Saturday, May 07, 2022

Just being here now is enough for me

The 2022 Iditarod Trail Invitational. Part four of four.

The Kuskokwim River, March 4, 2022

 The story of my final day on the Iditarod Trail in 2022 has been a difficult one to start. In addition to being my potential last day ever on the Iditarod Trail — at least in the context of this race — this turned out to be one of my favorite days. But if I wrote from a direct perspective, purely about what happened, it would come across as an exhausting, tedious, punishing sort of day — which it was. If I approached the story from the more fluid perspective of my inner world, it would read like a weird fever dream — which it also was. The truth, as usual, is both and also neither, too complex for a tidy narrative. But we keep trying, don’t we, to tell our story? Like anyone attempting to weave tangled threads of experience, I hope to grasp something tangible from the abstraction of memory. 

Morning outside Nikolai

The day started inside the Nikolai checkpoint at the unforgivably early hour of 7 a.m. The checkpoint, located in the village community center, is a large open room with a pool table, a few folding chairs, a bathroom, and a kitchen. When I arrived at 1 a.m., again last in a large conglomeration of cyclists, the only people awake were Troy and a Danish man who I learned was Asbjorn's father. Asbjorn was a skier in the Nome race. The man — who presumably traveled all the way from Denmark to volunteer at this remote checkpoint in rural Alaska — was standing outside and waving his arms when I pulled up to the community center. He had seen from my tracker that I'd spent the last half hour pedaling aimlessly around the village. I found it amusing but endearing that he thought standing in the dark and making this gesture would help me find my way. He directed me inside and offered to cook a hamburger. 

 “This is only the second hamburger I have ever made,” he said proudly. “I am learning American cuisine. How is it?” 

 “It’s great,” I chirped, although he could have served a desiccated piece of Spam and I would have eaten it. I was too muddled to be discerning, and my mouth was too raw from several days of frozen nuts to taste much of anything. I felt shattered. Just so tired. 

Moody skies over the still well-packed trail outside Nikolai

I finished my late-night burger and rolled out my sleeping bag on the linoleum floor. The room was lined with wall-to-wall sleeping bags and there wasn't much space left to lie down. I had to squeeze into a spot in the center of the room. Doubtlessly some people had to step over me during the night, but I still slept like a corpse until the final stragglers started moving five hours later. This was my group — the five who shared tent space in Rohn and banded together for the South Fork crossing. Even though I could barely sit up, I felt compelled to follow them. 

 When I say I could barely sit up, I’m not exaggerating. I must have crashed my bike at least a dozen times the previous day. My pre-dawn body slam on hard ice had limited the mobility in my left hip, but this limp was just the beginning. My entire body was a knot of pain. I was lucky to have cleared the moguls without breaking any bones, but every joint creaked and groaned. My muscles felt tenderized. My bruised skin was throbbing. Every limb was stiff. My older injuries — the back pain and broken toe — were still there, but so muffled by the screaming from everything else that they hardly registered. When I was still weirdly contorted in my sleeping bag on the floor, Becca walked by and asked if I was planning to leave soon. 

“I need to summon the will to live,” I croaked. I wasn’t exaggerating about this, either. If I had two buttons and one said “ride to McGrath feeling the way you do” and the other said “die painlessly,” it would have been a genuine toss-up. 

 The official checkpoint volunteer, George, was sitting at the kitchen counter and barking at his phone. Apparently, Lindsay, the 70-something Canadian cyclist, was injured near the Farewell Lakes and had requested a rescue. A volunteer from Rohn had already tried to get through without success — the bumps were too much for his machine. 

 “It’s too windy for anyone to fly,” George said into the phone. “What does he expect us to do?” 

The Kuskokwim River as seen from the air

Indeed, despite the minimal windows in the room, I could hear an ominous knocking against the walls. The wind had returned and it was unlikely to be the tailwind we’d enjoyed the previous day. The trail beyond Nikolai went generally west but also occasionally turned south along the meandering Kuskokwim River. As I creaked to a standing position, I visualized the route map superimposed over what I still believed to be the wind direction — the previous day’s 25 mph southwest winds. A destabilizing crosswind and drifted trails seemed all but certain. This would turn out to be an optimistic assessment because the wind had shifted to the south. 

Beat and I joke about how people always overestimate wind speed. Winds are always “At least 50 mph, probably gusting to 80!” I do this too, even though I know that if the wind was actually blowing 80 mph, my body would be splayed on the ground and I would be forced to crawl if I wanted to move at all. So, for this report, I checked the weather record for March 4 at the Nikolai airport — keeping in mind that winds are often higher on the river. When I left town at 8:10 a.m., the wind was blowing SSW at 16 mph, gusting to 28. This would increase throughout the day with a continuous wind speed of 26 mph and gusts as high as 53 mph. Trust me when I say this is a lot of wind. 

While packing up to head out, a gust caught my red bivy bundle and blew it a few hundred yards down the snow-packed street. I had to sprint after my survival gear, stumbling and groaning in pain. For two miles the trail follows a village road through the woods before dipping onto the frozen Kuskokwim River. I stopped a number of times for any excuse I could imagine just to avoid the inevitable. Even with the relative protection of the woods, crosswinds knocked me to and fro. My legs throbbed. I was miserable. 

Morning light on the Kuskokwim River

Then I thought of a mantra that my friend Jorge mentioned after his 2018 walk to Nome. It sounds bleak but it works for me — an unapologetic pessimist whose mental scaffolding is prone to collapse before the game is over. The mantra is, “This is never going to end.” I repeat it to myself when I’m frustrated. There’s no light at the end of the tunnel. There’s no end to the discomfort. And if there’s no end, then how do I learn to live here? 

 Somehow this worked. My focus shifted from misery to renewed determination to embrace the difficulty and ignore the pain. I dropped onto the river, buffeted by a fearsome crosswind. Several inches of spindrift coated the trail. Finding the rideable line wasn’t trivial. Beneath the windblown powder was an intermittent mix of packed snow and whipped-up, mashed potato snow. The mashed potato snow was too soft to support my weight. But the packed snow surface remained hidden from view. Keeping the wheels turning became a kind of Zen meditation, an indescribable sense of knowing the unknowable, of finding the way by intuition alone. 

Drifted snow over the trail

It sounds hokey now, but I was mesmerized by the effort. For timeless miles I remained wholly absorbed in the next pedal stroke, the next shimmy of the handlebars, always holding my invisible line and never wavering even as the south wind continued to rattle me violently. Bobbette and Becca were about a quarter-mile behind. Snow continued to blow across the trail, erasing my tracks. Although riders had been through just a few hours before, there was no evidence of their passing, either. This is something I respect about winter trails — they are always changing. In this way, "ghost trails" are living works of art: an embodiment of the impermanence in all things. 

Each moment that my mind, body, and soul were wholly absorbed in drawing a perfect line in the snow, that’s all it was — a moment. Wheels turned, spindrift filled in my tracks, and it was as though I was never there. Can you understand the freedom therein? It was exhilarating. If I exist in a world without end but also without beginning, then each moment is everything. There can be no past filled with pain, no future weighted with worry. And each moment — the snow, the moody sky, the distant mountains stretched along the horizon — was indescribably beautiful. 

Pushing when the drifted snow was too difficult to ride

My mind did occasionally wander. My moving meditation was interrupted by the most random memories: people I hadn’t thought about in years, insignificant snippets of the past. Memory can be so fickle. I suppose this is another beautiful embodiment of impermanence: the vignettes of life that we carry in our subconscious, for reasons we don’t even understand. Though bewildering at times, it was interesting to wend through the lesser-traveled corridors of my mind. Some memories bordered on hallucinations, closer to a sleeping dream than a daydream. For long minutes, I’d be wholly immersed in the neon lights of State Street in Salt Lake City, a teenager in a car surrounded by nearly forgotten yet vivid sounds and smells — the lime yogurt that fermented and then exploded in the trunk of my friend's Chevy Cavalier, Queens of the Stone Age playing on a garbled FM radio station. 

It was so real. Then, as though being pulled out from underwater, I’d snap back to howling wind and an invisible line in the snow. These fluctuations between past and present became unnerving, enough so that I forced myself back to a more normal state of mind — one that, unfortunately, was more attuned to pain and boredom. 

Breaking my bike down to carry it up this short but steep embankment

The trail also became more dynamic, with bumpy shortcuts through the forest, stretches across swamps where the loose snow was too deep to ride with or without Zen techniques, and punchy climbs and descents on and off the river. One embankment was only about as high as my head, but the climb was nearly vertical, slicked with ice, and impossible. I tried several methods of hoisting my bike to the top before I finally relented to removing the bags. I hooked the frame to my backpack and climbed the embankment, kicking tiny steps into the ice and using exposed roots as handholds. I returned two more times for the bags. Though successful, the experience rattled me a little bit. I suddenly felt vulnerable. What if I came to an embankment that I simply couldn’t climb up? It wouldn’t take much to break me, and this wind-blasted wilderness isn’t kind to broken people. 

 The trail cut through the woods and dropped back onto the river, this time heading due south. The wind, doubtlessly gusting to 50 mph, became an invisible but impenetrable wall. I could no longer ride forward. Genuinely, I could not. I felt so exposed. It wasn’t that cold — certainly, it wasn’t 45 below like 2020 — and yet I felt the same sort of unease, a realization that my human body was exceptionally fragile. This realization is one of the reasons I don’t think I will return to the Iditarod Trail, at least not in this context — as an endurance racer, pressed against my soft human limits. 

The isolation I can feel out there is difficult to depict

Earlier this year, when I admitted to friends that I did not want to return for the 2022 race, I heard similar assurances: “It’s okay. You’ve had a tough year. You have nothing to prove.” But I never had anything to prove. It was always hubris to believe I could “conquer” anything, that I could take my weak human body on a difficult journey and somehow this would solidify my inner strength. This trail has crushed my inner strength again and again — in good ways, memorable ways, ways that have made me a more empathetic, adaptable, and mindful person (cracks are where the light gets in, after all.) But as the years have rattled my physical and mental health, I better understand how I can be weakened by these endeavors. Some cracks don’t heal. I can’t risk shattering completely. 

 For now, I was fearful of shattering but also stuck. McGrath was still 20 miles away and I was going to have to power myself through this wind wall no matter what. (As the Lindsay drama demonstrated, help is not guaranteed even if I was in real distress, which of course I was not. Lindsay was eventually able to mobilize a ground rescue from two Nikolai residents on more powerful snowmachines, but even that was a complicated undertaking.) 

Fighting for the perfect line

Writing about it now, all of the fear I was feeling seems overwrought. But it was genuine, because most of it was rooted in the well of the exhaustion and pain that I had managed to cover up for much of the day. When I looked up to face the wind, the difficulty seemed overwhelming. But as soon as I stopped struggling in the pedals and relented to walking my bike, I settled back into steady motion. 

There was one more difficult obstacle to face: a steep climb over a bluff that shortcuts an oxbow bend in the river. For miles, I couldn’t shake my stress about this upcoming climb. I know it sounds silly, but I was fearful that I wouldn’t be strong enough, that I simply wouldn’t make it. I knew a few snowmachiners in the Iron Dog Trail Class cut a trail that followed the river around the oxbow, but this prospect was also ridiculous. It added at least five miles, and half of that was due south into a headwind that was arguably even more unmanageable than the steepest grade possible. As it turned out, the wind had entirely erased the river trail, so the only option was the shortcut. I was physically shaking. As nervous as I was at the time, I was also rolling my proverbial eyes at myself. “How far I’ve fallen. Once I found the courage to venture into the Alaska wilderness when I knew effectively knew nothing. Now I know so much and I can’t even face a hill I’ve climbed before.” 

 The hill, of course, wasn’t that bad, except for a large birch tree had fallen over the hillside and was blocking the entire trail. It wasn’t all that trivial to break a footpath through the deep snow around the tangle of branches, but it wasn’t that bad. I wasn’t about to fall backward like I nearly had on the Post River Glacier, and I didn’t have to break down my bike and carry it up in pieces, so it wasn’t that bad. 

Ripples in the snow

And then I dropped back onto the river, where the trail had filled with drifting snow. The spindrift had a beautiful, rippled pattern, like fine grains of sand in a white desert. A fierce crosswind continued driving sand — I mean snow — over the surface. The afternoon sun illuminated streams of spindrift, which resembled fingers of light. The way these fingers reached out from the woods evoked a haunting feeling, as though the wind was alive. And although this wind spirit didn’t feel evil, the sensation of being haunted was visceral enough that I decided it was again time to get out of my head. Earlier I’d turned off an audiobook to concentrate on the sinister hill, so I switched my device to a music playlist. As though the spirit of the wind was speaking directly to me, what should be the first song to come up? “Addict with a Pen.” 

 These are just pop songs, I know, and it’s silly that I keep bringing them up, but the way they give voice to my moods is a crucial part of the experience. This song by Twenty One Pilots was the one that happened to come on during my last endurance race in September, the Utah Mixed Epic, in a pivotal moment when I lost myself to grief and collapsed in a nondescript high-desert valley in Central Utah. I curled around my knees on the rocky ground and cried excruciating yet liberating tears. As the song ended, I struck up a conversation with my father. It felt so real, and it lent me a few moments of immeasurable peace. For the same song to play now, pulsing with the rhythm of the wind and blowing sand — I mean snow — was surreal. It swept me back to that rust-colored hillside in Utah, the wisps of clouds in a cerulean sky. I’d returned to the desert, and I was again swept into all of the emotions all at once. 

 But I try my best and all that I can 
To hold tightly onto what's left in my hand 
But no matter how, how tightly I will strain 
The sand will slow me down and the water will drain 

Trying to capture the dynamic dance of wind and sky

My eyes blurred with tears, and then the sky began to dance. Amid the blowing snow and jet stream of clouds, the sun’s rays shimmered and swayed. The scene was indescribably beautiful. I took several photos that do it no justice, but my grief- and joy-stricken mind perceived this place as otherworldly, magical, as dynamic as a galaxy compressed in a pinpoint. In the physical world, I was stumbling through ankle-deep spindrift, leaning into the lee side of my bike as the crosswind froze the tears on my cheeks … but in my mind, it was one of the most phenomenal moments of my life. 

No, I couldn't really capture it.

My reverie broke when the trail ascended another near-vertical embankment and cut through the woods. The roar of the wind gave way to a muffled whistle through tree branches, which sounded comparatively silent. A sign said McGrath was 10 miles away. Pain and fatigue returned. I crossed swamps and battled headwinds. The trail again dropped onto the Kuskokwim River, wending briefly north and then due south. 

It was late evening now, with soft pink light stretched across the horizon. The wind was as strong as it had ever been. When I hit the invisible wall on the southward bend, I threw a foot down and looked up. I was just two miles from the end. I could see the McGrath airport. But I couldn’t move. 

Standing at the start of the Iditarod Trail Invitational with my first fat bike, "Pugsley," in February 2008. I like to look at this photo and ponder the ways in which I've come full circle.

Fourteen years ago, I met a similar wind on the Kuskokwim River. Spindrift masked the trail entirely. At times I couldn’t even tell whether I was still going the right way, but back then I was naive enough to not be frightened because I had a plan. My plan if I lost the trail was to hike in a direct line guided by my GPS — this was back when I believed such a ridiculous thing to be possible. I somehow held the correct path and climbed off the river — my perceived final challenge — only to be blown into a snowbank by an errant gust. My bike landed on top of me, effectively pinning me in a hole. I didn’t have the energy to lift myself then, either. I remember how that surprise setback evoked all of the emotions, everything all at once, and I laughed and cried before summoning an empowering burst of strength. Now it seems so long ago, and also just a blip in time. 

 What have I learned after all these years? How does that lyric go? “I was so much older then; I’m younger than that now.” My dad loved The Byrds. 

 Often I think middle-age is similar to adolescence. Your hormones are changing, your worldview is shifting, and the full scope of adulthood no longer makes sense. You don’t have your path figured out the way you once did, because life isn’t a linear journey. Life is long, and the more you live, the more you’ll change. Life is loss, and the more you live, the more you’ll lose. Life is exploration, only to realize that the more you learn, the less you know. Life is hard, but not because you decide to pursue hard things. It’s hard for reasons you’ll never control, and you have to learn to live with that, too. 

 And I suppose that this — standing frozen river with a 50 mph wind blowing in my face — is one of life’s absurd situations that ultimately means something. Because I chose it, and because I love it, in spite of its absurdity. Because it’s beautiful and rewarding, in spite of also being tedious and pointless. Because I watched the sky dance in a moment of clarity that I will cherish always, even as my path takes me far away from here. The Iditarod Trail is a microcosm of life, which is why we keep coming back. I told myself that this was the last time I would come back — I continue to tell myself this — but I can’t know what the future holds. 

Final selfie, one mile from McGrath

For a few seconds, the wind quieted. I took advantage of the lull to launch my bike forward. Even as gusts picked up, I continued summoning all the energy needed to keep the pedals turning. Time seemed to warp — it took nearly an hour to pedal that final two miles. A local drove by on a snowmachine and congratulated me. As I neared the riverbank, the final home-free, I upheld a long-standing tradition to let the music playlist decide the theme song for this adventure. So I hit next and heard the intro to “Go Solo” by Tom Rosenthal. 

I promise: I am not making up any of these random music selections. Of course, I only write about the ones that were implausibly relevant, but this adventure couldn’t have finished on a better note: 

Our love is a river long,
The best right in a million wrongs.
I know I'm coming back to you.
And I'm happy, 
nothing's going to stop me 
I'm making my way home, 
I'm making my way.

Arriving at the McGrath finish with my current fat bike, "Erik," on March 4, 2022.

It took longer than the song’s three-or-so minutes to pedal a mile, so I continued hitting repeat until I rolled up to the lodge. My friend from Boulder who was volunteering at the checkpoint, Cheryl, was standing outside waiting for me, as were two ladies who finished earlier — Beth and Janice. 

Janice asked what finish this was for me. “Number six,” I replied, and then clarified. “Three on a bike, three on foot, but once on the bike I was on my way to Nome, so that didn’t count, and once on foot I intended to go to Nome, so that was a DNF.” 

 Janice mercifully cut me off. “Six,” she said. “Nice work.” 

Faye Norby is exhausted after finishing as the first woman on foot in 6 days, 13 hours

As for the 2022 stats, Amber won the women’s bike race in 4 days 11 hours, Beth was second in 4 days 18 hours, Janice finished in 4 days 21 hours, I was fourth in 5 days 4 hours, and Bobbette and Becca rolled in an hour later in 5 days 5 hours. Jennifer Hanson was the seventh finisher in 6 days, 1 hour. 

None of us went onto Nome — in a field of 30 Nome hopefuls, sadly none were women this year. But I am heartened to see how women’s participation in this sport has grown over the years. In addition to the seven cyclists, there were three women on foot and two on skis. In 2008 it was just me and the co-race director, Kathi Merchant, and two women on foot, Loreen Hewitt and Anne Ver Hoef. 

Beat arrived in McGrath early in the morning on March 6 and left 12 hours later. He won the race to Nome and received a free entry as a prize, so of course he plans to return in 2023. 

Despite all of the difficulties, I had an incredible experience on the Iditarod Trail this year and am glad I made the decision to ride to McGrath. I nearly left it at DNF’ing the walk to Nome in 2020, and am grateful that wasn’t the final chapter. While I’m not certain this is the final chapter, I am content with being “retired” from Iditarod racing for the time being. It’s an opportunity to reflect, refocus, and imagine where I might be 14 years from now — should I be so lucky to still be writing my own story.

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