YENTNA STATION ROADHOUSE -- All night a bright moon shown over this wilderness outpost along the Yentna River of Southcentral Alaska, and beneath it moved a parade of gaily colored fat-tire cyclists and hikers bound for points north along the Iditarod Trail.
One by one, they pulled into the sprawling, rough hewn lodge here in the big bend on the river to the sign through the checkpoint for the 2013 Iditarod Trail Invitational, take on water and calories, and enjoy the hospitality of the Gabryszak family. Dan, Jean and the kids have become an institution along the ever-changing glacial river where the owners of other lodges have come and gone regularly over the decades.
Dan and Jean have hung on, though some of the kids have left for bigger things. Daughter Kimber, who moved away from the homestead to pursue an education and ended up with a degree in city planning from the University of Utah, is now on the verge of becoming one of those Olympians of whom most Americans have never heard.
A girl who grew up in the flatlands along this river into the Alaska Range, she is now a woman who goes downhill fast on a skeleton, the face-first cousin of the luge. A former competitive cyclist, she was introduced to the skeleton in 2005 by then boyfriend and now husband Brad Stewart and is today battling to make the U.S. Olympic team.
She made the U.S. World Cup team for the third time this year and is vying for a spot in the 2014 Olympics in Japan.
Justifiably proud parents Dan and Jean found a way to drop a mention of the family Olympian as the rotation of cyclists and hikers rolled through the lodge the Sunday night. The connection to a world-class athlete caught the attention of most, but the big attraction seemed to be Dan's vat of thick, meat-rich, homemade chicken noodle soup.
Three gallons of it were gone before the first light started to crack in the swamps long the river.
"I needed the salt," said cyclist Eszter Horanyi from Crested Butte, Colo., as she sat at the 16-foot-long counter off the kitchen.
Nearby burning wood popped in the toasty warm stove. Outside the night time temperature was falling and a small peloton of Invitational-experienced cyclists led by former champs Jeff Oatley from Fairbanks and Jay Petervary from Victor, Idaho, were already on the trail rolling north toward Skwentna at mile 90.
"Where are the boys?" Horanyi asked. Told they were already about an hour ahead, Horanyi did not linger long.
She was gone from the lodge before defending and three-in-a-row Iditarod champ Peter Basinger, now from Moab, Utah, rolled in.
Basinger, who grew up in Anchorage and worked as a school teacher in McGrath on the Kuskokwim River over the Alaska Range north of here before moving to Bend, Ore., to run the office of Anchorage fat-bike manufacturer "Fatback Bikes," is facing a bit of a struggle this year.
On the river Sunday night, as he pedaled north at a steady pace with a small gang of others, he shouted out a question to a Dispatch reporter who'd parked his snowmachine in the dark along the river to take photos.
"How far ahead are those guys?" he asked.
"Aren't you supposed to be one of those guys?" came the answer.
"Not this year," Basinger said.
Whether that proves to be true remains to be see. The Invitational is not a competition that goes to the those fastest out of the starting chute. The race is won by those who can grind out the steadiest pace for 350 miles from the starting line at Knik to Basinger's old haunt of McGrath.
Heavy snows last year made it a such a sufferfest that a pair of hikers -- one an aging Pennsylvania attorney and Iditarod Trail legend named Tim Hewitt and the other a Western States 100-Mile Endurance Run record holder named Goeff Roes from Alaska -- led the race over the mountains and threatened to win only to be caught by a persistent gang of bike-pushing chasers led by Basinger.
A pass swept clean of snow by the winds in many places helped them close the gap on the leaders, and once the race broke into the always drier country north of the range, the wheel again showed its Invitational dominance. Basinger claimed another victory, his sixth, in McGrath. He was followed by veteran Invitational cyclist Phil Hofstetter from Nome and Pavel Richtr from Czech Republic.
Roes finished fourth. Hewitt came in fifth four-hours behind Roes and for the first time in years went home.
McGrath is the finish line for most Invitational entrants, but this is a race within a race that keeps going all the way to end of the Iditarod Trial in Nome. Hewitt has gone the distance six times, but the conditions were so tough last year that even he dropped out at McGrath.
More than half of the field had quit by Skwenta, only 90 miles into the adventure. That, coupled with the fact none of the 50 entrants made the Nome finish line, pretty much sealed the Invitational's reputation as one of the toughest endurance races in the world.
Undeterred by the struggles of 2012, Hewitt is back this year planning to go all the way to Nome unsupported. Others resupply at the checkpoints along the trail. Hewitt has chosen to pull a sled full of food that weighs more than 100 pounds, more than two-thirds of his body weight. He admits this is a grand experiment to see how far he can go without support. He has his eyes on a crossing of Antarctica in the future if he succeeds in 1,000 miles on the Iditarod without resupply and without sleeping indoors anywhere along the trail.
Most racers grab some sack time in warm checkpoints. And most racers this year will be a lot faster than Hewitt. The lead cyclists, carrying the absolute minimum in safety equipment, powered into Skwentna in the wee hours Monday. Hewitt was still back along the Yentna River not far from its confluence with the Susitna where many spent hours wandering in maze of trail-marking stakes trying to figure out just which trail was the right trail to get them north.
This Iditarod phenomenon is not unknown. The late Joe Redington, the founder of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog and a man who knew the country well, admitted to getting lost in much the same place during an Iditarod past. For the man or woman, on the trail, too many trails can be almost as much of a headache at times as no trail.
Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com