For two years I wondered if this moment would arrive. The whole ITI up to this point seemed like a preparation for the section to Ophir and Ruby. The edema and recovery followed by a strong feel-good run from Rohn to McGrath. The ride to Takotna was a blur but I recall the trail was not as good as two years ago, there was some wind and some drifts. In Takotna we stopped at the store and the owner let us sit down and eat some of the food we purchased. The weather called for a high pressure system with some serious cold. Typically, a settled high pressure cold is actually good news. This means there will likely be no wind or storms swooping in to cause havoc. The cold both increased my anxiety and shed my somber mood in anticipation of finally the approach to my demon. The Iron dog race and one trapper had been the only traffic in this section all winter and there was a recent snow and wind along the trail the day previous (we heard and found out for ourselves later). When you are dealing with a race so dependant on trail conditions the tiniest change in weather can determine pushing, riding or grinding. Every year I hear someone say “if you were only here yesterday…”, clearly evidenced in the McGrath race this year.
As we left Takotna there is a long 4-5 mile ride uphill that makes one nice and sweaty (and cold) for the rolling hills to Ophir. As darkness fell and the temperature plummeted to -30 I fell deep in thought on the various bivying options, tasks and proper order that must be exercised for an efficient sleep at these temps. Earlier in the race I was riding / pushing to Puntilla when Craig Medred pulled over on snow machine and asked me some questions. Craig was reporting the ITI this year and asked, “what do you think about?” I answered, “nothing but family and food”. Well I kept going back to that question throughout the race because it’s not really true. While I do think about family and food a lot, it’s a much deeper answer that took me a while to formulate. It’s weird how the question stumped me. I couldn’t explain my thoughts away to an ipod or MP3 because I don’t listen to one. The answer was kind of like an episode of my daughter’s Winnie the Pooh, think think think. So aside from family and food I inevitably perseverate and constantly mentally check "functions"- bike function, gear function, body function, bivy function, race function, weather function, trail function, mental function... as the days and sleep deprivation accumulated the thoughts actually became more focused.
Ophir, an Iditarod checkpoint consisting of one privately owned cabin, not part of the ITI. The actual "town" is deserted with a few rundown structures. Two years ago the owner and volunteers of the Ophir checkpoint were setting up for Iditarod when I went through. I was invited inside for a few hours to warm up but it is not something one can count on. As we got closer to Ophir my perseverating thoughts were thrown from an eerie desolate, cold dark cabinless, peopleless, checkpointless 190 miles section to … a party? Yep, this was still four-five days away from the first Iditarod musher and the checkpoint cabin was not only occupied but in full party mode… Mexican Night to be exact.
The folks welcomed us in to the cabin and offered not only excellent Mexican food but a place to stay in one of the tents out back. I was prepared and expecting to bivy out in -30 temps for the next 4-5 days but I certainly was not going to pass up a tent. We woke the next morning rested and on the trail by 7am, day 6. We thanked the checkers for their kindness and went on our way. This section is a complete unknown with absolutely no trail information simply because no one travels through here. One might argue “why don’t you wait till Iditarod goes through…”? If there was no trail, as in 2008, that may prove good advice but there is always a chance the Iron Dog trail could still be good with riding.
After Ophir the trail was basically slow technical riding with drifts and about 2-3 inches of new and deeper blown in snow about 1-2days old. Underneath was a good base so it was a lot of jumping on/off the bike but enough to keep the miles up without significant trench pushing. There was a bit more overflow than I recall and it was a pain to pull out my neos, on and off. My footware this year were Lobbens, a light pressed wool shoe that worked for me in some incredibly cold conditions but overboots were needed for water. About 20 miles after Ophir approaching the Innoko crossing my neos were on and I was going through a small section of ice with a little overflow and inadvertently stepped off trail. Suddenly my left leg punched through snow and was up to my thigh in slushy overflow. Slightly off balance my right leg went through also to the knee and just like that… neos full of water. I was mad at myself, said a few expletives and immediately dumped out the water from the neos and put them back on. I decided to keep it moving and for the next 4 hours organized a plan how to deal with my feet. It wasn’t totally precarious but did require some diligence to resolve. At the best I would put on some fresh socks, sit in my bivy and dry by the campfire. At worst I would wear neos for a few days. The wool in my Lobbens and smartwools still insulated even wet and the neos provided the warmth from the cold temps.… but if I was really lucky a man would mysteriously appear on the trail and show us a new cabin that BLM built. If I was really really lucky the man would have the cabin already heated because he saw us in his ski plane landed on a river and decided to warm it up for us b/c it was supposed to drop to -40. And yes, that is what happened. The pilot happened to be a part of the ITI who just finished placing our drops at Wolf Kill Slough (Cripple Checkpoint) and saw us on the trail. Talk about trail magic.
While I was able to dry out my socks, neos and Lobbens I took the opportunity to switch to Pete’s Patagonia socks he gave me in McGrath. I don’t know what kind of magic were in those socks but I couldn’t believe how damn warm and comfortable they were. Even at -40 and more I was able to keep my feet warm with no heat packs and when I bivied kept my lobbens outside the sleeping bag. I simply put my feet in the cold boots and still was fine at the extreme temps. A couple of times later on when I stopped at villages I was surprised to see ice had formed inside the Lobbens but continued to have warm toasty feet. It seems silly to think socks make that much difference but I’ll never go back to smartwools again.