Just shy of Nome, after more than two weeks on the Iditarod Trail, fat-tire cyclist Jay Petervary met the nightmare of the Bering Sea coast traveler: Blowhole.
Petervary, an ultra-marathon cyclist from Colorado and a veteran of the 1,000-mile Iditarod pedal across the wilds of Alaska, couldn't quite believe it. He'd been warned before about this phenomenon, but in past trips north he'd never witnessed it.
Now, he found himself caught in a white maelstrom. Petervary knew what he had to do -- keep pedaling.
Exactly why blowholes develop has never been fully explained. Weather forecasters say they arise between cold, high-pressure air over the Alaska arctic mainland and warmer, low-pressure air in the Bering Sea, but the scientists are hard pressed to explain exactly why or where they develop.
A white curtain of hell
Some observers explain the phenomenon as a result of the Venturi effect. Air moving through Seward Peninsula mountains from east to west is forced to accelerate to keep up with air moving over the tops of the mountains, according to that theory. Why the faster air ends up touching down, almost tornado-like, in places along the 30 miles or so of coastline east of Nome, however, remains a bit of a mystery.
Bill Merchant, organizer of the Iditarod Trail Invitational from Knik to Nome, said he has seen blowhole conditions push a white curtain of hell across the Iditarod Trail. What he describes sounds almost like the special effects for a movie: A deadly blizzard raging just an arm's length away from calm, clear air.
Merchant said there were times he swore he could stand on the trail in calm, zero degree weather and reach an arm into a storm of cold, blowing snow screaming across the landscape at 40 to 50 mph or more. Such wind and cold can frostbite exposed fingers in minutes. A blowhole nearly killed a musher in the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race in 1992 when his team stalled in one. Petervary can now understand why.
"That thing was intense,'' he said. The cyclist had to lean way into the wind to keep from being blown over.
"When I was still able to ride, I was at a 30 degree tilt,'' he said. "It was funny stupid that the wind could be that strong.''
Part way through the storm, Petervary encountered Phil Hofstetter on a snowmachine. A Nome resident and last year's winner of the Iditarod Invitational race to Nome, Hofstetter had come out to check on Petervary. Hofstetter's advice to his fat-tire bike racing colleague -- don't stop.
Petervary pedaled on. Another snowmachiner came by. He offered contrary advice. He told Petervary to find shelter, or he would most certainly die. Petervary didn't know what to believe, but he figured it better to trust someone he knew from the trail -- Hofstetter -- than someone he didn't.
Petervary pushed on. Hours later, he pedaled into Nome to win the 2011 Invitational in a time of 17 days, 6 hours. It was the fastest a bicyclist has ever covered the southern route of the Iditarod from Ophir west through the ghost town of Iditarod itself to Shageluk and then north up the Yukon River, but he only beat Englishman Aidan Harding by about three hours.
And Harding did the 1,000-mile ride the old-fashioned way -- on a bike with but one speed. Sure, he cheated a bit. His bike, like Petervary's, was outfitted with four-inch wide Fatback tires, but a single-speed still makes the riding either harder or slower, depending on conditions.
Just behind Petervary and Harding, came Tracey Petervary, Jay's wife, who he left at White Mountain so he could race to the finish to beat Harding. She told him to go. She got some rest in White Mountain, an always friendly village, and arrived in Nome in 18 days, 6 hours and 30 minutes. She now holds the women's record for both the southern route of the Iditarod, and the northern from Ophir north through the ghost town of Poorman to Ruby and then west down the Yukon.
Neither Harding nor Tracey saw a hint of a blowhole. By the time they arrived at where Jay had been nearly blown off his bike, the wind had again calmed to zero. But Tracey said she did have some wind.
Going along the Bering Sea coast from Golovin to Elim, she said, there was a monster tail wind that helped her get her fat-tired bike up to 15 mph on the snow-covered trail. She ended up passing dogs teams in the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race then streaming toward Nome.
"I've never had that happen before,'' she said, adding that at least one shocked musher made the same observation as Tracey went flying by.
Petervarys no longer Iditarod 'whackos'
All three riders credited their generally fast times along the trail to firm snow conditions and incredibly cooperative weather. For more than two weeks, even on Jay's blowhole day, skies were clear and temperatures generally remained above zero, a radical change from the year before, when the thermometer was hitting 40 and 50 degrees below zero.
Jay and Tracey were split on whether the trail was as good as in 2010, when that extreme cold turned the snow to white pavement, but they agreed the weather was a big upside. Tracey's biggest problem was that she suffered sunburn on her face. The trail, Jay argued, wasn't as fast as last year, but it could be ridden.
"We didn't push 100 miles, if that,'' he said, "Maybe 80. It wasn't a lot, but it was the weather that was great. It was an awesome trip. The southern route is way more beautiful, way more interesting. There's more life out there on that southern route. There's no life on the northern route.''
Just as importantly, after several years on the trail, the Petervarys and most other Invitational cyclists and hikers are now accepted as established Iditarod travelers instead of some sort of whackos taking their lives in their hands by venturing into the wilderness of Alaska in winter. (One back-of-the-pack musher in the dog race this year quit and went home because race officials told him it would be too "dangerous'' to travel "alone,'' even though he had a dozen of his best friends with him.)
As Jay noted, however, travel on the trail is not that dangerous if you know what you are doing. The first Alaskans were doing it as a matter of course for thousands of years before the white men got here, and the first Alaskans never thought twice about it.
"Years ago,'' Jay added, "people didn't even like us. Now they sort of get into it. People see I'm prepared now, that I'm not an idiot. I'm friends with a bunch of mushers, some of the trail breakers, villagers.''
These relationships might arguably have prevented Jay from shaving some time off the Invitational course record of 15 days, 1 hour and 15 minutes set by Mike Curiak in 2000. Jay might have come close if he and Tracey hadn't spent two and a half days hanging out in the ghost town of Iditarod with some dog-race folk.
"It felt like a party. It was fun,'' Jay said.
Iditarod Invitational's 'Energizer Bunny' walks 1,000 miles
Given commitment and the right conditions, Curiak believes a cyclist could easily break 15 days on the ride to Nome, and possibly go as low as 12 days. A 12-day race this year would have put a cyclist to Nome more than a day and a half in front of Ellen Halverson of Wasilla, this year's Red Lantern, who closed out the Iditarod dog race by becoming the last dog musher to cross the finish line on Sunday.
Tim Hewitt from Pennsylvania, the Energizer Bunny of the Iditarod Trail, beat her there. He arrived in Nome on Saturday night after a 1,000 mile walk from Knik. The Invitational competitors start their race near the home of Iditarod dog race founder Joe Redington, which makes the Invitational race 30 to 40 miles longer than the dog race that starts at Willow a week later.
A little man who keeps going and going and going, Hewitt this year was eating up the firm trail so fast that he actually caught the Petervarys at Iditarod at halfway and passed them close behind the trail-breaking snowmachines of the Iditarod dog race. He was on snowshoes as the Petervarys watched him leave on a still new and soft trail.
They sat around for a few hours until the trail set up in the cold, then hopped on their fat-tired bikes and promptly passed Hewitt. His lead was short-lived. He never caught up, but did send a good humored e-mail to race-organizer Bill Merchant from along the trail noting that in the contest of man against machine, the machines won, again.
Still, what Hewitt ended up accomplishing when he was done on the Iditarod Trail this year is no small feat.
The 55-year-old barrister walked from Knik to Nome in 20 days 7 hours 17 minutes -- a full five days faster than anyone had ever hiked the southern route before. He considers this his annual wilderness vacation. The gold miners who hiked the Iditarod Trail to Nome to chase their fortunes -- and most of them did hike -- would have been proud.
Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com