YENTNA STATION ROADHOUSE -- One thing about the far north hasn't changed since Archdeacon Hudson Stuck roamed the country by dogsled 100 years ago: The best gift one winter traveler can give another is a trail.
Thus it was with enthusiasm that Iditarod Invitational racer Peter Basinger greeted a snowmachine at the confluence of the Susitna and Yentna Rivers on Monday morning where the landscape was buried beneath more than two feet of fresh snow.
Through the afternoon Sunday, then into the night and the start of a new day, Basinger had largely pushed a fat-tired bike north toward the Alaska Range and faraway McGrath. A five-time winner and defending champion in the Iditarod Trail Invitational, he started Sunday in Knik at the head of the historic Iditarod Trail.
Like other experienced Invitational cyclists in this race open to any form of human-powered transportation, he quickly abandoned the snowy trail in favor of Susitna Valley roads that cover 15 to 20 miles of rolling country to where the Iditarod Trail crosses the Little Susitna River. Even in a snowstorm, cyclists can ride those roads.
Where the roads end near the Little Su is a heavily traveled snowmachine trail that can usually be ridden all the way to the Susitna River and a reconnection with the Iditarod. Not this time. By darkness Sunday, Basinger -- who most agree is the best if not necessarily the strongest cyclist in the race -- had begun doing what every other cyclist had done since the race started: pushing. The trail behind them told the story. It looked to have been trampled by a herd of cows pulling carts.
But these were not cattle blindly wandering; these were people pursuing a crazy dream of biking, snowshoeing or hiking a staggering 350 miles up and over the Alaska Range to a tiny and remote community of a few hundred people on the banks of the wild Kuskokwim River. There, the first stage of the Invitational ends. Most of the 48 entrants will be happy to get that far, though about a dozen -- Basinger among them -- say they plan to push on another 750 miles to Nome at the end of the Iditarod Trail.
Time will tell. Nome was looking far off on Monday.
Twenty-four hours into the race -- if one can really call this fine madness a race -- Basinger and a couple other leaders had yet to sleep and had put just 50 miles behind them. Young, fit and well trained, they were on the verge of being run down by an aging lawyer.
Behind them, Tim Hewitt, a 57-year-old runner and hiker from Pennsylvania, was closing in. Hewitt is no stranger to the Iditarod Trail. Six times he’s hiked its length to Nome. It is, the barrister has said, his annual escape from he insane pace of the modern world. Along the trail, everything moves at nature's pace, and nature's pace is sometimes awfully slow.
Hellish conditions, little trail to speak of
Monday was the slowest of days. Not even the snowshoe hares or red squirrels were moving. Everything was shut down to wait out a storm that in places dumped close to three feet of snow on the lower Yentna River valley. The only things moving were Invitational racers.
Sometimes nature makes them pay for this. More than a few cyclists were already talking about bailing or at least modifying their mode of transport as the outlines of the hurdle before them became increasingly clear. After a break in the snowfall, another big storm was rumored to be on the way.
"We might not make Yentna tonight," racer Brij Potnis of Anchorage told friend James Keck, now living in Africa, as they stopped pushing their bikes to take a breather in the shelter of a small stand of spruce that offered protection from the wind that sometimes blew the snow sideways.
"Should we just drop our bikes here?" Keck asked.
"And enroll in the foot division?" Potnis said. Keck looked at him like he might be a little crazy.
Back in southcentral Africa, a world away from southcentral Alaska, Keck figured the temperature was probably "in the 80s, but humid and maybe raining."
"Yeah, but rain doesn't accumulate this fast," Potnis said.
No, no it does not. Snow by then was piling up by the inch per hour. It only snowed harder and grew deeper as Potnis, Keck and others plowed north. They did not make the Yentna that night. No one did. By late afternoon Monday, as the race rolled into its second day, nobody could tell who might get there by nightfall.
The temperature was near freezing. Snow that started falling as fluff had turned increasingly to glop, making for tough walking.
Many racers camped Sunday night short of the Susitna River, only about 35 miles into the race. It was not a bad decision. By mid-morning Monday, the campers weren't far behind those who'd broken trail all night. The hiking and bike pushing was ever-so-slightly easier for the followers than for the leaders, though it was easy for no one.
"Don't blame me for this," Potnis told his friends, noting that only days before the race began a fat-tire biker could ride snowmachine trails to the Susitna River in a few hours. Now, even snowmachines were having trouble. At Luce's, a usually bustling lodge along the Yentna that has in recent years become an unofficial checkpoint in the Iditarod Invitational, it was strangely quiet. The only clients at lunch time were a couple snowmachiners from Wasilla with a cabin nearby. They'd come out for the weekend, and by Monday were hoping some other machines would come down the river and break out a better trail to town. They spent much of the day killing time, but never saw much traffic.
On a river often abuzz with snowmachiners, only two went past Luce's all day.
Hikers lead race Monday night
As Monday night fell, the race's leaders had finally made it to Luce's, too, and planned to spend the next several hours waiting and hoping and praying that the trail sets up. By 8 p.m. it had finally stopped snowing. The temperature was falling. A couple of skiers, from Indiana, had led the pack into Luce's.
Just behind them, a gang of hikers began to roll in. None of the race's bikers had yet arrived. All told, Invitational racers were probably making about 3 mph. Slow going.
Hewitt rested a while and then left, quickly, as the other hikers began to trail in. He was snowshoeing out, but hoped the trail would set enough for him to eventually resume hiking.
Alaska was making it clear once again that it remains a land where nature still rules when she wants.
Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com