After three hours and two moose, but not a single other person on the trail, I heard a chorus of low, guttural barks. "Ooo, sled dogs," I thought, and veered to the side of the faint track in anticipation of them running past. I was standing at the far end of a narrow valley surrounded by steep peaks, so there wasn't really anywhere else for them to go. But I waited a minute, and all I heard was the high-pitched moan of the wind. I looked around and thought I detected quiet yips, but saw no dog teams — no one was there. After a brief pause the thought occurred to me, "You're not in California right now." I've become accustomed to running trail systems where the deer are so habituated that they'd let me pet them if I wanted to. Out here, strange sounds can be a number of things — but they're most certainly not docile deer. A shiver trickled down my spine, but there was nothing in sight to fear. "Maybe it was my imagination," I thought. "Or the wind."
This afternoon I decided to load up my sled and take it for a training run up Hatcher Pass. I stocked full overnight gear and an extra liter of water for good measure, because all extra weight is good weight in training. The Willow Fishhook Road ended in a gate, and from there I had no idea how far it was to the pass. I decided to hike on the soft and wide snowmachine trail until I reached the better snowshoeing terrain up high.
There was a lot of overflow across the road. Some sections were so deep that my snowshoes punched several inches below the crust and my feet sank into slush, testing the waterproof capabilities of my Gortex Montrails (verdict: Not too shabby.) I also got out my Garmin to test speed versus effort levels (not my nonfunctional navigation unit. I have a 305 watch for pacing.) I very much want to figure out a way I can run on snow, dragging a sled, and have the effort pay off (versus killing myself for a measly extra 0.5 miles per hour.) The trail conditions didn't help my experiments — soft snow and slush meant I had to wear snowshoes the entire way, and added a lot of resistance. But I have to say that these running experiments were a major failure. I pushed my heart rate all the way to 180 and barely cracked the 12-minute-mile barrier. Most paces were around 14-minute miles. I can walk 16-minute miles with considerably less effort. Ah, running on snow ... such a puzzle for me! I think one has to exceptionally strong, which I'm not, or train very specifically, which I can't. It would be similar to choosing to run all of the uphills in a long ultra. I would flare out so quickly but a part of me still wants to crack that code.
And, as it turns out, Hatcher Pass is not a close jaunt from the Willow side. The approach itself was more than seven miles, and once I was there, I figured I should do the snowshoeing I wanted to do. I marched up a low ridge and then dropped back into the valley to explore until I heard the real-or-imagined coyotes-or-wolves. After that incident, I felt a sharp sting of aloneness that prompted me to move more quickly down the canyon, even running occasionally.
The hike down from the pass started to feel long. I really didn't intend to set out for an 18-mile snowshoe hike with a full sled this afternoon. An overcast pall had moved in, it was getting dark, and I was grumpy. "This is such a slog," I griped to myself. "Why did I hike all the way up there? Why am I doing 100K on foot? I wonder if I should show up to the Homer Epic with my bike instead?" But then my thoughts flashed to Beat, who I knew was marching into the Alaska Range toward Puntilla Lake at that same moment. For a few moments I felt a thread of connection in sore quads, wet socks, cold toes, and the ethereal sort of mind wander spurred by long walks alone in black-and-white worlds. I wondered if Beat felt the same things I was feeling, and then I realized that he did not — because he wasn't returning from a measly 18-mile jaunt with a junior sled. His experiences ran that much deeper and wider. The realization made me feel silly for indulging in grumpiness. I marched harder and sloshed through the overflow with a renewed sense of perspective.
I received my latest call from Beat at 9 p.m. Wednesday, shortly after he arrived at Puntilla Lake Lodge. He sounded tired and slurred his words, so I couldn't decipher everything he told me in the short three-minute call. But he did tell a funny story about traveling through the Happy River Steps with Tim Hewitt. The Happy River Steps are a notorious section of trail that drop steeply into the Skwentna River and climb just as steeply out, on short pitches of 30- and 40-degree slopes. Tim didn't want to section out his hundred-pound sled and make multiple trips, so he let the heavy sled push him wildly down the hills, and then got down on all fours to heave the thing up the steps, like a true beast of burden. "He's just so determined," Beat said, as though he could hardly understand it himself. Beat said he plans to rest a full night at Puntilla and set out in the morning for the harsh climb up Rainy Pass. Temperatures there are still mild, with highs near 20 and lows around 0, with light winds and a small chance of snow. I'm hoping they stay that way for his crossing on Thursday.