Take a whack at adventure — Backcountry race tests: Navigation, endurance, teamwork … sanity?

By Clark Fair

Photo by Clark Fair, Redoubt Reporter. Faces brimming with tentative optimism, the K-Pen Cats take a moment for a group photograph just before the start of the 2012 “Bushwhack This!” adventure race. Left to right are Mike Crawford, Yvonne Leutwyler and Clark Fair.

Redoubt Reporter

Lying inside a down bag in the bed of my truck, I had almost drifted off to sleep when another burst of automatic weapon fire jolted me awake.

I cracked open my weary eyelids, noted the graying skies of evening, and wondered if the shooters were ever going to tire. For three hours now, and with a wide assortment of guns, they had been plugging away at targets propped against a copse of birch trees on the nearby hillside.

Just then, a trio of four-wheeler riders blasted past us, jumping a nearby ditch and roaring off into the gloom down inky trails dotted with puddles and lined with sprawling alders. It was nearly 9 p.m. Our race was slated to start at midnight, with a prerace meeting scheduled for about 10. I doubted I would get a moment of real sleep before the race began.

Nestled in her own bag, my teammate, Yvonne Leutwyler, had remained motionless throughout the latest artillery barrage. Either she had actually managed to drift into a sleep deep enough to escape the noise or she was simply remaining stoically still. Ensconced in the cab of the truck, my other teammate, Mike Crawford, also seemed immobile.

We were entered as a coed team in the 2012 “Bushwhack This!” adventure race, billed as a 12-hour competition encompassing approximately 40 miles of mountain biking, orienteering, trekking and paddling. At about 10:30 p.m., we were to be informed of the exact nature of the race course, along which we would be expected to locate nine hidden checkpoints and punch a card proving we had passed through.

Of the three of us, only Yvonne had had experience with the race. A strong athlete with solid endurance, she had participated in 2011 in a cold, daylong August rain and had vowed never to do it again. Mike, in great shape from his continual triathlon training and his work as a P90X instructor, had, like me, no experience with a competition of this duration. And I, as the oldest member of the group, was by far the biggest racing newbie — having entered only two races since graduating from high school: the 1980 Mount Marathon race and the 2012 five-kilometer Run for the River.

Yes, there are 32 years between those experiences.

On this particular weekend, with Father’s Day looming only two days away, the campers, motor homes and heavy-duty trucks had

Photo courtesy of Yvonne Leutwyler. A gravel pit in Jonesville, near Sutton, provided a beautiful backdrop for the race start. The Alaska Adventure Racing group set up their tent in the middle of a gathering of RVs of people enjoying a weekend of off-roading and target shooting practice in this backcountry area.

infiltrated the site en masse, with trailers packed with motorcycles, ATVs and four-wheelers, providing us with myriad illustrations of the Doppler effect, and creating a makeshift RV village.

It was literally in the middle of all this motorized mayhem that a group of 22 helmeted, sleep-deprived, adventure-racing participants were about to clamber onto their mountain bikes and launch into a fully human-powered competition.

Before any of us contemplated another good night’s sleep, however, we would be pedaling about 25 miles (over muddy mining roads, along stretches of highway, down a deteriorating old railroad bed paralleling the Matanuska River and through the streets of Palmer), trekking approximately 10 miles (down empty city streets, up a pair of wooded buttes, along mosquito-infested trails and swamps, and even down a hard-packed gravel road), and paddling six miles of slack water in one-person, flat-bottomed pack rafts.

Prior to race start, I laid out my goals: (1) Avoid injury to myself or my teammates. (2) Finish the race. (3) Have fun. I assumed that success in the first two categories would ensure success in the third. I also assumed that the high character and athletic prowess of my teammates improved the likelihood of accomplishing all three goals.

Despite whanging my left kneecap on a sharp chunk of granite when I fell along the river, despite unnecessarily carrying a spare inner tube and a patch kit during the nonbiking portions of the race, and despite our group making a navigational error that added about three miles and an hour and a half to our time — I succeeded in all my goals.

Of course, the rest of the 12 hours wasn’t exactly a walk in the park — well, part of it was, with a bit of biking and running at 4 a.m. as we searched for Checkpoint No. 4.

There were plenty of moments at which we could have allowed frustration or fatigue to overpower our good natures and cause us to

Photo courtesy of Yvonne Leutwyler. After scrambling over some gravel washout areas with their mountain bikes, the guys take a brief respite at 3 a.m., possibly wondering why they signed up in the first place.

snipe at each other. But we kept our attitudes positive, even when Yvonne hooked up me and Mike like sled dogs to tow her up Bodenburg Butte, even when our butts were getting wet as cold stream water pooled in the bottoms of our rafts, and even when we climbed the wrong mosquito-ridden summit of Burnt Butte and then had to descend and go climb the correct mosquito-ridden summit to find a checkpoint.

In fact, our team, the K-Pen Cats, was the first to arrive at checkpoint Nos. 3, 4, 5 and 6, and to the transition area, where we swapped our muddy bikes and wet clothing for our rafts, paddles and a few dry items before hurrying off down another trail.

By the time noon rolled around, we were cruising over flat water at about two miles per hour, and the 40-something-degree temperatures of predawn racing had been replaced by 70-something degrees and bluebird skies. To end the race,

Photo courtesy of Yvonne Leutwyler. Clark Fair glides along among the pond lilies on Jim Creek. Despite its name, Jim Creek is more of a still-water slough than a creek with a moving current.

we pulled our crafts from lower Jim Creek and shuffled with them across sandy flats to the north bank of the Knik River, about two miles upstream from the Old Glenn Highway bridge. And from there, we could see on the far shore the support vehicles, the finish line and a chance to rest in the sun.

After a few hang-ups on sandbars we arrived, rang the finish bell, changed into dry clothes, then stuffed ourselves full of peanut-

butter-filled pretzels, Red Vines and chips and salsa before dropping onto the soft gravel for an attempted snooze.

Across the river, on the Jim Creek Flats, motorcycles and four-wheelers roared back and forth, but it didn’t seem to matter anymore.

 

2012 ‘Bushwhack This!’ adventure race

  • The idea: “Bushwhack This!” is an annual multisport race that occurred this year on June 16 near Sutton, northeast of Palmer. The precise nature of the course was kept secret, to give all competitors an equal start, until a prerace meeting on the night of June 15. Over an unmarked race route approximately 40 miles long, participants traveled by mountain bike, on foot and by pack raft, searching for nine remote checkpoints, where a punch was located and marked with an orange-and-white flag. Participants earned either 100 or 200 points per punch, depending on the difficulty of reaching and/or finding the checkpoint. One 50-point bonus activity was available at Checkpoint No. 2, making the total possible points this year 1,250. Members of each team were required to remain within 20 meters of each other at all times. The winning team was the one that earned the most points. In

    This is an approximation of the actual race-course map used by participants in the 2012 “Bushwhack This!” adventure race. The nine checkpoints on the course are designated with “CP” and a number. On the route, which covered approximately 40 miles, the pink line indicates the biking portion of the race, the purple line indicates the trekking portion, and the yellow line indicates the rafting portion. The orange line indicates the navigational error and unfortunate detour taken by the K-Pen Cats team.

    case of a tie, the winner would have been the first to cross the finish line.

  • The start: The race began at a large gravel pit about two miles up the Jonesville Mine Road from the town of Sutton (approximately Milepost 60 of the Glenn Highway). The huge gravel expanse and the interconnecting series of old mining roads there had produced an ideal location for off-road motorized riding enthusiasts, and over the years it had become a favorite gathering place for groups such as the 907 Riders, the Alaska ATV Club and the Backcountry Rebels. On the eve of the race, the area was rife with large motor homes and big trucks, towing trailers filled with off-road vehicles. In the midst of all this, at about 12:10 a.m., the biking portion of 2012 “Bushwhack This!” began, with the participants launching themselves off a small hill and aiming for a twisting, undulating mining road that ran southwest along the bottom of a high cliff.
  • The biking leg: Bikers had a few route options, but generally they followed the mining roads to Elks Lake, rode down All Elks Road to the Glenn Highway and headed southwest again. Around Milepost 54, they left the highway and dropped down onto an old railroad bed paralleling the western bank of the Matanuska River. The bank ranged from easy-to-ride dirt trails to impossible-to-ride steep gravel washouts. Parts of the trail teetered on badly eroding banks of a swift-moving and muddy stream. After about five miles, the bikers emerged in a north Palmer subdivision, from which they navigated to Matanuska River Park, then crossed the Matanuska River on the Old Glenn Highway and headed south to the Transition Area in a neighborhood just north of Bodenburg Butte.
  • Checkpoints on the biking leg: Checkpoint No. 1 was hidden about 200 to 300 yards up a heavily vegetated stream gully about two and a half miles into the race. Checkpoint

    Photo by Greg Morgan, http://www.throwingwrench.com. Yvonne Leutwyler in the foreground and Clark Fair, hidden in the trees, search for the flag at the control located on the abandoned train car on the Batman Trail. For some checkpoints, getting there was the easy point. Finding the flag, at times, was harder.

    No. 2 was in a campground on the west side of Moose Creek. Checkpoint No. 2.5 lay along the bank of the Matanuska River, and so did Checkpoint No. 3, which was affixed to a manmade object, in this case a rusted hulk of an old railcar. Checkpoint No. 4 was near a foot trail in Matanuska River Park. Each biking checkpoint was worth 100 points.

  • Transition Area: Participating teams were allowed one plastic tote filled with equipment, in addition to their individual pack rafts and paddles. These items were awaiting the competitors, and the transition area marked the official beginning of the trekking portion of the race.
  • The trekking leg: Once participants shed their bikes they were on foot for 10 miles or more, depending on their ability to successfully navigate the multiplicity of trails. The basic idea was to climb the northwest flank of Bodenburg Butte, south of Palmer, and descend on the southern flank. From the parking lot on the south side, racers hurried down two miles of straight asphalt road to the Burnt Butte trailhead. After climbing Burnt Butte, they made their way along a thickly vegetated and mosquito-infested series of roads and trails that led them to the north shore of Jim Lake, where they doffed their packs, extracted and inflated their rafts, climbed in and began to paddle.
  • Checkpoints on the trekking leg: Checkpoint No. 5, on the summit of Bodenburg Butte, was worth 200 points, as was

    Photo courtesy of Yvonne Leutwyler. The guys pointing to the checkpoint atop the Burnt Butte. The Bodenburg Butte, location of an earlier checkpoint, can be seen in the background. Despite the warm weather the guys are bundled up due to the epic masses of mosquitoes on top of the hill.

    Checkpoint No. 7, on the eastern summit of Burnt Butte. Between them was 100-point Checkpoint No. 6, which hung near the trailhead to Burnt Butte.

  • The rafting leg: The competitors raced across Jim Lake from north to south, executed a brief portage, then climbed into the nearly currentless confines of Jim Creek. Including the lake crossing, the rafting portion of the race covered about six miles. Because of the flat-bottomed nature of pack rafts, the typical speed of travel was about two miles per hour. Jim Creek flows generally south to its confluence with the shallow upper Knik River. Participants paddled across the river and slightly downstream to reach the finish line.
  • Checkpoint on the rafting leg: The final stop — 200-point Checkpoint No. 8 — lay along the middle portion of Jim Creek.
  • The finish line: One member of each team was required to climb from his or her raft and ring a small bell suspended from one leg of a pole tent on the south bank of the Knik River, about two miles upstream from the bridge crossing on the Old Glenn Highway. Penalties were assessed to teams taking longer than the 12-hour time allotment to finish.
  • The winning team: The winners of “Bushwhack This!” for 2012 were from the Kenai Peninsula — Soldotna’s Tom Kobylarz

    Photo by Greg Morgan, http://www.throwingwrench.com. The winning team of Jodi Dura, Matt Dura and Tom Kobylarz pause on top of Bodenburg Butte.

    and Kenai’s Matt and Jodi Dura, comprising team “Beauty and the Beasts.” They found every checkpoint — the first team to do so in three years — and earned the maximum 1,250 points, finishing in 12 hours and 20 minutes. The other Kenai Peninsula team, “K-Pen Cats” (Mike Crawford, Yvonne Leutwyler and Clark Fair) finished nearly half an hour later; they found six of the nine checkpoints and earned 875 points, finishing fourth.

Adventures in new experiences, beard growing

By Mike Crawford, for the Redoubt Reporter

Ah, adventure racing.

Part adventure, part racing.

All unmitigated misery.

I’m kidding, of course. Some of it was mitigated. My point is, I had the chance to do some adventure racing June 15. And by “had the chance,” I mean my friend Yvonne forced me into it.

“Hey Mike, what are you doing the weekend after next?” she asked.

Before I could answer, she blurted, “That’s right! You’re going adventure racing. Get your stuff ready.”

Yvonne, who does myriad painful outdoor activities, such as running marathons and dog mushing, had done an adventure race before, but swore she’d never do it again. With that promising statistic, I hesitated. But Yvonne has a tendency to get her way. I was in, whether I wanted to be or not.

The other member of our team was a very fit fellow with scads of outdoor experience named Clark. Clark climbs Kenai Peninsula mountains with a frequency that would make mountain goats question his sanity. He sets a furious, steady pace, leaving most others in the dust. “Clark,” I believe, is just his civilian name; a far more appropriate moniker is “Quadzilla.”

The race would take approximately 12 hours for the fastest teams, and be comprised of mountain biking, hiking and pack-rafting. The week before, the three of us met to go over recommended gear for the race.

The list recommended things like head nets — which I thought must imply there’d be a beekeeping leg of the race. Emergency blankets, flares, bear bells, whistles and glowsticks (obviously for impromptu raves), medical kit, waffle maker, Space Station, fondue set… . I can’t remember exactly what the list detailed, but we were all to provide and carry all the items on the entire list. Luckily, I have experience as a sherpa.

Nearer to the actual race day, we got even “better” news — the 40-some-odd mile race was going to begin at midnight Friday. So, my excitement meter, which was already topping out, became absolutely pegged. Nothing makes stumbling around in the woods more fun than doing it on no sleep and in the dark.

After driving up from the Kenai to a settlement near Palmer called Jonesville, we tried to get a nap in before the midnight race start.

That proved impossible, as the Palmer recreationalists (Palmeranians?) enjoyed passing their time by discharging all manner of firearms into the woods. What we had envisioned as a tranquil, restful place turned out to be more like a bad day in Bosnia.

We met our fellow competitors and race organizers and received some elucidation regarding the course. People were ubiquitously nice and eager to get going. We apparently missed the memo about mandatory beards for serious adventure racers. Even the men had them. (I’m kidding, of course.)

One interesting and great thing about adventure racing is that the most-recognized dynamic is coed, three-person teams. This encourages strong and amazing women to compete hard and quite often beat the tar out of those of us with a Y chromosome.

In our case, Yvonne was our leader, as she was by far the most experienced. This was a perfect arrangement, as both Clark and I are used to taking orders from strong women — Clark having a teenage daughter, and me spending time with a strong-willed lady friend. Yvonne immediately poured over the course map, taking charge.

“We’ll take this road here, then make our way down to the river,” she said, pointing to a bundle of squiggles on the map.

Clark and I made thoughtful, “Hmmm” sounds in vague agreement, and concentrated on growing our beards.

Soon, we mounted our bikes and assembled on the top of a hill. Thankfully, even near midnight, the clear sky and proximity to the summer solstice provided decent ambient light.

With the start officially under way, we raced down the hill and into the woods. With our bear bells strapped to our bikes, the sound of nearly 22 racers ripping downhill sounded like a team of Christmas reindeer falling down a marble staircase.

Thankfully, the woods proved sufficiently tame, no doubt thanks to the gun-toting Palmeranians.

The trails, however, were a different story. Mostly made by another ubiquitous Palmeranian accessory, the four-wheeler, the trails were muddy, confusing and everywhere. To add to the near-dark excitement, there were rocks, branches, deadfall trees and puddles larger than some European countries.

We missed some of the first checkpoints, and I was of absolutely no help in this regard. I lacked the two basic qualities of successful checkpoint finding — knowing what a checkpoint looks like, the ability to see in the dark, good intuition and, I should probably add, counting, since this list seems like more than two things.

We were the first team to the transition area, where we traded our bikes for backpacks filled with pack rafts, grabbed quick snacks and started up a mountain on rubbery legs.

Mine were rubbery, anyway, as I struggled to keep up with Quadzilla. Yvonne had an even better idea. She attached a length of shock cord to both Clark and I, thereby gaining some advantage climbing. Add in her years of dog-mushing experience and she was in charge of the dumbest and slowest sled dogs she could ever hope for. It didn’t help at all that we didn’t understand her commands.

Photo courtesy of Yvonne Leutwyler. The team summitted Bodenburg Butte at 5 a.m. June 16 in the “Bushwhack This!” adventure race, in first place ahead of their competitors. With Pioneer Peak in the background they enjoyed a brief moment of triumph before descending.

“Gee! Haw! Haw, I said, haw!”

“TURN LEFT, YOU KNUCKLEHEADS!”

We arrived at Jim Lake, eager to give our legs a respite from the previous 10 hours of abuse. Now, I’m a decent mountain biker and an OK hiker, but I was breathtakingly new to pack rafting. The first time I had ever seen a pack raft was when I pulled it out of the pack.

“Is this it?” I wondered, looking over about a square yard of rubber.

It was.

It turned out to be a brilliant day for a regatta as I inflated the raft, which looked suspiciously like a pool toy. I placed it gingerly into the lake and attempted to get in. It was rather like trying to step on an eel. I pushed my feet forward and fell into the raft’s bottom. I felt my kidneys move at least 3 inches up. Astonishingly, I had managed already to get a significant amount of water in the bottom of the raft, so perhaps my kidneys were merely trying to avoid drowning.

In my haste to inflate the raft, I had overlooked inflating the raft’s seat, which made me look more or less like a head resting on an

Photo courtesy of Yvonne Leutwyler. Mike Crawford arrives at the portage from Jim Lake to Jim Creek, shortly after the transition from trekking to pack-rafting.

inflatable sausage. An added bonus was that my wildly inefficient paddling did less to propel me forward and more to ship water directly into my lap.

Yet we survived the race.

“That was fun. Let’s never do that ever again. Ever,” I suggested.

In the off chance that we do, I’ll start growing my beard now.

Mike Crawford, of Soldotna, is a triathlete, fitness trainer, webmaster for the Kenai Peninsula School District, neophyte adventure racer and newly committed beard grower.

 

No excuse for not making new memories

By Yvonne Leutwyler, for the Redoubt Reporter

“Have you heard of adventure racing? I think you and Mike would make a great team!” my hiking companion, Donna, mentioned after one of our explorations in the local mountains.

Matter-of-factly, I had. Last summer, by lack of better judgment, I got sucked into participating in one of these multisport events. I was cold and miserable for most of the time, pushing beyond physical exhaustion and failing to keep up with my more-experienced team members. It was an experience I would certainly remember, but not one I would have liked to repeat. Mike thought it was a fabulous idea. Clark, having overheard the conversation, tuned in: “You will need a third team member, won’t you?” Sigh.

Mike is a triathlete and fitness coach. Clark, having grown up scrambling around in the local hills, has a natural affinity for endurance events. For a while I thought I could at least outrun him, but then he bought a pair of fast shoes and I could kiss my perceived advantage goodbye.

The guys downplayed their abilities:

“I’m not a runner.”

“I’ve never been in a pack raft.”

“I’m old.”

Blah-di-blah. Don’t believe a word. Yes, I consider myself a runner and hardcore hiker. However, competitive events of this

Photo courtesy of Yvonne Leutwyler. At 3 a.m. the sun started to appear after a short period of twilight. The Matanuska River meanders in the foreground. The team was traveling on their bikes along the old Alaska Railroad grade paralleling the river.

magnitude with a hint of “adventure” still manage to intimidate me.

I must then have fallen victim to endurance athlete’s amnesia, and the competitive spirit won over my common sense. We signed up, and somehow miraculously kept it together until race day.

I suspected I was going to be the weakest link, hoping not to be left behind. However, we were a team, and the boys proved merciful. It was agreed that I carried the lightest one of the pack rafts. I was allowed to go first in the biking section, setting the (slow) pace, pretending I was “navigating.” They helped me schlep my bike over gravel washout ditches and pulled me out of the bushes when I tumbled off the trail. They didn’t mind dragging me up the Bodenburg Butte with tow ropes, and politely responded when I gasped, “Slow down,” and, “Wait up!”

They trusted me when I assured them I knew a secret shortcut, and forgave my neglect to consult the map more often. They fed me,

Photo courtesy of Yvonne Leutwyler. Backtracking after going off course for over a mile along the Plumley-Maude trail. This area is where other teams caught up with the K-Pen Cats. The trail was muddy and mosquito-infested, however, the morning sun lit up the woods beautifully, and Pioneer Peak once more provided a beautiful setting.

encouraged me and let me cuss and vent when my paddles, sticking out from my backpack, caught on an overhead branch for the umpteenth time, or when I was being eaten alive by mosquitoes while trying to find sunscreen in my pack. They were supportive teammates, and I started to believe in our mission of team-effort racing.

I, for my part, believe I held my own.

Unlike last year, there was no mind-numbing hypothermia and no gale-force winds sucking the very life out of me on mountain tops. I didn’t feel like a drowned rat drenched in relentless downpour bordering on deluge, with mud splashed on myself in unspeakable places, always lagging behind, wavering, doubting.

Instead, we were rewarded with the serenity of a 3 a.m. sunrise along the Matanuska River. We cruised through the empty streets not unlike a ghost town in Palmer in the early morning hours, and

Photo courtesy of Yvonne Leutwyler. The Knik Glacier can be seen to the east from the top of the Bodenburg Butte.

encountered not an awake soul in the Matanuska River campground in search of a checkpoint.

The pink light on the mountain tops at the summit of the Bodenburg Butte held us in brief respite and triumph for being in the lead. I smelled pancakes cooking on the griddle at 6 a.m. passing through a neighborhood in search of the next trail segment. The lush plants filled the forest with a pleasant smell in the warming daylight. We joked and bantered among teammates. Horses pranced and frolicked alongside us shortly after midnight, a herd of yaks greeted us as the morning went under way. I tasted dried, salty sweat on my lips, and squinted into the sun during a long, lazy paddle.

Photo by Greg Morgan, http://www.throwingwrench.com. Yvonne Leutwyler, Mike Crawford and Clark Fair paddle pack rafts crossing the Knik River at the race finish.

At times I didn’t feel like I was in some crazy-ass endurance race at all. I was simply playing outside on a beautiful midsummer day enjoying the glory of Alaska’s backcountry. Wasn’t this my favorite thing to do on my days off, regardless?

As we stepped onshore onto the Jim Creek Flats and clumsily tried to sprint along this huge sandbar to the Knik River, toting our paddles and pack rafts in their semi-inflated state before we set sail again for the last half mile downriver to the finish, it occurred to me that, despite its strangeness, this racing experience was exhilarating. Though hard to admit, maybe I was even having fun? Our flotilla cruised to the finish line with big smiles on our faces. We teammates had bonded into a solid unit of comrades over the span of the last 12 hours and 47 minutes. There was no longer a weakest link.

Thanks, Donna, for being an instigator.

Photo courtesy of Yvonne Leutwyler. Sun-soaked, sweaty and tired, but certainly happy with their adventure, the team poses for a portrait at the finish.

Adventure racers and event organizers are a small, underrated group of individuals addicted to outdoor extremist activities. They are real nice people who appear normal in real life. More information about the fine insanity of adventure racing can be found at www.alaskaadventureracing.com and Alaska Adventure Racing on Facebook.

Yvonne Leutwyler is a distance runner, former dog musher, licensed veterinary technician and all-around outdoor enthusiast from Soldotna.

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3 Comments

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3 responses to “Take a whack at adventure — Backcountry race tests: Navigation, endurance, teamwork … sanity?

  1. Pingback: webmaster mike's blog » Blog Archive » Adventure Racing Revisited…

  2. Angie

    Wow! What a hilarious account of an incredible racing adventure. Is it wrong that I hope they sign up for more torturous events just so I can read about it?

  3. Well done guys! I love it! For the record, nearly 100 percent of all adventure racers swear that they will never do another one as long as they live….until the next one….and the next…. wash, rinse, repeat. See you in 2012. The course is already being developed and it promises to be an “epic adventure”.

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