It was a big project to get here. Clown bike locked and loaded. Desert rat skin thickened. Desert ‘weakness’ exorcised. Desert mind with enough confidence to make the leap from impossible to possible.
Confidence was not as high as it could have been. My camera, SPOT and GPS were gone from my checked bag. I wasn’t totally certain I hadn’t completely forgotten them in Boulder. What else did I forget? 300 miles of Alaskan backcountry in the winter, and I’m missing things? I don’t know what I’m doing! I dragged Brian and Val around Anchorage to find replacements, delaying us and adding stress. Would I be this much of a junk show the entire ride, slowing these guys down?
A month in a half in Colorado had made a huge difference. I *do* know what I’m doing. Or at least as much as I ever do. I’d not only survived, but thrived, on multiple overnighters, and in difficult conditions. I fell back on that confidence and preparation. Riding my regular mountain bike on dirt was more foreign than a heavily loaded clown bike. Snow riding was home. But someone else had always been a part of it, someone magic. Without the Ez magic, would it just be a cold and miserable time? Would I hate camping in the snow and think only of warm places and desert flowers?
We started from Martin Buser’s dog yard. Martin is one of the most famous Iditarod mushers, and a great guy, too. The dogs were amped up and excited to be out on the trail. So were we. We rode right out onto trails, headed for the Yentna River.
Someone’s happy to finally be out on the trail. It was snowing and cold on the face as we started. “Here we go, get used to being cold. This is Alaska. It’s the only option.” It didn’t last long. The day was as warm or warmer than Colorado.
“Popcorn! Peanuts! Programs!” Martin passed us on a training run. We’re still not sure if those were names of his dogs, or if he was just being funny.
He said the trail would firm up, but it never really did. It snowed lightly throughout the day. We rode in the trees, where the sleds were constrained to follow one trail, and walked in the meadows when they fanned out. Just like Colorado.
I put stock in Martin’s statement about the trail firming up, and also in Mike’s many postulations and theories about where the trail would be slow, fast, deep, packed, et cetera. They are both as experienced as they come. But they were usually wrong. Snow trail conditions are subject to so many variables (and perceptions) that I’m not sure anyone has a good concept or understanding of them. It’s part of what makes snow riding so intriguing.
Our early miles were on Big Lake trails, flat and frequented by snowmobiles. Slow, but steady.
Eventually we dropped onto the big rivers (Susitna and Yentna). The route follows the Yentna for many miles, and Mike had previously told me he’d rather poke his eyes than ride it again (he’s been on it many, many times). I was just stoked to be on the Iditarod race route, and river travel was totally new to me. We weren’t quite on the same page. My jaw dropped as I saw shelves of broken ice on the sides and occasional slushy ‘overflow’. Stay on the trail and go wherever everyone else has!
We got a bit of a sunset and it looked like the skies might be clearing. We hit the first checkpoint of the race, Yentna station, right at dinner time. $20 for a burger, fries and root beer seemed cheap and it was oh so delicious. We got our first glimpse into lodge Alaska lodge living, talking to the owners and the young kid that lived there.
“I have a bike!”
“Really, where do you ride, on trails or on roads?”
“There aren’t any roads here.”
“Oh. Good point.”
The lodge owner gave us a talking to, about trail conditions and about what he thought our ideal strategy should be. “It’s 7 degrees out there now, and dropping.” He offered us a room to rent, but my response was, “it’s a nice night out, let’s keep riding.” As it was coming out of my mouth, I couldn’t quite believe it.
But it was true, it was a nice night. No snow. Another hour’s pedaling made 6 or 7 river miles disappear. We hiked towards the bank, stamped out some holes and crashed out.
Sunrise from the river. Make breakfast from the sleeping bag, then hurry to pack up, hop on the bike and warm up. On down the river, Skwentna bound!
Oh Swkentna — the best roadhouse on the trail! We didn’t need the warmth, but after slogging along the river all morning, a late lunch here was absolutely perfect.
“When I saw the sign for Pizza [a couple miles out], I knew that’s what you were going to get,” says Mike. Bingo. The pumpkin cream cheese roll was even better. So good that I had to send Eszter an email raving about it. “You are going to love it out here! Get the pumpkin cream cheese roll in Skewntna. It’s crack.”
Mike’s history on the trail makes him very interesting to travel with. Besides stopping to tell us stories every hour or so (to break up the monotony of the river), he knows all the lodge owners and many of the locals. One trapper/guide in the area had not seen Mike for 8 or 10 years, but had very distinct memories of him and other characters from back in the day. He recalled running into Mike when he had hurt himself, how Mike had given him one of the first LED headlamps, and most hilariously (to Mike), that Mike used to be a “much bigger” guy, and that he’s lean and mean now. At some point he looked over at me and said, “Do I know you, you look really familiar, too?” He had mistaken me for John Stamstad. That made me laugh. He also told us about other racers asking him for snowmobile rides in the past! Then he proceeded to rant about all the a-hole snowmobilers (there were a dozen or so when we first arrived in Skewntna), and the government. He lives out on the river and only goes to Anchorage every couple years. Doesn’t like it, he says.
Mike also knows every dog along the trail, by name, and by personality. This is only the first in my Mike + doggies of the Iditarod series.
Riding out of Skwentna I got totally turned around. “Is that Mount Susitna, back there?”
“Ha! No. That comment right there made the No GPS rule worth it.”
Mike had forbidden me from taking a GPS on this trip (making the loss of mine in airport security a little easier to stomach). “There’s only one chance at a virgin run on this trail.” I missed a GPS at times, but it actually was pretty ‘liberating’ to just ride along and not know things like mileage, speed, elevation, or how far to the next waypoint. It’s a pleasure tour! Just kick back and enjoy the ride. Nothing to be concerned with.
Finally, we hit some climbing in the Shell Hills. The snow was still soft, and accumulating, but I had a secret weapon – Lou – the biggest and baddest snow tire in existence. Neither Brian or Mike had a Lou as the rear tire, so the chant of “go Lou!” became regular as I threw myself at all the climbs. Lou brought me up some hard hills, and failed on others. There’s a certain grade for which it doesn’t matter how much power your legs have or how big your tire is, you’re going to walk.
But those hills are rare. I was getting disappointed by the lack of hike-a-bike, but expecting much, much more.
Darkness fell and the snow picked up as we shot across Shell Lake, Brian and I locking in on the lights of the lodge at the far end. It hadn’t been all that long since completely gorging on pizza in Skwentna. Do I really need more food, a burger?
Was that a real question? More food please!
Mike kept Tanner, the giant dog of Zoe’s Shell Lake Lodge company, while Brian and I inhaled burger and soup. This really is a pleasure tour! I can get used to this.
Again the subject of staying the night indoors came up. Again it was determined that it was too nice a night out to not pedal more, and camp out. That determination was right… we pedaled as the snow fell, then we fell into our sleeping bags for a comfy night.
It snowed lightly all night, so trails were even slower in the morning, but still easier than much of the riding I had done in Colorado. I had no GPS and no idea of what slow or fast is out here, so I simply followed along, kept moving, and enjoyed the simple state of being outside.
Being outside makes me happy. Traveling by bike makes me happy. Eating yummy food makes me happy. Life on the trail is easy. It struck me how comfortable it was, camping and living out in the cold of the winter, in Alaska.
Seems like every time we ran into snowmobilers they’d marvel at our huge bikes, then watch as we wallowed in the soft snow and walked slowly away from them. Without the sleds the trails would be non-existent, or very hard to travel. It’s an odd facet of snow riding — reliance on motorized traffic.
The meadows are long and were only borderline rideable, as we slowly made progress towards Finger Lake.
Trees are our friends, meaning harder packed trail.
No pictures please!
next in the Mike tour of Iditarod’s trail dogs
Finger Lake is a fancy place, where rooms reportedly go for $3500 a night. Yet they still put out the welcome mat for (non-motorized) travelers of the Iditarod Trail. They invited us in for homemade nutter butters, hot chocolate, coffee, etc, as Mike caught up with the owner, Carl. The three of us sat around the table sipping on warm drinks and trying to see how many tasty cookies and muffins we could get away with eating without seeming to be the needy hunger-monster driven cyclists that we were. Eventually the plate got too empty and Kirsten, the cook and Carl’s wife, took the plate away so we couldn’t finish the rest. As we pedaled away and down the steep hill out of the lodge we each tried to blame each other for being too greedy or eating cookies while people were watching. It was funny stuff (we did leave cash for the treats we got).
Before we sat off, Carl was enthralled by my bike (biggest tires he’d seen) and asked if he could take it for a spin. Sure, give it a whirl. “I can ride to Nome on this thing, no problem! See you later!!”
Somewhere beyond Finger Lake the riding got good. Real good. Still in the trees, still snowing, still foggy and lacking views. But climbs were fun and Lou-rideable, flow was found, and ramps shot us out onto alpine lakes. Darkness fell, but I did not want to stop. We slid our way down the Happy River Steps, and pushed back up away from the Skwentna River. I want to say I rode most of that steep climb (not the initial pitch), but I may be suffering from white moment bliss memory distortion. Mike and Brian were hungry (no lodge food today), but I had started a riding stoke fire that was difficult to shut down. They kindly let me continue on “another 5 or 10 minutes until you find a good place to camp.” That turned into 30 or 45 minutes, before I finally stopped and told them my eyes were never going to *see* a good place to camp, so they had better just find one. We stopped right there, where there weren’t really any good trees to hide under. Then it snowed all night, again. Oops. My bad.
There was a fresh couple of inches but luckily not enough to shut down the stellar trail conditions. Supposedly the trail climbs 1000′ in the 30 miles between Finger and Puntilla, but it felt like we lost elevation, if anything. There were multiple ripping fast descents, more fun than anything I had ridden in Winter Park.
“I had no idea there would be *fun* riding out here. I expected none!” Brian was surprised. I was grinning like an idiot.
We said hello to the Puntilla moose, wallowing off in the deep snow.
Then shot down onto Puntilla lake, following the spruce bough lined corridor leading to the lodge. I was worried we were riding on an airstrip (a big AK no-no), because it felt like landing an airplane.
Mike wrestled with the Puntilla trail dog while we were invited in to the racer’s cabin. It was already set up with stove roaring, even though no racers were expected in yet. The only race news we got was that Pete made it to Yentna Station by midnight. We assumed that meant he was first, and that the conditions were very, very slow. It must have snowed more further back on the course.
After 3 days and nights of mostly snow fall, our gear was getting a little wet. Having the opportunity to hang everything up in Puntilla was key, and gave us a lot more confidence for the next section. After here you’re much more committed. There are no burgers and no rooms to rent. Still, I was surprised that I was not craving warm places, not in the least. If anything, I was uncomfortable in the too-hot cabin. I wanted more hot chocolate, but couldn’t think of drinking anything hot.
An hour or so was long enough to be done dipping pilot’s bread into hot chocolate, and our gear was all dry. I noticed that Mike forgot his sleeping pad in the cabin, but waited until he was hopping on his bike to point it out. I missed a big opportunity here and must admit that I have not learned from the master (Mike himself). In hindsight I should have taken it with me and ransomed it off for the rest of his Trader Joe’s peanut butter cup supply at our next camp. At least it wasn’t me leaving things behind or otherwise being a junk show.
We got a good lecture from the lodge’s owner about why he isn’t letting racers into his two Rainy Pass cabins, on further up the trail. Seemed like a nice guy, but a little too worked up about something that shouldn’t be that big of a deal. I was ready to be out on the trail, instead of listening to a rant, but he did offer to let us use the cabins, should we need to. For $75/each, but we said we’d only do so in an emergency or in case of really bad weather. It was kind of him to allow us to use the racer’s cabin, though we were not racers, and we gave the lodge some cash as well.
Luckily the weather only improved from here. For what felt like the first time, we could see the distant mountains. We were getting views!
Perfect timing, because we were knocking on the door of the Alaskan range.
It was time to climb above treeline, into the magic zone. This far north on the planet, treeline is somewhere in the 2000 foot range. But that doesn’t make it any less spectacular.
Mike assured us that much walking was in our future. That no one goes beyond Puntilla. I believed him, even as I kept pedaling.
It was true that not many people had gone this way. The wind and fresh snow had erased all tracks, but there were firm platforms to be found, as we sighted from tripod to tripod. At times the next tripod was difficult to see, and whoever was leading would dive off and get stuck in deep snow. It was perhaps one of the most fun route finding challenges I’ve ever had.
Words can’t describe how excited I was to finally be getting into the meat of the route. The rivers, flats and hills were done, and had been slow. We hadn’t seen the sun, or even much of a view of the mountains we were working hard to approach. But now, now the weather was (supposedly) going to clear, and we were on the cusp.
On top of it all, it was rideable! When it shouldn’t be. How can it be this good? How is this a place where it makes sense to have a bicycle, at all, let alone be putting it to good use?
Although it was rideable, it was a little disorienting, too. The light and lack of trail meant you were staring at all white. Featureless white. It was difficult to tell or predict what the trail was going to do, meaning there would be surprises and awkward moments. For a big stretch of descending I was in front and following rabbit tracks that seemed to nail the firm platform of the trail. I could just barley pick out the tiny shadows of the footprints. Thanks Mr. Rabbit!
I was ready to charge over Rainy Pass, but the sun had other plans. We continued sighting the reflective pieces of the tripods, usually with success. The trail rambled through the willows, crossing Pass Creek, then into the mouth of Rainy Pass. An hour or two of night riding is a goodly amount for a pleasure tour, so we stamped out a place in the willows, made hot dinner and went to sleep dreaming of crossing the Alaska range, and wondering how the race was unfolding behind us. Excitement level was through the roof. Tomorrow!