On a comfortably warm Saturday in the urban comfort of Alaska’s largest city, the stars of the legendary Iditarod Trail staged their annual sled dog show for the cameras, the commentators, the tourists and the fans of what has come to be called The Last Great Race.
Almost 400 miles to the north on the far side of the Alaska Range mountains in the cold, dark heart of the 49th state, unnoticed by almost everyone, four fat-tired cyclist were at the same time on the trail and engaged in a full on battle with Mother Nature.
Snow had slammed shut the 80 miles of trail between the ghost towns of Ophir and Iditarod, once booming gold mining communities in the “Inland Empire” of the Alaska Territory.
For half a day, the lead cyclists in the Iditarod Trail Invitational (ITI) 1,000 from Knik to Nome appeared to have stalled at a U.S. Bureau of Land Management public-use cabin near the headwaters of Tolstoi Creek, but apparently got moving again on Saturday afternoon after snowmachines went past headed for Iditarod.
The cyclists are without phone communications, but global positioning system (GPS) satellite trackers they are required to carry showed them trudging toward Iditarod on Saturday night at 1.5 to 2.5 mph – standard bike pushing speeds.
Little awaits them at Iditarod. Even the ruins there are falling down, but there are food caches so they can resupply before pushing onto another long trudge to the Athabaskan village of Shageluk.
In only a matter of days, the area will come alive with the buzz and bustle of the heavily supported and media-tracked Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, but for now the country remains the great, white silence that is its normal state for most of the year.
Deep into prehistory
The old Inland Empire is a today a landscape that might well be home to fewer people than at the time of white contact in Alaska. Still dotted with some of the ruins, trails and other fading signs of Alaska’s Age of Gold, it feels so empty it is almost spooky.
Bill Merchant – one of the founders of the ITI, the now retired director of that race and a participant in the long ago and legendary Iditasport race – describes the country as an empire deserted.
The seasonal snowmobile trail that becomes the “Iditarod” is often bad even when it is at its best. Fat-tired cyclists invariably spend a lot of time bike pushing.
“It’s miles and miles of nothing but miles and miles of black spruce and rolling hills going by at two and a half mph,” Merchant said. “F—. I am sweating my ass of just talking about it.”
Once on the Iditarod route out of Takotna, there are no options but to push on or turn around, retreat and give up back at the old gold-mining supply hub that hangs on as a census-designated place home to 50 on the southern edge of the Empire.
More than 200 trail miles to the north of Takotna along the Iditarod’s northern route, the village of Ruby – once a busy port on the Yukon – is down to about 150 hearty residents.
One-hundred-thirty-five miles of tough, little-traveled trail miles to the west of Takotna on the Iditarod’s southern route is the old Athabascan village of Shageluk, population 80.
And to the east? To the east, there is nothing – no trail, no human outposts, no nothing for 100 miles to the boundary of Denali National Park and Preserve, itself a vast nothingness.
Suffice to say, Petr Ineman from Downers Grove, Ill.; John Logar from Davis, W. Va.; Jose Bermudez from College Station, Texas; and Troy Szczurkowski from Brisbane, Australia were in a place where you best know how to take care of yourself because nobody – nobody – is around to help.
Historically, Robert King wrote in a BLM history of the Iditarod National Historic Trail, a side trail “left the main trail at Takotna and followed the creeks to the town of Iditarod, and from there north through Dikeman to rejoin the trunk line trail at Dishkaket.”
The old trunk line to Dishkaket is gone as is Dishkaket and Dikeman. King blames World War I for killing it all.
“The activities ‘Outside’ began to bear more and more on local events, especially the Great War. Young miners and workers enlisted and left the country, most never to return,” he wrote. “Money expected to be funneled into trails and mines went East. The slow construction of the federal government’s Alaska Railroad (not completed until 1923) and its anticipated aid to growth did little to stabilize the Inland Empire’s economy. Instead, many of its settlers moved to the railroad town of Anchorage or elsewhere.”
The men on the trail there now are an eclectic and experienced group.
Logar, a 43-year-old emergency room physician, hiked the trail to Nome in 2014 to win the ITI’s foot competition. He shrugged off the win when interviewed by West Virginia public radio after the race.
“I’m gone for a month and I’m thinking only about myself and some very basic needs for myself. So it’s pretty selfish. And that was hard to deal with realizing that. It’s only possible because of my wife, Jody. This would not be something I could do without her giving me the go-ahead.”
Szczurkowski, a 46-year-old bike mechanic, was one of a half-dozen finishers in the 2017 ITI to Nome.
“…I always welcome the silence,” he said. “It’s the kind of thing that’s very hard to find nowadays with so much white noise.”
In that interview he also recognized that the challenge of the human-powered Iditarod is more psychological than physiological.
“…Mental is more important than physical,” he said. “…There’s always a way you can make it forward even if it’s at half speed,” he said. “The people that make it through, I think they all share that common mentality of always looking for solutions, not necessarily finding a wall and going: ‘Well, OK I’m done’.”
He could no doubt have some interesting conversations with Bermudez, a 52-year-old philosophy professor at Texas A&M University. Bermudez finished the 3,000 Race Across America in 2015 and last year rode across the U.S. to raise money for Habitat for Humanity.
He finished the ITI 350 to McGrath last year and decided to go all in to Nome this year. The school newspaper, The Eagle, reported he was looking forward to the adventure.
“I think there have been cases of frostbite during this race (there have),” he told reporter Rebecca Fiedler. “But no one has been killed. …There will be nothing but caribou, moose, wolves and empty space. It will be incredible. It’s not a very forgiving environment. It’s very hostile.”
Bermudez is the least experienced of the group at the front.
Ineman, a 40-year-old who installs home entertainment systems for a living back in Illinois, finished the ITI 350 in 2015 and has since ridden winter fat bike races all over the country.
Ineman was among the 52 to complete Minnesota’s Arrowhead 135 in January after temperatures plummeted to 40 degrees below zero in International Falls, Minn., and winds pushed the windchill effect down to the equivalent of minus-68.
Only 36 percent of the 146 who started made it to the finish line in Tower, Minn. The race attracted international attention because of the cold.
“Remember the polar vortex and those subzero temperatures that plagued vast swaths of the United States last week? While much of the country was hibernating with hot cocoa, 146 athletes were competing in a 135-mile race in northern Minnesota,” the New York Times reported.
“The temperature at the start line, in International Falls, Minn., was minus 15 degrees Fahrenheit with wind chills reaching 55 below.”
The temperatures in the Inland Empire in the past have gone to 55-below not counting the wind. Iditarod Trail hiking legend Tim Hewitt was evacuated from the trail to Ruby in 2015 after days of struggling through crotch deep snow at 30- to 50-degrees-below zero with the wind howling.
Hewitt later said he was finished with the Iditarod, but he’s back out there this year. And the weather has been more cooperative. Temperatures dipped below minus-20 degrees when the race started last week, but it has since warmed up.
The temperature in the Takotna area was in the 20s Saturday, and it wasn’t expected to go lower than 10 degrees overnight. Still, it looked to be a long night for the men on the trail.
Ineman was at midnight leading a push-a-thon at 2.1 mph. He had more than 40 miles to go to Iditarod. The sled dog teams will catch the bikers early this year. The packed in trail behind them should allow them to start riding again.