continued from: http://seansalach.blogspot.com/2009/12/09-alaska-ultrasport-bivy-to-bison.html
The trail mellowed out little by little leaving Bison camp. There had been short rolling hills most of the way across the burn, and they were now becoming shorter, with longer stretches of marsh and meadow between them. The snow was becoming increasingly mushy under tire and foot as the heat of the day soaked in. I should have removed layers for the warm weather of the day, but I didn’t. I roasted, and I melted right along with the trail.
The burn here reminded me quite a bit of some of the desert terrain I had ridden through in Baja. Especially the area around Catavina. The burned out spruce trees bore a striking resemblance to the Boojums down there.
Boojum/Cirrus trees from my Baja trip long ago:
Before long I started to see Curiak’s tire tracks, and eventually his foot prints. It made me feel not quite as bad about the amount of pushing I was doing.
Standing on top of one of the small knolls the trail crosses, I looked back and noticed something that seemed unusual to my eyes. Mt Foraker was to the right side of Denali, not the left. It was one of the neatest parts of the trip for me, seeing them from the other side.
I kept moving on, knowing that it really wasn’t that far from the Runkle’s camp to Nikolai. I expected to make it there by dark. The soft trail and pushing gave me some doubts, but I just really couldn’t see it taking me that long. I was able to ride between the marshes, and sometimes part of the way across them. The walking hurt. My feet were toast. They had been repeatedly saturated in stagnant sweat for days now in my too-warm homemade boot liners, and had been beaten senseless in those same liners which I sized too big to ensure ‘adequate circulation’. They were not made for walking, it turned out.
Coming upon the ‘famous’ Sullivan creek bridge, I got a burst of energy recalling the many times it had been repeated to me that from there it was only 11(?) or so miles into Nikolai. The trail was firming up, and staying in some sparsely treed areas, which held back the wind drifts and perhaps some of the sun’s heat, allowing me to ride. I didn’t bother filling up on water from the creek, thinking I would be in Nikolai in less than 2 hrs at the pace I was keeping.
Not a quarter mile past the bridge, I encountered a wee bit of an obstacle….
When she had gotten far enough down the trail, I got back on it and tried to ride. Her tracks were everywhere, and deep. They were unavoidable and each one I hit would cause my back tire to break through the trail and bog down a bit. It felt like ages before it ended, and unfortunately it ended at another treeless swamp, which had me walking.
I passed through groves of birch and another swamp or two before I spotted another sign in the distance.
As I got closer I could see a “2”, and a “miles” and a “Nikolai” and my spirits jumped. I was almost there!
Then as I got closer, I saw that there was something in between the “2” and the “miles”. I don’t recall if it were a “1” or a “0”, but it was attached to the “2” and it broke my heart. 20 miles to Nikolai?!?!? The bridge was supposed to be 11? Did I take a wrong turn? Is the sign wrong? Is “11 miles from the bridge” a cruel joke they play on rookies? These thoughts were cycling over and over through my head as I progressed ever more slowly down the trail.
Eventually, I took the last sip of water from the camelback and was down to one last bottle. I drank it sparingly, not wanting to have to melt any snow. I should have filled up at the bridge. I told myself that once it got down to a certain point, I would have no choice but to use what little was left to start melting more.
Even passing Salmon River camp, which I was told was only 7 miles out of Nikolai didn't remove the doubts that little wooden sign had planted.
Finally that time came, and parked my bike and got to work. The stove did it’s job, melting the snow into water, but it took waaaay too long. Darkness was falling as I filled one bottle to the brim and continued my march.
My will was broken, and my sore feet and stiff legs were begging for rest. I pushed and pushed and pushed. I had no desire to swing my leg over the saddle and ride the few portions that were rideable. Finally, I stopped in a grove of black spruce. I stood still and listened for what must have been ten minutes. I listed for the distant sound of a generator, a plane taking off, dogs barking, snowmachines doing what they do. I listened as carefully as I could, and yet I heard nothing. As I crawled into my sleeping bag in a hole in the snow about 5 feet off the trail, I believed that the sign saying 20 miles to Nikolai was right.
As mentioned earlier, I have a problem with sleeping in when I bivy.
It was only moments after nightfall when I had laid my head down, and now, as I was woken up by the drone of a bush plane TAKING OFF, it was nearly light. I must’ve slept 10 hours or more. I was still a little downtrodden at the notion of another 10+ miles to the next checkpoint, and packed up with no great urgency. The rest did my feet no good. I crossed to the end of one swamp, not ¼ mile of travel, and through some woods to the next. About another ¼ mile across it I encountered a snowmachiner from the village. He stopped and we chatted, and I finally asked him how far it was to Nikolai. He responded that it was maybe another mile or so, tops. My jaw dropped. I stood there in disbelief with yet another reason to kick myself. I had bivied not 2 miles outside of Nikolai. I could have made it without melting that snow, without the bivy.
I jumped on the bike, rode off the swamp, and down onto a slough. Around a couple more bends, and there it was. Right there.
I felt a combination of elation, relief and idiocy. I rode up off the bank of the river and was greeted immediately by my wonderful hosts Nick and Olene Petruska, who, after welcoming me, told me I needed to wait a minute as I had dropped a bag on the river and someone was coming in with it. It was that same bag I had dropped on the first day, of course…
I started to follow them back to the house when I realized that my back end was all over the place. I looked down and laughed at the sight of my flat rear tire, and got off to jog the remaining ¼ mile or so to the house/checkpoint.
It had been an incredibly trying section of trail for me, mentally and physically. I arrived exhausted, but excited to be less than 50 miles from the finish.
Something snaps in the next chapter: http://seansalach.blogspot.com/2009/12/09-alaska-ultrasport-nikolai-to-outer.html