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A Skier’s Perspective on the 2021 Iditarod Trail Invitational

Skiing the Invitational is not an affair rich in sleep

Juneau, Alaska

Date of Press Release: March 26, 2021

Rainy Pass
Rainy Pass

By Forest Wagner

For many the Iditarod Trail invokes images of Olympic level long distance dog mushing. And it is true that the 1,000-mile overland trail from Knik to Nome exists now in 2021 because of the vision of Joe Redington and his desire to protect dog mushing and northern culture from the mechanizing influences of the mid 20th century. Redington, among others, organized the first Iditarod sled dog race to Nome in 1973. But some time in the early 1980s, so the story goes, Joe looked out from his cabin at Flathorn Lake at a skier striding along the trail and imagined opening the Last Great Race up to human powered participants — Iditaski was born. Now, some thirty years later, the Iditarod Trail Invitational (ITI) is celebrating its 20th year.

This was my third year skiing on the Iditarod Trail. I signed up with Iditasport to ski to McGrath in 2019, but instead at the organizers' request skied a modified out and back course to Shell Lake. Then last year, as Covid revised all of our plans for 2020, I set out for McGrath with the Invitational, only to scratch from the race at Shell Lake because of a scary moose encounter. I have a history of close calls with large wild animals and my risk tolerance is perhaps lower than some in regard to their proximity to me. This year’s Invitational participants biked, hiked, and skied from Knik to Rhon, then back to Big Lake, a 340-60 mile Covid-modified course designed to keep germs out of the rural parts of Alaska.

Although my perspective on the Invitational is more like the Norwegian concept of friluftsliv—I like being outside and it makes me feel good—the ITI is a race, it’s definitely a race, if only because participants have a ten-day time limit to finish the course, are clearly competing against each other and the clock, and must advance to checkpoints along the trail by a certain date or be scratched from the event.

My ski on the Iditarod Trail was mostly a nod to my friends Andy Sterns and Ned Rozell, mentors of mine and past Iditarod skiers, but also to Tim Kelly and Bad Bob Baker, the first to ski the trail to Nome and still the course record holders, completing the 1,000 miles on Nordic skis in 22 days in 1991. After completing this year’s ITI my nod is also to all the past, present, and future participants, human and otherwise. What a piece of country and what a group of people! Thanks to Kari, Lars, Amber, Keith, Hendra, and everyone else, for sharing the trail and your time with me! And especially thank you to Kyle Durand and the ITI team for pulling off a Covid-conscious race. Thanks also to the people who live along the trail for opening your homes and lodges to us.

Skiing on the Iditarod trail is not easy. The route travels from the lowland Susitna drainage to the hill and mountain country of the southern Alaska Range, gaining 3350 feet to Rainy Pass, before descending briskly to the Interior and flowing west to the Bering Sea. Certain sections are too steep to ascend or descend with Nordic skis—the Happy Steps and other sections around Finger and Puntilla Lake, portions of the lower Dalzell Gorge—and in general the skiing is slow, glide is non-existent and most fit hikers, and certainly almost all fat tire bikers, travel more efficiently than an off the couch 40 year old like me coming from the temperate and Nordic-training limited Southeast Alaskan panhandle.

If you plan to travel 6 mph skating effortlessly along, dampen those expectations to a classic shuffle over cold or soft snow with a rate of travel more like 2-4 mph. Add in a race induced need to travel 30 plus miles a day, constant transitions in the mountainous country taking off and putting your skis back on, and soon the reality sinks in that skiing the Invitational is not an affair rich in sleep.

For those that have not seen the Iditarod Trail, I will attest here that it guards some of the most beautiful and wild country in the northland. Travelling 20 hours a day allowed me a delirious appreciation for dawn and trepidation of dusk. Although I skied through Rainy Pass twice, and got to ski down both sides in Nordic racing skis, total halcyon moments of transcendent glide and a temporary escape from the maddening shuffle, approximately half of this travel, like my time on the rest of the trail, happened at night. That said, some of the joys of Alaska in March are best appreciated at night. I saw rippling, near electric aurora borealis on at least three occasions. Later, on my second to last night out, I thought I again saw aurora but it was instead the lights of Anchorage shimmering against a boreal tree scape. Although not my first of the ski, this light pollution aurora was a harbinger of more visions to come.

Speaking of sleep deprivation and its blurring of lines between the real and the imaginary, skiing into Rohn on Day 4 was like entering another world. Rohn, in particular and for me at least, invoked feelings of the mountain sublime, its steep wooded mountain slopes, frozen big rivers, its access through the improbably tight and entrenched corridor of the Dalzell Gorge. By Day 4 I was actively speaking to my skis and sled. And by Day 9, escaping the Susitna swamp only because of the fine way finding of Kari, we both imagined a dog traveling with us, as real then as the cold and the snow. This same final night I remembered a long ago Kafkaesque dream from somewhere in my subconscious: I was skiing around and around, could not find a beginning or an end, and could not stop. Only now I was living the dream.

This is not to say that Invitational participants do not sleep, but sleep is a commodity and often secondary to the travel goal of the day. Checkpoints are set up every 30 to 60 miles and are in most cases shared by all race events along the trail. If a racer can get to a checkpoint, they can sleep inside and even enjoy a hot meal. But, especially towards the end of the ski, I was struggling with the longer legs to get to a warm checkpoint.

One strategy, amusingly employed by all Invitational participants, is to bivouac along the side of the trail. Regardless of weather, weary ITI participants pull out their sleeping system and rack out at all hours, as dictated by mood and energy. I avoided most bivies until night 7. Then, sometime after 4:30a, I crashed into a snow bank after careening off of a snow machine whoop-di-do. I took my unexpected intimacy with the ground as a sign to briefly get horizontal. Waking at dawn to a crisp, clear, windless morning I was struck by the beauty of the setting and also by my own sense of urgency, of time passing. Another large snowstorm was forecast and the only way to beat it was to point my skis south.

One new sleep strategy I learned this round is appropriately named the shiv-a-biv. Rather than “waste” time setting up a sleeping bag, pad, or bivy sack, the savvy shiv-a-bivyer simply takes a nap on their pack until they wake up shivering, a surprisingly restful technique. Similarly, rather than waste time boiling water for a hot drink, I took to sprinkling Via—freeze dried coffee—on my trail snacks, a quick performance enhancer and surprisingly effective jolt of alertness.

Spending time alone travelling many hours of the day is very self-reflexive. Along the way, I came up with some promotional material for the Invitational, ranked in prominence here:

  • Forget hallucinogens, ski the ITI
  • One does not simply walk into Rohn (unless you’re a member of the ITI)
  • If we were skiing to McGrath, we’d be there already*

*This year’s course was about 40 miles longer than the usual route from Knik to McGrath.

If you find yourself out at night skiing a narrow section on the Iditarod Trail in March, rather than stare in bewitched wonder at a quickly approaching glowing ray of light illuminating a harnessed pack of barking wolves, get off the trail, you’re not equipped to play chicken with the best long distance dog teams in the world.

All this to say that it is my great fortune to have skied a portion of the Iditarod trail once again this year. I feel so lucky that Iditaski events exist and so humbled that these events draw the world’s elite winter athletes, of whom I share an intense feeling of esprit de corps. Mind, body, and employer willing, I will again point my skis toward McGrath next year. And only time will tell, but of course the gold fields of Nome are calling. Please visit the Iditarod Trail Invitational website for more information.

I am interested in time spent outside, especially in small groups. If you or anyone you know has completed a winter ultra marathon or backcountry event, please consider filling out a survey about these activities and motivations that I am running as a UAF Arctic and Northern Studies graduate student.

Thanks for reading and have a wonderful spring.

Forest Wagner is from Fairbanks and lives in Juneau, Alaska. He is an Assistant Professor of Outdoor Studies at the University of Alaska Southeast.

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Keni Campbell
University of Alaska Southeast
(907) 796-6509