Beaten by weather too warm, Donald Kane – a 57-year-old veteran of the 1,000-mile Iditarod Trail from Knik to Nome – is headed home to Australia.
Reached by telephone in the outpost community of McGrath in the heart of Alaska early Wednesday, the aging Scotsman said that he realized on a sweaty climb out of Takotna in wet, new-falling snow that it was time to join those abandoning the weather-plagued trail of ’19.
“I realized, ‘I’m just making things hard for myself,'” he said.
It was the worst of times in a land where Kane and others like him have often known the best of times. Kane admitted it is the latter that keeps him coming back to the decidedly two-faced Northland.
Kane ran into some of the worst of it this year.
With the temperature near freezing, he found himself working hard to push his bike steadily uphill through deepening new snow toward the top of the 1,200-foot-high ridge that separates Takotna, a fading community of about 50, from Ophir, a ghost town of zero.
Beneath inches of new fallen snow, the Iditarod was a packed snowmachine track atop an unmaintained state road to nowhere. The bike pushing was doable, but not a lot of fun, and Kane knew that he was mostly certainly looking forward to tens and tens of miles of it.
“It was very, very wet snow,” he said. “There was no way I was going to keep myself dry.”
An hour and a half into this exercise, he was thinking about what was ahead. The Iditarod Trail Invitational (ITI) fat-tired cyclists in front of him had pushed pretty much the full 80 miles across the long-depopulated Inland Empire of territorial days to get from Ophir to Iditarod, the ghost town from which the trail that has become one of the 49th state’s big adventure magnets took its name.
There are a couple of Bureau of Land Management safety cabins along the trail to Iditarod where travelers can take shelter, but Kane didn’t know if they’d have wood to allow him to start a fire and dry out his gear, a life-ensuring task in the Alaska winter.
“I just didn’t know about the cabins,” he said.
Whispers of experience
Kane had been to Ophir before. In 2014 and again in 2016, he’d followed the Iditarod on its “northern route” through the old mining town and across 145 miles of nothing to Ruby, a one-time regional hub on the Yukon River that swelled to almost 3,000 people in the early 1900s and has now shrunk back to fewer than 200.
Kane was this year looking forward to exploring the Iditarod’s “southern route” from Ophir west over the low-lying Beaver Mountains, into the Innoko River drainage and on into a once thriving but now dead gold-mining district and beyond to the Ahtabascan Indian village of Shageluk on the Innoko 15 or 20 miles shy of where it joins the Yukon.
From Shageluk the southern route runs west to Anvik on the Yukon and then turns north, upriver, for Kaltag and the start of the portage to Unalkaleet on the Bering Sea.
Between Ophir and Kaltag is about 300 miles of the Iditarod Kane has not experienced. The adventurer part of him wanted to go on and see what was out there; the sensible part told him to turn back.
In the conditions, he said, “everything you’ve got gets saturated,” which is a problem on multiple levels. Wet clothes and a wet sleeping bag lose much of their insulating value. And on the bike, they gain the weight of water and turn the pushing of a heavy bike into the even harder pushing of an even heavier bike.
Kane turned around and started pushing back to McGrath.
“I walked all the way,” he said. It took him nine hours to cover a distance of only about 20 miles. He was offered a couple of rides but didn’t take them.
“There were snowmachines in the area,” he said. “I told them, ‘No, I can walk back.’ We’re self-supported.”
That one statement says a lot about the people who do the ITI.
Not far out of McGrath, Kane pulled off the trail to let pass four, trail breaking snowmachines in front of Nicolas Petit, the lead musher in the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race. Kane thought he might get a better trail to McGrath in their wake.
He was wrong.
“It was kind of jumbled up, just mashed potatoes,” he said. He sounded sad but accepting.
“Things happen,”he said, and then laughed. He admitted he doesn’t know if he’ll be back for another go at Iditarod, but confessed the southern route remains a personal goal.
Only 10 ITI competitors – eight cyclists and two runners/walkers – are now left on the trail to Nome at the halfway point, and they are about to be caught by the lead teams in the dog race.
With the trail gone beneath blowing snow, the lead bikers spent Tuesday in the Iditarod checkpoint and rolled out Wednesday morning onto trail that had reportedly been snowmachine-packed at least part of the way to Shageluk.
Global positioning system (GPS) trackers on the bikes indicated they were going fast enough to be riding early, but by the afternoon they appeared to be pushing again.
The lead rider in the bunch – 41-year-old Petr Ineman from Downers Grove, Ill. – was finally closing in on Shageluk at about 10:30 p.m. after about 14 hours in the saddle or beside the bike pushing along 50 miles of trail from Iditarod.
Five other cyclists were spread out along 25 miles of trail behind him, and their GPS signals appeared be pinging good news for the Iditarod mushers. Bike speeds were up from 1.8 mph to 4 to 7 mph, sometimes more.
That was a clear indication the trail was hardening as temperatures began to drop into the 20s after Tuesday highs that climbed to 36 in Shageluk. The remote weather station at the airport there was reporting 28 on Wednesday night.
The forecast called for it to drop to 24 degrees overnight before climbing again to the freezing mark on Thursday with a chance of snow. Heading toward the weekend, the conditions don’t look particularly good for cyclists, mushers or dogs.
The National Weather Service was calling for highs near 37 along the Yukon River on Friday with rain.
Early dog race leader Joar Liefseth Ulsom, a Norwegian now living in Willow, was out of Takotna late Wednesday night having completed the race’s one mandatory layover there. He looked on schedule to arrive in Ophir a two to three hours before Nicolas Petit from Girdwood finishes his 24 there.
Montanan Jessie Royer was close behind Ulsom out of Takotna and also coming off her 24. The two looked as if they might get a decent gap on a pack of chaseres on the trail to Iditarod, especially if the snow is setting up as the bike speeds would indicate.
How much traffic the trail behind them will bear before it starts to get punchy is an unknown, but even if the trail holds, the conditions for sled-dog racing don’t look to be optimum as the race moves toward the coast.
The race should still be slightly ahead of the pace for the record time of 2016 out of Ophir, but that would appear unlikely to last long.
As for the bikers, they should be overrun by the dogs Thursday. Nobody is going to do a Jeff Oatley this year and use the ITI head start to beat the dogs to Nome.
The mechanical advantage offered by a bike is only useful if the bike can be pedaled. If it has to be pushed, it’s not much of an improvement on a sled, and some cases it can even be worse.
CORRECTION: An early version of this story miscalculated Petit’s out time from Ophir.