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Alaska difference

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An iced over Scott Hoberg after winning the Tuscobia Winter Ultra in Wisconsin in 2017

Interior Alaska-normal settled on an endurance race in northern Minnesota last week and almost overnight “Bold North,” the wannabe region that never was, stole some of the cachet of the true north.

National media was all over the cold bold:

The temperature, it should be noted, never actually hit minus-58. This was International Falls, Minn., not Fairbanks. The temperature was closer to minus-38 than minus-58. The minus-58 was the wind chill temperature, or the “feels like” temperature or “real feel” temperature as it sometimes now called.

Whatever it is, it applies only to exposed skin. Cover the skin, and the real-feel temp returns to plain, old air temperature.

That said, it was cold. And yes, there was an endurance race, the Arrowhead 135. It is something like the Iditarod Invitational in that the race includes categories for cycling (primarily on fat bikes), running (run, hike or snowshoe) and skiing.

But the Arrowhead is also very different. For one thing, it has a kick-sled category, but that’s not the biggest difference.

The biggest difference is that it’s rather civilized. It’s about half as long as the shortest version of the Invitational (the longest version going 1,000 miles from Knik to Nome), crosses no mountain ranges, seldom sees 30 degrees below zero or colder, and follows a well-maintained trail.

The latter is a big deal, but more on that later.

First the news:

“This year’s Arrowhead was a media circus Tuesday and Wednesday,” race organizers posted on their website. 

For reasons some Alaskans might not understand, it is apparently shocking to Outside media that people ride bikes in extremely cold weather even if some Fairbanks residents do it regularly all winter long, and even though no one in the Arrowhead was doing anything truly “extreme.’

This wasn’t like Tim Hewitt in 2015 pushing his bike north for days across the desolate, unpeopled wasteland between the tiny communities of  Takotna and Ruby in the heart of Alaska with the temperature sometimes dropping to 50 degrees below zero, the snowdrifts regularly crotch-deep and the Iditarod Trail hard to find in the vast whiteness.

And one competitor in the Arrowhead knew as well as anyone the difference between that and the Minnesota race.

Lucky survivor

The winner of the Arrowhead’s foot race – Scott Hoberg – was in Alaska racing on the Iditarod Trail a year ago. It nearly killed him.

The experience left the 40-year-old ultrarunner and father humbled, stronger and, possibly more than anything, appreciative of a well-maintained trail.

To know the value of a trail, you must have experienced travel across the wilderness without one.

“…We met a couple of Kobuk youths on their way to the Koyukuk, and they gave us the greatest gift it was in the power of man to give us—a trail!” Archdeacon Hudson Stuck wrote more than a century ago in “Ten Thousand Miles with a Dog Sled,” a now iconic book. “There is no finer illustration of the mutual service of man to man than the meeting of parties going opposite ways across the unbroken snows. Each is at once conferring and receiving 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.

“No more hunting and peering for blazes, no more casting about hither and thither when open stretches are crossed; no more three times back and forth to beat the snow down— 20 miles a day instead of 10  or 12 —the boys’ trail meant all that to us. And our trail meant almost as much to them. So we were rejoiced to see them, sturdy youths of 16 or 17, making the journey all by themselves….adventurous Kobuks, amiable, light-hearted, industrious; keen hunters, following the mountain-sheep far up where the Indian will not go; adept in all the wilderness arts; heirs of the uncharted Arctic wastes, and occupying their heritage. If I were not a white man I would far rather be one of these nomadic inland Esquimaux than any other Native I know.”

Comfortably at home on the well-packed Arrowhead Trail, knowing the checkpoints were not all that far apart, Hoberg said he felt at ease despite the uncomfortable weather.

“I wasn’t scared,” he said by telephone Friday. “It was definitely colder than it has been,” but cold is a manageable problem. In fact, in an endurance race in extreme cold, heat is really more of a concern than cold.

“You have to dress as lightly as possible,” Hoberg said. “You can’t ever be warm, warm.”

Human physiology is an enemy in the cold. Humans spent most of their evolutionary prehistory in warm climates. Their bodies developed the ability to sweat to avoid over-heating.

Sweat accumulates on the skin. It then evaporates, aiding cooling in warm climates. Sweat helps humans avoid hyperthermia which cause weakness, collapse and even death.

The problem in the cold is that sweat also dampens clothing. And damp clothing, even the best high-tech fabrics, lose insulating value when wet. It is this which is believed to have, sadly, killed 27-year-old Travis Loughridge in 2017 after his snowmachine got stuck along a little used trail in the little traveled middle of the state, and he overworked himself trying to get it free. 

An experienced, winter ultrarunner, Hoberg was well aware of the moisture problem. How many others were is unclear. Hoberg said he was surprised to see “so many dropping out at the first checkpoint.”

Arrowhead records show about a third of the field of 60 in the run category dropped out at or before the Gateway Store just short of 36 miles into the race. Only 13 in the run category finished, and all the skiers and kick sledders dropped out, probably for good reason.

Snow becomes like sandpaper in extreme cold. Skiing becomes something more akin to ski walking on Velcro. Tires don’t roll as fast either, but they still roll.

More than half of the almost 80 fat bikers to start the race finished.

A trail

“We had a good, hard trail this year,” Hoberg said. “It did help.”

A good, hard trail was the 180-degree opposite of Hoberg’s 2018 Alaska nightmare. The Invitational leader into the penultimate checkpoint of Nikolai, a Kuskokwim River village north of the Alaska Range, all Hoberg had to do was cover the last 50 miles downriver to McGrath to secure victory.

It didn’t work out that way.

Plodding along on bad trail, he got confused at an intersection going nowhere in the middle of nowhere, wandered around lost, grew hypothermic and confused, and finally had to be rescued by race officials watching a satellite tracker and monitoring his odd travels.

He was thankful they were watching. It could have ended worse as was something of the norm in an Alaska of an earlier time.

“The Indians estimated that (the white man) had been walking two days, and had ‘siwashed it’ at night somewhere beside a fire in the open without bedding,” Stuck wrote. “Holes were burned in his breeches in two places, where, doubtless, he had got too near the fire. He had nothing whatever to eat with him save a piece of bacon gnawed to the rind.

“There were only two matches in his pocket, and they were mixed up with trash of birch-bark and tobacco, so it is likely he did not know he had them. He had lit all the fires he could light and eaten all the food he had to eat.

“Still he was plugging along towards the native village nine miles away. Then he lost the trail, probably in the dark, for it was faint and much drifted, and had taken off his snow-shoes to feel with his moccasined feet for the hardened snow that would indicate it. That was almost the end. He had gone across the river and back again, feeling for the trail, and then, with the deadly numbness already upon his brain, had wandered in a circle.

“The date of his starting in the memorandum-book and the distance travelled made it almost certain that, at some moment between the time when those three moons floated in the sky and the time when that cross glared on the horizon, he had fallen in the snow, never to rise again. Fifty-eight below zero and a wind blowing.”

A true 58 degrees below zero.

Had it been like that on the Iditarod Trail last year, Hoberg might well have never made it home. He understands that better than anyone. To truly grasp the intimidating reality of real wilderness, of which there is little left in North America, you have to experience what it is like to be far from anywhere with only the most marginal of trail or no trail at all to lead you to safety.

It can rattle the psyche in summer when hospitable weather makes Alaska a pretty benign place. Winter, and the threat of the cold, only intensifies the psychological stress.

Hoberg said he might be up for a return to the Iditarod Trail, though he admitted the cost is prohibitive. But his family is a different matter.

“I’d have to keep it secret from my parents,” he said.

“People were saying (the Arrowhead) was stupid,” he said. “There was a lot of doom and gloom about the temperature.”

But compared to Alaska wilderness racing, this “freak show,” as Hoberg called it, was somewhat tame. The Bold North of Minnesota and the true north of Alaska are part of the same continent, but in many ways they are worlds apart.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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