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Iditarod Invitational: God smiles on competitors

  • Author: Craig Medred
  • Updated: September 30, 2016
  • Published March 1, 2011

FINGER LAKE -- As the gods smiled on the mountains of the Alaska Range, Anchorage's Peter Basinger, one of the best endurance cyclists no one has ever heard of, was powering himself toward Rainy Pass at a record pace in the Iditarod Trail Invitational. The course record holder for the 350-mile wilderness race to McGrath, he was on pace to best his own record.

Behind him, another 30 or so cyclists, a few skiers and some hikers were stretched out for almost 100 miles along the Iditarod Trail to Yentna Station Roadhouse on the edge of a wilderness river only 40 miles from the fast-food, strip-mall development of Wasilla.

For all but three or four people chasing Basinger, the race -- if they'd ever really been in one -- was essentially over, but the adventure was just beginning. And what a glorious day for adventure this was. The temperature was in the high 20s. The winds were still. A bright sun washed over a landscape of rugged and magnificent peaks rising above broads valleys of untouched spruce forest.

The only sign of man's existence was the snowmachine trail that is the Iditarod so many adventurers follow. In places, it had been groomed almost smooth as a highway. In others, it was rougher, its surfaced mogulled. But even there, nearly all of it could be hiked with little problem or ridden on a bike with fat tires nearly 4 inches wide.

Joe Pollock and Janice Tower pedaled steadily through the sunshine washing the huge muskeg meadows south of here, the sun baking their face and sunglasses a necessary precaution against becoming "snowblind." When they stopped for a quick break, Tower noted the thermometer hanging off a zipper on the front of her bike read 37 degrees, but that was inaccurate, a measurement that included the heat captured by the black bag holding it.

It was a warm sun, and the two cyclists were clearly enjoying it. They appeared in no hurry to get rolling. The problem was not lack of energy or enthusiasm for the journey ahead, but beauty of the moment.

All around one could see that, only days before, the land had been hostile, probably vicious for travelers. The snows were frozen into a broken mass of drifts that looked like waves across the surface of a white sea. There were spruce tree limbs and branches scattered atop the snow far from any surface. It was clear the country had been simply blasted.

And now it seemed so friendly, so accommodating, so easy to enjoy.

"This is great," Tower said.

Then she and Pollock got back on their bikes and started pedaling for the Winterlake Lodge on Finger Lake, an establishment known for its world-class cuisine and its friendly staff. Dinner was waiting there.

Pollock and Tower would be arriving near sunset with the alpine glow washing the mountains tight behind the lodge.

Steve Lindback, a broadcasting executive from Anchorage, was already there with a group of friends who had arrived by snowmachine from Anchorage. They, too, had been agog at the scenery.

"Sometimes,'' Lindbeck said, "you just have to stop and think about how lucky you are to live in this place.''

None could have argued that point, whether at the back of the Invitational pack to the likes of Jay Petervary, Jeff Oatley and Greg Matyas still chasing Basinger at the front. It was so perfect that Kathi Merchant, co-organizer of the race with husband, Bill, wondered what there was to say.

The Invitational is famous in large part for the epic battles the competitors have fought with the terrain and the weather, which tends to be most unfriendly. This has come to define Invitational "news.''

By that standard, the story of Monday was that there was no news. It was only a perfect day in a little corner of paradise.

Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com

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