At 9 PM I texted my buddy Bernie: “Adventure tomorrow?”
An hour and a half later, we’ve wrangled two more friends into our scheme and we have a plan: our friend Daniel and I will park my truck on one end of the T-200 trail and Bernie and Parker will park on the other end. We’ll ride in teams of two from one end to the other and both parties will have a vehicle waiting.
The following morning is the Tustumena 200 sled dog race—a fantastic time to bike over the Caribou Hills and partake in some dog mushing excitement.
In the morning, Daniel and I drive the highway north out of Homer and turn onto a rural road, toward the hills, at the village of Ninilchich; the road is plowed but surfaced in mirror-smooth ice. In four-wheel drive, I creep the final 16 miles to Freddie’s Roadhouse.
We pull into the parking lot and the familiar wall of sound reaches our ears: hundreds of excited canine athletes howling, barking, and shrieking. When talking to our musher friends, we have to yell to be heard over the cacophony.
A team starts their Tustumena 200 race...
Mushing legend, Lance Mackey...
A few minutes later the race marshal begins calling mushers into the starting chute and I position myself to capture photographs. The fever pitch nears a crescendo, but when the marshal says, “go,” and the dog driver offers, “hike,” the teams go silent. This is the moment the dogs have been impatient for. Thousands of years of genetic and cultural identity whisk past; my camera shutters and stutters to capture a fleeting glimpse.
Daniel and I share a similar impatience to be underway. It’s the end of January and the days are still fairly short at our latitude. As soon as the last teams disappear down the trail, we don our over-boots, pack our bags for the day and ready ourselves to bike back to our side of the peninsula, across the Caribou Hills, on the heels of the dogs.
The sun filters through a hazy cloud layer and periodically breaks through, broadcasting a beautiful, low-hung glow over the hills we are riding over. Our tires noisily crunch on the thawed and re-frozen surface of the trail. The sound is too loud to communicate over in anything less than a yell, so we both happily retreat to our private thoughts and marvel at our beautiful backyard surroundings.
I stop to snap a photo and remove a layer. Five minutes later we see our friends approaching. Bernie, in the spirit of the day, has harnessed his sled dog, Dulche, and she is the first to greet us as we approach.
“There’s a little overflow and a big patch of ice but otherwise the trail is great,” they inform us. Both Daniel and I are wearing waterproof over-boots and our tires are studded. The report is good.
As we talk, I start to cool down and know that I don’t want to linger too long. Dulche is even more impatient. She strains against her harness while Bernie clamps down on both brakes and finishes his story about how dicey it was to cross the icy section, without studs, being pulled by his sled dog. Dulche has finally heard enough; she takes a half step back and then lurches forward as if to say, “let’s go already!” We all laugh at her antic but take the hint. It’s time to go.
As we ride along, occasionally spotting a dog bootie and swerving to avoid little piles of poo, I think about how fat bikes and dog mushing are connected.
In the mid 1970s, Alaska musher Joe Redington saw the writing on the wall—dog-mushing culture was being replaced by snow machines and motorized travel. In an effort to keep this beautiful, millennia-old culture alive, he began organizing races and transitioned what used to be a purely utilitarian mode of transportation into sport. Joe’s tireless efforts finally led to the Iditarod—the world’s most prestigious, long-distance dogsled race.
Not long after the first Iditarod, Joe encouraged other user groups to use the trail too, including cyclists. The annual event—the Iditabike and later Iditasport—inspired shade-tree innovators to come up with bike designs that gave the rider an advantage on the variable snow and ice conditions. Without the Iditarod, there’d likely not be fat bikes.
The last of the dim glow from the orange sunset filters through the taiga forest as we near the parking lot. I enjoy pushing on without using a headlight whenever possible. It becomes officially dark as we pull up to Bernie’s truck and locate the hidden key. We had squeezed the day to the final drop.
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