Iditarod Invitational March 2004

Fragile Ice

Rohn To Bison Camp (About 45 Miles)



At 6:30am I rolled out of Rohn on my own, Rajko had left shortly before and the Matlock boys were still getting ready. It was still dark as I made my way through the woods on a rideable trail which soon emerged onto the South Fork of the Kuskokwim. The trail headed across the river towards the left bank. I knew from the route description that the trail would cut up the bank and into the woods. After about half a mile I crossed a small island and dropped back down onto the river again, I could clearly see the ski tracks left by Rajko and the left bank was only 30 or 40 metres away. As I followed the scratches on the ice left by snow machines I became aware of cracking sounds connected to each other, one after the other, without thinking I turned the bike through an arc and headed back to the island I had just left trying to pedal as softly as possible but at the same time with a degree of urgency. The cracking of the ice continued and I was within 4 or 5 metres of safety when the back wheel suddenly dropped, I leaped off the bike and lunged for the bank my right foot also going through and getting wet half way up my shin. I stood on the bank and looked at the bike on it's side the back wheel below ice level. I gingerly put a foot on what looked like good ice, reached the bike with one hand and pulled about 60lb of dead weight to shore in one go. I don't remember feeling shaken just thankful for not getting wet. My boot had already frozen, the laces were solid, I think I had managed to avoid getting water down inside the boot. I inspected the bike, the rear mech was encased in a block of ice and refused to move when I tried to change gear, luckily it had frozen in a low sprocket and that was the one I was to use for the rest of the race. Now all that remained was to find another route across to the bank. I looked back from where I had come and saw three or four headlights. I waited the 5 or so minutes for the others to arrive and pre-warned them of the thin ice. Together we made our way down the island and without incident crossed where the ice was thicker, even so there were still stretches of open water here.

Daylight slowly exposed the mountains that surrounded us on all sides. The group of five riders soon broke up as everyone settled into their own speed and I remember being up front and soon catching Rajko. He also had experienced the cracking thin ice but his skis had carried him back to the bank without going through.

The section to Nikolai, known as the Farewell Burn, was about 90 miles long. Bison camp was situated about half way to Nikolai and we would be able to get some food there. In previous years bikers had always made good ground on the 'Burn' as there was usually little snow, this year however there was snow aplenty and at times I was reduced to pushing again. As I rode through the day the mountains were left behind and the trail undulated endlessly through the trees. Alan Sheldon caught me, we shared the trail for a while but then he pulled away and I was on my own again.

It was still light when Bison camp appeared. Alan's bike was propped outside one of the three cabins and I dropped the bike and entered. The cabin was gloriously warm, inside Al sat eating, already stripped and drying clothes. By a table was John Runkle, his wife and young boy. I sat down and removed layers which I hung up to dry. With effort I got my frozen boot off and placed it by the stove to dry out. The menu was moose stew, so with disappointment I started to make cheese sandwiches from old bread and bland cheese, it was just great. I couldn't get enough liquid down, it had been a long drag from Rohn.

Al and I sat there glad to be here and not still out on the trail. After a while Andy Heading appeared and went through the same ritual. Roc and Rajko then turned up, and Aidan eventually emerged from the night having pushed huge amounts of what the rest of us had rode. His 'skinny' tyres were punching through the snow, they just couldn't support his 10.5 st.

Around 9pm I headed off to one of the other two cabins which was like a furnace inside. Half of the floor was covered in spruce branches with a rug on top that made a very comfy bed. I couldn't be bothered to take my sleeping bag off the bike so snuggled under my parka which was fine in this warmth. I planned to leave at midnight after a couple of hours sleep, that should get me into Nikolai around lunchtime the next day. As the others started to come in and settle down they mooted the idea of leaving at six in the morning, Aidan had already asked John to be ready with the coffee at that time. I casually mentioned I was going at midnight, I think it was Al that said he would go then as well, and then maybe Rajko, I had split the decision. After a couple of minutes everyone had capitulated and we were all going at midnight and poor old Aidan was volunteered to go out and inform John that coffee would be required at midnight.

I put my head down and heard the second cracking sound of the day. My glasses which I used for riding at night had slipped from where I had placed them and I had managed to lean on them and snap a lens from top to bottom, I couldn't believe this bit of bad luck, I was totally dependent on them. Fortunately they held together and were still usable but gave a bit of a distorted view.

The next couple of hours were hopeless, six of us sleeping in a row. Roc started snoring like a bear, Rajko would wack him over the head and it would stop for thirty seconds and then start again. Then Aidan started, although I'm sure he denies it. The others had their warm bags and the stove was turned down, I started to get chilly. As midnight approached we all started to get ready and this sudden movement caused the spicy beans we had all earlier eaten to kick into action. There was now a chorus of farting from everyone in the cabin which seemed to go on forever. It was time to go.