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Friday, May 7, 2010

ITI 2010 (5): Kaltag - Unalakleet portage

Kaltag - Unalakleet Portage 90 miles.  

Again No pics.  This one was taken leaving Unalakleet by B$.




I left Kaltag around 1pm or so not long after Lance Mackey blew straight through to Unalakleet.  He was the first musher to pass me and the start of a whole field of dogs and mushers that would sneak up on me.  I say “sneak” because you can’t hear them.  You only hope the musher yells something. Most, thankfully, did.  I also knew that there would be some serious mushers behind me racing for the lead in an event that actually had prize money.  One time Charlie Boulding (a top musher) was close to Nome and I was next to the trail cheering him in to Nome about 10 miles out and the dogs stopped.  They thought I was a checkpoint.  It was a horrifying experience that I, gratefully, didn’t cause him to lose a place and a few thousand dollars.  Ever since I have given the dogs a wide berth on my snow machine and stay off-trail. 

It worked out really well because most mushers would yell when they came up behind me and I would immediately jump off the bike and pull everything off trail.  In the process usually sink to my knees or waist in snow but still it was efficient.  No one had to slow down or stop on my account.   

The trail out of Kaltag is full of dense trees with a path sliced through them.  I was so anxious to see mountains and scenery I was familiar with that this section felt really long.  In addition, the trail deteriorated to a push.  There was about 6 inches of new snow on top of the base that made riding difficult and lots of pushing.  About 10 miles out of Kaltag the second musher Hans Gatt passed me. Really nice guy. Followed an hour or so later by Jeff King who was a little gruff.  I just kept at it with pushing and grinding. Hopping on the bike. Hopping off the bike.  I found myself constantly looking over my shoulder for mushers and for the Petervary’s. This is definitely where my 65 mm large marges were a pain in the arse.   

The windy trail kept going on and on.  I ran into some snow machiners coming back from Shaktoolik. Wow I still couldn’t believe I was that close to Shaktoolik, a village I am very familiar with.  Earlier this season the iron dog racers were able to travel super fast on the sea ice between Unalakleet and Shaktoolik so I asked them if they were able to do so.  The time could be cut in half if there was a decent trail.  They said they did but there were a lot of leads (open water) they had to water skip.   In addition the trail was about 2-3 miles out if not more.  At least I knew I wasn’t going that route and would stick with the traditional overland  trail.  We chatted briefly then moved on.  I plugged along and night sunk in. The temps dropped yet again to well below -20.  Another night where a cabin is preferable to a cold bivy.

Tripod Cabin
The Tripod flats cabin was a deceivingly long ways but I seemed to be nearing and I looked forward to sleeping.   I made it by 10 or 11 pm.  Hans Gatt was just leaving and had the cabin warmed up already.  It was (IS) a fantastic cabin with 3 beds; a bunk bed and a side bed.  I added some wood and brought in some more, hung my gear and ate a good meal.  When I laid down JP and Tracey had just arrived.  I slept pretty good and wanted about 4 hours rest.  The next few hours, however, was an onslaught of mushers coming in and out.  At one point someone added so much wood the cabin was incredibly hot.  I had to strip down to my bike shorts.  Kind of crazy when it was -30 to -40 out.   I read a race report recently on Sebastian Schnuelle who stated about Tripod cabinI was very disappointed to find the cabin full of Iditabikers without any place to sleep for us mushers.”  Now,  every musher I ran into was awesome, super nice and we seemed to have a mutual respect.  I was sleeping when Sebastian came in but in all fairness it is a BLM public use cabin, JP and Tracy were huddled on one cot together and Aly Zirkle, another top musher, was sleeping above me.  Additionally, I heard Zack Steer come in around 4am and I gave him my spot.  I’m sure from Sebastian’s perspective it was probably frustrating not to have a cot; however in 2005 when he arrived in Nome for his first Iditarod my friend, Mike, hosted him and I was staying there so gave up my bed to him.  I hope that evens things out.  Alaska- the biggest small town. 

Old Woman
I was out the door by 4:30 am and started feeling my engine getting a strange vibration.  Almost like someone shoveled an extra load of coal into a locomotive.  When dawn broke I could see Old Woman mountain.  Oh my God! What a rush.  I could hardly contain myself, Old Woman Cabin was only a few miles away.  I’ve been to Old Woman cabin a few times and it not only reminded me of past trips but I was able to know each part of the trail, each mile, each landmark, each section.  It was a weird and euphoric feeling.  I was also worried about overdoing it.  All I wanted to do was keep going but reason prevailed.  I stopped at Old Woman Cabin, chopped a bunch of wood since most of the kindling and smaller logs were gone.  I started the fire in the woodstove and tried to warm up and dry out yet again.  It was only 17 miles from Tripod but it is hard to pass up a cabin when it’s -30.  I also needed to make a little more water, hot water preferably.  I then found a vacuum sealed bag of lasagna a musher left behind.  Oh that was good, oh so good when I threw it in the boiling water.  Hmmm I was toasty warm, full of food and full of water.  I was ready to get onto the hard packed flats of 30 miles to Unalakleet.  Another WOW moment. Unalakleet, I just couldn’t believe I would be there by evening.  Would any of my friends be there to greet me? Is anyone even following the race? Or know about  it?  As I got ready to leave the cabin, JP and Tracey arrived.  I was so excited about Unalakleet I just wished them luck and kept rolling.  The trail finally firmed up to super hard pack.  The sun was out, it was cold and clear and the trail was fabulous. Just fabulous.

Wind
I turned the corner of Old Woman Mountain and literally vvrrooom!!! An intense wind storm hit.  This meant two things; 1) I had to put on both of my windproof facemasks and 2) I was close to the coast.  This is a spot-on typical coastal windstorm.  This is what I train in all the time.   I glorified in it. I reveled in it.  It was blowing so hard, it had to be up in the higher 30+ mph range and the temp was easily -20.  Something like a -50 windchill.  But man was I pysched.  Unfortunately, the hard packed trail started becoming drifted and then I  had to plow through drifts.  I refused to get off my bike. Simply refused, I just kept riding and riding even slow because the 30 +mph was not just wind but a head wind.  But I knew where I was!  I knew what was around the corner and where the lulls would be, the tree breaks.  The trees fell away after Old Woman and started on more of the tundra openness that I am used to.   I felt great.  All of a sudden a snow machine group stopped.  It was the head of BLM. (I think he said his name was Jim.  He shook my hand and we talked a little. Rather yelled in the wind to each other.  I told them JP and Tracey were behind me and to check on them too.  I’m sure they were fine but without the windproof stuff this wind will simply eat you alive.  I plowed ahead.  About 2 hours later another group of snow machines came up the trail.  I was overwhelmed, it was Jeff Erickson and crew.  He stopped and stood in front of me and the wind.  He is a big guy about a half foot taller and wide as a football player.  He stopped the wind and we hugged each other.  I was speechless to the fact that I was now in territory of people I knew.  We spoke a few words and he was going to Old Woman to watch mushers.  I moved on with new found energy.  I rode another hour and another machine stopped.  It was B$!!! Holy cow! I was wondering what he was doing snow machining in this wind and I almost thought he was checking on me but alas he was checking on  Dee Dee Jonrow.  Also going to Old Woman.  It was still incredible though.  He was going to catch up to me on the way back and we would have hamburgers at Igloo, the local hamburger / arcade hangout.  It was still blowing like crazy and I had about 15 miles to go but only 5 to get onto the river.  

Unalakleet!
About an hour and a half later I was on the river and the wind died.  I started cruising.  It was standup riding the rest of the way to Unalakleet.  About 100 yards from the boat dock B$ passed me on snowmachine super fast.  Scared the heck out of me.  He said he couldn’t believe I almost beat him back to Unalakleet.  We hugged and I told him I would meet him at Igloo.  I rode up the boat ramp and into town. WowWow Wow.  My old home town.  I couldn’t get the smile off my face.  It was 8 pm,  I was totally soaked from the exertion and rolled into the Igloo.  B$ was there and I got two cheesburgers, two fries, two cokes and we sat down to chat.  It was glorious.  I called in Bill and Kathi and told them I made it in.  B$ said he passed the other two bikers at 15 miles out still.  I made a little time and looked forward to a good rest before my last 250 mile push to Nome.  

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