Salsa sponsored rider Kim McNett shares a moment of gratitude from 2016. -Kid
When the year starts to come to an end and the nights grow long, it’s time for solstice celebration. This year, Bjorn and I decided to get into the spirit by heading out on the Iditarod Trail route for a 4-night bikepacking trip. We loaded up our winter shelter, complete with a Titanium Goat woodstove, and made the drive from Homer to Willow. We parked the truck and packed the bikes.
“There’s no trail for you down there; it’s soft and there’s open water. I’m afraid you’ve jumped the gun,” said a local old-timer from his truck window. Our hearts sank. Had we just made that long drive through the bad winter weather and holiday-advertising horror show just to get shut down at the trailhead? We were so greatly looking forward to leaving the hoopla behind for some wild tranquility.
“Well, I’m just going to go check it out anyway,” I said and took off with my loaded Blackborow. Down the hill, and past the boat launch, I suddenly realized that I was riding on the frozen river. There was a trail! It wasn’t hard-packed, but it was totally ridable. Under a late afternoon snowfall, we gleefully embarked on our solstice ride.
Last spring, Bjorn and I were on the opposite end of this iconic, 1,100-mile trail. Like muscle memory, the feeling of being underway on the Iditarod settled in. Except this time something was different. We weren’t even remotely concerned about how far we would make it. We weren’t trying to get over Rainy Pass, or between two far-flung villages. We were here simply to celebrate our love for the winter world and the shortest days of the year.
Riding only by daylight meant riding, well, not all that long. Our days consisted of admiring the frosted trees, the soft pink light on the mountains and the long shadows on the river as we wound our way down the Susitna, then up the Yetna. We shuttered at the sight of open holes where we could see the cold river flowing under rising plumes of ice fog. Our faces and fur ruffs collected frost as the temperatures steadily dropped day by day.
Our nights were long and luxurious. We spent time doing our standard chores: pitching the tent, assembling the stove, and harvesting firewood. Bjorn, having forgotten his inflatable sleeping pad, collected spruce sprigs and dead grass to help insulate him against the snow. And then, when we were all settled in and the stove was glowing bright, we feasted on delicacies, read our books, and relished the calm simplicity of life on the trail.
About half way up the Yetna River, we were beginning to wonder when we should turn around. We rounded a big oxbow bend and there was the sign for Yetna Station!
Roadhouses, or trailside stations, used to be far more common in Alaska, but you can still find them now. They are often large log homes where families live and take in travelers, providing them with necessities such as food, water, coffee, lodging, supplies, advice, and good stories. Each has an incredibly unique character because, essentially, you are just visiting someone’s home. Cheerful holiday decorations festooned the ceiling and historical posters covered the walls. In the living room, we kicked back with the lodge owner and his nephew as we enjoyed cold beers and a hot meal. It was a fine destination, indeed.
As the sun set on our last day, Sleeping Lady (Mt. Susitna) dressed in a pure white gown and wrapped herself in a purple blanket of fog for the night. By then, we were well versed in our routine, perfectly adapted to survive the longest night of the year. The stars jingled and the temperature dropped to 10 below. Perhaps the northern lights came out to dance. We would never know. We were fast asleep.
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I like to cover a lot of ground, but racing and finishing routes quickly is not usually a primary goal of mine. In the winter, I ride snow machine/dog sled trails, which can stretch for hundreds of miles across the frozen Alaskan landscape. In the summer, a combination of beach riding, pack rafting, trail riding, and 'bike-whacking' allows for innovative and explorative routes.