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The tough guy

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Jeff Oatley rolling up the Iditarod Trail to Nikolai in 2016/Craig Medred photo

For more than 34 days and 1,800 miles from the end of January into March, Jeff Oatley pushed and rode his fat bike ever west and north on the route of the Alaska’s early gold seekers from Skagway at the head of the Inside Passage to Nome on the Bering Sea.

Over the White Pass and on to Whitehorse, Yukon Territory, Canada and the frozen Yukon River, he rode into snow and cold toward 50 degrees below zero as he headed down river to Dawson City where Skookum Jim or George Carmack, history isn’t clear which, in 1896 found the bonanza that sparked the Klondike Gold Rush.

By then, the 47-year-old fat biker was on the recently abandoned trail of the 1,000-mile Yukon Quest International Sled Dog trail from Whitehorse to Fairbanks, so sometimes the trail wasn’t too bad.

He followed it north through the Fortymile country, where the north’s first gold rush predated the Klondike, and then on to Circle City, a focal point for the prospectors who roamed the Yukon country before and after the start of the 20th Century.

It was a busy place then. It is big and empty these days.

“It’s just a whole different country now,” Oatley said. “It used to be pretty lively.”

Mining camps thrived along the river. Men were kept busy in winter cutting timber to stock the wood lots to supply fuel for the sternwheeler riverboats the powered up and down the Yukon and some tributaries in summer. Circle City, so named for the Arctic Circle not far to the north, was dubbed the “Paris of Alaska,” though it never rose to anything near a Parisian standard.

It’s almost all gone today. Circle is no longer a city, but a “census designated place” reported to be home to 100. The nearest community downriver is Eagle, about 160 miles away.  It claims only about 90 residents. 

“It’s reverted back to a natural state,” Oatley said. “It’s sort of the opposite of how the rest of the world goes.”

The same can be said for much of Alaska beyond the urban sprawl of the Anchorage metropolitan area spread across the state’s gut and the cluster of humanity that shivers and thrives around Fairbanks in winter. But one thing hasn’t changed.

Tough guys

Alaska has always attracted a special breed, for better and for worse. The state has seen more than its share of thugs, murders, outlaws and con men. But the tough men of the north are the stuff of legend.

John “Ironman” Johnson. Archdeaon Hudson Stuck.  Harry Karstens. Leonard Seppalla. Emiu, the Eskimo known on the trails as Split the Wind. Walter Harper, the son of a Koyukon Athabascan and an Irishman who became the first man to reach the summit of Denali, North America’s tallest mountain. 

There was a time when the country was full of those like Emiu and Harper and the tough immigrant stock that helped spawn the latter. Stuck wrote about more than a few of them in “10,000 Miles with a Dogsled” in 1914. They were the norm, men so tough they did things most today would not think to attempt.

While at church in Bettles on the edge of the Brooks Range Mountains  in the coldest, darkest, northernmost part of the frozen Interior in winter, Stuck wrote, “there entered an Indian covered with rime, his whole head-gear one mass of white frost, his snow-shoes,  just removed, under his arm, and a beaded moose-skin wallet over his shoulder.

“Every eye was at once turned to him as he beat the frost from his parkee hood and thrust it back, unwrapped fold after fold of the ice-encrusted scarf from his face, and pulled off his mittens. Seeking out an agent, he moved over to him and whispered something in his ear.

“It was plain that the errand was of the moment and the message disturbing, and as I had lost the attention of the congregation and the continuity of my own discourse, I drew things to a close as quickly as I decently could. That Indian had come 75 miles on snowshoes in one run, without stopping at all save to eat two or three times, at a continuous temperature of 50 degrees below zero or lower to bring word that he had found a white man frozen  to death on the tail.

“From the location and description of the dead man, there was no difficulty in identifying him. He was a wood-chopper under contract with the company to cut 100 cords of steamboat wood against next summer’s navigation at a spot about 100 miles below Bettles. He had taken down on the ‘last water’ enough grub for about three months, and was to return to Bettles for Christmas and for fresh supplies. After a day or two’s rest, the Indian was sent back to with instructions to bring the body to a Native village we should visit, to whipsaw lumber for a coffin and dig a grave, and we engaged to give the body a Christian burial.”

Few people in North America today know what it is like to go 75 miles on foot in “one run,” let alone the make the push  on snowshoes, which is an order of magnitude harder or more. And even fewer have known the brutality of minus-50 degrees mercury, a temperature that drags one down both in body and spirit and threatens death if you travel too fast or sweat too much. A young Alaska man appears to have died tragically this winter after working up a sweat trying to free his snowmachine stuck on the trail at 50 below in a remote, remote corner of the state.

To go 75 miles on snowshoes in one run at that temperature? There are not many in Alaska today who could do that.

Oatley is one of that rare breed who could. He is not an imposing man when you meet him. The opposite really. He is smaller than you might expect and stouter for a cyclist who holds the record for pedaling a fat-tired bike 1,000 miles from Knik to Nome in a time of 10 days, 2 hour and 53 minutes. 

Given that his pace beat the winning speed of every Iditarod dog team prior to 1995, you’d expect him to be sled-dog sinewy or scarecrow skinny like a Tour de France climber.  But he’s built more like a miniature rugby player outfitted with a big motor that keeps him going and going and going like the Energizer Bunny.

And then there is the intangible. The part you can’t see. The part that exists only in the mind. The part that enables some people to keep moving when others quit, the part that allows some to push beyond what would seem normal human limits thanks to sheer willpower.

All of  which begs a wonderful metaphysical question of someone who is now back at a desk in Fairbanks having just done what no one in recent times has even dared to attempt:

“Was it hard?”

Relativity

There might be no better time to posit such a question than now, either, with the 49th state’s number one sporting event – the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race – retracing Oatley’s route from Fairbanks, where he left the Quest trail and picked up the newly modified Iditarod Trail, to continue his journey to Nome.

The Iditarod is an event that long ago became synonymous with the word “grueling” and remains so today even as the race has over the years grown both easier and harder,  odd though that might seem.

On the easy side, the trail is better – much better – and the dogs on average faster. Some mushers can run checkpoint to checkpoint never needing to dig their axe or snowshoes out of the dogsled or, for that matter, their sleeping bag.

The sit-down sled has eased the ride physically. Better marked trail has eased the journey psychologically. Faster, simpler systems for cooking dog food have done both, and it is the same for better outerwear.

On the other hand, the race has grown harder – significantly harder – in that it is far more competitive. Drivers are forced to push themselves and their teams more because they must if they are to have any hope of winning. Anyone who has done any kind of endurance racing – running, cycling, swimming – in any sort of serious manner realizes the difference between training pace and racing pace.

The latter is simply more intense.

But hard? Hard is a difficult thing to pin down.There is no doubt the training for Iditarod is hard because you have to do it every day.

Have to.

Serious training in some ways takes over your life. You either become an addict, who can’t do without, or a slave. Burt Bomhoff, a former Iditarod musher, confessed he gave the sport up one night after realizing he couldn’t enjoy a glass of wine with dinner.

The wine might encourage him to kick back and take a night off when, by God, the dogs needed to be run. Bomhoff loved running dogs, but there came a point at which he realized the dogs were running him.

More than one top Iditarod musher has remarked over the years that running the 1,000 mile race to Nome is something of a vacation. It’s the training for the race that is hard. It’s in the doing what you have to do prepare.

Doing what you have to do….

Those six words might best define the hardest things in life, especially when they are things you have to do or need to do but don’t want to do.

Losing weight is hard. Damn hard.

So, too, beating any kind of addiction.

Or overcoming serious emotional setbacks.

Riding a bike 1,800 miles across some of the coldest, wildest country left in North America?

Roller-coaster ride

“Was it hard?” Oatley is asked. His response?

“No. At times.”

Pause.

“At times it’s both.”

Oatley, a civil engineer, is a smart and introspective guy. He’s spent a huge amount of time riding or pushing a bike in wild Alaska. There is a lot of time for thinking when you’re doing that.

Not to get all “meaning of life” here, but a human can get pretty philosophical out there on the trail wondering why they are there, why they keep going, whether they should quit, and more.

“I have those sorts of conversations with myself,”Oatley said. “Sometimes it was hard, and that made it good.”

This, he admits, might sound a little weird to other people. It’s more than a little masochistic. There you are torturing yourself and enjoying it in some strange way. Odd thought it might be, it is a feeling more than a few Alaskans know.

Interview those who have undertaken serious outdoor adventures in Alaska, and they will often come back to something like this: It was hard, but that was good.

By and large, humans are animals now far removed from nature, but a small part of us still thrives on besting the world that shaped the species. There is something invigorating about attacking the barriers thrown up by Mother Nature.

Oatley, who rode the Quest trail last year and has more than once ridden the traditional Iditarod trail north from Knik through McGrath to Ruby on the Yukon, faced his good-bad challenge in the village of Tanana this year.

Bad trail

The 120 miles of trail between there and Ruby is notorious. Little traffic travels the river between the old French-Canadian trading post of Clachotin, now home to about 300 people, and the once thriving gold-mining district and Yukon riverboat stop downriver that has shrunken from a population of 3,000 in the early 1900s to less than 200 today. 

Oatley had hoped to pick up the trail of the Iron Dog, the world’s longest, toughest snowmobile race. But the Iron Dog trail was largely gone by the time he arrived in Tanana. He could read the surface of the windblown Yukon snow and determine where the trail had been, but it was little use for travel.

For 8 miles out of the Interior village, he pushed his bike and trudged before turning to push and trudge back. Not because he couldn’t go on. Oatley has no lack of determination. He could have gone on.

But it would not have been prudent. He didn’t have nearly enough food with him.

Worse yet, he said, “I couldn’t carry enough food.”

The math was simple. At eight miles per day, it would take about 15 days to go from Tanana to Ruby. At a minimum, Oatley would need 2 pounds of food per day, although given the calories he was burning slogging through the snow 3 pounds or more would be better.

Either way, it didn’t matter. Even at 2 pounds, he was looking at 30 pounds of food loaded onto a bike that with his Arctic gear already weighed close to 80 pounds. Pushing a 110-pound load west while postholing through deep snow just wasn’t going to work.

But then he got lucky, or what Oatley would define as lucky. Once back in Tanana, he found a 9-year-old kid willing to loan him a pair of sturdy wooden children’s snowshoes. The snowshoes enabled Oatley to double his pace between Tanana and Ruby. They put the next point of human habitation back within reach.

“Pushing a bike on snowshoes is such a bad idea,” he said, “and I wore them every step of the way to Ruby. That part was brutally hard.”

Luckily (Oatley’s definition of “luck” is a little different from that of most people), the 2-feet deep trench of the Iron Dog trail now buried beneath drifted snow was a handy visual aid to navigation downriver even if it was useless as any sort of aid to the snowshoeing and bike pushing.

And it disappeared some 5- to 8-miles out of Ruby at which point Oatley just gritted his teeth and ground on to reach a stretch of the Iditarod Trail well-marked and regularly traveled between the communities of Ruby, Galena, Koyukuk, Nulato and Kaltag.

Help was on the way, too.

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Heather Best and Jeff Oatley in McGrath/photo courtesy Kathi Merchant

A new lead dog

Heather Best, Oatley’s wife and a fat-tire cycling phenom in her own right, was head out to join him in Kaltag to ride the Bering Sea coast.  Best, who’d already undertaken a 460-mile leg of the ride from Eagle to Manley would, on balance, make the journey a lot easier, but as already noted that hard-easy thing is full of relatives.

“It depends on where your head is,” Oatley said.

At times, he said, when he got tired of pedaling, he could feel a burden lift when Best took up the lead on the trail.

“It was a tangible difference to follow,” he said. “That was immediate stress relief.”

At other times, though, it was the opposite. Alone on the trail, there is no one with whom to deal. You do what you do without discussion.

“The decision-making is more difficult,” Oatley said. “We did have some places where there wasn’t any trail. We did fine,” but there were occasional disagreements.

Best is an experienced wilderness cyclists and a strong-willed one. She clearly made her route-finding opinions known a few times.

Oatley confessed he did have to explain that “hey, I do know a little bit about what I’m doing out here.”

Best herself remembers 770 miles of trail that, in her estimation, “weren’t hard,” but she gets even more philosophical than Oatley about that hard-easy divide.

“I know Jeff’s time on the middle Yukon was very hard,” she texted. “And I think he would categorize it that way, but still acknowledge he was on vacation and it was easier than sitting at his desk at work (which he doesn’t hate) and which most folks would consider to be much easier.”

Which opens a door on a modern-world, hard thing:

Getting up every morning and forcing yourself to go to a job you hate. How many people reading this are caught in that trap? How many have known the freedom of being on the trail where your own decisions and actions, not those of bosses or coworkers, decide the outcomes of your life?

Now ask the question, was it hard?

“There were no days that we couldn’t travel due to weather, and we generally always had a trail to follow,” Best said. “We were mentally and physically prepared for tougher circumstances so it was relatively easy.”

Of course, there was that crossing of the ice of Norton Bay where there was no trail, which sparked a bit of a family discussion about what to do with the village of Koyuk about 25 miles ahead and the village of Shaktoolik 25 miles behind and a vast expanse of nothingness all around.

Oatley decided the thing to do was stop and make lunch.

“It was 15- to 20-below,” he said, “but there was no wind. How often does that happen? We had incredible weather all the way up the coast.”

And therein enters relativity again. When the winds are calm, the Bering Sea coast is one of the most beautiful places on earth. And when the winds howl, as they often do, it can be simply hell.

With a good trail, without wind, you could take any fit fat-biker from Alaska’s urban core and put them on the  35 miles of trail from Unalakleet up through and over the Blueberry Hills to Shaktoolik, and they would describe the ride as not only easy but spectacular.

And with the wind blowing snow sideways, they’d likely describe it as terrifying and quite possibly the hardest thing they’d ever done – if they didn’t just turn around and retreat to the safety of Unalakleet and “Peace on Earth” pizza, a place where it’s easy to take it easy.

And easy, at least in Alaska, might be a lot easier to define than hard.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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1 reply »

  1. Hi, Craig–

    I think you have a typo: Eagle is upriver from Circle. –Tom

    “It’s almost all gone today. Circle is no longer a city, but a “census designated place” reported to be home to 100. The nearest community downriver is Eagle, about 160 miles away. It claims only about 90 residents.”

    Like

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