Friday, April 4, 2008
Part 4 from Unalakleet on and out to the sea ice
Day 19 Unalakleet to Skaktoolik 45 miles
After spending the night at Theresa’s house we had Bering Sea King Crab and Musk Ox Stew for breakfast.
We have known Jim and Theresa Hickerson for a long time, they both have worked for the school system for a long time.
From Unalakleet the trail heads over a series of hills, known as the Blueberry Hills.
It was overcast, but temperature was about -5 F when we left and the sun was trying to break through the clouds.
The Iditarod trail sweeps passed us here with their four snowmachines and sleds one last time and wished us good luck.
I was looking forward to the last hill that drops down to the beach and you can see Shaktoolik in a distance.
I have heard how much fun Carl Huchings had had on it in 2005. Several snow machines had gone by us this morning and two had gone up the hill, so when we finally got to the last hill, it was extremely difficult to ride since it was very washy since it was 2 inches of loose snow.
The bigger surprise came one we got to the lagoon that is protected by a natural wall from the ocean. I was sure we would be in Shaktoolik in no time. The trail runs along a lagoon with the Bering Sea on the other side.
The trail was drifting in and at below zero we had 30-35 mph crosswinds. We ended up pushing the last 13 miles into Shaktoolik. The wind was bitter and I put on my balaclava for the first time in the race and pulled my hood closed where I was looking out with one eye only on the downwind side.
I wondered it the beach on the other side was rideable, so we wondered over the little hump and found big mounds of crushed piled up sea ice up to 20 feet high but no riding.
We saw the most amazing sunset with a band of flames dancing in the sky, kind of northern lights at sunset. This picture really doesn't do it justice. The light kept changing until the sun went down, but it was cold in the wind, I did not want to pull my hands in just my fleece gloves out of my pagies again.
Before Shaktoolik you go through the old Shaktoolik which is uninhabited today, just a bunch of old cabins.
Arriving in Shaktoolik which is on a small spit of land the Eskimo kids where out playing in the snow drifts as high as the simple houses having fun and throwing snowballs at each other.
And it was 20 below with 45 mph winds!
Only here would you find kids out playing in conditions like these.
Shaktoolik is a tiny village with small houses lined up on both sides of a drifted in gravel road.
A desolate place with friendly people with big hearts and big smiles.
Why would anyone settle in such an exposed place?
We learned later that living on this spit of land right by the ocean put the natives in a place where salmon is abundant in the streams all around them and they can launch their boats into the ocean and hunt for whales and seals. They have historically settled where their food source was. Only today do humans move into cities to sit behind a desk so they can pay their bills and pay for gas to get them from home to their work and back and to buy a lot of things they really don't need.
Out here you see how simple life really is and how these people get by without a lot of those luxuries.
They have a big diesel generator for electricity and snowmobiles and modern guns to go hunting and planes bringing in supplies and food sure, but they still life a lifestyle that is much different from 99% of Americans that is more connected to the land they life on.
Reflecting back on the people I met during my trip to Nome, I feel very fortunate to have met them and their sharing.
Even though I feel that I live a lifestyle off the grid in Chickaloon.
It is not quite like living out in the bush of Alaska off the highway system.
Living in some of the villages is much like living on an island, shut off from the rest of the world. No invasion here by masses of motor homes in the summertime!
Their busy time is once a year during Iditarod, but visiting even during that time seems peaceful here.
Meeting and talking to the locals is what makes me want to go back and visit them again some time in the future.
With the sea ice forming later in the season they are more exposed to the fall storms, the drift wood line is right behind the row of homes, they might be facing similar problems that Shishmaref and other coastal Alaska villages are. Shaktoolik might face this challenge as well and the people might have to move their village further inland in the future when the waves start washing away their houses, beach and soil.
It was getting dark and the school was locked. A local guy spotted us looking lost and left out in the cold.
He started to throw snowballs at the window upstairs where the principal had her apartment.
She came down and openend the door for us. Linda was from Montana and had only been here since last May.
Across from the school was a snack shop that had opened just a week ago.
The man there said “ Come on in and have some fast food”.
Fast Food? Sure sign me up. Bill and I ordered 3 cheese burgers and 3 cokes for him and 2 cheeseburgers and a small pizza and 3 cokes for me. The small room was the local hangout for kids and youths, there is nothing else going on in a small Eskimo village of about 150 in the evenings.
About 15 kids crowded around us and watched us eat all that food we had ordered with both hands.
One girl couldn’t help, but shouted out loud: “ You are stuffing yourselves.”
And Bill’s response to that was:” Sweetie if you pedaled your bike out there all day long you can eat all you want too without getting fat”.
We enjoyed visiting with the kids and answering questions and teaching them some German, Japanese, Dutch , French and they taught us some Eskimo words.
Day 20, 21 Shaktoolik to Koyuk 58 miles
We spent the night on the floor in one of the classrooms and were able to use the kitchen to heat up some water for hot chocolate and dehydrated meals.
Linda chatted with us in the morning a bit and checked on the weather forecast for us and it didn’t look very good.
Wind, more wind.! We were prepared to push all the way to Koyuk with a drifted in trail. The lead bikers had made amazing time from here and covered this last stretch in just over 2 days.
I had figured with the same trail conditions as Pete, Carl and Rok we could get to Nome in 4 days from here.
But the race for us was only going to get harder and the toughest part in the end physically and mentally.
To our surprise we could ride out of Shaktoolik for about 20 miles until we reached the sea ice where you travel 30 miles across sea ice on Norton Bay.
It started snowing, the wind picked up, the visibility dropped to less than 50 feet.
The ground and the sky blended into one, you couldn’t tell where the ground right in front of your tire was. Everything looked the same. I got vertigo riding my bike and falling over with no sense of balance.
Our biggest enemy the wind was picking up and constantly moving more snow onto the once packed trail.
They had more snow on the coast this year than they’ve seen in a decade. There was plenty of snow to blow around and pile up into big wind drifts on the trail.
We were lucky to have the Iditarod Trail markers which is lath with orange paint and reflective tape when visibility went to nothing.
There was a brand new cabin where the old shelter cabin had been destroyed by the sea ice many years ago and we had another one of our hot dehydrated meals.
A local on a snow machiner stopped by to check on us, he was out hunting caribou, he said he only saw some wolves, too many wolves he said.
After leaving the shelter cabin the visibility deteriorated even more to where we lost sight of the next trail marker and the wind picked up reducing our bike pushing speed to about 1 mph in a ground blizzard with the snow drifts ever getting bigger.
Loosing the fading trail and wandering out to the open sea was not an option!
After looking at each other what to do next we decided to do the unthinkable: bivi on the sea ice until the visibility improved and then we would continue on to the shore where you get off the sea ice in Koyuk.