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Iditarod Invitational: Call of the Wild under aurora borealis

  • Author: Craig Medred
  • Updated: July 6, 2016
  • Published March 3, 2011

ROHN -- In an old log cabin near Puntilla Lake at the south entrance to Rainy Pass, high in the Alaska Range, German business executive Harald Schiff confessed he'd told only a few friends and acquaintances where he was going and what he planned to do on his vacation to America.

Of those who know he is pedaling a fat-tired bike 350 miles through the last great wilderness in North America, "I think most of the people admire it a little bit," Schiff said.

And the others?

"It's different,'' Schiff said."I have not told everyone."

Some, he admitted, might think him crazy -- and he is crazy.

"We're all crazy," Coloradan Mark Ruda observed during the next stop, at Pass Creek on the north side of the range. Then he smiled. Around him America's last great, awe-inspiring wilderness rose into white peaks ripping at a blue sky. The stillness was so quiet you could hear it, the air sweet and brittle in the cold.

Yes, nearly all of the entrants in the 350-mile Iditarod Trail Invitational race are crazy, or at least a little so, in the way the best of the human species have always been crazy. These are the people like Columbus, who go off in search of new adventures; the people like Edison who challenge themselves to do things people aren't supposed to be able to do.

These are the people who have defined human progress for more than 10,000 years.

At 54, Schiff has no hope of winning this race. Peter Basinger, who grew up in Anchorage and now teaches in McGrath, was almost to the finish line of the Iditarod Trail Invitational in that tiny community, nearly 100 miles farther north along the Iditarod Trail, as Schiff reached the last checkpoint before the pass through the mountains.

Basinger had won the Iditarod Trail Invitational for the fifth time, by the time Schiff left Rohn.

'Call of the Wild' and scratching primordial itches

Schiff isn't racing so much as scratching a primordial itch for adventure. This adventure began when he queried transplanted German Kathi Merchant -- co-organizer of the Invitational with husband, Bill -- about taking a ride on the Iditarod Trail connecting Seward to Nome.

Schiff was thinking summer. She explained little of the Iditarod Trail exists in summer. Much of the route is built on the surfaces of frozen rivers, frozen lakes, frozen swamps and sea ice. Kathi, who along with Bill, runs a guiding business called "Alaska Ultrasport," suggested Schiff think about a winter ride on the trail.

"It was very interesting,'' said Schiff, who'd never done any winter biking before. But he had a fair bit of experience in other endurance sports, and he liked the looks of what he saw in photographs of the Iditarod Trail.

One thing led to another, and he was paying $900 for the support and resupply that makes it possible to take a 350-mile winter ride on the Iditarod. The reality of the trail has more than lived up to his dreams.

A slightly built man with close-cropped hair and spectacles, Schiff was tired when he reached this checkpoint, but alive with excitement about his journey. He was well aware of how the 2011 Invitational has been blessed by the weather.

Since the start Sunday in Knik, the skies have been clear and the weather mild. The trail has been mostly firm and easy to ride on fat-bike tires nearly 4 inches wide. The mountains have loomed as dragon-toothed cutouts against a background of blue. And the vast fields of snow have shimmered in sunshine.

As for the nights -- ah, the nights.

"I didn't see any clouds, but I saw a lot of northern lights," he said. "We had northern lights when I went to the outhouse."

High on excitement and Iditarod adrenaline

He thought then about those back home in Germany who might think him a little daft for doing what he is doing.

"If that's the price I have to pay," he said, "I love to pay it. It is so much fun."

By Wednesday night, he was tucked into a sardine-like row of sleeping bags in a wood-heated tent at Rohn. They were trying to sleep, but there was so much enthusiasm in the tent it was hard. Everyone had stories to tell. Everyone was high on excitement.

"I wish I was tired when I lay down in these races as when I'm at work at 3 o'clock,'' said Steve Wilkinson, a mechanical engineer from England.

He, like Schiff, had told only a select few of his friends what he was doing. "My mum says, 'I wish you weren't going,'" he said. As for the friends, "most of them, they don't understand. There's no point in trying."

It's that old "Call of the Wild" thing; that "because it's there" attraction. It's that yearning to abandon the comforts of comfort to see what sort of animal still lives within.

Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com

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