Wednesday, March 14, 2018

All Alone Atop Rainy Pass - The 2018 Iditarod Trail Invitational

“You had an easy time on the Ice Shelf. I gave you good weather; a flat, firm surface and mountains to guage your progress by. You took advantage of the conditions and made good distance.  On the Beardmore Glacier I tested you and you were found wanting. But you were resourceful and persistent. I rewarded you again with fine weather. But now on this high plateau I want to know how much you want to claim your prize. You will have to earn every inch you claim off me. For I shall resist you every step of the way with the wind and the cold. As you weaken, I will strengthen.”
- In the Footsteps of Shackleton

To the skies I wailed, questioning, pleading with who ever, whatever was dealing the hand I was being forced to play. “What is it you want from me?!?!’

Hauntingly, without emotion, carried on the Arctic winds that now slammed the shores of my soul, the return came … “Everything.”

It was day four of the 2018 Iditarod Trail Invitational, dubbed, rightly so I was finding out, “The World’s Oldest and Toughest Winter Ultra-Marathon.

17 hours earlier, I had left the safety of the Hunter’s cabin at Rainy Pass Lodge behind. 

Slowly being swallowed whole by the Alaska landscape upon which it had been built seemingly centuries before, it had provided the perfect respite before launching into the crux of the event, Rainy Pass.

The front door swung open easily, the heat from the recently stoked wood stove warmed body and soul like a mother’s hug. Save for a blinding, trail washing ground blizzard the night prior (5 miles of the scariest time I’d ever spent on a FatBike), the event had been all I had hoped to this point. Equal parts beast and beauty, the interior of Alaska was on full display.

A large black pot perched atop the roaring stove held the treasures which I had pushed, pulled and pedaled my bike all morning and half the afternoon for (maybe 30 miles). 

Some of the cans, simmering for hours, were without label. It matters not. Calories, WARM calories were gold. Pure gold. And we were the “rushers” of our day. This cabin and these 12 oz cans, labels floating amongst them were the fortune sought. 

At that moment, more valuable than gold, I pitied anyone who may have sights on “jumping” my claim. Violence would have most certainly ensued. Opening the can, it’s contents revealed. Chili. I’m not sure today’s price of gold ($1320/oz.) could have bought that can. Or the next....nor the one that followed that.

The sign in sheet listed all who had proceeded me, their time “in” and time “out”. I’d left the Wall tent at Finger Lake that morning with Martin and Jill around 5 am. Great partners in crime. Quick to laugh. Tough as sun cooked leather. 

Early on it became increasingly evident the body was willing but the mind was not. Perhaps it was the other way around. Regardless, just a few hours into the morning, a gentle glow rising over the Alaskan range, a decision needed to be made. Continue on miserable or “do my work”.

“Do your work out there.” That was Jay Petervary’s advice to me over dinner many nights prior. It was Jay’s 10th ITI on a bike. His advice born out of 1000’s of winter miles in this land without conscience. At that moment, doing my work meant finding a safe, comfortable place off trail to “Bivvy”.  

Decision made, instantly the mind’s discontent and anger relented. The thought of a trail side breakfast and nap had quieted the fussy baby. It also made the next few miles pass easily. No longer was I on Mile whatever of seemingly endless whatever’s, rather now it was a “Bivvy” treasure hunt. Each turn in the trail my gaze shifted left then right in search of just the right spot; a location that would require minimum or no digging or clearing of snow. 

Morning temps were at or below zero so although not dangerous, ease of set up and take down were still important. Even in these temperatures, mild by Alaskan standards, standing around for long was still unpleasant. 

Another right turn and the trail presented an opportunity. Two pieces of wood, maybe six feet in length and a couple inches wide advised against a hard right. Stopping to investigate further it looked to be a snowmobile trail that left unmarked might have led to racers unknowingly going off route. What it lacked in route correctness it more than made up for in Bivvy perfection. The “off limits” trail, already packed and X marked by the two pieces of lathe, would allow for a peaceful rest with no chance of getting run over by bike or snow machine. 

An added bonus? Once my sleeping system was laid out, taken easily off the bike’s front handlebars, I realized, looking up, that I'd have a perfect view of the back lit, virgin white mountains. A finer freeze dried breakfast vantage point one could not have hoped for.  

Prior to laying out my portable arctic bedroom I’d got breakfast cooking. These steps were not random. They had been well thought out and practiced, learning from those before me who had shared freely of trail earned wisdom.

"Get the bike leaned up and stable, get your puffy coat on so the generated body heat from the ride thus far did not escape." The insatiable tundra delighted in such feasts. The mind guided me through the steps without delay. "Grab the freeze dried breakfast skillet from the back left “food” pannier and pour in the still hot water from the thermos" ... filled earlier with this exact possibility in mind. Once the water was added and bag resealed, breakfast could cook while the bed was being made.

The bed roll was another system all unto itself. Sleep pad, bag and Bivvy sack all rolled into one, it took just minutes from handlebar to snow floor.  Once laid out, I snuggled comfortably inside, boots and all and opened up a now piping hot breakfast. I’d done “my work”. 

On the trail, especially the Iditarod trail, as in life, not all goes to plan. Far from it. Be flexible to the inevitable changes, accept them.  Solve the problem presented and continue on. Do this enough and you get to claim the prize. Rage against, and perhaps you make it through, but at what cost? And perhaps you do not.

Hours prior, as the three of us broke camp together in the dark of night, stars too many to count our companion, the plan had been for us to get to Rainy Pass Lodge, refuel and if weather allowed, move on quickly, up and over Rainy Pass. 

Alaska had different plans for me. A different test to take. Unable to keep pace with Martin, Jill and now Kim who had joined our party soon after the depart, the test was being served. My presence was being requested. "Breakfast, Bivvy for one, Mr. Cannon?" Who was I to say no? It seemed more an order than a request anyway. 

My gaze, mind rendered silent by the warmth my 20 degree below zero bag provided and a belly increasingly more joyous with each bite of now hydrated breakfast skillet, fell upon the mountains. Night slowly relented and the snow covered masterpiece in front of me changed in appearance from moment to moment. A blue bird sky the perfect canvas. Shadows and sunlight danced across the majestic peaks. It seemed as if, knowing I had heeded the call, passed the test, done “my work” that this was my reward.  Alaska was proving, once again, to be quite the host.

The mountain symphony slowly, imperceptibly, became a gentle lullaby. All around me began drifting away.  This place, for the time being had brought me to her bosom, holding me tightly as one of her own. No longer was there a race. There was nothing waiting ahead, no place to get to or from. Simply this. A boy who had nearly thrown his life away, now a man making up for lost time. An unquenchable thirst to drink from life’s chalice. To, as the runner, 82 years young, crossing the finish line of a 100 mile run had once said to me...”Live life like your running out of time Steve.”

Swabbing my finger through the foil bags insides, not a drop to be wasted, I finished off the last few bits of breakfast. Leaning my head back, parka now pillow, unable and unwanting to fight the nap now overtaking me, I gave thanks for all things. Gratitude gave way to a perfectly peaceful winter sleep.

Upon my waking, my bedroom view would be the sun cresting the mountains, fulfilling it’s promise of a brand new day. 

Before the sun would once again relent to the horizon, another test, miles down trail, waited. Rainy Pass.

This test would be the ultimate “pass/fail”. If I got it wrong, the consequences would be dire. As kind a place as this could be, it was equally capable of, without regret, handing out the harshest of penalties for corners cut or poor decisions made. 

Mother Nature's words to Shackleton would visit me again soon...

“You will have to earn every inch you claim off me. For I shall resist you every step of the way with the wind and the cold. As you weaken, I will strengthen. I must now know how much you want to claim your prize.”

- The End



This concludes "All Alone Atop Rainy Pass - The Iditarod Trail Invitational". 


This is an excerpt from my 3rd book which will release later this year, "In Search of Yukon Cornelius".


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