Sunday, June 27, 2021

Sluice Box - Slightly Crazy?

 Post by Corrine
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Not even two miles into my planned 125-mile bike ride and my legs felt dead. Not a good sign.

Especially because I was trying to replicate a version of the Sluice Box 100, a slightly crazy 100-mile race for bikers and runners held a few times in Fairbanks 7-10 years ago. So, despite my tired legs I continued because I guess I’m slightly crazy. 

The Sluice Box 100 was a great mostly-trail race with lots of hike-a bike, gnarly trails, swamps, and tons of mosquitoes. One of goals of the race organizers was to climb all the major peaks near Fairbanks – Ester Dome, Murphy Dome, and Pedro Dome. Unfortunately, the race was discontinued, in large part because every year the race directors had to get permissions and permits from more than 20 landowners, a difficult and onerous process.  

One of the "fun" sections of the former Sluice Box 100

But some people – slightly crazy people – have fond memories of the race. So, over the years racers have thought about recreating the race, but with less complications. Recently, Tyson Flaharty and Kyle Erbeck devised a 125-mile course that includes the main high points around Fairbanks: Ester Dome, Murphy Dome, Moose Mountain, Pedro Dome, and Skyline Ridge. They also wanted to make it more gravel-specific for biking, so they cut out some of the more gnarly trails and swamp on the original course. (Actually, there were multiple courses, as the race route changed each year due to landowner complications.) 

But what good is a racecourse if no one tests it out? So, a couple of weeks ago, Tyson and Eric DiFolco rode it. I saw Tyson’s post on Strava and immediately wanted to do it. Remember? I’m slightly crazy. (I completed one of the Sluice Box 100 races, too.)

Tyson and Eric are two of the best riders in town and they completed the course in about 12 hours.  That meant it would probably take me close to 18.  Did I want to spend all day on the bike? 

Sure! I am training for the Trans South Dakota, a 714-mile bikepacking race held in July.  And it is summer, so there’s endless daylight. And if I did the ride on Friday, I could still hear Eric play at the Summer Folk Festival on Saturday. It was all working out. 

I downloaded the GPX track to my eTrex GPS device and got my gear ready. I had sent out a query in case any other crazies who had Friday off wanted to join me. Patrik Sartz, a local endurance athlete, said he wanted to ride it. Normally, Patrik is way faster than me, but he let his fitness slide after he and his wife had two kids, with another on the way. Patrik is getting back in shape, so he thought this would be a good effort.

I was a little worried. I rode really hard at the WOW ride (Women on Wheels) on Wednesday. I hoped one day of rest would be enough. (Slightly crazy people have slightly crazy logic.)

WOW riders are super strong.  I have to work really hard to keep up

We started riding on Friday at 6 a.m. from Goldstream Sports on Sheep Creek Road. We started with a big climb up Ester Dome, and I knew I was in trouble. I had not fully recovered from that hard WOW ride. My legs felt heavy and fatigued. To keep climbing, I had to use my granny gear, which I was planning to save until much later. Not a good sign, but I hoped somehow, I would get stronger. Yeah, I know, but slightly crazy thoughts like that kept me going. 

After slowly climbing Ester Dome, we followed several trails, including the Ester West Ridge and Fireplug trails, until we popped out onto the Old Nenana Highway not too far from Standard Creek Road. The trails were often steep and rutted, and Patrik got ahead of me on this part even though I was on my mountain bike, and he only had 40 mm tires on his gravel bike. I’m such a wimp on tricky downhills.

But Patrik waited for me, and we continued to Standard Creek and Cache Creek roads.  These are fun forestry roads with little traffic and in good shape. The two road systems are connected by a half-mile of swampy trail that we had to walk through. We got wet feet and were plagued by millions of mosquitoes. I stopped to reapply bug dope, but that didn’t seem to dissuade them much. Even for Fairbanks, they seemed worse than usual. Poor Patrik didn’t bring any bug dope and he was too far ahead to want to stop and wait for me. Nothing to do but keep moving and keep swatting. 

Crossing the mosquito plagued swamp 

Halfway through the swamp, at mile 33, my eTrex said I was at the end of my track. What?!  How could that be? We weren’t even a third of the way done. At home I had checked to see that the track was on my device, but I hadn’t zoomed in to see if it was all there.  (I later found out the track I loaded had too many points for my eTrex to put into one track. I’m not much of a techie.) Still, I figured this was a minor problem. I knew most of the route except a small portion. I’d figure that out when I got there. 

While we were biking towards Murphy Dome, Patrik got a text from his wife. She is pregnant with their third child, and she needed help at home. So, Patrik had to bail at 50 miles. We said our goodbyes, and as soon as he left, my motivation tanked. My legs were tired. My whole body felt fatigued. There was so much climbing ahead. I was moving slower than expected. I wasn’t even halfway done. I just wanted to lay down and take a nap. Except I couldn’t because the mosquitoes were so bad. 

As I was climbing to a high point, I was hitting a low point. Probably no one would think I was crazy if I quit. But not yet. I decided to finish Murphy Dome and then reconsider. At least the gravel and views were excellent.  

Made it to the top of Murphy Dome

At the top, a breeze kept the bugs down, so I took a break, ate some food, and thought about what I wanted to do. I could ride the route down to the bottom of Moose Mountain then head back to my car. I would have completed half the route -- 65 miles with 7,000 feet elevation gain -- a respectable ride. I could rest on Saturday and finish it up on Sunday. Now, that was a good (i.e., non-crazy) idea!  


My friend Barb Creighton was thinking of meeting me at the bottom of Moose Mountain to ride part of the course with me. She hadn’t texted me, but she might show up. I decided I should ride with her if she showed. 

View off of Old Murphy Dome Road

And if I didn’t finish the whole route in one go, would I feel a need to try to do it again? But if I kept going, would I dig myself into an overtraining rut? I didn’t want to overdo it before the Trans South Dakota. And what about the section from Cleary Summit to Gilmore Trail? That was the one part I didn’t know. Could I navigate that without a GPX track? So many questions and decisions and doubts. At least pondering all those things helped pass the time as I made my way over the next 10 miles. Finally, I decided that if Barb showed up, I would bike a little longer but if she didn’t, I would bail. Just before I turned to start up Moose Mountain, I saw Barb on her bike! 

 Barb showed up, which convinced me to keep biking!

I explained my dilemma to Barb and said I would bike with her up the gravel road section and see how my legs felt. I warned her I would be very slow. Barb was fine with that. 

We stopped so that I could drink a Coke and fill up on water, which I had stashed that morning. The caffeine and carbs must have helped because my legs felt better, even if I wasn’t much faster. As we climbed, I decided to keep going and take it a section at a time. After a while, Barb turned back and I kept going to the top of Moose Mountain and over to Old Murphy Dome Road. The gravel road was good, and my energy was much better. Somewhat revived, I thought I might be able to finish. This ride wasn’t so crazy after all! But I was worried that I might not have enough water to finish. I called Eric, and he agreed to stash water along the course when he headed off to do some volunteer work.  

Heading from Moose Mountain back over to Old Murphy Dome Road

I made my way up to Pedro Dome on more four-wheeler trails, still doing fine. Then I bombed downhill and across to Cleary Summit. Decision time. Should I try to navigate this unknown-to-me section without a GPX to follow or just head down Steese Highway, where I could meet up with the course again? If I did the Steese, I wouldn’t do the whole course, but I wouldn’t get lost. What to do?

Pedro Dome

Starting on new to me trail that parallels the Ft. Knox Mine - those are tailings piled up on the side

I called Tyson. Why not go to the source? Tyson encouraged me to continue and said he would help. Tyson was very patient through several phone calls, helping me navigate several different turns. Even with his help I missed one turn, but after a while I figured it out. This section was also trying physically. Parts of it were extremely rough and rutted and other parts very wet and boggy.

I was so happy when I finally got to a lookout point that I recognized. I knew where I was! Then about two miles before Gilmore Trail road, I saw somebody running toward me. It was Eric! I had called him when I was unsure of my location. Returning from his volunteer gig, he decided to come out and meet me. I was really happy to see him and even happier when he said he had a cold Coke back at the car. That Coke tasted great! And I got to drink it in the car away from the bugs. What a morale booster! And I was done with the most difficult sections. I knew I could finish the last 25 miles! 

I was very happy to see Eric

I followed several miles of road, then good trail in Skyline Ridge Park, and then subdivision roads over to the University of Alaska Fairbanks campus. Only from UAF to Ann’s Greenhouses left. Home free! 


Views from Skyline Ridge

I had to face-off with two moose at two different locations in the last five miles, the last one literally a half-mile from the finish. Really? The only two moose I saw during the whole day?! I just wanted to be finished. Luckily, they each finally sauntered off after a few minutes. 

I took 18.5 hours to complete the course, just about what I predicted. Distance: 125 miles. Elevation gain: more than 14,000 feet. This would make an awesome race but a tough one.

Sun was just setting as I finished at 12:30 AM

It really helped me to break the route down into sections and just concentrate on the one I was doing before reevaluating. And Barb showing up was also key to my success. Thanks, Barb!! Otherwise, I’m not sure I would have continued.

But I did. Now, I don’t have to do it again! After all, I’m only slightly crazy. 

Selfie at the finish, back at my car


  1. Wow, congratulations on sticking it out! The two moose at the end had me laughing... of course, after all those miles. That is an awesome loop, even though I don't bicycle.

    1. Well, that's something important missing in your arsenal! Biking is a fantastic way to adventure!