Coloradoan fat-tire cyclist Neil Beltchenko and others were out in what used to be the Farewell Burn to the north of Alaska Range on Tuesday being reminded of one thing that hasn’t changed in Alaska in hundreds of years:
When the trail be good, travel is easy. But when the trail be bad, travel becomes a miserable grind.
In the classic Alaska book “Ten Thousand Miles with a Dog Sled,” Hudson Stuck, the man who organized the first successful expedition to the summit of Mount Denali, 104 years ago wrote this of his experiences on the snowy trails of Alaska:
“That same day we met a couple of Kobuk youths on their way to the Koyukuk, and they gave us the greatest gift in the power of man to give us – a trail! There is no finer illustration of the natural service of man to man than the meeting of parties going opposite ways across the unbroken snow.
“Each is at once conferring and received the greatest of favours, without loss to himself is heaping benefit on the other; is, it may be – has often been – saving the other, and being himself saved.”
Beltchenko, unfortunately, appeared to be missing the luck of any traveler heading south on the snowy Iditarod as he plodded north.
The leader in the Iditarod Trail Invitational race from Knik, an old port community just north of Anchorage, to the Interior Alaska outpost of McGrath, Beltchenko rolled down out of the Alaska Range early Tuesday morning at speeds approaching 12 mph, according to the satellite tracker attached to his fat bike.
Just before 4 a.m., he pedaled into the Rohn checkpoint outside the Bureau of Land Management’s 12-by-16 foot, log, safety cabin that is the biggest structure for 40 miles around, but he didn’t dawdle long.
Having put 180 miles of trail behind in about 37 hours and with rest of the ITI field gapped, he looked in position to ride away from everybody to claim victory in the 350-mile version of the ITI in McGrath sometime Wednesday.
And then Mother Nature intervened.
“It’s real super windy here,” Stephanie Petruska messaged from Nikolai, “and we got dumped on with snow.”
“There was a foot of new snow when our son broke trail two days ago from the Iditasport Tin Creek checkpoint that our family sponsors,” reported Natalie Baumgartner from McGrath.
Iditasport is another human-powered endurance race that headed up the Iditarod Trail a week before the ITI. Human-powered, adventure sport is a growing winter business in Alaska.
Kevin Murphy, a bike mechanic from Palmer, was blessed by the weather and pedaled the Iditarod to McGrath in a little over three days to win the Iditasport. ITI riders were hoping to go under three days, but then Mother Nature slapped everyone still on the trail.
The back of the Iditasport pack appeared to be just closing in on Nikolai Tuesday night with Beltchenko pushing not far behind.
Since TR Baumgartner broke out the trail from Tin Creek two days ago, his mother added, there’s “another foot plus blowing snow….This is what we have been told. Those are very loose numbers and people exaggerate, (but) quite a lot of snow.
“Racers have been scratching like crazy this year – tough, seasoned racers among them.”
Trudging can break the spirit of even the toughest of competitors. There was a previous year when it got bad enough to beat down Pennsylvania lawyer Tim Hewitt, a legend on the trail. An ultramarathon runner and Iditarod jogger/hiker, Hewitt holds the record for traveling from Knik to Nome on foot.
He covered the 1,000-mile distance along the Iditarod in 19 days, 9 hours and 38 minutes in 2016, taking almost a day off a record he’d earlier set. His new record was 15 hours faster the Dick Wilmarth’s winning time in the first Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race in 1973, and a day and six hours faster than the winning time in the second Iditarod.
Hewitt had the benefit of good trail in 2016. A year earlier, it had been the opposite, and a snowmachine had to be dispatched from Ruby on the Yukon River back into the desolation of Alaska’s old Inland Empire to find Hewitt and his wife, Loreen, and haul them to safety after days of floundering around in deep snow at temperatures of 40- to 50-degrees below zero.
Both suffered some frostbite, and there was thought that might be enough to end Hewitt’s Iditarod obsession. His response was to abandon the futile fat-bike exercise of 2015 and go back to his foot-pounding way north. The result was the course record.
Not bad for a 61-year-old barrister.
And then he came back in 2017 to avenge the fat-bike disaster of 2015 and finally made it Nome on wheels. It took him 18 days, 3 hours and 44 minutes despite what he said was the coldest, continuous conditions he’d ever experienced.
Still, it was his fastest Iditarod, and yet he still isn’t ready to quit.
Both he and Loreen are back on the trail on foot his year. Tim was Tuesday night about halfway between Shell and Finger lakes, near 110 mile, on the trail. Loreen was about 30 miles farther back with a group of Italians.
The trail from Perrin’s Rainy Pass Lodge south past Finger Lake to Shell Lake, Skwentna and eventually Willow sees some snowmachine traffic this time of year to keep the trail open with the Saturday start of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race fast approaching.
At the front
North of the range, it’s a different story. There is more than 100 miles of trail between the Rainy Pass Lodge and Nikolai with no place to stop for fuel or food, and only a couple of safety cabins for shelter.
Parts of the trail can be rough. Temperatures regularly drop well below zero. If a snowmachine breakdowns, getting it to somewhere it can be repaired is no easy task.
The area is not exactly a snowmachine playground and for that reason the Iditarod Trail made of snow packed down atop swamps and lakes and tussock bogs murderous to cross in summer sometimes isn’t much of a trail.
Beltchenko was laboring out there in the dark late Tuesday with Anchorage’s Clinton Hodges III and defending and three-time champ Jay Petervary from Idaho closing in. Beltchenko’s three-and-half hour lead out of Rohn looked to be down to two and a half hours or less.
The bushy bearded Hodges was only about nine miles back along the trail, Petervary another seven behind him.
Meanwhile, on the south side of the Alaska Range, 53-year-old Jussi Karjalainen who’d managed to hang with the lead riders in their 30s all the way to the Rainy Pass Lodge, was back on course after a long, lost detour.
The trail in the area can be confusing, given that the Iron Dog snowmachine race, which went north two weeks ago, uses the Ptarmigan Pass route as does the Iditasport. Karjalainen did get back on course to Rainy Pass, but his race was pretty much over.
He was back in 21st place with a bunch of folks doing the ITI as much for the adventure than for the race, or more for the adventure. And the honor of top European in the field had passed to 43-year-old Norwegian Nina Gassler in eighth.
Gassler is a fatbike guide and fitness trainer in back in Norway, and of the organizers of the Fat Viking, a 150 kilometer race in the Scandinavian country that tries to create its own taste of wilderness in a more developed land.
“The exact route is published in the weeks leading up to the event,” the race’s website says. “The course will not be marked. Racers are responsible for their own navigation.
“The Fat Viking event is meant to be an expedition as much as a race. Participants will hopefully gain experience and learn about backcountry winter travel so that they maybe can take onto the Iditarod Trail Invitational race one day.”
What they will find if they ever make it to Alaska that aside from being snowy and cold and mountainous, it is not at all like Norway. A country only about a fifth the size of Alaska, Norway is honeycombed with 58,000 miles of roadways.
Alaska has 13,000 miles of roads, and a famous historic trail that sometimes disappears beneath the snow for days at a time or sometimes for weeks.