FINGER LAKE -- The end appears near for one of the more improbable cross-country chases in Northern history. For three days, two men on snowshoes have been trying to outrun the fat-tired bikers that have come to dominate human-powered travel on Alaska's Iditarod Trail.
With help from Mother Nature, the people on foot -- normally the also-rans in the Iditarod Trail Invitational -- snatched the race lead along the Yentna River on Monday. With the land buried in nearly three feet of fresh snow, the race slowed to a mind-numbing trudge for everyone. Cyclists pushing bikes suffered most.
By Skwentna, most of them had abandoned the race as the Iditarod Trail left the frozen rivers and started its climb into the Alaska Range. Few could bear the thought of what might be ahead. Normally, the heavily traveled snowmachine trails of the Susitna and Yentna rivers are where cyclists cruise. It is in the vast beyond, where traffic thins out and the trail isn't so well packed, that the bike pushing usually begins.
For cyclists who have pushed 60 or 70 miles from the confluence of the Yentna and Susistna rivers to Skwentna that was too much to contemplate. Heather Best of Fairbanks, her leg blackened from being pedal-smacked while pushing, seemed relieved to finally be able to give up. But a few cyclists soldiered on, among them five-time and defending Invitational champ Peter Basinger from Bend, Ore., by way of Anchorage, and sidekick Phil Hofstetter from Nome, who has previously pushed and ridden his bike 1,000 miles up the trail from Knik to his hometown.
On Wednesday afternoon, they were still pushing north of Shell Lake on a soft trail about 20 miles out of Skwentna. The skies were clear and blue and the mountains of the Alaska Range stood as sharp, white cutouts framing the route north. The view was spectacular, but that was not the main thing of interest to Basinger and Hofstetter. They knew clear skies usually herald cold weather in Alaska during winter, and they were ready for it. As darkness settled over the white silence, a thin band of northern lights began to dance in the sky and the temperature quickly dropped toward zero. Within hours, a trail that had been mush began to set into white pavement. Basinger and Hoftstetter could roll at last.
They hit this checkpoint at about 10:30 p.m. Wednesday night, a couple hours faster than predicted by their previous push-a-bike pace. Snowshoers Tim Hewitt, a Pennsylvanian who has six times hiked the Iditarod Trail to Nome, and Juneau's Geoff Roes, one of the top ultra-distance runners in the country, remained at the front of the Invitational Thursday morning. Could it last?
Basinger and his companion cut into duct-tape wrapped food drops laden with favored junk foods. They scarfed down the beans, rice and tortillas at the long table in the world-class Winterlake Lodge. The wheeled technology that had burdened their travel north along the trail had again become their friend.
Technology, it now appeared, was going to enable Basinger and Hofstetter to chase down Hewitt and Roes as surely as the airplane changed the game for the Royal Canadian Mounted Police who chased the Mad Trapper of the Rat River across the Northwest and Yukon territories of Canada in 1931. The trapper, Albert Johnson, outran the law on his snowshoes for 150 miles. But with help from the airplane and dog teams, the Mounties eventually got their man.
Hewitt, an old veteran of this competition, and Roes might be able to keep the chasers at bay for 150 miles, too. But with the weather forecast to remain cold with only dustings of snow in the forecast, conditions have changed in favor of the cyclists.
They can do 7 to 10 mph -- even 20 mph down big hills -- on trails where Hewitt and Roes, pulling sleds loaded with gear, are hard-pressed to maintain a 3 mph average. Even if the trail enables them to take off their snowshoes and lash them to their sleds, they're still hard pressed to sustain a 4 or 5 mph average. This is a telling disadvantage a couple hundred miles from the Interior Alaska community of McGrath, where the Invitational in large part finishes.
A few racers plan to push on another 750 miles along the trail to Nome again this year, but that's more of an adventure than a race. Basinger, who is among the cyclists hoping to go to Nome, said he just wants to get another look at the Interior and the Bering Sea coast in winter.
Neither he nor Hofstetter were making any predictions Wednesday night on when or where they expected to catch the men on foot ahead, but the cyclists were clearly buoyed by the conditions turning in their favor.
"It definitely felt good as soon as the temperature dropped," Hofstetter said. "The trails set up just like that. It was awesome."
"It got real quick," Basinger admitted. Hofstetter said his biggest problem became getting the right pressure in his bike tires to enable him to keep up with Basinger. The trail was still soft enough that a tire hardened by high-pressure inflation would punch through, but a tire run at low pressure to widen its foot print is noticeably slower than a hard tire.
"I was sweating going up those hills trying to keep up with you," Hofstetter told Basinger. Both were busy drying out gear sweat-soaked from riding hard, driven by the joy of being able to get on the bike at last to start gobbling up the trail miles. This was an especially good thing for Hofstetter.
"I have to be home (in Nome) by Monday," he said. He expects to meet that schedule, despite the struggle to this point. "It took us almost 24 hours to get from Skwentna to here," he said. It is a distance of about 40 miles between the two checkpoints, and the racers here are only about halfway through the journey to McGrath.
In the past, Basinger has completed the entire, 320-mile route from Knik to McGrath in less than four days. The race will hit its four day mark Thursday. Clearly, no one will come close to a four-day race this year. But if conditions are good, Basinger or Hofstetter -- or both -- could still make it McGrath in six days.
That would put Hofstetter there on the weekend with time to arrange a flight to Nome.
Over a late supper on Wednesday, Hofstetter was making no predictions on when he would finish. At every checkpoint along the trail this year, he said, someone has predicted the trail ahead would be better. It never was. He seemed a little afraid he might jinx things if he voiced what both he and Basinger were clearly thinking:
"Good trail at last. Thank the Lord! Good trail at last!"
This is Craig Medred's third year in a row covering the Iditarod Trail Invitational for Alaska Dispatch. Contact Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com