Into the North Wind: A thousand-mile bicycle adventure across frozen Alaska
By Jill Homer; Arctic Glass Press; 2016; 192 pages; $9.95
If you're one of the wannabes storming the trails near Anchorage or Fairbanks on your fat-tire bike, thinking you have what it takes to ride to Nome in the Iditarod Trail Invitational, read Jill Homer's new book "Into the North Wind" first. Homer, who set the women's bike division record with her 2016 victory, doesn't mince words about how challenging this 1,000-mile race is.
"I felt brave enough to check my thermometer," she writes, of a moment late in the journey as she approached the Topkok Hills between White Mountain and Safety. "Minus 24 isn't unusual or extreme for this part of the world. Minus 24 would be fine, really, if I'd worn all the correct layers to begin with, and I wasn't soaked in my own sweat. But because I was wet, a chill clamped down the moment I stopped, and every second compounded the danger. If warmth becomes violent shivering in five minutes, one can only surmise the proximity of deadly hypothermia."
A few pages, and quite a few miles, earlier she had been actively hallucinating. A page beyond the above quote she adds, "I did start to cry, but only briefly. Tears froze to my cheeks, a shocking sensation that cut the faucet immediately."
Homer's sixth book
Homer, a former Alaskan now living in Colorado, is a journalist, blogger and the author of six books who knows how to tell a personal adventure tale. "Into the North Wind" puts readers in the saddle and leaves no question of just how difficult it is to cross Alaska in winter under one's own power.
By Homer's estimation, she's wasn't supposed to become an über athlete. She was just a suburban girl from Utah who grew up in a Mormon household, never expecting to do anything other than become a housewife. Then she visited her then-boyfriend in Homer, Alaska, in 2005, took a job with the local paper, started winter biking because it looked fun and, well, we know how these stories sometimes play out. Eventually, Homer left the boyfriend and Alaska behind, but she keeps returning to the North because of the bike and the trails.
Once she started winter biking, Homer gradually worked her way up through the racing circuit, competing in the White Mountains 100 and the shorter 350-mile Iditarod Invitational to McGrath. Before long, she made a name for herself in Alaska's small and close-knit extreme endurance sports community. It was only a matter of time before she went the distance.
Homer didn't arrive at the starting line of the 2016 Invitational in the best of condition. The previous year she had attempted a recreational ride out of Unalakleet, intending to intersect with her partner, Swiss-born Beat Jegerlehner, who was racing in the foot division. Extreme winds forced her back and left her wondering if she had what it takes to complete the entire race.
One setback after another
Over the next 12 months, she experienced a series of setbacks in every race she entered. In the Tour Divide bike race over the Great Divide from Alberta to New Mexico — where she set the women's course record in 2009 (a record that stood three years) — she contracted pneumonia and had to scratch in Colorado. Before fully recovering, she entered an ultramarathon around Mount Blanc, the 15,771-foot peak along the French-Italian border, and was again forced out by failing lungs. The same happened again in an Idaho winter bike race she had intended as a training run.
Her confidence shattered, she landed in Anchorage March of last year, greeted by unseasonable warmth, which meant a sloppy race start at Knik Lake. It was an inauspicious beginning, but it soon got interesting.
As with her prior book, "8,000 Miles Across Alaska," about — and cowritten with — Tim Hewitt, who has now finished the walking division of the Iditarod Trail Invitational 10 times (six of those in first place), the new book offers readers a sense of the historic trail not found in accounts by dog mushers. Perhaps this is due to both the slower pace of humans, as well as the fact that their attention isn't focused on the needs of a dog team. For those seeking a mental picture of a route that can range from strikingly beautiful to hopelessly desolate and sometimes frighteningly dangerous, both of these books deliver.
"Into the North Wind" also clues readers in to the camaraderie that Invitational entrants enjoy, both with each other and with residents of the villages along the way who throw open their homes and school buildings to racers. Villagers feed the racers, provide showers and baths and cheer them on. For Homer, the closest friendship along the way developed with Mike Beiergrohslein, an indefatigable and perpetually optimistic Anchorage pharmacist who, through the latter half of the race, was never too far ahead or behind the author. (He reached Nome just four hours after Homer.)
As she fought her way onward, struggling against her own body as much as the trail, Homer heard she was within reach of the women's record but didn't think it was doable. Her lungs still bore lingering traces of the pneumonia and she suffered numbness in her right hand throughout the race, a problem whenever she needed to push the bike up an incline or hit the brakes hard going down a hill. Her problem was subsequently diagnosed as severe carpal tunnel syndrome that required surgery.
Even as she arrived in Nome, she didn't know she'd set the record.
"Into the North Wind" is a great book, and it's a challenge to cross the finish line with Homer and not get choked up. She has a way of winning you over. Readers who decide they now need to do this for themselves will have an inkling of what's involved. It's quite an accomplishment, and there are good reasons why so few people have done it.
David A. James is a Fairbanks-based writer and critic.