Iditarod Trail Invitational 2017, part 2

April 20th, 2017

Leaving McGrath was pretty hard last year. It was even harder this year…

Tracy and Peter Schneiderheinze host us in McGrath, and they provide a nearly endless flow of tasty food. They are amazing folks. When Dan and I reached this haven of warmth and socializing, there were a few folks there, though the leaders were long gone. Other racers rolled in throughout the rest of the evening, including John, Amy Breen, and Tom. Tom finished with minimal additional damage to his frostbitten feet, but he was going to have a long recovery process ahead of him.

I was a bit on the fence about going on to Nome. At this point, only Kevin was ahead of me, with a sizable lead, time-wise, and the nearest folks behind me had not reached Nikolai yet, so it looked like I would traveling to Ruby by myself. I guess that wasn’t entirely correct; Tim Hewitt, who is normally a walker but was riding a bike this year, arrived in McGrath a half day or so after me. However, he is the very model of slow and steady: biking slowly and not sleeping. It didn’t look like our paces were going to be similar.

Continuing was not the most exciting prospect. That section of trail is pretty lonely, and without the dog race, there would be no traffic. I was also a bit mentally fried from assisting Tom with his frostbite, and worried I was not prepared enough to manage my own disasters.

I had talked about just flying to Kaltag and continuing from that point, or perhaps flying back to Fairbanks and biking with the dogs. But at this point I think I know myself pretty well, and I knew that if I didn’t go on, I would regret it forever. So I chugged along, preparing to head out.

In order to leave McGrath, I had a few chores to do, including packing up food, sewing up my overboots, and picking up a few things at the local store (the “AC” as the locals call it). I started the race with slightly ripped up overboots, and alas, they quickly became very ripped up, so I spent several hours sewing, while chatting with folks. I finished them up, then hit the sack. In the morning I dropped by the AC to get a bit more food, some more fuel for my stove, a cheap thermos (actually Thermos brand), and my new favorite trail snack, a big bag of Fritos. Tim left early in the morning, and I am still amazed how fast he was able to get in and out. I guess after eight times to Nome you become really time efficient!

I became a big fan of Fritos on this trip. I could get them at all the village stores, they are pretty calorie dense, and they taste good. I also grabbed a Budweiser for Dave Johnston, who the tracker said was coming in soon. Dave is an amazing guy – I have seen him finish at McGrath three times now, and he is always cheerful and happy. I slowly packed up my bike, watched Dave finish, and prepared to head out.

I finally got on the trail at 2 p.m. or so — much later than I expected. The trail was in great shape, and I zoomed along to Takotna, a small community 20 or so miles out of McGrath. Just before reaching Takotna, I bumped into Billy Koitzsch, who had put on another event a week before on a similar route. He and a few other guys were returning from breaking trail for the two racers still in his event, and he told me they had broken trail to Poorman and it was “a highway!”. Or so I thought. I apparently misheard, or there was some sort of misunderstanding — as I was to find out later.

Billy K

Takatna

Outside of Takotna there are a series of hills as the trail follows a road over to Ophir. The climbs seem to take forever. My plan was to bike until I reached the first cabin, Carlson Crossing, but the trail was a bit slower than I expected.. Fortunately, on one of the hills I was passed by two guys on snowmachines, who invited me to stay with them in a cabin in Ophir. Hours later, I passed Tim sleeping on the side of the trail, and pulled into the cabin at Ophir.

It was heaven: a small 10ft by 10ft shack, with two cheerful miners named Chris and Chuck on their way to work on a cabin on their claim further down the trail. They put me up in the loft above the cabin after feeding me dinner, and I fell asleep to them discussing life. It was a great way to end the day.

In the morning I headed out — after thanking Chuck and Chris — and zoomed down the trail. I soon passed Tim, who was looking chipper but seemed to be having issues getting the right pressure in his tires.

Tim

Leaving Ophir

I arrived at Carlson Crossing in mid-afternoon, where I had lunch, loaded up my drop bag onto my bike, and headed down the trail.

Drop bags bike selfie

My plan was to ride to the North Fork cabin, 40 miles or so farther down the trail. It was a long, bumpy 40 miles, and I arrived in the middle to the night.

Bumpy..

I was pretty surprised to see a walker’s sled outside, and when I stuck my head inside, I saw someone bundled up in a sleeping bag. Alas, the cabin was not very warm, so I hunted around to find more wood, restarted the fire, and alas woke up Jorge in the process. As soon as I got the fire going I hit the sack. I had been warned the North Fork cabin’s stove doesn’t work well, and it definitely doesn’t put out that much heat. Even loaded with nice dry spruce, it still wasn’t generating that much heat.

In the morning, I had a sleepy and disjointed conversation with Jorge. Apparently he was one of the two remaining racers in Billy’s Iditasport race. He left an hour or so before me, leaving me to melt snow and prepare for the day. Eventually I left, and rode for a couple of hundred feet before the snowmachine tracks turned around and the trail ended. Alas, I guess I misheard Billy when I talked to him in Takotna, as the broken trail ended here, well short of Poorman.

Pushing..

It wasn’t too bad, just six inches or so of snow over a nice firm base, but not very rideable. I tried riding, but there wasn’t a chance, and so it was walking. I walked for the next two days, following Kevin’s tracks and the tracks of the two Iditasport walkers. I felt very guilty as I walked long in Kevin’s tracks as he had done all the hard work by breaking trail. After a few hours I passed Jorge, who very kindly offered me some bread and cheese, but I passed as I had lots of food with me at this point.

The was definitely the hardest section of the race for me. Walking the bike wasn’t bad, but the trail was lonely and isolated, with nighttime lows in the mid negative-30s. About half way there I figured I was taking a plane home as soon as I arrived in Ruby.

I was really glad I purchased a Thermos in McGrath. My original plan was to fill it with a hot drink, like chai or coffee, in the morning and drink it during the day. Alas, the Thermos kept stuff too hot to drink, so instead I tried filling it was boiling water and using that for a midday freeze-dried meal, and one for the evening. That worked so well I started skipping filling it in the morning, and started filling it in the heat of the midday sun, and using it for dinner and breakfast. That worked fantastically! I should point out this is a cheap “traditional” Thermos, which appears to work much better than the more upscale ones like Hydroflask .

The trail winds through flat swamps and fields from the North Fork cabin, eventually reaching the abandoned town of Poorman. Poorman is nothing more than a series of dirt roads winding through piles of old tailings and giant heaps of 50 gallon drums. I believe the Iron Dog has a building here, though I have not seen it. At Poorman the hills start, and the trail winds up and down little hills and ridges though old burns, across a giant old bridge at the Sulatna River, then onto an old road that leads to Ruby.

I was amazed Kevin pushed through this section by himself. When he left Mcgrath he had no idea who was going to be following him, and how far they were behind him. He was truly alone in this section, and I will be forever impressed that he pushed through it alone, breaking trail for almost 60 miles. To me, this was the stand-out performance in this year’s race.

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After Jorge, I didn’t see anyone for another 36 hours, when I bumped into Kenton, one of the guys filming the race.

Jon and Kenton of Asymetriq were trying to make a film of the race, and had been following the race since the start, though I hadn’t seen them for a while. Kenton had snowmachined out to the end of the trail outside Ruby, then hiked a few miles to watch me push my bike. It was a bit surreal, but nice to see another person. Once I saw Kenton I knew I had good trail nearby, so I kept pushing, and soon I was on a nice firm snowmachine trail. Alas, as soon as I started riding I noticed a few issues: my free hub was behaving a bit wonky and my rack was all wobbly. A quick inspection told me I had sheared off one of the rack bolts, alas. I used bailing wire to sort of secure it, and rode on to the top of the nearest hill, pulled off the trail, and bivied. Kenton had caught up with me, and set up a camera to take a time-lapse of my bivy spot, hoping (I think) to catch some aurora. I don’t think there was any aurora, but I did have to go pee in the middle of the night. Hopefully that doesn’t feature in the film.

In the morning I packed up, and headed down the trail. Alas, when I bivy I am so comfortable I have a tendency to oversleep, and I didn’t get moving all that early. At midday, it was warm enough that I tried to actually fix my rack, and with a bit of fiddling I replaced the broken rack bolt and I was back in business. I was still having issues with the occasionally funny noise from my freehub, but it was still working, and that was all I needed at this point. The next 30 or so miles were super boring, going up and down, up and down on a wide snow covered road until I reached Ruby. I was very happy to arrive at Ruby, and wandered around town a bit, trying to find the home of Scotty, a local teacher who offered to host me. Eventually I found Scotty’s house, just as he arrived from school. He let me into his place, sat me down in front of the fire, and handed me a huge bowl of soup. It was heaven, and soon the thought of bailing and flying home was gone.

I am sorry for the lack of photos. I had a fair bit of trouble with my Sony Nex 6 in the cold, and thus I was not very motivated to take photos.

More come.

Iditarod Trail Invitational 2017, part 1

April 4th, 2017

The Iditarod dog race has two traditional routes – the Northern route, which passes though Ruby, and the Southern route, which passes though the abandoned town of iditarod. The Southern route has a mystique to it, and common wisdom says it is the harder. When I finished my ride to Nome last year, I really wanted to do the Southern route the following year. The Southern route is slower, as the sections from Ophir to Shageluk and from Grayling to Kaltag aren’t used outside the dog race, so the trail isn’t generally in very good shape.

Alas, a few weeks before the Iditarod Trail Invitational (ITI) started, the Iditarod dog race announced they were moving to a Fairbanks start, because of limited snow on the south side of Rainy Pass. This put a bit of a damper on my interest in riding to Nome, as it meant the ITI was going to take the Northern route again.

Some background: in the normal course of events, the Iron Dog race occurs a week before the ITI, then the ITI starts, then a week later the Iditarod starts. The Iron Dog snowmachine race takes the Northern route, and is normally the only traffic between Ophir and Ruby, besides the Iditarod. Since the Iditarod was starting in Fairbanks, that section looked a bit iffy. In 2015 the Iditarod also started in Fairbanks, and a few of the ITI racers got stuck between Ophir in Ruby when it snowed, then dropped to really cold (reports of -50F). So, I was not super excited about the route change. On the up side, the ITI was not going to take the normal route though Rainy Pass, but instead continue around Ptarmigan Pass and down the South Fork of the Kuskokwim, through the ominously titled Hell’s Gate. This route hadn’t been taken by the ITI since 2008, so I was excited to see it!

The ITI has three “versions” these days – a race to Finger Lake, which is about 130 miles, the “short” race to McGrath, which is around 300 miles (using the standard route though Rainy Pass), and the “long” race to Nome.

It is pretty hard to describe how different the ride to Nome is compared to the race to McGrath. The race to McGrath is so “controlled” by comparison, with nice, regularly spaced checkpoints that you know will be staffed, that you know will have food, water, and warmth. After McGrath, there are 140 miles of nearly nothing from Takotna to Ruby. This section is pretty barren. In 2016 it was fast riding and warm, but it has the potential to be amazingly cold. It is very remote – we didn’t see anyone after Ophir in 2016 until we arrived at Ruby. Folks have had to push their bikes from Takotna to Ruby, and I have always worked under the assumption I would have to, too. After Ruby there are communities pretty regularly spaced, but there is none of the certainty you get in the shorter race that you will arrive to a welcoming warm place. So much unknown… The shorter race also has a frantic quality to it – so many racers. I always feel like I have to keep moving along, that if I slow down I will be “swamped” in the checkpoint by other racers and swallowed up by the pack. The Nome race has none of of this – there are so few folks riding it, and they are so spread out that when you bump into them it is a call for excitement. “Yay – someone to talk to!” – not panic you are about to be jostled out by a crowd. For me, it is a completely difference experience.

In the weeks before the race, I sent out drop boxes and otherwise got ready to head to Nome, but I definitely had mixed thoughts about going past McGrath.

A few days before the race I said good by to Nancy and the twins, then headed down to Anchorage with my friend Tom who was also doing the race. After the normal pre-race stuff, including a last minute panic when I discovered I’d left all my long underwear tops and tee shirts at home and some quality time with my siblings in Wasilla, I found myself at the start on Knik Lake, zooming down the trail.

The start of the Shell Hills

Cockpit

The first day or so of the race was a bit of a blur.

The Yentna River

Heading to Finger Lake

The start of the Shell Hills

Yentna, Skwentna, Finger Lake, and Puntilla all zoomed by pretty fast. The trail was mostly in pretty great shape, and I started to regret my last minute tire change to Buds. The weather was nice, and the trail was pretty fast. I arrived at Puntilla with Dan Lockery, a chipper fellow from Winnipeg, and Tom Moran, a friend from Fairbanks. It was a bit windy, and the little cabin they have us stay in for the race was a bit drafty. A few other racers were crashed there trying to get some sleep, including Phil, Kevin, and John. Ominously, it was pretty cold in the cabin, even with the stove burning away – the wind really seemed to be blowing though the walls, which I don’t think I had noticed when I have stayed here before – I guess it was windy! I grabbed a cot, and tucked myself in for a few hours of sleep after a few cans of chili.

After a few hours of sleep, Tom, Dan, and I headed out. John headed out to go eat breakfast – apparently the lodge serves an all you can eat breakfast, which was pretty tempting. After a false start into a horse corral, one of the folks who run the lodge pointed us in the right direction and told us the leaders still had not make it to the south fork, and had bivied in the pass. Everyone in the race now has trackers, and that has changed the race a bit – for the slower folks like me it can be very helpful to know how fast the folks ahead of us are traveling, so we know what to expect. Knowing the leaders who had a good 12 hour head start on us were not yet to Rohn let us know we had a bit of a slow slog ahead of us. It was pretty windy, so we bundled up expecting the worst. But it turned out to be not that bad. It was windy, but not epically so.

DSC08121

DSC08127

The trail was soft, and more hilly as it wound up and down to avoid brush in the bottom of the valley, so there was lots of pushing. It was very scenic though, and it passed though some pretty interesting areas.

DSC08130

Eventually the trail firmed up enough it was rideable, and soon after we were joined by John, powered on by his all-you-can-eat breakfast.

DSC08134

As we neared the turn towards the south fork, we were passed by three snowmachines pulling a large sled – apparently some bison hunters heading to Rohn and Farewell. They made a noticeable improvement to the trail, and soon we were zooming along. The final climb and decent into the south fork of the Kuskokwim was amazing fun. The rest of the ride to Rohn was mostly uneventful, besides a short section of mid calf deep overflow. Dan and I broke out our Wiggies overboots, Tom just walked though in his Neos, and John just walked though fast. It was mostly uneventful, but a reminder that things could get ugly. The wind was on and off again, coming and going around each bend in the river.

After seeing several places where folks had dipped water out of open areas, I stopped and got out my pot to dip water, as I was out. John stopped to watch me after suggesting what I was about to do wasn’t a good idea – and duh, it wasn’t. I lost my pot as soon as I dipped it into the stream – it was moving much faster than I anticipated! I felt like a complete idiot. Probably because I was – that was amazingly stupid. John took pity on me, and dipped out some with an empty thermos, giving me a nice drink of really cold water.

The rest of the way to Rohn I didn’t do anything stupid, and we arrived intact, though for the last 5 miles or so we had a stiff headwind. I was pretty surprised by the headwind – normally there is a tailwind out of Rohn, which I thought meant a nice tailwind down the south fork – but this was not to be. There were a lot of open leads near the Rohn, and it took a while to find a way across. We arrived at Rohn dry, but tired, at around 5am. Kevin, Phil, and another racer, Adam I think, were there, though Phil started leaving as soon as we arrived, and was quickly followed by Kevin. Unfortunately, Tom discovered he’d slightly frostbitten his toes – yikes!

We hit the sack, and in early afternoon, Dan, Tom, and I headed out. The trail to the Farewell Lakes was in pretty good shape, with a bit more snow than the last few years.

Bison tunnels

We stopped briefly at “Pike Camp”, Phil Runkle’s camp. It was great to talk to Phil and hang out for a bit in front of his wonderfully warm fire. It wasn’t that cold, around zero, but the fire was very welcome. Alas, we had to go, and a bit ominously, Tom mentioned his toes had warmed up and were hurting. Soon the sun set and we were riding down the trail, enjoying the many small hills. Up and down. Up and down. It was starting to get a bit colder, bottoming out at around -30F, and Tom was starting to slow down. After a while it became apparent he was having trouble keeping his feet and hands warm, so Dan headed off to go warm up Bear Creek Cabin, and I helped Tom warm up his feet, putting several packs of insole warmers in his boots. Hours later, a little after 1 am, we pulled into Bear Creek Cabin, where Dan had it warm (thanks Dan!), and warmed up Tom. Alas, his feet were a bit more frostbitten now. On the upside, Bear Creek Cabin was pretty nice, and once it warmed up, a very cozy space. In the morning… or early afternoon as the case might be, we headed out, enjoying a fast ride into Nikolai, arriving around 7pm.

I always love reaching Nikolai. At Nikolai we are hosted by the wonderful Petruska family – Nick, Olene, and Stephanie. It is hard to describe how awesome it is pulling into Nikolai, knowing their place is just around the corner, with warmth, food, and welcoming faces. Alas, Nick has terminal cancer, and it was sad to see him, knowing it might be the last time. The world needs more folks like Nick and his family, and he has made it a better place.

At this point Tom’s feet were a bit messed up, and he was debating whether he should scratch or not. If he continued on, he would have to travel during the heat of the day, such as it was. The forecast was for overnight lows between -20F and -30F – a bit chilly. Dan and I decided to head out in the early AM, and in the morning headed out, making it out on the trail at around 3am.

The ride to McGrath was a mix of nice fast riding, and slow, soft slogging. I was very happy to see the sunrise.

Dan

Sunrises are an awesome time, filled with the promise of a nice warm sun to beam down and take away the -30F temperatures we were enjoying. The last 40 or so miles to McGrath are never that fun of a ride – lots of swamp and river riding, with not much to see.

Nearly to Mcgrath

It took a while this year, as sections were blown just enough to be slow riding, or in some cases, slow walking. Eventually Dan and I pulled into McGrath, arriving at around 5:30, a good two days after the leaders finished.

More coming. Meanwhile, Bikepacker has a photo essay from my ride, you can find it here.

ITI 2017 Gearlist

March 23rd, 2017

I am planning on doing a full writeup on my ride to Nome in the Iditarod Trail Invitational (ITI), but meanwhile, someone asked what I took with me. This is an experiment – I don’t normally make lists like this, hopefully others will find it useful.

Here is my packing list and a few other details. I think it is complete, but I might have missed some odds and ends.

This perhaps obvious – but the Iditarod Trail Invitational has two forms – the “short” race to McGrath, and the race to Nome. Riding to Nome is more of an adventure rather than a race, riding to McGrath is more of a race and less of an adventure, so folks going to McGrath need much less stuff.


Please keep in mind this list works for me, but might not work for you. Also, I am very much not an expert, so take everything I say with a grain (or large helping) of salt. Just because I am doing it doesn’t make it a good idea! I should also point out I am not “a fast” rider – the fast guys pack differently.

Bike Stuff

  • the bike – 2016 vintage Fatback Corvus – I love this bike!
    • 100mm Nextie rims with Hadley hubs
    • “alt” style handlebar with ergon grips with extra padding
    • Bud tires, front and back
    • Old Man Mountain rear rack
    • Becker Gear frame bag, mini panniers, and top tube bag
    • Revelate harness
    • standard SRAM 1×11 setup, with xt 11-46 cassette
    • big vault flat pedals
    • Dogwood Designs plus pogies
  • bike tools etc
    • multi tool
    • leatherman wave knife / pliers
    • patch kit
    • two tubes *
    • chain tool
    • patch kit *
    • derailleur hanger *
    • a small segment of chain, and several quick links
    • baling wire, extra bolts, duct tape, and a few other extra “fix it” parts
    • separate long hex wrench for pedals *

Drop bags bike selfie

Clothing

  • On Me
    • Marmot soft shell pants Note: Fully windproof!
    • Keen boots, two sizes too big
    • bike shorts
    • short sleeve top
    • Mammut softshell, ultimate hoody, with ruff Note: Fully windproof
    • neoprene socks, as vapor barrier.
    • thick wool socks
    • full finger bike gloves
    • watch with vibration alarm
  • On bike
    • North Face thermoball hooded jacket
    • Marmot baffled down jacket *
    • Patagonia hooded R 1/2 top
    • long sleeve top, thin
    • Patagonia medium weight long underwear bottoms *
    • Patagonia light weight long underwear bottoms
    • homemade fleece overshorts (awesome – thanks Nancy!)
    • Marmot Driclime full zip pants *
    • two pairs extra socks, one thin, one thick
    • light shirt for schools etc
    • light shorts for schools etc
    • “no fog” face mask *
    • goggles *
    • nose hat
    • extra hat + thin balaclava
    • homemade fleece mittens (thanks Nancy!)
    • Hestra Primaloft Extreme Mitt Liner Warm, light, and fairly cheap!
    • sunglasses
    • Wiggy’s waders
    • oven bags as extra vapor barriers and an emergency option to keep my socks dry in case my boots get wet
    • gaitors

Selfie

Human Maintenance Stuff

  • big med kit
    • aleve & other meds
    • foot care stuff, tape, mole skin etc
    • bandages, antibiotic ointment etc
    • duct tape
    • tape adherent
    • oral antibiotics
    • butt care stuff – diaper cream, etc
  • foot lube
  • chammois cream
  • sunscreen
  • lip balm
  • salt pills

Food

  • Cooking Stuff
    • XGK stove + extra pump
    • 2 quart pot (which I dropping in the South fork of the Kuskokwim, because I was being dumb – don’t do that!)
      • replaced with a 1 quart pot I borrowed from Tom Moran and a small ti pot from Dan L.
    • two fuel bottles (5-ish days of fuel, not always full)
    • ti spork
  • Food
    • 3+ days of food on me at all times, a combination of freeze dried food and snacks
      • Note: Jeff Oatley told me I should have three days of food on me at all times before I went to Nome in 2016, and I think that was a great recommendation.
    • coffee and/or chia mixes for the thermos, when not used for hot water
  • 40oz thermos
    • Note: I got this at the “AC” store in McGrath – it was a great purchase. It kept water really hot for at least 12 hours, so I could boil water mid day, have a freeze dried meal before bed, then have freeze dried when I got up. It is the Thermos brand, which seems to work (a lot!) better than the upscale brands. One downside was it kept coffee too hot to drink if the water was boiling when filled. YMMV

Sleep Stuff

  • Marmot -40f bag
  • ridge rest, full length pad
  • ultra lightweight bivy *

Electronics

  • phone with GCI sim for villages, loaded with topo software as a gps backup
  • Garmin etrex 30, with topos
  • Sony NEX 6
  • three batteries for camera
  • 2 small usb charger + cables
  • aaa powered mp3 music player
  • audio book player

Random Other Stuff

  • Hydration
    • Mountain Hardwear Fluid 6 backpack
    • mylar bubble wrap insulation inside it, on the outside side
    • red MSR water bladder + hose, without a bite value
      • Note: Bite valves seem to be a source of a lot of leaks – I just have a on/off valve, and turn it on to use it, then off when I am done. Works fine for me. This system worked fine at the mid -30f weather I had on the way to Nome, and I have used it for training rides in colder weather. The bladder is right up against my back, and under all but my tee shirt. Even at really cold temps the water eventually becomes more or less body temperature.
  • TP & hand sanitizer
  • Dogwood Designs overboots
    • Note: These things are magic and very warm!
  • printed FAA charts for the route
  • printed maps for a few problem areas
  • printed contact list for route after McGrath
  • mileage sheet
  • windproof matches, lighter, and fire starter (esbit tablets)
  • sewing stuff, tyvek tape

That is a lot of stuff!
And no, I did not weigh my bike when it was loaded up – really, you either need something or you don’t. If you don’t need it, don’t take it, if you need it, who cares how much it weighs, you need it, take it.

For logistics, I mailed boxes (the USPS regional rate size B box is $7 for 0.4 cubic ft / 20lbs for Fairbanks or Anchorage to the villages along the route, which is a bargain) to schools along the route, after emailing the principals to make sure it was ok. Every box I actually tried to get was there, though YMMV. I tried to ship enough stuff that even if I missed half the boxes I still wouldn’t starve.

The fleece over shorts were awesome – they are stretchy enough to go over my boots, so I would just pull them over my pants, and I would instantly be a lot warmer. I was fine with thin long underwear, pants, and the fleece shorts over the top at the mid -30F, which was great. I got the idea from Kyle who I rode with last year, who had a set of “puffy shorts”, Dynafit branded over shorts. The basic idea is highly recommended!

I used a Nosehat and a ruff, and that is an awesome combination. I didn’t need any additional face covering. The nosehat dries off really fast (like in my pocket) – highly recommended.

In regards the the big puffy jacket – I brought a big baffled puffy jacket that I didn’t end up using until a got to Nome. In general, if I am not moving, I am getting ready to sleep or sleeping, so as soon as I stop for the night, I stomp a bivy spot, unpack my sleeping bag, and climb in, then from the bag do any extra chores I need to do (cook dinner, etc). Going this route, I was able to get by without breaking out the big jacket, even in the sub -30f weather. YMMV of course. I would still have the big jacket, just in case it got really cold, or if something went wrong, like I had to do extensive bike maintenance or got sick.

I slept with all my clothing on, besides my vapor barrier socks. My boots sayed out of the bag, as they were always dry (the vb socks keep them that way).

I had issues with my bag getting a lot of moisture in it – after three days it had a lot of moisture in it, and required drying out in a warm, dry place. I think if I was to do this race again, I would try a vapor barrier liner or jacket in an attempt to minimise this.

With regard to bike maintenance, I had three bike issues. I broke a plate in the chain, which I fixed by taking two links out, and patching it together with a quick link. I had a rack bolt break at sub -30F, for which I rigged a temporary fix with bailing wire, then a real fix later in the heat of the day using the Leatherman to remove the bolt remains, and rebolting with bolt from my spares kit. I had a periodic issue with my freehub making funny noises, but that didn’t seem to cause any engagement issues, so I ignored it, and it worked out.

Questions? Leave a comment.

Things on the list marked with an asterisks (*) I didn’t end up using. That isn’t to say I wouldn’t bring them – I didn’t have flats for example, so didn’t need the tubes.

If I was to start cutting gear, I think I would drop the Marmot Driclime over-pants, and go with a less warm sleeping bag, but that of course involves trade offs – on the last night before Ruby, I was cold in the middle of the night and had to put on more layers so I could sleep. Perhaps I should sleep less though 🙂

I am not an expert by any means, so take all my suggestions with a large helping of salt. This list (sort of 🙂 ) works for me, it might not work for you. Everyone has to figure this out for themselves, at least to some extent.

ITI 2017 thoughts..

March 23rd, 2017

Shaktool to Koyuk trail

I finished the 2017 Iditarod Trail Invitational, riding to Nome. I placed first, with one of the slower times in recent times. A bit bittersweet, as the one of the other Fairbanks locals, Kevin, had to scratch when he reached the coast after coming down with a GI bug, that later turned out to be giardia. Up to that point he was having a great race, and would have finished well ahead of me.

It was a completely different experience from last year – I really missed the steady presence of Kyle and the socialness of Bill. The section from Ophir to Ruby nearly broke me, with nights in the mid -30fs and day time highs in the single digits combined with not seeing another person for nearly 48 hours. I did however, see many dog teams, and got to experience the trail in a completely different way.

It was a huge learning experience for me, one that I am still processing.

I am mostly recovered now, nearly a week since I finished. I am finally not waking up 3am by dreams were I still haven’t arrived at Nome and need to get up and ride 🙂

I am going to put together full write up, but meanwhile Bikepacker has some of my photos and a bit of the story up at here.

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I hope everyone is enjoying spring!

Moose Creek, from town

January 23rd, 2017

I have been (attempting to anyway) training for the Iditarod Trail Invitational, and had been feeling very under trained. This is sort of a long standing joke in my house hold – when ever I bring it up my daughters mock me unmercifully.

In an attempt to get a ride in with a fully loaded bike, I booked Moose Creek cabin in the White Mountains NRA for a friday night, and headed out mid morning from my house. The cabin is about 35 ish miles from my house via trails.

Tom joined me for the first bit, eventually peeling off to head back for other obligations.

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The ride in was a bit of a slog, and I had issues keeping my legs and feet warm in the lower areas, where the temps were around—20f. Eventually I gave up, put the overboots on, and my feet were fine. I tried to manage my sweating like all the cool kids are doing, and it was mostly successful, tough it is hard for a big person like me not to overheat on the hills.

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Last year I purchased some Wolfgars boots from 45n. They are a bit of a mixed bag – I like them while riding, but I have just about given up on them for the ITI, as they are pretty stiff in the upper, and walk not so well. After my 2012 scratch from the ITI, I have promised myself that I must always have footwear that I can push my bike in for long distances. As a replacement I used 2 sizes too large Keen winter boots, which seem to be a good compromise. At around -10f they get too cold to wear without overboots, but with overboots they appear to be fine. They walk much, much better than the Wolfgars.

About 10 miles from the cabin a musher passed me going up a big hill. Parts of my route are on regular training routes for some of the local mushers, and they generally keep the trails in great shape. On the way back down he stopped to chat a bit, and he told me the trail wasn’t in all the way. Oh, well, some pushing was going to be required. I hoped he just didn’t know the trails all that well, but alas, it turned out the musher was right.

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I had two to three miles of pushing before reaching the cabin. I was a bit worked when I arrived, and was very happy to start a fire, have dinner, and hit the sack. In the morning I headed out, and back home.

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The ride back was almost entirely in the daylight, which was fantastic.

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I even stopped to get a few photos of the notes written on the pipeline..

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The ride out was a bit faster, though it snowed a bit overnight, but this was made up much less climbing. It was around -20f for most of the ride out, and I dressed better, and had no issues.

Snow..

December 6th, 2016

We finally got snow, and soon after it stopped I was invited out to Eleazar’s again. The snow really transformed the world, and made it seem like winter is now here.

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It was a fun trip, and it is great to be riding on snow again. It is looking like the winter is going to be fantastic! Thanks for the trip David!

No snow..

November 29th, 2016

It has been a pretty low snow winter so far. It some ways it is good and has allow for some interesting adventures but the trails are a bit bumpy. A friend invited me out to Borealis cabin in the White Mountains NRA for an after thanksgiving trip, and since the family is in play this winter and spending the weekend in rehearsal, I decided to disappear.

Hike to Borealis and Eleazars

Marsh headed out the day before, heading to Borealis, where Tom and I would join her, spending the night at Borealis, then heading to Eleazar’s for another night, and then back out. I really wanted to bike, but wasn’t sure how the trail was going to be, and ended up hiking, which turned out to be fine.

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However, after a few miles Tom and I agreed I wouldn’t mention biking would have been more fun if he didn’t mention Trump for the entire trip.

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I think it was an ok bargain..
Though running into several parties of bikers on the way in didn’t make it easy. They looked like they were having fun.

Hike to Borealis and Eleazars

The bikers came with dogs though, and Shiloh and Remus were very excited to meet new friends..

Hike to Borealis and Eleazars

Hike to Borealis and Eleazars

Hike to Borealis and Eleazars

Hike to Borealis and Eleazars

Eventually we said good by and headed down the trail. The walking was pretty good, but the light was fantastic.

Hike to Borealis and Eleazars

After 7 hours of hiking we arrived at a warm and well lighted Borealis cabin, and were welcomed by Marsh. The evening was spent mellowing out and enjoying life.

Hike to Borealis and Eleazars
(Shiloh was unimpressed by the story cards).

In the morning Tom and I took off to go checkout Big Bend, a rock formation a bit downstream from the cabin, while Marsh mellowed out, and then headed off to Eleazars.

Hike to Borealis and Eleazars

Hike to Borealis and Eleazars

Hike to Borealis and Eleazars

Hike to Borealis and Eleazars

Hike to Borealis and Eleazars
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Hike to Borealis and Eleazars

Hike to Borealis and Eleazars

Hike to Borealis and Eleazars

Hike to Borealis and Eleazars

Hike to Borealis and Eleazars

After turning around at the base of Big Bend, we headed to Eleazar’s for the night, then hiked back to the car in the morning.

Hike to Borealis and Eleazars

A great way to spend a weekend. I hope more snow comes soon, I can’t wait to get out on the bike and explore!

A post script : Someone tossed the logbooks at Borealis down the outhouse. It made me a bit sad – it is always fun to look back over the years and read about other folks adventures in these cabins. It is a bit of a bummer someone took that away..

Tolovana to Minto, on skates

November 4th, 2016


Skating from Tolovana Hotsprings To Minto

A year or so ago, the cool kids did some neat trips on nordic skates, a sort of skate blade attached to a ski binding apparently common in Scandinavia. I was seriously tempted to join in the fun and get a set. Eventually, the number of folks I know who have them grew enough that I decided I must get some, as it looked really fun and a neat way to explore. Soon after my set arrived I was invited on a skating trip from Murphy Dome to Minto, which was quickly turned into a Tolovana hot springs to Minto trip. Our plan was to hike into Tolovana, enjoy a nice mellow evening, then leave early and hike and hopefully skate to the town of Minto. Minto is in a windy place, (hopefully) windy enough to blow the snow off the ice, and from the trail into Tolovana, you can see nearly endless expanses of bare ice just outside town. I have often wondered if it would be possible to explore that area with ice skates – I guess I was going to find out! The plan was to hike into the hotsprings, enjoy the nice warm water, then the following day hike down to the flats, and skate from lake to lake, eventually hitting the Tolovana river, and hopefully reaching Minto. I headed out with Ed, Heath, Seth, and Patrick mid morning, making the several hour drive to the Tolovana trailhead.

The hike into Tolovana was mellow, and we arrived with plenty of time to soak and hang out. It was a bit odd to be there in the fall without the family..

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In the morning we headed out early-ish, and hiked down to the flats, hoping to arrive at around dawn.

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We arrived at the flats after a brief bit of stumbling through an old burn, but nothing too epic. The flats greeted us with a nice smooth lake, and we quickly put on skates and zoomed across. For the next hour we hopped from lake to lake, taking the skates off between. Eventually we arrived at some lakes connected with a small stream, but alas, the stream had some beaver dam issues, and soon Heath and I had wet feet.

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It appeared the stream we had planned on following hadn’t frozen up enough to be skate-able..

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We soon bailed on following the small stream, and headed overland, crossing fields, swamps, and a few old burns..
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Eventually the narrow stream widened out into some large old channels, and these were frozen, with lots of hard, smooth ice.

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The skating was amazing – fast smooth and fun.

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Patrick, who is originally from Sweden, told us his parents use very similar skates to travel on a 60 mile lake just outside his home town.

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I was pretty worried I was going to be holding everyone back, as everyone else had a lot more experience skating both on ice and on skis, but it didn’t seem to be an issue, or at least everyone slowed down to my pace.

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We arrived in Minto at around 5pm, well before dark, making our selves at hope in a local teacher’s house before getting a ride back to our cars at the Tolovana trailhead.
A huge thank you to Scott and Cassie for making this trip possible!

A few gear and route notes
It was about 27 miles, give or take a bit. I think we walked about 8 to 10 miles, someone of which could have been skated if we were more willing to take the skates on and off for frequently. The rest was skating.
The ice was, for the most part, great skating, with no open water on the main river. I am not sure how common this is.

As far as safety gear, Ed suggested shin guards, so I picked up some soccer shin guards which were a bit too small for me, and some knee pads. Most of us had some ice picks to get out of the ice if we fell in – I think that is 100% (perhaps 1000%) required, so you can get out if you break through the ice. The knee pads were also too small for me – I think they were intended for woman playing volleyball, and by the end of the day my knees were hurting from the pressure. Ed also brought a helmet and a life jacket, both of which were a good idea. If I was to do this again, I would also take a helmet and a life jacket, just in case of ice issues. We also had several throw bags.

Skate wise, I think we had the full gamut of boots and bindings – Heath was using some sort of mega boot combo with AT or Tech bindings, I used NNN-BD, Ed Pilot, Seth NNN skate bindings, and Patrick SNS-BC. They all seemed to work ok. My boots were a bit floppy, especially after I got my feet wet, but I added more socks and tied them as tight as I could and things were much better.

This was my first trip with everyone navigating solely by smart phone.
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I used Backcountry Navigator, several other folks used GAIA. At least Ed and I had pre-cached satellite imagery. It worked fantastically – at one point we realized that grassy fields (fantastic walking) showed up in a particular color in the imagery, and we aimed for bits of that while navigating. It works amazingly well – I am totally sold on phones as a replacement for GPS at this point, at least for this style of navigation. It is truly fantastic to pull up imagery of your location and use it for planning in the field.

I would like to thank Cassie for the ride from Minto, and Steve at Minto for the route information, and letting us crash at his place for a few hours when we arrived at Minto. Thanks!

The Jack via Caribou Lakes!

September 12th, 2016

Several years ago I packrafted the Jack River, and ever since I have been interested in going back there for more exploreation.. and when I heard that Ed Plumb had hiked in via Carabou Lakes, I knew I had to go check it out, as several friends have told me that area is fantasticly beautiful!

Tom, Heath, and I started the trip off on a pull off on the Parks Highway, just south of Cantwell. The trip started off a bit wet and soggy..

Jack River Packrafting

.. but the trail dried out a bit, just as it started raining. The first few miles were on ATV trails, which made for fast but uninteresting walking..

Jack River Packrafting

Once we reached higher ground the ATV tracks disappeared, and headed up a small unnamed creek up and over to Caribou Lakes (or Caribou Pass as it is labeled on the USGS topos) area.

Jack River Packrafting

Jack River Packrafting

The hiking was pretty good, and while it was pretty foggy as we hiked up, it cleared up as we reached the pass, and the sun came out – awesome! I however was a bit sad about my camera choice – at the last minute I took my “nice” camera out of my pack, and just brought my little waterproof point and shoot, as it looked like it would be too wet for the good camera.

Jack River Packrafting

Area round the lakes is super scenic – very open, with great views and fantastic walking.

Jack River Packrafting

Jack River Packrafting

We ended up camping on the east end of the eastern lake so we would have a short walk to the putin the next day. There is a small cabin on the lake, but it was on the other side from where we camped. We didn’t check it out. The lakes did appear to have fish, as we could see them picking bugs off the top of the lake in the evening.

The views from our campsite were top notch..

Jack River Packrafting

Jack River Packrafting

The next morning we hiked to the Jack, inflated and started floating. Things started off pretty mellow..

Jack River Packrafting

Just shallow clear water, with the occasional mellow wall-push.
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We had been warned there were two drops, possibly class III ish, so we kept our eyes out. The floating was pretty fun though, with lots of interesting water and neat rock formations.

Jack River Packrafting

Eventually we found the first drop, which was a bit after where the creek opened up a bit, and it hit us by surprise. Heath who had been leading us down the creek, hit it first, and dumped, and alas, got his camera a bit wet – a huge bummer!
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It eventually recovered after a long stint in a food dehydrator.

After the first drop, things were pretty fun, but nothing challenging until the second drop in the canyon.

Jack River Packrafting

We scouted the second drop, and then floated it. The canyon round the second drop is very beautiful.

Jack River Packrafting

We made our way back to the bridge on the Parks Highway, where I biked back to the truck to complete the loop.

A few notes:

  • There are two drops – the first can be boat scouted if you know where it is, the second really should be scouted before running.

  • At really high water the upper section looks like it could be quite a handful, as could the lower drop in the canyon. At super high water it might be hard to eddy out to scout the lower drop. There is a nice ATV trail around the entire lower canyon section, if you want/need to hike around it.

  • Helmets seem like a good idea.

  • This trip is on Ahtna land. It isn’t clear to me if the part off the Parks Highway is on their land, or if an easement exists, and the same is true for the Caribou Lakes area. I didn’t see any signage, but the online maps definitely imply part of the Caribou Lakes area is on Ahtna land. The last few miles into Cantwell are on Ahtna land, though it is unclear if the Jack River is part of this or not. So get a permit before going.

  • On the hike in, when you hit the Intertie (the big power line), you can go left or right. We went left. Both ways appear to have atv trails leading to the creek we took up into the pass.

This is a super fun overnight trip, well worth doing!

A map of the route can be found here . The location of the two drops are approximate – use caution!

Quartz Creek hike and float

August 10th, 2016

A while back I floated Bear Creek, one of the creeks that eventually forms Beaver Creek, with my friend Tom. I had been meaning to get back there, and with permission from the family to spend a Sunday and Monday away, and water levels very high, I decided to give it a try again. This time Tom and I were joined by Beth and Constantine. The route is a big loop, and involves leaving a car near the end of US Creek Road, biking over to Quartz Creek trail, then taking Quartz Creek trail for 12 miles, cutting over to Bear Creek, and floating down, eventually leaving Beaver Creek to hike back to the road.

Things got off to a bit of a rough start when near the end of the bike shuttle I got a flat, and like an idiot, stashed the bike and walked to the trailhead, thinking it as only a short distance, only to find out the “short” distance was more like 3 miles. I ended up running half of it or so before reaching the trail head. We headed down the trail, hurrying to catch Beth and Constantine, who had skipped the shuttle and had hiked ahead, planning on going at a mellow pace. Quartz Creek trail is a wonderful ATV trail, with lots of fantastic views…

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Unfortunately, Tom and I cut a switchback, walking right past Beth and Constantine while they mellowed out in the sun. We started to get nervous when we passed an ATVer who mentioned passing them, but not seeing them again… Oh-oh! Eventually we neared where we would cut off to the river, and started to get worried… but eventually they caught up with us, leaving Tom and me quite chagrined about passing them on a switchback.

After a bit of discussion, we bailed on our original plan of hiking over to the river, and headed to end of Quartz Creek trail to hike over to the river. I was a bit skeptical, but figured if nothing else we could just hike back to the higher county. The last mile or so of Quartz Creek trail is a bit muddy..

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and a bit wet..
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I was pleasantly surprised to see a lot of water in Quartz Creek… enough to float!
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After 45 minutes of floating we set up camp, mellowed out and enjoyed dinner..
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And eventually hit the sack, after enjoying a fire on the river. I used my Inreach to send some knock-knock jokes to my daughters before they went to bed..

“Knock, knock. Who’s there? Wooden shoe. Wooden shoe who? Wooden shoe like to hear another joke?”

The joys of technology!

[The Editor could insert an Editor’s Note here. The Editor will refrain.]

The rest of the float was a blast, though perhaps a bit too fun for Beth and Constantine at times, as this was their second time in packrafts. They were good sports though, and quickly figured out how things work.

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Quartz Creek was beautiful – crystal clear water, with neat bluffs and rocks.

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Just after we hit the confluence with Bear Creek, we hit a blown out beaver dam, with a small section remaining that Tom ran. It looked fun..

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The rest of the float on Beaver Creek was uneventful, though very scenic and fun.
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After a short stop to check out Richard’s cabin, where I scored a giant package of Twizzlers – I was running a bit short of snacks and it was a godsend – we soon reached our take-out. We hiked back to the car via Bear Creek trail. The last mile or so was a bit muddy, but nothing epic.

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Folks wanting to repicate this trip should be aware that Quartz Creek might normally be quite a bit lower. When Tom and I did this trip in 2009, the water was much, much lower and Bear Creek was only barely floatable. The Nome Creek stream gauge read just under 4 ft. Much lower and Quartz Creek would hardly be floatable.

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At the end of the trip I had only a half of a Bear Creek Pemmican bar left – I think I need to start being better about bringing more food!

Thanks Beth, Constantine, and Tom for the company and motivation!