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


Michael O'Hara said...

Wow... I'm reading your venture in reverse order. From finish to start. Amazing story. It's so intensly interesting to me!

sean said...

Yeah, blogs make it a little weird for reading multiple entries in order....