Making it to Nome on a bicycle has been my dream for the last 5 years.
Winter biking has become a lifestyle with me since I moved to Alaska from Bavaria, Germany 6 years ago. I don't have to think much about what gear to pack and what to bring since most of our time spent on local snowmachine routes is spent a loaded bike and our winter gear. I believe that if you train with a light bike, it is going to hurt you adding all that weight to the bike just before the race. Pushing a loaded bike is part of what we do on our rides in the steep hills in the Matanuska Valley where we live.
I have done the 350 mile race to McGrath twice before. Nome was going to be not only 3 times longer, but a lot more remote, possibly with no trail at times, monotonous black spruce Interior country, the big wide open Yukon River and finally the exposed open coastal section. From past stories from racers I knew that in a bad year I might be pushing my bike halfway to Nome.
After being back in Chickaloon for a week I have had time to reflect on the last three weeks that I have spent on the Iditarod Trail riding and pushing my bike 1100 miles across frozen Alaska.
Day 1 Knik Lake to Skwentna 90 miles
After a burger and a coke at the Knik Bar we started lining up at the starting line under the Alaska Ultra Sport banner.
10 9 8...3 2 1 Go.
Off we went heading across Knik Lake under blue skies and a beautiful warm sunny day.
I know the first section over 3 mile hill, 7 and 8 mile lake and 9 mile hill really well, we ride that section a lot training for the race. We crossed Flathorn Lake in the late afternoon and had a beautiful sunset over Sleeping Lady, also known Mount Susitna, that can be seen from Anchorage.
This year there were no obsticles on the river, it was smooth and hard packed as can be. No overflow, the open water section on the Susitna that was there earlier in the year during a training ride was frozen over.
After many miles on the Yentna River which is can be monotonous especially in the dark we arrived at Yentna Station our first checkpoint mile 60 at 10:00 pm.
We had a plate of spaghetti and went to bed for about 4 hours before eating more and finishing up the river section on the Yentna River in the dark and arriving at our second checkpoint Skwentna Roadhouse at mile 90 in the morning at daylight.
Day 2 Skwentna to Shell Lake 20 miles
We had breakfast and layed down to get a little more rest, but couldn’t really sleep. We left around noon with another bike racer Pierre Ostor. When we got to the “tunnel” of willows there was a moose cow in the trail that would not leave the trail into the 5 feet of snow off the trail. She was feeding right of the trail and signaled us that she was not going to let us by. After clapping our hands, blowing a whistle, yelling at her she had moved down the trail to about 200 yards from where the trail opens up into a big open swamp, but she was done moving. She had enough. This was her feeding trail. We were not welcome there, she wasn’t willing to share the trail with us, the trail and food tunnel was hers. Those ears went back and her hair on her neck stood up, her eyes rolling in her head. She took a run at Bill who was first in line with his bike across the trail to protect him from the moose attacking. My heart stopped cold. This was it. Bill was going to be stamped to death by a mad moose cow right in front of my eyes. I didn’t even think she could have stamped me as well since I was just behind him. And if she was still angry she could then go after Pierre. Please moose, take the bicycle and let Bill go. About 10 feet from him, he would throw up his arms and yell really loud. She whirled around and threw snow all over him.
I know that bears bluff charge, but I have never heard of a moose bluff charging.
Bill did not get killed that day by an angry moose cow. I thought for a second he was lost forever. More people get killed in Alaska by moose than by bears. We turned back 2 miles down the trail to Skwentna and waited for another 4 hours to give the moose time to go away. Some snow machines passed through and then we tried again to get through the willow tunnel. We made it!
But here she was again out on the swamp paralleling us on an older snow machine track that was not as firm as the main trail making her way back to the tunnel. She gave us one more angry look.
Pedal track snowmobiles had churned up the trail between Skwentna and Shell Lake. We arrived there late in the afternoon and after a burger and coke we decided to give the trail some time to set up and went to sleep in one of Zoe’s cabins.
Day 3 Shell Lake to Puntilla 57 miles
arriving at Fingerlake Lodge in the morning
At 4:00 am we got up had another burger that Zoe had made for us in the evening and went on to Fingerlake, We passed Mike Curiak’s tent shortly after. He had left Knik Lake just after our race start on his self supported trip to Nome. We made great time with trails at best as I have seen them on this stretch.
Getting to Fingerlake just by daylight we had more food and chatted with Carl Dixon the owner of the Lodge and off we went towards Puntilla. We made it there in 8 hours. The trails were so good this year !!
It is a good year for Nome I kept telling myself. Incredible fast trails all the way to Puntilla, couldn’t have been better. This is the year to go to Nome. The Happy River steps seemed so much easier this year, we got to the top in no time, piece a cake. We got into Puntilla before dark and I could see how beautiful this area was. In 2005 and 2006 I had gotten there in the dark both times. I was happy to get there where I could see. We learned from the checker and lodge caretaker Sharon that the trail brakers had not gotten through to Rohn in two days after leaving Puntilla and they were camped out 9 miles from Rohn. What happened? The lead pack of racers must have started piling up behind them or passed them braking their own trail?
We figured we were in no hurry leaving Puntilla.
Happy River Steps
Day 4 Puntilla to Rohn 45 miles
We left Puntilla at 5:00 AM and made it to Rohn just after sunset. We had -9 F and a stiff headwind for a few hours in the dark which subsided as we reached the mouth of the Pass. This section of trail can be one of the most challenging in the McGrath race. In 2006 there was extreme avalanche danger and we were hauled up in a shelter cabin just before the pass with wind chills off the chart and waited out over 24 hours before continuing on over the Pass. In 2005 I rode some on the Puntilla side and all the way to Rohn from Pass Creek and had the most fun downhill ride through the Dalzell Gorge. I have seen Rainy Pass at both ends of the scale of extreme.
Beautiful and stunning or with horrendous winds. This year the Pass was good to us.
The weather and views over the Pass were stunning!
top of Rainy Pass
entering Pass Creek