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The Alaska Mountain Wilderness Classic
from Eureka to Talkeetna - July 2004

Click on map for more detailed version.

The Wilderness Classic is the original adventure race. You start at one place, and end at another. No roads allowed. The simplicity was attractive. Hig had known about the race for a long time, and had always planned to do it one day. We decided this was a good year to give it a shot. Walking from the Eureka roadhouse to Talkeetna is not that big of a deal. But we discovered that doing so quickly is hard. We stubbornly chose a route based mostly on the fact that no one else was doing it, rather than on ease of travel. Our joints objected to the choice. So we didn't get there quickly, but we got there. I think we'll give it another try, maybe when the race next moves somewhere new. I think it'd be more of an adventure if everyone knew less about what to expect.

Here's the official race report for 2004 from Roman Dial. Gordy Vernon and Thai Verzone won the race with a crazy move that involved taking the "atomic bomb" (a 34 pound cataraft) directly down the rapids of the Talkeetna canyon without a portage. Crazy but cool. You can read about our decidedly slower journey below.


Our self-inflicted exile

It's one day since we finished the Wilderness Classic, and I'm writing this from the Talkeetna Air Taxi Bunkhouse, trying to remember what idiocy we've been involved in for the past several days. The journal was one thing that got cast aside for the purpose of this race, along with our fancy camera, sleeping bag, sleeping shelter, and a good measure of our sanity.

Actually, it wasn't so bad. Hig and I are veterans of enough wilderness trips that I knew it would be no big deal to make it to Talkeetna. The only question was whether we could do it quickly.

And for the first day we could. We cruised along the ATV trails heading out from Eureka, talking to other racers as we caught up with them, or they caught up with us. Everyone seemed to be walking at a remarkably consistent pace. No one was stopping. The road was easy walking.

So we jumped off of it. In the wilderness, we're accustomed to finding our own way. And suddenly finding ourselves in the midst of a group of people with good scouting information, experience in the area, and route ideas, we didn't know what to do with ourselves. So we stubbornly decided to go a way that we were sure no one else would go.

This first time, the deviation was small. We wandered off onto a small overgrown ATV track to avoid a climb on the main one, and ended up bushwhacking back to the main trail later. We left the trails at Horsepasture Pass, and followed Cardioceras Creek up and over a pass into the upper Oshetna River.

The terrain was dry and treeless, and reminiscent of the Brooks Range. We encountered no obstacles, and walked quickly and easily until almost one in the morning. We had never thought we could win, but we started thinking we could maybe even do the race faster than the four days we thought it might take. The problems only came later.

We hadn't used our sleeping gear (rafts and thermarests) well that night, and slept hardly at all. But the next morning we were still fine, trucking along at 5AM when we ran into another group of racers. We saw them across a little creek, packing up on the hillside, and for a second I couldn't believe they weren't caribou. We've never seen people in the backcountry before. We walked with them for a few minutes before taking our second wrong turn, as they continued into the correct pass into the upper Talkeetna.

We corrected that mistake fairly quickly, but cutting back into the right place over piles of ice-cored moraine slowed us down by a few more hours. The glaciers are truly almost gone here, and the remaining ice is strangely smooth, lacking crevasses even on the steepest of slopes. The pass into the upper Talkeetna was easy enough, though the moraines were annoying to walk on.

In the upper Talkeetna we found fast travel on wide open tundra next to the stream. And this is where it all started to fall apart. My feet were blistered already by this point, but the first things to really fail were Hig's ankles. There is no better slower than pain, and as soon as each step hurts, the motivation to avoid rest breaks drains away.

Taping the ankles with duct tape eventually helped quite a bit, and we crossed the headwaters of the Talkeetna (which required a raft), and headed over the mountains into Iron Creek. Most sensible people who had gotten to this point decided to go to the Talkeetna directly, but we had a more interesting (at least we thought so) route planned, involving a series of mountain passes over into Sheep River. Perhaps we aren't yet quite on board with choosing routes for efficiency rather than coolness.

After the Talkeetna itself, we had one fast water crossing we barely managed on foot, for which I'm glad we have our tandem river crossing skills well-honed. And it was up the mountain from there. And it hurt to go up the mountain. Hig's ankles still hurl, and by this point my blistered feet really hurt, obscuring the aches beginning in my other leg joints. We made an agonizingly slow ascent, and camped barely down from the ridge on the other side. This time we slept longer, and I attempted to fix my feet.

The next day was short and painful. The high passes were beautiful, but our bodies were less and less up for walking, and my feet objected strongly to the hard rough ground of the moraines. Hig carried me over a few creeks so I could try and keep them dry. As the fog rolled in we gave up on our plans to head for the Sheep River, figuring that our bodies couldn't take another pass, and that we'd never see well enough to find the complicated high route in any case.

So we headed down into Iron Creek valley, where the dry and relatively barren land turned lusher and wetter. We walked from wet foggy tundra down into wet willow. On the way down we found a great pile of beautiful Bolitas mushrooms, which are some of our favorites.

It was cold and wet, and we were walking slowly in any case, so we decided we wanted to build a nice fire before bed and eat some mushrooms. Normally I love bolitas mushrooms, and we've eaten them many times in the past without incident. But eating a great pile of not-quite-cooked mushrooms on fairly empty stomachs and stressed-out bodies wasn't the wisest of plans. We slept fitfully in our not-very-watertight shelter, and woke up vomiting mushrooms.

Starting the trek down Iron Creek we were cold, wet, slightly nauseous, and still had all the leg and foot pain from the day before. It was a rather miserable beginning, and we tried to keep our spirits up by inventing new words to the song "Where have all the flowers gone?" involving bombers, nomads, and the downfall of empires by way of robot drones.

Singing is a good way to keep walking when I'm tired, or things are difficult. The only problems with this are that I can't sing at all (which is ok when only Hig's there to hear me), and that I only know about three songs in their entirety. So I sang "Where have all the flowers gone?", "Mercy of the fallen", the song our friends made for us for our wedding, and a few other partially complete ones. And I sang them over and over and over again, such that I'm sure I'll have them stuck in my head for life.

This was the day my knee gave out. It just got worn out and swollen up from all the walking, and moving down along the riverbank became a monumental chore. We wanted to raft Iron Creek. We wanted to raft it because it would be faster, because it hurt to walk, and because the map-marked trail along Iron Creek didn't exist in reality (no real surprise there). But the river didn't yet cooperate with our mediocre rafting skills. We did a few short runs, but mostly we walked. And my knee hurt. And my mental state deteriorated to where I was absolutely focused on only two small goals in life: Follow Hig, a short way ahead of me, and search for ripe cloudberries along the ground.

Speed was hopeless. We knew we could never make it by the 4 days we had thought we could, and we camped early with a good fire. We'd intended to wake and raft the river at the crack of dawn, but by this time all racing motivation had dropped away, and we didn't get up until nearly 6. Luckily the river was more cooperative this time.

We rafted nearly all the way, but for a gorge we couldn't see into and had to walk around in the birch forest. There were many small rapids which were perfect for us, and a good bit of fun, until they disintegrated into continuous messy bumpy water later in the creek. We finished the rest of our food and kept floating, hitting the confluence with the Talkeetna about mid afternoon.

The rapids almost all disappeared by now, and we cruised by fields of ostrich ferns in the fast gentle water, discussing river dynamics and watching tour boats cruise up and down the river.

We finally beached in Talkeetna a little after 9PM - about 4 days and 11 hours from the start time in Eureka. We limped into town (I limped, and Hig slowed down for me), put our names on the sign-in sheet, replenished our blood sugar with a handful of candy, and resolved to do better next time.

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Last modified: 1/13/2005