Thursday, March 17, 2016

Iditarod Trail Invitational, February, 2016.

Alaska --  The Land of Silence

If asked to describe Alaska in one word, we agreed on VAST.  The scale of everything is huge here.

How huge is it?  It's t------h-------i--------s  big.
Before we started on the trail into one small piece of the vast-ness Laurie Tulchin and I found ourselves in the Westmark Hotel in Anchorage, AK., preparing for the first 130 miles of the Iditarod Trail Invitational.  There are eleven of us total in the event.  Six on foot and five on bikes.  We were the only women on foot.  We’ve never been to Alaska.  We were invited to race because of our previous success at similar winter races.  ITI as it is known, is the ultimate winter race.  I’ve always found the standard distances of 350 miles and 1000 miles well beyond my ability, but the new, introductory distance of 130 miles sounded appealing.  Why not?

 We have lots to do getting food and beverages together.  Egg salad is mixed in the ice bucket as Jim Glasgow attaches SPOT Trackers to our sleds.  We each have two sturdy duffle bags with a soft cooler in between on our sled.  

Didn't need the snow shoes.
Most of our food and drinks are in the cooler.  We’ve packed small thermos’s of hot apple juice, Lipton tea, water, chocolate milk and a 20oz bottle of Coke.  There are egg salad and Muenster cheese wraps, Ritz crackers, Cheese Nips, Salted Nut Rolls, Payday, Gummy Bears, chocolate squares, Vanilla Oreo Thins, sliced apples, grapes and peeled oranges.  We didn't take any supplements, vitamins, gels or tinctures.

My rear bag was taken up with a sleeping bag and bivy sack.  I stuffed a plastic poncho in there, too.  Rain was in the forecast.  There is no mandatory gear.  Race directors Kathi and Bill Merchant believe you should already know what you need.  The front bag had all sorts of things.

An extra headlamp and batteries, extra clothes [down coat, thermal pants, balaclava. mittens, gloves, wool tunic and arm warmers],  Stabilicers [strap-on ice traction things] Wiggies Waders [talk of open water was not encouraging], satellite phone and extra battery, charcoal hand warmers, a small first aid bag and a small bag for emergencies with zip ties, toe straps and S-Biner fasteners.  Our sleds weigh ~40 pounds each.

The race starts at Knik Lake, an hour north and east of Anchorage, at 2 PM.  Most everyone mills around in and outside the bar for 90 minutes.  Burgers and other food is consumed, local people come by to chat and look at our gear, we talk to other racers.  The lake is frozen, but there is some water on top of the ice here and there.  The ice is very slick.  With no fanfare, we all set off to the far side of  Knik Lake at 2 PM. 

Photo by Jim Glasgow
 The far trail is muddy with gravel exposed.  There is old snow and ice in places. 

Most of the bikes peel off to a nearby road.  We are required to sign in at check points.  There is no set route on how to reach the check points.  This translates into no specific trail markings, which turned into a problem around 6 PM when it started to get dark. 

By then those of us on foot were spread out.  Where to go once we reached Flat Horn Lake?  Good question.  There are trails and snow machine tracks in every direction.  We each have Garmin units with the track loaded, but I found using it more confusing than being lost.  Luckily, seven time finisher Loreen Hewitt came upon us.  Her memory is not the best, but she is able to get us on the correct trail several times until Yentna Station, the first check point at mile 60.

We like to run when we can, then stop occasionally to eat.  Loreen keeps a steady pace and does not stop often.  The route is very hilly at times.

Daryl Saari - Arrowhead friend
 Regardless of how a person attaches their sled to their harness, it is difficult to control the sled on steep downhills.  For days before the race, we read descriptions of key points along the route.  “At the confluence of the Susitna and the Yentna Rivers stay to the left.”  This was repeated out loud at least a dozen times.  When we reached this point during the first night on the trail, Loreen was ahead of us, out of sight.  It was completely dark, other than our headlamps.  There were snow machine tracks in every direction.  Most racers don’t have rear red blinking lights, making it more difficult to see them ahead.  At one point, I caught the slightest glimpse of a headlamp, the size of a pin head, very far away, to the left and up the hill.

EEK!  That’s Loreen.  We’re supposed to be up there.   

Trackleaders dot com capture 03:12am AKST Feb 29 '16
There was some fast scrambling over windrows between snow machine tracks.  We would occasionally see her headlamp and keep in that direction.  It was a huge relief to make contact with Loreen again and we did not get separated again that night.  A close call.

At one of our many stops to figure out if we were on the correct trail, we heard the sliding sound of a sled nearby, but couldn’t see it.  At least I hoped it was a sled.  Later on we found out it was Daryl Saari, another racer on foot.

Next we had some freezing rain and snow.  I was worried about getting soaked.  It stopped after an hour, but the result was the zippers on our gear bags were frozen.  It was getting colder, near +10F.  Loreen loaned Laurie an extra coat and I put on a surgery gown.  Loreen asked it if was a Tyvek dress.  “Sort of.”  It kept me dry and a little warmer.  We progressed through the night.  I lost a mitten.  At one point there were large areas of brown water on top of ice.  We were off the rivers now and on swampy ground with ice on top.  Brown water comes up from the ground through cracks and stays on top of the ice.  It was deep enough that our feet got wet.

We approached the “wall of death” a near vertical fifteen foot bank above the Yentna River.  Loreen said to unhook from the sled, and guide it as far as we could, the let it go.  No crashes or lost gear and we got ourselves down to the ice.

We kept moving.  As the sun came up the trail paralleled the Yentna River.  It looked like it had frozen waves on the surface.  I wanted to take photos, but my hands were cold.  We kept walking.  Laurie was usually next to Loreen with me behind.  The sleds sliding on the snow and ice were loud.  I usually couldn’t hear any conversation between them.  Loreen was gesturing a lot with her arm.  A wooden building with a snow covered roof came into view.  Was it Yentna Station?  No.  Then there was another building, also not Yentna Station.  Finally, we arrived at Yentna Station check point 1,at 9:15 AM, 19 hours after starting and ~60 miles into the race.

Yentna station is along the Yentna River.  In winter you can reach it by snow machine, in summer by boat.  During the ‘break up’ and ‘freeze up’ it’s either not accessible, or accessible by small plane.  The station is many things:  a family home, restaurant and lodging.  It was hand build by the owner more than 20 years ago.  He welcomes racers any time of the day or night.

We were hungry and in need of dry socks.  There was a race volunteer stationed indoors who records our IN and OUT times.  There were several children of various ages and a dog in the ‘living room’ and a huge flat screen television tuned to some talk show.  We were offered ham and cheese omlettes and hash browns. ”No ham” was met with a puzzled look. There were mystery colored juice [probably TANG] in dispensers.  There were several jars with cookies and candy in them.  We kept eating and got our feet dry.  I eventually needed the bathroom and found a toilet seat and lid which exposed a five gallon bucket.  “It’s emptied every day.”  We were educated on the price of a lift station and other plumbing expenses that were too high when the house was built decades ago.  Certificates of inspection were proudly displayed on the wall.  Life off the grid has a learning curve to it.  Loreen set out a few minutes ahead of us.  We saw her in the distance a few times, but didn’t catch up.  At some point we found our route was now on the Iron Dog Snow Machine race trail.  That meant we had trail markers, lots of them that we used to [mostly] stay on course.  The markers were thin pieces of wood lathe with reflectors and a ribbon on them.  What a relief!

Day 2 from Yentna Station was beautifully sunny with little wind.  We were in high spirits.  The next indoor check point was 30 miles away at Skwentna Roadhouse, mile 90.  We plugged along on the Yentna River.  Laurie’s shoes came with carbide cleats for traction on the ice and I wore YakTrax for the entire time.  While I don’t recommend wearing YakTrax for 52 hours, they kept me from slipping or falling on the ice.  There was some overflow water on the ice occasionally, but we easily avoided it.  As the day reached noon, we were able to have just one or two layers on and no gloves.  Twice we lied down on the ice, facing south and napped in the sun with our heads on the sled.  Laurie said it was like lying on the beach.  We were tiring from no sleep the night before.  We planned to sleep at Skwentna Roadhouse where rooms are rented and we could get a hot meal.  The afternoon passed as we walked.  We snacked on the food we packed. We got tricked by trail markers in the frozen river that led to a neighborhood of houses.  I found an open door and television on, but no one inside.  I placed satellite phone call #1 to Rick. “You’re on the wrong side of the river.”  We retraced our steps and go back on course.  The lathe to the neighborhood had different color marking that the Iron Dog lathe. (Iron Dog is a snow machine race run the week before from Anchorage to Nome to Fairbanks)

Iron Dog marker
Around 4:00 we could feel the air cooling off.  We stopped to put on more clothes and our headlamps.

The night got increasingly cold.  At one point I had on almost all the clothes I brought.  Wool cycling jersey, vest, wool tunic, arm warmers, windbreaker, bandana, thermal skirt over tights, down coat and sled harness on the outside plus liner gloves inside my big mitts, Gortex hat with balaclava over top.  We were either on ice or snow covered marsh.  Besides the maker lathe, there were no features of any kind.  No trees, signs, animals, fallen logs, or other racers for many hours.  The only light was our headlamps.  I was getting very tired.  There were a few gradual hills.  We kept moving.  We got more tired and kept moving.  Laurie reminded me that sleep deprivation is a form of torture.  After a downhill there was a sign!  One arrow pointed to Skwentna Roadhouse for racers and another arrow for spectators.  We must be getting close!  Up ahead we saw a headlamp coming toward us.  It was Daryl Saari saying not to go the way we planned, it was wrong.  Hmmm.  The thought of doing extra mileage was crushing given our fatigue.  I used the satellite phone to call our  ‘eye in the sky’ Rick, my husband, at home.  He was watching our progress on the Track Leaders website along the route with the SPOT trackers we each rented and had mounted on our sleds.  Daryl had one, too.  Sure enough, Rick was on duty, even at ~1:30 AM Iowa time.  We broke the news to Daryl that he was going the right way after all.  Rick also noticed that Loreen was a short distance behind us.  He thought she must have bivied, but she said she got lost .Rick asked if Laurie was with me.  Her SPOT stopped working hours ago.  The three of us pressed on along the frozen Yentna River.  Eventually we were to the place where Daryl turned around.  There was a big sign with reflectors pointing to the left. Hope springs eternal -- we must be ‘just about there’ turned into more miles.  People in remote areas use electricity sparingly.  There were lights turned on outdoors, but it wasn’t until you practically had one foot on the porch that you could see where to go.  There were several sleds outside the building.  We each took our bags and cooler inside.  The time was around 11:30 PM.  I said “I need to lie down” several times.  I was not interested in eating.  Delighted to find running water and a real toilet upstairs, I brushed my teeth, washed my face and was shown a room with three beds.  Shawn McTaggart  was in the lower bunk, I took the single bed and Laurie had to climb the foot breaking ladder to the upper bunk.  After turning the light out I stubbed my toe on the bed.  Shawn left during the night, I didn’t hear her.  Laurie and I got up at 5:00 AM.  We ate breakfast of eggs and bread.  Toast is not a food choice in the back country.  The friendly woman working the night shift was originally from Wisconsin.  She didn’t know how to cook eggs over easy. There was a large bottle of Advil.  We bought several for ourselves for the road ahead. Laurie put a new battery in her Tracker and it was working again.  The bill was ~$80 for the two of us.  Loreen arrived during the night.  She was eating breakfast when we left ~6:00 AM.  It was dark but we were revitalized by four hours of sleep.  The trail went along an airstrip that led to a huge open area that is swamp in warmer weather.  Miles and miles of gradual downhill on snow machine trails.  There were tops of scrubby trees visible, but not much else.  The trail was like wavy Christmas candy called moguls.  The sled was jerky and uneven on these trails.  Whether the sled had rigid poles connecting to the harness like Laurie, or ropes, like me, we felt constant pulling and pushing.  But there were no complaints.  It was another beautiful day with blue sky and the sun coming up.

Leaving Skwentna Roadhouse at sunrise
  We were heading to Shell Lake Lodge, just 20 miles from Skwentna Roadhouse.  Then another 20 miles to Winter Lake Lodge and we would cross the finish line!

After hours on the wavy swamp we came to flat ground and eventually a wooded, hilly section. 

It was a relief to stretch our legs up some hills.  There were streams of running water and the snow was beautifully white.   

There were trees, but we saw no birds or wildlife.  We stopped for a snack when Daryl Saari and Eric Johnson came upon us. 
Photo taken by Eric Johnson (1000 mile - foot division)
Daryl teamed up with Eric and they were traveling together.  Daryl on the 350 mile route to McGrath and Eric on the 1000 mile route to Nome.  It was nice to have company.  We overtook each other a few times and arrived at Shell Lake Lodge about the same time. ~1:30 PM  

Photo from Michael Schoder
 Crossing Shell Lake: Lisa, Laurie T, Eric Johnson, Daryl Saari

Photo from Michael Schoder
We were greeted heartily by the Shell Lake residents and lodge owners.  Although not an official check point, many people stop for rest and a meal.  We had delicious tomato soup, bread, more Tang and each of us took a Coke for the road.  There was a bird feeder near the window with lots of activity.  The birds were small, like sparrows.  Wildlife was practically invisible on the trail.  After the usual outhouse break, we were off for the final 20 miles.

Once out of the lodge area we had miles and miles of wavy moguls. 

It was slow going.  Earlier in the day the frozen brown trail was slushy. 

We saw frozen foot prints and fat tire prints. There were wolf prints in the snow.

It was our only indication of their presence.  Reports of bear encounters were in the Anchorage newspaper.  Warm temperatures coaxed some bears out of hibernation earlier than usual.  We didn’t pack bear spray or weapons.  As the sun and warmth of our third beautiful afternoon waned we stopped to put on more clothes.  We were stunned by the silence.  There was no sound.  No wind blowing through trees, no birds or airplanes or traffic, or dogs barking or voices.  As we stood with our sleds still, Laurie and I looked at each other and took in the silence.  It was the most memorable moment in all the 57 ½ hours on the trail.

We could see brilliant pink and orange sky through the trees. After rounding a bend we could see the entire sky lit up by the setting sun.   

Wow.  The beauty of remote Alaska was coming right to us.  Always optimistic about our pace, I thought we must be getting close to the finish.  Hours later we were again on slow, wavy trail.  We saw trail markers and even a sign to Puntilla [farther than we were going].  We kept thinking that around the next turn we would see Finger Lake and the lights of Winter Lake Lodge.  Rick signed off earlier once we knew there would be trail markers and felt good with our navigation.  We used the satellite phone to call Jim Glasgow because we could.  HOW MUCH FARTHER???  It was just two miles to Finger Lake.  You don’t really believe the distance until you can see where you are going.  The lights of Winter Lake Lodge were the size of the smallest Christmas lights, but we saw them in the distance.  It was colder crossing the lake which is also the airstrip for small planes bringing supplies almost daily.  The time was nearly 11:15 PM.  There was a lighted tent on one side of the lake.  That was the check point for racers going to McGrath or Nome.  It saved time to not go onto the resort property of you were continuing.  Meals were provided in the tent as well as drop bags of food that racers send ahead.  Racers could also sleep in the tent.  There was talk that while the tent was our check point, the real purpose was to shelter the dogs during the Iditarod Sled Dog race that started a week after us.  We also learned that the miles of wavy trail that pulled our sleds would be flattened out for the dogs.  The trail-breaker snow machines pulled something behind them to break up the moguls, and people with shovels worked on the trail by hand.  It's no secret that the trail is in much rougher condition for our human powered race that for the sled dog race.  Alaskans love their dogs and mushers!
We were happy to be concluding our race at 11:30 PM. With no official route or mile markers we don't know how many miles we covered.  We will go with the advertised distance of 130 miles.  There was no wistful thinking of wanting to continue to McGrath.  We followed the dim lights to the staff kitchen where we signed in and were offered a delicious meal of rice, beans, and scrambled eggs in a tortilla.  There was no fanfare.  Shortly after being accepted into the event, I paid $200 for a room that Laurie and I could use for the night after we finished.  It was stated that there were no showers.  Our plane ride back to Anchorage would not happen until daylight so we needed somewhere to sleep.  It was odd that the kitchen had no electric lights on.  There were two lanterns on our table that gave out as much light as two candles.  The young woman making our meal wore a headlamp.  We talked with her about the lodge.  Everyone who works there lives at the resort for months at a time.  Reading about Winter Lake Lodge had us expecting more.  $4800 gets a person transportation to and from the lodge and three nights, four days stay with activities.  $200 got us each a bed in the ‘annex’ with a wood burning stove, no electricity or water. The outhouse was at the end of the thin icy foot path.  If you took the ‘luge run’ without traction on your feet you would be pitched into the closed door. 

There were no complaints – it was better than the dog tent on the ice.  After sleeping two hours the fire was out.  Laurie woke me up “It’s freezing in here.”  She was right.  We poked around with our headlamps on.  We had tissues and a few napkins with us from the trail.  Along the trail I picked up a dropped cigarette lighter and some packaged Wet Wipes. 

There was some kindling near the stove.  Laurie ventured to the porch and found a box with leaves and bark and some bigger logs.  I managed to get a flame with the lighter and in a few minutes we had heat.  Back to bed.

There wasn’t much to do before breakfast since we slept in our clothes and didn’t have running water in the annex..  Daryl Saari and Eric Johnson were readying themselves to press on, over the Alaska Mountain Range.   
Daryl Saari - 130 down, 220 to go.
Eric Johnson - going for the 1000

I'm getting 1 bar!
It was nice to see them refreshed and together.  We met Joaquin Candel at breakfast.  He finished on foot the afternoon before us but had to stay the night because the afternoon plane back to Anchorage was already filled with three racers and sleds.  Joaquin is a commercial pilot for Southwest Airlines in Las Vegas, NV.  We compared notes on races we did over the years and hope to cross paths again.  He snapped photos of us by the Finish banner as we loaded our sleds for a walk back across the lake to get the plane.   
Photo taken by Joaquim Candel (Las Vegas)

 Supplies and people were unloaded from the four-seat plane that landed on the frozen lake.  Our sleds and many large bags of trash were loaded into the rear of the plane.

The three of us all got a creepy vibe, almost cult-ish, from Winter Lake Lodge and were happy to get in the plane. We each had a seat and headphones so we could talk among ourselves and with the pilot.  The 1958 plane got us back to Anchorage in 50 minutes. Jim was waiting for us.  We traded flush toilets and electricity for wolf tracks and silence.  We were ready to trade them back again.
Back in Anchorage - Photo by Jim Glasgow
We learned much from the Alaskans.  Everyone lives there for a reason.  Whether in a city or town, or in the back country, they are at peace with their situation.  They don’t take the beauty around them for granted. The state is wild and beautiful.  These characteristics can easily mask danger.  There is a learning curve to this event, the trail, and the people.

Big Fat Ride

Blackstone Bay near Whittier Alaska


Blackstone Glacier

On Matanuska Glacier

Matanuska Glacier Cave
Ceremonial start of the Iditarod Sled Dog Race in Anchorage

Musk Ox farm - Palmer Alaska
Photo by Janet Acarregui
 All photos by Lisa Paulos unless otherwise noted.

No comments:

Post a Comment