well at 45 below. The snow was so deep that I struggled to pull myself out of the hollow, thrashing through a primal panic as powder packed into my clothing. Once I was free, the subzero cold felt blisteringly painful against my wet skin. My choices at that point were to build a campfire or set up a bivy to shield my exhausted body from the cold and try to sleep away my ongoing hallucinations. I chose the latter because it seemed simpler and faster, and luckily I’d hauled the best gear — my body was overburdened but at least my mind was prepared. But I’d rarely felt so close to the edge. It still frightens me to recall this moment and recognize how near I was to falling through my own cracks into a terrifying void. 

 “This isn’t what I want. Not at all.” I was finally beginning to believe it. 

Rainy Pass, 2022.

I admitted that I wasn’t strong enough to conquer my ultimate challenge and quit the following morning in McGrath. I thought it might be time to walk away for good, but as soon as I left the Iditarod Trail on March 10, 2020, we crashed directly into the upheaval of the global pandemic. For many of us, COVID was an earthquake, rattling us to the core before settling into a quiet desolation. We were all desperate for renewal. My perspective contracted and then broadened. 

 “One more time to Nome. With a bike this time. I did it once; I can do it again.” 

When I signed up it was April 2021 — perhaps the best month of the past two years. The pandemic was waning. Races were restarting. Normalcy was returning. Optimism overflowed. I signed up for summer events and launched joyfully into training in May. But then came June, when my father fell from a mountain ridge and died. Entire decades seemed to collapse at once. Again everything changed. I reverted back to the confusion of my 14-year-old self, reaching toward the divine only to grasp doubt and confusion. I looked longingly toward 28-year-old me, with her perfect faith in adventure, standing on the shoreline of Knik Lake. I envied her, about to plunge into a beautiful and intense wave that would ripple through the next 14 years. But in my grief I lost the flow; all that remained was cold, darkness and turbulence. 

Egypt Mountain, 2022.

So I was going to walk away. Summer was clouded in grief. I didn’t care about much of anything, let alone racing. August and a few weeks in the incredible Swiss Alps began to soften my edges; I wavered back toward the light. At the end of September, I attempted an endurance mountain bike race called the Utah Mixed Epic, but I was so wracked with emotional pain that after 500 miles I all but collapsed in the desert, locked in a terrifying headspace that felt as close to the void as I felt in that tree well in Alaska. Just a couple weeks later, I was hit by a truck. My back hurt for months, enough so that I could barely ride a bicycle, let alone train for a weeks-long endurance race. 

So I was going to walk away. I had every excuse to walk away. But it’s so hard to let go. 

Knik Bar parking lot on February 27, 2022.

This is how I ended up at mile zero of the Iditarod Trail once again, 42 years old, jaded and a bit resigned. I did pull my name off the Nome roster and re-entered the “short” race — Nome was too much, too far, but 315-ish miles to McGrath had the potential to be a fun, cathartic experience if I didn’t take it too seriously. 

There was no way to take it too seriously. My training had been a mess, but I stuck with the bike because I hadn’t done a shred of sled-dragging or strength training to give a walking excursion even a fighting chance. I’d barely even walked in eight weeks — in January I fell down the stairs and broke my toe; it was barely healed. I was concerned about back pain, but even more concerned about mental monsters. Weirdly, I only held passing concern for the real dangers of the trail: Weather, remoteness, cold, unpredictable trail conditions. After 14 years, I’d developed a measure of comfort with these uncertainties, a familiarity with the ever-changing ghost trail. My perspective broadened and then contracted. 

Beat calls this my "deer in the headlights" expression

Beat and I exchanged our “see you in a month or so" kiss and individually took off across the lake — me on my bike, him with his sled, same as it ever was. The day was uncomfortably warm but the first 10 miles of trail were in perfect condition. I fell in line with a pack of twelve or so, following the traditional Iditarod Trail to Burma Road. This was the first time in many years that the bike field chose this undulating route through the hills. 

Amber leads the group on snowmachine trails north of Big Lake.

The rules of this race dictate that racers must hit every checkpoint, but how they get there is up to them. For the past two years, the race director threw a wrench in the ITI's well-established gears with a new checkpoint at a private cabin on Butterfly Lake. The checkpoint stood well north of the Iditarod Trail and had dozens of possible approaches along a complex network of both used and unused trails. There was no way of knowing which combination on the map even existed let alone which was the best choice. Each racer had to pick a line and go from there — a Wordle puzzle of winter navigation. 

Checking out the "trail" on Big Lake on February 25, 2022. 

This year added a third dimension to the challenge with overflow. For weeks the weather had been intensely warm and a decent percentage of the route was underwater, quite literally. Just about the entirety of pre-race chatter focused on how to navigate the first thirty miles. Beat and I drove out to Big Lake two days before the race and confirmed that the most popular 2021 route was a no-go unless we wanted to wade through shin-deep slush for miles. We settled on wrapping around the lake via the Iditarod Trail and Burma Road, which added at least five miles of distance and eight miles of trafficked roads. Beat would have to drag his sled over bare gravel, but even he agreed this was the way to go. 

Pushing up "9 Mile Hill" on the Iditarod Trail. It's a doozy.

Most of the Anchorage locals drew the same conclusion. Those who hadn’t predetermined their route followed us. We rode in a big pack that slowly broke apart as paces and decisions diverged. The day was so warm that it felt more like a social ride in Colorado than the first day of a brutal winter endurance race in Alaska. Despite the friendly atmosphere, I retained a stiff, uncomfortable demeanor. I was terrified of falling into overflow — my background here is that I punched through a pressure crack in the ice on Flathorn Lake in 2009. My right leg sank into bottomless water, soaking a boot and resulting in frostbite on my right foot. Recovery was difficult (I still have nerve issues in this foot and adopted the mantra that “frostbite is forever.”) But I feel lucky — I strongly believe that grace alone prevented me from plunging into the lake and drowning. 

Crossing the Little Su River.

I’ve retained a deep phobia of ice ever since, but I’ve also had some success in overcoming my fear. After all, at least a quarter of the Iditarod Trail crosses directly over ice, and I’ve traveled a lot of Iditarod Trail since 2009. Still, I could barely contain a gurgling panic as Bobbette, Becca, Amber, Beth and I balanced our bikes across a thin strip of hardpacked snow surrounded by slush on the Little Su River. It felt like balancing on a slackline in big boots while dragging a bike through hub-deep water. The other ladies were laughing. The stakes seemed low — the temperature was still a balmy 25 degrees and the checkpoint was less than 10 miles away. And yet, when are the stakes of wet feet in subfreezing temperatures ever low? 

Beth is happy that she made it across the Little Su with dry feet.

Our trail choice became continuously less traveled and softer until we had to hike the final three miles to the checkpoint. I was becoming tired, more so than I thought was justified. My fatigue was justified, though — I’d only managed a few hundred miles of bicycle training since October, and almost none on a loaded fat bike, so I don’t know why I expected better fitness. Some people can put in impressively long efforts on limited training (Beat), but that has never been my mode of operation. I’m often accused of overtraining, but geez, why is it I only feel like shit when I’m “well-rested?” 

We reached Butterfly Lake around sunset, probably about five hours past the start, at mile 35. After walking the trail in 2018 and 2020, I’d grown accustomed to a consistent 2 mph pace, so I found this to be blazing fast. Amber, who had also only walked and skied the trail before this year, agreed we were flying. 

Riding with the ladies (and Graham) on day one. This was a fun afternoon.

Six of the seven women in the bike field were now clustered together at the checkpoint. Five of us stripped to our skivvies so we could hang and dry sweaty base layers in a sauna-like warming hut. We guzzled soup and coffee, laughing in our bras while a handful of more modest men leaned against the walls of the hut, seeming inclined to give us space. If it could only be like this in real life — six ladies on a fun bike trip, ready to tear up a raucous night. 

Dawn on the Yentna River.

Instead, we packed up and headed out into the darkness alone, facing softer trails and the prospect of truly scary, truly dangerous overflow on the Susitna and Yentna rivers. I’d used up the limits of my fitness in the first five hours and soon fell far behind the group. Bobbette and Becca were with me for a while, since their chosen route (Trail 11) was unbroken and I had a GPS track for the mysterious and unmapped Iron Dog route to the north. But as soon as we descended onto the Susitna River, they too left me in the dust. There was a lot of refrozen overflow along the river, mounds of bumpy crust and ice shards. There were a few liquid puddles as well. The temperature had plummeted to zero degrees and a stiff headwind rushed down the river. 

Looking toward the Shell Hills on the Yentna River.

I was frightened. I didn’t want to be here — not in this volatile era of February break-up, and not on a surface that could easily collapse and swallow me whole. The trail cut across a slough and turned onto the Yentna River, where the ice conditions seemed more stable. Hours had now passed since leaving Butterfly Lake. I had long burned through all of my anxiety matches and was now almost too tired to care what happened to me. The trail was well-packed but felt like Velcro under my tires. The stiff breeze amplified a deepening cold. We’d later determine it was “only” about 5 or 10 below zero on the river, but I hadn’t fully dried out my sweaty clothing at Butterfly Lake, and I probably wasn’t generating a lot of heat with my exhausted pedaling. I did not feel good. A few guys who’d dealt with early mechanicals — Matt Tanaka who had tire pressure issues, and Jay Cable who had to pedal standing (!!) because of a fully snapped seatpost — flew past me like I was standing still. 

 I eventually made it to Yentna Station around 1 a.m. I assumed everyone else would be in and out at this point, but the place was packed. I’d originally hoped to reach a more accommodating lodge about 20 miles upriver, but that was far too much to ask of my legs tonight. Yentna only had a single bunk bed remaining — as in a narrow, precipitously high top bunk — for Beth and me to share. We would have to spoon. I didn’t care. I just wanted to put my legs up for a while. Still, it was extremely uncomfortable inside the overheated and overcrowded bunkhouse, so by 5 a.m. I was up and pedaling again. 

Morning on the Yentna River at 10 below.

 I didn’t feel strong. That was all there was to it. My legs had no power. I tried to remember if I’d felt so rundown so early in a race before. Probably not, but what could I expect? It was unprecedented for me to enter the Iditarod Trail as lackadaisically undertrained and unmotivated as I’d been in February 2022. My laziness felt sacrilegious. I know this trail and its dangers too well, and I should know better. 

 “Well, we’re here, not much we can do about it now,” I said out loud, mostly to my legs. 

 Frost collected on my eyelashes and cheeks as pale morning light appeared in the overcast sky. I arrived at the detour for Bentalit Lodge and decided to take the long way and have some breakfast. Even a couple of hours of stalling over multiple cups of coffee didn’t perk me up much. I zombie-pedaled most of the way to Skwentna. 

This is a few days earlier during a "boot test" on Big Lake. The Skwentna River was deeper than this.

Four miles before the checkpoint, the trail forks into two choices: a trail that follows the Skwentna River and one that cuts overland. The overland trail is hillier and usually softer, so I turned toward the river. I watched the distant silhouettes of two cyclists step off their bikes and take diverging paths. One crashed hard when he tried to get back on his bike and ride — a sure sign of tricky overflow. Sure enough, there was a quarter-mile-long span of open water and slush. The cyclists, Ethan and Robert, were now past the overflow. They waved their arms and pointed toward the direction they went, but I know how this can go — venturing off the trail is always a crapshoot. One person’s lucky step can become your plunge into a knee-deep hole. 

 Still, the morning had warmed and I was close to a checkpoint. The stakes seemed low. I dismounted my bike and wandered toward their footprints. Almost immediately, I stepped through a hidden puddle and sank into blue slush. Water was just a centimeter from pouring over the top of my right boot. I yanked my leg but nothing happened — slush had fully entrapped my foot. I had no choice but to pull my sock foot — luckily shielded by a plastic vapor barrier — out of the boot. Balancing on one leg while holding up my bike with my left hand, I carefully knelt down and used my bare right hand to reach into the slush and claw at the ice that was rapidly solidifying underneath the trapped boot. It was all quite precarious, a little funny, and a little terrifying. What if I couldn’t free my boot? 

 Incredibly, not only did I free the boot, but it remained completely dry inside. Before the race, I’d purchased a new pair of Kamik snow boots. I have sensitive feet and shins and a lot of requirements for footwear — soft uppers, good traction, as warm as possible, but insulation actually isn’t at the top of my list since a good sock system can go a long way. My old Vasque hiking boots met all of these needs but were far from waterproof — and this year, waterproofness seemed crucial. Several tests proved that these boots leaked as well, so Beat came to the rescue with a gallon of seam-sealer. His modifications made the boots look like shiny black trash bags, but it worked. My feet remained dry. I immediately turned around and detoured to the overland trail. 

Ethan and Robert with The Roadblocking Moose.

At Skwentna I sat down and ordered a bowl of chili even though I didn’t really feel like stopping and wasn’t hungry after a big breakfast. All of this mucking around led to me leaving the checkpoint much later in the afternoon than I’d hoped. I had been aiming to reach Finger Lake, some 40 miles farther, before stopping that night. But did I even care about making good progress in the race? I will admit, it was difficult to care. 

I pedaled up a short section of plowed road, ending in a cluster of utility buildings about a mile from the lodge. There I met a cow moose, who turned and eyed me warily. As far as I’m concerned, moose are the number two scariest thing on this trail, second only to overflow. In 2020 there were a number of incidents involving ornery moose. Several racers were attacked and injured. Volatile weather patterns and deep snow pointed to a good chance of even ornerier moose in 2022, so I was taking no chances. I stepped off my bike when I was still a fair distance away and stared at the moose. She stared back, making no moves. 

About 15 minutes went by before I started to shiver, so I pulled on an extra jacket and mittens. As I was doing this, Ethan and Robert rode up behind me. They were in no mood for a standoff for a moose, so they began pedaling toward her, yelling and clapping. She’d take a few casual steps down the trail then turn back again as though to ask, “okay, what are you going to do now?” 

A growing pile-up and an obstinate moose.

This went on for another half hour, with Ethan and Robert driving her bit by bit to a junction where the trail leaves the woods and turns into an open swamp. For the next five miles, there are no trees and nowhere else for a moose to go besides the trail. I thought for sure she’d do what moose normally do and leave the trail to return to the woods, but instead, she trotted into the swamp as the three of us shadowed her timidly. Nearly an hour had passed when the Italians arrived — actually three Italians and a Spanish man who were traveling together. They were in no mood to wait either, so they tried to cut a path off the trail. The swamp was buried in many feet of unconsolidated snow. The trail itself was blocked by a three-foot-high berm. Breaking trail from here was all but impossible.

No way the moose was leaving the trail now. I knew it. I wished I could go back in time, turn around when I first saw her and return to Skwentna. I could sit in a warm lodge for the next five hours and drink coffee rather than drive an ornery moose to the end of a godforsaken swamp. I didn’t see how it could go any other way. Our group continued to grow. Graham the New Zealander pulled up with a broken pedal, riding on the spindle and so impatient to continue that he was willing to use his bike this way until a new pedal could be flown into Puntilla. Beth arrived. Then Becca and Bobbette. At least a dozen cyclists had clustered together when the race director and photographer just happened to pull up on snowmachines. 

The group cuts away from the trail.

Kyle and Mark gunned their snowmachines and charged toward the moose. Seconds later, gunshots rang out. I hunched on the ground, braced for anticipated violence. As it turned out Kyle was trying to spook the moose, not shoot her — but the noise prompted her to wheel around and charge toward the group. We scrambled and plunged into snowbanks. Perhaps too smart to crash into a large group of humans, the moose turned again and ran back to her original spot, then laid down. Kyle continued to drive circles around her on his snowmachine. She didn’t even care. 

 “What a clown show,” I said to Beth. Sitting in the snow with 15 people and a single stubborn moose as a roadblock did not seem like the kind of thing that should be happening in a respectable Iditarod race. This moose was making asses of all of us.

The arduous detour.

Eventually, Kyle returned and said he had cut a detour so we could walk around her. The newly broken path still necessitated pushing our bikes through soft snow, but it was better than sitting in place. Like a diabolical mastermind, the moose stood and continued trotting up the swamp, ensuring no one could return to the trail. The single-file marchers kept a fierce pace; I was sweating profusely and bonking pretty hard, but I couldn’t slow or stall the others behind me. We pushed our bikes along Kyle’s trail for three miles; this alone took more than 90 minutes. By the time we reached the far end of the swamp, as the first person to meet her, I’d lost nearly six hours to the moose-jam. 

The quiet forest in the Shell Hills.

Back on the trail, we began the climb into the Shell Hills. The group faded ahead and I was alone, feeling like crap but trying to embrace the surrounding beauty. Birch trees towered overhead, framing a patchwork of delicate pink clouds. I pushed my bike up most of the climb, then fought intermittent wind drifts over a smooth but soft trail. 

I arrived at Shell Lake Lodge at dusk, feeling more exhausted than I was sure I’d ever felt. Although not an official checkpoint, the race director said he had rented a couple of cabins that we could use. Through the warm-looking windows, I saw much of the moose-jam group gathered around the tables, talking and laughing. I didn’t care about dinner, and even if I had, there was no energy left for socializing. I pushed my bike to one of the open cabins, crawled into a top bunk, and passed out without setting an alarm. Although not intending to do this, I would sleep like the dead for the next 11 hours.