McGrath to Anchorage on the Iditarod Trail, 350 miles, 7 days.
Growing up in McGrath, it never occurred to me that I could someday bike to Anchorage. Anchorage always felt very far away, because it was. It was also exotic. Coscto croissants, street lights, big houses. I remember being able to take long baths/showers in Anchorage because the water heaters were so big. In McGrath, my brother and I had to choose… first kid in the tub gets half as much water but it is hot and clean, second kid gets twice the water but it is luke-warm and dirty. Luc-warm? I feel like I should have something clever to say about that.
Anchorage is a one hour flight from McGrath (there are no roads), which crosses ~220 miles of rugged forest, marsh, and Alaska Range peaks. The Iditarod was a big deal, we’d make snack mixes for the mushers, some of whom stayed in our house, others in the school gym, but it still didn’t register that there was a trail between towns.
This year’s lack of snow motivated me to buy a fat bike and gear up for this trip. Eric Parsons (Revelate Designs) was a huge help. I’d used a few of his early generation bike-frame bags (in our 2010 Classic attempt), but hadn’t registered when he transitioned from garage gear to industry leader. I am very impressed with how well designed his bags are. I like multiple attachment points that allow for creative strapping, and every time I wanted a tie-down, it was there. The kit rode so snug to the bike that I hardly noticed it.
Our mutual friends Tony Perelli and Becky King were interested right away. Tony had both hips replaced 11 months ago, so this would be a serious test. He carved wooden spoons for everyone on the trip. For years we’ve been making jokes about how hard it is to clean the cheese from Mountain House Lasagna meals from spoons… amazingly, the cheese doesn’t stick to wood! Place your orders now. Becky works with Eric and sewed most of our frame bags on short notice. I get teased for how much Tyvek repair tape is on my clothing, so they made my frame bag with Tyvek envelopes from the Post Office.
We had one of those classic exchanges where someone asks, ‘Are we really going to do this trip, are there enough people?’ and then suddenly there are nine friends on board. BJ Stone and Chris Turner from work, my bestie Tomas Jensen, Eric’s go-to bike partner Dylan Kentch, who was fresh off the plane from Antarctica and brought name tags for everyone to fill out, and… in case we would have to break trail over rainy pass… Josh Mumm.
I flew to McGrath a few days early to thaw out the house (my mom and Francis were in Hawaii) and put together my bike. I borrowed a truck from Mark Cox, the neighbor, and picked up the rest of the crew Monday. Kathi Merchant (Iditarod Trail Invitational organizer) was on the same flight, and she had been very helpful letting us know about trail conditions and happily allowing us to take advantage of water at the ITI checkpoints.
We travelled on firm snowmachine trails up the Kuskokwim, past Big River (very close to the fish camp where Phillip Esai caught and fried pike for us in 2008), and to Nikolai. All of this terrain was familiar to me, flat tundra, black spruce, white spruce, birch stands, marshes, and huge meanders in the Kuskokwim River. Three of the ITI racers passed us in the night. The winner, John Lackey, finished in 1 day, 18 hours, an incredible accomplishment.
From Nikolai we turned south toward the mountains. The riding was rough; there wasn’t enough snow to smooth out the uneven tussocks. But each rough stretch was followed by a bit of smooth sailing to keep morale high. We crossed paths with several more of the ITI racers. They varied from upbeat (Jay, Jeff, Heather, those were the only names I caught) to casually commenting that they couldn’t sit down because their ass was infected.
Riding the Farewell burn was my favorite part of the trip. Recent trail work has resulted in smooth and fast trails. I was too nervous about damaging my bike to take air on the jumps, but they were ripe for it. The novelty of being on dry dirt in the middle of winter in the middle of the Alaska Range was very cool. The charred remains of the already-strange black spruce made it very aesthetic.
After the burn section we pulled into Rohn and spent some time with the ITI checkpoint hosts. BJ is friends with OE, the checkpoint manager, and Tammy Kehrer was there as a volunteer to fill Rob’s role. Tammy brought in Red Vines and Oreos for us, inspired by the snacks at the end of the Wilderness Classics. This year’s ITI was dedicated to Rob Kehrer, who has been a huge presence at the Rohn checkpoint. Tammy said that many of the racers mentioned what a sadness it was for them not to have Rob waiting there.
Climbing to the pass was pretty straightforward thanks to the trial breaking effort of Bill Merchant and the other ITI breakers. It felt great to be moving south and catching glimpses of the sun. The downhill was a blast; drifting off trail resulted in carnage, but nothing worrisome in the soft snow.
I was back on familiar terrain in Ptarmigan Valley from last summer’s Happy River packraft trip, and it was great to see the same country with a blanket of snow. We made a brief pitstop at Rainy Pass Lodge (Puntilla Lake), very grateful for water and cookies, but not interested in paying $1000 for a double occupancy room, and not allowed to hunker down in the empty shack on the air strip. The hospitality was more what we expected at the next lodges, Shell Lake, Skwenta, and Yentna Station, where we ate well and were given affordable bunks late at night and with no notice.
The rest of the route, down to Skwenta, consisted of small climbs and long descents on hummocky trails. The hummocks were large amplitude and a lot of fun to pump through. Several of the steps we had to climb back up were steep and icy and required a group effort. We had all studded our NEOS overshoes, but nearly all the studs had ripped out by this point.
Once we hit the Yentna river it was smooth sailing and big hamburgers all the way to the Susitna River. The first day was slow due to thawing and slush on the tracks, but after a hard freeze we quickly cranked out the remaining river miles.
At the Susitna we split into two groups. Everyone wearing Patagonia jackets headed north for Deshka Landing (Willow) and a ride to town. BJ, Chris, and I opted to head for Big Lake and ride the highway home; I was very motivated to do the trip ‘door to door.’ We stopped for pizza and lasagna in Big Lake, then pounded out the last 60 miles in 6 hours to get home at 2:30 am.
Some notes on gear…
I rode a Salsa Mukluk off-the-shelf because it was the cheapest bike I could find. I was pleased with how it rode and held up. Josh was on an even cheaper Motobecane model from Bikes Direct, and it also did well, and took a 5 inch wheel. We were nervous about the hydraulic brakes, but they weren’t a problem. The other guys were on Fatbacks, Pugsleys, probably a 907 in there too. Everyone rode 45NRTH Dillinger studs. I was pissed to pay so much for them, but it was definitely worth it. For people considering buying a fatbike, I think you have to include the cost of the studded tires in your budgeting (just like including the cost of a drysuit when you start shopping for packrafts).
Everyone had different footwear strategies, but the common feature were NEOS overshoes. I had the lightest model and tore through the fabric pretty early, but none of the other guys had any problems. We studded the soles with short roofing screws, but nearly all of those ripped out. The NEOS boot that comes pre-studded did not have that problem. I wore my Intuition ski boot liners in mine, with a closed-cell foam insole and a neoprene ‘boot glove’ over the toes. Even with all that, I think I would have had cold feet below 0. If we had to do more walking I would want more ankle support too. Other guys used full boots, ski boot liners, or Steger Mukluks under their NEOS. If I were to do it all again… I’d just buy a beefier NEOS and use my trusted Intuition liners again.
We were very pleased with the Revelate Designs frame bags and Old Man Mountain rear racks. We also got sweet powerful headlamps from Princeton Tec, two cuben fiber 1.5lb 4-man mids from Hyperlite Mountain Gear, and the sleeping pad of choice was the Therm-a-Rest NeoAir Xtherm.