No rest awaited the weary as the fat-tired bikes of the Iditarod Trail Invitational on Tuesday rolled into the remote checkpoint of Rohn deep in the Alaska Range.
Colorado’s Neil Beltchenko, an Invitational rookie, saw to that.
After a long hard trudge over the Alaska Range and down the South Fork Kuskokwim River to the picturesque and historic log cabin that serves as a stop for Iditarod travelers at the confluence of the South Fork and Tatina rivers, Beltchenko paused for only about two and a half hours to eat, drink and relax before hitting the trail again.
He did not leave alone. Defending Invitational champ Tim Berntson from Anchorage was but a minute behind. Two-time champ Jay Petervary gave the duo about 45 minutes, and then he was outbound as well.
Petervary would eventually rejoin the others to form a gang of three from which it is becoming clear the winner of the grueling 2017 Invitational will come.
By the end of day two last year, Berntson was already across the McGrath finish line to join an elite group of riders able to tame the 350-mile Iditarod beast in under 48 hours. This year, he was still a long, hard 135 miles away when the clock struck 48.
Day two came and passed in Rohn as riders continued to battle Mother Nature in what has become a weather-battered push-and-ride, or ride and push, for 350 miles from the roadside community of Knik on the outskirts of Wasilla just north of Anchorage toward the small, isolated Interior community of McGrath, where the first leg of the Invitational ends.
A handful of racers who just can’t get enough will keep going another 650 miles all the way to Nome on the Bering Sea. For these achievements, nobody wins anything but honor, plus possibly the satisfaction of having accomplished what only a few are even brave enough to try.
Wind and snow
“Jay Petervary and Tim Berntson and Neil Beltchenko came in here out of a full-on-ground blizzard,” Invitational trail boss Bill Merchant said by satellite phone from Rohn Tuesday afternoon. “It’s probably blowing steady 20 to 25 (mph), gusting to 30-35 out on the river.”
The wind was swirling so much snow “you could hardly see your hand in front of your face,” Merchant added.
It was unclear whether the snow was falling from the sky, being ripped off the slopes of the towering Teocalli and Terra Cotta mountains that rise above the confluence of the Kuskokwim and Tatina, or some combination of both.
Either way, it didn’t seem to bother the Invitational race leaders.
“All three of them came in here with big grins on their faces,” Merchant said, “and, actually, Neil Beltchenko said, ‘Thank you. This is awesome.'”
Whether the thank you was for the warm rest stop and hot food in Rohn or for the race wasn’t clear. Beltchenko is taking part in his first Alaska winter adventure race, and so far he’s had a real adventure.
The Iditarod Trail had to be diverted away from its normal route over Rainy Pass and down Dalzell Creek because of open water. The trail from the upper Happy River to the alternative Ptarmigan Pass added about 15 miles to the race distance. Much of that distance turned into a fat-tired bike-push through soft snow. The only rest came for a few hours in a sleeping bag pulled out of a handlebar bag and rolled out into the snow high in the Alaska Range.
But the mountain scenery in this part of Alaska is spectacular and the wilderness overwhelming.
What more could a man ask for? And there was more of it ahead.
Into the Burn
The trail out of Rohn quickly led into the Turquoise Lake Burn of 2010 that scorched 91,000 acres along the Kusko. There is now a superb trail there, really more an Idit-a-road, through the hulks of the burned trees courtesy of the Iditarod Trail Committee.
With help with funding from the state of Alaska, the Iditarod Historic Trail Alliance, Cruz Construction Alaska whose owner Dave Cruz is a big Iditarod fan, and Donlin Gold, an Iditarod sponsor, the ITC was able to build a road through the burn in the fall of 2014.
“All trail users will now have a smoother path to travel through the Turquoise Lake fire area, essentially from Rohn to Farewell,” ITC chief executive officer Stan Hooley said in a press release at the time. “An extensive logistical effort over this past fall involved heavy equipment being flown to the Farwell landing strip in a C‐130 (aircraft), 20 miles of stumps being ground, deadfall removed as well as widening of the trail.”
The work came after concerns arose about the lack of snow north of the Alaska Range, where there has often been lack of snow.
“In 2012‐13 there was sufficient snow to conduct the race but each year the trail was deteriorating,” Hooley said. “Last year with the low snow it was determined by the Iditarod Trail Committee Board of Directors that major improvements needed to be completed to ensure the safety of dogs and mushers using the trail.”
The March 2014 dog race through a snow short Alaska Range hadn’t gone so well. There were crashes and busted sleds and people with broken bones. As a result, despite the new and improved trail completed in the fall of the same year and ready for 2015, another shortage of snow sparked a decision to move the once-traditional Willow race restart north to the Interior side of the Alaska Range.
After the ceremonial show in Anchorage, the dog race got underway in earnest in Fairbanks and followed the frozen, snow-covered rivers of the Interior to the Bering Sea coast before turning north for Nome.
Snow conditions were better in the Alaska Range last year, and the race followed its once-traditional route from Willow to Nome. There were still some busted sleds, but they didn’t get talked about as much given an Iditarod gag order on mushers.
This year, the Iditarod moved its restart to back to Fairbanks again. But the dog race left behind a great bike trail on the traditional route.
Racing once more
On that trail, where dust storms were more a concern last year than snow storms, the bikes were rolling again Tuesday. By evening, as the race slipped past Egypt Mountain and out toward a chain of ice-covered ponds scattered north of Farewell Lake, Petervary had rejoined Berntson and Beltchenko to form that lead group of three that looked to have gapped the field.
Anchorage’s Clinton Hodges III was still gamely chasing, but he was more than 10 miles back and now on his own. It is all but impossible for a single rider to close the gap on a group when the psychology of the pack boosts them all to push just a little harder.
Hodges’ old trail mate – six-time Invitational champ Peter Basinger – looked to have given up the chase in favor of a good, long rest in Rohn. There were a half-dozen riders on the trail to join him there as Tuesday evening turned into night.
Ahead on the trail, the weather looked at last to be turning in favor of the leaders. The afternoon winds that had been gusting over 25 mph at the Nikolai airport were down under 10 mph out of the northeast. The cyclists would be quartering into them, but the temperature remained above zero – balmy for February on the north side of the Alaska Range where it can sometimes dip to minus-4o or minus-50.
There was little doubt the leaders would be in the welcoming Athabascan village of Nikolai by morning.