Riding a Glacier Trail? Mind the Porcupines. Jill Homer of Juneau, Alaska, spent the past week dodging critters in the frozen wilderness.
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Riding a Glacier Trail? Mind the Porcupines.

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Riding a Glacier Trail? Mind the Porcupines.

Riding a Glacier Trail? Mind the Porcupines.

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Last week, we started a new blog series about a woman who thinks she's a dog. Okay, that's not fair.

Jill Homer is training for the Iditarod, the cross-Alaska race normally run by a team of huskies. But there's something called the human Iditarod, which is a race on foot, bike or skis that humans do without their canine friends. Jill's doing it this year. Hey, Jill. How are you?

Ms. JILL HOMER (Newspaper Page Designer; Cyclist): Good. How are you?

PESCA: So I think it might be a little crazier than it sounds. The reaction, again, to the people who you tell you're running or biking or skiing this race is what?

Ms. HOMER: Well, I get everybody - all kinds of reactions from people who admire the idea. There are some people who think I'm completely crazy, but, generally, people have been pretty supportive.

PESCA: And when you tell people - do most Alaskans know that there is a human Iditarod? Or do you they say, wait, aren't dogs supposed to run that?

Ms. HOMER: Most Alaskans know about this race.

PESCA: Okay.

Ms. HOMER: It's actually been around for nearly two decades, so it has a footing in history.

PESCA: And my other question about most Alaskans: When we, the people down in the lower 48, hear about this, we say, oh, my God. They're doing this in - for 350 miles, and it's outside in the snow. But do Alaskans kind of figure, well, everything's outside in the snow, so you take that out of that equation. Does it seem less crazy to the Alaskans?

Ms. HOMER: Yeah, there are Alaskans who think, well, this is just part of living here in the winter, to get out and ride your bike even if there's, you know, three feet of snow on the ground. But there's definitely, especially in Juneau, a lot of people who don't understand going out in the winter at all. You know, winter is when you stay inside and watch your Netflix.

PESCA: Even in Juneau.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. HOMER: So.

PESCA: Now, last week, when you were on the show, you said you're going to be doing this on bike, and the bike has some special gear, some fat tires. But I understand you can run the route or ski the route or bike the route, however you want to get there. How did you decide to do it on bike?

Ms. HOMER: Well, for me, biking is probably the fastest way to do it. I'm not a good skier. I'm not a strong runner, but I can bike pretty much forever. So even though bikes in a lot of conditions aren't the ideal way to get there, for me, they really are. So…

PESCA: It would seem, though, of all the things, bike might have the greatest chance of breaking down mechanically. Do you worry about that?

Ms. HOMER: I do worry about that, and that's actually part of my training, if you will say. I'm trying to learn how to fix anything and everything on the fly using minimal tools. So…

PESCA: And for the race, do they have separate categories? Like there's a winner in the bike category and the foot category, or is everyone lumped together?

Ms. HOMER: No, there's a winner in each category, but they also have an overall winner. And it isn't always the biker.

PESCA: Oh, really? So it changes?

Ms. HOMER: Yeah. Sometimes, it's been skiers in past years. I think on really poor conditions, those years, there's even been foot people to come in before anybody else. So…

PESCA: I mean, do they have razor scooter, or is anything available to you?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. HOMER: No.

PESCA: Rickshaw?

Ms. HOMER: Nope. They're just out there fighting the same thing everybody else is. So…

PESCA: And it's - I hear you know someone who's doing it on foot.

Ms. HOMER: Yeah, my boyfriend.

PESCA: And so is there a bike versus foot constant dialogue going on in your relationship? Bike people are better than foot people sort of thing?

Ms. HOMER: No, there's really no kind of competition like that, but it does create an interesting dynamic because we're both training and starting to train pretty heavily.

PESCA: Yeah.

Ms. HOMER: But we're both training in different ways. So…

PESCA: So how are you doing it? What did you do today for instance?

Ms. HOMER: Well, actually, today, I just woke up.

PESCA: All right.

Ms. HOMER: But I plan to go biking later, and what I'm really doing is trying to put in, right now, a lot of base miles, spending a lot of time on the bike and just getting used to that kind of slow process of whittling away at miles.

PESCA: But you're training in Juneau, and the conditions in Juneau - I mean, I think people in the lower 48 don't realize - Juneau, though colder in Alaska, it's below the Arctic Circle, so it's not as cold as where you'll actually be riding the race.

Ms. HOMER: No, it never is as cold here. And, in fact, right now, it's not even very snowy. Some years, we get a lot of snow in November, but it hasn't been that way this year, so a little disappointed about that, actually. But I'm still training on trails and on the road.

PESCA: So what do you do? I mean, if you train without snow and then you have to encounter the snow, how do you make up for that?

Ms. HOMER: Well, hopefully, I'll be able to draw on past experience. But I'm hoping to see, you know, we'll see some snow here. It'll come eventually. So -and then I'll start training pretty heavily on the snow.

PESCA: I was reading in your blog, and there's some great pictures. You take all the - what, do you get off your bike and take these great nature shots?

Ms. HOMER: Well, I just - I mean, you know, these are the things I see every day when I'm out biking. I have my camera in my pocket, and I just (unintelligible)…

PESCA: Yeah. I mean, it's unbelievable. If this was a blog just about an Alaskan nature photographer, you'd believe it just by the shots alone.

And there are a lot of animals that come up. Tell me about some of your encounters with our feathered or hooved friends.

Ms. HOMER: Well, that's another great thing about biking in Alaska, is you just see animals. I mean, they're everywhere. And in Juneau, the main animals you see are bald eagles, deer, porcupines.

Porcupines are actually kind of a scary animal to encounter, because they're running across the trail, you never know exactly what they're going to do, and you don't want to hit them because that could be disastrous so.

PESCA: Yeah. Bad for anything with inflatable tires, I would think.

Ms. HOMER: Yeah. It's just kind of a bad, you know, a bad condition for everybody involved so. You know, there have been times where I'll be biking down a pretty snowy trail and see this spiny lump dart across the trail, and I'll hit my breaks and spin out and swerve. It's been - it's actually been exciting.

PESCA: Oh, see, that's the thing. Once the word out of your mouth is exciting, you know that you and I are different.

(Soundbite of laughter)

PESCA: I would think, you know, terrifying, dispiriting, make me curse the porcupine gods.

Ms. HOMER: Yeah, that, too. But once it's over, the reaction afterward and the adrenaline rushes come, and, oh, that wasn't so bad.

PESCA: In terms of it being really cold, I also was reading parts where you write about some of the songs you listen to while you bike. Do you know if the iPod works in any weather condition?

Ms. HOMER: That's a good question. I've used an iPod down about negative 15, which, I can say is probably close to the coldest conditions I've ridden in so far. And if you keep it close to your body - anything that you're able to keep close to your body in those temperatures will stay warmer, so that's the hope.

PESCA: And the hope is how long do you think you could complete - how long will the 350 miles take you, do you think?

Ms. HOMER: I'm guessing it'll take me probably five days, best case scenario. It could be as long as seven or eight.

PESCA: And does this mean you have to pack all your gear and camp out?

Ms. HOMER: That's right. You pack all of your winter camping gear.

PESCA: Yeah. And…

Ms. HOMER: And you have to practice setting it up in the cold and setting it up when you're sweaty and tired and hungry.

PESCA: And there must be tension, because you want to pack light, but you also have to keep warm enough to stay alive.

Ms. HOMER: That's right. There's a really fine balance, and when you haven't done this race before, it's hard to find that. It just - because it's all learned through experience.

PESCA: And do you pack water, or do you just melt the snow?

Ms. HOMER: You do both. You pack water that you keep next to your body to keep warm, and then also you have to make sure you have a stove that will work in those kinds of conditions because it's vital to be able to melt snow for water.

PESCA: And for safety's sake, is there - do you travel with a GPS? I mean, if you get in a really bad situation, a phone? I'm worrying about you now, Jill. First, I thought you were crazy. Now I think you might be at risk.

Ms. HOMER: Well, I appreciate it. No, I am. I'm going to be carrying a GPS that I can use to track the route, and also, in case I get lost, use it to find my way back to where I was.

PESCA: All right. Well, if you want to keep track of Jill Homer and her blog up in Alaska, we'll link to it from our blog on THE BRYANT PARK PROJECT.

And we'll talk to you a little later. Good luck, Jill.

Ms. HOMER: All right. Thank you. Appreciate it.

PESCA: Thank you.

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