Saxophonist Barry MacAlpine -- a sometimes surveyor, a lifelong student of mathematics, a true-to-the-core Alaska eccentric and dog lover, was one of the pioneer mushers in the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race. He lined up on the starting line in 1973 when the 1,000-mile race to Nome was nothing more than the dream of the late Joe Redington, an elfin man who was himself a bit eccentric. Redington did not enter that first race, but he went on to complete 15 Iditarods and rock the mushing world by finishing fifth in 1988 at age 71.
MacAlpine did not live to see his 71st birthday, and he never did make it all the way up the Iditarod Trail. He died, tragically, in a fire at his home in a suburb outside of Anchorage in 2007 surrounded by his dogs. He was 70. One of his sons, Norman, lived his dad's dream and completed the Iditarod in 1983.
Norman, who now makes his home in the western Alaska community of Bethel, was then 18 and the youngest to complete the Last Great Race. For years after his success, his father continued to contemplate the idea of making his own Iditarod run, but it never came to pass.
This year, though, Barry will at long last make his way up the trail, sort of, on a bike. Another of Barry's sons, Robin, is packing his father’s ashes off toward the Interior as one of the fat-tire-bike riders in the Iditarod Trail Invitational. Robin said Wednesday that he's been thinking about this journey through the wilderness ever since Barry died.
"I was going to do it with dogs,'' he said. "I wanted to take my dad's ashes up the trail, but I work out in McGrath,'' and the logistics of maintaining a dog team in that Iditarod checkpoint community are difficult.
Biking simpler than mushing
McGrath is a community of fewer than 350 people along the Kuskokwim River about 220 miles northwest of Anchorage on the north side of the Alaska Range. Great mushing traditions are rooted there, and some once-renown mushing families lived there. But today, McGrath is home to relatively few dogs. Costs are prohibitive. Most food is flown in. A 40-pound bag of dog food at the local store goes for about $50, approximately twice the cost of Anchorage.
Between that and the time it takes to care for and train a dog team, a man needs to make a huge commitment to run the dog race. "It's 24-7,'' said Robin, and not just for one year, but for the several it takes to build a team. The director of technology for the Iditarod Area School District, Robin said he really didn't have the time to train a dog team -- even if he could come up with the money.
Enter the fat-tire bike, which Robin stumbled onto by accident thanks to Peter Basinger from Anchorage, a five-time winner of the Invitational, who just happened to be teaching school in McGrath last year. "I needed to take a ride up the road to visit mom,'' Robin said, "and I asked if I could borrow his bike.''
Robin had no idea about Basinger's cycling résumé. A teacher and bike mechanic who grew up in Anchorage, Basinger has a long list of victories or near-victories in endurance biking events all over the country, though he doesn't talk about it much. "Here he was this super, rock-star stud athlete, and I had no idea,'' Robin said.
In the small Interior community of McGrath, Basinger was just another resident who enjoyed physical exercise and happened to have a bike with four-inch-wide tires. Robin borrowed it, rode it, found the ride interesting and started talking to Basinger about winter cycling. One thing led to another and the madness began.
'People thought he was crazy'
"My dad rode a bike a lot in the winter, too,'' said Robin, now 50. "People thought he was crazy.''
That was back in the days before fat-tired bikes became a fad. Now, they challenge cross-country skiing as the most popular form of muscle-powered winter recreation in parts of Alaska, and the people who ride are considered only half crazy.
Or at least those who ride the trails in and around the larger communities in the 49th state are considered only half crazy. To take on the Iditarod Trail on a bike is another matter. One has to be little closer to crazy than halfway to do that. There's not much out there in the way of support. Racers need to take care of themselves. The riding often is miserable. Usually, there's a lot of pushing. In 2009, things got really ugly when a massive snowstorm buried the race in the Alaska Range.
Cyclists that year did a fair bit of bike throwing -- as in toss the bike ahead onto the waist-deep snow in front of you, drag yourself to the bike, toss the bike ahead onto the waist-deep snow and repeat endlessly.
The Tour de France this ain't. The Tour is brutal on a physiological level. On that level, the Invitational is merely tough. It's on the physical and psychological levels the Invitational turns brutal. Temperatures have dropped to 50 degrees below zero along the course, making frostbite a serious danger. The enormity of the terrain has scared more than a few racers into quitting. There's a big, lonely country out there.
The few checkpoints are tens of miles apart, and they don't amount to much: The Gabryszak family at the Yentna Station Roadhouse, the "census-designated place'' of Skwentna, the Dixons and their gang of helpers at Winterlake Lodge, the Perrins at Perrins Rainy Pass Lodge, Zoe Brinker at Shell Lake Lodge between Skwentna and Finger Lake, a lone log cabin and some Iditarod volunteers at Rohn, with a big stop in Nikolai, a largely Native community of about 100 people. That's pretty much everybody spread along the more than 250 miles of trail north of Yentna Station.
Wilderness survival skills
Forty-eight somewhat-crazy adventure seekers -- 30 veterans and 18 rookies, including Robin -- take off onto that trail Sunday. The Invitational field is limited to 50; two have already dropped out. The rest have been vetted by Invitational organizers Bill and Kathi Merchant, who won't let just anyone into the race. It's too dangerous, even on the first leg -- a 350-mile push from near Redington's old haunt in the community of Knik up and over the Alaska Range to McGrath.
Wilderness survival skills, along with fitness and determination, are vital. An Australian who wandered off the trail and got lost in 2009 wasn't found for days. He spent a lot of time huddling in his sleeping bag in snow caves after deciding it was pointless to keep pushing his bike through the snow. Bikes have become the preferred form of travel in the Invitational, although Pennsylvanian Tim Hewitt, a human form of the Energizer Bunny, is back again this year with a plan to hike the 1,000 miles from Knik to Nome for an unprecedented seventh time. Eleven others hope to join him in pushing on for 750 miles past McGrath for the City of the Golden Sands. The field is, as usual, heavy with foreigners. Most come from Europe, a few from Canada, in search of the adventure of a lifetime.
The cast of characters includes a former Canadian Olympic cyclist now in his 60s and several past Invitational champs. The race starts outside the Knik Bar with none of the fanfare that will turn the start of the dog race into a circus a week later at Willow. Robin said he'll be happy to make McGrath with his dad's ashes this year, but he's looking ahead to doing the entire trail.
"Obviously I'd love to take dad's ashes to Nome,'' he said, "but to get them out on the trail this year is just wonderful.''
He is confident of getting home to McGrath, despite some difficulties training there this winter. The National Weather Service reported January was the coldest month in McGrath history. The average monthly temperature was near 30 degrees below zero, some 22 degrees colder than the average. For 10 days, the thermometer hit minus-50 or colder.
Robin didn't get to do a lot of riding in that weather.
"It's painful,'' he said. "Things break so easily. Difficult is probably a mild word. It was so cold you really couldn't be outside. But I would chop wood. I would pull sleds. I would try to be outside.''
He'd also go to what passes for the "club'' in McGrath to ride an exercise bike. An experienced triathlete, he knew he had to get in a proper amount of saddle time before a big race. A former squash player, he also admits he isn't in the best shape of his life. But who is at 50? He does believe he is ready.
"I can't imagine anything that would make me quit,'' he said, noting that after Bill Merchant broke his back during his racing days yet hiked most of the way to McGrath on the Iditarod Trail.
"That, to me, is the epitome of not giving up,'' said Robin, who said he's prepared to walk if need be. He's already done a lot of push-a-bike exercise in training. "I roughed out a training trail through a trapper’s line for 22 miles (around McGrath),'' he said. "I might push 15 of that'' on a regular training ride, if such an outing can be called a ride. "This will be the first time for me to go up the Iditarod Trail,'' Robin added, "but I'm thinking, realistically, I can make it in five or six days. Despite my lack of experience, I'm relatively tough. I'll be disappointed if I'm not there in five days.''
Robin does have some athletic credentials he doesn't bother mentioning. He's a former state champion wrestler who won a collegiate national title while at Central Washington University. He was in position to qualify for the 1980 U.S. Olympic team, but his opportunity to compete at that level vanished. President Jimmy Carter pushed through a U.S. boycott after the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, and Robin put his wrestling career behind him. Already a member of the U.S. National Wrestling Hall of Fame, he's due to be inducted into the Central Washington Athletic Hall of Fame this summer.
After wrestling, he became an avid cyclist and eventually a triathlete to stay in shape. That he doesn't talk much about past athletic accomplishments gives him a lot in common with Basinger.
'Just love it'
"I can't say enough good things about Peter," Robin said. "Everyone says, 'He's such a nice guy. He's such a great guy.' It's all true. He helped me buy my bike. He literally helped me put it together. Here was this super-stud athlete nobody knows about, and he never told me anything. I just found he had this weird bike. I had no idea about the rest of it.''
Or at least Robin didn't until he started peppering Basinger with questions and pried out of him some stories of the Iditarod Trail. From then on, it was all downhill for a man who's had a certain passion for the Iditarod Trail since he was a boy.
"I love the dogs,'' he said. "I love the idea (of Iditarod). But, realistically, it's just so much easier to do it with the bike, because I can do it myself. I started snowbiking and I just love it."
Or at least he did. Time will tell how he feels about it when he finally gets home to McGrath. It's a long ride.
Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com