Rohn checkpoint, on the drier, northwestern side of the Alaska Range receives a lot less snow than the Rainy Pass side. However, this was an extremely low snow year, and as I saw the previous night coming out of the Dalzell gorge - I was now riding on bare dirt for the first time on the trail.
I had a pretty good nights rest under the spruce. I picked up my last drop bag, and then spent the better part of 20 mins sorting through my options and what I was leaving behind - there was a lot. Naturally the Bonk Breakers came with me, cherished food they are.
This is the man himself - Bill Merchant. Stories about him are legendary, all well earned. Out of all the internet memes - this is the ONLY Bill you want to be like. You gotta listen to this man, no matter how much of a hotshot you think you are, but you gotta be wise too - he'll throw you some coded messages that you must decipher (remember when it was only 3 miles off the river to Skwentna?). We all love this guy and deeply respect him.
Leave the checkpoint and it's straight back onto the Kuskokwim River. I still didn't have enough trust in the ice, but the experience and confidence grows with each passing metre...
...and your stress levels rise until your adrenal gland can pump no more! Damn I hated that bronde beard.
I caught up with my buddy Jim at Rohn, we set off together down the river for a bit, until he discovered he left his camelbak at the checkpoint.
I had the icy, muddy trail to myself.
I left an offering for Jim to enjoy on his way back to the trail, one of my prized Espresso Choc Chip Bonk Breakers. Sharing is caring.
Out to the Farewell Lakes - an absolute maze of trails and lake crossings, with all kinds of routes out there that can mess you up.
TECH TIP - Navigation. Some people use GPS plots to nav the trail, but these can sometimes heavily conflict with ground intel. The trail is cut in each year by local blazers, and may deviate around rotten ice or overflow, or for other reasons, will be different to GPS plot from previous years. I like to use a wide variety of tools for nav - easy fave is the compass (won't freeze, no batteries required, light and compact) homemade notepad and 2b pencil (always works, no matter how cold, for writing nav notes and compass bearings in low visibility conditions) and a high quality 8x21 spotting monoscope (brilliant tool for spotting yellow reflective trail markers and other ground markers way off in the distance). Each item gets tethered to the bike, stored in a small pouch just above the stem (in other images you may see the thermometer sitting on top of this pouch) for quick access and stowage.
Off the lakes and into the the next section, colloquially known as 'the burn'. Farewell is a community not far from here, and the Farewell Burn is a large area of native forest that burnt over a million acres, the forest has barely recovered due to the seasonal freeze/thaw cycle and poor soil quality. Now deep into the Alaskan interior, temps here can plummet to -40C and beyond, the burn also has the power to induce hallucinations in sleep deprived racers.
This is also the start of the tussock. When you see tussock, you're gonna have a bad time.
But friends and humour make things bearable. While I was taking a photo, Adam, Mike and Jim rocked up behind me. Adam had the unenviable duty of carrying the 'torch' to the next checkpoint.
Thin white line.
Mike and Adam charged on ahead, a short while later the atmosphere turned dark and heavy, as if by some Tolkienesque force, the burn knew it had company.
There are some rolling hills, some gentle climbs, some short gut busters with an icy chute down the centre. Jim was telling me about some of the 'codes' you will see on the trail, used by hunters to indicate there is a trap nearby. Take heed of the warning! They may put a dog boot/cover, or a piece of fabric on a tree, or on a stick next to the trail. The snares they use are very sharp, can easily take off a finger or two. Jim also told me about the bushes next to the trail - many of these are wild berries of all varieties, laden with fruit and ready for picking when the warmer seasons arrive. I also kept looking for a lamppost.
I paired up with Jim as we were riding at pretty much the same speed - my right knee was not settling down, no matter how much vitamin 'I' (Ibuprofen) I dosed. I was having trouble bending it and the inflammation was increasing. The goal was to get to Bear Creek cabin for the night - it was only .9 of a mile off the trail. But that was .9 mile of tussock nightmare, it took us 45 minutes of pushin', carryin' and cussin' our way to the cabin.
It was very late when we got in, my mate Lars was there trying to get comfy on some blocks of hard foam (he'd left his foam pad at Rainy Pass, remember?). We got the stove going and the fire stoked, got a bit of dinner into us, then racked out.
About 2am Peter Ripmaster (ultra-runner) staggered into the cabin, looking totally spent - sweating, with icicles all over his headgear. I was in AWE of Petes stamina and mental strength - this guy knew how to suffer and leave everything on the trail. I boiled up some water for him, he unpacked his sled and racked up in the mezzanine of the cabin. He tore his sleeping bag on a rough piece of timber, downy snow rained inside the cabin. I had some tenacious tape in my repair kit, we taped it up as a temp repair and we all finally got back to sleep.