Words and photos by Kurt Refsnider (@kurt.refsnider)
A sudden burst of light flashed through the green wall of my tent, startling me awake. I felt my heart beating forcefully in my chest as I listened to the frigid, silent night. The muffled jingling of metal and the sound of something sliding across snow grew more audible, and then the light flashed brightly past again. I quickly propped my shoulders up and looked out the half-open door just in time to see 14 dogs powering past over the top of the ridge upon which we were camped. Behind the dogs, the moonlit figure of a musher stood upon a sled, bundled up with a massive parka and snow pants. And within seconds, they disappeared into a forest of scraggly black spruce.
“Did you see that?!” Nicholas excitedly asked from his tent, set up just a few meters from mine. “I think that’s the first team!” The Iditarod racers had caught up to us. I looked at the time on my watch – 2:30 am. Then I looked at my small thermometer – minus 24 F. I squirmed back into my massive sleeping bag and fell asleep wondering what it would feel like to be pulled so quietly through the night by so many animals.
The next morning, we were back on the trail by the somewhat warmer 11 o’clock hour, crunching over dozens of dog prints on the enjoyably firm trail. I relished the relaxed start to the morning – coffee, a large pot of oats, more coffee, and watching dog teams pass by. A few days earlier, I had wrapped up an incredibly challenging race of my own along the first 300 miles of the Iditarod Trail, winning aboard my Pivot Les Fat in 100 hours on just 10 or 11 hours of sleep. My muscles and knees still ached from the effort, and my energy level was far below normal. But I had traveled all the way from Arizona to Alaska, so when Nicholas Carman asked if I wanted to tour farther down the trail with him after the race, I couldn’t easily refuse. Unfortunately, four days of rest, binge eating, and an endless stream of coffee is close to four weeks shy of complete recovery from that sort of race.
Those first couple days back on the trail, I puttered along as Nicholas excitedly sprinted off into the distance. His legs were eager to pedal fast after having been volunteering at one of the race checkpoints. Pedaling even at my slow speed required considerable effort despite the favorable trail conditions. This first leg of our journey would be around 5 days and 220 miles between the villages of Takotna and Ruby. In between, there was nothing aside from a couple of checkpoints for the dogsled race, so our bikes were heavily laden with food. I managed to eat my 5 days of snacks in just two days. So much for rationing.
The Iditarod Trail itself is little more than a narrow track packed by a small number of snowmachines, sinuously crossing the interior of Alaska for nearly a thousand miles. Communities along the trail are few and far between, and the only time the trail is reasonably passable is around the dogsled race – after the last mushers go through, traffic on most of the trail goes to zero. So, we hoped to keep up with the race for as long as we could, meaning we were trying to do 45 to 50 miles a day. With good conditions (meaning minimal bike pushing), that distance translated to 8+ hours in the saddle.
We quickly fell into a rhythm of breaking camp or leaving a shelter cabin by mid-morning and pedaling steadily until an hour or two after sunset. The scattered cabins and their wood stoves offered a warm night and a chance to dry damp gear, but I found nights nestled into my small tent and lofty sleeping bag marvelously comfortable. Mushers and their teams passed us regularly, and often we had entertaining conversations consisting of a few sentences as they passed – many seemed impressed to see cyclists way out there, some wondered how close they were to the next team ahead, and others tossed snacks at us. I marveled at the feat of endurance they were all in the midst of, the mushers having to take good care of themselves as well as so many dogs with minimal rest. I have enough trouble just managing my own needs in ultra endurance events.
The landscapes through which we pedaled seemed stretched and exaggerated to cover the entirety of Alaska’s vastness. An entire day of pedaling was not necessarily enough to get us out of one particular valley or through the rolling hills and sparse forests that separated one large drainage from the next. Skeletons of burned spruce woodlands stood starkly above the bright white snow for miles upon miles. Even the sunsets persisted considerably longer than I’m accustomed to. Through all that, we pedaled, and if we were moving at 7 mph, we were probably grinning.
My energy began to gradually rebound by our 4th day out, I was able to scavenge a big pile of snacks at a dogsled checkpoint, and the idea of another 400+ miles to the end of the trail was starting to seem a bit more manageable. Life was pretty dang good. But despite being in such an incredibly remote place, news of the coronavirus pandemic outside was making its way to the trail. By the time we reached the mighty Yukon River and the small community of Ruby the next afternoon, things in Alaska were already beginning to shut down. Farther down the trail, Native communities were apparently closing to all visitors, meaning resupplying could be problematic. On top of that, the weather forecast was looking warm and wet, not at all good for making good time toward the coast. And with 150 miles of less engaging riding down the Yukon, Nicholas and I were suddenly uncertain about the fate of our trip.
We spent that night camped on the middle of the mile-wide river still within sight of Ruby. By morning, the decision was made that we probably shouldn’t continue on, and before long, we had a couple of spots arranged on a tiny plane out to Fairbanks the following afternoon. Back in Ruby, a few of the residents lamented that any sort of medical care was an airplane ride away, and there were rumors that California was about to shut down. Hours later, we rolled our bikes into the absolutely deserted Fairbanks airport, studded tires clicking on the shiny floor. The simplicity of the trail suddenly felt impossibly far behind, and remarkably, so much more uncertainty awaited in the days ahead.