Armchair Musher: Birch Creek

Monday, February 3, 2020

Imagine for a moment that you have just spent the better part of two days on the tips of your toes, your knuckles white & clenched about the roughened & splintering grip tape on your handlebar, cascading through spruce forests, launching into gulleys & careening around sharp turns. You’ve pushed behind your sled as the dogs ascended the firmament in the near-vertical last pitch of Rosebud, you’ve buckled your knees jamming the clawbrake into the exposed rock & dirt on its summit. You watched the clouds closely & keenly from Mile 101, looking up from your chores periodically, absent-mindedly in an ongoing arithmetic seeking to determine should you go? Should you stay? You waited until you were as confident as could be, forged your team into the little vermiculate creek that winds & wends until you point up Eagle, & there you go. You are pushing your sled, running with all of your clothes on, sweating, your packboots heavy, trying to keep things steady, offering encouragement to the dogs between your labored breathing. & then you are on the top, looking at the line that the world has drawn between the top of the mountain & something down below that you cannot see. You approach, your dogs spilling two by two over a four-story pitch of near verticality. If it’s light out, you see everything, the whole valley, every other mountain top, every thrown booty or knocked-over trail marker. You are falling, your fear exploding past reason & made suddenly absurd. There is no time for fear, only reaction.

& then suddenly, the ninety degree turn mid-mountain, then the calm little trot before turning down toward treeline. & then the post-adrenaline high red-carpets the run into Central, where you either bed down for a brief while or zoom through.

You have been thrumming, a filament charged with the chaos underlying this whole enterprise, the dogs hyper-kinetic & beautiful in their drive & determination. Your enthusiasm from the start line carried you to Rosebud. Your shock of vitality from its heights carried you to 101. & the looming, massive thrill of Eagle Summit, all of its fabled history shrouded in gossamer cloud, catapulted you to Central. All of that living, all of that sheer presence pulsing in your veins, that maelstrom of the here & now has carried you this far. & then, you get to Birch Creek, & suddenly, everything, everything, is so incredibly slow.

Zoom in on Birch Creek on the tracker. Do you see how oxbow gives way unto oxbow, how every curve seems to bring you directly back the way you came? We have an Oliver Jeffers book for the kids that on the inside of the title page shows a drawing that starts at the top & makes repeated boustrophedons all the way to the bottom, like the scrawling of some curiously obsessive child trying to fill every conceivable bit of the page with one consecutive line. This is precisely how Birch Creek feels. Endless, redundant, repetitive. Every bend gives way to…another bend. Your sense of discovery at rounding corners is blunted, your keen awareness begins to slump, your tiredness & exhaustion start blanching your bones from the inside out. You start looking at your watch. It’s only been eight minutes. You look again. Six minutes. Because you are sleep-deprived & your body has processed & discarded two straight days’ worth of adrenaline & you have found the dregs of your mental capacity, you begin to actually believe that this will, in fact, last forever. Your lifelong allegiance to the space-time continuum grows shaky. This creek is interminable. You will live here forever. You & your dogs will never, ever, ever finish winding around the same corners.

& then, quite suddenly, you do.

Perhaps, if you are like me, you summon from some deep & dormant wellspring yawps of joy & relief & let your disbelief fall from you, shaking it off along with the countless hallucinations you experienced along the way. Perhaps your dogs are consequently so riled up that they end up winding around the first house they come to with the leaders stepping their paws up on to the front porch as if to ring the doorbell (not that I speak from experience here). Whatever the nature of your teams’ eruption of triumph, there sits Circle, poised on the banks of the Yukon, the oasis in the desert of white you’ve been seeking all the while, salve of a deep existential reckoning that was drawn out, turn after endless turn.

If you’re running the 300, well, you tell yourself that rest & eggs & bacon & coffee will rectify everything, that turning around & doing it again won’t be the end of you. If you’re in the 1000, then here you are, gazing out over the titular river of the race, its yawning expanse winding all the way unto the Llewelyn Glacier hundreds of miles away, in an entirely different country. You have been told the jumble ice isn’t bad this year. Jumble ice that isn’t bad is still jumble ice. You know this but accept the small favors that encouraging words can bestow. & besides, you are in possession of a greater knowledge. You have just survived the deepest of doldrums, the most protracted & taxing & seemingly infinite challenge of, well, just plain old cold redundancy. You know deep in the core of you that whatever the Yukon brings, at least it’s not Birch Creek.

The Official 2020 Yukon Quest Armchair Musher is Yukon Quest veteran Andy Pace, 2016 & 2019 finisher. You can follow Andy, along with YQ veteran Kristin Knight Pace and their family on Instagram at @heymoosekennel.

Andy Pace