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!

Angel Creek 50, the ultra walk

July 18th, 2016

Late this spring, in a moment of weakness, I signed up for a local 50 mile running race, the Angel Creek 50. It was a bit of an experiment for me – I don’t have any big biking plans this summer, and wanted to try something different. I run a fair bit, but don’t enter in to running races all that frequently, mainly only shorter races with the family.

Alas, despite my best intentions, my training up to the race was a bit spotty – I got several months of running in, trying to get lots of short runs in and a few longer (so like 12 miles) run in a week. My right hamstring started giving me issues though, and I got distracted by fun trips, and so my running died off a bit. Eventually race day arrived, and I showed up a bit under trained, but since my only goal was to make the mile 42, 13 hours, 30 minutes cut off time, which is slightly under my walking pace, I figured I should make the cutoff.

The race is in the Chena River State Recreation Area, on a mix of single track and atv trails. I have been on most of the trails before, but there are a few sections that I had never been on, and I was looking forward to it!

The race starts at Twin Bear Camp and ends Chena Hotsprings, which are a little over 20 miles apart, so I took advantage of the race’s shuttle the evening before the race start, and camped at the start. I had brought a tent, but Twin Bears turned out to have quite the facility, and I ended up staying in one of their bunk houses, with Ned. There were so many bunkhouses I think each racer could have had one to themselves. The race start was a nice and early 5am, so we got up at 4am, eating and getting ready. There was a brief pre-race meeting, and before I knew it we were off!

The race sort of went by in a blur.

I ran the first 10 miles or so, then slowly started walking more and more. I didn’t run more than a few miles after mile 25, as my quads were shot, and my right knee was super unhappy after the big downhills around mile 20.

It was raining lightly at the start, then by mile 8 ish it started dumping. No big deal, the weather was not that cold, and I am almost always too hot. I tried to eat every hour or so, and drink every 10 minutes or so. That seemed to work, as I stayed hydrated for most of the race, and didn’t have energy issues. At mile 18 the climbing started, and I learned the hoka stinsons I was using had really poor grip on wet muddy rocks. No big deal, it just required a bit more care than I would have liked. The miles 18 – 20 ish were on trail I had never been on before, and I enjoyed it, though I was now mostly walking, with a few bits of running. The visibility on the ridges was pretty poor, but the trail was pretty easy to follow, in my opinion at least.

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Folks made fun of me at the race finish for saying that, but I didn’t have any trouble finding my way. I had to stop a few times and look around for the next rock cairn, but that only took a few seconds, nothing major, but that might have only been because I was going so slow.

I didn’t take very many photos, as I only had my phone, but I did get a selfie..

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Andy and Chris were at the Chena Dome trail shelter, and Andy was as cheerful as ever.
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I had been by myself for most of the race, but Andy said my friend Tom was only 10 minutes ahead, with a “big group”. Alas, I never caught up with them.

The rest of the race sort of zoomed by, and I walked the next 25 miles. I would have loved to have run more, but alas, my legs were not up for it.

I made the mile 42 cut off by an hour and a half, and finished at 14 hours, 20 minutes ish.

It was a super fun event, and I think I will try doing it again next year, though hopefully I will be able to run a lot more of it.

I used the Strava app on my phone during the race, and it worked great. It told me my pace every mile, which provided lots of motivation. The few times I was around other people I muted it, but since I was by myself for most of the race, it didn’t annoy anyone. When I finished I still had over 50% of the battery left, which was good news.

I walked/ran everything but the last 8 miles in some hoka stinsons, which was a mixed success. They are super comfortable, but they are hard to tighten down fully, and get next to no traction in mud or wet rocks. I have run a lot in them, but never in this much rain and wet. The left shoe started feeling funny after mile 25, and after the race I noticed it had “blew out” in a section.

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It is hard to tell from the photo, but there is big dent and soft spot where my thumb is.

The final 8 miles of the race I ran is some montrail road shoes, and they got much, much better grip.

A huge thank you to my family for letting me disappear for this race, and to the folks who put it on – Drew Harrington, Karen Taber, and George Berry. You guys rock, I really enjoyed it.

A few more photos can be found here:
Angel Creek 50

I learned a few things, mainly I walk at roughly a 17 minute mile pace, which is slightly slower than I would have expected.

An update: 5 days after the race, I am fully recovered, except my feet which are still a bit destroyed. I ended up with blisters on the ball of both feet, and they are taking a while to heal up completely.

Nabesna To McCarthy

July 17th, 2016

A long time ago, in the late 1800s and early 1900s, gold miners hauled supplies from McCarthy to Chisana and Nabesna. I have always wanted to visit the area, and when Heath suggested hiking and packrafting it, I jumped at the oppotunity! The “original” route folks used went from McCarthy to Chisana and the Nabesna/Slana area, but we planned to reverse the route so we could float a bit. The route has a pretty storied history – it was a wilderness classic route in the late 80s, and folks have even taken bikes on it. I was beyond excited for this trip! Another major bonus was that Heath did all the planning, making this the first trip in a long time I didn’t need to think about all that much – hurrah!

We headed out of town midday for the 5 hour drive to Nabesna. Nabesna is on the end of a 40 mile dirt road, and the trip got off to a bit of a rough start when, after passing a couple of small wash-outs on we came to a much deeper one – one that I wasn’t brave enough to drive across. It was a beautiful blue sky day, but apparently it had been raining earlier. We parked the truck safe from the water coming down the wash-out, and after checking out the nearby Jack River, decided to start the float a bit early.

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The Jack was near bank-full, and had enough water to be fun, but not too exciting. Besides a bit of wood, the floating was fun. We eventually camped at 11pm or so, a few miles short of our planned put-in spot. In the morning we awoke to clear skies and continued floating, eventually reaching the Nabesna River. The Jack was very scenic, and had a wonderful rock wall section that was pretty amazing. Alas, the water had a lot of sediment in it, and wasn’t clear, but still a fun float. The Nabesna was huge, much bigger than I expected. There were a few big boils and eddy lines that while no big deal, still got my heart racing. On the upside, the water was moving fast, averaging almost 10 mph (I think), and we quickly reached our take-out, near Cooper Creek.

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The wash plain of the Nabesna was super wide here, and while we were on the bank of the river, Cooper Creek was still over a half mile away – it is pretty amazing how wide the floodplain is for these large glacial rivers. As we were transitioning from floating to hiking mode I noticed a small plane parked in the distance. The pilot noticed us, and walked over to talk. After a brief conversation shouted over a side channel of the river, we discovered he worked for NPS, and had flown some rangers out to retrieve some equipment, and they were using packrafts. Hmm, perhaps we had packed up the boats too early. We headed out only to discover the rangers were using the boats to float a side channel of the Nabesna that ran right near the far side of the floodplain, and quickly determined it was too deep to ford… and out came the boats again.

Eventually we made it across, and started heading up Cooper Creek. The walking was fantastic, though a bit cobbly. A mile or so up the creek we ran into a porcupine, which appeared to really want to cross the creek, but didn’t want to get wet.

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We watched it a bit, as it slowly walked down the creek, checking occasionally to see if the creek had gone away yet or not. Not the brightest creatures. We also saw a small black bear, but managed to skirt around it without it noticing us. The rest of the day we hiked up Cooper Creek, bouncing from bank to bank, and eventually camped near the confluence of nine mile creek.

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Heath had brought a little wood burning stove, which we had fun using. It was a bit slower than a traditional setup, but the ideal of unlimited hot water was pretty tempting..

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In the morning we kept heading up the creek, and I was excited to find my first artifact – hurrah!

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I love bits of history that show how places have been used historically and currently. Finding “rusty bits” became a running joke for the rest of the trip.

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Eventually we topped out at a little pass, hitting Blue Lake, a wonderful little lake that would have been an awesome camping site, but alas, we had to get the mileage on.

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We headed over Cooper Pass, and down to Notch Creek, where I found an old collapsed cabin filled with more rusty bits. Notch Creek was pretty shallow, bumpy, and steep, so we walked down it, enjoying more fine cobble walking. Much to my surprise, I saw a set of fat bike tires on the creek bed – it appeared there were some bikers ahead of us!

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We camped near William Creek, hoping to float in the morning. We camped right next to a small clear stream. I enjoyed an experimental dinner of ramen noodles, dried coconut milk, peanut sauce, and coconut oil. Heath was a bit skeptical – “That is a lot of coconut oil.” was his take on it. I fell asleep to the sound of the water… only to be woken up when my pad deflated at 2am. Morning came two more rounds of inflation later, and my stomach was not happy. Apparently, while dinner was delicious, it did in fact have too much oil in it. I packed up camp and inflated my boat while trying not to be sick. The floating was fun, when Notch Creek had enough water. It bounced between wide braids and a single channel. When it was floatable, it was super fast and fun. Eventually we reached Cross Creek, where everything spread out and got too shallow, so we packed up our boats and headed off for the overland crossing to Chisana. Alas, I discovered that I was so distracted by not getting sick I had left my camera in a pouch on my pack, and it had gotten wet, and much to my disappointment, didn’t want to take photos – sadness! We forded Cross Creek, and headed overland to Chisana. We quickly found a marked trail, and were surprised to see horse prints – apparently folks use pack horses in this area – and we followed the horse trail over to the Chisana River. Alas, the Chisana river was too deep to ford, and so we inflated again, and floated across, then hiked over to Chisana. After hiking seemingly forever across the floodplain, we ran into a small pack of horses who seemed pretty scared of us, and who quickly ran off into the trees. We followed them, finding an ATV trail, that led us to a big complex, where the horses were waiting for us. They couldn’t seem to decide if we were something to be interested in, or scared of, so we carefully headed around them, and walked into town. We had discussed crashing at the public use cabin in Chisana, but we found it occupied by a couple touring Alaska by plane, so we headed out. After several false starts we found the trail heading out of town, eventually passing a clear(ish) stream near town that Heath said would be fantastic camping. I pressed to keep going, as there was another stream, Geohenda Creek, that was only a few miles away. Heath was very unamused to find Geohenda was thick with mud and far from the perfect campsite. We setup camp just as a huge thunderstorm passed by, just getting tents up before the deluge. The rain stopped fast though, and a bit of searching found some clear water, and soon we had dinner cooking, and enjoyed a nice bonfire on a dry channel of the creek. The next day we hiked up the creek, enjoying yet more cobbles and many muddy crossings of Geohenda. Gradually the water level dropped as we headed up into the higher country, and eventually we passed the source of the mud, a tiny creek coming in from a glacier. The country up high was beautiful, and very, very scenic. Our destination for the evening was Solo Mt. Cabin, a small historic cabin near Solo Mountain. A mile or so before the cabin we passed a huge grizzly munching away on the hillside, and I was very happy to reach the cabin just as a rainstorm arrived. I was a bit surprised to see shape the cabin was in – it is obvious at some point the NPS spent some time fixing it up – it looked like the foundation had been replaced, but having the door held shut by baling wire seemed a bit sad. We hung out in the cabin, and after collecting a bunch of dry alder from a nearby creek bed, we enjoyed a nice warm evening with the rain intermittently ringing off the roof. I had a great time reading the “log book” graffiti on the cabin walls, which was sort of a who’s who of all the crazy endurance folks and adventures in Alaska.

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The morning came, and with it sunshine, and my camera was sort of working after an evening of sitting next to the fire – hurrah! Alas, sort of working meant that while it took pictures, the display wasn’t working, so it was hard to frame photos.

We hiked across to the wash plain of the White River, and were surprised to see trail markers, leading to a pretty well used winter and horse trail, that eventually turned into an ATV trail that appeared to head to a cabin complex on Solo Creek. We turned off the ATV trail onto an old game trail, as it was heading in the wrong direction, only to find an even bigger one headed in just the right direction. Just as we reached Lime Creek we saw a large herd of horses grazing on the floodplain. I really felt like I had stepped into the old west. Lime Creek was a bit too big to ford though, so we had to inflate to cross it. Once across we hiked a few more miles, then camped. Heath declared it the perfect campsite, with yellow flowers on one side, and purple on the other.

In the morning we headed up into Skolai pass, skirting the Russell Glacier, and slowly working over to upper Skolai Lake.

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It was fantastically scenic. We worked our way across and over to Skolai Lake, eventually
camping near the headwaters of Skolai Creek. The valley the creek originates from is a neat place, wide and marshy, with lots of standing dead willow.

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In some willows I found a round ball of grass, which turned out to be a birds nest of some sort – very neat..

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I spent an hour or so exploring the valley, and checked out the “cabin” marked on the map, which was more of a three-sided shack.

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In the morning we headed up to Chitistone Pass, where it was a near complete white-out.

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We also ran into the first people we had seen since Chisana, two hikers wandering around in the rain and mist near their tent who refused to return our waves – a bit creepy. Fortunately, we dropped out of the mist, and enjoyed some fantastic walking along the Chitistone River. We eventually saw another party ahead of us, and shortly after that startled a little brown bear who headed off at high speed. We eventually overtook the party, and learned it was Nate and Krista who are also from Fairbanks, and much to my surprise – Krista works with my wife Nancy, and knows my daughters Molly and Lizzy. It is a very small world. Soon we were at the crux of the trip – the legendary scree of the goat trail!

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(Heath, checking out the goat trail..)

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I had been told everything from it was a fairly tame walk across a scree slope, to it was a scary walk along a rock wall above a huge drop, separated by the “gorge of death”. It turned out to be a mostly tame scree walk. I think it could have been possible to fall to your doom, but mostly I think you would have just rolled to a stop before any doom, with lots of bruises and scrapes. I didn’t test this idea though..

We stuck to the “yellow band”, as most folks seem to recommend, and came out without any issues.

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(Photo compliments of Krista Heeringa)

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(Photo compliments of Krista Heeringa)
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(Photo compliments of Krista Heeringa)

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Nate and Krista took a completely different route, going quite a bit higher than us, so perhaps we did it wrong. Regardless, it was a super scenic walk, with waterfalls everywhere! After the scree slopes it was just mellow downhill alpine walking, complete with a huge herd of sheep grazing on the hillside in the last valley we passed.

In the evening we camped on a nice bluff, in sight of a glacier and Chitistone Falls – best campsite ever!

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In the morning we hiked down to the Chitistone, inflated and crossed the creek when we found we couldn’t get across, and started hiking downriver.

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The hiking was mostly pretty fantastic, besides a mile or so of willow thickets that Heath just breezed though, and I had to smash though like a ogre, getting constantly stuck. Very helpful for my self-image…
We eventually made it to Glacier Creek, where we planned to float. The weather had been very warm, and the Chitistone was now running very fast and a bit high, so we put in with a bit of trepidation, but it worked out – the creek was fun, splashy, and fast. After a hour or so we pulled out and camped, as at this rate we would be at the final takeout before we knew it. The evening was spent mellowing out and exploring the Chitistones floodplain.

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In the evening we were buzzed by a Supercub. Later we learned someone in a wing-suit had flown over us, and had been picked up by the plane. In the morning we packed up and floated the last of the Chitistone, taking a side channel around a new section of river where the river is chewing into a forest. We floated the Nizna to May Creek road, where we packed up and hiked into town.

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Fortunately the really long and boring road hike was shortened when we hitched a ride with Greg from Kennicott Guides on a double-wide ATV.

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McCarthy was as charming as ever, with folks stopping to talk to us nearly constantly. The upcoming packrafting festival appeared to be the talk of the town. Heath and I grabbed lunch, then caught a slightly earlier flight back with McCarthy Air to Devil’s Mountain lodge.
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We jogged back to the truck, and Heath joked that with my very holey shirt, it looked like I was “A homeless guy chasing a yuppie.” After nearly 6 miles of running, we made it to the truck, drove back to get our stuff, then headed back to Fairbanks – hurrah!

A couple of notes:

  • Don’t use Thermarest with stupid patches. My pad kept deflating, and I was up to two inflations a night before I taped over the patch with duck tape.

  • This route has lots of tricky water crossings. Folks thinking of replicating it should make sure they are ok with big-ish stream crossing, and budget extra time in case some of the creeks (like flood creek, or lime creek) are running high.

  • The Chitistone was flowing pretty big when we did it, and above Glacier Creek it looks pretty burly – lots of water moving fast. Below Glacier Creek it was class II with a few big obstacles, and near the Nizana, lots of wood. Very manageable though. Some bikers from Spain flipped someplace in the Chitistone, and one of them lost his gear, making the last few days of their trip pretty epic.

  • There are several re-supply options – the solo creek runway, skolei runway, and Chisana. I was told by McCarthy air that if they had other flights going that way, a small drop bag would be $100, which seems like a fairly good deal.

  • I should have brought a fair bit more food – I lost around 6lbs on this trip.

  • At the last minute, I brought a dry suit. That was, I think, a good call, but added a few pounds of extra weight. YMMV.

  • I am done with non-waterproof packs for packrafting. I have an old Arcteryx pack, that while nearly 4lbs empty, is completely waterproof. Alas, the hip belt is coming off, and the suspension sucks, so I replaced it with a big osprey pack. I was happy with the pack, but wasn’t happy with how much water it sucked up, all the extra zippers it had, and how many dry bags I brought with me. A pack made of some sort of waterproof material is on my list. It looks like mt hardware makes several, as does HMG. Alas, HMG’s packs are not as big as I would like. To bad all the newer arcteryx packs have so many gizmos – the one I have from them is a very simple affair, just a big single compartment body and a top lid.

  • I really love my Inreach – it was fantastic to txt Nancy and the twins at the end of the day and check in with them, and kept me feeling connected with them. Alas, the last day I swapped out the batteries, and didn’t notice the shell wasn’t completely dry, and got water in it.. and it stopped working. Duh! Hopefully it will come back to life.

  • Smart phones are now a nearly complete gps replacement – Heath did all his gps stuff using his phone, and it seemed to work very well. I brought a standard garmin etrex 30, which worked fine, but occasionally fired up Backcountry Navigator. Andrew Skurka has a discussion of the various options that is worth reading. On the flight back I noticed that the pilot used an android tablet running a mapping app rather than the specialized garmin aircraft nav widget I am used to seeing. The end of the stand alone gps?

  • I should have brought a better system for quick and easy access water, and some electrolyte drink mix. I was dehydrated a lot of the trip.

  • I sunburned my lips (!!) something I wasn’t even aware was possible. Next time I will bring some lip balm with sunscreen.

  • Heath found the birding to be awesome, with lots and lots of different species. Adding a few days just to birdwatch might be a good idea, if you are a birding sort of person.

  • Trust the Maps – I was getting pretty antsy near the end, as a write up I read said it was 35 miles from Skolia landing strip to Glacier Creek, and was thinking we didn’t have enough time for that. It turned out to be much less than that, more like 20. I should have mellowed out and trusted the maps – sorry Heath!

  • I can’t think of anything else at the moment.. will add anything else that comes to mind later.

I would like to thank Nancy and the twins for allowing me to disappear for 10 days, and Heath for doing all of the planning for this trip. Normally it is my job to do a lot of the trip planning, it was awesome to have someone else do that – hurrah!

Heath’s writeup can be found here, and is filled with truly awesome photos.

A interactive map of our route can be found here.

A few more photos can be found here:
Nabesna to McCarthy

Chena Dome..

May 31st, 2016

In a moment of weakness, I signed up for the Angel Creek 50, a local 50 mile foot race. The cut off for the race is 13.5 hours for the last checkpoint at mile 42, which is pretty close to my walking pace. To see if I could make it, Tom and I headed out to hike Chena Dome trail, a very hilly local 29 mile hike.

The weather was fantastic..

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I ran the easy bits, but alas, my knees didn’t enjoy the downhills.. fortunately there was still some snow, which felt so good on them..

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The trail was in great shape, but it was baking hot. I am not really a hot weather person, so climbing up some of those hills nearly scrambled my brain.

There was a fair bit of water on the trail, and a bit of snow still. In a few weeks it might be hard to find any water besides what is in the catchment system at the shelter.

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The shelter at mile 17 was looking a bit beat up.. and, alas, the hole in the floor was a bit bigger than it was when I last visited, and lots more had been chewed on by porcupines…

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The last few hours were even hotter.. Fortunately a few hours before we finished we ran across a small clean snowfield, which we used to top off our water supplies. The cold water was heavenly.
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Tom, Shiloh, and I were very happy to reach the car, and headed off for a sock and dinner at the hotsprings.

In end, it took us 9 hours to do the 29 miles, which is just barely over the cutoff. I was beat when I finished! Hopefully I can run of more of the actual course than I can of Chena Dome!

This was the first time in a very long time I have done a hike without Remus. Remus is now 13, and getting a bit too old for long days. When I left in the morning with Shiloh, he started barking and was not happy to be left behind, but was consoled by being let into the house and being given a huge rawhide chew. Rumor has it when the twins woke up they gave him an old bagel with bacon and provolone. It is tough getting old..

Thanks for the company Tom!

Pinnell Mountain Trail, 2016

May 27th, 2016

On a late Sunday afternoon, Tom and I headed off to hike Pinnell Mountain Trail, planning on a last minute overnighter. I have written about the Pinnell Mountain trail before.. and it is a fantastic hike, truly worth doing.

There was a bit of snow..
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But nothing major, and most of the trail was snow free.

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The trail is a bit wet, but nothing major for this early in the season.

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The dogs had a great time, and enjoyed the mellow, relatively short day.
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The sun set around 11:30pm, and it was beautiful. I want to come back and run or hike the trail in the evening, so I can get the full midnight sun experience.

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BLM has improved both shelters, and they are in fantastic shape. We stayed at the shelter near mile 17…
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In the morning we awoke to a near white out, which came and went for the rest of the hike.
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The trail is well marked though, so we didn’t have issues following the trail.
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I think by memorial day weekend the trail should be snow free. I hope everyone is enjoying the fantastic spring weather!

I have been neglecting the blog a bit… more coming soon!

ITI – 2016 Part 2, This time to Nome!

April 6th, 2016

A bit of a warning – this post is on the long side.. ok actually its very long side..

Part 1 can be found here.

In the morning we woke up to a wonderfully clear day in Ruby, with what appeared to be a tailwind – hurrah!
After a breakfast of pancakes and some final packing, Bill, Kyle, and I headed out.

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I had been dreading riding on the Yukon river, as I have never found traveling on rivers to be all that exciting.  Too much flat endless white stuff, stretching out seemingly forever in front of me..  It always seems to like I am not going anywhere.

We did hear via the grapevine that Phil H., who should have been two days ahead of us at this point, had suffered some bike trouble just outside Galena, and had lost half a day there, but had apparently made good time.

We left The River’s Edge B&B, dropped down on the river, and headed downriver to Galena.

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The ride from Ruby to Galena was very fast.  The Yukon River was not what I expected, with lots more bare ice, silt, and rocks than I anticipated.

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Soon after we  left Ruby, Bill zoomed off ahead, while Kyle and I chugged along.   I felt a bit guilty at this point, as I think I was slowing Kyle down a bit – he is definitely a faster rider than I am.

The ride to Galena was mostly uneventful, besides some funny signs warning about a “bump” just outside town.

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The bump appeared to be a slight bulge in the ice, which was pretty funny, as the ice is anything but flat, and the trail on the river was filled with larger bumps.

We were meet just outside Galena by Bill and Larry, a local who was following the race, who directed us to a local B&B which had a room set up for the racers to crash in.   Bill had wandered around Galena a bit, and had picked us up  microwave hamburgers, which tasted awesome!

We spent the next hour or so repacking our bikes from our drop boxes, mellowing out, and eating.  Before we took off, Larry called ahead to Nulato, the next stop on the route, and got us permission to crash on the floor of the Catholic Church.

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Leaving Galena

The ride from Galena to Nulato was pretty interesting—a bit of river, a bit of swamp, a few narrow sections of nice trail looping though the trees, and tons of long, narrow beaver ponds.

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I think this section is normally on the Yukon, but the river hadn’t frozen up completely, and the trail was routed overland.

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About halfway from Galena to Koyukuk we started seeing lots of snowmachines, and we eventually bumped into the owner of the Galena B&B. After thanking her, and talking for a bit, we learned there was a basketball tournament that evening in Koyukuk, and folks were headed back to Galena and Nulato.

We passed Koyukuk in the early evening, all lit up in the dark, and it was back on the Yukon.  About halfway between Nulato and Koyukuk we stopped briefly and then noticed there were lots of eyes staring down at us, reflecting the lights of our headlamps.   Kyle thought they might be wolves, but it is hard to say.  Regardless, they didn’t seem too traumatized by us, and kept watching.

Just before arriving at Nulato, my bike made a grinding noise, and my gears started freewheeling without any resistance—not a good sign.  I took my wheel off, and was amazed to see the lower 10 gears on my cassette had fallen off.  I fiddled with it a bit, but I wasn’t sure how to get it back on.  I was pretty sure at this point I was hosed. After shifting around a bit I found my lowest gear still worked, and after telling Kyle and Bill to continued on to Nulato, I slowly followed them, spinning away.  We ended up spending the night in a Catholic Church, getting a wonderful meal cooked for us by Brother Bob at 1am, and a fantastic pancake breakfast at in the morning.

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Brother Bob, and a fellow who gave me some bailing wire.

Bill, who owns the Trek Store in Anchorage, helped me try to put the cassette back together, and we set off in the morning, only to have my cassette fall apart again immediately.
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We headed back to Brother Bob’s, where we fiddled with it a bit more, but I couldn’t figure out how to get the lower 10 gears of the cassette to stay on.   Eventually, I gave up, and told Kyle and Bill to head out.

This was the lowest part of the race for me—I was pretty sure at this point I was going to end up flying back to Fairbanks to swap out the wheel.  I had been told there was a 11am and 3pm flight in from Fairbank, and started spinning slowly up to the airport, which is on a bluff overlooking the river, or so said my gps.   After a bit of 3mph spinning, I quickly realized that as it was just after 11am, and I had seen the flight land at 20 minutes ago, I just wasn’t going to make it.

So I made the demoralizing trip back to Brother Bob’s porch to hang out and wait until the next flight.  While I was waiting, I took the cassette apart again several more times, and eventually figured out the cassette only fit on in one orientation, and once I got it lined up correctly, the lower 10 gears snapped on – and I was back in business!  It was still unclear how it snapped off in the first place, but it seemed solid, and after a few hard mashing sprints to test it out, it looked like it would hold up, and I set off to go catch up with Kyle and Bill. I did pick up a length of baling wire—if worse came to worst I could wire it together, which would hopefully hold until I reached the nearest town.

The ride to the next town of Kaltag was fast, but very uneventful, and a bit boring.

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This was the Yukon I was dreading— flat and seemingly endless.  Fortunately, it was warm, I had a slight tailwind, and the riding was very good.    I tried to put on an audiobook, but my player was malfunctioning, alas.

Eventually I made it to Kaltag, where I just missed the Post Office closing, and ended up stopping by the store to grab some snacks  —mainly a bag of bagels, two small containers of yogurt, and a small jar of peanut butter.  I ate two bagels and the yogurt which was fantastic for dinner, and after asking for directions on the way out of town from a young guy manning the store, I headed out.

The next section of trail was the Kaltag portage, which leaves the Yukon river (yay!) and heads overland to Unalakleet, on the coast.  As I was heading out of town, I was very surprised to see Kyle and Bill riding on a road paralleling me a mile or so off, then watched as they turned off and continued down the Kaltag airport’s runway.   I turned around and headed after them, but quickly decided it wasn’t going to happen—it was going to take a while for me to get to the trail they were on, and with that lead, I wasn’t going to catch them.   I could see trail markers on the trail I was on so I knew I was headed the right way, and headed back down the trail.   A mile or so out of town, I remembered I was supposed to call the ITI organizers when we leave the Yukon river, and stopped  to get out my cell.  After wasting a bit of time screwing around with my phone I discovered I couldn’t get cell reception, gave up and headed back down the trail.    After 20 minute or so, I ran into Bill and Kyle – hurrah!  They were super surprised to see me and were pretty happy my bike was working again.  They had taken a long break at Kaltag, and were pretty well rested, and quickly disappeared down the trail.  

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Hopefully I would catch up with them again at one of the shelter cabins along the trail.  At the first cabin, the Tripod Flats cabin,  I could smell smoke, and knew they were inside, warming things up – hurrah!   After a nice evening of dinner and a good night’s sleep, we headed off to Unalakleet.

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The Kaltag Portage trail is pretty spectacular—very scenic, and very beautiful.  The trail was in fantastic shape, and it was warm and calm, with clear skies and fantastic views.  I think this was one of the highlights of the race for me.

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About 15 miles or so outside Unalakleet we ran into some bikers headed the other direction.

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It turned out two guys were on a overnight trip to Old Woman Cabin to spectate and say hi to the ITI racers as they passed by.   After a bit of chatting we parted ways, and we continued on.  Unalakleet is famous for Peace on Earth pizza, and we were determined to make it there before they closed!

As we neared Unalakleet, the snow started disappearing, and soon we were riding on bare ice and dirt.  

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Soon we were riding down the main street of Unalakleet, where I stopped to get some more white gas and some ice cream for later, while Bill and Kyle attempted to figure out where the Post Office was.  I came out and they were chatting away with some folks who had been following the race and had come out to say hi as we passed through.  They directed us to the Post Office, where we had drop boxes waiting for us.  I had been warned the Unalakleet Post Office wasn’t the most friendly, so I was expecting trouble, but as we were waiting in line to get our boxes, the postmaster walked up and excitedly started talking to us about the race, and before we knew it he was outside with us looking at our bikes, and asking questions.  

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As we talked to him, there was suddenly a deep voice from seemingly out of nowhere asked us if we would like some coffee.  After a quick bit of searching for the source of the voice I looked up to see a man leaning out of a small second storey window above the PO looking down at us.  I passed on the coffee, but thanked the disembodied voice for the thought.  After a bit more chatting with the super friendly postmaster, we headed off to have pizza.

We arrived at Peace on Earth only to discover they were closed for another 45 minutes.  Two phone calls later the manager arrived, opened up, and we sat down to unpack our drop bags, and gorge on pizza.  The pizza was fantastic, though I was sort of overwhelmed by all the food and supplies in my drop box.  I felt a bit like a child on Christmas Day, confronted by too many new toys and unable to decide which to play with first.   I only had a limited space on my bike, and picking what I was going to take with me was a bit overwhelming.

Eventually, we dragged ourselves out of pizza heaven, and headed down the trail.  Our plan was to stop at the Foothills shelter cabin.   The ride out of town was gorgeous, and I got my first real views of ocean from the west coast of Alaska—one of the highlights of the trip!

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There wasn’t a lot of snow, and the trail mainly seemed to consist of a strip of ice in ATV ruts, but it was scenic.  I was pretty surprised how hilly it was—we seemed to either be going up or down, without a lot of flat in between.  

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Perhaps I had been spoiled by all that flat river.. We arrived at the cabin in early evening, warmed it up, and enjoyed leftover pizza, and for Bill and I, icecream.  Kyle is alas, lactose intolerant, which I wasn’t aware of when I picked up the ice cream as an evening snack.

In the morning we headed out and made our way to Shaktoolik.  As we left the foothills, we headed out across a lagoon to the village, and finally hit some real wind.  This was my first encounter with any strong wind so far, and I quickly had to rethink a few things.  First, I needed more layers on my lower body, and second, while the ruff I had on my puffy jacket was awesome, wearing my puffy jacket while biking at these fairly warm temperatures (teens F)  made me much too hot.

At Shaktoolik we biked through town, eventually finding the school.

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After asking if it was okay to come inside, we came in, and talked to the kids, had lunch, and re-shuffled our layers for the next section, the ride to Koyuk across the sea ice of Norton Bay.   The students and teachers were super friendly, and very excited about the upcoming Iditarod dog race.  I ducked out briefly to run across to the store, where I wandered around in a daze, overwhelmed by all the food options.  Eventually I grabbed some junk food and snacks, and joined Bill and Kyle in an empty cafeteria for lunch.

I took the time to swap my ruff over to my shell jacket.  When I purchased the ruff, I was given the option of setting it up so I could move it from jacket to jacket.  I had been given mixed advice about this – several people told me it was a good idea, and others had told me it just made it heaver and harder to deal with, and I would not want to switch it anyway.   The option to switch it turned out to be pretty awesome—the ruff turned out to work great on my shell, and it was way too warm (around 5F for most of our ride from Shaktoolik to Koyuk) to ride in my puffy jacket.

The ride to Koyuk was neat, but took forever, and I soon got sick of the novelty of riding on sea-ice.  

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The wind, while not blowing super hard, was pretty relentless blowing into our faces, and the trail was mostly firm, but had sections where it was too soft or the crust wasn’t strong enough to hold my weight.   Bill and Kyle had the advantage of being much lighter than I am, and could float over the soft stuff like angels, while I bogged down like a pig wallowing in mud.   The final 10 miles to Koyuk seemed to take forever.   We could see the lights of Koyuk, but they just didn’t seem to get any closer.  Finally we arrived, and connected up with someone affiliated with the school.  Alas, I forget his name—he was super helpful though, fantastic guy!  He let us in, and set us up in the preschool room, where we made ourselves at home.
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Photo by Kyle Amstadter

Koyuk really reminded me of my home town of Skagway.   We arrived at around 10pm, and there was a basketball game going on, giving me flashbacks of being a kid in a small-town in Alaska.  The school even had the same feel..

In the morning we headed out, making our way back onto the sea-ice, though this trail seemed much firmer and the riding was much faster.  The ride from Koyuk to Elim was a surprise—it was really interesting, with diverse scenery, with sea ice, forested hills, wide open, and wind blasted fields.

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Bill got a bit antsy about the idea of missing his drop box waiting for him in the Elim Post office, and possibly a bit frustrated with my slow pace, and he took off.  Hopefully Kyle and I would meet up with him again in Elim.    Eventually I stopped and added a bit more air to my tires, and immediately I sped up considerably.   Kyle and Bill were both running tubeless setups, and I was pretty amazed by the difference they had in their rolling resistance.  I definitely had to do more tire pressure adjustment.  I think tubeless fat bike wheels must just roll easier than their tubed counterparts.  Some tubeless wheels are in my future, I think!

As Kyle and I neared Elim we started seeing signs of civilization—in this case, lots and lots of boats, of various sizes and states of repair.

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The last mile into Ellim involved, much to my surprise, biking up a huge hill on a plowed road, but it did provide some awesome views of the ocean.

Elim was a fantastically welcoming town. As we biked, a fellow on an ATV stopped to ask us if we needed directions, and he pointed us towards the school, where Kyle and I had drop boxes waiting for us.  Unbeknownst to me, my wife Nancy had called a village elder she knows from the Alaska Forum on the Environment conferences to let her know I was coming in, and she had a group of kids waiting for us to direct us to the school, and help me find the store.  Just outside the store I ran into a lady who told me she was just checking to make sure the store was open and was going to check to see the school was open, as Nancy Fresco’s (my wife) husband was biking in.   I laughed and introduced myself as Nancy Fresco’s husband, and thanked her.  It was surreal experience, being escorted through the village store by a group of 3rd to 5th graders all asking me questions about what I was doing, while I was asking them questions about life in Ellim, all while trying to quickly pick out food from the small but still overwhelming selection in the store.  On the upside, I eventually just started asking the kids to help me find stuff, and once I started that I quickly got what I needed and was ready to check out.  Just after I checked out, the checker handed me the phone, saying it was for me , and it was the village elder, Emily Murray, calling to let me know my drop box was at the school, and the door was open, and I should just come in and get it, and make myself at home.  A fantastic welcome to Elim!

We spend a few hours in the school, snacking and talking to the principal and his family about life in Elim.  The discussion reminded me a lot of growing up in Skagway, with the same problems of being an authority figure in a small town, and being unable to escape that role in such a small community.   Eventually we pried ourselves away, and headed off to White Mountain, though not before calling ahead to Joanna, a local in White Mountain, which was hopefully our destination for the evening.  Joanna has an almost mystical reputation in the ITI.  Folks always talk about how fantastic it is to arrive at her house at White Mountain, and I was eager to experience this!

The next section was a bit of a blur.  We headed out onto the sea ice briefly, where the for the first time I could actually see the ocean from the ice I was biking on, which was a bit disconcerting.  

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Fortunately we headed back onto land, where we headed up and over some large hills, before descending down to Golovin Bay and across to Golovin.  Golovin Bay was a bit surreal.  Last year some of the Irondog folks had major trouble here. I think one team ended up ditching their snowmachines in the middle of the lagoon in several feet of water and having to walk to shore.  Fortunately, the ice seemed thick and sound, and the trail was more of a hard-packed runway than almost anything we had been on for most of the way so far.  We zoomed across the bay to Golvin, where we briefly stopped out of the wind for a snack, then biked across town and onto more ice for the final stretch to White Mountain.   The ride from Golovin to White Mountain seemed to take forever.  Although we where making good time, it just didn’t seem like we were going anywhere, possibly due to the featureless terrain and darkness.   A few miles outside White Mountain, a snowmachine pulled up, and a woman introduced herself as Joanna.  We were unbelievably excited to see her.  I think Bill told her “I could hug you,” and she said, “While that would be nice, you should keep biking, White Mountain is just around the corner.  She headed off and we followed, and soon enough we pulled up into White Mountain, where we were welcomed into her home, in the early hours of the morning. I ended up crashing on her couch, having I think the best sleep of the race, after a fantastic bowl of soup.  Joanna and her family—Liam, Cha, and Jack—are amazingly nice, and it is hard to describe how fantastic it was to be welcomed into her house.   While chatting with Joanna, it turns out we have many mutual friends in Fairbanks, and she is even familiar with the neighborhood I live in—it is such a small world!

In the morning we had a wonderful breakfast, and headed out for the last push to Nome.   I didn’t know what to expect for the remainder of the trail, but I was pretty surprised by all the climbing there was.  After winding through some river and swamp, we were soon climbing up and down some large hills, giving us fantastic views, but a lot more climbing than I expected!

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 Eventually we descended down to Topkok, where we ducked into the shelter cabin for a bit of lunch.  After Topkok, the amount of snow dropped considerably, and soon we were zooming along on firm, hard-packed trail.   The next day was the Nome to Golovin snowmachine race, and lots of folks were out riding fast, getting some last minute practicing in.  

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We didn’t have any close calls, but some of the snowmachines were going pretty darn fast.   The rest of the ride to Safety was pretty fun, but largely uneventful.  This area is notorious for a short section where there is occasionally a “blow hole”, where the wind can be very strong.  Fortunately, while it was windy, the blow hole didn’t seem to be in action when we passed through.  Eventually we arrived at Safety, where I hoped to maybe get a bite to eat or at least some pop, but alas, they were not open yet.  We were welcomed inside though, and we chatted a bit with the owner, who was in the process of getting things ready for the dog race.  They had a very comfortable couch, but while I would have loved to just crash on it, we had to get going if we were going to finish!

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Photo by Kyle Amstadter

The last 20 miles were all on a road, which was a mix of very fast, and slow, depending on how much traffic and drifting there was.  There seemed to be at least two other options, and I was a bit sceptical that the road was the most reasonable, but it worked out in the end.    Parts seemed to take forever.   Some old friends of ours from Fairbanks, Sue and Glenn,  had offered to let me stay with them in Nome when I finished, and I was on a mission to arrive at a reasonable hour and not get them up in the middle of the night!  A few miles out of town, a truck pulled up, and it was Sue and Glenn! After a brief chat, we got back going again—the finish was just around the corner!   As the miles counted down, I watched for each mile post.. five, four, three, two, then, alas, there was a loud pop, and I didn’t have any gears anymore.   A little over a mile from the finish, my lower 10 speeds of the cassette popped off, leaving me just the big ring again.  And since the road was now completely snow free, spinning away at 3 miles an hour was going to be torture.  I tried to fix the cassette the same way as before, but no dice.  I couldn’t get it back on.  The frustration!  I suggested that Bill and Kyle continue on, but they weren’t having it, and soon had a tow system set up.  Bill towed me into the finish.  

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Photo by Kyle Amstadter

It was fantastically nice of him, and one of the highlights of the race for me.  Thanks, guys!

We were met by a small crowd of folks, including the winner Phil H, who finished just a day slower than the record.   I sort of wandered around in a daze, glad to be done, but not quite processing everything going on around me.  Eventually we all loaded up into Sue and Glenn’s truck, and drove over to their house, where we spent several hours talking and enjoying some fantastic homemade pizza!   Bill and Sue in particular were in heaven—they are both super social folks who love to talk.  Eventually we headed off to bed, and in the morning we toured Nome a bit, got our bikes headed back to our respective homes via Northern Air Cargo, had lunch with Phil H and his family and, I saw Bill and Kyle off at the airport.  I hung around for the next day, then flew back to Anchorage, where my sister gave me a ride to my folks’ house in Wasilla.  I mellowed out for a day before driving back.

Phil had an amazing race. I think he would have broken the record if he hadn’t had two serious issues with his bike. He had a crank fall apart on him outside Galena, and his chain fell apart on the sea ice outside Koyuk. Both times he had to wait for replacements to arrive. A huge congrats to Phil for such a fantastic race!

Just in case it isn’t clear – we had amazing trail conditions. It is hard to imagine the trail being nicer, any my fast time was due entirely to that, so my sub 13 day time should be put in that context. Snow bike riding is mostly about conditions, and I lucked out, the conditions were as good as I think it is possible for them to be!

I finished mostly physically intact.  One hand was a bit numb, but otherwise I had no major issues, besides having sore legs for a solid week to 10 days after the race.   My knees gave me trouble for the first half of the race, then I didn’t seem to have any issues.

I would like to thank my family for allowing me to take time away from them to train and to do this race. I really appreciate your understanding, and I love you guys!  I would also like to thank everyone I spent time with on the trail: Frenchie (Alan), Ken, Morris, Bob, and of course Bill and Kyle.   Spending time with you guys on the trail was one of the highlights of the race—thanks guys!   I would also like to thank all the folks who helped me along the way: the folks at Yentna Station, Skwentna, Shell Lake lodge, Winter Lake Lodge, the crew at Rohn (Adrian I hope you got your whiskey!) , the Petruskas in Nikolia, Tracy and Peter in Mcgrath, the folks at River Edge B&B in Ruby, Larry in Galena, Brother Bob in Nulato, Emily Murray and the school principal and his family in Elim, Joanna and her family in White Mountain, and Sue and Glenn for welcoming us to Nome.  Thanks everyone!  You guys made this experience possible for me, and I will be forever thankful for your kindness along the way.

Last, I would like to thank Bill and Kathi for putting on this race.  I am sure it is tons of work.  Thanks for doing it—it is truly a unique experience!

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Photo by Kyle Amstadter

A Post Script of Sorts..

When I finished at Nome, and took a glance at the news, I was saddened to hear about Jeff King and Aliy Zirkle’s encounter with a drunken snowmachiner outside Nulato.  When I got back home, I got questions about it.  I didn’t spend much time in Nulato, but the 12 hours I was there, I found it to be a perfectly normal place, filled with helpful, nice people.  This was true of all the communities I passed through and everyone I encountered on the trail and in the villages.  Everyone was friendly and helpful, and I had nothing but positive experiences. That isn’t to say what happened to Jeff King and Aliy Zirkle wasn’t horrible – it was, it just wasn’t the experience I had.

Improvements

There are lots of things I wished I could have improved on, but mostly I think I was under-trained for this race.  I think if I do something like this again, I need to work in some structured training of some sort.  I also need to think more about the food I put in my drop boxes.  I think if I ever have to eat another Snickers bar I will puke!  Otherwise I was mostly pretty happy with my performance in the race. I did feel like I was slowing Bill and Kyle down, something which I feel quite guilty for.   I might update this later, as I think over what I would do differently if I do this race again.


Folks who are gear phobic, should skip this bit—it is just a discussion of what gear I took.  Please, note I am not an expert, and we had really good conditions this year, so your mileage may vary.

You have been warned..  🙂

The bike

I rode to Nome on a Fatback Corvus, which I was super happy with.  The bike isn’t perfect—I wish the bottle cage on the down tube was further down, and I wish the fork had mounts for bottle cages as well, but it rides great, and the carbon fork’s flex is awesome in bouncy tussocks. I love that bike!  I was amazed how much more comfortable the carbon fork is vs the aluminum fork I used last year.  My setup is a pretty normal stock SRAM XO based setup, with a few unusual bits—a b17 Brooks saddle, and groovy Luv Handles handlebars.   The Brooks sort of grew on me—it squeaks, but it is very comfortable, and I had no butt issues of any sort when I finished at Nome.  The handlebars are awesome—just the right amount of bend, and I don’t have to worry they will snap in half if mistreated like carbon bars might.   If anyone knows of anyone selling one, I would love to buy it!

The one serious issue I had with the bike is the SRAM 11 speed cassette fell apart on me at Nulato, and again a mile from the finish.  These “xdome” cassettes come in two parts: the lower 10 gears, and the big 42 tooth cog.  The lower 10 gears just fell off the rest of the cassette.  I could pedal in the big 42 gear, but it was geared very low, as I run a 26ish (it is an oval ring) front, so if I spin hard I can get up to 4mph— better than walking, but not by much.  I was able to get it back together after some fiddling in Nulato, but when it fell apart again a mile from the finish, I could not get it back together. I might be done with SRAM’s cassettes.

I used Northern Air Cargo to ship my bike back from Nome, and alas, they didn’t do a very good job.  The bike arrived heavily scratched with a dinged up derailleur.   If I ship stuff with them again, I am going to see about insuring it, or at least some “do not scratch, be careful” labels.  I think they must have strapped it to something with metal hooks around the fork, as the scratches are deep!

Food

I sent drop boxes to all the villages I passed through on the Yukon, plus all the villages on the coast.  I quickly ran out of ideas, and just randomly stuffed the boxes with whatever candy and junk food I could find.  Belvita breakfast crackers/cookies, and Oreos were the surprise hits—I ate pretty much all of the ones I sent out.   I got pretty sick of Snickers, and of beef jerky.  A major oversight was that the drop boxes ended up at places I often spent the night in, and they often didn’t have food there. I should have packed some heavier dinner and breakfast foods in the boxes to eat when I opened them up.   Otherwise I was mostly pretty happy.  I packed way more freeze-dried food than I used, but that probably was good, as we had fantastically good trail, and if things had taken longer that extra food would have been appreciated.  Several times I ended up having freeze dried food for breakfast, which while okay, wasn’t the most awesome—in the future I will pack something for breakfast besides Sweet and Sour Pork!

Gear

For sleeping gear, I packed a minus 40 bag and a regular length Ridgerest pad.  For clothing, a light weight puffy jacket , a puffy down jacket, puffy pants, two sets of long underwear pants (one light, one heavy), a long underwear top with a hood, and two sets of underpants.  I also packed some town clothing lightweight shirt and a superlight set of shorts Nancy sewed for me.   I was very thankful for the shorts, as they gave me something to wear when staying at schools etc, or when my clothes were getting laundered, which I did once at Ruby and once at Mcgrath.  For rain, I packed a rain jacket and rain pants.   I wore some Marmot pants that worked great, and a Mammut soft shell that has now seen four ITIs.  I love that jacket!  I had been warned that I should get a ruff for the wind on the coast.  I was initially pretty skeptical, but ended up getting one, and was amazed how big of a difference it made.  I didn’t wear a facemask the whole time!  Admittedly, it wasn’t very cold, but in the windier sections I probably would have needed something, and the ruff completely avoided this.  That was money well spent!  I brought some Primaloft mitts, and two facemasks/balaclava, and an extra hat.

For cooking gear, I packed a titanium pot and a new style XGK with an very old pump from one of the original XGKs.  I had been told the new pumps don’t work well in the cold, so I used an old one I had lying around.  It worked great, though it was loud and heavy.  I might take a Whisperlight if I do it again.

For more photos check out my Flickr gallery:
ITI 2016 - Nome

ITI – 2016 Part 1, This time to Nome!

April 4th, 2016

A bit of a warning – this post is on the long side.. 

As the sun set halfway between Ophir and the Carson Crossing Cabin,  I—for the second time in the last couple of hours—heard voices..  I thought for sure I could hear people talking.

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Me: “Kyle, can you hear some voices talking?”

Kyle:  ”Ah, no, I don’t hear any voices…”
This was followed by a pretty skeptical look from Kyle.  Clearly my sanity was in question.

I stopped for a moment, and in a moment of silence, I discovered the voices were coming from my pocket.  My audio book player was on.

“Ahh, I nevermind, I think I found them..”

Nome..  After my second bike ride to McGrath on the Iditarod Trail among some of the racers who continued on from Mcgrath, I started thinking about going all the way to Nome.  

The Iditarod Trail Invitational is a race on foot, bike, or skis from Knik to Mcgrath in its shorter 300 mile version, or Nome, on the Iditarod Trail.

Iditarod Trail

Initially the full race to Nome seemed so far out of reach—too far, too hard—but I figured it would be fun to try, and if I didn’t make, no big deal.  I had thought Nancy wouldn’t be excited about me being away from the family for 20+ days, but after sounding her out I was surprised—and excited!—to get the OK from her.  So, I started planning in earnest.  Thinking about going to Nome was pretty scary, with so many unknowns: lots of new trail, new areas, wind, cold, the remoteness of the Ophir to Ruby section, working out the logistics for resupplying with food, etc.   Lots of things outside my control, and so many things to worry about.  The race to Mcgrath is pretty simple by comparison—you just need to pack up your bike, send out two drop bags, and you’re good to go.

As usual the race started in the early afternoon at Knik Lake.  My brother John lives in Wasilla, which is a 20 minute drive from the race start, so he dropped me off at the start.  The start was a bit of a madhouse, with lots of people.  Eventually everyone lined up, and we were off.  Knik Lake was snow-free, with a tiny bit of water on it, so the the first quarter mile was icy and slippery, but soon we were off onto the trail, which was a mix of slush, water, mud, and ice.  After a few minutes I looked down and noticed my drivetrain was all muddy—just thing I wanted to see on the start of a 1000 mile ride.    The next few hours sped by.  I ended up mostly riding with a friend from Fairbanks, Morris, to Flathorn Lake, where he zoomed off, and it briefly rained on me.

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The rain had me pretty worried.  It was just a few hours into a several-week-long race, and I didn’t want to start things off by getting soaked.  I briefly stopped to take my pogies off, but as I took them off the rain stopped, so I put them back on and kept riding.    Otherwise, the ride to the first two checkpoints was uneventful, but very fast, as there was only a little snow on the river, and lots of bare ice.  After a bite to eat at Skwentna, Morris, Bob O from Anchorage, and two folks from Minnesota, Frenchie (Alan), and Ken, headed on to Shell Lake lodge to get some sleep.

We arrived sometime after midnight, and I was surprised to see the lodge was still open—hurrah!  We snagged one of their cabins, and after getting a shot of Jack Daniels from the bar, I hit the sack.  The cabin was a bit hot, but that dried off my pogies and the rest of my gear.  The ride from Shell to Finger was fairly fast, and after a stop at the Finger Lake checkpoint, Morris and I continued on to Puntilla.  A few miles down the trail we were passed by some snowmachines, and the the riding got a bit slower, as they churned up the snow and it was slow to set up in the near-freezing temperatures.

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Ken, Bob, and Frenchie quickly caught up, and I ended up riding with them to Puntilla, over Rainy Pass, and to Rohn.   The ride (and walk) up to Rainy Pass was a bit slow, but nothing epic.

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The Happy River was open were the trail crossed it before heading up into Rainy, so I got to use my Wiggies Waders for the first time in the ITI — hurrah!

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I got to use them once more heading down the pass, then they stayed packed up for the rest of the race.

This was the first time I got to travel Rainy Pass in the daylight, and I enjoyed the views of Denzel Gorge.  

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The trail after Rainy Pass was fantastic, and we zoomed down to Rohn, where Frenchie, Morris, and I continued on to Nikolai.  The trail was in great shape, and the riding was very fast.

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I had forgotten how many hills there are in the first 30ish miles outside of Rohn—lots and lots of little hills.

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I was having a very hard time keeping up with my two riding partners, and eventually they zoomed off, and I caught up to them in Nikolai.  Nikolai is always a great place—Nick, Olene and Stephanie are always welcoming and are wonderful folks.  I really needed more sleep at this point,  and since it was quiet there and I wasn’t that concerned about my time into Mcgrath, I crashed for 6 or so hours, while the the other guys took off after a few hours of sleep.

The ride to Mcgrath was uneventful and fun, with firm and fast trail conditions.  I arrived in Mcgrath in late afternoon, and I was soon helping myself to the endless buffet of food and happiness that is Peter and Tracy’s house in McGrath.   I was able to wash my clothing, get some sleep (almost 10 hours!), and load up my bike with stuff for the next section.  I am afraid I sort of stumbled around like a mad person in a bit of a daze while I was in McGrath.  Hopefully I didn’t offend anyone.

I had been dreading the ride to Mcgrath, worried I was going to end up in a pack of people, with crowded checkpoints and general hubbub and madness, but it was actually very fun and enjoyable.  I could have gotten a bit more sleep, but it was fine. I really enjoyed traveling with Ken, Frenchie, Morris, and Bob on the way to Mcrath – thanks guys, it was great sharing the trail with you!

The next morning I headed out with Kyle Amstadter.   I had never met Kyle before, but I had emailed back and forth a bit with him before the race.  It was fantastic to meet him in person, and I was to ride rest of the way to Nome with him and Bill, who joined us later.  Kyle and Bill are fantastic guys, and wonderful companions on the trail.

I was pretty excited about the next section of trail—it was going to be all new to me, and from my point of view, where the “real” adventure started.  The ride to Ophir was mostly uneventful.

As I biked into Takotna, the first community we passed through after Mcgrath, I was greeted by a huge dog, who was tall enough to stick his nose into my pogies while standing on the ground.   I  was a bit startled, as it was a “big dog”, but I guess they were starting to smell a bit funky at this point, and he was very friendly.

After Takotna we made way to the next place on the map, Ophir, which is an old mining community.  The trail between Takotna and Ophir seemed to be an old road, complete with well aged AKDOT road signs.

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In the early afternoon we reached Opher, where  Iditarod dog race folks who man the checkpoint were outside building some new outhouses.  They waved us in, and gave us hot water and coffee, and we talked for a bit.  It was an awesome unexpected bit of welcome, they were very nice, and I enjoyed talking to them and petting their cute dogs.

After leaving Ophir we were were joined by Bill F, who rode with us to Carlson Crossing cabin, where we spent the night.

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Carlson Crossing cabin is a neat cabin, but while it had a fancy Honda generator and was wired for lights, it didn’t have a saw.  Fortunately Bill found wood and after some use of a pulaski he found lying near the cabin, it was broken up, and he had the place warmed up in no time.  Just before we hit the sack Bob arrived.   In the morning Kyle, Bill and I all headed out together, with Bob staying for a bit more sleep.   The trail was fast, but bumpy!   It reminded me of the Fairbanks area, winding through swamps and black spruce forests.  

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Early in the day we found our last set of drop bags piled up on the side of the trail.   A this point there was only one racer ahead of us, Phil, and we had been following his tracks since leaving McGrath.   Phil had apparently biked right by the drop bags—apparently he was in a hurry!   (Later I learned he had been ahead of the plane that dropped the bags off, and they were dropped off after he passed through. )

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After a hot lunch and restocking bikes, we headed off, with plans to bivy near Poorman.  Bill zoomed off ,planning on scouting a “good spot”, and  Kyle and I eventually caught up with him after Poorman around midnight, and bivied outside along the trail, in a small stand of little spruce trees.

In the morning we rode on to Ruby.  The last section into Ruby is on an old mining road, and was surprisingly hilly.  I have flown over this area, and was expecting hills, but was pretty amazed by how many of them were were—lots and lots of little 500ft climbs and descents.

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Eventually we arrived at Ruby, and we spent the night at the River Edge BB —fantastic folks!  They had apparently just got back into town, and were a bit surprised to see us, but didn’t seem to mind too much.

In the morning, just before we departed, Bob showed up.  He had apparently arrived in Ruby in the middle of the night, and after a quick spin through town and didn’t finding anyone awake, so he made a little fort of the straw bales at the Iditarod dog race checkpoint and bivied there, which sounded pretty awesome.

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Next up, Part 2!

First Whites Ride of the Season..

November 3rd, 2015

I love the White Mountains, and I have been looking forward to riding there ever since the temperatures started dropping, and snow starting falling.

Monday, the I had my first ride out there, and had a blast.

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I think the dogs did too.  Even Remus, who is now >12 years old.  Though he was a bit sort when we finished.
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Alas, it was frozen..
DSC02140 The ride was super slow – softish snow.  7 hours to go 33 miles..  wow. A few miles before we got back to the parking lot I dog team went by, and I enjoyed the fast riding in their tracks.   

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A Packraft and Ski Trip on Beaver Creek

October 24th, 2015

Winter has finally arrived here in Fairbanks, and while we now have enough snow to ski in some areas, the water levels on the rivers has been unusually high, probably due to all our late season rain. After some discussion, Heath, and I hatched a plan to float Beaver Creek from Nome Creek to Borealis Cabin, then to hike out to the Wickersham Dome mile 28. A few days before the trip we received word that the winter trail had enough snow to ski, and that snowmachines had been out on the trails, and so we switched up our plans and added skis in the mix. I was pretty worried about Nome Creek road, but fortunately I was able to get in touch with a musher to lives in the area, who said the road was still drivable. Hoping for the best, we headed out early in the morning, hoping to make it in without major trouble. The road turned out to in okay shape, with only a few sketchy sections, and Heath’s wife Audrey dropped us uneventfully. A huge thank you to Audrey for helping with the car shuttle!

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The water levels on Nome Creek were about what I expected, given the gauge was reading 2.7-ish, though there was a lot more shore ice than I was expected – uh-oh! We left Audrey to drive back to town, and headed down the creek.

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I was very excited to do my first “seal launch” in a packraft – sliding into the water from ice was super cool!

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Pretty soon we had to portage around a section of the creek with ice all the way across, but otherwise the floating was fun, and the contrast of the snow with the dark water and trees was amazing. After a few more portages we made it to confluence with Nome Creek, where, alas, the volume of water coming in from the main channel was less that I would have liked to see. It wasn’t the end of the world though, and the floating was still pretty fast. Heath is a pretty consistent paddler, so we spent much of the float paddling away.

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I did learn I made a serous tactical error when picking my gloves. I have a pair of three fingered diving gloves, but I couldn’t find them, and so resorted to using some thinner neoprene gloves I could actually find. Alas, they were not warm enough, and I spent most of the float dealing with cold fingers – my own fault for not being more prepared! I did discover that I could make my hands much warmer by moving the cuff of my dry suit past my wrist, which did wonders for keeping my hands warm.

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We saw a fairly diverse amount of wildlife, including 4 moose, a beaver, ducks, lots of grayling, and at fairly close range, a bear. The bear encounter was pretty funny.  We came around a bend, and Heath was up front.  Just as he came up on a stand of trees, I noticed a very large brown bear leaning out over the bank, appearing from my point of view to be looking down at Heath, getting ready to jump at him. Heath was digging around in his deck bag, and for a few seconds I thought he was digging out his camera to get a photo, then decided he hadn’t seen it and shouted something silly like “Heath – bear!” Heath then turned around, with a sandwich in his hand and we both started “Hey Bearing”. Fortunately, after one short growl, the bear took off and we didn’t see it again. It definitely provided a nice adrenaline boost!

The float was a very interesting experience. As the day progressed, we started seeing more and more ice, and by the end of the day the river was at times packed with small pieces of ice, and a few larger bits.

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Occasionally it was hard to paddle, as there wasn’t always room get your paddle into the water. Fortunately Beaver Creek is pretty mellow and there are not any rapids of note, and wide enough that there were few sweepers. It was an awesome experience, listening to the hiss of the ice bumping around as we floated along. We did have to portage one small ice jam, which fortunately wasn’t a big deal. Ice built up on our packs and our paddles, but didn’t seem to stick to the boats at all. I was a bit worried that my boat would be punctured by a sharp piece of ice, but that didn’t happen, and eventually I just started plowing though the ice. Alas, we spent the last few hours on the river in the dark, which made for a bit of a stressful end to the float. I was very happy to see Borealis cabin! On the upside, while trying to see how deep the water was I saw a huge grayling just off the edge of the shore ice. After looking around, it soon became apparent there were grayling everywhere, and by the light of our headlamps they stood out in the water like ghosts – an amazing sight!

We arrived at Borealis, and I was very happy to take my dry suit off and enjoy a nice warm, dry cabin. I had brought an InReach gadget that allows (supposedly!) two way texting using satellites, but alas, after two hours of fiddling I couldn’t get it to receive texts, just to send them.

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I have had it work great in the past, but this time I couldn’t for the life of me get it to stay connected to my smartphone, which was a huge bummer as we were pretty worried about Audrey making the drive back out on Nome Creek road, and I was sort of counting on it to arrange a ride back with my friend Tom. Fortunately the tracking feature was working, however the messaging part was a bust. YMMV. I am not sure I am taking it on any more trips..

The next morning we headed out, crossed the creek in the pack rafts, and started over to the winter trail. There is a little creek that is often not very well frozen a half mile or so from the main river, so we dragged our pack rafts behind us like sleds, which worked great. Pack rafts apparently make pretty good sleds!

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The creek turned out to be frozen, but I was excited to see snowmachine tracks on the other side – the trail was broken out! We packed up, put on skis, and enjoyed a fantastic ski out. The snow was fast, and the skiing was great, considering there was only 10” of snow.

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We zoomed out, enjoying the fast snow.

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I was annoyed to find out that my packrafting pack, a older Arc’teryx waterproof pack, is moderately horrible for skiing – its skinny tall shape and minimal suspension made it very tipsy and it was constantly trying to tip me over. I survived though, and really enjoyed the ski out. At about halfway Heath got enough cell signal to receive emails and to learn Audrey made it out safely, and I called our ride, Tom, to make sure he was still going to pick us up, and that he knew the skiing was fantastic, and should come early and get some skiing in. Tom said he was on his way, and we ran into him about 3 miles from the parking lot, out for his second ski of the year. The remainder of the ski was uneventful, though I did have a crash right in front of Lance Mackey who was training his dog team with a 4-wheeler. I think he was amused, but I felt pretty self conscious trying to get up with a heavy pack while he was waiting for me to get out of the way.

A huge thank you to Audrey and Tom for providing rides – this trip wouldn’t have been possible without you guys, and major kudos to Heath for coming up with the original idea and making the trip possible!

Heath said several times this trip is definitely something to do again, and I 100% agree – it was a fantastic experience.

I think I would do a few things differently:

  • I would bring “real gloves” or something a lot warmer than the thin gloves I brought. If anyone has suggestions I would love to hear them.

  • I would bring something to help get out of the water and onto the ice.  I think a several foot board with a leash with some 16d nails in it would be very handy, or perhaps the small ice picks like ice fisherman use.  The board could probably be burned once the floating was done, and the nails salvaged.

  • I debated bringing my dry suit, and ended up bringing it, and was very happy I did.  It made this trip possible, and more importantly fun – it would have been fairly miserable without it unless I was very, very careful to stay dry.

  • Heath used Alpacka’s semi-dry suit, and loved it.  I think I have one of those in my future!

  • I would leave earlier so the end of the day floating in the dark wouldn’t be necessary.  I might try camping at the put in to get an early start, or breaking the float up into two days.

  • Other versions of this trip abound: coming out to the Colorado creek trailhead, to mile 28 via Crowberry, or back to Nome Creek would be fun and possible.  I expect the winter trail would be skiable in the more remote areas, but of course it wouldn’t be broken out.

  • I wouldn’t do this trip if there were lots of ice at the put-in, it is a long way out via any of the reasonable bail-out points.

  • I need to rework my pack attachment system for winter floats. I use two straps with “ladder buckles”, but they iced up and were very hard to undo.  Heath used P-cord and it seemed like he had fewer problems.

  • I used Surly junk straps to attach the skis to my boat; that was a mistake, as they took forever to get off, because they were so iced up.

Sorry for such a long post—this trip was fabulous and I thought it deserved enough words to do it justice!

Hutlinana

October 19th, 2015

Several years ago Tom and I visited Hutlinana hotsprings, only to find the springs washed out and no hot water. I had been hoping to go back, and with a free Sunday and Monday, and Nancy’s permission, we headed out to check it out. The drive out was slow, due to the unusual freezing rainfall we had been having lately, but uneventful. The hike in was fantastic, and we arrived to a wonderfully not washed out hot springs, and enjoyed a night of soaking and mellowing out around a campfire – hurrah!

The dogs had a blast hiking in, and sleeping in my tent.

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The hot springs was a fantastic temperature, perfect for soaking.

In the evening when we are all soaked out we enjoyed mellowing out around the campfire. I also played with taking slow shutter pictures.. DSC01922

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The steripen turned out to be pretty fun to photograph.. DSC01899

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The hike out was very fast, though a bit icey… DSC01925

.. And the drive home was a bit faster, but still slow.

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A Post Script – for folks looking for the “correct” entrance, take the pull off just before the blue “Adopt A Highway” sign, on the Fairbanks side of the bridge. Follow the atv trail to the river, cross the river, then look around for a big and well defined atv trail. That that upstream, and follow it to the hotsprings.