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.


  1. Yikes, that moose encounter sounds horrible!

  2. I've never read anyone that can paint such vivid pictures with words. Then your photos add an incredible finishing touch. Wondering what the next leg of the race will hold.

  3. So glad to read your adventures again. The moose standoff is priceless.

  4. Thanks for sharing your adventures. Can’t wait to see what’s next!

  5. Jill, you are so much stronger than you give yourself credit for. We all have anxieties that we rail against and that hold us back. Thank you for sharing yours and showing how you overcome them. Well done.😎

  6. I love your race reports. As usual, this one is outstanding! Loved the details about the moose stand off. Uggh. Glad nobody got hurt.
    Can't wait to hear more details.

  7. I hadn't heard about the moose encounter. Holy smokes!

  8. Wonderful writing. The Year of the Stubborn Moose!

  9. So very thankful to you, Jill, for writing again and sharing again! Reading your accounts of these races is like no other. It is so interesting and enjoyable to read about your experiences and see the gorgeous pictures. Thank you!!


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