Friday, March 09, 2012

Clear sky send-off

 Alaska sure knows how to break my heart.

After Beat returned from McGrath, we had two more days to kill in Anchorage before our scheduled flight back to California. Beat was predictably exhausted and slightly shell-shocked, but managed to walk out of his eight-day ordeal relatively injury-free. I'll probably write a bit more about Beat's Iditarod experience and the aftermath in another blog post, but he's doing well. He had painfully cracked finger tips from continuous freezing and thawing, and a bulging blister under his big toenail. However, he was already up and running the following day, modeling his powder snowshoe sprinting skills for our photographer friend Dan. Dan and Amy took great care of Beat by baking a steady stream of pizza and cookies, and they let me borrow their snow bikes for some crunch-time White Mountains 100 training.

 Alaska blessed my snow-biking frenzy with blue skies, perfectly groomed multiuse trails (the Tour of Anchorage just came through here last Sunday) and fast-flowing, foot-packed singletrack. Birch trees shimmered with frost, the Chugach Mountains carved a dramatic skyline, and I had to consciously decide to close my mouth to keep my teeth from freezing through my grin. Luckily Dan's schedule limited me to a few hours each day because I easily could have burned every second of available daylight (and there seems to be a lot up there now) out on those trails. I even question the actual training value of the hours I did steal, so lost was I in snow-rolling bliss.

The problem with sunny March days in Alaska is that they all but force you to fall in love with this place all over again. The wooing doesn't let up for a second:

It's beautiful when you're driving along the Glenn Highway ...

It's beautiful when you're gassing up the trucks you borrowed at $4.31 a gallon ...

It's beautiful when you're commuting to the airport beneath a full moon and the strongest solar storm since 2004, witnessing luminescent waves of white and green aurora despite layers of light pollution.

And just when you think you can't possibly fall any more deeply in love, it's time to cram your exhausted body onto a red-eye flight and jet back to reality. I am happy to be home, though. Happy to be back in familiar settings with my own bikes, excited to see my cat again, excited to get back to more focused work, looking forward to some real down time with Beat (that is, after I cram in a "peak" training weekend on the Fatback.) It was predictably gorgeous in California this afternoon, with skies as clear as those in Southcentral Alaska and temperatures near 70. I went out for a road bike ride, where I simultaneously felt ridiculously fast as well as overheated and sluggish. Still, it was fun to feel the effortless freedom of rolling pavement after weeks of trudging through snow, and I'm really looking forward to a night in my own bed.

But I will be back, Alaska. In two weeks, actually. After that, I'll just have to see how long I can resist the magnetic pull. 
Thursday, March 08, 2012

Yukon fat bike weekend

 There are strange things done 'neath the cold March sun
By the women who ride fat bikes
The Yukon trails have their secret tales
Of the good times that everyone likes.
The Northern Lights have revealed cool sights
But the coolest they ever did guide
Was a fat bike train across wintry terrain
By four girls out for a weekend ride.

One called "Alaska Jill" you see was from Cali
Where the sunshine always stays
Why she left her home in the south to roam
Round the frozen wastelands, she couldn't say.
She was always sore, but Yukon lore
Seemed to hold her like a spell.
And she drove all day just to while away
A weekend on these snow-covered trails.

On a misty Sunday they started pedaling away
Over the Dawson Trail.
Thoughts of cabin beds for the cold night ahead
Kept them hammering like they were driving nails.
With grins frozen in place at the wide-open space,
Where a remote trail provides adventure and thrills.
It tickled them all, but the biggest smile of all
Belonged to Alaska Jill.

Okay, that's about as far as I'm going to get in my take on Robert Service's "The Cremation of Sam McGee." The poem was cited, along with Nelly's "Hot in Herre" and other classics, during an overnight fat bike tour with four awesome women. We rode a hundred kilometers of the Dawson Overland Trail, the famous gold rush route that passes Lake LeBarge en route from Whitehorse to Dawson. Now the trail is better known for serving as the route for the Yukon Quest dog sled race and Yukon Arctic Ultra human-powered race. It's also famous for being horrendously cold (think 60 below), but we were lucky to see mild weather and great trail conditions for our relaxing overnight hut trip.

It started, as many great things start these days, with a simple tweet. Somewhere in the Twitterverse I fell into a conversation with a woman named Jill who is actually from Alaska, and eventually had to admit that my Twitter handle (@AlaskaJill) is misleading. (It was more true when I created the account while living in Alaska.) Then, in the way great things work in random ways, we figured out we had common interests in snow biking and mutual friends in Canada, and started discussing the possibility of meeting up for a winter bike trip in the Yukon. After a couple months of spontaneous planning in 140 characters or less, The Real Alaska Jill and I finally met in person, and then drove a truck 700 miles from Anchorage to Whitehorse.

Jill and I joined our Whitehorse friends Sierra and Jenn for the weekend tour. I borrowed a Surly Pugsley from our Canadian friends' friend. Sierra planned a trip from Braeburn to the Takhini River, 100 kilometers of backcountry trail with a cabin near the halfway point. She even arranged for a friend with a snowmobile to pack in our dinner and some of the gear. Because she couldn't arrange a shuttle out, we did have to plan for carrying our gear on the second day, so I ended up carrying everything in except for my 9-ounce sleeping pad. This gear was surprisingly light, probably because I didn't bring enough clothing.

The trip was unique in many ways, but I think one of the coolest aspects was the fact that four women were pedaling fat bikes across a rather daunting distance in the Yukon backcountry during the winter. The sport of snow biking is growing, but it's still tiny and dominated by men. The strangeness of four girls on fat-wheeled bicycles wasn't lost on the handful of hunters that passed us on Sunday, staring almost googly eyed at us as they inquired about what we were possibly doing out there. We got a late start and had to pedal fairly hard in a race with daylight (which fades so much later now than it did just three weeks ago at this latitude.) We encountered our "cabin boy" Sky Hunter* about 25 miles down the trail. Sky told us the public cabin was occupied by bison hunters, but there was a trapper's cabin a few miles away that was empty. (*that's his real name)

The trapper's cabin was a spacious log building with a massive wood stove that we stocked with Sky's supply of firewood (and later some "to be purchased later by calling the cabin owner" firewood.) Sky had done so much for us and told such great stories that we talked him into staying for pasta dinner and then into spending the night, even though it did take away from our female-version-of-Brokeback-Mountain jokes. We sat by the wood stove, sipped beverages and laughed late into the evening. It was decidedly non-epic, which was refreshing. I think I've been doing snow biking all wrong lo these past years (this revelation won't stop me from continuing to enter races like the White Mountains 100, even though my untrained snow biking muscles protested mightily this weekend and revealed all the ways in which that race is going to be really hard, given it's less than three weeks from now.)

Photo by Jenn Roberts
The next morning, Sierra cooked breakfast over the dwindling fire while I tried to steal as much extra sleep as I could (this was the same night Beat was making his way through -40 temperatures between Nikolai and McGrath, and I let the lack of cell phone reception work me up into an anxiety-ridden lather over a situation that was a thousand miles away and completely beyond my control.) Anyway, because of this, I really didn't sleep. But I was excited to get back on the trail (and, as Jenn pointed out later, closer to cell reception.) 

We had some of our own cold to deal with, starting the day at -4 near the cabin and feeling it drop even lower in low-lying areas and shady spots — probably down to 10 below. I'm not sure what I was thinking but I had basically packed for a day ride in temperatures above 15. I didn't have an extra insulation layer, a thick balaclava or warmer mittens — all things I would have worn had they been available. My core temperature dropped and consequently my fingers and toes felt quite cold. It was manageable but I found I couldn't stop moving for more than two minutes before I felt uncomfortable, and after five minutes I started to feel some anxiety about my own cold situation. Since this was a nice social ride, the stops were frequent, and I often used them to run around and inject some blood back into my toes. As soon as I figured out how to manage my core temperature with the clothing I had, I felt fine and no longer worried about it. But I was always on the verge of feeling too cold, which is not all that fun.

The scenery was beautiful, with rounded mountains, birch forests and steep river gorges. Our first day of primarily climbing paid off on the second day, with fast and swooping descents. They weren't great for my body temperature, but the downhills reminded me why I love snow biking. Snow biking can be a character-building slog, but it can also be a vehicle for perfect freedom. There's a Zen-like peacefulness to the subdued colors and silence of winter, and Yin-and-Yang thrill in white-knuckle descents atop a pillow of frozen crystals.

Photo by Jenn Roberts
And despite the subzero temperatures and occasional overflow, there was still plenty of chatting and joking among the girls of "Pecha Kucha Mountain." (Don't ask me where this name came from. This is the way jokes progress on a weekend that involves girls, wine, and a hundred kilometers of frozen nothingness.) As we passed historic artifacts, I wondered what the gold rushers a century ago might have thought about four women on bikes. There are strange things done 'neath the midnight sun.

Thanks to Sierra, Jenn, and The Real Alaska Jill (or Jill Hunter or whatever other nicknames we came up with this weekend. There were many.) I really enjoyed my weekend with the girls. 
Wednesday, March 07, 2012

Beat finished!

Beat and Anne Ver Hoef in McGrath. Photo by Iditarod Trail Invitational
Beat finally finished this crazy race, reaching the finish line in 8 days, 2 hours and 20 minutes in seventh place with our friend Anne. Sorry for the lack of updates as it's been quite a busy weekend. More soon.