A Trip report from the iditarod Trail
with ibex ambassador, Adrian Barniak
ADRIAN BARNIAK 〡 APRIL 5TH, 2022
Every spring folks from town head out to the Iditarod trail to make the historic 1,000 mile trip across interior Alaska from Willow to McGrath and eventually up to Nome. Most Iditarod Trail users are on snow machines and dog sleds, but a small percentage travel the trail via human power on skis and bikes. By most accounts it's a difficult place to recreate in with daily low temperatures ranging from -10°F to -40°F, high wind speeds, overflow on lakes and variably maintained snow conditions.
I suppose the start of most of my good adventures come from a singular moment of disinhibition of my fears.
During a moment of inspiration, I texted my friend Duncan to see if he would want to fly to McGrath and fatbike back to Anchorage. He quickly replied with excitement and from there we started planning. We knew of some friends who had just finished this ride and reported back to us with fast, hard-packed trail conditions.
McGrath marks the 350 mile point on the trail and is the last easy to access airport on the Iditarod Trail. Like most things in Alaska, travel logistics are more involved. We arranged for a small aircraft flight from Anchorage to McGrath over the Alaska Range. We then utilized a separate air freight service to freight our loaded fat bikes into rural Alaska. We called The Iditarod Trail Roadhouse and Cafe (the only restaurant in McGrath) and the owner, Mattias, agreed to pick up our bikes from the airstrip and hold them until we arrived.
Small towns have a wonderful character to them where people are eager to help.
The day before we flew out from Anchorage, a major winter storm quickly blew through the Iditarod Trail. We followed the reports of the The Iditarod Dog Mushing Teams that were struggling to maintain their pace due to the storm. Although the forecast wasn’t predicting favorable conditions, Duncan and I reviewed our trip logistics, our gear prep, weather patterns and decided to commit to the trip. Together we made up two-out-of-three people on the flight from Anchorage to McGrath. We enjoyed world class views over the Alaska range where we would soon be biking through.
After landing in McGrath, we started walking to find our way to the Roadhouse Cafe. Mattias was a gracious host and let us pack up our bikes in his garage. Here we drank some coffee and ordered a $25 rural Alaska pizza. Before we knew it we were riding down McGrath road and turned on to the Kuskokwim River where the Iditarod Trail runs. As soon as we hit the trail we discovered soft and deep mashed potato snow. Very different from the hard packed trail conditions that our friends had enjoyed just two days prior. We let out air from our tires and continued on, pedaling for a bit, mostly falling off our bikes as we struggled to gain traction on the loose snow. I was focused on pedaling my easiest gear and trying to stay balanced when I looked behind me and noticed Duncan was walking as fast as I was riding.
At that point, it was much more energy efficient to walk so we started pushing our bikes. We decided we would walk our bikes until sunset and re-evaluate our plan in the morning.
After post-holing twelve miles that day, we found a lovely spot to camp on the river bank. The evening was calm and clear so after stomping out a level spot we slept under the sky. I ate some leftover moose meat breakfast burrito for dinner and crawled into my minus -40°F degree sleeping bag. The temperatures were -10°F that night.
We woke up the next morning and the trail was still as soft as it was the day before. We did some math and figured that at our pace it would take us thirty five days to do what we had budgeted a week of time to do. With our tails tucked we started to push our bikes the twelve miles back to McGrath. A few moose stand offs later and we made it back to town. We arranged flights back to Anchorage but still had an extra day in between. McGrath has one road which was maintained to mile marker five, so I spent the day looping around town for 100 miles riding what I now call the "McGrath 100". Mattias joked that I was riding the McGrath Velodrome. Duncan and I slept in the town baseball field that night in a toasty twelve degrees below zero.
I reflect back on our trip and feel like I still had a great time with my bud even though our trip didn't go according to plan. We took our bikes for a walk on the Iditarod Trail and winter camped. It's important to know when to bail on a backcountry trip and that was humbling to practice. In a world that feels so chaotic, I seek out experiences that exaggerate my insignificance. I think feeling small is nice. Alaska seems to have a way to always make me feel really small and I love that about living here.
Adrian Barinak (pictured), has lived in Anchorage, Alaska for seven years. Adrian is a wool advocate, a lover of oatmeal and an extraordinaire behind the camera lens.
ADRIAN'S TRIP FAVORITES: