Two broken sleds and four Pepsis on the ski to McGrath: February 27 to March 6, 2022

By Forest Wagner, Professor of Outdoor Studies

Sliding on my belly downhill at speed on a graveled road ten miles south of Big Lake, an unintended Lampoon moment Chevy Chase might have appreciated, I found myself asking a perennial headline question: why am I here? The time was 5p. I was now 3 hours into day 1 of the Iditarod Trail Invitational. The ITI, now in its 21st year, is the latest iteration of Iditarod founder Joe Redington’s 1980s good idea, known then and still affectionately as Iditaski. Conditions on the Iditarod Trail were favorable for skiing this year. Our relatively warm temperatures last week and overabundance of snow this winter motivated a field of ten people from across the globe to sign up for the ski from Knik Lake to McGrath. 

Dusting myself off, not too abraded, I removed my skis, a decision prompted by the heavy gravel and generally icy non-snowy conditions of the road, and proceeded to run/walk in my ski boots north until the big kettle lakes of the Mat-Su appeared. Checkpoint one at Butterfly Lake was 25 miles from Knik Lake and once back on my skis I glided in at 9p, 90 minutes earlier than last year.

Butterfly Lake is not intuitive to find and there may be ten different okay but not really very straightforward routes to get there. Longtime ITI racers grumbled last year that the route deviated from the traditional trail and historic Flathorn Lake checkpoint, but for better or worse, Butterfly is the new spot. I like the location and this year with the warm conditions I checked in, ate some soup, then checked out. This was in part because I found myself in the company of European skiers, Asbjorn Bruun of Denmark, father and son Matthieu and Lucas Bonnier of France, and Jan Francke, of Czechoslovakia. We—the Europeans and me—had been traveling together from the start and when they packed up at Butterfly, I packed up. This is not to say we were at the front of the field. That honor went to fellow Alaskan Chet Fehrmann. Chet went so fast that he beat many of the bikers to Butterfly, and then later to McGrath, and the only evidence over the next few days of his passing were the skate marks he left from days before.

One funny thing about the ITI is that it is a race and as such competition is a central factor in decision making. I certainly wouldn’t have tried to ski that icy road near Big Lake if I was simply out for a tour, nor would I have gone to that road at all. But in my hasty study of landmarks leading to Butterfly, skiing the Iditarod Trail, then taking municipal roads up to Big Lake, looked to me the shortest way to Butterfly Lake. Whether this reasoning is true I do not know, but run walking on icy and gravely roads in my ski boots proved an interesting and undesirable massage, especially at the start of a 300-mile outing.

After my posting on the event last year Phil Marshall, local mountaineer and skier and my 7th grade science teacher, wrote me a postcard about his go at Iditaski. Apparently the first night of Phil’s race in the 1980s —the first race—was inundated with feet of snow, not unlike two of the last four years. The snow was so deep and travel so slow that Phil scratched at Flathorn, prompting him to rename the event Idiotski. Jim Lokken, colleague and longtime partner of Phil’s and also my 8th grade science teacher and running coach, continued on and finished the race. Throughout this year’s event I found myself invoking Marshall’s Idiotski for poor to horrible trail conditions, then contrasted this extreme with the often near magical glide and fast travel. Idiotski or Mountain Sublime, quite the spectrum.

And since the ITI is a race, I often fall back on my early coaching in skiing and running as a student here in Fairbanks. I remember clearly some racing advice from Jim Lokken: “Pass racers on the uphill while you are recovering, then pass everyone else on the downhill.” I spent some time in my youth wondering how I was supposed to recover on the uphill, and also why I should expect to pass other racers on the uphill and downhill. And although I have never been particularly competitive as an athlete, once someone says race and the course involves a hill, I hear Lokken and while I am “recovering” on the uphill, I also aim to pass others. Thus, when the Euros packed up at Butterfly, I packed up too. The night was young and travel fast.

The rest of that first night was uneventful, though it became quite cold. At 9a, fully 8 hours faster than last year, I arrived at Yentna Station at the front of the pack of skiers and quickly signed up for a bunk. After sleeping two hours I motored in the midday heat and good glide to Sqwentna, 30 miles upriver and the next Iditarod checkpoint. Arriving around 8p, I had begun to notice that my sled was acting a little funny, dragging too much and filling up with snow. The next morning at Shell Lake I confirmed my sled was failing, not the bullet proof UHMW plastic, but the seam on the front of the sled that helped create the curve of the bow. Somehow the corner of the seam had turned down and was ripping open, injecting snow into my sled and creating incredible load.

Around Shell Lake the Euros caught and passed me and the ski to Finger Lake, our next checkpoint, was soul searchingly slow. The next morning as I made my way to Puntilla Lake the trail turned to Idiotski. Not exactly terra incognita, the Iditarod Trail is greatly influenced by weather events and past travelers and 2022 was no different. Certainly the biggest travel challenges this year were 100-some miles of whoop-di-do wave train—tight, steep, rolling hills, in some cases 5 feet high— left by Iron Dog snowgo racers weeks before, conditions that featured prominently on the Happy Steps and trail to Puntilla. 

Iron Dog sledders travel from Knik to Nome and back at over 60mph and the race is the first major one on the Iditarod Trail of the spring season. This year fresh snow had fallen right before Iron Dog. Riders vying for position drive their machines fast and rev up their motors before ascending a big hill, a process that sprays snow back through the track and tunnel and makes a residual pile. The soft snow and steep rolling terrain of the treed section of the trail got turned into waves of jerking short, steep hills, quickly frozen solid as work hardened snow tends to do. All this to say that much of the trail was frankly unskiable and will likely be very hard on dogs, mushers, and particularly their sleds. 

My sled really didn’t like the whoop-di-dos. I will share here that by the time I reached Puntilla Lake I was emotionally invested in belittling my sled, the Iditarod Trail, and anyone who ever mentioned travel on the trail as desirable. I might have even shed a tear. The sled was filling up with snow so quickly, like every two minutes, that I had taken to carrying the entire contraption on my back. When I finally reached Puntilla Lake my ski colleagues were bedding down and I was stuck with the cold reality that if I didn’t find a new sled, my trip was over.  

Thankfully Steve Perrins of Rainy Pass Lodge, a historic 1930s era series of structures on Puntilla Lake, saved my trip. Don’t tell the race organizers, but we traded sleds. Steve gave me a sled his kids weren’t using, I gave him mine, still intact but functionally useless. Steve even let me use his shop to drill holes and re-rig my sled haul to the new sled. The next morning, at 430a and a little after my European friends left, I set out from Puntilla for Rainy Pass, my new sled gliding effortlessly.

This was my third trip through Rainy and the first one in daylight. Last year during Covid the ITI went to Rohn from Knik Lake, then turned around, went back up through Rainy Pass and ended in Big Lake. Both of my previous tours had been at night in full conditions, cold, driving snow and wind, and unlike that experience last year this go was almost pleasant. A tailwind blew the entire time, snow fell, maybe upwards of a foot, but the skiing was fast and by noon I was on top and heading down to the Dalzell Gorge and Rohn.

As is often the case, blue skies beckoned over the north side of the Alaska Range and I glided into Rohn around 4p. Surprised to find none of my fellows at the checkpoint, they’d all eaten and drunk and continued on with the nice weather, I checked in and out and the race was on. A few miles downriver at the confluence of the Tatina and the South Fork of the Kuskokwim rivers, I skirted deep open water by cutting into the woods above the Iditarod Trail. It was at this moment that conditions began to change.

Once in the woods I immediately snagged my down coat on a spruce tree. The shower of down feathers proved a harbinger of the night ahead, perhaps foreshadowing my fear and discouragement. Taping up my now freely delofting parka, I refound the Iditarod Trail and to my discouragement noticed the trail was Idiotski whoop-di-dooed. That, and the strong tail wind that had accompanied me across Rainy Pass was now gusting to hurricane force and of course it was getting dark.  

A gentler soul, one more motivated by reason, would have at this point called it for the night. But because my European friends were ahead of me, and because my new sled was gliding like a magic carpet, I continued on into the storm. As darkness fell, the snow on the trail diminished. Soon there wasn’t any snow at all. I was now properly in the Farewell Burn, an eerie section of trail that is also home to a transplanted bison herd. This is craggy country that is quite lonely and often so windy that whatever snow falls simply blows away. The burnt trees offer little cover and in the extreme winds were blowing over at their base. 

Unlike many in the ITI, those more savvy or more experienced, I had failed to bring along any ice cleats, a kind of mini crampon that attaches to ski boots or running shoes for extra traction. Instead, even sans snow, I left my skis on, relying on their metal edges as a form of traction. This isn’t a good plan for protecting your ski bases, nor a particularly fun way to move in the mountains. Idiotski. And when I did take my skis off the wind was so strong I worried the skis would get ripped from my hands and blown away. After struggling with navigation for a few hours, I found a group of live trees and stopped for a bivy.

My woman’s small sleeping bag, a three-quarter length system I imagined as pairing well with my parka, proved less adequate than I had hoped, and around 5a I decided to give Idiotski a try again. As I broke down my camp, first the Italian Pasquale Larocca, then Alaskan Jaclyn Arndt passed me, both of whom were skiers who were walking the Farewell Burn. Back in race mode, disgusted at myself for going to bed so early, I proceeded to travel about the same pace as Jaclyn for the next few miles.

The Farewell burn is also home to a number of frozen kettle lakes and around 7a, wind still gusting, I set across one such lake. Jaclyn, in her wisdom, was walking the edge in her ice cleats. Not having those, and wanting to get on with it, I strapped on my skis, double poled out onto the frozen lake, and then was immediately traveling way too fast, blown by the gusting wind 30 or maybe more miles per hour. Not wanting to go head over heels at the quickly approaching snow free edge of the lake I imagined instead, in another National Lampoon moment, that I would slide into a prone hockey stop and thereby lose some speed. Before I got to try this tactic a particularly strong wind hit me from the side, almost lifting me up. Then, BAM! My new sled hit a small tree sticking out of the lake and all forward motion ceased. The sled hit so hard I was thrown off my feet and landed on my back. 

A little shaken, and after getting up from the unplanned tree stop, I heard Jaclyn, who had observed the entire incident, say over the wind: “It’s amazing no one has been hurt out here.” I wanted to say, “People have. People have gotten really hurt. Mostly from frostbite. But life changeingly hurt.” But I didn’t say that. We couldn’t really talk over the wind. I instead pushed on, walking often, skiing some. When the ITI first started, competitors weren’t allowed GPS. Now every competitor is equipped with a Spot Tracker that allows real time tracking. This tracking function is fun for friends who might be watching but also powerful risk management for the race. If a tracker stops moving for a long enough time, though it make take a day or more for an actual response, someone from the ITI will go find out why. 

The trail from Rohn to Nikolai is about 72 miles. I had maybe 60 miles or so to go from the violent tree stop on the ice lake to the small Dene community of Nikolai and the going was slow. And to make matters worse, while walking a section of whoop-di-dos midday my sled flipped over and on inspection it sported a spider web of cracks, presumably from the impact on the ice lake. The sled looked terrible. Maybe if I was carrying a roll of duct tape the sled might have been okay, but who carries a roll of duct tape in a multi-day subarctic ultra marathon? The sled had already lost a significant piece of its side. Rather than emotionally commit a response to my new sled’s untimely demise, I unhooked the sled bag and carried it on my back.

Around 5p, skiing conditions improved. With 30 miles to go to Nikolai the rolling hills of the Alaska Range laid down into the flat river country of the Interior. Idiotski became a distant memory and I began sublimely gliding, so much so that I spent the next ten hours double poling and striding. I even put the sled bag back in the sled and hoped for the best. Around 1:30a a brilliant and intense full green to red aurora borealis burst across the ski. The display was short, but vivid, and buoyed me into Nikolai. 

The next morning, after sleeping only a few hours in Nikolai, I woke sufficiently exhausted to consider alternative morning wake-up strategies. In the Nikolai Community Center where we were staying $2 a piece Pepsi’s were for sale, the soda pop was an entrepreneurial idea of one of the girls of the village. The first Pepsi went down so easy I drank three more. Sufficiently motivated, I pointed my skis to McGrath, arriving at 1a in the town of 400 folks after six and a half days on the trail. Much of the whoop-di-do section of Iditarod I walked and the remainder I classic skied or double-poled, so much so that my wrist strips began impacting my hand sensation. My second sled bravely lasted until the streets of McGrath where it, to my bemusement, tore in half.

Unlike last year, where challenging conditions made the skiing slow and sleep deprivation led to hallucinations, this year the skiing was really quite good and the hallucinations, if they occurred, were mild. And although there was much sign of moose, I thankfully never had to yield the trail to any of them. If you’re interested in following the hardy few of this year’s ITI who are headed to Nome, including my friends and fellow skiers Asbjorn, Mathieu, and Jan, check out the ITI tracker link: https://itialaska.com/tracking. Chances are good the remaining 650 miles of Iditarod will keep this resilient group occupied for the rest of the month.