Disclaimer: you might want to grab a beer or cocktail before reading this post, it might help you finish it. Although if it’s outside of acceptable alcoholic drink hours (whatever those may be for you, I don’t judge) I guess a coffee will do. Well, maybe an Irish coffee. You’ve been warned!
Let me get one thing out in the open, I hate most things that have to do with water. While I’ll try just about any sport on land, my dislike of anything having to do with water borders on aquaphobia, which is why even though I live within spitting distance of the Pacific Ocean I’ve never even tried surfing. Swimming, water skiing… no thanks. So when the owner of Yentna Station gave me one final word of warning before heading out onto the frozen river and into the darkness on the first night of the Iditasport, I freaked out a little.
“Be careful,” he said, “my son just came down from Shell Lake with a freight load on his sled and he says there are some open spots on the river. You’ll be fine on the marked trail, but just don’t wander off of it. We fished a drunken snowmachiner out of a hole a while back. Stay on the path”. His voice trailed off as I headed out the door.
Great. Just what I wanted to hear. Under my breath I cursed the race organizer, Billy Koitsch, and pushed off into the night to try and make up some ground on the 4 people that had jumped out ahead of me on the trail to Skwentna. Why do I get myself into these things? The easiest thing to do was to blame Billy, mainly since he wasn’t around to defend himself.
Of course blaming anyone but myself would be misguided as I’m the one that paid good money just to be out riding my bike in Alaska. Plus, when you enter a race like this you better be able to take care of yourself as there are always dangers out there on the trail – you have to assume responsibility for yourself, and also for your own mistakes. I know I do.
As for Billy Koitsch, I’m only joking about cursing him as I’ve never had any reason to blame him for anything. If you like bikes and ever meet him you’re in for a real treat as he is probably one of the most zealous fat bikers on the face of the planet. Not only is he incredibly enthusiastic but he is also a complete badass of a rider having last winter completed an unprecedented 2000 mile run on the Iditarod Trail to Nome and then back to Fairbanks. Just an amazing feat of endurance through some isolated terrain. I can only imagine how difficult that was to accomplish over the course of 40 days. If you need more evidence of his badassery just ask him about his missing toes.
I first ran into Billy at the halfway checkpoint of the Arrowhead 135 back in 2010. It was around midnight and he was talking a mile a minute about gear, tactics and everything else related to winter racing. Being a complete newbie to this world, I listened intently to him talk while sitting in the corner trying to muster the courage to head back out into the minus 25 deg weather. The following year I heard through the grapevine that he was organizing a new race in Alaska (the Sheep Mountain 150) and decided to give it a try. It turned out to be one tough bitch of a race and was never held again, and even though I returned home with moderately frostbitten toes I can honestly say I had a blast. Once again I was impressed by Billy’s enthusiasm, the dude just plain likes bikes. I respect that quality in a person.
So when I heard that Billy was resurrecting the grandaddy of all winter bike races this year, the Iditasport, I was intrigued. I hadn’t planned on returning to Alaska this year, but a month before race time I pulled the trigger and registered. The night before the race I found myself only 24 hours removed from palm trees and 75 deg F temperatures feeling a bit undertrained while sitting in a prerace briefing listening to a discussion on frostbite prevention. I wiggled my toes in my boots while I listened and watched out the window while the wind blew the freshly fallen snow out in the parking lot into small drifts. I was already apprehensive about attempting a 200 mile race, but did you have to have someone bring up the subject of frostbite? Damn you Billy! (of course I kid, the lecture was very helpful and I learned a bit from it).
This winter has been a strange one in Alaska and after a huge midwinter warmup the snowpack was devastated with the rivers reduced to an icy mess. I knew that studded tires were going to be a good thing to have on this race but living where I do I can’t really justify the expense of the tires (any potential sponsors, this is your chance to step in and help a racer here haha). So when Billy asked me if I wanted to borrow a set I jumped at the chance.
At 10PM the night before the race my cell phone rang and I met him in the lobby of my motel. You have to love a race organizer who, with a million other things to do the night before the race is taking care of of his racers by delivering a brand new set of tires directly to their doorsteps. Truly above and beyond the call of duty. In fact, he made sure that every racer had a set of studs mounted up for this race. True, maybe he just didn’t want any of us to kill ourselves out there, but his efforts were amazing no matter what the motivation.
Driving to the start from Anchorage on Friday morning the wind threatened to blow me off the road. I’m not overstating this as near the start town of Knik the wind was gusting in the 70mph range. Great, this being an out and back course I was not in the mood to fight that much wind to the halfway point, I mean who is? I reminded myself that people that do winter bike races in Alaska must be ready to do so. For a brief moment I considered pulling out of the race instead of subjecting myself to that sort of punishment but couldn’t think of a viable excuse that would salvage my dignity somewhat intact. Besides, I had to return Billy’s loaner tires to him no matter what so he had roped me into at least showing up. Damn you again, Billy!
We were 10 strong at the start, 8 bikers and 2 crazies on foot. I say “crazies” with the utmost admiration as I cannot fathom walking 200 miles in the snow while pulling a sled. I was having enough trouble just wrapping my head around biking that distance over the next 96 hours (the official cutoff) let alone trudging along for that far. The guys on foot always blow my mind at these events. I guess I tend to forget the old adage “The journey of a thousand miles starts with one step”, but it’s always reinforced at some point further down the trail.
The race started a few minutes after the scheduled time of high noon. The first 15 miles or so of the course rocked and rolled through the forest on icy trails that were extremely fast and fun to ride. Even though the wind was still blowing hard, here in the trees it was not too bad at all with the only real impediment being the occasional downed tree we had to hop over. I noticed immediately that my tires were too low on pressure, but pedaled for a bit before I stopped and added a few psi. I wanted to do it out of sight of any onlookers so no one would think I was a clueless, but considering this was my first real ride on snow in over a year maybe the shoe fits.
After increasing the pressure I started to become accustomed to the traction the 45 North Dillingers supplied and picked up the pace a little. It took me about an hour to get used to them and learn their capabilities, but once I learned they tracked straight and true on even sheer ice (given small steering inputs and decent balance) I didn’t fall once the entire race. Awesome tires. Thank you Billy!
The first major landmark that I recognized was Flathorn Lake. In 2012 I had attempted the Iditarod Trail Invitational and had almost reached the Flathorn area but became bogged down in 30 inches of snow. I scratched the next day having never seen the damn lake. This year the lake looked just a little bit different, or so I’m told. Now that’s a lake with a view, especially when the sun is setting!
In 2012 I didn’t take one photo during my 2 days on course (and self-evacuating). Well, I guess I could’ve just taken a photo of a glass of milk that year and posted it as any photos of the whiteout would have been similar, but this year I vowed to snap a few photos of the trail and share the essence of the experience so out came the camera. I’m glad I did, it was a surreal scene.
Putting away my camera I looked from Flathorn to Mt Susitna then turned to face the howling wind in Dismal Swamp. The wind through the swamp was, ummm “unwelcoming”, but soon the 30 mile Tent Camp Checkpoint appeared with an extremely welcoming group of volunteers. I stuffed some delicious chili into my face and headed out toward the Susitna River. The wind, while ferocious through the swamp, never returned to that level during the rest of the race. Maybe that place really is dismal.
I wasn’t going into this race completely naive and knew that most of the course was comprised of frozen rivers. However, I hadn’t really given much thought to my aquaphobia until staring down the so-called “Wall of Death” that drops down onto the river. In reality, the Wall of Death was not much of a bang but more of a whimper, especially with the studded tires, but the open spaces of the Susitna River immediately unnerved me as I sped across the ice – though frozen and completely safe, to me it looked too much like open water. Stupid neuroses, they always ruin our fun.
The sun began to set as I followed the marked trail that wound around the huge pressure ridges and rolls that had developed after the massive melt a few weeks earlier. I momentarily lost the trail and turned back to make sure I wasn’t wandering off in the wrong direction. Frozen puddles the size of parking lots appeared and I aimed for them as they provided the path of least resistance. Eventually I found myself at Scary Tree and the confluence with the Yentna River.
I’ve read that Scary Tree is named after a huge, “scary” cottonwood tree that once stood near this spot (please correct me if I’m wrong). Ever since it was washed away during the spring thaw one year this sign is placed at this point to mark the trail to Yentna. It set a tone with me as I confronted my fears and headed off into the gathering night toward Yentna Station – there were to be a lot of scary trees out there in the dark. From this point in the race the only racers I would see would be headed in the opposite direction, and not for many hours.
After my stop at Yentna Station (during which time I devoured a few plates of spaghetti) and with the somewhat ominous warning from the proprietor ringing in my ears, I headed north with dreams of at least catching the leaders sleeping in Skwentna. The trail through this section was rough and uneven with barren ice and the occasional sound of running water emanating from the darkness. The river meanders generally north with shifts to the east and west, not really in much of a hurry to get anywhere. As it wandered the wind picked up in turn and changed from head to tail on occasion as it blew from the northeast. The dark, barren landscape tunneled forward in my headlamp’s beam and I slowed at the wind’s mercy. Then the sky began to brighten.
I don’t get to see the Northern Lights very often these days so when I do I consider it a good sign. I know there are many myths surrounding the Lights, most having to do with spirits dancing in the sky, but I guess I’m not the overly superstitious type (just the water-neurotic type) so I enjoy them. At first it was but a faint, misty curtain in the sky but soon it brightened to the vortex shedding whirls of pink and purple that a child might over-enthusiastically draw on the walls with crayons while channeling the spirit of Vincent Van Gogh, starry night skies alight in his eyes. It picked up momentum as the hours went on and I fed off its childlike innocence.
My wheels continued rolling within wheels as I pedaled the ghostly array across the sky and bore my studs into the reflections of lost souls in the ice. Time slowed to some relativistic level as I watched the scene unfold from afar and racing became secondary to both matter and energy, though my velocity was far from the speed of light (I’m still working out the equations on that one). Yet in the paradox of the time traveler I was also riding at the speed of light in the vortex of the aurora, my out of body entity spurred onward by the dancing spirits of the northern night.
Like that last paragraph, things felt a bit odd. Maybe it being 3Am had something to do with it too? Crazy spirits. When reviewing my SPOT tracker data from this portion of the race on Trackleaders it bounces all over the place, almost as if I was trying to escape the river. Very strange data for sure, something interesting was definitely happening that night on the Yentna River…
As I rode into the wind and the trees along the shores watched time pass at a frozen river’s pace, the entire sky filled with the display in an ever widening ring that occasionally toyed with the meanderings of the Yentna in playful flirtations of light. Click your heels twice and repeat after me: Follow the aurora brick road as it leads all the way home. I sensed the spirits close and raised one question toward the sky: Is this heaven? I listened (and looked) for answers blowing in the solar wind but the sky remained mute, yet so incredibly vivid. Sometimes riding a bike is a lot like heaven.
My thoughts quickly turned to a watery hell when I stopped to attempt a photo (surprised it came out) and heard the ice of the river pop and crackle at regular intervals in the night. I guess this is a normal occurrence on these rivers, but lacking any real insulating layer of snow this year the phenomenon is more pronounced. When the ice begins talking it’s time to get moving, so I pedaled forward. Eventually the aurora faded behind the curtains of its grand stage and a light appeared around the next bend.
It was the lead racers, Mark and Darcy Davis. They stopped to say hello for a bit and seemed as enthused by the auroral display as I had been. They had stopped quickly in Skwentna and were going to sleep in Yentna for a bit so after a few minutes we said goodbye and headed in opposite directions. 20 mins later the eventual winners blew past in a paceline and shouted encouragement. So much for catching the leaders, if only for a bit. The remainder of the race was a bit lonely.
As I reached the confluence of the Skwentna I momentarily lost my way. It’s funny how sometimes you know when you’re headed down the wrong path as the voice in the back of your head just knows something is amiss. It also had something to with the words that had been echoing in my head since Skwentna: stay on the route. Open water appeared ahead in the moonlight so I listened to the voice and backtracked until finding the correct trail, wondering all along how I had lost my way. I blame those pesky spirits, and to reinforce that fact should I ever return to Skwentna, the next morning my shadow pointed toward the correct path. Go left, stupid.
After arriving into the turnaround point of Skwentna I ate, slept for a few hours then headed out into the beautiful new day. Honestly, turning back south was a bit of a letdown as I wanted to continue heading north toward McGrath. Maybe next year I will do just that if I can gain entry into the ITI.
I’ll spare you any more musings (though I will post a few more photos below) as I’ve already said quite a bit about what was in reality just a bike ride, but I will reveal that the aurora appeared to me again as I finished the race around 2 AM. As the miles ticked off on the rollercoaster of the Iditarod trail back to Knik, many questions were raised to the dancing spirits in the sky. Once again the only answer given was unspoken and true: Don’t stray from the path.
Thanks for resurrecting the race and providing the opportunity to get out into real Alaska, Billy and Erica Koitsch! I thoroughly enjoyed myself.