Dé hAoine 25 Nollaig 2009

09 Alaska Ultrasport Soggy Foot Slough to the END

continued from: http://seansalach.blogspot.com/2009/12/09-alaska-ultrasport-nikolai-to-outer.html

I woke, of course, a bit after first light along side what I have now decided to officially refer to as Soggy Foot Slough. A musher or two passed by as I was packing up my sleeping gear, calmly talking to their team. I got on the bike feeling defeated. I had no idea how far I was from McGrath. I was sore and completely drained of energy. My feet hurt just pressing down on the pedals. Wait a minute… I’m pedaling! Enough little paws must’ve passed in the night to pack down a just firm enough to ride trail, which wasn’t actually entirely brown and yellow, but in fact mostly white and entirely awesome. I picked up my pace a bit, to maybe 5mph until I heard the drone of a snowmachine approaching from behind. Before I had a chance to pull off to the side, the rider had ridden up off the left bank of the trail. He parked near me and introduced himself as Dan. I don’t remember much of the conversation that ensued, but I do remember that he gave me Tang, offered me food, and tried to sell me an awl he had shaved down from a moose shin bone. I explained that I had been on the trail much, much longer than expected, and really didn’t have the $20 to spare. I had more than $20 on me, but I had no idea how much I was going to need to spend in McGrath, and I really didn’t need an awl…. Then he just gave it to me. It was unexpected and I was grateful, and promised him that the next year, 2010, when I came through Bison Camp an Nikolai, I would look for him and give him $20. I do remember him talking about being at Bison Camp a few days earlier and breaking trail for some of the racers into Nikolai. He said that there had been a bunch of fresh snow, so he would break in the correct trail to Peter and Tracy’s house in McGrath, that I needed to take a left at the intersection on the swamp.

He took off slowly to avoid chewing up the trail too much. And away I rode.

I rode and occasionally walked with everything I had left for the next 20 miles. I really don’t remember much of it, but it wasn’t fast by any means, and was increasingly slower as I neared the finish line.


There were places where I was chasing moose down the trail for 20 minutes before they had finally had enough and ran up the river bank. I kept waiting and waiting for the one last hill described in some of the Iditarod online literature I had read pre race. From there, I knew it was a slough, and one more little stretch of river before heading into the swamps.

On one section of river, I had stopped for a Skittle and Tang break, which was probably more of a faff break, as I don’t actually recall being hungry. As I stood there, I was suddenly given the motivation to move by the unmistakable sound of a big truck jake braking down some nearby hill. There was a road nearby. The haul rd into McGrath! It was the sweetest sound I had heard in days. I got on and gave what I could. I would pick objects in the distance and pedal to them, stop, eat or take a photo, and do it again.


Finally the hill came. I knew it as soon as I was on it. Through the entire slog from Nikolai to where I stood, I kept repeating the small section of text(or some version of it) in my mind, expecting it to be around every corner. I tried with all I had to ride up it, but of course couldn’t. I got off and feigned a run up the hill. Across the top and down the other side, where I had the only crash of the trip that I could really say was caused by exhaustion.




I was thrilled to be on the river again, that ‘last stretch’ of river. There was what looked like a cabin at the far bend, and it seemed to never get any closer, no matter how far I went. I kept looking back, and forth, and again. I found a Zip-Loc bag on the ground that a musher had dropped with some Emergen-C’s and a huge ‘cookie’ in it. I pocketed the Emergen-C’s and took a bite of the cookie, which I promptly spit out. It tasted horrible. I think it might have been a dog treat. It took several BIG gulps of Tang to wash that taste out of my mouth…. I’m sitting here laughing as I type this, wondering why the hell I would put something like that in my mouth. It seemed like the best idea ever at the time though.


The temp was warming up as it had the previous day, but I don’t think it got above freezing while I was on the river. There were small sections of frozen overflow on the trail, and I had to be careful stepping off the trail for any reason to avoid sinking up to my knee in the slushy grey stuff.


This Musher, who I believe is Cindy Gallea, had a tough go of it back in the Alaska range. I think I recall hearing that she had smacked a tree with her face pretty hard. Tough woman.



As I got nearer to and passed that little cabin, I spotted a cardboard sign on the side of the trail. I had been told there were mile markers coming into the finish, and here was the first.


Up off the river, and into the swamps.


I really had trouble staying on the bike through the swamps. The trail was mostly just firm enough to ride, but I was losing control of the bike over the whoops.


Karin Hendrickson passed by and seemed genuinely, incredibly grateful to me for getting off the trail for her. Sven Haltman was right behind and gave me a reassuring look, telling me, “You’re almost there!!” It was the nicest thing anyone had said to me since Nikolai. Thanks, Sven!





The little cardboard mile/km signs couldn’t pass by quickly enough. It felt like it took an hour to get from one to the next, and it was all I could do to set each one as a goal with a reward of some skittles or chocolate when I reached it.





The final, big open swamp seemed endless, but with the radio towers in sight, I knew I was close to the haul road.



Then I was there. It should have been obvious which direction I needed to go, even with the sign that was probably there buried under the new snow the plows had piled up. I stood there for a minute having a celebretory drink of tang. A smile and an improvised hand gesture conversation with this plow driver as he passed confirmed that crazy bikers turn right at this intersection.


I dropped down onto the smooth, hardpacked surface of the road and pedaled along, laughing out loud at how easy it was. I quickly spun out my gear and had to coast, uphill, before getting on it again and repeating. I stopped only when the big trucks came by, making sure they had plenty of room. As I got closer to town, I started seeing people. One woman asked me a question, and for a minute I managed to forget that I was, in fact, almost there, and stopped to chat with her. I was pretty out of it at that point.


Then I saw it. The McGrath banner at the driveway to the house I had seen in all those photos from all those racers from all those trips prior on the web. It was immensely, overwhelmingly satisfying.


I walked up to the door and knocked. There was no answer, but, it’s the checkpoint, so I assumed(correctly) that I could just go inside. I had no idea what time it was. The only electronic pieces of equipment I had with me the whole time were my headlamp and camera. No watch. As I sat in the doorway removing my boots, Mike came down the stairs and greeted me with a grin, a welcome and a congrats. He gave me the rundown on the house and hooked me up with some of the food Peter had prepared before taking off to catch a flight out of town. Turns out I wasn’t the only one with foot issues.



The Schniederheinz family dog was there to greet me as well. Can’t quite remember his name, but he was certainly happy to see me. Dogs do tend to like smelly objects.


We looked at a clock as I sat there, and then two other clocks, and all read something different. We picked one, and wrote the time down on the check in sheet. The clock said 2:25.

Before long Tracy, and eventually Peter arrived. I showered, washed my clothes, sent out some emails and sat down to watch some road race videos from the 70’s and 80’s with Peter. He had some people in town for whom he was tour guiding as the mushers came into town. Taking them out for a ride on his dog sled, I got to direct traffic for him. His dogs were incredibly fast as he commanded “GEE!!” out of the driveway then an immediate “HAW!” at the first turn. It was pretty cool.

I woke the next morning after a good nights sleep to find Roger and George both in the house! They had made it.


A week after the race, I was thinking about it, and wondered if the clock had been adjusted for Daylight Saving time, which had occurred on the 7th day of the race. As my recorded time sat, it put me in Mcgrath a scant 25 minutes past the official 10 day cutoff. I emailed Kathi, acknowledging that it didn’t actually matter for anything and was more nit-picking that not, and I think she adjusted the time for me just to give me the benefit of the doubt. While typing this up, and going through my photos from the race, I did a little math. My camera was set to East coast summer time, so none of the times were exact. I found a photo I could use to figure out the difference.

ultrasport start
This photo was taken on the starting line, 5 minutes before the 2pm start. My camera recorded it as 6:55pm. Subtract 4 hrs for time difference plus 1 hr for daylight saving time to get the actual time of 1:55pm where the photo was taken.

This photo entering the driveway was recorded by my camera as 5:12pm. Subtract the 4hr time difference, and you get 1:12pm, 48 minutes before the official 10 day cutoff. Goal from Rohn accomplished. Barely. Scary part is, looking through the times on other photos, it appears to have taken me 2 ½ hrs to get from the river to the finish. A distance of only 9 miles….

There’re a million people I could thank for helping me through this trip in some way shape or form, and frankly I’m sick of typing, and I’m sure you’re sick of reading. So, THANK YOU!! Yes, I mean you.

Longest Ultrasport write up ever??


Déardaoin 24 Nollaig 2009

09 Alaska Ultrasport Nikolai to The Outer Limits

continued from: http://seansalach.blogspot.com/2009/12/09-alaska-ultrasport-bison-to-nikolai.html

I entered the spacious great room of the Petruska house, and immediately set about drying out/warming up what gear I could. Nick keeps the wood burning stove roaring hot, and I knew it wouldn’t take long. Next order of business was addressing my foot issues. I removed my boots and socks, and had a look. It wasn’t pretty. It appeared as though the skin was so saturated on the bottoms of my feet that it was starting to disintegrate. The blister forming on my right heal was alarming as well, but easily solved with a little duck tape. I had no idea what I was going to do with the soles of my feet. I walked outside barefoot to check out my rear tire. I couldn’t even feel the cold snow beneath my feet. It felt no different than standing on a carpet.

I removed the rear tire and tube, and brought them and the back wheel into the mud room to work on. Replacing the tube was easy, and re-inflating the tire resulted in the same wobble that I had been watching slowly rub it’s way through the powdercoating on my frame for the last 300 miles. I looked at it more carefully, and the best diagnosis I could come up with was that the lip on the outside of the tire, that helps prevent pinch flats, was preventing the bead from seating fully on the rim. The flat had been caused by the tire rotating quite a bit and taking the tube with it, folding it over till it pinch flatted. I had no choice but to air it up a little higher than it had been to try to prevent it from spinning as easily on the rim.

I was served a heaping plate of spigetti by Olene and Stephanie. Nick had gone down to try and see the first mushers in the Iditarod come in off the river. Olene seemed to really enjoy having the racers come through, and actually said she wished that people would stay longer, but they almost never do with the finish line so close. I thought about staying till dark in the hopes that the trail would firm up, but I just couldn’t. I had only woke from oversleeping a few hours earlier and I too was getting the finish line itch. And I don’t mean from not taking a shower for 8 days. After a failed attempt at sleeping, I got up, put on my now toasty warm clothes, and headed down to the riverfront to see the first three mushers and say goodbye to the Petruskas.




Leaving town I felt a sense of urgency to stay in front of the dog teams. I felt like we leave a week early so that we’re out of their way, and here I was, in the way. I knew from watching the videos that they were capable of running steadily at 10+ miles per hour during an event like this, so I was really hoping for some rock solid trail. That just wasn’t in the stars though. The mercury was rising, and the trails were mashed potatoes.



For a while, I could see the tracks from Curiak and the walkers who had left Nikolai very early that morning. I thought that perhaps I had a fighting chance of catching one or two of the walkers, as the trail was marginally rideable.


But then the first snowmachine passed me. And that was the end of that.

Some trees of a type I had never seen before on the swamps.


There were a lot of awefully comfy looking bivies stomped out along this section of spruce.


The first musher to catch me was Aaron Burmeister. I got off to the side of the trail, as I had done for the snowmachines throughout the race. I got out my camera and snapped pics as he approached. It was all going great, and he spoke to the team as they got nearer saying “Keep going!”, “Go on through!”, or something like that. It was a long time ago, I don’t remember his exact words.


Then it happened. The dogs got confused. One stopped, others stopped, they all stopped. I could see the frustration in Aarons face, and I could only assume it was directed at me. Half the dogs looked confused and scared. Aaron said, “I wish I had someone breaking trail for me.”, a statement which I only recently ‘got’ the meaning off. Initially, I couldn’t figure out what the hell he was talking about. He had a whole team of trail breakers on snow machines. Was he referring to the tire and foot tracks I was leaving behind?? I shook it off and wished him a good race as the team pulled him down the trail. Thinking about it recently, I came to the realization that his dogs had no scent from other dogs to follow down the trail. That would explain the confusion when the most recent scent they had been following, me, was sitting on the side of the trail. If he had a lot of dogs that hadn’t made the trip before it would certainly be the case.


If I thought the trail was mashed potatoes before the dogs came through, it must have been scrambled eggs afterward.


With sauce…..


Sled dogs don't stop for trivial activities like relieving themselves....

Within a few hundred yards, I came to the conclusion that I would probably be walking all the way to McGrath.

One more swamp passed beneath my feet before the second team passed me by. This team, compared to the antics of the first team, seemed composed, relaxed and happy. They cruised on through with their musher, Hugh Neff.



A couple of minutes later, the team bearing musher Sebastian Schnuelle cruised through. They were nearly as composed and organized as Neff’s team, except for one tough guy on the line who took to barking at me as they went past. Sebastian looks at me with a combination of bewilderment and pity and says, “It’s soft trail, no?”. I laugh and nod my head.


“Very soft.” I replied, and away he went.


The walking continued straight into darkness, across swamps and through narrow sloughs.



My hopes were raised at the sight of this group of snowmachiners, but the trail wasn't any better for walking or riding behind them, it was just a different texture.



Finally darkness descended upon interior Alaska as I made my way down onto Big River.


In preparation for a long night of walking, I took my insulated bottle holders(with full bottles), and attached them to the sternum strap of my empty camelback, under my outer two layers, to keep them even warmer. I occasionally tried to pedal in sled track the mushers left, and it would occasionally work for a few yards. I pushed and pushed and pushed myself to exhaustion yet again. No mushers had passed me(that I remember) since Schnuelle, and I was looking off up the tall banks on the side of the river wondering how the hell I would get up them to bivy if it came to it. I had been walking all day on soft trail, then churned up soft trail peppered with dog feces and urine. And I pushed on, with dogged determination. I didn’t want to stop really, as I assumed that if I bivied, by the time I woke and a dozen or more mushers had passed by, that the trail would just be entirely brownish-red and yellow.


Then it got weird……

In the distance, in the woods off the left bank of the river, I saw an intensely bright light seem to rise up above the trees. At first I assumed it was the spotlight on someone’s cabin. But looking around at the massive trees on the riverbanks, I began to doubt that. It seemed to be increasing in size, as lights generally do when you’re approaching them, but at a quicker rate than I was moving down the trail. Must be a helicopter. There was nothing else to really look at in the darkness, and I was fixated on this bright light. It seemed to be close enough that I should hear the blades of the helicopter spinning. But I didn’t.

I stopped to take a drink of water, but before I could unzip one of the bottle holders, the light did something I did not expect it to do. It made a fast, hard, 45 degree turn and drifted slowly through the night sky over to the right bank of the river. I could make out that it was the shape of a small jet, but it had these lights all along the underside. Down the belly and out on the bottoms of the wings were these intense, circular lights. Not round like an incandescent light bulb, but circular like one of those florescent tubes that wraps back into itself. And it sounded like a jet. I was curious to say the least, but that curiosity quickly turned to slight alarm as it reached the right river bank and turned directly toward me. At this point I started getting a little nervous. It seemed to hover there for a minute(probably not even a second), maybe a hundred feet above the tree tops. It flashed the headlight three times. Which reignited my curiosity. So, using my hand to cover it, I ‘flashed’ my headlamp back three times. Upon my return volley, the aircraft seemed to turn on the high beams and rapidly increased it’s speed directly toward me.



There was a second of flat out fear before I finally threw up my hands and said aloud,

“Fuck it! Just abduct me. I really don’t care at this point.”

It didn't cross my mind till the last second to get my camera out. Hell, I had taken photos of just about everything else I had seen up until this point... So following in the great tradition of previous photographers of the unknown, I present my unrecognizable, kinda looks like it might be something, not very clear photo:


And just like that, the highbeams were flicked off. It returned to it’s previous slow drift above the river, swaying back and forth from bank to bank as it travelled away from me. I watched it till it was out of sight. I grabbed the handlebar to stop my hands from shaking, and pushed on, constantly looking back over my shoulder. To my great delight, after a while, I saw the headlamp of a musher and heard his gentle calls to his team. I got off to the side of the trail as it entered a small slough, and looked back at the musher. It was Lance Mackey. He looked at me standing there, with my white headlamp, red taillight, and bits of reflective material scattered here and there on the bike, and said, “I was wondering what that was!”. He had seen it too, and I imagine could only reason that he had actually just seen me, my bike lights, and missinterpreted them for something else, something not quite normal….

I continued walking as I debated whether what I had seen was just the delusional vision of a person who had pushed himself beyond the brink of exhaustion, or??? Experimental aircraft? Was there an airforce base nearby?


I heard whistling in the distance. I turned got off the trail and turned around to watch the musher come through. When he got within a hundred feet, I could tell it was Jeff King. “How’s it going?” I said with a smile.

“Fantastic! It’s a beautiful night!” he responded.

“It certainly is.”

As his team cruised off, he turned back and asked “How far ahead is the next team?”

My best guess, which considering the events that may or may not have just transpired, was probably not the most reliable, was “30 minutes or so.” I paused. “It’s Lance.”

He waved as he disappeared up the river bank.

So, let’s recap. Disintegrating feet, soft, unrideable snow, dog crap and pee everywhere, encounters with unidentifiable objects, that were more ‘hovering’ than flying :D, and then it started to snow.


I had had enough. If there was ever a time that someone ever HAD to bivy, It was now, and that someone was me. I walked on, intent on finding the perfect spruce to curl up under. It eventually came on the bank of a slough. I stopped, stomped out a path over to it through waist deep snow, and set my bike on the little path, near the trail. I think it was Paul Gebhardt, I recognized him from Kim’s Iditarod videos, cruised by, seated behind his dog sled. As he passed he looked over at me and shook his head with a slight smile, saying as he rode out of sight, “Man you guys are tough…” It made me smile. I felt more smelly than tough at that point. As I drifted off to sleep, a few more mushers passed. One of them, a woman(Aliy Zirkle I think), called out as she glided by, “Craaazy bikers….” They were the last words I heard as slumber took me to a much more comfortable place.

It was pretty damn cool having that kind of front seat to the Iditarod.

continued here: http://seansalach.blogspot.com/2009/12/09-alaska-ultrasport-soggy-foot-slough.html