Friday, 28 June 2013

Iditabike camp. Here. Now.

"Are you doing the dog race?" many people had replied, when I mentioned the word 'Iditarod'.
"No, I'll be riding a bike on the trail." I would respond.

Some would understand without explanation. Some would glaze over as they tried to process what a fatbike was. Others shook their heads, thinking I'd been out in the sun too long.

So, why would an Aussie leave the relative comfort of a Queensland summer, to go ride a fatbike in Alaska, mid winter? I had trouble explaining this in 10 words or less when people asked - and it wasn't due to my accent or regular use of rhyming slang.

Well, here via words, pictures and eventually a video type thing, I'm hoping to convey to you what drew me to Alaska. The adventure continues...

We all meet in the carpark of the hotel. Bill and Kathi (Iditarod Trail Invitational race owners and organisers) will be our guides and teachers for the next week, putting us through our paces and testing our mettle.  There were 9 of us, from Costa Rica, France, South Africa, Australia, Canada, Italy as well as continental US. 



Time to get busy loading the truck with expedition-ready fatbikes, cache drop bags etc



Out amongst those mountains is where we were headed. A few hours in the van gave us all a chance for introductions and to share bike adventure stories.



We unload and begin our ride from the iconic Pt MacKenzie general store. The ITI race began here for many years, until fire damaged the store.



Bill did a quick ride briefing, we rechecked our packing and paused for a group photo. It was interesting to see and chat about the setups - some with racks and full panniers, others with lightweight Revelate seatbags and slings. We had little idea from this point on, all of our future expeditions would be gauged on this trip.




We were heading to the other side of the iconic 4,396ft peak called Mt Susitna, 'The Sleeping Lady' as it is also known, was the location of our base camp at Flathorn Lake. These snow roads form a major link to many small communities, via snowmachine and dogsled. It was hard to resist stopping every few kilometres to take snapshots, when you had a vista like this in front.


Our trail wound its way through stands of Spruce and Birch, in a Narnia-like winter wonderland.

 
...and over long straights of frozen marsh/swamp:



My mate Rob drew the short straw and had to carry the beer keg for the group.


Some of the local dogsled teams use this area often for race training, these teams can really hook along at speed and often travel quietly, courtesy is to let them through wherever possible.


To the North-East we had the company of the imposing spire of Mt McKinley, at 20,320ft it is the highest peak in North America.


We hadn't travelled very far along the trail and still had a ways to go. We often paused to soak it all in, take photos, adjust layers. The day rolled on, we settled into a rhythm, finding our own groove on the trail and enjoying the moment.


Bill and Kathi warned us about group mentality and about how it can affect each of us. We all run on different temps and clothing layers, calorie requirements, hydration and rest room breaks - so if you need to stop, you stop. Stopping to adjust your layers, tyre pressure, hydrate or feeding, might mean you'll run more efficiently over the long term, for your own circumstances. With a group mentality you may blindly dig yourself deeper into reserves, beyond which you may not recover quickly enough to replenish and then run depleted. This camp was as much adventure as it was teaching us to learn the very subtle nuances about our own physiology that we may never have experienced before.

 
I was so stoked to be out there.


We dropped down off the rollercoaster and onto the frozen stretch of Flathorn Lake. There were several patches of overflow, the lake ice was covered in only a few inches of loose snow, making it treacherous for us without tyre studs. Fell over a lot. Hubbard.

We got to base camp and Bill showed us our bivvy area. Straight to work stomping out our pad, melting snow for our bottles and setting up bedding.


Pure luxury and totally unexpected - I knew there was a hut at base camp, I pictured it as a small 1 room log cabin - bit of a shock to find a large, self supported cabin.


No K-rations here either. More carbonara? Or would you prefer another prawn cutlet...


I was beginning to feel like I'd missed a turn and got mixed up with some degustation group, but no, Bill and Kathi reassured us over the next week we would appreciate the cabin comforts, as the cold, the exposure and the training started to take effect on our minds and bodies.


 The night rolled on and the stories flowed, about blizzards, 40 below temps, racers postholing their way through feet of fresh snow and the raw, unforgiving landscape. We had bluebird weather today, temps ranged -2C to -15C, low humidity, barely a breath of wind and these conditions were considered by many as mild.  I could only imagine how bad it could get out there, and I'm told that's what breaks people and equipment. I was here to learn, trial equipment, dial in my layers, and to see how I would adapt to the conditions. Yesterday was easy, but I was eagerly looking forward to tomorrow.





Sunday, 2 June 2013

Anchored down in Anchorage

I had a few days in Anchorage to explore, get a few extra items and acclimatise before I left for Iditarod. The snow and ice was a novelty, the cold was strangely enjoyable.



Under the snow was the ice. Under the ice was the road. On top of the snow was the bike, on top of the bike was me. Sometimes, the bike was not on top of the snow, but on top of the ice. Then, with seemingly no provocation, I was on top of the ice - HARD. With my hands in the pogies, they were trapped and you'd go down with the ship - shoulder and hip first hubbard style. There was bound to be plenty of that in the coming weeks...


Followed the Chester Creek trail, a great mix of XC ski, walk and bike trail and the best alternative to mixing it with traffic on the road. First experience with overflow - the pressure of the ice forces the water up through cracks in the ice and snow, the water then flows and refreezes into a slick surface, or it can soften the surrounding ice to slush, making the surface very unpredictable. Overflow is not to be messed with, the ice might be a metre thick, or 3mm thick - and you might have still, icy water, fast flowing water, or a black void beneath. Riding over it without studded tyres is fun though.





The trail is very pretty, winding its way along the creek, through some tunnels, ending down at the Tony Knowles coastal trail. The lagoon is popular for ice skating and fatbike ice crits. I caught up with Billy Koitsch from Arctic Cycles, he has his bike hire stand here each weekend. Billy recently went for a longish ride though the frozen North, read a bit more on that adventure HERE.





Heading along the coastal trail straight into snow showers. The trail flow varies, largely due to the big 9.2 earthquake of '64 that dramatically changed the coastline, Alaska is still active in terms of 'quake activity.


The view NNW over Knik Arm. Normally you'd see the other side to Point MacKenzie, but today the snow showers set in with the wind blowing at 20Kn. Yes, they are ice floes out on the sea.



Anchorage sits at about 61 degrees N latitude, so during winter the sun never rises directly overhead, just travels in a low arc, colours of a sunset can last for hours when it pokes through the cloud - this pic was taken at about 2pm (despite what the camera metafile states, I didn't change the camera timezone).

 

End game today was the Kincaid recreation park - a dedicated multi-use snow park with groomed trails for XC skiers, snowshoers and fatbikers.



Home along the creek trail, the sky was ablaze with light. The Northern Lights activity was at medium, but with snow showers and cloud cover the visibility was zero.

 
I wanted to keep riding through the night, the atmospheric conditions were just perfect.