I didn’t expect it, but the highlights of this solo ski trip were all social. I only met a handful of folks during my nine days on the Iditarod Trail (from my hometown of McGrath to Nulato, 300 miles), but they were great interactions.
I haven’t done a solo trip since … 2008, I think. Creating and sharing memories with partners is one of the main reasons that I spend time in the mountains. But I had unusual recreation objectives this year, and it was difficult to find partners. Two factors made my objectives unusual this year:
- I took a break from avalanche terrain. While studying and then writing about risk in The Packraft Handbook, I recognized avalanche terrain as the hazard that I could most easily avoid. Due to my traumatic history with avalanches, being on steep slopes has been raising my stress level too much—the reward didn’t feel worth the risk. I decided that a year off would be good for me. I’d cross-country ski while my friends were playing in bigger mountains.
- I wanted to travel ‘against the grain.’ Alaska’s mountain ranges and rivers trend east-west, so most of my travel has too. I was motivated to fill in some gaps with north-south travel this year. These gaps aren’t as meaningful to my friends.
Kevin Whitworth met me at the McGrath airport. Kevin and I were two grades apart at McGrath Elementary School. We reconnected last summer when Sarah and I spent a week back home visiting my mom and step-dad. After his years at the Univeristy of Alaska, Fairbanks, Kevin returned to McGrath with his family, working as the Executive Director and biologist for the Kuskokwim River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission.
I noticed a few unusual rocks on Kevin’s counter and he explained that they were young mammoth teeth! Amazing. He had part of a tusk too. My brother and I found part of a femur when we were kids and I’ve been obsessed with mammoths ever since.
My mom and step-dad spend their winters in Hawaii now, so their house was snowed in. I shoveled to gain access, then started a fire for heat and to melt snow for water.
Our family calls the McGrath home ‘Fort Mitchell’ as a tribute to my step-dad Francis (their Hawaii home is Fort Mehl, for my mom). Fort Mitchell is composed of six or seven buildings—considerably more storage than living space, which is common in Alaska. The main house is a 12′ by 24′ plywood cabin that we (JoAnne, Francis, my brother Burke, and me) moved into in 1982. The house was on the bank of the Kuskokwim back then, and was moved when it was threatened by riverbank erosion.
I joined Kevin, Dara, and their kids for breakfast, and then started skiing toward Takotna. Kevin followed a few hours later with his dog team.
I timed my trip to start right after the Iron Dog snowmachine race had passed through, ensuring a packed and defined trail; I had great skiing conditions.
Kevin and I spent the night in Takotna at Jesse Grady’s. Jesse was my best friend and nearest neighbor in elementary school, but I hadn’t seen him since sixth grade. When I arrived, Jesse was butchering a moose. He introduced me to Ebbe, his ‘Norwegian brother,’ a neighbor and friend who helped him with the moose. It wasn’t surprising to see Jesse comfortable in this setting. Even as kids, he was setting up rabbit snares with picture-hanging wire (and mostly catching his own dog), while I was more interested in playing with Legos and stuffed animals.
We hadn’t seen each other since 6th grade because I wasn’t in McGrath for middle and high school. My mom recognized that McGrath wouldn’t be healthy for me during those years. As with Burke, I was given two options: school in Montana with our dads (different dads, we are half-brothers), or school in Anchorage. As I understand it, mom came up with these options when Burke came home in 8th grade and said, “I have to choose between pot and drinking. Which would be better for me?” Mom asked if he had to choose one and he said, “I know you don’t understand, but yes. I have to choose one.” So … Burke moved to Montana for high school. His departure was pretty hard on me; I was 8 or 9 years old.
My high school decision was different. I always felt like an outsider in McGrath, but I was somehow more okay with that than Burke. I didn’t feel like I had to play basketball or consider drinking—I had Legos and stuffed animals. My problem was that I openly loved school and learning, which was not popular and led to some bullying. Somehow my mom learned about Steller, a public alternative school in Anchorage, and it was such a perfect fit that we rented an apartment across the street. This decision by my mom was probably the most formative of my life (besides moving us to Alaska to be with Francis).
But moving to Anchorage meant that I missed out on learning village skills. I was really impressed with Jesse and Kevin’s skillsets—building cabins, running dogs, butchering moose, trapping, etc. I envy those skills. Catching up with Kevin and Jesse was the highlight of my trip.
I got back on the trail after breakfast. Ebbe passed by a few times that morning (once taking some of the weight from my backpack and once dragging an old bedspring to ‘groom’ the trail for the Iditarod), but after that, I was on my own. I put in long days to reach public cabins rather than camp out: 60 miles to reach Carlson’s Crossing (my longest day on skis ever) and 43 miles to the N. Fk Innoko River cabin.
I saw very few signs of animals south of the Kuskokwim mountains. The few animals that I saw were in traps. Jesse told me that in a good year, 300 pine marten were worth a new snowmachine.
As soon as I crossed over to the north side of the Kuskokwim mountains, I saw a bunch of tracks: rabbit, wolf, lynx, wolverine, and moose. The landscape was more interesting here too: Dr. Seussian black spruce trunks poking through sastrugi-textured snow.
The Iditarod Trail grows wider and more heavily used as it approaches Ruby and the Yukon River. I ate a huge dinner at Ivan and Katie Kangas’ Empty Nest BnB, showered, slept, ate breakfast, and then glided down to the river for the second half of my trip.
I anticipated that the flat and broad Yukon would be less interesting than my time in the hills, but I was wrong. I had a strong tailwind the first day, which helped me ski the 52 miles to Galena in 12 hours. I used white gas to remove the kick wax from my skis so that I could skate ski and double-pole (glide) as well as possible. I sent inReach messages to Karin Lehmkuhl Bodony, who met me at the edge of Galena and led me to a guest cabin. Tim and Ida came over to say hi and offer homemade pizza.
The trail was social after Galena, and I appreciated all the people who pulled over to chat. I have a theory that people are more inclined to stop when they see a solo traveler because they assume that the traveler is a little weird and might need help. I felt cared for (and a little weird).
One guy, Tim, pulled over three times. He had a huge gray wolf on his machine the first time, delivering it to Galena for the $300 bounty. These communities hunt wolves because wolves are putting pressure on moose.
A young couple checked in as I was starting to look for a place to set up my tent. It looked like a date night, riding double and carrying a rifle, looking for wolves.
Pete Demoski from Koyukuk pulled up and answered some of my questions about the area. Pete was looking for wolves too. He told me that a grizzly was already out and had killed a moose; asked if I’d seen last night’s northern lights. Pete offered help as often as he could fit it into our short conversation, including wanting to deliver hot water to me farther down the trail.
There was a lot of traffic that day because a Nulato elder had passed away in Galena. Many of the travelers stopped to chat on the way to Galena, and then waved from the snowmachine funeral procession returning to Nulato.
I had a BnB reservation in Nulato, but didn’t know where the BnB was located. I skied into town and went to the community center to ask about the BnB. One guy went in, another guy, Erick, came out and said he’d take me to the BnB, but that he was going to eat first and that I should too.
A funeral potluck for the elder was taking place in the community center. I think she was dressed in traditional regalia and laid out in blankets on the far side of the building, with family in attendance and mourning. I didn’t get very close. I’m gifted with an innate degree of social awkwardness, and this situation made me pretty darn uncomfortable. Tim, the guy that had the wolf carcass, helped me by coming over to chat. Erick tried several times to get me to eat the delicious-smelling chili, but I just couldn’t do it. I didn’t want to be an outsider white guy that shows up and takes something. But, I don’t know. I suspect that joining the potluck might also have been respectful—I was clearly invited.
Erick dropped me at the BnB, where I showered and ate a Mountain House chili mac dinner mixed with two sticks of string cheese. I watched part of a Coldplay concert on cable TV and called it a night.
Most of my time on this route felt like a means to an end—connecting dots between more meaningful places. It was really nice to reconnect with old friends in McGrath and then to re-visit familiar places on the Yukon (Sarah and I had finished a packraft trip in Ruby, and I had biked and packrafted from Nulato). But I had many more interactions with locals on this trip. I loved how folks on the Yukon were clearly looking out for me. I loved learning about the people who call that area home. As always, I’m grateful for this land and its peoples.