2007 Alaska Ultrasport Submitted by Pete Basinger
I've been fortunate to be able to compete in the Iditasport and Alaska Ultrasport for the last 13 years. This is a write up from 2007.
Racers of all types gathered around the small parking lot at the Knik Bar in Knik (pronounced k'nick), Alaska. Skiers, runners, and bikers donned a colorful array of spandex, fleece, and nylon. The Alaska Ultrasport attracts experienced adventure athletes and clueless novices from around the world. The race roster is filled with names from the U.K, Italy, Slovenia, and the Netherlands. Surprisingly, year after year, only a small number of Alaskans make it to the start line.
Every year the race to McGrath on the historic Iditarod Trail has new challenges – extreme cold, fresh snow, soft trails, overflow, or no trail. No two years are alike. During this particular race in 2007, bikers were able to ride much of the trail. Walkers and skiers are far less fazed by changes in trail conditions. Their choice of transportation allows them to maintain a more consistent rate of speed over a wider range of trail conditions. Bikes, on the other hand, are only useful on a limited range of trail conditions. A few inches of the right kind of snow or a soft punchy base, and bikers are reduced to pushing. Pushing a bike is awkward and uncomfortable, especially when done for hours on end. It is not uncommon for a biker to push his bike for 100 miles or more during any given year on the 350 miles trip through the Alaska Range to McGrath. At an average speed of 2.5 miles per hour it’s hard to imagine that bikes are the faster mode of travel, but in the race’s 15 year history, bikes have won all but 1 year. Over the course of the 350 mile route, conditions prove favorable enough at some point that it doesn't take long for bikers to make up any time they lost pushing.
At 2 in the afternoon Sunday February 25th racers shot off the start line at Knik Lake and enjoyed fast trail conditions. The trail begins by traversing remote subdivisions scattered with cabins and mushers’ kennels on the far edge of Wasilla. Before long it’s dark and racers work their way down the Big Susitna, the Yentna, then Skwetna Rivers, pedaling through the dark. Temperatures at night on the river dip into the minus 20s.
While riding and staring at the small section of trail illuminated by my headlamp, I like to pay close attention to the snow. I scan it for the tracks left behind by other racers. Out on the trail, it’s easy to lose track of where you are relative to the other racers. Watching the tracks in the snow allows me to formulate a story about what is going on down the trail. If the trail is firm and I see footprints adjacent to the tire tracks, I know the riders up ahead have cold feet and are walking to stay warm. If tire tracks waver from left to right, I know the racer up ahead is sleepy and struggling to stay awake. Dark yellow urine stains, puddles of frozen vomit, or simply areas of scattered footprints all tell a story of what’s happening down the trail.
Around midnight, soon after finding my way through the maze of trails leaving Skwetna Roadhouse, I passed the two racers from Fairbanks - Jeff and Rocky. They were in the lead up until this point. The steep trail leading up to Shell Lake was in great shape and I was surprised to find much of it rideable. Sometime around 3 am I made it to the checkpoint at Shell Lake Lodge and stopped just long enough to warm up and eat a frozen Milky Way bar in the dark lodge. 20 minutes passed quickly because I dosed off chewing. When I left the lodge, I could see the headlights of the Fairbanks riders on the far end of the lake. They were less than 10 minutes behind me. I grabbed my bike and rode off, careful not to turn on my light until I was well out of sight.
From Shell Lake the trail to Finger Lake winds all over the place and crosses countless small lakes, swamps and sloughs. Sometimes this section of trail feels interminable, especially when there is a great deal of walking. This year it went by fast and I reached Finger Lake Lodge before the sun was up. I stopped in for breakfast and a few cups of coffee before leaving for the next checkpoint, Puntilla Lake Lodge at the base of Rainy Pass. This section of trail has taken me nearly 30 hours to complete in past years, but the trail remained firm and fast. The Happy River Steps are a series of steep windy downhills that can cause a lot of problems for a dog team, but only make the trail more fun on a bike. By 2 pm I reached Puntilla Lake Lodge.
While stripping off wet layers and cramming pilot bread and Tang in my mouth, the checker at Puntilla explained the situation with the upcoming section of trail. The trail to Rainy Pass had not been 'put in'. All the previous snow machine traffic had been forced to take the longer route over Ptarmigan. 3 out of the 5 years I've gone over Rainy Pass I had to find my own way or break trail for part or all of the section through Rainy Pass and down the Dalzell Gorge, so I wasn't all that surprised at the news. Nobody had been through Rainy Pass over the past few weeks because low snowfall has left exposed a thick wall of alders that made passage extremely difficult. It wasn't clear how long I'd have to battle through alders or how deep the snow would be so it was hard to know what to expect. The alternative was to take the Ptarmigan Pass Trail and addan extra 35 miles to the next checkpoint of Rohn. There were reports that Ptarmigan was firm and well established so I hoped to ride the extra 35 miles instead of walking, pushing, and carrying my bike through the much shorter route over Rainy Pass. Slow to make a decision and expecting conditions to
Upon waking 2 hours later I was told there was still no progress by the trail-breakers in getting over the Pass. I decided to just go for it. If It was possible to go through Rainy Pass I would go that direction because I was familiar with it. If not, I’d follow the trail through Ptarmagin Pass and Hells Gate.
I left the Puntilla Lake checkpoint in the dark feeling very uncertain about what I would encounter ahead. Within a few hours I reached the point in the trail where it splits. Left goes up through Ptarmagin, right goes to Rainy Pass. The Rainy Pass trail was nonexistent so I went left up towards Ptarmagin Pass. Easy decision. The trail turned out to be excellent, but harsh blowing snow conditions made me nervous about venturing down an unknown trail (in the middle of the night) hours and miles in either direction from another checkpoint. Snow continued blasting throughout the night, but I was able to follow the quickly disappearing trail until the early morning when somewhere along the South Fork of the Kuskokwim River I lost it completely. As luck would have it, the trail breakers for our race had lost the trail at this same point and were camped out on the bank of the river. It was now early morning and the sun was just starting to come up. I laid down in my sleeping bag while the trail breakers went ahead, now able to cut a fresh trail in the daylight. After 2 hours of much needed sleep I started down the trail once again. A few areas of overflow and some sections of soft trail made the 7 miles into Rhone slow going but I arrived before noon.
In Rhone I was graciously taken care of by the Iditarod checker named Jasper who spends a few weeks each year out on the trail during the Alaska Ultrasport and Iditarod Sled Dog Race. After an hour of hot tea, plate after plate of pancakes, and a few minutes of rest, I was ready to leave at 1:15 in the afternoon. The next 90 miles are commonly referred to as the Farewell Burn which involve
s several hours of riding or pushing up steep bare dirt hills, navigating lake crossings, and climbing up a "glacier". Once out of Rhone and on the trail, I realized it would be slow going for a while. There had been little snow on this area of the trail. But the previous night between 3 and 6 inches of light fluffy snow fell on top of the frozen dirt base. The result was a 3 foot wide trail cut into the ground several inches and filled with light snow. Hidden underneath the snow was an off camber surface littered with tussocks, rocks, and icy snowmobile tracks that grabbed my front tire unexpectedly and threw me to the ground. Over and over I fell off the bike, sliding in every direction. Or I was launched over the bars when the front wheel stopped on an obstacle under the snow. I smacked my knee on the ground several times and then on my bike stem. After a few hours of this I was bruised and sore.
By 10:30 pm I reached Buffalo Camp. Composed of several wall tents, this is a private camp operated by a family from the village of Nikolai. Usually there are a few people at the camp working as hunting guides for buffalo hunters, but this year it was empty. The previous year I arrived here with Jeff and Rocky and we spent several hours stoking the drafty stove, eating and melting snow for water. This year Jeff and Rocky were nowhere to be seen, I had plenty of water and it was warm enough that I didn’t think it was necessary to consume wood for a fire. I pulled out my sleeping bag and got 2 hours of rest before waking up and heading back down the trail. As often happened, the temperature had dropped significantly since I arrived at Buffalo Camp a few hours earlier. I worked my way down the remaining 40 miles of desolate trail to the village of Nikolai the temperature dropped to the minus 30s. By 3 or 4 in the morning I was struggling to stay awake and, despite a firm trail, I chose to walk because it’s easier to doze off walking and still remain upright than riding. A few hours before reaching Nikolai I was out of water and still struggling to stay awake. At this point I was becoming concerned that I had pushed myself a little too far. Tired and without water I was starting to fall apart. Well into the minus 30s, on a trail that may not see another person for a day or two, I was not in a good situation. Stopping to bivy was an option, but it was cold enough I didn’t expect I would get much sleep. Plus, when I woke up I would still be out of water and not closer to Nikolai. I continued to trudge on while drifting in and out of sleep. When the sun cam up around 8 am I started to wake up and began riding again.
By 10 am Tuesday, just shy of 3 days into the race, I rode through the streets of Nikolai and reached the next checkpoint, the Patruski's house. Nick and Olene Patruski are grandparents. They live in a small home that reaches its zenith when crowds of stinky racers pile in once every year. I quickly hung my wet clothes all over their living room and then lay down on the bed. Surprisingly, I didn't sleep all that well. My frozen and windblown face swelled to a bright glowing red as the warm air took its effect. I got up after two hours, had some more food, put on my clothes that were still slightly damp, chatted with Nick and Olene some more, and then wished them well until next year. I packed up the bike to the background noise of barking dogs, racing snow machine engines, and screaming kids. Believe it or not, it was refreshing to get back in the cold air and give my burning head a chance to cool off. The 10 degree temperature felt spring-like. By 2 in the afternoon I was on the bike, in the big ring, and cruising out of Nikolai, determined to hit McGrath before 8 pm to stay under the current course record time.
It’s easy to allow yourself to think the last 50 miles into McGrath are the home stretch, but more often than not this section can take a day or more. This year, though, the conditions were ideal and allowed me to average a very fast speed. I was still sleep deprived and a little dehydrated from the last few hours of struggling into Nikolai without water. The trail to McGrath follows a number of small creeks and crosses swamps until it begins hopping on and off the Kuskokwim River. The points at which it follows the river have always been difficult for me. Typically the wind blows with great force and soft snow covers the trail, but today the wind was tame and the trail remained firm. I stopped from time to time to down some water and cram a cookie or candy bar in my mouth. Finally I crossed the last section of river and followed the trail up into the trees. From that point it’s only 10 miles to McGrath and the trail winds through the woods and occasionally forks and splits where locals have made trails to favorite wood cutting spots. Finally it spills onto the plowed road that leads into McGrath. At 7:40 pm I made it to the finish in McGrath, the home of Tracey and Peter Schneiderheinze. After a little over 3 days, 350 miles, and roughly 10 hours of sleep, I sat down on the floor of Peter and Tracey’s living room, drank a mug of tea, and promptly fell asleep.