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NateKat · March 2014

March 2014

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We’ve heard many stories about the harsh Alaska winters, abundant wildlife, and many other adventures from Peter, Katharine’s uncle, who lives in Nome, AK.  We had a great time on our honeymoon in Alaska in the summer of 2011, but we always wanted to go back to experience the winter season, so we decided to make a trip of it! We planned for a few days in Nome and a few days in Fairbanks.  Of course if you’re going to Nome in the winter/spring, you have to see the finish of the Last Great Race, the Iditarod!  The 1,000+ mile dog sled race from Anchorage to Nome can take anywhere from 9-15 days because of the harsh and changing weather.  After 3 flights and ~18 hours of traveling we arrived in Nome on Sunday (3/9) greeted by Peter in a small 1 room airport.

 

Peter gave us a great tour of the small Bearing Sea costal town with a population of 3,600.  While driving around the town we kept our eye open for musk ox.  We found a small herd grazing on the outskirts of town. They were grazing and butting heads as we walked from our car.

 

When they feel threatened they gather together and stand their ground to protect their young.  This of course doesn’t work too well against hunters.

 

This winter was unusually warm and they had gotten a lot less snow than normal.  As we listened to the Iditarod reports we continued to hear about injuries due to the icy and rocky conditions on the trail and Nome was no exception.  We were able to drive 25 miles east on the Nome-Council Rd along the shore to the Safety Roadhouse checkpoint, which is normally only accessible by snowcat, snow machine, or helicopter.  With the mushers (dog sled racers) still a couple days away, the place was deserted.

 

 Safety Roadhouse, the last checkpoint of the Iditarod

Looking Across Safety Sound

Looking Across the Bearing Sea Ice

Even though it was clear and sunny, it was nearly zero degrees Fahrenheit, and the brisk wind kept us from venturing outside the car for more than a couple minutes.  As the temperatures dropped and the winds picked up, we decided it was too risky to attempt anymore trips to the Safety Roadhouse. Drifting snow could block the roads in a matter of minutes and the harsh conditions could be deadly without any means of communication.

We decided to spend Monday exploring Nome, souvenir shopping, and watching last minute construction of the snow chute to the burled arch finish line.

This pretty white snow was trucked in that day

We also took in some of the local activities such as the craft fair, snow sculpting contest, and local eateries.  We also noticed as the finishers got closer, the town’s population grew with tourists, mushing support teams, and even a couple (low profile) celebrities including Ariel Tweto from Flying Wild Alaska and Wipeout.

We downloaded the Iditrod GPS app on our iPad to monitor the mushers progress from the checkpoints Elim, White Mountain, and Safety, as well as the final leg on the way to Nome.  There’s a mandatory 8 hour layover in White Mountain and then it’s just 77 miles to Nome.  Since they were traveling at ~7 mph, we figured once they left White Mountain it would be another 11 hours before they reached the finish line in Nome.  So we followed the top three racers over the next 24 hours:

  • Jeff King, 4-time Iditarod winner
  • Aliy Zirkle, Runner-up last two years, our favorite
  • Dallas Seavey, Last years champ

The following is our account of the Iditarod drama leading to the finish…

Monday 3:00 PM

Jeff King leaves White Mountain rested with a 1 hour lead on Aliy.  It seems like another 2nd place finish for Aliy as we watch her GPS marker leave White Mountain and both Jeff and Aliy progress toward Safety with a consistent gap.  They have 77 miles to go and are expected in Nome around 2am. Dallas is still under the mandatory 8 hour layover and can’t leave for another 3 hours. Peter warns us that it’s still anyone’s race, but everyone seems pretty sure Jeff will win it again this year.

9:30 PM

The sun has set and the winds are picking up.  The official race website is reporting 45 mph winds pushing the temperatures around -40F.  Jeff continues to lead Aliy, but his marker has momentarily stopped.  Dallas has also left White Mountain, but is almost 2 hours behind Aliy.

10:00 PM

Something is wrong with Jeff or his GPS is updating because his dot isn’t moving and Aliy is gaining as he sits just a couple miles from Safety.  We continue updating the app hoping he and his dogs are okay, but also excited about Aliy’s possible comeback.

11:00 PM

They announce Aliy has officially passed Jeff and it’s not a GPS error.  Aliy is the first to check into Safety, but is clearly stopping until the winds die down. The officials are clocking winds at 70+ mph at the Safety check point 22 miles outside of Nome.  With Aliy waiting for the winds and Jeff pinned down we decided to go to sleep and wakeup around 2:00 AM.

2:00 AM

Jeff has officially scratched after flagging down a snow machine for help.  His dogs we’re tangled in drift wood and he wasn’t able to get the organized and back on the trail in the strong wind.  In more surprising news, Dallas checked in and out of Safety at 1:16.  Aliy left in pursuit 14 minutes later.  With still 22 miles to Nome we decided to get another hour of sleep.

3:20 AM

Aliy is gaining on Dallas and they are within a mile of each other.  We slowly get out of bed layering clothes for the brutal temperatures.  We wonder if they can even see each other out there? Does Dallas know how close Aliy is?  With the drifting snow, maybe he doesn’t know.  We eventually get out the door and drive 5 minutes and park just off the finish line.

3:55 AM

We can hear the crowd yelling and cheering as we shuffle across the polished icy roads.  Not knowing where the finishers are we run along side the crowds of people lining the chute looking to see if anyone has finished.  Then the announcer yells out Dallas has just come off the ice and onto the street! We fight for place at the rope and look down the street.  The crowd begins to cheer and suddenly we see a team of dogs trotting across the snow and Dallas running along side.

Dallas Seavey

The crowd goes wild and the rope can’t hold the people back as they surround the chute and the 2014 Iditrod champion is named Dallas Seavey!  A couple minutes after the announcer yells and there’s Aliy!  Now the crowd really errupts with cheers.  The officials string out the rope holding the fans back and soon another dog team passes and a smiling Aliy high-fives fans as she glides to the finish line.  It seemed like everyone was rooting for Aliy, ourselves included, hoping she could avoid another 2nd place finish. She was a good sport and spent a lot of time with the fans and taking care of her dogs before she left the chute to get some much needed rest and probably think over her strategy and decision to wait at Safety.

Aliy’s Finish

Kids leading the way for Aliy’s dogs after the finish

We left and went back to Peter’s thinking of the agony she must be in missing 1st place by just minutes because she decided to wait.  She was 12 minutes faster over the last 22 miles, but didn’t have enough distance to overtake Dallas.  Dallas however was exhausted and didn’t even realize he was the first to leave Safety.  He thought Aliy’s light behind him was his father in 4th and his goal was not to lose to his father.  He was shocked to find out he was the winner.  We were still amazed how a 8 day race could finish with just minutes between 1st and 2nd.  Peter was right, it really was anyone’s race.  White Mountain to Nome is 77 miles of unpredictable terrain and weather, and it can often allow last minute lead changes.

We spent the next couple days tracking mushers as they left Safety Checkpoint, headed for Nome, so that we could meet them along the trail. The Nome-Council road follows the trail for several miles, so it was easy to drive a little ways out of town and wait in the warm car to see them racing across the open tundra or sea ice. As they’d pass we’d cheer them on and take photos, then we’d drive a little ways farther, leap frogging past them, to repeat the cheers and photos. This way we were able to see each musher 3 to 4 times as they headed into Nome.

Sonny Linder (5th Place)

Sonny on the Bearing Sea Ice

The conditions changed rapidly from hour to hour and depending on the location of the trail.  Some mushers fought whiteout conditions with drifting snow.

Martin Buser (6th Place)

They all had to cross the wind polished sea ice which we saw many mushers slide, fall, and dogs stuggle to maintain any traction.

After they went through the final check at the finish line the dogs were given treats and the mushers were greeted by family and friends.

In the chaos some clever dogs stole some extra treats

The dogs also go through routine vet checks throughout the race including the end.

The dogs then get to rest on straw beds until they are flown home.

While waiting for other finishers we also walked out on the sea ice.  It was slippery and you can see the buckling effects of the strong winds and moving tides beneath the surface.

We also watched migratory buntings outside of Peter’s house and even caught a glimpse of a fox.

Jessie Royer (7th Place)

Somehow the sea ice seemed particularly slippery as Jessie came across. Nathan had gone down to the ice to get some different perspective shots of the dog team, and as Jessie headed towards Nathan, they both struggled to gain traction on the ice. A couple minutes of hilarity ensued as Nathan slipped on the ice had to crawl out of the way as Jessie’s dog sled team slipped and slid just several feet from Nathan.

Nathan was extremely embarrassed, only moment ago voicing his concern for the possibility of slipping on the ice and getting tangled with a dog sled team.

Hans Gatt (9th Place)

At this time of year there was about 12 hours of daylight from 9:30 am to 9:30 pm.  We could hear the air raid sirens sound throughout the night and morning as the mushers approached Nome, but sadly it was hard to get motivated when you knew it was dark out and they would be hard to photograph.

Robert Sorlie (21st Place)

We also learned there are actually several races that use the Iditarod trail including a bicycle race.  They started a week before the dog sled teams, but they are clearly crazier.

They had signs of frost bite and open cuts on their faces after falling many times. They said the winds and drift conditions were the worst between Safety and Nome and they had fallen over the handle bars into the drifts multiple times. We also heard there were people running the 1,000 mile race, but we didn’t see any runners finish.

The last night we had an incredible king crab feast with Peter. It doesn’t come much fresher than being caught right out of the Bearing Sea.  We cooked 2 huge crabs giving us each almost 1.5 lb of delicious crab meat!

The last morning after we dropped our bags off at the airport we watched one more musher arrive.

Kristy Berington (30th place)

After the first 10 finishers Nome starts getting back to normal and the crowds die down and sometimes you forget there’s even a race happening.  We saw dog sled teams weaving around traffic down Front Street as they made their way to the arch.

Like most finishers their faces were frozen, but they were happy to be done.  Kristy’s eyelashes even had ice coating them.

Musher’s Mascara

We were to be able to borrow a car from Peter and Jean, which allowed us to greet and follow the mushers into Nome.  We also were thankful for the fur hats they lent us which by far out-performed any synthetic hat we had brought.

It was an incredible 4 day experience.  We have a greater respect for people who enjoy living in Nome and it was great fun to watch the Iditarod finishers, but we were out of time and off to Fairbanks!

We couldn’t include all the photos in our post so check out the rest below.

Well that’s it, the photos have been sorted through, the stories archived, and the trip reports finally published!  We hope you all enjoyed following our stories and adventures.  It was a truly a trip of a lifetime, and we are so glad we had the opportunity to take some time off and make it happen.

Over the course of our 70 day trip, we drove 10,502 miles through 18 states, which averages to about 150 miles per day. But there were a lot of days that we didn’t drive at all (or only from our campground to a trailhead), and there were only 6 days that we spent all day driving (without any fun stops). We took 12,638 photos and Nathan basically looked at every single one. He narrowed it down to about 1,080 that were edited and posted to the website.

We visited 15 National Parks (10 of which we had never been to before): Pinnacles, Yosemite, Lassen Volcanic, Redwoods, Crater Lake, Mt. Rainier, Olympic, North Cascades, Glacier, Grand Teton, Yellowstone, Great Basin, Zion, Grand Canyon, and Hot Springs. We hiked 239 miles on 44 days of the trip. We did 6 backpacks, all of which were spectacular and top highlights of our trip. We camped almost half the time (which saved us a lot of money), spending 33 nights in a tent, 24 nights in a hotel, and 13 nights staying with family.

We saw some of the best views and natural wonders in the western US including waterfalls, caves, geysers and mudpots, mountains, valleys, canyons, beaches, forests, glaciers, alpine lakes, granite cliffs, red sandstone walls, volcanoes, and more.

We saw all kinds of wildlife including mountain goats, bighorn sheep, moose, black bears, grizzly bears, bison, pronghorn, elk, deer, marmots, pika, foxes, coyotes, quail, turkey, grouse, rattlesnakes, banana slugs, sea stars, sea anemones, tarantulas, and scorpions.

We had a lot of good luck on the trip including great weather pretty much the entire time except in Washington (what else would you expect?) and of course the snow that surprised us in the Tetons. Our car (Subaru Outback) never broke down or caused us any major trouble, although we did do some maintenance along the way including an oil change, new headlights, and new tires.

The trip took a lot of planning to design the itinerary, get hiking permits, make campground reservations, and coordinate with family and friends (Katharine spent 8 months pretty obsessed with every detail). In the end, we don’t think there’s much we would have changed, except maybe making it longer and doing more backpacking!

 

Our route

 

After we finished our trip, we got a lot of questions about our favorite parts, parks, adventures, etc. It’s really impossible to pick, but here are a few highlights.

Favorite National Park – This one is really hard to pick. We think maybe Glacier, since it was our first time there, and it had it ‘all’ – wildlife encounters, amazing hiking, beautiful mountain views, glaciers and glacial lakes, rugged terrain… all without excessive crowds. We can’t wait to go back and do some backpacking!

Glacier National Park

Favorite backpack – Another tough choice. Our 4 day backpack on the Teton Crest Trail was definitely the most adventurous since it hailed or snowed every single day. On the other hand, Zion Narrows was just incredibly beautiful, and it was such a unique experience to hike down a river through the stunning canyon.

Snow on the Teton Crest Trail

Virgin Narrows, Zion National Park

Favorite hike – See above. Although we did some great day hikes, our backpacks were definitely the highlight.

Best wildlife encounter – Up close and personal with the bighorn sheep of Glacier NP.

 

Best sunset – Camping on Shi Shi beach in Olympic National Park.

 

Scariest part – Climbing the cables on Half Dome definitely took a lot of concentration, and there’s no question it’s scary. But we were mentally prepared for Half Dome… whereas when Nathan had to slide to a stop to avoid stepping on a rattlesnake, the surprise and and quickness of it got our adrenalin pumping. Luckily he was safe, but we knew a rattlesnake bite when we were miles from help is no joke. Since those both occurred on our backpack through Yosemite, that must make it the scariest backpacking trip we’ve done!

Half Dome Cables, Yosemite National Park

Best unplanned stop – Definitely the balloon glow at the Albuquerque Balloon Festival. A complete coincidence that we were there at the right time, but it was amazing.

 

Favorite hike not in a National Park – While we didn’t do too many of these, there were a few good contenders. But Havasupai was by far our favorite.

Beaver Falls, Havasupai

Favorite city – We surprised to love Nashville so much, but its great food, whiskey, amazing live music, and friendly atmosphere totally charmed us.

Best story – The story of Stuart, the mouse that invaded our car and made us crazy, is probably one of our favorites to tell.

Biggest disappointment – Overall our trip went really smoothly with very few issues, but we were definitely disappointed that the federal government shutdown made us miss 6 additional National Parks (Petrified Forest, Saguaro, Big Bend, Guadalupe Mts, Carlsbad Caverns, and Mammoth Cave). Guess we’ll just have to do another trip!

Least favorite part – Two contenders for this: Having to deal with a walk-in campsite and the frustrating park shuttle in Yosemite after our brutal descent down the Mist trail… we were completely exhausted (physically and mentally) and just not up to extra mile or so of walking or the logistics of setting up our campsite far away from our car. We learned from that mistake and from then on always booked a hotel for the night after finishing a backpack. The other least favorite part was having to do estimated tax returns on the trip… taxes are never fun, and we just did not feel like dealing with life’s realities while on our trip.

And to end with something a little more upbeat…

Favorite Photo – This would truly be impossible to pick. Even trying to choose our favorite landscape, wildlife photo, portrait, action photo etc would be too hard. Instead, we can just say that Zion Narrows was our favorite place to take photos… it felt like around every bend in the river we came upon another amazing and unique scene that we just had to capture.

 

So that’s a final look back at our trip… we knew as we started planning that it would be ‘epic’ and it certainly did not disappoint!

Of course if you are family, friend, or just follow our blog, you know this won’t be our last adventure.  Next weekend we’re off to Alaska to greet the finishers of the Iditarod in Nome and hopefully see the Northern Lights in Fairbanks!

For a little fun, here’s a look at how we loaded up our car pretty much every day on the trip… it took careful organization to get it all to fit! 

For the final days of our trip, we had to cover a lot of mileage, but we still managed to fit in a few interesting stops along the way.

Day 65: Amarillo, TX to Host Springs, AR (10/7)

We spent the day driving 568 miles east across the pan handle of Texas, Oklahoma and Arkansas.  The drive and scenery were uneventful.

Day 66: Hot Springs National Park, AR to Nashville, TN (10/8)

Hot Springs National Park is essentially main street in Hot Springs.  It is a row of bath houses that draw on the natural springs in the area and were once very popular in the 1800’s before modern medicine.

 

 

The many springs in the area are combined into one supply producing over 750,000 gallons per day.  The water temperature is about 143F and is potable without additional filtering and is publicly available at several fountains.

 

We tried some of the water, but because it was so hot it took a while to cool off.  We spent the day walking up and down the main street, but weren’t able to explore the visitor center / museum because the federal government was still shutdown. The privately-run bath houses were open, so Katharine was able to try one of the traditional treatments. It was an interesting experience, but not something she’d want to do on a regular basis.

Overall, Hot Springs was definitely our least favorite National Park, which is not surprising given that it really seems like it should be a National Historical Site. After a few hours we were ready to leave Arkansas and head to Tennessee. We decided what better place to stop for BBQ than in Memphis.  We ended up at Corky’s BBQ, which did not disappoint.  We ate a full rack of baby back ribs along with hushpuppies, baked beans, coleslaw and pie for dessert.  Not only was the food amazing, the prices were low, and the, service was prompt, humorous and refreshing.  We knew our trip was on the right track again as we left for Nashville

Day 67: Tennessee (10/9)

Considering Nathan enjoys the occasional Jack and Coke what better place to visit than Jack Daniel’s Distillery in Lynchburg, TN.  It’s about 90 minutes outside of Nashville, but it’s a beautiful drive through the Tennessee country side, which was dotted with well maintained horse farms.

We didn’t know much about how Tennessee sipping whiskey was made until after our extensive, entertaining and educational tour. Our guide, Jason, took us through the process and history of Jack Daniels from the original iron-free cave spring water that is still used today to the building that houses the barrels of whiskey.

The tour was memorable and we still try to impersonate Jason and his Tennessee accent while saying “Our whisky mellows through 10 feet of sugar maple charcoal, because we aren’t making bourbon here… we’re making Tennessee sipping whiskey”.

 

The amount of history you learn on one of their tours is amazing.  You can’t take pictures inside their distillery, but you can outside where they make their own charcoal.

Only famous people get to sign the walls.

 

They also still have an REO speed wagon, which was once part of their on-site fire department.

 

You also learn about Jack’s stubbornness to go to the doctor after kicking his safe, which would later lead to his death.

 

At the end of the tour, we enjoyed a small tasting of different varieties of JD whiskey. We are now loyal Jack Daniel’s customers and whenever we order whiskey we think of our visit to Lynchburg.

 

We then headed back to Nashville and stood in line outside the Bluebird Cafe.  For those of you into country music (or watch the TV show Nashville) you know the Bluebird is a well known cafe/ bar where musicians like to frequent to try new music and play in a round.  This unique style puts the musicians in the middle of the room while everyone else enjoys dinner and drinks along the outside, but it is a small and cozy space only fitting a hundred people or so.  We enjoyed the evening listening to Pam Rose, Lisa Carver, Liz Rose and Jill Johnson.  They sang some of their old classics while trying out some new songs.  It was refreshing to see four talented women singing and playing acoustically for fun instead of large scale produced concert.  We loved the experience and hope to find more opportunities to hear live music in a small setting.

 

Day 68: Louisville, KY (10/10)

The next morning we drove 175 miles north to Louisville, KY.  The original plan was to visit Mammoth Caves National Park, but with the government still shutdown, we enjoyed an afternoon walk along the waterfront of the Ohio River.

 

Lincoln Memorial at Waterfront Park

It was a perfect day for a walk as we strolled across a old rail bridge that was refurbished into a pedestrian bridge connecting Kentucky and Ohio.  The renovations weren’t quite finished so we couldn’t step foot in Ohio to add another state to our list.

 

 

We enjoyed some fine dinning and Kentucky bourbon while we reflected on the trip as it neared the end.

 

Day 69-70: Natural Bridge State Park, KY to Pennsylvania (10/11-10/12)

We drove 130 miles from Louisville to Natural Bridge State Resort Park where we took a ski lift and a short hike to see the unusual rock formation.

Under the Natural Bridge

 On Top of the Natural Bridge Looking Toward Lookout Point

The hike was short since we had to get back on the road.  We then drove 600 miles through Kentucky, West Virginia, Maryland, and a corner of Pennsylvania!  We arrived late that night / early the next morning completing the Epic Trip just in time for Will’s (our nephew) 1st birthday party! 

It was crazy to think that the trip was finally over… luckily our photos and memories will last a lifetime!