2015 Alaska Mountain Wilderness Classic
The 2015 course was a one-year tribute to Rob Kehrer. We wanted to connect places that were significant for Rob, so we started at Petersville (Tammy’s parents and several friends have cabins there), intending to pass through Rohn (Rob was an Iditarod Trail Invitational volunteer for many years) and finish at Rob’s cabin on Red Shirt Lake (near Willow). The standard route was 300 miles, about 50/50 hiking/floating.
The tribute part worked really well, with huge support from Tammy Kehrer, Wendy Moe, the Outlaws, and other friends of Rob. But the race was so long that only 4 people finished (Josh Mumm, 5 days 22 hours, and the Valdez team of Meg McKinney, Tory Dugan, Matt Kress, 11 days!) The other 26 participants scratched.
We met Saturday night on the Petersville Road, at Colleen’s cabin. More than one racer pulled into the driveway and turned around because they thought they were interrupting a wedding. The Outlaws came through HUGE! BBQ, music, beer, Team Heavy and Carrie On hoodies, it was awesome. The returning racers were shocked by all the preparation, the new racers didn’t know any better. It was an unheard of kickoff for a Wilderness Classic.
In the morning various drivers stood by their trucks and rangers (ATVs with cages) and held up fingers for how many passengers they could take to the end of the road. Different racers started at different points along the road depending on their route.
The most popular route was…
Day 1 on fast ATV trails and then slow swamp on old cat tracks and winter trails to the mining ‘community’ of Collinsville (3 people). The marshes were pretty but slow. Sometimes you would just sink knee deep, but there were some zones where each step would depress a 10 ft. diameter zone of marsh, with the entire zone depressing a foot or so, then rebounding when you took the weight off. Someone said this happens when the soil is supported underneath by water, but I don’t quite understand. What it meant for walking was that every now and then a foot would pop all the way through, and the walker would be chest deep in muck. Alan Rogers had never hiked Alaska’s swamps, and he claimed his parter Lee Helzer was intentionally waiting for Alan to break through… Lee was ready with his camera. I heard that Thomas Bailly went neck deep more than once. But, Denali and Foraker were out to the northeast, the weather was good, and spirits were high.
Our second day was spent trying to reach the East Fork of the Yentna River. This was tough. Some people tried low routes, some gained a bunch of elevation to avoid the brush, but I think everyone got stomped. We moved at 0.5 miles/hour through the brush. The brush was actually better than it would have been thanks to a caterpillar infestation. The caterpillars were disgusting. Each time you’d put weight on a tree, caterpillars would rain down, getting in hair/hats, and under collars. But at least they ate all the leaves and killed a bunch of the alder.
On Day 3 we hiked up the East Fork, crossing to the West Fork at Midway Lakes. The crossing was slow due to the nasty brush. But once we got to the West Fork, the gravel bars allowed a fast pace. We had a tail wind in this section, so we attached the inflated packrafts to our packs to get the extra boost from the wind. This allowed for rapid crossings of the various channels when they were too deep to wade. We probably made ~40 crossings.
Eventually the West Fork became a single-channel canyon. We were still able to walk up gravel bars on the outside of each bend, but the ferries started getting fast and more technical. When the actual glacier input streams were visible, it was time to make a decision. Sarah Histand and I stayed left, opting to hike up glacier ice and moraine to access tundra hiking and a long side-hill to Shellebarger pass. Josh Mumm, Meg McKinney, Tory Dugan, Matt Kress, John Pekar, and Matt Kupilik stayed on the east side of the canyon and shot up to a ~6000 ft. ridgeline that paralleled the canyon all the way to the pass. All of those guys said it was the most amazing place they have ever been. The views of the Kichatna Spires were incredible.
At this decision point, the super-group of eight that had formed on the East Fork of the Yentna, Greg Mills and Asher Harley, Jon and Alex Agosti, Daniel Osborne and Mike Smith, Kalin King and Chris Schumate, decided to turn around and float to Skwentna, then catch a water taxi to Deshka Landing. I was kind of jealous of the mob-flotilla, especially since Greg was apparently telling Rob stories the whole way. Todd Kasteler and Toby Schwoerer had already turned around, and I think this is where Lee and Alan, Thomas Bailley, Miles Raney, and Aaron Wells turned around as well. These guys all finished at Red Shirt Lake, which was probably harder than what we did to get to Rohn.
That leaves Dave Dohnal and Steve Duby, who had flown out from Collinsville after Dave twisted his knee, Michael Martin and John Lapkass, who made it to Chelatna Lake and then floated Lake Creek to eventually finish at Red Shirt Lake, and Thai Verzone, Gordy Vernon, who also floated Lake Creek, but packrafted all the way to Anchorage for their scratch. Robert Wing peeled off from Thai and Gordy to finish at Red Shirt Lake.
For the eight that made it to Rohn, all it took from Shellebarger was a low-water float down the Tatina river. The guys in Alpacka Gnus did serious damage to the floors while scraping along the shallows. In Rohn everyone recharged on burgers, brauts, cookies, beer and coke, flown in by Barry, an Iditarod pilot, thanks to the efforts of Lisa Jaeger, who had worked the checkpoint with Rob. Josh ate two brauts and left everything else untouched because he didn’t want to deprive anyone of their share, but he had no idea only 8 people would make it. John, Matt, Sarah and I were out of time and flew to Willow; Meg, Tory, and Matt continued on, determined to finish, even if it took 11 days.
The emphasis at the start of the race was to get to Red Shirt however possible for a 4th of July BBQ. A bunch of the racers did, and they were met by the Outlaws and more of Rob’s friends, anxious for stories on the course, the stories they would usually get from Rob. It sounded like just what Rob would have wanted, a mix of friends and Classicers, swapping stories and drinking beer, camping out at his cabin on the lake. This was just the tribute we had wanted. Josh arrived at 8 AM on the 4th, after two sleepless nights. He slept 10 hours before letting himself be bombarded with questions. Michael Martin and John Lapkass arrived around 10 PM after spending several days in the last 10 miles of swamp. Tammy said she thought she heard a bear sniffing around outside in the middle of the night and went out to discover Rob Wing eating a bag of chips and drinking a beer.
The 26 scratches were largely coordinated by Wendy Moe, our volunteer in-town contact who I had told wouldn’t really have to do anything unless there was an emergency. Oops. Wendy and Tammy did an incredible amount of work helping get people out. I guess that’s why real races have paid positions; they were the glue that held this whole thing together.
A few take-home lessons
1) This is exactly what Rob would have wanted. It sucked not to finish the course, but I kept trying to embrace my inner Rob; he was a pro at scratches. I also had chaffing problems for the first time in years, which I guess was another, more personal, tribute to Rob. After trying lip balm and sunscreen, Leukotape did the job. That’s all I want to say about that.
2) Josh Mumm is an animal. What he accomplished is simply amazing. He has always been the strongest on our trips, but this was another level. He averaged 50 miles a day, which isn’t unheard of when there is a lot of water involved, but for the first 120 miles of pure hiking, marsh and brush, he averaged 40 miles a day, which is exceptional, especially solo. I jokingly imagined that Josh was motivated by not wanting to pay the $20 late fee on the satellite phone he had rented for the week. The course was too long, clearly, but the fact that one person finished in 6 days, somehow makes it legitimate. Josh did it, and maybe we all can claim part of that accomplishment just for being a part of the Classic community. Otherwise, 300 miles of raw wilderness in a week seems unfathomable.
3) It was really hard not to finish the course. Sarah and I went back and forth about it all day to make the decision. We left Rohn and hiked 15 miles up the South Fork of the Kuskokwim to access the pass that would drop us onto the Happy River and 120 miles of floating, but it was slow progress, 1.5 miles an hour, and we just weren’t mentally prepared to set out for 3 or 4 more long (short) nights. It was disappointing to have travelled an incredible 150 miles and still feel like we were giving up. As an organizer, it makes me think the courses should be easier so that more people can finish. But when I mentioned that at the post-race BBQ, Alan Rogers, who has been up for the race twice and scratched both times, told me several times not to worry about it. He’d rather have a challenge than something he is sure to finish. So, maybe it is okay that we all got rocked. Finishing a future course will feel sweeter for it.
I’m losing track of the stories from the other teams, but here’s what I’ve got. Maybe other folks can add details in the comments on this page.
John and Matt said they had ‘navigational issues,’ which we later discovered meant that John lost his smart phone (and GPS) in a swamp, and the only map they had was a low-resolution large-scale screen capture from Google Earth. When we talked about the route they couldn’t confirm any of the place names because they hadn’t been able to read the labels on the map.
Matt kept pointing out to John the numbers that were carved into random trees in the forests, until he realized he should stop sharing his hallucinations.
At Yenta Station, Rob Wing was eating a burger and drinking a beer when he started asking the owner about the best way to get to Red Shirt Lake. Or Anchorage. And that he had been trying to get to Rohn and started at Petersville. The owner thought he was off his rocker, dropping the names of these locations that were so far from each other in the context of this one-week trip, so the owner cut him off! He went into the kitchen and told someone there not to serve Rob any more beer!
Greg Mills became the defacto leader of the group of eight, and whenever there was too much dissent he would say, look guys this is what Rob would have done. He says he lied about a lot of it just to get the group moving.
One of the DC guys pooped his pants. I don’t know how you can get the full story.
A horizontal seam in the seat of Sarah’s pants split wide open, 14 inches or so, in a nasty buggy section of forest. I suggested she take off her pants to sew the seam with my needle and dental floss, but she said no way. I had to kneel and do a sprint sewing job with Sarah standing in front of me, swatting the bugs away.
Lee used his inReach to text Wendy that ‘All is good,’ and Wendy, who so far had only received updates from her husband Todd, responded with something like, ‘Wonderful, I love you!’ Lee got married two days before the start, so he just rolled with it.
Daniel Osborne made a sat phone call to Wendy that was intended for a friend and exclaimed, ‘Happy F-ing Birthday!!!’ Wendy said, ‘Thanks, but it’s not my birthday.’ Daniel was embarrassed and stammered out, ‘Sorry! Sorry! Wrong number! Sorry!’ and hung up on her. Wendy was on the other end saying, ‘Wait, wait!, Where are you guys?’
John Lapkass and Michael Martin spent several days covering the final 10 miles from the Susitna River to Red Shirt Lake. They would send an update, ‘only 8 miles left, should be there this evening,’ and the next day ‘only 3 miles left, should be there this evening,’ etc. When they sent a message that said ‘we’ve reached the lake!’ Tammy jokingly suggested that maybe they would make it to the cabin the next day.