2016 ITI, or a Mid-winter Bikepacking Traverse of the Alaska Range
By Guest Blogger Leah Gruhn
Editor’s note: Guest blogger Leah Gruhn embarks on the 2016 Iditarod Trail Invitational (ITI). It’s an experience unlike any other, and she provides insights from a first-time adventure in colorful words and captivating imagery.
For more than 100 years, Alaska’s Iditarod Trail has been the world’s proving ground for wintertime feats of endurance. Spurring the development of fat-tire bikes and wintertime cycling, a new crop of endurance athletes now races on a route best known for dog mushing events. For a 350-mile race, the remoteness and unpredictable weather combine to create the pinnacle of winter ultra-marathons, and this was my chance to face that peak.
Starting at Knik Lake near the Pacific Ocean (not far from Anchorage), the Iditarod Trail Invitational (ITI) follows the historic Iditarod Trail along meandering rivers, across the Alaska Range, and into the interior of Alaska. Since 2002, the ITI has invited a small number of cyclists to push beyond their limits, and challenge themselves mentally and physically.
For me, the ITI concluded a busy winter race schedule, which also included Wisconsin’s Tuscobia 160, Minnesota’s Arrowhead 135, and Manitoba’s Actif Epica 160K. Each of these races sharpened my strategy for staying safe in the cold, riding on soft snow, and staying well-fueled and -hydrated. Perhaps more important, they reaffirmed the importance of the mental aspects of these long races, in particular, the boost that can come from riding with others, and the need to stay patient when the trail becomes an endless thin white line.
This winter featured exceptionally warm temperatures for Alaska. With very low snowpack at lower elevations and record snowpack in the mountains, course organizers predicted fast riding speeds at the start of the race and slower speeds in the mountains.
My husband, Jeré Mohr, was racing in the 130-mile ITI, and would be my riding partner for that distance. He was a late entrant into the event, taking advantage of another racer’s last-minute cancellation, registering just two weeks before the start (like how some people sign up on a whim for a 5K running race). However, having raced the Tuscobia 80 and Arrowhead 135 the month prior, he was well-trained, -equipped, and -qualified to join in.
The pre-race festivities started February 28 with cheeseburgers and Cokes at the Knik Bar. The race started at 2 p.m. at Knik Lake in above-freezing temperatures with a muddy parking lot, grassy meadows, and standing water on the lake. When the starting gun was fired (yes, a real gun—this is Alaska, after all), all 63 racers proceeded onto and across the frozen lake. Being wary of all of the racers’ mass on the ice, some of us made an effort to spread out from each other to distribute the weight. Fortunately, the ice held, and the 45NRTH studded Dillinger 5 tires gave superb traction on the otherwise slippery and wet surface.
Once across the lake, those studs enabled my Beargrease to keep the rubber side down on the rutted icy and muddy trail through the woods and to a road. After 10 miles on pavement and gravel, the trail continued onto a gas pipeline corridor with a snowy surface. Soon my husband and I rode across Flat Horn Lake with a close-up view of Mt. Susitna, but once again the water-covered ice did not instill confidence as it creaked and moved beneath us.
Trails through the woods brought us to the frozen Susitna River, and for the remainder of the evening, we rode through occasional drizzle on the wide Yentna and Skwentna rivers to the Yentna Station and Skwentna Roadhouse checkpoints (at miles 59 and 90, respectively). Our pace was surprisingly fast, because the rivers had little to no snow on the surface, often consisting of just bare ice. We felt strong and fresh early in the race, and the great conditions and the company of one other, as well as other racers, energized us. After a dinner of chicken soup and cheese pizza at the Skwentna Roadhouse checkpoint, we lay down in a private cabin and set an alarm to wake us up after three hours of rest; fatigued, we accidentally overslept an extra hour and a half. In hindsight, the extra rest was likely beneficial.
Hustling out of Skwentna Roadhouse at dawn, we continued on the river through the freezing fog of the higher elevation. We reached the Shell Lake Lodge for a glass of Tang and a refill of water. From there, we entered the foothills of the Alaska Range and encountered frozen slush on lakes and holes in the ice a few feet in diameter. With water and floating ice chunks, I’m still not sure if the holes were open all of the way through, but I wasn’t about to reach in to find out! As we climbed in elevation, the snow deepened to a few feet, but the trail was still mostly rideable with the exception of one twisty uphill singletrack section.
Finally, we reached the Winterlake Lodge checkpoint (at mile 130) on Finger Lake, the end of the race for my riding partner. After a hearty meal of breakfast burritos, I got my first drop bag and said goodbye to Jeré. From there he would take a deHavilland Otter ski plane back to Anchorage with the other racers who raced the 130-mile distance. Well-fed and resupplied, I headed on down the trail by myself. In the warm (30–40 degree F) sunny afternoon, the trail had softened, and the snow felt greasy. The trail climbed and climbed, and because conditions were soft, there was much hike-a-biking.
Well into the evening and following a wolverine sighting, I finally reached the Rainy Pass Lodge checkpoint (at mile 165) on Puntilla Lake. There I ate two packages of ramen soup before I took a nap for a few hours. There were many racers already sleeping in the cabin on cots, a bunk bed, and a couch. (Fortunately, I got the last cot. Unfortunately, there were no extra blankets.) Despite the efforts of the wood stove, the cabin still felt frigid and drafty. To avoid having to remove my sleeping bag from my bike, I curled up in my hooded down parka and wrapped my soft shell jacket over my damp feet, but it still left me cold and shivering. When fellow racer Ken Zylstra got up to go back out on the trail, he draped a sleeping bag over me. It felt like a warm hug, and for the next hour I fell into a deep sleep.
After a few ZZZs on the cot, it was time to get ready to head back out. Because the hot, salty ramen soup hit the spot the night before, I figured that another package would make for a tasty breakfast. That’s three packages of ramen soup over a four-hour period—then the MSG-fueled thirst kicked in! To try to rehydrate, I drank some diluted Tang and left the cabin at 3:30 a.m. with fellow racer Jim Ishman. I would spend much of the rest of the race riding with him.
In the dark, none of the mountains were visible. Most years racers don’t even know when they cross Happy Creek, as it’s usually snow-covered. This year, however, it was open and flowing, shin-deep and more than 30 feet across with no bridge or route around. Crossing the creek required lightweight waders or the removal altogether of socks and boots, and carrying the loaded bikes. Eventually a pink sunrise illuminated the view of snowy mountains that looked to be out of a backcountry ski video. Much of the trail on this section up to the pass consisted of dry, blowing snow that was very soft and required more walking. Even though Ken Zylstra and others had covered the trail just more than an hour ahead of me, the trail was drifted in and at times difficult to follow up to Rainy Pass. This is the high point of the Iditarod Trail at 3,350 feet above sea level.
After obligatory photos at the pass, I descended the north side through an alpine meadow and across more open-water creek crossings. The section into the Dalzell Gorge was fun with screaming downhills and berms that felt like it could have been a purpose-built singletrack flow trail. Once inside the Gorge, the trail alternated between the right and left banks of the swift river, with natural ice bridges here and there. Where those crossings did not exist, an Iditarod trail crew had recently installed bridges using logs and snow; a misstep off of the bridge could send a person into the rushing river below. The fun and beauty of the trail on the descent to Rohn, combined with warm mid-day temperatures, made this likely the most fun day of biking for me—ever.
Although the ice bridges felt solid when I crossed, warm temperatures over the subsequent days caused some of the bridges to deteriorate. Days later, a racer on foot, Peter Ripmaster, had a near-death experience when he broke through an ice bridge, got swept away in deep ice-cold water, pulled himself out of the river onto the ice, and ran 3 or 4 miles to the Rohn checkpoint to warm up and put on dry clothes.
Once at the checkpoint tent (mile 200), I picked up the contents of my second and final food drop bag. Trail conditions for the race so far had been good and fast, and I was making better time than I had expected. I had packed enough food for six days, but was on track to finish in three and a half, so I had a lot of extra that I didn’t need nor want to carry. I left most of my drop bag behind at the checkpoint in a pile of food that was up for grabs for other racers, and I also mined that same pile for food from other racers that looked far more appealing than what I had packed. This made me feel like a kid at school lunch, dissatisfied with the lunch from home, trading food with the other kids.
After leaving the Rohn checkpoint with Jim, we were in the rain shadow of the Alaska Range and in an area hit by forest fires in 1978 and 2010 that was devoid of snow for approximately 18 miles. Riding on the dirt and ice was fast and easy, but I worried for the integrity of the sleds of the Iditarod dogsled mushers that would come through a week later, since they can break when traveling across the dirt. When we would take a break from riding and look around behind us, we got a brilliant view of the Alaska Range irradiated by the setting sun in evening hours.
To be continued …
About the Guest Blogger—Leah Gruhn
Leah Gruhn grew up in Rhode Island and developed a love of wilderness adventure in the far north as a teenager on summer canoe trips in northern Minnesota and the Canadian Arctic. After moving to Duluth, Minnesota, she became an avid cross-country skier and winter camper, and later competed in northern Minnesota’s Arrowhead 135 on cross-country skis. The following year Leah raced the Arrowhead on fatbike and quickly got hooked on long fatbike races. In total she has competed in six Arrowhead 135s, the ITI, Tuscobia Ultra, and Actif Epica.
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