THE COAST OF WESTERN ALASKA
The Western coast of Alaska is magnificent. The fact that the coast is now a tangible landmark is surreal - as is the accomplishment that it signifies. Each and every time I arrive here I think, “I’ve made it!” I realize that we are not at the finish - we are still far from it. But, we have made it through the mountain ranges, the boreal forests, down the Yukon, over the portage trail and across the entire state of Alaska. We have arrived, not only at the western coast of Alaska, but also at the western coast of the United States. Land ends and it is now ocean for miles. There is no farther west that we can go on this great land. I get the chills every time.
We saw the ocean for the first time after we left UNALAKLEET. We were traveling in the late evening, the sun was setting and rose hues were filling up the sky. We followed the lagoon which parallels the ocean for several miles and then climbed up onto a high tundra plain. It was 8 PM and the sun had almost set over the white ice covered sea. The entire sky was glowing purple and pink. It literally made me cry. Our world is such a special place and I am so lucky to be able to be here with my dogs to see its glory.
The dogs were managing well. I had Cha Cha and Bullet in lead. Cha is by far faster than Bullet. But Bullet is a solid, confident individual and Cha Cha gains strength from a dedicated partner. Behind them I had Rose and Tony. These two are a perfect pair - Tony’s strength and Rose’s energy complement one another. In the center of the team were Meg and Dingle - strength and smarts. Then came Chica and Tatfish. Chica didn’t seem to mind Tatfish’s silly antics and I had to pair him with someone. Next were Homey and Skittles. Homey was humdrum. He didn’t have his normal spunk, but he worked in his harness and didn’t ever complain. Skittles looked the same as she had at the starting line. In the rear spot were Pud and Biscuit. Pud was tired. He didn’t have the pep in his step that he had several days ago. This 1,000 mile adventure was new to him and I wondered what was going on in his head. Biscuit would never give up. He concentrated as he trotted down the trail with his ears laid back.
The trail on the lagoon was a challenge. The wind was blowing from the north directly into our faces. Much of the snow had blown off of the ice so the dogs had a difficult time maintaining their balance on this slippery sheet. We had been paralleled by a snow machine ridden by Jeff Schultz, the official Iditarod photographer. I was sure that he took some excellent photos of the team.
When the trail climbed onto the tundra the dogs were able to regroup and focus ahead without slipping and sliding about. It is here that the trail climbs into the Blueberry Hills. For many years, I assumed that the western coast of Alaska was just flat miles of rolling tundra. I learned differently when I mushed my first Iditarod dog team through these hills. They are quite steep and at some points a Musher must climb off the sled runners and run along side the team pushing the sled. My team is seasoned at this point, and they just pull harder in to their harnesses as we wind up the hills.
It was dark for much of my climbing. I would rather run this section of trail in the daylight because it is gorgeous to peer west from these hill tops and see Besboro Island floating in the frozen ice. But, that was not the case this year. So, I focused my headlight on the dogs ahead of me.
We continued running in the hills. In just a split second, I noticed Tatfish sniffing Chica strangely. He almost poked her with his muzzle. He’s a silly dog, but that almost looked like he was seeing if she was “OK”. She immediately backed off her harness and stopped pulling. This was odd. I stopped and walked up to her.
She didn’t act like anything was particularly wrong. I looked over her completely, took off her booties and looked at her feet. Nothing seemed wrong. Then I thought maybe she was just taking a little rest. With our harness system, dogs don’t “have to” pull all the time. If they need a break then they can slack off a little and just trot alongside the team. They are not tethered with any neck line. This would have been rare for Chica, but I gave her the benefit of the doubt.
So, I got back on my sled to see what she’d do. When the team moved ahead she started to amble along without conviction and did not pull. I stopped instantly. I ran up to her and undid her tug line. I walked her around and she looked unwell. Her eyes seemed glazed over and she had no energy. I immediately thought that she had an ulcer.
For years, SP Kennel has been involved with studies for canine ulcer prevention. Dr. Mike Davis from Oklahoma State University, has spent a great deal of time and money monitoring our dogs under various conditions and scenarios. Two years ago he came out with medical recommendations for ulcer prevention. We took this very seriously and so all of our dogs are medicated daily while they race. But, as with any medicine, there is a small percent of dogs that don’t respond to medication. I was convinced that Chica had an ulcer.
We were over halfway to SHAKTOLIK, the next checkpoint. We needed to continue forward. I made a dog bed in the rear of my sled out of extra dog blankets and my sleeping bag. She didn’t argue when I loaded her. That was a bad sign because she doesn’t normally like to ride. I put her into the bed and put her head on top of the bag where I could watch her at all times. I zipped up my sled bag and continued on with one less dog pulling.
I watched her constantly and kept petting her face. She didn’t move much and it really had me worried. In mere minutes, Chica had gone from a vibrant, working, excited team mate - to a sickly friend. How fast things change.
It still took us several hours to get to SHAKTOOLIK. I had been ski poling and pedaling for hours, so I was exhausted when we arrived at 3 AM. Our run time was over an hour longer than I had expected. It was understandable. I had spent time evaluating Chica and then her additional weight had slowed us through the hills.
When we pulled into the checkpoint, before I even parked, I said to the Race Official “I have a dog with an ulcer.” The Veterinarian ran out of the checkpoint building in seconds. She scooped up Chica and took her back inside. I quickly snacked my dogs and ran inside as well. They had her on IV fluid medication immediately. She was stretched out in the middle of the floor. It was heart breaking. I told them everything that I saw and that I knew. But, I had to go back outside and tend to the team.
Only Sebastian was there when I arrived so there wasn’t much checkpoint commotion. I was able to feed and care for the eleven remaining dogs rather quickly and head back inside. I sat in the building with Chica and watched her. There was nothing to do. Finally, I went in the back room to lay down for 30 minutes, but I was restless. My emotions were high.
When I came out from laying down, the Vet was smiling. Chica had been on IV fluid since arriving and she really started to look better. She was wagging her tail and walked outside to pee. The Vet concluded that she probably didn’t have an ulcer. She thought that Chica had probably been running normally and had regurgitated some food. Instead of vomiting that food, she inhaled it down her wind pipe and into her lungs as she ran. This is called pulmonary aspiration. If enough material entered her lungs she could have drowned instantly. She was safe from drowning now, but she was at high risk for aspiration pneumonia. I wasn’t sure that all of this was good news, but I was happy that she did not have an ulcer.
To this day, I am convinced that Tatfish noticed Chica when all of this happened. He probably saw her regurgitate then struggle to breathe. His antics made me look at Chica a little closer. I simply noticed that she wasn’t pulling for a split seconds. But, my mind wondered why Tatfish had made such a fuss. So, I had stopped. When I really looked at her, she was “off” and that’s why I had given her a ride. I never knew that the aspiration had happened.
Now, I was worried about what to do with Chica. I shared this concern with the Veterinarian. The dropped dogs from SHAKTOOLIK fly back to UNALAKLEET, which is an Iditarod airport Hub. From there the dogs will often return to Anchorage where they have many volunteers, caretakers and kennel facilities. But, I couldn’t imagine Chica flying all over the state right now. My ace dog caretaker, Bridgett, was in Nome and Nome was less than a two hour flight from SHAKTOOLIK. If Chica were flown there, then Bridgett could pick her up and bring her home and watch her 24/7.
Understandably, Iditarod dropped dog care has a serious set of protocols that it must follow. I completely understood that. But, I begged and pleaded that she be shipped to Nome. The Vet was super helpful. She wanted what was best for Chica. She said that she would do her best and I believed her.
Personally, my rest was abbreviated because of all my concerns for Chica. Years ago, I convinced myself that in order to be a competitive musher, I must have faith in the Iditarod Trail Veterinarians, turn over any problem dogs to them and continue racing. But, there’s nothing in that equation that says I shouldn’t feel guilty about leaving one of my ill dogs in the care of someone that she doesn’t even know.
So, the Veterinarian taking care of Chica was fabulous, but it was difficult for me not to worry. By worrying, I was also dilly dallying. Time was ticking by and the remainder of the team had rested well, so I had to leave. The race was continuing. Dallas Seavey had come and gone while I was there and quite a few other teams had arrived and stayed. Finally, I left Chica in SHAKTOOLIK at 7 AM.
The next section of trail travels mostly on the frozen Bering Sea. We had been told by the Race Officials that the trail across the pack ice was not a direct route this year. Earlier in the winter, the ocean had swelled, thawed and froze again in huge uneven chunks. It is daunting to think that we are trotting across an enormous iceberg that sits on top of the ocean. You can’t sense any movement, but it must be there.
SHAKTOOLIK and KOYUK residents have been traveling between their two villages for thousands of years, so to them, this was just another seasonal challenge. I’m sure, however, that it took a lot of effort and skill to navigate a safe way to cross 40 miles of ocean. I was thankful to see trail markers cautiously set in drilled ice holes. But, I have to be honest ... the zig zag trail all over the ice was a nightmare.
For the first few hours, we traveled in a north and then westerly direction (away from KOYUK!) The trail would turn sharply to the left and right. It was obvious that we were avoiding dangerous pressure ridges. We mushed over cracks in the ice. Thank goodness I never saw any open water. As we neared the distant shore, we were far to the west of the checkpoint. We had to turn 90 degrees and head back to the east - doubling back and following the shoreline to KOYUK. I wondered if we would share this same trail after we exited KOYUK since we had to travel this direction. Then, at a distance, I saw a dog team several miles away on a parallel trail leaving the checkpoint that I now entered.
I learned later that the GPS Trackers that our race fans follow showed the same trail convergence that I was seeing. One person told me that the Current Race Standings on the Iditarod website would become skewed as each team approached this section of trail. The computer placed the approaching musher ahead of the exiting musher since the GPS reading placed them in this order. Technology, huh?
My attitude was probably not as upbeat as it should have been. I was irritated at the constant zig zagging and the dogs could sense that. Since it was midday, the sun was shining down on us and it seemed to evaporate some of our energy. The trail wasn’t as hard packed as it had been, so our speed decreased as well. This is probably when I should have acted more upbeat, not less. But, I didn’t.
Pud started to show his fatique even more. He was in the rear spot with Biscuit and he looked back at me a few times. I didn’t like that, so I loaded him for a ride. I thought that perhaps he just needed a little break. Once again, I was in a Catch 22 , the other dogs had to work a little harder now that they were carrying an additional 50 pounds, but Pud got a rest. I only gave him a 30 minute break then put him back in the team - he didn’t like riding.
The trail started to get punchy as it got later in the day and we seemed to slow even more. I could see the checkpoint on the hill ahead of us, but it sure took a long time to reach it. When we finally pulled in, I was exhausted. This was the low point of my race. I talked to very few people as they gathered around my sled. I was just trying to get my chores done so that I could go lay down for a little while.
I wasn’t sure if the rest here in KOYUK would be enough to rejuvenate Pud. He wasn’t sick or injured, just tired. I’d like him to come to the finish line with his team, but if I had to carry him, that would be a detriment to everyone. It was a tough decision. Pud was my rookie and he had been doing so well. But, as I thought about it, dropping him here made sense. He was still happy, he still wanted to go ... that is probably the best time to drop a dog - before I needed to drop him! So, I filled out the paperwork and turned him over to the Checker. She was thrilled to have him and she promised to take very good care of him until he was flown out. It wasn’t as emotional as leaving Chica.
I went into the checkpoint building. The people were very welcoming and thrilled to be a part of this great Alaskan adventure race. I tried my best to say a few words to folks, but I was really hitting a wall. There is an area in the back that is tarped off from the checkpoint frenzy, so I walked back there to find a spot to lay down. I was chilled and needed to shed my inner damp layers. This takes time - to take off my boots, undress and hang up clothing to dry. I was really moving slowly.
I spied a small room heater by the wall. I set my alarm for an hour, tucked it inside my hat and curled up in a little ball just inches in front of the heater. I feel asleep in a heartbeat.
The hour passed in the blink of an eye. I struggled to get up and start my routine. Normally, I repack most of my gear before I fall asleep. It is much harder for me to focus right after I awake. But, I had been so tired before the nap, that I had let a few things slide. I didn’t put all my dry clothes (socks, neck gaiters, gloves) in one convenient spot and I hadn’t prepared my thermos for a refill. So, I sat, confused, for a few extra minutes and thought about these daunting chores.
It is at this time in the race when an hour nap makes me feel worse than not sleeping at all. Logically, I know that my body needs rest, but it would be much easier if I just avoided sleep altogether. After a nap, I am very slow to mentally wake. I try to concentrate on my routine and I don’t do anything too fast or I’ll screw it up. I try to keep moving, not sit down. Focus on one thing at a time. It is extra difficult if the checkpoint is warm and comfortable because I feel like I’m in a bubble. I finally wake up, mentally, in about 15 minutes or when I go outside and get a dose of “cool reality”.
I’m sure that an hour nap helps my body physically, but it sure doesn’t seem like it does. My face and hands swell up and my eyes get bleary during my sleep. Any pains or aches that I had been ignoring become extremely evident now. I have to get the engine warmed up all over again. So, I struggled through my gear. Put on dry socks. Got my charging headlight batteries in order. I hadn’t eaten much since UNALAKLEET, so I thought about eating. That seemed too challenging so, I went through my supplies, threw out unnecessary items and repacked.
A kind Eskimo man approached me and asked if I liked squaw bread. He told me that his wife makes the best bread in KOYUK. How could I resist? I smiled when he handed me a piece. It was fantastic! I gobbled up the piece that he gave me and asked him if I could have some to go. He was right. That was just what I needed.
I headed for the door with all of my supplies and gear. It’s always best if I don’t have to go in and out of a warm building. I’d rather go out and stay out. So, my gait was slow as I manhandled all of my stuff and a Race Official caught up to me. She handed me a note. What could this be? It was from the Vet in SHAKTOOLIK. “Chica is doing well! She will be flown directly to Nome.” Glory days! I was surely awake now.
But, the team was down another member. I shortened up the mainline to a ten dog string. I once again had Cha Cha and Bullet lead us out of the checkpoint. As we left, I looked around and noticed a lot more teams had caught up to me: Ray Reddington, Gerry Wilimizter, Zack Steer. Obviously my run over from SHAKTOOLIK had been slow.
The team popped back down near the frozen ocean. The trail stayed just on the shore line. The ice chunks along the coast were very uneven and the sled ride was rough. It took over an hour to get out past the area where the trail had come in from SHAKTOOLIK.
It was gorgeous here. We passed by the cliffs and rocky coast line as we traveled on the frozen sea. The only other way to see this spectacle of nature is in a boat during the summer. The wind had scoured this area not very long ago because I could look down in spots and see into the ocean ice. Some of it was crystalized, like an ice cube in your favorite drink. But other times, I saw down into frozen blue green water for as far as the light would penetrate. There were cracks in the ice everywhere.
At this point in the race route we veer to the north and cross a peninsula of land instead of looping around the extra miles on the ocean. I like to climb up in these hills because it's a change of terrain for the dogs. I also get to jump off of the runners and run for a while. It's just a short jaunt and we are up and over. As we come back down, the ocean meets up with us again. But, the trail stays on the land and parallels the water for much of the way.
We all knew where we were headed - my team mates and I. ELIM was not very far away now. There is a small summer fishing village that we pass through just before the turn off for the checkpoint. It is neat to see the fishing nets hanging in this winter scene. Fishing boats are turned upside down and cabin doors stand both open and closed. The village is a treat for the dogs. The abandoned place seems like it should have children everywhere and people waving to us. But, it is silent and the dogs curiously look around. When a coy raven makes a sudden cackle from behind a cabin, we are all startled. Perhaps he is telling us that the residents will be back when the ocean thaws.
We once again weren’t moving as fast as I had hoped. The team was looking fine and working in their harnesses, but the miles weren’t flying by. My plan had originally been to push through ELIM and go all the way to WHITE MOUNTAIN. I was rethinking this now. Maybe if I gave them a little more rest, then their speed would increase and we wouldn’t “crawl” for the next 120 miles. I wanted the dogs to travel with some spunk.
It was late when we turned onto the road that leads to the checkpoint. We were enjoying a few last little hills before ELIM. I looked behind me on the road and saw a light from a dog team catching up on us. I wasn’t surprised because we really weren’t traveling very fast. Ray Reddington pulled up beside us. His team was really looking good and I had noticed them in KOYUK. I stopped for him to pass - perfect pass. I tailed him for the next mile or so. We talked between teams. He said that his team was moving nicely and so he was heading all the way. I told him I wasn’t in the same situation, so I was stopping. Funny how teams evolve.
ELIM welcomed us at 3 AM. Mitch Seavey had pulled out of a parking spot a few hours ago and I asked to be parked right where he had left. The straw was formed in nice beds and it looked cozy. I had carried a bucket of food from KOYUK, so I added some water from the checkpoint supply and was able to feed the whole crew in less than 5 minutes. I took off booties and watched some of them curl up and start to rest. Tatfish, Meg and Dingle didn’t sleep right away and rummaged through the straw.
I went inside the checkpoint building and grabbed some coffee. There were two folks wide awake, but busy on the computer. I looked through the Race Standings since the screen was turned my way. I sat down but tried not to get too comfortable. My plan was to only stay here for about an hour. I took off my parka, but nothing else. I heated up some food. It’s funny how long an hour can be when you don’t fall asleep.
I went back outside and saw Martin’s team. He was feeding and bootying his dogs. He stayed about 30 minutes. My dogs were awake and ate the fish snacks that I gave them. I wanted them to be perky when leaving ELIM. One of the longest climbs on the Iditarod is between ELIM and WHITE MOUNTAIN, Little McKinley. We needed the rest up to get over that one. As I prepared the team, Zack pulled in and out of the checkpoint.
We were ready to go. It was time for Cha Cha and Bullet to lead us out again. They had no problem finding the trail and soon we were back on the frozen ocean looking back at the lights of the village. The team was rested and moving nicely.
Zack had stopped only a mile out of town to snack his team. This is a smart move. Some teams will get a little depressed when they come into a checkpoint and are asked to leave directly. So to avoid any of that, if you stop them just outside of a checkpoint and give them a tasty snack, they will immediately forget their worries. My team passed Zack’s and continued on.
For the next hour we traveled on the ocean which parallels a rocky coast line. Zack and I moved at the same speed. Two headlights in the darkness. When we trotted up off the pack ice and started to climb I needed to switch Bullet out of lead, so I stopped. Zack passed us and continued up the hill. He had a nice long string of dogs, I counted at least 12. It made me think about all the dogs that I had left behind. Kind of a bummer!
My ten dog team worked their way up Little McKinley. We were right behind Zack’s squad for over an hour as we climbed. Some of the sections of trail are very steep, so I jumped off the runners and ran. I was glad that I had stopped to rest them in ELIM, they seemed to have just the right amount of energy for this climb.
The top of this mountain is deceitful, there are several false summits. Just when you get excited about getting to the top, there’s another ridge up beyond that one. As we neared what seemed to be the fifth summit to me, my team stopped. Ahead I saw Cha Cha looking back staring at me. What?
I could tell that we were not at the top yet because the glow from Zack’s headlight continued to climb up into the night. He even looked back at me a few times. I walked up to Cha and looked at her. She sat there and didn’t want to go. This really confused me. She is as honest as any dog I’ve known. She had been this team’s heart and soul for 900 plus miles. At times, I have considered her even more competitive than I am.
I looked her over very well. She had no trouble breathing, her heart rate was normally elavated, her eyes were vibrant. I felt her feet and took off her booties. I saw nothing apparently wrong. But, obviously, something was wrong. So, I loaded her in the sled and moved Dingle into lead with Rose. The bed in the rear of my sled was getting an awful lot of use! We started up the rest of the hill. Zack’s light was now out of sight.
We really moved slowly now. An extra 40 pounds is a lot when the trail is over a 10% grade up. I had to run behind the sled most of the time. On the very steep slopes, I had to occasionally push the sled to keep it from a standstill. I stopped the team periodically just so I could catch my breath. I pedaled, ran and talked to the team. We moved along - very slowly. What a difference it is to have a heavy load!
The summit finally became a reality and we crested it. Nine dogs in the team and one riding in the basket. What was wrong with Cha Cha, my super dog? She looked at me when I talked to her, but seemed content to ride. She didn’t seem at all ill or injured. Some of the other dogs looked pretty tired after that enormous trudge uphill.
We trotted across the summit ridge that looks down into Golovin Bay. There are no trees and only very small bushes and shrubs. I stopped the team for a breather on the top. A few of the dogs laid down, which is rare for my team. I snacked everyone there and kept Cha Cha in the sled. She didn’t want to eat her snack.
I looked down the ridge and into the valley below. It was a long way down! Way down in the bushes, two thousand feet below us, I saw a head light shining in the willows. It seemed the wrong direction for the trail, but perhaps the darkness was deceiving my orientation. Zack had sure made time up on us if he was that far in front of us now!
We continued along the ridge for several hundred yards. Then, as if some one turned on a switch, the wind came out of nowhere and began to blow us off of the mountain. It was another ground blizzard - only it was happening at the top of a summit.
The dogs put their noses to the ground and kept the pace. The wind pushed the team off of the trail and far to the right. They started to head down into the valley and off the trail completely. I commanded them to stay "haw", but the wind masked my voice and Rose and Dingle continued to drift to the right. They were trying to lead the team down a steep precipice and into the valley. I stopped several times and walked up to them. There was very little snow on the ridge and I was afraid that my brake would not hold.
The ground blizzard was horrendous and I could barely stand up straight. I physically pulled the dogs over to the left, but they acted like I was wrong and again swung back to the right when I returned to the sled. The leaders couldn’t hear my voice above the gale. The entire team was frustrated and the wind was starting to bum out the team. They just wanted to get out of the blizzard. If I stayed here too long arguing with my leaders I was sure that some of the other dogs would make themselves a bed and curl up. Cha Cha sat in the sled and looked at me. She had no desire to get out and lead.
I couldn’t convince my leaders that I was right and they were wrong So, I slowly walked the team off the ridge. I did this by moving the sled forward 10 feet and anchoring it with a snow hook. I then walked up to the leaders and anchored them out with the other snow hook. I did this over and over a half a dozen times, until we were 50 feet down the hill. At this point, Dingle was anchored right next to a trail marker. It's like a light bulb went on in his brain. He looked at the marker, saw the trail and immediately turned the correct direction. The team trotted off of the windblown ridge. Thank you!
We finally got out of the ground blizzard. The team continued downhill. I found myself pedaling and ski poling. The team's speed was extremely slow despite my efforts. I looked at all of the dogs. They were tired. Homey wasn't pulling in his harness much anymore. Rose and Dingle made their way on the trail, but our speed was probably only 5 mph - downhill! And that was with me helping!
I think it really zapped their collective energy to haul Cha Cha up Little McKinley. Then the added 30 minutes in the ground blizzard was icing on the cake. I think that they were truly comfortable when we left ELIM, but the issues of the last hour had pushed them too far. When I stopped pedaling, the team nearly came to halt. I didn't like that.
To top it off, Golovin is the next village on the trail. It is a tricky village to pass through on a normal year. Now that I had a tired group of dogs, it could be a real problem. Basically I was verging on a situation that was not acceptable to me. The dogs needed to rest - now.
There is a shelter cabin near the base of Little McKinley before the trail goes back down on the pack ice. I have passed it for years. I decided, this year, I would stop. My thought was that a two hour rest would substantially increase their speed, energy and enthusiasm. My team could probably continue to plod down the trail at this unreasonable speed, but I didn't like it. In my view, we were crawling. Plus, maybe this was all that Cha Cha needed to feel better.
So, the cabin came into view and the team trucked ahead. They were surprised when I gave them a "haw" just after we passed the front door. Dingle and Rose didn't turn. Bullet knew exactly what I was asking and she pulled the squad off the trail. At first they just thought that I was stopping to snack, so everyone stood there looking back at me.
I grabbed a few dog blankets and laid them on the snow. I took out the feed dishes and gave everyone a bowl of watered down chow. Then I took off dog boots and they knew. Most of the dogs curled up and slept.
Cha Cha was still confusing me. I looked at her in the sled and she seemed very snug. I woke her up to offer her a bowl, but she turned her nose away and curled up tighter. I got the hint. No food - just let me rest.
I unwrapped the wire that kept the cabin door shut and went inside. There was a small pile of firewood and matches on the table. I got out my axe and chopped one of the logs into kindling sized pieces. I had my own matches that burned like a firecracker for 30 seconds, so I used them. I turned toward the stove and noticed something missing - a door! Darn it. Well, I wasn't going to sit in the cold for two hours, so I made a fire anyhow. I kept the cabin door wide open so the smoke would go out. This didn’t work. The entire cabin filled with smoke. I had to walk outside to breath.
I stood outside for a minute or two as smoke billowed out. Then I heard a commotion coming from up the trail. A dog team came into view and it really looked like Martin Buser. That couldn't be. He had left ELIM 30 minutes before I had. As he neared me, the tall lanky dark dogs started to bark at me. It was definitely Martin. "What are you doing behind me?" I asked.
Martin explained that his team had veered off of the trail at the ridge top and had plummeted down thousands of feet into the valley below. They had been tangled in willows for 30 minutes and then they had to climb back up the valley. Well, of course, I had seen his light down there! That wasn't Zack, it was Martin going the wrong way! And finally it made sense to me. Dingle and Rose had been following the scent from his team. That's why I couldn't turn them off that scent during the ground blizzard. They were following a trail - just the wrong one!
Martin said he had to get going, so he headed off. The smoke was still pouring out the door.
I went back inside and adjusted the stove pipe. Smoke was definitely heading out the pipe as well as the door. I decided to shut the cabin door a little. Maybe less air intake would draft more of the smoke up the chimney. It worked. I could see the air stream through the 3 inch crack in the cabin door and get sucked into the stove and right up the chimney. I placed a log next to the stove and sat down. If I kept my head less than three feet off the ground, I could breathe. I stoked the fire, adjusted the cabin door again and rested my head. Carbon monoxide poisoning did actually cross my mind, but not enough apparently because I actually feel asleep for 30 minutes.
I woke up when my alarm went off. I had planned to rest the dogs a full two hours. My alarm went off after an hour and a half. I went outside and walked through the dogs. I got Cha Cha out of the sled bag to walk her around. Her front right shoulder looked stiff to me, but maybe it was how she was resting in the sled. She peed and stretched out and then walked back to the sled.
I needed to get the team ready to go. As I started to booty dogs another team approached us. It was Jessie Royer’s team trotting by. We chatted for just a few seconds as she continued toward WHITE MOUNTAIN. I had a few more chores to do and then we would hit the trail as well.
We stayed exactly 2 hours at the shelter cabin. I knew that this would help their overall speed and attitude. I also thought about all of the people watching me on the internet. I thought that if they saw that I camped for exactly 2 hours, then they knew that the team was OK and just resting. Or that was my logic!
I kept Cha Cha in the sled bag and Dingle and Rose in lead. We left and they immediately responded better to my cues. They had more energy in their gate and we trotted off the tundra and down on to Golovin Bay. The village was only a few miles from here. The dogs (and myself) perked up when they saw the houses lining the shore line. The houses are bright colors: blue, red and yellow. As we got even closer I could see people standing all along the shore as well.
The Iditarod trail travels directly through the center of town. Like most Iditarod villages, people are excited to see the Mushers and dog teams. There are no Race Officials stationed here however, so a Musher doesn’t have to stop or sign in. Thus, most Mushers don’t even slow down when they go through Golovin. It’s a little sad that no one stops to at least say hi and thanks to the folks for letting us pass right down Main Street.
So, after my dog team ran up the bank and onto the street, I stopped them. There were at least a dozen young school kids who ran up to the team to say hello. Kids all along the Iditarod Trail like to collect Musher signatures and these guys were not different. They all ran up to me with notepads, parka sleeves and hats. They had a marker in hand and were ready for me. I smiled and talked for just a few minutes. I told the half a dozen adults that stood there that there wasn’t a door on the wood stove in the Little McKinley shelter cabin. I thought that was probably important information.
When I grabbed a hat and a parka sleeve to autograph, I noticed only one other Musher’s signature: Lance Mackey’s. There were 15 Mushers ahead of me at this point and only one had stopped to sign autographs. He was racing for the win and he still took time out to sign for these kids. I was impressed. No one else signed. I know that some of these Mushers went through Golovin during the wee hours of the night, but not all of them. I hoped for the sake of the race that Mushers were at least kind and polite even if they didn’t stop.
I continued through Golovin after only staying about 2 minutes. We had no trouble and the dogs listened perfectly. I will tell you in all honesty that I believe that my dogs would have had a huge mental hurdle if I had asked them to trot through this community with out the 2 hour rest at the shelter cabin. They probably would have done it for me, but they would have pouted and moped the whole time. There is a line in my racing career that I don’t ever expect to cross. My dogs run because I ask them to run. My dogs stop because I ask them to stop. I would be very upset if my team stopped without me asking them. I run this race to win, but I also run it to come to the finish line with a dog team that I am proud of. And they must still have confidence in me as their Musher.
If you look at the Race Standings, you might believe that we lost three places in the final standings because of this 2 hour rest. But, I actually believe that we would have lost those places simply by our loss of speed if we didn’t stop. When a team slows down to 4 or 5 mph they lose a lot of ground. It doesn’t take too long for trailing teams, who still average 6 or 7 mph, to catch up and pass. So either way, I was, and still am happy with my decision to rest 2 hours before Golovin.
It is still a long run across frozen ocean from Golovin to WHITE MOUNTAIN. We were trotting on this stretch of trail during the light of day. You could see sky and ice in every direction. From a very far off distance, I could see the hills surrounding the next checkpoint. But, it was still a few hours until we reached them. The terrain is vast and wide open. There are a few small trees and bushes and a lot of space. You can see forever. As my team neared WHITE MOUNTAIN we came off of the pack ice and onto the Fish River. That last few miles before the village are along this windy, scenic creek.
THE LAST CHECKPOINT
WHITE MOUNTAIN sits on the right bank of the river. It is a welcoming site. It is near the end of the race. There were eight dogs team resting in their straw beds when I arrived at 2 PM. This meant that seven teams were en route to Nome. No one had crossed the finish line yet. No one had won.
Mushers are funny when they arrive here. It basically means that you are done. Finished. In one sense this is good. In another sense this is bad. We feel one way one moment and another way the next. I don’t think that we have it all worked out in our very tired minds. I’ve had some pretty crazy conversations with fellow Mushers in WHITE MOUNTAIN. And these will never leave WHITE MOUNTAIN.
When we parked, the afternoon sky was bright blue and the temperatures were nearly comfortable. The team was generally good and we had made great time from the shelter cabin. The dogs rolled in their straw beds and basked in the sun. I made them a hot meal and walked through the team.
My team was so much smaller than at the start. It’s a shame to think about the team members that I’ve left behind. I imagine all of them are either back at the kennel, in Anchorage with our friends or in Nome waiting for us. But, overlooking the 10 dogs that got me this far was emotional. They all have their own view of the race - just like different Mushers. But, they are a unified team and I hated to leave some behind. It’s also a catch. Because the smaller the team becomes, the more each dog has to work to pull the load. So, it’s harder work for a small team. As I looked through the team, I saw how the last few legs of the race had tuckered Homebrew out. He was, by far, the most tired. I told the Veterinarian that I would probably drop him. But, ironically this would make the rest of the team work harder for the last 77 miles to the finish. The Vet and I looked through the rest of the squad and decided that the 8 hour mandatory rest would be perfect.
Lastly, we walked over to Cha Cha. I asked him to thoroughly look her over. She hadn’t eaten much of her meal when we had first arrived. I would love for her to cross the finish line. I really felt like this was her team, at times, as much as mine. The Vet returned and said that she looked fine. Darn it. I was almost hoping that he would find something mysterious to explain her behavior. For now, I’d just let her rest and see what she looked like later.
So, I went through most of my gear and took off the seat that I had attached to the rear of my sled. Since my team was now shrinking a little more, I wanted to shed any extra pounds. As I worked on my rig, the Vet came swiftly back. He said that the airplane was leaving for Nome, so if I wanted to drop any dogs I should do it now and they’ll be in Nome in 45 minutes. I looked at everyone and knew that Homey should fly to Nome. So, I went and took his harness off, grabbed a leash and walked him away.
Afterwards, I went and talked to Jessie for a short while. Then I spoke with the Seaveys - Mitch and Dallas were now within minutes of each other. I laid my money on Mitch even though he told me not to. Then I hiked up the hill to the checkpoint building. I hadn’t spent eight hours in one location since RUBY.
WHITE MOUNTAIN is well set up for the Musher. The volunteers are super organized and friendly. The building has a large kitchen, rest room, office area and several smaller rooms off to the side. These rooms are usually set up as Musher sleeping quarters. This year, one of the rooms was set up for Iditarod’s official drug testing lab.
I was asked to step into the room and check in with the lab technician. We had been introduced to him and the testing protocol prior to the race start. I had taken a drug test about 10 years ago when I worked on a military base so I was semi familiar with the process. I certainly wasn’t worried about it. I am 100% drug free. I’ve never been interested in drugs, recreationally or medically. So, I chatted with him for a few minutes and then took my little plastic cup to the rest room. I have to admit, I thought that it was pretty “high tech”. I never knew that the cups have thermometers that immediately register the temperature of your pee. Wow!
Anyhow, that took a total of 5 minutes of my time. I am ambivalent regarding drug testing of Iditarod Mushers. I don’t believe that there’s a drug that would give a Musher an advantage for 10 days. But, I also don’t have a great knowledge of available drugs. And, as I am now fully aware, some Mushers have no regard for rules. Mandatory testing is simply an enforcement technique. Now that this technology is fully transportable and there was a full blown drug testing lab in WHITE MOUNTAIN - why not? We drug test the dogs. It’s rather inconsistent not to test the Mushers as well. It is a dog race to Nome, but the dogs can’t make it without a Musher.
I made my way to the kitchen and heated one of my freeze dried meals. I sat with the Race Official and several other folks. It’s this time in the race when you really start to think about the finish line. I calculated what time I thought I’d arrive. I wondered who would be there to greet me. My sister Kaz has always been at the finish line: 9 consecutive years. But, she was packing all of our gear and food for our Natural Extremes Mushing Adventure Trips that start in a week. So, I knew that she was rather busy.
I walked back to one of the smaller rooms and took out my sleeping bag. I hadn’t taken it out of my sled since RUBY. Don’t get me wrong, my sleeping bag is great. It is a -40 below Marmot down bag. My father bought it for me 13 years ago. But, for the past 8 days my goal hasn’t been to be comfy and cozy. The more comfortable I am while resting, the better I’ll sleep. That’s not always a good thing. My alarm is only so loud!
Needless to say, I slept soundly for over 3 hours. That felt better than the 30 minute naps that I had been getting for the past few days. After I woke up, I still had time to stretch out my legs and back. It felt great to rest these muscles that had been working so well for me. I thought about the dogs and how this must be fantastic for them as well. The temperatures had been so cold during much of the race that I didn’t think their muscles were as loose as they could have been. This mostly likely lead to the overall fatigue that I was seeing in Pud, Homey and perhaps Cha Cha. But, the rest here in WHITE MOUNTAIN was during the heat of the day and I hoped that they were loosening up and stretching out as I was.
I gathered all of my gear, clothes and snacks for the trail and headed back downhill to my team. I was right. The whole team looked great, sacked out in their straw beds. It was just getting dark again, so their rest had been throughout much of the day. I took extra time to massage their shoulders and legs. I bootied the team and put the extended booties on Dingle. I wanted to hydrate them extra for this long run to the finish line, so I heated up some water for a meaty fish broth.
I walked up to Cha Cha and she looked at me. I had a tasty bowl of mouth watering soup in hand. Every one of the dogs had lapped up their portion. I told her “If you don’t eat this, you’re not going with us.” She stood up and stretched. I put the bowl down directly in front of her nose. She sniffed it, turned around, laid back down and curled up with her back to the soup. Darn it!
I didn’t waste anytime. I went back to the sled and grabbed my leash. I only had 30 minutes until we were supposed to leave. I took off her harness and adjusted her dog jacket. I saw no Veterinarian in sight, so we both walked way back up to the checkpoint building. We nearly got to the front door when a Vet came outside. I told him that I needed to drop Cha Cha. He wondered why I had walked her all the way up to the building and asked “Does she need to be inside?” I said “She doesn’t need to be, but I’m sure she wouldn’t decline the offer.” I filled out the paperwork and turned her over to him. I wasn’t sure what exactly was going on with her, but something was not right. I was now in a hurry. I jogged back down to the team.
They were all mingling about. I walked everyone on a short stretch out then turned the sled around and hooked up the team. Out of habit I put Bullet in lead. I toyed around with either Rose or Dingle as her partner. I chose Dingle. The rest of the squad was lined out behind them. We looked pretty small now that I left both Homey and Cha Cha. But, I had no question that we had the strength and determination to make this final run.
When we left WHITE MOUNTIAN, Rose and Tony followed Bullet and Dingle. Then Tatfish and Skittles and Meg and Biscuit brought up the rear. Oh yea.... and I was on the caboose. I was excited, enthusiastic and ready to help the dogs as much as I could. We trotted out onto the Fish River and never looked back. It was 10 PM.
THE RUN TO NOME
Once again we were traveling during the night. It seems that much of my actual traveling time during this year’s race was after sunset and before sunrise. Here we were again. I have no complaints with traveling through the night. The entire team is focused. The cold weather had brought with it mostly clear skies, so the stars shined in every direction.
The night sky was awesome. There aren’t many places left in the world that aren’t affected by light “pollution” - at least to some degree. When I turned my headlight off, I could see more stars, planets and galaxies than I ever knew existed. I felt truly insignificant. A morsel in the scheme of things. But, this made me happy. Here I was doing what I was meant to do. My life is something that I was proud to live. Like everyone, I have had heartache, turmoil and difficult times. But, I have worked harder than I ever thought that I could and perseverance has won out. I have also been lucky. Lucky, or perhaps blessed, with a desire to persevere. I am fortunate to have a healthy body, average intelligence and energy to live. So, that being said, I enjoyed mushing my team of Alaskan huskies towards the finish line.
I decided to take Bullet out of lead and put Rose back up front. Rose and Dingle are a fun combo to watch. They worked in tandem and we glided down the trail. The rest of the crew were looking good as we motored forward. I constantly ski poled, pedaled and talked to the dogs.
The run from WHITE MOUNTAIN to SAFTEY is about 50 miles. The first half is rolling hills including one last, very long, steep climb up Topcock Mountain. Once the trail descends Topcock, it makes a hard right turn because the ocean lays directly in front. Then the trail parallels the sea all the way to SAFETY. At this point, the dogs are running along a flat and relatively straight trail.
What I didn’t realize until this year, is that this stretch of trail is actually on a skinny spit of land in between the ocean and Safety Sound. For all of these years, I knew that the ocean was there but I thought tundra lay all around us. Last fall, Allen and I visited Nome and drove out towards Topcock in a car. By golly, there was water everywhere! That just goes to show that the difference between land and sea is not always obvious in a white winter wonderland.
SAFETY is a little bump on a map. It’s not much more than a bump in real life either. It’s a bar and a few out buildings about 20 miles from Nome. In the summertime, there is road access. In the winter time there are two trails from Nome - one over the hills and one around them. Of course, the Iditarod chooses to go over them.
This is the true last checkpoint. Not very many dog teams stop, but there are still Food Drop supplies and it is staffed by volunteers and Veterinarians. We pulled in during the early hours of the morning. I didn’t need to go through my shipped supplies. I had carried plenty of dog food and snacks from WHITE MOUNTAIN and eight dogs didn’t eat nearly as much as I had packed. So, I said a quick hello to everyone and then let them get back to sleep. As we left, the Checker said “Stay to the right up ahead. Teams are having trouble there.” It was such a easy route along the road, I wondered why anyone would have trouble.
Dingle and Rose lead us down the trail. In the pitch dark, I could tell that we made an odd turn to the right. The dogs balked a little but then ran ahead. In the next few minutes, I watched as the dogs looked around and even back at me several times. I scanned the area with my super powered headlight and couldn’t find a problem. Then it came to me as the team trotted through a series of willow bushes. We weren’t on the standard Iditarod route into Nome. For some reason, this year, the snowmachines put in a trail cross country from SAFETY, instead of following the road. No wonder all the teams were unsure. All of the dogs in my team and many of them in teams ahead of us had been to Nome before - some of them numerous times - but never this way. I’m sure that the smells, sights and trail contours were different. Dogs’ memories are amazing. Research says that dogs aren’t the most intelligent animals, but my huskies sure remember trails. I did my best to comfort them as we passed several Iditarod trail markers. It’s always an adventure! This trail actually cut off a few miles because it took the direct route to Cape Nome. Once we started climbing this familiar landmark, the team’s confidence returned.
The town of Nome lies in a bowl between mountains. Cape Nome is to the east and Anvil Mountain is to the north. Unless you travel on the shore line of the ocean, you will climb some kind of hill before you reach town. I put all of my energies into this climb and ran alongside the sled. That’s one thing about mountains - you know that there’s got to be a summit sooner or later. So, I just ran and ran.
The top came eventually and we summitted. Since it was before sunrise, the lights from the town lit up the entire horizon. The dogs were excited when they saw these lights and their pace quickened. It’s very thrilling to be able to see the finish line from about 10 miles away.
We started to come down the hill and the town lights dipped down behind a ridge. I had a small bicycle seat still attached to my sled, so I pulled it out and sat down to rest my legs as we trotted downhill. Whew! I was tired. I let myself relax a little too much because I suddenly woke up when the sled tipped as the team trotted over a bump in the trail. Opps! I quickly put the seat away and took out my ski pole.
I know this next 7 miles of trail very well. Cars can drive out from Nome and watch us go by. I have watched many a team pass by and I was sure that I would again this year. So, I scanned the horizon for familiar vehicles. Bridgett would waiting for us.
We paralleled the road and I spotted the beige Ford “Exploder” that Bridgett and Scotty owned. Now, we were really close! The local radio station KNOM also had a spotter vehicle that drove alongside the team as we entered the town outskirts. I filmed them and they filmed me - a fair trade off.
Now, it became emotional.
We took a familiar turn down onto the Nome River then out on the pack ice in front of Nome. I teared up. What a feeling.
I talked to the dogs. I needed a few “team moments” to thank each and every dog: Dingle, Rose, Tony, Bullet, Tatfish, Skittles, Biscuit and Meg. I also thought about Homey, Cha Cha, Pud and Chica who would meet us in Nome. And, of course, Quito, Spot, Nacho and Snickers who were already home in Two Rivers. Their dedication, team work and energy is far too much for me to illustrate on paper. I hope that these Trail Notes have shown a glimpse of how I see each and every dog. And just a little of what they mean to me.
We turned up Front Street and looked down the road toward the burled arch. The dogs were almost sassy now. Rose wanted to stop and visit every spectator. She loves people and was looking for someone to pet her head. Many people heard me saying “No pets. No pets” and they assumed that I was talking to them, but Rosey knew I was talking to her. Dingle was all business as he lowered his head and pulled down the middle of the road to the chute. Tony was proud as a peacock with his tail in the air. It had been three years since he had last been at the finish line. For Bullet, this was just another day. She is mentally and physically solid. Tatfish was happy-go-lucky. He meandered here and there along the street. At one point he attempted to visit some fans and nearly crashed into a parked car. (Give him a break, he hadn’t see a car in a thousand miles!) Skittles made it to Nome again. She was part of a great team effort, but not the All-Star that she has been in past years. Meg was strong - she is a determined individual. Biscuit is rugged and steadfast. He never let up even though this was not his best race to date.
It was 9 AM and we mushed under the arch. It was over.
Kaz, my sister, and her son, Sam, were in the chute as were Bridgett and Scotty. Ken, my Iditarider from 11 days ago, was there with his wife, Kathy. I also saw many friends, acquaintances and a crowd of Iditarod fans. Dr. Stu Nelson, head Veterinarian, as well as the Mark Nordman, Race Marshall, and Joanne Potts, Race Director, were all under the arch. The Iditarod is a family of sorts and they all take an interest in the welfare of each team - Musher and dogs. Fans were lined up admiring the dogs. The dogs stood in harness, eating their snacks and loving the attention. Children wanted dog booties as souvenirs. And finally, Rose was satiated because someone was loving her and petting her from the moment she arrived. A guy grabbed me and asked “Hey did that dog ever get tired?” and he pointed to Tatfish. I just smiled and shook my head no.
These dogs are amazing!
For the next few days in Nome we all rested. Bridgett rotated the dogs from her house, to the dog kennels to beds in the sunshine. I hogged the couch for much of the time, but Cha Cha, Rose, and Dingle enjoyed it as well.
As far as I could tell, Cha Cha had a sore tricep muscle. When she flew into Nome she was very sore. I hadn’t seen this in WHITE MOUNTAIN or before. But, it was obvious now that she had been cramping up. She had a fantastic race until the end. She is a one in a million dog and I don’t think she’s done racing yet.
Homey arrived in Nome before the team and Bridgett brought him to the house. He’s a sweet, sweet boy and he was feeling 100% after a few days of rest. Pud flew to Nome several days after we arrived. By then, he was spunky. He was favoring his left rear leg just a hair, but overall he was in top shape for his rookie run. Chica came to Nome with a Veterinarian escort. She was kept in the “Dodge Lodge” - an Iditarod dog care facility in Nome. They wanted to monitor her for a few days before releasing her. She came home and never had any issues with pneumonia. I didn’t see Spot, Quito, Nacho or Snickers until I returned home to the kennel. By then, you couldn’t have guessed that they even raced the Iditarod. Quito and Spot are the tricksters in the dog yard - yapping at all of their neighbors and running circles at break neck speeds. Nacho is Nacho. A big puff of energy. He will have many chances yet to see an Iditarod finish line. Lastly, it just wasn’t Snicker’s year. He has shone brightly past and will again in the future.
MOMENTS OF REFLECTION
For me, the Iditarod is all about dogs. It’s about raising, training and molding individuals and then forming them into a team. It’s about learning the quirks and specialities of each dog and then running the race with these in mind. It is about perseverance and strategy. It’s about traveling through the vast wilderness with your wit and courage. And it’s about getting to the finish line.
For me, it’s also about getting to the finish line with my integrity and my dogs’ best interest in mind. They are my team mates, my co workers and my buddies. I love my dogs.
We had a phenomenal and ultra competitive race this year. Just over an hour separated the top two teams and the third was less than 2 hours behind that. Lance Mackey is an unbelievable Musher and his dogs are beyond talented. Han Gatt and his Yukon Quest Champions had the season that Mushers dream about. Jeff King ended his Iditarod career with a commanding performance and a team of spirited dogs.
SP Kennel dogs are just as talented as any of these dogs. Our speeds and endurance are nothing short of spectacular. My race plan and execution were top notch. I had errors and mishaps, just as any team did. We endured and succeeded and set a new personal record. My time of 9 days 18 hours and 5 minutes was my fastest Iditarod ever in one of the most competitive fields.
Could I improve? Sure. Could the team have a smoother finish? Sure. Could we keep our speed up in the end? Sure. Could I win? Sure.
I race the Iditarod with pride. I have two goals: to compete fairly and to win. It is the heart and soul of a Musher that will determine their personal satisfaction with their race. I am, in deed, truly satisfied with my 2010 Iditarod 16th place finish.