RAINY PASS -- Twice on Tuesday, Coloradan Tracey Petervary pedaled her fat-tire bike down the Iditarod Trail to the notorious Happy River steps though this wasn't her plan. Blame the curse of the Iron Dog.
Beyond Red Lake below the Finger Lake checkpoint for the Iditarod Trail Invitational on the south slope of the Alaska Range, there are two well-marked Iditarod Trails -- the one the Iditarod Trail sled Dog Race followed when it first went from Anchorage to Nome, and another the Iron Dog snowmachine race, marked when the mechanical beasts chased the dogs up the trail from Wasilla to Nome for the first time a few years later.
Neither is the original Iditarod Trail. The original trail had been long abandoned by the time the sled-dog race got started.
So the sled dog trail, as a matter of convenience, followed one of Finger Lake dog musher Gene Leonard's trapping trails north along creeks, over beaver dams, across frozen beaver ponds and through willow thickets. The trail has never been good and at times has been very bad, with holes along the creeks waiting to waylay a snowmachine or dogsled. So the Iron Dog marked a variation on the dog route.
The Iron Dog trail leaves the dog trail at the edge of Finger Lake, rejoins it at Red Lake, and then shares the route for a few miles to where it takes a hard left, climbs a steep little hill, and settles into winding through the woods and a few muskegs to the top of the Happy River Steps. It is often the better of the two trails, and so the bikers, skiers and hikers in the muscle-powered race that follows Iron Dog up the trail tend to jump onto the Iron Dog route.
Petervary went out on that trail almost to within sight of the first of the three steps down to the Happy River. But just before she got there, she took a right turn that started her back to Finger Lake on the dog trail. It is easy enough mistake to make even if you're not tired. Both trails bend and kink so much that constant turns to the right and left are normal.
A veteran of the Iditarod Trail Invitational, the tired Petervary never gave a thought to the idea she might somehow lose her way on the trail, or had lost her way.
She was having a nice ride. The trail was firm. The temperatures were mild. It seemed like it was taking an awfully long time to get to the Happy Steps, but she pedaled on until she came to the base of the long, steep hill that drops from the Finger checkpoint to Red Lake.
She recognized where she was then, but didn't believe it.
"I was thinking, 'How could this happen?'" she said here Tuesday. "'How did I get back here?'"
She'd eventually figure it out after pushing back to the checkpoint, taking a nap, and then heading out on the trail again. "I went all the way back because I was almost there anyway," she said.
"Did you go all deja vu?" asked fellow cyclist Janice Tower from Anchorage.
"It was the Finger Lake One Lap," Petervary said. "That's what it was, but it wasn't bad."
Things might have been different if it had been a grueling push-a-thon on a soft and snowy trail, she added, but it wasn't. It was pleasant, night ride followed by a nice, 15-mile-long pedal through spectacular Alaska scenery on the sun-kissed day that followed. Petervary sunburned her face. Her sunglasses left her with a raccoon's mask. She was in a good mood when she checked in here.
So were Tower and Joe Pollack from Anchorage, who also got lost. They went down the dog trail, decided they were on the wrong trail, and then turned back to get on the Iron Dog trail, which is at the moment in better shape than the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Trail -- at least for people.
A monster of a windstorm that came roaring off the south slope of the Alaska Range during the Iron Dog left both trails littered with blown-down spruce trees. Many of the trees are still across the dog trail. Snowmachiners who went down the Iron Dog trail wove new tracks around the blowdowns there. The cyclists, skiers and hikers in the 350-mile Invitational race over the range to McGrath didn't have any problems following this serpentine route, but the confusion of options and the tight turns would be tough for a dog team.
The damage done by the wind was significant. Along with blowing down trees, it scoured and drifted snows in large areas from Shell Lake north through Finger to the top of Rainy Pass. The ski-plane runway on Puntilla Lake here had to be relocated because the drifting was so bad. The conditions were not, however, slowing the bikers at the front of the Invitational, an event open to all muscle-powered athletes but dominated by those who pedal fat-tired bikes.
One of the cyclists, Invitational course record holder Peter Basinger was out of Rohn in the heart of the Alaska Range by midday Tuesday and heading across the blackened forest of the past summer's Farewell Lake forest fire toward what used to be the Farewell Burn. The Burn, one of Alaska's largest ever wildfires, grew back into a young forest years ago, but now there came a new burn to replace it along the trail.
Basinger, who grew up in Anchorage and now teaches in McGrath, appeared on pace to set a new course record at time in the range of 3 1/2 days. Behind him, the competition seemed to be easing off. Past champs Jeff Oatley from Fairbanks and Jay Petervary, Tracey's husband, were 3 1/2 hours behind Basinger leaving Rohn. And there was a new rider in the hunt.
Bill Fleming, one of the principals in the Anchorage bicycle shop, Chain Reaction, had passed Greg Matyas, the proprietor of Speedway Cycles in Anchorage. The two men are serious competitors in the now large and still growing market for fat-tired bikes, and there is a bit of a shop rivalry. Fleming was no doubt taking a little pleasure in his move into second, but Matyas could take some solace that his former employee, Basinger, was still at the front on a Speedway "Fatback." Basinger worked as a mechanic at Speedway while attending the University of Alaska Anchorage.
Behind those four men, the race stretched back and over the Alaska Range for nearly 100 miles to where some of the last hikers were just leaving Skwenta, the last community before Nikolai on the north side of the range.
Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com.