2010 Iditarod Trail Invitational
FinnBear Lake to Pass Lake
I hadn’t been inside long when Craig pulled up. He had pressed on after the next group of riders had come through. I relaxed inside for longer than expected, drying out and refueling/refilling. It wasn’t until I looked out the window and saw Brij approach the cutoff trail, then press on straight past it, that I felt a sense of urgency to leave. I had been there over an hour at that point. Time had kind of flown by chatting with Mike, Ingrid and Craig. I refilled my water bladder one more time with the delicious spring water, and hustled out the door. As Craig and Mike walked down the shoveled out path to Craig’s machine, Mike looks at his track and says, in a half shocked/half disapproving way, “Oh you DO have a paddle track on there?!”. Craig again expressed his regret, relaying that it was the only machine(rental I guess) he could get a hold of, and that he himself doesn’t like people on his local trails with paddle tracks.
I know it sounds like I’m complaining/venting/harping on Craig here, and I am. But I do understand that “It is what it is.” Craig wasn’t out there trying to maliciously destroy the trail for us. He was just out there. All of the racers had to deal with it, not just me. The trail sucked only partly because of him. The warm temps and fresh snow were just as much to blame. It was just much easier at the time for (many of) us to direct our disappointment in the trail conditions toward him. Last year I had Marco Costa’s support crew ride back and forth in front of me a few times on the stretch from Shell Lake to Puntilla with paddle tracks, doing the same thing. So it could just as easily have been anyone else out there chewing up the trail. Dealing with trail conditions is part of the race.
So, anyway, I marched along the ‘outbound’ cutoff trail to try and catch up to Brij. I was concerned about his unfair abilities to levitate over the soft snow, and was still in race mode, so I wanted to get ahead of him on the coming uphill push. When I got to the end of the lake, Craig came past. I looked back and could see the rest of the group turning down the cutoff toward Mike and Ingrid’s. I was happy both that the rookies in that group would get to know Mike and Ingrid, and that the only racer I would have to worry about for the next few miles would be Brij.
I caught him up a quarter mile or so up the hill. We chatted briefly about how evil Craig is and then parted ways. As I climbed in elevation, the trail started to become more and more rideable. The downhills were no longer sketchy, and some of the flats could be pedaled as well. I sort of dreaded the long group of meadows approaching the checkpoint. They had been a slog the previous year.
When I dropped down the last steep pitch onto the first meadow, I was greeted with flat light on a windswept expanse. I could hardly see the trail markers, let alone the actual trail. Every now and then it would pop up out of the drifts though to let me know I was on the right track.
I knew I would be on meadows until I passed the first of the two big humps that reside on either side of Puntilla Lake. I also knew that if Brij was going to catch me before the checkpoint, it would be on this stretch. There’s a lot of gradual inclines here that are just ‘steep’ enough when the snow is soft to make me walk them with the single speed. I felt better than last year though, and seeing the familiar landmarks along this section of trail made me feel even better. Once out of the meadows, nearly everything was rideable right up to the Lake itself, which was intermittently punchy, so I just walked it.
I added my bike to the lineup of Phil, Lou, Eric and Dave’s outside, and entered through that familiar door. I was determined not to stay long. I had been at Puntilla essentially for 2 ½ days in 09. I had knocked down some demons last year here, and it was time to finally knock ‘em out for good. Dan McDonough was our checker, and I had run into him a few months earlier in our local park. It took my tired mind a few minutes to recall the meeting though. Steven, one of the Perrins boys came in and we had a brief chat about last year. Then the floodgates opened. Either the trail had firmed up behind myself and the group I left Finger Lake right in front of, or the next group of Europeans had mounted a formidable charge, because 10 more riders stormed the checkpoint behind me. I was planning on setting out at midnight. Phil was planning on leaving at 10ish. I got no sleep in the hustle of the incoming racers. It was snowing and blowing, and Craig decided to head out and try to make it to Rohn so that we would have a trail to follow. I was pretty happy about that, because when the snow is whipping around up above treeline there, the markers can be very difficult to find.
Phil got up and out of there around 10:30. He wasn’t gone 45 minutes when Craig came back. He couldn’t find the trail or see the markers. He said the two riders that had headed out were bivying. Lou and Eric had gotten up as well, and were planning on departing around midnight. I figured we would all leave together, but they were a little bit longer getting setup than I was. If the trail was that bad, it wouldn’t matter anyway, they would soon catch up.
I set out in the darkness, passing Tim Stern in his comfortable looking bivy just off the lake. The trail really wasn’t that bad for the first few miles. Once it climbed up out of the basin, truly breaking the treeline, it became significantly more windswept, and in places I couldn’t see Phil’s tracks. I was just going from patch of ‘disturbed’ snow to patch of disturbed snow, wading through ankle to knee deep wind drifts in between.
After climbing steadily for a bit, the trail dropped into a sump where the blowing snow conveniently settled and accumulated. The wind was non-existent down there, and I could see Phil’s tracks pretty easily. Unfortunately, I could see that his tracks were zigging, zagging, branching off, and occasionally walking in circles. I found it best to just split the difference, and take the most central line through his wanderings. A couple of hundred yards up the rise out of the sump and I caught up to him. It was now that I would get my real intro to breaking trail, as we took turns in the lead, trying desperately to stay on the hardpacked trail that was somewhere under the drifted in snow. We had made it maybe half a mile before we saw Lou and Eric’s headlamps descending into the sump. We talked about bivying till daylight, when we would more easily be able to see the tripod trail markers, and both agreed that the place to do it would be back in the willows at the bottom of the sump. It was pretty discouraging not being able to see any sign of the trail in the darkness.
Lou and Eric were determined to press on at a steady pace though, and with 4 of us out there, the trail finding should be a lot easier. We pushed back up to where Phil and I had turned around, the last sign of any kind of trail. Without our bikes, we all fanned out in different directions till one of us found the trail. We would continue this for a few more hours till Craig came by. Apparently I wasn’t the only one to have said something to him about his tracks, as he made some borderline snide comments to Lou. Up untill then, his humor and demeanor had been pretty standard, jaded east coast sarcasm, which I appreciated, but his words seemed a little more along the lines of picking on her at that point. Maybe he was tired. I dunno. I don’t think it was appropriate though.
I had apparently falsely assumed he knew his way along the tripods fairly well, and was hopeful as he sped off up the trail. Until his lights stop and his headlamp begin searching broadly from side to side, then cutting hard right and doing the same again. I found it humorous. Visibility was pretty low though, and would only be lower when traveling with any kind of speed. It wasn’t long before we found ourselves postholing in his tracks, clearly way off the actual trail. At one point we found ourselves on the south sideslope of a hill, a situation which I definitely did not remember from 09. We were getting kind of frustrated at this point, as it was easier when we were finding the trail ourselves. I left my bike and marched up to the top of the slope to find a trail marker tripod, and the trail itself, about 50 yards from where we had been struggling along. We all made our way up to it and our spirits lifted a bit.
The bad news was that when Craig had passed us he told us that the next, large group of racers weren’t that far behind us. We had been putting out quite a bit of effort at this point, and I was getting worried that they would have a much easier time, and would eventually swallow us up.
At one point Craig dropped down into the next sump, waaay off the trail. The snow through here was waist deep in places, and his track led us directly through a bunch of willows. When we broke through to the other side, with daylight upon us, and found the firm trail, it was time for breakfast.
The next mile or so involved a bit of postholing, but not too much, till we finally reconnected with the trail that had been set in by Bill and Rob, the trailbreakers for our race. From there it was a push, but on trail the entire way, and was much easier than the night’s travels had been. Phil stopped at one point to tend to his feet, and told us to press on without him. Lou, Eric and myself told stories and chatted to pass the time as we pushed, and occasionally carried, our bikes across open water and up the toboggan run to Pass Lake.
A blue sky shone down on us for about a half hour as we entered the mouth of the pass.
Looking back from where we stopped for somewhat of a short ‘lunch’ break, Phil was nowhere in sight.