Iditarod thoughts 2006 by Adam Bartlett

It’s taken me a while to go through my photos and write this up. All I remember about this year’s Iditarod Trail Invitational is the 20 hours between Puntilla and Rohn. I remember the pass with bits and pieces of memories before and after the pass.

Here’s what happened before the pass.

At the start we, the racers, had fresh snow. The cyclists pushed across Knik Lake but once we hit the trees everyone was off and pedaling. The trail was good, firm and fun. The trip up river to Luce’s was quick. At Luce’s I ate, put on some warm clothes, and then headed up river. The river felt unusually cold. Even though the drinking tube from my camelback was nestled in my clothes next to my body, it froze solid. This part of my ride was uneventful, but cold. I took a 4 hour detour but lots of folks took wrong turns in this part of the race so it all worked out. It just threw off my early rest cycle a bit.

The next checkpoint was Skwentna Roadhouse. I got to Skwentna, had breakfast with some snowmachiners, dried my gear, laid down for a little bit and then left as the next group of racers came into the checkpoint.


Skwentna to Fingerlake was a highway. The Shell Hills rolled away. And the trail from Shell to Finger Lake was hard and fast. Last year I walked this section. It took forever. This year the good trail made me want to ride faster and faster. I don’t think I walked an inch this year. It wasn’t just good it was self perpetuating. Every bit I rode made me want to ride the next bit, every time I went a little faster, it made me want more. It was good. It was fast. I got to Finger Lake Lodge had a great meal, slept and then overslept.

As I left Finger Lake, headed to the next checkpoint Rainy Pass Lodge at Puntilla Lake. The combination of oversleeping and wasting 4 hours in the beginning of the race started to get me down. I made up as much time as I could by riding hills that I would normally walk. Again the trail rolled away fast and easy. Eventually I realized that in a race like this there are far, far worse things than oversleeping. Was I really upset about getting too much rest? Is it even possible to get too much rest on the Iditarod Trail? I had made a conscious effort to put these thoughts out of my mind. It was a nice day,  sunny and hard trails, so I enjoyed it. I didn’t want to get bogged down in random mental detritus.

Last year, between Finger Lake and Puntilla, I found a Fig Newton, just lying in the trail. I picked it up, popped it in my mouth and ate it before I could think. What’s a Fig Newton doing lying in the trail?  Am I sure that’s a Fig Newton? The year before  I had found an unopened can of beer and an unopened bottle of Yukon Jack on the side of the trail in the Susitna 100. I thought about that Fig Newton and kept an eye out for other bits of trail food.

I got to Rainy Pass Lodge, took a brief stop, which became progressively less brief after I gave in to the “temptation of the checkpoint”. That is I got chatting with other racers as they came in instead of heading out the door. I left for Rainy Pass at midnight, in a storm.

Here’s what happened on the pass.

The first bit of the approach to the pass is mindless. All you have to do is follow these huge tripod markers. You can’t miss it. Unless of course, there is cold wind blowing and the trail is drifted in, then anything can happen. The wind picked up and beat me like Ike beat Tina. I couldn’t always see the trail but I knew when I was off it because I would sink up to my thigh, or hips. I spent a good amount of time route finding, wallowing and wandering. The wind got harder and colder. When I stumbled it knocked me down. There was no where to stop. But I felt good, so I didn’t need to stop and I didn’t want to stop. The cold was amazing. In fact the wind didn’t even feel cold it felt hot and would burn any exposed skin like fire.


During the pass crossing I thought about Bill Bryson. In my first draft of this account I put a long section here about my thoughts. But, I think all that needs to be said is that Bill’s suicide hit me like a punch in the face and I think about him whenever I’m alone and things are quiet, which isn’t often. There were lots of quiet alone times on the pass. In the end, what I took from all this is to always enjoy everything, even if I have to stop and consciously think What is good and fun here? Some people don’t enjoy much and the world has no mercy on these people, it just closes in and crushes them. Here is a web link to an ADN story about Bill, if you are curious about who he was.
 http://www.adn.com/news/alaska/story…-7264604c.html

The actual pass went by quickly. I snapped a few pictures and started heading down the back side. I wanted to cover as much ground as I could before I lost the daylight.

Once I started down I felt a little tired and I relaxed a bit, sort of like I’d just stepped off a roller coaster. Then I came to the spot where an avalanche swallowed Richard Strick on February 14, 2006. The spot is marked with a moderately sized cross made of sticks lashed together with parachute chord. The arms of the cross have Strick’s name and dates written on the bare wood with a sharpie marker. The head of the cross reads “Big Rock Candy Mountain”. There’s a button with a picture of the Rohn Roadhouse in the middle. The cross is on the left edge of the trail. All around are avalanche debris and the obvious signs of a search. It was overwhelming.

Eventually I made it down to the flat lands and started rolling the last miles toward Rohn. The sunset did its thing and the weather turned dark and cold. Coming into Rohn was relatively uneventful. I dunked my bike, feet and gear in a slushy creek crossing and froze the rear derailleur into my lowest gear. I noticed that the slushy water froze before soaking into my pants or shoes.

I can’t really describe how special crossing Rainy Pass during a storm in the middle of the night was for me. It was magical. A few years ago when I started doing things like this, with the Soggy Bottom 100, I was describing the experience to some friends. Now these friends are east coast artsy types who “feel” things when they experience art, music or nature. They are good and special friends of mine, but over the years our lives have charted different courses. Back in the day I always had a unique capacity for making jokes during the most serious and serene of moments. I never quite “got it” when everyone else would “feel” stuff. In trying to describe being alone and exhausted in the wilderness to these guys I called the experience a “spiritual jackhammer”. In other words “I get it now” but it took a lot. Being out there alone in extreme conditions makes me take life, myself and my place in the world seriously. It quiets all the noise and lets me think, focus and relax. My mind wanders and thinks big thoughts out there. The kind of thoughts that could either be a gift or a burden if you thought them everyday. In fact if a person was in this mindset every day they would, move to the south of France and paint sunflowers, or move somewhere secluded in New England and write poetry about falling snow or if all else failed they could go hang with my buddies in New York. It’s special out there and it’s magic and I can’t tell you about it because I’m not able to put the words together.

And here’s what happened after the pass.

After the pass I had done all my deep thinking for the year and I was now able to get back to focusing on making  jokes.
Two bicyclists Pierre Ostor and Rok Kovac came in a few hours behind me despite starting almost 8 hours after I did. I slept good and hard that night.
Rohn was cold. The next morning I stayed in my bag and waited for it to “warm up” to 18 below before trying to move out. In Rohn I heard about all the racers dropping out, so I rode much more conservatively from there on. I made sure to sleep and eat as much as I needed to keep myself strong and motivated. I also picked up two traveling companions in Pierre and Rok. It was good to have a couple other folks to decompress with at the checkpoints and to chat with from time to time, on the trail.
I spend most of my time training alone, riding the tail alone, camping alone, or just mindlessly riding the trainer in front of the TV (alone). I spend alone time in my cluttered garage, or “man cave” as my wife calls it, looking at tools and fiddling with gear. I think it’s this way for a lot of the racers. This year there were about 40 racers from 10 different countries. I imagine we all had similar experiences preparing for the race, and explaining why this stuff is fun to our friends and families, then POW on February 25 we find ourselves on a trail with 40 other folks who think this sort of fun is a good idea. You just can’t shut us up sometimes. All of us solitary caterpillars turn into social butterflies when the race starts. Racing butterflies.

Anyway I don’t know what to say about the Farewell Burn. It’s flat, except for the hills and generally open except for the bits in the trees. It’s just there and we all moved through it. I let my mind wander during this stretch then I started thinking about food. After that I got the song “Squeeze me Macaroni” by Mr. Bungle stuck in my head. Then “Egg” by the same band. I was hungry and for better or worse I had hit the “weird food songs” button on my mind’s jukebox.
In Nikolai I had a big dinner a good night’s sleep and a big breakfast, then I pushed my bike the last 50 miles to McGrath. In the last 10 miles I wanted to quit, but I didn’t. It was good.

 

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