Winter begins..

October 8th, 2019

It looks like it is here, hurrah!

Winter Begins

I had heard that the White Mountains NRA had a bunch of snow so with a Monday free I decided to go check it out.

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There was a surprising amount of snow, and the trail was mostly in very good shape.

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I hope it is here to stay!

Moose Creek Cabin with Molly

October 8th, 2019

Last winter our family picked up a fat bike for the twins from a family friend (thanks Amy!). Alas, one bike for two kids is a recipe for unhappiness, and it was slightly too small for Molly (the younger but taller twin).  So this bike became Lizzy’s (the older but shorter twin), and the hunt for another fat bike began. After much bargain shopping we decided to build one from scratch using the extra bike parts I had laying around and a frame we found on discount from Fatback Bikes.

Molly was interested in building it up, so over the course of several evenings she put it together (minus the headset and cranks – I don’t have the tools for those).

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I think she found the experience to be pretty rewarding, and hopefully it will set her up for better understanding of how to fix it (yay!).

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I was pleasantly surprised by the frame – it is one of Fatback bike’s rhinos, their aluminum framed “budget” fatbike. Their latest frames are very refined – I am impressed!

Shortly after Molly’s bike was finished the twins ended up with a Friday off from school, and I pitched biking out to a Whites cabin Friday night. Lizzy, alas, had a climbing competition Saturday morning and couldn’t go. Molly really really wanted to go ride her new bike, so Nancy and Lizzy stayed home to climb. Molly and I headed out to Moose Creek cabin in the Whites. Nancy unfortunately had to work on Friday, and got the short end of the stick.

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The ride out the cabin was fun, but a bit muddy. Molly had a “getting mud on her new bike” meltdown, but otherwise seemed to have a great time.

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Eddy and Shiloh (the dogs) also enjoyed the trip, and Eddy in particular was excited to see snow again.

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He is a little over a year old now, and very bouncy. This was his first overnight cabin trip – something that I hope he will do a lot of in the future – and he behaved himself admirably.

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The evening at the cabin was spent playing Go Fish (the only card game we could remember the rules for), (Not actually true, we had to look up the rules on Dad’s cell phone – Molly) reading, and goofing off.

In the morning thanks to a hard frost the ride out was much less muddy.

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I am looking forward to many family bike (and ski!) trips this winter. Hopefully more snow comes soon!!

Thanks Molly for editing this blog post! 

The Hot Springs Trifecta

August 28th, 2019

Several years ago, some friends and I, inspired by Ed Plumb’s epic trip to Dall Hotsprings , talked about using the Kanuti river for a longer trip looping back to the Haul Road.  After a bit of discussion, the plan morphed into a three hot springs trip. First, float the Kanuti River from the Haul Road, stopping at Kanuti hot springs for a soak.  Then float down the Kanuti river for another 20 miles and hike to the Upper Ray hot springs. Finally, walk or float to the Lower Ray hot springs and then back out to the road.  It seemed viable, but while I was aware people had floated the Kanuti River below the traditional take-out for Kanuti hot springs, I had not talked to them about it. While the walking looked good on the maps who knows how it would be in person.   Early this June, Ed, Matt, Chris, and I headed out to see if we could pull it off.  It was going to be awesome — a new section of river, two new hotsprings, wahoo!   Heath and Patrick joined us for the first leg, floating to the first hot springs, Kanuti, and shuttled Chris’s truck to our take-out (thanks guys!). 

We left town fairly early in Chris’s “fry truck”.  (Chris and his wife Robbin heat their house and power their truck with used oil from local restaurants.)  We drove the Kanuti River, and after a bit of futzing around, put it and began the adventure, yahoo!  

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The water in the Kanuti River was high, and the float was fun and fast.   The day was beautiful, with lots of sun and a brief rain squall that mostly avoided us. 

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The birds of prey were out in force, and we saw quite a few large raptors and a few owls.   The hours sped by, and soon we were at the take-out for hotsprings number one. Kanuti has had a problem bear for the last few years, but fortunately we didn’t see it.  Alas, it was a beautifully hot day, and unfortunately that meant the hot springs were a bit too hot to soak in for very long. On the upside, it was great to see the field of grass and wild chives surrounding the hot springs in the summer again.  It feels like a green oasis, and smells unique. 

We still had a long float ahead of us, so we said goodbye to Patrick and Heath, and continued floating down the river.  The Kanuti to our takeout was an interesting river – mostly pretty mellow, with a few splashy sections with large rounded rocks.  If the water was a lot higher, those splashy sections would have been a handful. At one point we came upon a cow moose with a young calf in the middle of the river, and we tried to gently sneak by, but they kept going downstream slightly ahead of us — until a black bear charged out of the brush on one of the banks and attempted to snatch the calf.   Much to our happiness and the bear’s sadness, the cow and calf escaped, leaving the bear splashing in the stream. It climbed out bedraggled and wet, and then disappeared into the brush along the bank. Matt is a biologist for the National Park Service, and explained the cow was probably aware of the bear and had been sticking to the river so that if the bear had attacked it could have used its longer legs to stomp the swimming bear and gain the upper hand.  Much to everyone’s happiness (besides the bear’s, I expect) our involvement hadn’t driven the cow or calf into the bear and caused a disaster… 


As we neared the ridge on which we were going to begin our hike, it soon became apparent that the nice campsite overlooking we Kanuti River wasn’t there.  Instead the bank sloped somewhat steeply up to the ridge.. We spent a few hot hours hiking up to the first flat spot we could find, at the high point of the ridge.  

Matt, happy to enjoy some cold snow after a long climb in his dry suit..

Matt had packed a few beers, and they were enjoyed in style, with a view. Thanks Matt! 

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The next day, we hiked over to Tokusatatquaten Lake, a beautiful lake with awesome sand beaches and really nice walking. 

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It is in a truly wonderful spot, and if we had been faster it would have been a great place to camp.

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Alas, it was late morning, so we pushed on, enjoying great ridge hiking and neat tors while a thunderstorm passed off in the distance. 

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Chris, retying his shoe after a tumble in the alder..

We had planned to camp at the Upper Ray hot springs, but a mile or so of dense alder slowed us down enough that we camped on a ridge above it. In the middle of the night, I woke to wolves howling in the valley below us.    

In the morning we zoomed down to the Upper Ray, enjoying awesome walking.  We saw our first sign of humans since leaving Kanuti, in the form of a survey cut.   We followed a hot stream of water through a dense patch of cow parsnip (the northernmost patch I have ever seen!) to where the water came out of a bluff into a neat pond. 

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The water was hot, and very refreshing, with minimal sulphur smell. Alas, we couldn’t spend all day there, and we headed for what we hoped to be a shortish day to the Lower Ray.   Ed had been here once before, and had hiked on the south side of the creek, and said the hiking was pretty bad. Instead, we tried to take game trails on the north side of the creek.. It mostly had good walking, but it was very indirect.  After several hours of averaging under a mile an hour in a straight line we gave up, and put in and tried floating. The Upper Ray is deeply incised in silt banks, so it was sort of like paddling through a mud canyon. And it was muddy. Everyone else seemed able to keep mud out of their boat, but I wasn’t, and by the end of the day my boat weighed a ton with all the extra mud in it.   I made a serious tactical error and left most of my food in my pack, which was stuffed into my boat, and I only had 2 candy bars for most of the day.. By late afternoon I was full-on hangry. Fortunately, Ed took pity on me, and gave me some more food to tide me over. Eventually we made it to the Lower Ray hot springs – hurrah!

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The Lower Ray hot springs is a neat place. The hot water comes out of a gravel bank, and flows right into the Ray River.  It had by far the least alge I have ever seen in a hot spring. Alas, it also had cow parsnip. The camping was great, too — a heated gravel bar, how can anyone beat that! And ever better, there was an old cabin across the creek. I love old rusty stuff, and this cabin was full of it — some old, some new.. It looked like it had been visited somewhat recently, but alas was a bit run down..

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The final day, we floated out to the road.  This section of the Ray had several sections of class II-ish rapids.  They were just bouncy enough to be fun, but not very threatening. By late afternoon, we made it to our takeout, and after a short but steep climb to the road, we were at the truck, and heading home. 

The upper and lower Ray hot springs are unique and well worth visiting.  I am already scheming ways to get back there. 


Thanks for the company Ed, Matt, Patrick, Heath, and Chris!

Our route

Chena Hot Springs to Eagle on the Yukon Quest trail

July 17th, 2019

Preface – I have a bit of a trip write-up backlog now, and am finally getting this trip written up, over a year later. Sigh..

The Iditarod (and the “race” on the same trail, the Iditarod Trail Invitational) gets lots of press and interest, but there is another long sled dog race in Alaska, the Yukon Quest, that receives a bit less attention, but has a reputation for being remote, cold, and hard. 

In 2017 Jeff Oatley and Heather Best biked it near the tail end of the mushers, and I watched them with envy – it looked like a great snow bike tour!

Other folks have biked it, though not (to my knowledge anyway ) recently. I think Pat Irwin and Mike Curiak did in the early 2000s on semi-fat bikes, as did Andy Sterns, so this isn’t new. 

In 2018 things aligned such that I was able to do a portion of the route with a friend David, from Chena Hot Springs to Eagle, which is about 250 miles if we skipped the section of the trail on Birch Creek (slow, winding, and really cold).

The ride was awesome fun, though cold, windy, and remote. 
We started off with Rosebud and Eagle summits… 

Meredith Mapes on Rosebud
David, climbing the last bit of Rosebud summit
Looking down from Rosebud..
Heading down..
Winter single track, heading to Birch Creek
Heading up Eagle Summit just after dark

Then spent the night in Central, enjoying the last burgers and showers we were to see for 5 days. The next day we took the road over to Circle..

The road between Central and Circle

It was much hiller than I expected, and the downhills were petty cold at the -20f to -30f weather. When we arrived at Circle a photographer told us it had been -58f on Birch Creek, which caused a bit of a freakout, as our next leg had us riding up the Yukon River, a pretty cold place. After a bit of inreach texting back and forth with some weather folks, we headed out, pretty sure those seeing -58f were either confused or found a black hole sun cooled spot. 

This area in Alaska gets strong inversions, so low spots can be particularly cold. Alas, the Yukon river is pretty low..

The first night on the river we spent in “Brian’s Cabin”, a neat but run down shack, and in the morning we were welcomed by sub -40f weather. For the rest of the trip we tried to hit the trail at 6am, well before sunrise at 9:30, because I have always felt it is way easier to head out in the dark and cold looking forward to a warm(er) sunrise, than it is to set out in the sun, looking forward to a cold(er) sunset. Until the last day near Eagle, we saw mornings in the sub -40f, and mid day highs of -20f to -30f, sometime accompanied by stiff headwinds – it was cold!

Just as the sun rose we ran into the red lantern, camped out on the river. She had broken her headlamp, and camped when daylight ran out in a cold little hollow in the river. Quest mushers are amazingly tough..

Jennifer Campeau, getting ready to leave as daylight finally arrives.

The next three days we rode up the river, to Eagle, spending the night at Slaven’s a historic roadhouse staffed by a horde of National Park Service folks, and with a family in a giant octagon log cabin. I had been told the river was scenic, but I had dismissed this as unlikely, as I have spent a bit of time on the lower Yukon, which is wide, flat, and boring. I was wrong – it was fantastically beautiful! Alas, it was too cold to get very many photos (or any good ones at all ).. 

This section of the trail is very remote. On the 160 miles of river we traveled, we saw the Yukon Quest trail breakers once, the red lantern once, and no one else on the trail until just outside Eagle. There are a few families that live on the last 40 miles, and they were very welcoming. 

Wood island brownie stop..

At our last stop on the trail, at Trout Creek, we stopped and talked to Mike who runs a “hospitality stop” there in a little cabin he owns. Mike said over the years he has had three groups on bikes stop by stop by in the last 20 years. 

The final 30 miles into Eagle were a slog into a really stiff headwind, on bare glare ice in -10f weather. We arrived to a nearly deserted town, and it took an hour or so to find the place we stayed at. For most of the trip I was regretting my tire choice of a D5 on the back, and a Wrathchild on the front, as we had nice firm trail conditions and the Wrathchild rolls really, really slow on cold hard snow, but the last few hours I was amazingly thankful for the more aggressive studs and grip. 

This was a really fun, but very hard adventure! I have biked the Iditarod trail to Nome three times, and to McGrath three times, and this was a fair bit harder. Perhaps I was just lucky and had good trail conditions (I have been told this countless times), but the combination of shorter days and low sun angles means it is pretty cold and never really warms up, and the it is very remote.

Thanks for the company David!

AlaskAcross 2019

June 25th, 2019

It was near midnight, and Ned and I had just dropped down to an old road, flanked by huge thickets of alder.  It was like walking in a tunnel, but I was oh so excited to finally be walking on a firm surface again after hours of tundra and tussock walking.   As we made our way through the leafy tunnel I could just barely pick out an old camping trailer that has been taken over by the brush. As we got closer I noticed a weird grunting groan was coming from it.  

I was starting to panic, thinking it was a bear huffing at us.  I started shouting in an attempt to scare it off, and grabbed some rocks to start chucking in case something came rushing out.  Ned, perhaps more wisely, shouted “Mark, is that you?”, thinking that perhaps Mark Ross, the AlaskAcross “promoter” who had taken a route around this patch of brush, was playing a practical joke on us.  After a long minute of looking in the brush, and realizing the noise wasn’t changing regardless of our shouting or a rock or two chucked, I moved around until I could peer into the trailer. Inside, a big porcupine was chewing on the floor in a loud but very non-threatening way.   Crisis averted, we headed down the trail with an extra adrenaline powered skip in our step. 


AlaskAcross is a local point-to-point human powered unofficial “race”.  It was traditionally from Chena Hot Springs to Circle Hot Springs, but Mark Ross has been experimenting with other routes.  This year’s route was from mile five of the Dalton Highway to the Wild and Free homestead in Eureka.  In a straight line it was about 46 miles, but unlike the classic route, there were no floating options (that I was aware of, anyway), so it was all walking.   I had marked out a route sticking mainly to ridges, which I hoped would have good waking. Given that it was around 60 miles, I expected we were looking at 30 hours of walking.   My default partner for these events, Tom, was away in Valdez so I emailed Ned Rozell to see if he was interested, and he emailed me right back saying he was in.  Hurrah! Ned is a calm, steady walker who has done some amazing things in Alaska’s backcountry, including walking the entire length of the pipeline twice. 


The morning of the event, Ned and I drove out to the Dalton, where we met up with a few other folks, including Mark Ross, the “promoter” as he likes to be called.  Mark was in fine form, wearing a hat that appeared to be a wolverine hide that he called “wolfie”. 

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Mark always comes off as slightly crazed, and he was in fine form.  Something can be said for the craziness, as he has been rallying folks for these long walks since at least 2007 – that is more than a dozen years of folks wandering through the wilderness getting a bit out of their comfort zone. 

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After a bit of futzing around, the eight of us took off. 

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Everyone headed down a narrow ATV trail, winding through the lowland and up to a ridge that we would take for nearly 25 miles. Gradually the pack broke up, and Ned and I were by ourselves, except for the distant dots that were Tracie and Brian, the eventual winners.   The hike up the ridge was pretty good, but the ridge quickly turned into endless tussocks and cotton grass.

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I am not sure what the proper name is for the white flowering plant that grows on the tussocks [multiple species of the genus Eriophorum — Editor], but it was everywhere.

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  Fortunately, the walking wasn’t bad, as there was a nice ATV trail along the ridge, except for a few miles that were, alas, very brushy.   It was very tussocky though, and would have been truly miserable if the ATVs had not flattened out the tussocks.

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Twelve miles or so in Mark Ross appeared out of nowhere and joined us for the next 20 miles. 

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Apparently he had found what he thought was a great route, which included a different way up to the ridge.  He was pretty surprised to see us and was irritated to know that everyone was ahead of us. Mark added to the adventure, as his “real” job is as a naturalist at Creamer’s Field, and he has a wealth of information on animal life in the boreal forest.   At one point in the late evening he and Ned stopped to measure the active layer [meaning the depth of the thawed soil above frozen ground, if you’re not from around here — Editor] with his hiking poles in and out of the ATV trail.  Mark had tactically removed the baskets from some ski poles and was using them as trekking poles, which made them easy to sink into the soft tundra and great for measuring the active layer, but not great for walking, so Mark was using them upside down or in “Tundra Mode” as Mark called it.  

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Later, when passing a small thermokarst [I’ll let you look this one up — Editor] pond, I stepped over a small frog, and pointed it out to Ned, who was excited enough to take a photo. 

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I guess wood frogs are not very common at 3.5k feet, well above treeline. There was then an extended conversation on how the frog could survive, with Mark providing a timeline of the exact terminal temperatures the frogs could survive, and how scientific thinking has evolved over the last 30 years, and how they can survive body temperatures down to 0°F.  Life must be harsh as a frog on a ridge covered in snow for six` months.. 

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Eventually we dropped off the ridge onto the “Chocolate Creek Trail” which I had been told was nice enough to ride a bike on.  It turned out to be an old road, probably put in to an antimony mine on Sawtooth Mountain, a ridge above us. Our first few minutes of enjoying the fine walking were marred only by the terrifying porcupine. 

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In the 1950s and 1960s, Joseph E. Vogler and the Killions hauled 500 tons of antimony out of the mine before the market collapsed overnight, and they left it semi-intact. Apparently at the top of the mine there are tons of antimony ore in rusty barrels still sitting there.   Joe Vogler was a political figure in Alaska in my youth, and the leader of the Alaska Independence Party, which had seceding from the U.S. as part of its platform. He was killed when I was in college, and his body wasn’t found for several years, before showing up in a gravel pit north of town.   Conspiracy nuts still think the CIA killed him to prevent Alaska from leaving the union. Walking the old mining roads made me feel like I was walking part of Alaska’s history – I was walking the roads that gave Joe Vogler his first start.

All that was left was an old road, a very overgrown runway, and a very creepy looking shipping container on wheels set up with bunk beds.  We poked our heads inside the container, and I was surprised to see the door still latched. When I opened it, a huge cloud of bugs swarmed out. Alas, it was dark with no windows, and looked like it had a thick layer of mildew all over everything, so my motivation to poke around more and take photos was very limited.  

A few hours later, Mark dropped off after pulling on a balaclava and saying he was going to take a nap.   Ned and I trudged onwards, eventually ending up near Quail Creek, and after a bit of route-finding confusion we found ourselves walking through a quiet mine at 7am.  It was very tempting to go knock on the bunkhouse doors and ask about the best route into Eureka, and maybe even get a cup of coffee, but we resisted, We walked through the silent equipment, eventually finding an ATV trail heading up Quail Creek, but alas it petered out.  Soon we were bushwacking and skipping from game trail to trail, working our way up Thirteen Pup Creek. Pup is apparently a miner’s term for a very small branch valley or creek. Eventually we reached our final ridge, Elephant Mountain, a series of little peaks that are connected together.  I was nearly out of food at this point – apparently my plan of 3000 calories of energy bars plus three monster cookies from Bun on the Run was not going to work. Climbing up the ridge was hard work on our slow legs, but we made it.

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I was pretty confused about why Elephant Mountain was called what it is – when looking at it on a map it doesn’t look anything like an elephant.  Stupid miners! Ned pointed out at one point that the northern ridges that are all exposed rocks had lots of little Elephant faces in them, thus probably the name.  Silly miners, actually looking around them at the rocks instead of trudging head down though the tussocks!   

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On the first ridge of Elephant Mountain I inreached Nancy (my wife) to let her know that we were six hours out.  Alas, those six hours included two half-mile-long tussock fields, a bushwack though alders thick enough I couldn’t see the sky at several points, and a winding spruce forest that seemed to never end before finally hitting a dirt road that led us to Eureka and the Wild and Free homestead.  

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My friend Trusten was there to meet us, and I was so excited to see him. And he had pizza! After a few minutes of hanging out, we packed up and drove down the road to the Tolovana trailhead where we camped until morning, then finished up the drive home. Thanks Trusten! 

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A huge congratulations are due to Brian and Tracie, who came in 12 hours before us and rocked the course! 

A huge thanks to Ned for his company on this long walk – you rock Ned, I couldn’t have asked for a better traveling companion. 

1.) Brian Atkinson & Tracie Curry            26hr 38min

2.) Drew Harrington & Chris Miles          29hr 13min

3.) Mark D. Ross                                      35hr 59min

4.) Jay Cable & Ned Rozell                      37hr 18min

5.) Scott Brucker & Steve Duby      (bailed to Elliot Hwy mi108)

Things that worked: 

  • I carried a bike bottle and a small ¾ liter water bottle.  There was lots of water around, so that was more than enough.  Perhaps later in the season that would have been a problem. 
  • My shoes – I have some “special” Montrail Mountain Masochist II shoes that I love.  I love them so much I bought three pairs when they looked like they were changing the model.  Alas, the model was changed, and these are my last pair of them. So sad. About 65 miles, and no blisters! 
  • Smartphone navigation – I had print maps, as had Ned, but mostly we navigated off an old smartphone of mine with the Lotus Maps app.  It worked great, and kept us on course for the most part. I think the end of the specialized GPS is pretty much here – the apps like Lotus work so much better. 
  • A “real” camera – I brought my Sony Nex-6 with a 12-105 lens.  That camera rocks, and takes much better photos than I can do justice to with my limited skills. 
  • My feet and body held up for the extended walking just fine.  I had been pretty worried that without riding to Nome or doing anything else epic had dropped enough I couldn’t pull something like this. 

Things that I should have done differently:

  • I should have brought more food.  I was going to bring a large bag of Fritos, but alas, my little pack was stuffed completely full.  I should have added an extra 2000 calories at least, as I was rationing my food for the last 12 hours.  It wasn’t the end of the world, but I should have brought more food. 
  • I needed to have brought a slightly bigger pack so I could pack more food (see above).   I was using a small 12 liter pack, and once it had my “minimal” safety gear (small puffy, long underwear bottoms, shell, fire starter, first aid, water treatment, maps, phone) it didn’t leave a lot of room for things like food. I either need to use something bigger or pack better. 
  • I should have taken more photos (shipping container – I am talking about you!!) 

Iditarod Trail, 2018 part 3

September 21st, 2018
Topkok.. Photo complements of Kevin Breitenbach

Phil H. was stopped in the middle of the trail.  We were two miles past the Topkok shelter cabin, in the notorious “blowhole”, a windy section of trail near the coast, 30 miles or so outside of Nome.   It was several hours before sunrise, and a bit windy, with blowing snow across the trail. As I rode up to him, he asked me “Where is the musher?” We had been passed a while back by a musher who was having trouble finding the trail, and I was confused about who Phil was talking about.  

Phil then pointed to a dog sled, sitting on the side of the trail.  Soon after I noticed it, I realized there was a whole team stretched out there in the snow, the dogs curled up in little balls to protect themselves from the wind.

But no musher.

Uh-oh.


This is the third and final part of my write up on the 2018 Iditarod Trail Invitational (ITI).  The first part can be found here.

Kevin and I arrived at Shageluk at 10 am, and after we’d wandered around town a bit, someone directed us to the Lee’s house, where we had sent drop bags and might be spending the night.  We arrived in town happy to be back in civilization, and the first thing I did was use a flush toilet — hurrah! Shageluk is a small town of around 100 people situated with a range of hills on one side and vast open lowland on the other side.  Our plan was to resupply then head on to Anvik, but alas, a light dusting of snow made the trail nearly impossible to find in the flats outside Shageluk.

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The trail leaves Shageluk, follows the Innoko river briefly, then heads out across a series of open swamps before dropping back onto the Innoko, before crossing a few more wide open swamps, then though some mixed swamps and forest before crossing the Yukon and heading into Anvik.  

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Alas, the dusting of snow and the very flat light made the swamps really hard to navigate, especially since we didn’t know where we were going.

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Markers in the fog..

I had a tracklog from 2013, but that was 5 years ago. I had no idea of the trail had changed or not. Three times we left Shageluk only to be turned back in the swamps. On the upside, we were well rested and enjoyed some of Lee’s great cooking, and were able to do our laundry and take showers.   Eventually a party that was supposed to be heading to Anvik passed though, and we followed their tracks out of town, only to have them take a wrong turn and head to Grayling instead.

We pressed on, and got a bit stuck near the halfway point, where we just hunkered down for the Iditarod Trail Breakers.  We had been told they would be by that evening, but we bivied in a nice grove of trees for 18 hours, and there was still no sign of them.  The bivy was cozy, but slightly wet. We had picked up blue tarps at the store in Shageluk, and were very happy to have them, as it was near freezing and lightly snowing — almost raining.   When I got hungry I was too lazy to find real food, and just grabbed whatever was in the top of my bike bag, which turned out to be a one pound block of cheddar, which I nibbled on for a few hours, slowly eating the entire thing.  It was delicious, but hours later I woke up with “cheese sweats” – all those calories were making their way through my system. At one point I woke up Kevin by loudly complaining I was bored – which I truly was. After 12 hours it became pretty clear that even I could get sick of sleeping.  Eventually we gave up and pressed on, making it a few more miles before the trail breakers passed us.

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Kevin and I were very happy to see them – finally a trail! The lead trail breaker stopped and chatted with us a bit. He remembered Kevin from last year when he stayed with them in Kaltag, and seemed honestly pretty excited to have us out there.   Not as excited as we were, though. Finally we would have a trail again!

The rest of the ride into Anvik was much faster and pretty fun, though the trail on the Yukon was very punchy.

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Just outside Anvik a snowmachiner came up and introduced himself — it was Jay from Anvik!   

ITI 2018

Jay is apparently dating a coworker of my wife, Nancy: Malinda. Alaska at times is a very small place. Jay told us we would be welcome to warm up at the tribal hall, which was also going to be the Iditarod checkpoint, and pointed us to the two stores in town.  One shopping trip later Kevin and I were busy munching away on heated-up frozen burritos, and in my case chugging down a half gallon of chocolate milk in the comfort of the tribal hall’s kitchen. Then it was off to ride on to Grayling.

The ride into Grayling was flat and very fast.  The trail was firmest we had seen in a while and looked like it got lots of traffic, and by the evening we were wandering around Grayling looking for Shirley’s.  Shirley runs a beautiful bed and breakfast in Grayling. Kevin had called her from Anvik, and she had mentioned over the phone she was going to put on steak. When we finally found her house (Grayling turned out to be much larger than I expected; Kevin and I got the scenic tour), we found her cooking away, making huge steaks, homemade french fries, and carrot cake with carrots from her garden.  It was truly awesome! Her home is a work of art, constructed of all kinds of random odds and ends, with musk ox pelts and a mammoth tusk taking center stage. One shower later I was tucked into bed, getting the best night’s sleep I’d had in a long while.

In the morning we were treated again to a wonderful breakfast, and packed up our bikes for the long, long trudge up the Yukon to Kaltag.   Judging from the slow progress Phil was making, the trail was pretty bad, and we expected we might have to walk most of the way, so loaded up with extra food. As we were leaving, Shirley got a phone call from the Iditasport, wondering if Jan Kriska was there.  We hadn’t seen him, but on the way out of town we stopped by the Iditarod checkpoint, and lo and behold his sled was there! We ducked inside, and found Jan dozing on the floor, but he popped up right when we came in and said hi. It was great to see Jan, and to see him in such good spirits.  He had a really hard race last year, and it ended for him in Ruby with damaged hands. This year he was having a great race, and was making good time.

The trip up the Yukon was a mix of good riding and slow walking.  I had been told the wind blows down the Yukon, but it seemed like it was mostly crosswinds that would blow in the trail.  Whenever the wind wasn’t blowing across the trail it was generally very rideable. In a few sections it was even fast riding.    The first night on the Yukon, Kevin and I bivied off the edge of the trail, and a few hours later I was woken up by the crunching and whirring of dog feet and runners on snow as the leaders passed us in the dark.  In the morning we woke up to a nicer trail, and quicky rode to Eagle Island, the iditarod checkpoint.

ITI 2018

Eagle Island had a reputation of being very unwelcoming to the ITI racers, but since the trail went up into the checkpoint, and there wasn’t a good way around we headed up into the checkpoint.  Fortunately they were pretty friendly and offered us hot water and we chatted a bit, then it was back on the trail.

Alas, the Yukon dragged on, and on, with a bit of walking, and lots of slow riding.

ITI 2018

A few fast sections gave me hope that the trail would firm up, only to be dashed by more soft and windy trail.   

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In a few of these faster sections Kevin rode really strongly, and I just about gave up on keeping up with him, but the trail turned soft again and my slightly bigger tires allowed me to keep up.  

ITI 2018
Joar Leifseth Ulsom, the eventual winner of teh 2018 Iditarod
ITI 2018
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Motivational lath..

As we neared Kaltag, the main body of the mushing field caught up with us, and mushers were passing us regularly, as well as the occasionally snowmachine. We also started seeing our first signs of the riders ahead of us since just outside Ophir, with the occasional tire track showing up.  

We arrived at Kaltag early in the morning, and headed to the school, where we unpacked our stuff, dried out, and chatted with other travelers.  In the smaller communities along the Iditarod trail the schools let travels stay in them for a small fee, as there are no other options. The Kaltag school was packed – there was a big group traveling by snowmachine, and a film crew making a documentary on Lars Monsen , a Norwegen dog musher.  When they introduced themselves I was confused, as there was another Norwegen musher, Joar Leifseth Ulsom, who was in the lead, and I didn’t know who Lars Monsen was.  Apparently he is very famous in Norway, and one of the film crew tried to correct my ignorance, filling me in with the details of his life. It was a bit of a shock to go from just Kevin and I, to lots of chatty people, though they soon left us alone, and I ended up just talking with the two guides accompanying them.  One of them operates a lodge on the Ivishak River in the Brooks Range, and we chatted a bit about summer adventures, which seemed a world away.   

Eventually we packed up our bikes and headed out, hoping to make it to Unalakleet.  

ITI 2018

The trail from Kaltag to Unalakleet is beautiful, but it tends to be slow. We were hitting it late morning, and there was a lot of snowmachine and mushing traffic, making it soft and a bit of a slog.   

ITI 2018
ITI 2018
ITI 2018

Kevin and I yo-yoed back and forth, each going at our own pace as the trail conditions changed. We stopped for dinner at the first shelter cabin, Tripod flats, where we were joined by some locals on their way back from Unalakleet.  We spent an hour or so talking, then headed on to Old Woman Cabin.

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The trail was firming up at this point, and I was able to ride pretty fast, and was soon tailgating Hugh Neff. I was pretty hesitant to pass him, as I had passed him two years before when he was finishing the Yukon Quest and his dogs went from going six miles an hour to nearly eight, and I had to pedal like mad to stay ahead of them.  I didn’t want to repeat that, and ended up just riding slower, and staying a couple hundred feet behind him. Eventually we both pulled into Old Woman Cabin, which was warm and welcoming. I apologised for tailgating him, and he waved it off and started feeding his dogs, while I headed into the cabin to make dinner. Then he joined Kevin and I , and we talked for a hour or so. That hour was one of the highlights of the race for me: listening to Hugh Neff tell stories had me pretty spellbound.  

After the hour was up he headed out to press on to Unalakleet and we went to sleep for a few hours.  In the early morning hours Kevin and I headed out, and I was ever so happy to find the trail had set up and was really fast.  Kevin soon disappeared, riding like lightning, and I rode the 30 or so miles into town by myself, enjoying the near calm and misty night sky.  The sun was coming up just as I arrived in town, and I was disappointed to find Peace On Earth closed — no pizza!! Fortunately Kevin had arrived a good twenty minutes earlier than I and  spent that time wisely, tracking down the owner and he was going to fire up the oven and make us some pizza.

We ended up spending way too much time at Peace on Earth, eating and socializing, and soon were joined by Julian Schroder  and a few other Fairbanks folks who were in town.  I called Nancy and said hi, and then noticed that the ITI’s race tracker said Phil was still in town.  Hmm.. I was a bit worried Phil had scratched, but was distracted by pizza and people. Eventually Kevin and I pried ourselves away from the food and company, and after restocking our bikes with food headed out of town.   

Alas, the trail out of town that the Iditarod used was very punchy, and nearly unrideable.  The trail leaving town heads across a bunch of small ponds, and these ponds had soft crunchy snow covering them, with a bit of salt water overflow to top it off.   Kevin and I debated taking the road but ended up staying on the marked trail, which was a mistake, as it took forever to cross the ponds. When we finally hit the road that we should have taken, we found Phil waiting for us.   

ITI 2018

He’d had a pretty rough time on the Yukon, and by the time he had arrived in Unalakleet he was pretty wiped out. Jay P was just arriving at Nome at this point, and there was zero chance of catching him, so Phil decided to wait, rest up, and ride the rest of the way to Nome with Kevin and me.  It was great to see him, and I was glad he hadn’t scratched. Our plan was to make it to Shaktoolik, and that seemed pretty reasonable until we reached the Blueberry Hills shelter cabin and called ahead only to find out it was blowing really hard, with dog teams getting turned around, and other chaos.   Deciding it was better to wait and hope the wind died down, we crashed in the cabin, then headed out, as usual in the early a.m. hours to ride to Shaktoolik and hopefully Koyuk.


Shaktoolik is a small town on a little spit of land that juts out into Norton Bay and the wide open wetlands that surround it.    The trail into town drops about a thousand feet down to the wetlands on the inland side of a narrow strip of land, and is normally icy and windy.  I was a bit worried I was going to be in trouble, as I didn’t have studded tires, but while there were a few patches of ice, it was mostly snow covered, and pretty windy.   It seemed like it took forever to get from the base of the hill to the town, but after lots of slow riding and walking we pulled into town, and headed to the school. The wind was howling, and much to my disappointment, it was blowing from Koyok.  We were going to have a big headwind all the way to Koyuk..

ITI 2018
ITI 2018
Morning pizza outside Shaktoolik

Shaktoolik is in “civilization” and I had 4g cell reception, and checking the weather report quickly confirmed that it was blowing pretty hard.  The news reports had mushers getting lost going across the bay to Koyuk.. But on the upside, the forecast was that by midnight the wind was supposed to die down.  A few mushers were taking an extra eight hour layover in Shaktoolik to avoid the wind, and after a quick discussion, we told the folks at the school we were going to stay there for the day, and made ourselves comfortable.   There is a small village store right across the street from the school, so I headed over and picked up breakfast, lunch, and dinner: two boxes of pudding packs, some Ensure, cream cheese, a bag of bagels, two microwave burritos, and a two quarts of chocolate milk — heaven!

At midnight we headed across, and hurrah, the wind had died down, and we had a bit of a tailwind!  The ride from Shaktoolik to Koyok is always a bit stressful, as the trail goes out across a shallow bay and lots of little swamps, with minimal cover.   

ITI 2018

At night you can see Koyok from a long way before you arrive, as it is on a hillside, taunting you as it never seems to get much closer, Fortunately we arrived in daylight, but it still taunted us as we could see the town in all its glory hours before we arrived.   Just outside of Koyuk, Andy Pohl, a biking acquaintance, and Kristy Berington passed with their dogs, mushing into Kokuk. At the start weeks ago (it seemed like a year ago), Andy had joked that we would meet up at Old Woman Cabin, and I had said I would be happy if it was at Eagle Island.  Koyuk was inconceivable.

We arrived in the early morning, got a bit of sleep in the school, then headed out again.  Just as we were leaving town, Andy and Kristy passed us, zooming up the hills with all that dog power.  

ITI 2018

Speaking of hills, this year the trail from Koyok was routed overland, which meant a lot of extra hills and soft trail.

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Up, down, up, down.. Eventually we made it to the main trail, and it got faster again, and we arrived in Elim in the middle of the night, a bit too late to find anyone to let us into the school unfortunately.   Peeking in the window I could see a bike in the library, and bike tracks outside the school, so I was pretty sure someone was in there sleeping, but they didn’t wake up to let us in. Eventually someone, perhaps a bit tipsy, noticed our plight and let us into the school after finding the janitor, and we crashed in the cafeteria, then headed out in the morning.  I never met the group staying in the library, but Kevin bumped into one of them while using the bathroom.

ITI 2018
Phil, enjoying a heathy breakfast..

The ride from Elim to White Mountain was awesome as always, scenic, but oh so hilly.

ITI 2018

This year the trail stayed overland when leaving Ellim, and went up and down, and up and down..

ITI 2018
ITI 2018

When I’d passed though Golovin the year before I’d noticed a coffee shop with an open sign that I almost stopped at, but I didn’t. I’d spent the next few hours sad that I hadn’t got some coffee, so this time I was pumped to check it out.  Alas, it was closed when we passed through, with a note saying the owners were on vacation. Poor timing — I should have gotten that coffee last year!

ITI 2018

The rest of the ride into White Mountain was fast, and we arrived at Jack and Joanne’s, where we were greeted by their sons Liam and Cha, and soon Jack. Joanne was away attending her mother’s wake in Pilot Station. Jack and Joanne are wonderful people, and I am always excited to arrive at their house.  White Mountain is also a bit milestone, as Nome is only 70 (ish) miles away. After a bit of sleep, I ate a big plate of eggs: the second pile of scrambled eggs I have had in the last 20 years. While I refuse to admit it to my daughters, eggs are not nearly as bad as I remembered. We headed out, Nome-bound at about midnight.

On the way into Golovin we had been passed by several dog teams, including one where the musher was sitting down smoking while making pretty good time up the hills, and another with a jacket saying the “Mushing Mortician”.   Leaving White Mountain I noticed there were several dog teams staked out at the Iditarod checkpoint, but it didn’t look like any were about to leave. The trail out of White Mountain starts flat, then after a dozen miles or so starts going up and down. On the hills were we passed by several mushers, all of whom were making much better time that we were.  Those hills are steep! We arrived at Topkok, which is at the bottom of a big hill and marks the start of the long, flat, and generally pretty windy ride to Safety.

As was to be expected, it was pretty windy, but there is a fairly big shelter cabin, and we ducked inside to get all ready for the push across the windy flats.  This area has the “blowhole”, an area where the wind is funneled into a channel, and it can be amazingly windy. I had never been through this area when it was truly windy, just windy, but we had Phil along with us, and he lives in Nome and was very used to the wind, and is very familiar with this area.   Supposedly the blowhole is pretty narrow, and if you just keep going you will come out on the other side. Tim Hewitt had told me a story of walking through the blow hole, and it was blowing so hard his sled was flying in the wind off the ground flapping around with all his gear on it. He said when he came out the other side he looked for something in his pocket and freaked out to discover there was a human hand in his pocket!  A hand that turned out to be his glove, blown full of snow.

Phil thought it would be windy, but didn’t think it would be a big deal.  At about 5:30 am we left Topkok. Almost immediately we were passed by a musher, then ran into him (or her — it was dark and windy) again, as he was zig-zagging back and forth across the trail.

ITI 2018

 Phil talked to him, and apparently he wanted to know how to find the trail. I could see Phill stomping his foot on the ground trying to convince him to look down, follow the snowmachine tracks, and stay on the hard pack.  Perhaps it is harder for mushers as maybe all the dog bodies block the view of the trail, but on a bike it is very obvious, even in the blowing snow and wind we had. While the trail is well marked with lots of reflectors, you can just look down and follow the skid and scrape marks from all the snowmachine traffic.   The musher must have gotten the gist, as he zoomed off and we didn’t see him again.

ITI 2018 – blowhole from JayC on Vimeo.

It was very windy, but we could still ride our bikes for the most part, though the trail had lots of little drifts in it and some of those were too big to ride though.  A few miles from Topkok Phil stopped suddenly in front of me and asked me “Where is the musher?” I was pretty confused — what musher was he talking about, the one that passed us a while back?  Phil pointed to something, which I quickly made out was a sled. Panic set in when we realized there was a dog team attached to it. We dropped our bikes and started looking around. Almost immediately we found another sled and dog team, and behind it huddling in the lee of it were two figures, both bundled up.  One had a facemask on, and it was impossible to see if he was conscious, but he wasn’t moving. The other was talking. Phil, Kevin, and I converged around them and tried to figure out what was going on.

The one who was talking told us that “Jim” had gotten his dog team stuck, and ran into trouble, and was now too tired to move, and he wasn’t going to leave him.  We asked him what we could do, and he said to get help, his hands were too cold, we needed to find Jim’s SPOT beacon and activate the SOS. We looked over the two sleds, and eventually located one SPOT beacon, and after triple checking with the musher who was talking (we later learned he was Scott Jansen) that he really wanted us to activate it, pushed the SOS button.  

The red lights started blinking, and it looked like it was working, so we put it aside, and asked how else we could help.  Scott asked us to find his satellite phone, which he said was in his pocket, so he could call and confirm someone was going to come out to rescue him.  He was dressed in some sort of snowmachine suit, with lots of pockets, and figuring the sat phone had to be pretty big I somewhat awkwardly patted him down.  There was no phone to be found. Kevin, Phil, and I then set out to find it, figuring it had to be someplace. Phil ended up finding it in his sled bag, and Phil placed a call for him to his wife, who much to my confusion seemed to be arguing with him about something.  At that point hopefully help was going to arrive, and we asked if there was anything we could do. Kevin was at this point pretty cold, and he needed to move, so Phil and I told him to head to the next shelter cabin, while we tried to see if there was anything we could do.  Scott seemed to be ok, just had cold hands, but he turned down my offers of hand warmers.

At that point it seemed like we had done all we could do.  Phil and I discussed getting out a sleeping bag, but those things are big, and we figured they would just blow away or immediately fill full of snow.  We checked with Scott, and it sounded like we had helped him as much as we could, so we set off to catch up with Kevin, and hopefully use my Inreach to contact Phil’s wife in Nome to call the troopers and confirm a rescue was in progress.  

Phil and I then headed out to catch up with Kevin.

Craig Medrid has a really good breakdown of the timeline on his website.

We arrived at the shelter cabin to find it the entry full of snow and nearly impossible to get into.  I was intent on texting Phil’s wife though, so I dove though a little hole in the snow drift blocking the door, and smashed down into some chairs as I slid down the other side of it into the first room of the cabin.   From there I text-ed Phil’s wife Sarah to call the troopers and please let us know if there was a rescue in progress, and if not, get one going! Sarah, being the awesome person she is, immediately texted me back letting me know that she got it, and was calling.  I climbed back out the little hole I had slid down, and fell out back into the wind, and we continued trudging towards Nome. I was feeling like a huge failure at this point, worried Jim was dead, and that we hadn’t done enough for them. So many second thoughts, so much thinking about what I could have done that would have made a difference.

Ten minutes later or so Sarah texted me back saying a rescue was in progress, the troopers were aware they needed to be rescued and help was on the way.  That was huge load off my mind, but we were a pretty sad group as we slowly trudge towards Safety. At some point a big wide track machine came very slowly up to us, and Phil talked to the driver, who was apparently out to check on the two mushers.  Later we were to learn she was Jessie Royer, a musher who had finished, then snow machined to Safety to see a friend pass though, and headed out to check on the mushers when it looked like they might be stuck. Phil told her where they were, and we continued on, only to see another group of snowmachines, this time big racing sleds come zooming up.  Phil talked to them and they zoomed off. After they were gone Phil explained they were with Nome search and rescue, heading out to find the mushers and bring them back to the Safety. A while later they came zooming back by, this time with the two mushers on the back of the sled. One of them, Jim I guess, was flopping around like a rag doll, and they stopped right in front of us as he had nearly fell off the back of the sled.   I was feeling a bit better now , as now they were at least alive and on their way to help. Hours later we pulled into Safety, the last checkpoint before the finish in Nome, and learned that both mushers were ok, which was a huge weight off my mind. Apparently after warming up in the Safety Roadhouse they were fine, and were flown to Nome.

After a few Cokes, at least one microwave “burger”, and a bit of chatting with the checkpoint volunteers, we headed out.   Everyone talks about the burgers at Safety, and the first time I was disappointed to find it was a microwave frozen burger-like thing.  Food, but not awesome food. They have Coke though, and that is like heaven.

Photo complements of Kevin Breitenbach

The last twenty miles into Nome were a bit of a slog, with slow trail chewed up by lots of snowmachine traffic, but eventually we hit the road, and zoomed into town.  I could barely keep up with Kevin and Phil, but they took pity on me and slowed down so I could keep up. There was a big group of folks waiting for us at the finish — I guess finishing with a Nome local has its perks!   Sue and Glenn, some (former) Fairbanks friends meet us at the finish, as well as Steve Cannon , and Kathi, the organizer of the ITI.  

Photo complements of Kevin Breitenbach

A few days of hanging out in Nome with Sue, Glen, and their dogs, and I headed home.

After an event like this I have a huge list of folks to thank.

First, I need to thank my family: Nancy, Molly, and Lizzy.  Thanks for your understanding and support; it means the world to me.  

Second, I need to thank everyone who helped me on the trail.  It is a huge list: the Petruskas, Tracy and Peter Schneiderheinze in McGrath, the folks in Iditarod, Lee in Shageluk, Jay in Anvik, Shirley in Grayling, the schools in Shaktoolik, Koyok, Ellim, and Kaltag, Joanna, Jack and their family in White Mountain..  Thanks ever so much!

I would also like to thank everyone I traveled with on the way to Nome this year: Nina, on the way to McGrath, and Kevin and Phil on the way to Nome.  Thanks for putting up with me, and for your company on the trail!


Finally, I really need to thank Sue and Glenn in Nome.  You guys have hosted me for the last three years in Nome, and I really look forward to the welcome.  Thanks ever so much for your hospitality!

I also would like to congratulate Jay Petervary on setting a new record and having a great race – congratulations!  Jay was so fast I think he was back home in Idaho playing with his dogs after several days of sleep when we finished.  

I will put up a follow up post with some details on the route, gear, what worked and what didn’t, etc.