The Iditarod has two routes – a northern route, taken on even years, and the southern route, taken on odd years.  The Iditarod Trail Invitational starts a week before the Iditarod dog race, with the racers generally taking the same course as the Iditarod on foot, bike, or ski. Last year I biked to Nome on the northern route on a very fast trail, taking a little over 12 days and finishing well before any dogs from the Iditarod reached Nome.  The southern route has a mystery to it, and is generally considered to be much harder, so I really wanted to take a shot at it, and signed up again for 2017.  Alas, the weather didn’t cooperate, and the Iditarod dog race started in Fairbanks, and the Iditarod Trail Invitational took the northern route again due to minimal snow cover in Rainy Pass, a pass the course uses to get through the Alaska range.  To add to the adventure, the route this year went around the Rainy Pass and instead took the ominously named Hell’s Gate.   I finished first, at 17 days, 3 hours, one of the slower winning times in recent years.

I live in Fairbanks with my wife Nancy, and my twin ten-year-old daughters Molly and Lizzy, the dogs Shiloh and Remus, and the cat Pippin. These photos were taken with a Sony Nex 6, which was cranky in the colder than 0°F I saw for much of the race. http://yak.spruceboy.net

The start of the Shell HillsThe start of the race was full of chaos – a bit of jostling, a few people who know where to go, and a lot who do not. 

PaparazziThis year a film crew was following the race – here John is filming Jeny Jo Curiak and Kara Lackey.  

DSC08071Looking back, near the end of Dismal Swamp, a few hours into the race.

DSC08090The trail heading from Skwentna to the Shell Hills, just before the trail starts climbing up into the hills.

The Yentna RiverLooking back towards Skwentna on the flats between Skwentna and the Shell Hills.  The valley was calm, and had a thick mist in the air.

CockpitMy bike’s cockpit.  If I was do this race again, I would move the camera to another location, and use another “feed bag”.  The top tube bag is by Becker Gear, the feed bag by Rogue Panda.

Heading to Finger LakeThe trail between Shell Lake and Winter Lake Lodge on Finger Lake, checkpoint #3, and the end of the 130 mile race.

Climbing up near the Happy RiverTom Moran and Dan Lockery climbing up onto the trail near the confluence of the Happy River and the Skwentna River, just after the infamous Happy River steps.

DSC08121Tom Moran, all bundled up for the trek between Puntilla and Rohn.

The start of the Shell HillsThe trail in the Shell Hills, a fun section of the trail on a series of rolling forested hills ending at Shell Lake Lodge.

DSC08127Tom Moran, pushing in the wind outside Puntilla Lake, checkpoint #4.

DSC08131 Dan Lockery and Tom Moran, pushing their bikes up Ptarmigan Pass,  between Puntilla Lake, checkpoint #4 and Rohn, checkpoint #5.

DSC08134Dan Lockery, nearing Hell’s Gate after Ptarmigan Pass.

Tracks..Fox and bike prints, near Hell’s Gate.

Bison tunnelsTom Moran, biking though the “Buffalo Tunnels” after Rohn.  This area is recovering from a wildfire many years ago and in some sections has dense brush on the sides of the trail.

DanDan Lockery, near sunset after the Farewell Lakes between Rohn and Nikolai. Shortly after this photo was taken Dan zoomed ahead to warm up at Bear Creek cabin, a BLM shelter cabin along the trail, to thaw out Tom Moran’s feet, which he could no longer feel.  Dan was a rookie, and had a fantastic race and probably saved Tom’s toes.  Dan’s willingness to zoom ahead to find a cabin on an unmarked side trail in the middle of the night at -35°F was amazing, and very appreciated.

Nearly to McgrathA hand-lettered sign posted by Peter Schneiderheinze, letting the racers know it is a mile to turn off the Kuskokwim River and onto the overland trail into McGrath. The Schneiderheinzes host the racers in McGrath, providing a nearly never-ending banquet of delicious food, and of course the legendary “mancakes”.

Billy KBilly Koitzsch returning to McGrath with a load of gear from the Iditasport, a race that starts a week before the Iditarod Trail Invitational on a similar course.

TakatnaThe trail leading to Takotna, a small community outside McGrath.

TimTim Hewitt, just outside Ophir.  Tim made his 10th trip to Nome this year, his first on a bike.

Leaving OphirThe trail between Ophir and Ruby, near the Carlson Crossing shelter cabin.  This section of trail is lonely and remote, and sees no traffic outside the Iditarod dog sled race and the Irondog snow machine race.

Drop bags bike selfieMy ride, in front of our drop bags near the Carlson Crossing shelter cabin. This is the second time I have ridden this bike to Nome.  I love this bike!   

Bumpy..The trail between Carlson Crossing cabin and Ruby.  The trail has a few snow machine tracks on it, with Kevin Breitenbach’s bike tracks and the footprints from a walker from the Iditasport. It was rideable but bumpy!  

Pushing..Eventually the snowmachine trail ended, and then there were 60 miles of walking.  Kevin Breitenbach pushed his bike though this section, alone and well ahead of the next racer, who happened to be me.  The night time temperatures were between -30°F and -40°F, and this section of trail is very remote, seeing no traffic besides the race.   I think Kevin pushing through this section by himself which was one of the most impressive performances in this year’s race.  

DSC08244An abandoned bridge on the “road” between Poorman and Ruby.  Poorman is an abandoned mining town that has one permanent structure, a metal shack used by the Irondog snowmachine race.

The first musher to passed me.At Ruby I caught up (or was caught) by the mushers.  The dog race started at Fairbanks this year, and our courses intersected at Ruby, and again at Koyukuk.  The dog race makes a side trip to Huslia which we didn’t do. The leaders were arriving at Ruby just as I arrived, and I left with the mid-pack mushers.  It was fantastic to ride with the mushers after the loneliness of the section before Ruby.

He asked me how my ride from Skagway was going, mistaking me forThis snowmachiner asked me how my ride from Skagway was going, mistaking me for Jeff Oatley, who had just arrived in Nome a few days before.

backwards musherThis musher kept turning around on his sled backwards to cook something for his dogs inside his seat.  His dogs slowed down slightly whenever he turned around, and I kept pace with him for an hour or so.

The Galena checkpointThe dog teams at the Galena checkpoint.

Kevin, back on the bike, and zooming!I caught up with Kevin at Galena, where he was resting as he recovered from some sort of intestinal bug.  We rode together until Unalakleet, where Kevin scratched.

Koyokuk snowmachinerThis snowmachiner stopped to chat with Kevin and me. He was originally from Tanana, a village upstream of Ruby on the Yukon River.  When he was young, he wanted to “see the ocean”, so he headed down river, meeting his wife-to-be in Koyukuk, where he now lives.  Lots of the travelers I encountered stopped to talk, and most of them had interesting tales to tell.

Bishop Rock (I think)Kevin, riding in front of Bishop Rock, a large outcropping downriver of Galena.

DSC08287Two snowmachiners returning from a guiding trip with some clients mushing from Galena to Unalakleet.  They told me Jeff Oatley rode from Galena to Kaltag (about 85 miles) in one day a week or so ago, so the pressure was on to get that section done.

The Nulato checkpoint crewThe cheerful and helpful staff of the Nulato checkpoint.

My escort out of KaltagAt Kaltag I was well ahead of the dog race, and slightly ahead of the Iditarod trail breakers who mark the trail, and when I asked some kids on a snowmachine where the trail to Unalakleet was, they offered to show me the trail.  They escorted me to the trail out of down, and waved as I headed out.

Heading to old woman cabinThe trail between Kaltag and Unalakleet is very scenic, but was a bit soft and slow when I passed through.  This photo was taken a few miles before Old Woman shelter cabin, where Kevin and I spent the night.

DSC08298In the morning Kevin and I biked to Unalakleet, where Kevin scratched as he still was having issues keeping food down, and was having trouble eating.

Shaktoolik desent..After pizza at the iconic Peace On Earth, I headed to Shaktoolik.  This photo was taken just before the final descent into Shaktoolik, which is barely visible on the strip of land heading out into the sea ice.  I was passed by the lead musher, Mitch Seavey, just outside Shaktoolik.

Shaktoolik truckAn abandoned truck a mile or so outside Shaktoolik.

Musher on the sea ice outside KoyukA musher passing me on the sea ice between Shaktoolik and Koyuk.  The sea ice this year was in great shape, and made for fast riding.

SelfieA selfie taken while riding between Koyuk and Ellim.  

GolovinA sign at Golovin, showing how many miles there was to Nome and to White Mountain.  White Mountain is the home of Joanna and Jack, who invite the Iditarod Trail Invitational into their home, feeding us, and providing warmth and comfort before the last 70 miles to Nome.  Jack and Joanna are wonderful people, and fantastic cooks!  I had one goal for this section – to arrive at a “normal person” hour at White Mountain so I could see their family while everyone was awake.  I made it to white mountain a little before 10pm, which was later than I expected but still worth leaving Koyuk at 2am.  

TopkokThe top of Topkok hill, which is the top of the final climb before a long, flat, and windy ride to Nome.  In the distance you can see the sea ice, which this year extended as far as I could see.  

20 miles out..The last photo I took, 15 miles from Nome.  On the left there is piled-up sea ice pushed onto the shore by a storm.  I was both sad and happy to reach this far, knowing I only had a few more hours to ride before Nome.

20 Comments

  1. Wonderful. Thank you for the story, the pictures, the details. Very inspiring (darnit)…. Congratulations on your wild adventure…. Again?

  2. Great one. I was following this year ITI since the start and the was always impressed beyond my imagination, considering low temps.
    Neil, what about yours adventure on 350? Hope we can read it some day

    • Neil Beltchenko
      Neil Beltchenko

      Yep, soon. My hands are still not working properly after this one, I’m finally able to type again, which is GREAT!

  3. Thanks for the story and your fantastic photos! And congratulations on completing such an amazing journey!

  4. Bjorn Olson

    Congratulations on your ride. Best trail on earth, as far as I can tell. 🙂

    • Bjorn – the trip got me thinking about other winter (non racing) bike trips. I meet a couple snowmachining returning from a Buckland to Emmonak trip just outside Unalakleet. Rumor has it you have biked Koyuk to Buckland – worth the trip? So many adventures, so little time 🙂

  5. great reporting. good job. congratulations!

  6. Bonnie Gagnon-Larvick

    Well done! This brutal race is a benchmark that rises far above where most of us sit, but the view up there most be amazing.
    Thank you for sharing. Hope to watch your DOT again next year.

  7. Thanks for sharing this incredible adventure in pictures! I’m so impressed by you all who endured the conditions this year. Well done, Jay!

  8. constantijn

    would you mind to share your packlist ?

  9. Hey Jay, congrats on your ride and thanks for sharing all the wonderful pictures! It’s almost like being there. 🙂

  10. Wow! Well done!! I think my son is getting ramped up to try this journey some time in the future…and all I can say is Wow!!
    Congratulations on keeping on going! You did it! Must feel really good to do that!

  11. Judy Ducken

    Very cool picture journey. I usually follow daughter, Shawn, to McGrath or Nome (on foot), but this year she didn’t do it. Love seeing all pictures from the ITI. Thanks.

  12. Very cool. Thanks

  13. Nice share Jay… great to follow in your footsteps 🙂

  14. Congratulations Jay! Great pics and trip report. Seen you arrive in Nome!

  15. Amazing journey and photos. Thanks much for doing this. I love biking and I love winter but I have no desire to do this race! The guys that do are truly an inspiration!

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *