The rest of the run to NIKOLAI was relatively uneventful. We trotted into the checkpoint around noon. There were about ten teams already parked, but most had not been there long. We were keeping very good company.
NIKOLAI is an Indian village on the shore of the Kuskokwim River. Teams are parked on the snow covered gravel bar. The villagers are very welcoming and keep a blazing fire underneath a 55 gallon drum of water. They also bring each team their Food Drop bags and straw. We are as close to “spoiled” as it gets on Iditarod.
I have long since forgotten all of the extra goodies that I snuck into my Food Drop bags over a month ago. It is almost like Christmas when I open them up. I do have a laminated cheat sheet documenting all of my shipped supplies and supposed destinations. I look at this periodically, but, honestly, I look at the back side of this sheet more often! The supply info is on one side, but on the flip side is a wildly colorful photo of Allen and me in shorts sitting on a moped in Baja, Mexico. Actually, I looked at this picture quite often during the race as the temperatures got colder and colder. This “fun in the sun” picture was humorous to me, as it made light of my current, rather “chilly”, situation.
The team looked solid as they lay in the afternoon sunshine at the checkpoint. They had been eating well so their reserve energy was 100%. I wrapped them all in dog jackets since the temperature was not as warm as the sunshine made you believe. After this, I walked to the school where there is a warm spot to sleep and the students were making soup and baked goodies. There were a few mushers sitting, eating or napping, so I grabbed a meal from my bag and sat down.
It is rare to sit down opposite another musher who is exactly at the same spot in his routine as I am. More often then not, as I sit down for my 5 minutes, some one else stands to get more food or leaves the table to nap. We all go about our routines molded into our heads and very little socialization occurs.
But this year Lance Mackey and I sat down across from each other at the same time just as Gerry Willomitzer and Hugh Neff left for a nap. I asked Lance how his All-Star dog, Zorro was doing. Zorro is a dog who needs little introduction. He helped Lance in the beginning with his “Comeback Kennel” by being a powerhouse Yukon Quest/Iditarod champion and his main stud dog. In my opinion, Lance has set his dog standards in Zorro’s image and his team sure hasn’t let him down. Allen and I bought two breedings to Zorro - 4 and 3 years ago. At present, there were 6 Zorro puppies on my team parked just outside this building.
Lance said that Zorro was certainly looking older. Zorro was almost ten and living the high life at Lance’s kennel. He no longer raced. He was actually injured three years ago, during the All Alaska Sweepstakes Race, when a careless snow machine driver ran directly into Lance’s team. Zorro was medivaced to Seattle from Nome and recovered slowly.
We commiserated about dogs and how they age faster than humans. That is the worst part of dog mushing or having a pet dog. Dogs simply do not live as long as we do so we watch them sucumb to old age.
I finished up my snack and headed to lay down for 45 minutes. At this point in the race, a short nap will suit me perfectly. Later on down the trail, a 45 minute nap seems to make me feel worse than if I hadn’t slept at all. But, for now....
NIKOLAI is the beginning of the heart of the race. I like to watch the first few teams as they leave this checkpoint. Several teams left as I woke and gathered my gear together. But, as I came down to the gravel bar, I watched Hans, Hugh and Sven Haltmann depart. They all left about the same time. The dynamics and personalities of the teams were evident: Han’s team was all business, Hugh’s team was literally screaming with excitement, and Sven’s dogs were excited, but contained.
I repacked my gear and put Bullet in lead with Cha Cha. We train our dogs to use their extra energy for working, not cheerleading. So, my squad left their camp spot without amped up fanfare or hype and trotted down the trail behind the leaders.
The run from NIKOLAI through MCGRATH to TAKOTNA is a long dark stretch of trail. We often leave during the early evening hours and this year wasn’t much different as we clocked out at 5:52 PM. I am usually grateful for the darkness as it brings cooler temperatures and my long-haired Interior Alaskan Huskies prefer cooler temps than those in the 20s and 30s above. But this year, the weather could be described in one word: arctic. The north wind that had blown into the Alaska Range brought with it temperatures more common to Northern Alaska: 20 to 30 below. I had to smile as the temperatures got colder and colder. Not because I enjoy freezing my tush off any more than the next guy, but because I might have “asked for it”. At the restart of the race in Willow, we were all standing around the dog truck. One of the SP Kennel PIt Crew had just returned from checking the weather report. There seemed to be an indication that the temperatures were going to drop. I looked at everyone and said “I hope the bottom drops out!” Well, it wasn’t quite there now, but it was getting close.
As I mentioned before, I had two Iditarod rookies on my team this year: Pud and Nacho. Both boys are 3 years old but had vastly different histories.
Pud was born in Cha Cha’s first litter which was a premature delivery. Every pup was small and fragile. Despite his slight stature he was the most talented yearling and even trained with the Iditarod dogs at 17 months of age. He began to get an inflamed wrist and so we gave him the latter half of his first year off. The following season, his 2 year old year, he started training and immediately developed a wrist was a problem. I had him thoroughly examined, even by Iditarod Head Vet Dr. Stu Nelson, and his prognosis for that season was poor. So, not knowing what else to do, Pud was laid off for his entire 2 year old season. We were patient and hopeful however. At the start of his 3 year old season, this year, we hooked him up in harness and crossed our fingers. Allen will tell you, I spent more time monitoring his front legs than any dog ...ever! He’s been perfect! This year, he raced the Copper Basin 300 and the Denali Doubles 300, and naturally he was now on the Iditarod Red Team. He looked flawless as we went down the trail.
I could look ahead and see the glow of lights from the village of MCGRATH. When I looked behind, I saw a trail of musher’s head lights following me. We are all so close at this point in the race that when I stopped for just a moment, Sonny Lindner came up behind me and asked “Are you snacking here?” We both gave our dogs some cut up pieces of meat and fish. In order to keep the dogs hydrated and energetic, I give them plenty to eat and drink during the race. These small trail snacks are like a hiker munching on a Snickers Bar or granola. They are quick energy and always make the team happy. I fiddled around a bit longer than Sonny, so he passed us with his fantastic group of dogs lead by a furry fellah named Pete. Nacho was born in the Mexican litter and Lance’s dog, Zorro, is the sire. They were born happy, healthy and big. His yearling year was average. He was a bit too long legged and gangly to fall completely into step right away. But, the following season, Nacho’s 2 year old year, was great. He hit the ground running at 27 months of age and raced in all of the mid distance races throughout the season. He was a solid contender. At the start of his 3 year old season, this year, he started strong. He is a big exuberant guy and it shows. He raced the Copper Basin 300 and then as this season continued his enthusiasm lessened. We couldn’t pinpoint an injury, but we didn’t think he was 100%. He was in limited training for the month of February and I wasn’t sure of his readiness for Iditarod. But, when I made the decision to leave Happy out of the team, Nacho was in. Now, Nacho looked a little weary and I began to worry about him.
The trail to TAKOTNA is a well traveled path. People always say that Alaska has few roads. The truth is that our roads are different than the freeways and highways of the Lower 48. Our roads are the hundreds of back woods trails, frozen river beds and tundra tracks that have been followed for thousands of years by Alaskan natives. We were on one of these “expressways” now.
Only a minute later, another team pulled up behind me and said “Are you snacking here?” It was Ray Reddington. I was ready to go by then, so I asked if he’d like to pass us, but he choose to follow us into the checkpoint.
My objective was to spend as little time in MCGRATH as possible. The folks here are fantastic hosts so, it was with great regret that I passed through the checkpoint so quickly. I was honestly a little surprised to not see either my mom, who was out on her SkyTreking adventure or my dad, who often shows up “in the middle of no where” during the race.
Most of the dogs know the routine of coming into a checkpoint and leaving directly. It is a little confusing for a rookie who wonders: why we aren’t we stopping? And Nacho looked back at me. We parallel the village for over a mile; the team on the frozen river bed and the lighted houses, shops and street lights just 100 feet up the high bank. I talked to Nacho most of the time telling him that TAKOTNA was a better spot for him than MCGRATH.
We came up on Sonny who was adjusting his team and then we traveled much of the next 2 hours together. Our teams were about the same speed and we switched lead on and off. At one point, when I was ahead, I was watching the dogs when I saw Tatfish lunge for an object that was on the trail. Tatfish is an inquisitive dog, so it’s not in his nature to shy from anything. I looked back to see what had caught his eye and a small white plastic box was in the snow. It was a GPS tracker unit that someone had lost off of their sled. No one would have seen it, even if they were looking for it. It was white on white. But, Tatfish did. I stopped the team about 30 yards ahead of it and here came Sonny. He barely saw me in time to stop with out running into us. I yelled “Look under your sled!” He was, of course, confused, but he lifted up his brake pad and just under it lay the GPS. He picked it up and we all continued into TAKOTNA. (When Sonny turned it in, he was told that it was Cim Symth’s tracker.)
TAKOTNA - 24 Hour Rest
TAKOTNA is a booming place this time of year. For a tiny little Alaskan village it takes on the image of a mini metropolis in March. Even when we arrived at 2:00 AM, people came out of the wood work to greet us, take pictures and help us find a camping spot. There is a group of always helpful Norwegians who act as the checkpoint "parking team". These eight happy, agile and athletic vikings trotted along side the team up the hill, around the Post Office and back along a secluded fence line. It was the perfect spot for a 24 hour rest. Away from the hubbub of the checkpoint activities, so the dogs could sleep with out wondering what all the fuss was about.
The temperatures were really dropping now. The last few miles of the trail was along the river, where the temperatures are the coldest. Cold air is heavier than warm air, so the frigid temperatures sink into the river beds and valleys and you can feel as them as you breathe. Climbing the hill to our camping spot was a relief.
I planned to take my 24 Mandatory Rest here. There are 3 mandatory stops during Iditarod: the 24 hour, the 8 hour along the Yukon and the 8 hour in WHITE MOUNTAIN. This gives the Race Officials a chance to monitor the mushers, their gear and their dogs.
Iditarod is a race. The Race Officials, including the Race Marshall, Mark Nordman, take their jobs seriously. They must maintain the competitive nature of the event, as well as support the teams that run the race less competitively. Over the years, I have seen many a caring Race Official lend their shoulder to an exhausted and overcome Iditarod musher. They are, at times, life counselors or even psychologists. Some years it is necessary to withdraw a non competitive team from the race. It is a sad and, I would imagine, difficult task. But, if there comes an instance when they decide that a musher should no longer continue, it’s their decision. And most likely the Race Officials won’t make a big issue of the ejection. They are not there to chastise Mushers or embarrass them. More often than not, the ejection is probably to save the Musher from embarrassing himself or injuring his team. The bottom line is: Iditarod is a race.
I used the first few hours of my Mandatory 24 to get the dogs comfortable and resting. Since it was so cold, I wrapped everyone up in a fleece lined jacket. This takes time to undo harnesses, dress the dogs and fasten leashes. I would like to leave a few dogs loose so they could find their perfect nap spot. But, a few years ago I had two dogs wandering around the checkpoint as I slept, so I nixed that idea. A few of them: Bullet, Cha Cha and Rose got extra long leashes. They choose to cozy up next to each other and share the warmth. Dingle, Quito and Pud were snug as well. Meg was by herself, as was Chica. They are both the “independent” type. Skittles and Homey were together, but weren’t snuggling. Spot and Tony weren’t very tired, so I put them next to each other because they didn’t lay down right away to nap. I gave more space to Biscuit and Tatfish by the sled. Nacho slept by himself. Soundly.
My biggest worry was Nacho, who just didn’t seem right, and Spot’s shoulder was still a little tender. The Iditarod Veterinarians came to look through the squad. Everyone else was happy, ready to rest, and then get back on the trail. So, after a few hours of messing with the dogs, my sled and my gear, I decided to head to the main building for a little warmth and some food.
TAKOTNA is known for its Alaskana hospitality. The people are friendly .... even at 4:30 AM at 30 below zero. But, they are also tough and resourceful. They have to be! The village generator was broken and all able hands were now working to fix it before the cold temperatures crept into the homes and buildings. I was a bit self centered at the time and thought “What a bummer if I have to spend 24 hours resting at 30 below.” It’s OK for me to spend an unlimited amount of time in harshly cold temperatures most of the time. But, when I already have it in my mind that I’ll be warm and cozy, able to dry out damp clothes and defrost frozen water bottles, I was glum.
I ate a small meal that one of the volunteers cooked for me on a propane stove: two eggs, potatoes and toast. This was the largest chunk of calories that I had consumed at one time since the breakfast before the race start - 3 days ago. It was tasty. I ate in the dark with my headlight shining on the plate. I didn’t stay there long. I went to the library and found a small corner to stash my sleeping bag. It seemed pointless to hang up my parka or overboots, so I laid out my gear in my little corner and fell asleep.
I woke up several hours later and I could hear the humming of the room heater. Yippee. Even though, now that I was comfy and cozy, I forced myself to get up and hang up my gear, so I could use all of the mandatory hours remaining to dry out the condensation and sweat that had accumulated in my clothing.
For the next 20 hours I fed the dogs several warm, juicy meals, took each of them for a walk, and repacked my sled. In between, I ate another meal and slept on and off a total of 9 hours while in TAKOTNA. I also called home.
Calling home is never easy during Iditarod. I want to share the experience with my family and friends. I want to update the website. But, telephones are hard to come by and I don’t always make that a priority. In addition, I never know who to call or where everyone is. My guess was that Mickey and Doug were out on the trail somewhere, Kaz was probably in Two Rivers and I didn’t know where MacGellan was. I knew there was a 100% chance that Bridgett would answer her cell phone however, so I called her in Nome.
She answered on the first ring. I rattled off to her how the dogs looked and how we were performing as a team. I told her everything that I thought people would want to know so far. The phone connection wasn’t great, but she seemed unemotional. I asked “What’s going on?” Bridgett said “I’m not supposed to tell you, but you know how I am. Your Grandfather is very sick and your dad and mom have left Alaska to see him.” I asked “What do they want me to do? Where’s Kaz?” She said that she was sure that they wanted me to stay in the race and wait and see. Kaz was at home in Two Rivers. I am sure that my folks didn’t want to worry me with the news. But, Bridgett is a straight shooter and she still regretted 3 years ago not telling me that Allen was very sick and had been flown off of the Iditarod to the hospital in Nome. I hung up, sat down and drank some water in the checkpoint headquarters. A lot to think about.
Now that the generator was working again, the Race Officials do their best to print out current race standings and weather reports. I was looking through the standings and was hoping that the next Musher into TAKOTNA would be Allen. There is a sentry that constantly looks out the window for dog team activity and at about 1:30 in the afternoon she yelled “Dog team coming!” Bib number 54, Allen Moore, pulled into the checkpoint.
I greeted the dogs. Butterscotch and Petunia in lead, Teddy and Oddball, Ranger and Beemer, KitKay and Roy, Lil Debbie and Bonita, Honda, Viper and Rambler. Allen was chatting with the Checker and the volunteers. I gave him a big hug. It is so exciting to see him with the team. I charged up the hill after him and he parked only 30 yards behind my squad. His routine is different than mine, so after snacking the dogs and jacketing them, he lets them rest for a few hours before feeding a meal. We walked to the Checkpoint and sat together for 30 minutes.
I told him about Grandpa. Neither of us could do a thing, but wait and see. He told me a story of catching a dog team with no Musher driving. It had actually tried to pass his team while running down the trail. He managed to stop his team and the other one while they were moving. He turned the lost team around and mushed it back to the, now walking, Musher. The Musher had lost a dog out of harness, so he was frantically looking for it. Allen felt sorry for him, so he left him with his found dog team and walked several miles back to his squad. Amazing what happens out on the race!
Allen went into the Library and found a spot. It was getting crowded in there now. I had 12 hours left of my 24, so I found my sleeping bag for a few hours.
Leaving TAKOTNA was refreshing. I always pack a lot of extra gear and dog supplies so we were fully outfitted with anything a dog or musher might want at this point. Allen said that he would see me off when I left, but he was snoring so soundly as I walked by his makeshift bedroom (a lightweight cot, sleeping bag and pillow snuggled into a corner) that I knew I probably wouldn't see him again until Nome.
The dogs had that great spot for resting, but not such a great spot for leaving. The fence and the Post Office offered great solitude during their rest, but now created exit barriers. The trail forward was completely cut off by a perpendicularly parked dog team. We were 100% locked in. But, the always helpful Norwegian "parking team" appeared about 20 minutes before our scheduled departure. They helped me turn my very cooperative dog team completely around and guided us down the steep hill under complete control. It is so nice to have a group of dogs that listens and responds to simple commands.
We even had several minutes to wait before the "3-2-1" countdown to departure. So, I walked up and down the team, moving dogs and adjusting their harnesses. Some still were on extended leashes and others had slipped an arm or leg through their harness while resting.
The team was ready to go. They weren't jumping out of their britches like some dog teams, but that's not really their personality. Quito, Spot and Tatfish were banging on their harnesses, but the rest of the team was simply ... ready.
Cha and Rose were up front. It was still Cha Cha's race - I had told her that back in the beginning and she hadn't let me down. Rose is a nice complement to Cha. Her constant barking excitement and wiggling enthusiasm jazzes up the team. Cha Cha will put up with it most of the time, until Rose twists their lines into a knot, and then there might be a few “words”.
We left the lights of the checkpoint and the comfy, cozy warmth. By this time, 3 AM, it was down right cold. Perhaps 30 or more below. I had all of the dogs in jackets or windbreakers and I was content in my Northern Outfitters "Michelin Man" gear.
Surprisingly, it doesn't bother me to run dogs at these extreme temperatures. The truth is, we are on a journey. The journey has a perceivable end. I know it well. The cold weather, mountainous terrain, frozen river beds, snowy ridge lines and frigid winds are just part of the whole. The journey is never a complete picture until the end. So, while these single obstacles can be thought of individually, they aren't so important that they ever make me lose sight of the whole journey. Most of the time, this “whole journey” philosophy will make the most extreme situations quite tolerable. So, I say out loud to the dogs, "Hum, seems to be a little chilly this morning." With that, we lope off down the Iditarod trail.
The run from TAKOTNA to OPHIR is short, but hilly. I gauge my team by the time interval we take to cover this distance. A good time is 2 and a half hours. I always think back to my first Iditarod. My entire dog team had kennel cough and were moving slowly right here. I never ran them more
then 4 hours and I remember camping in this area. It’s miserable when you can't make it just another 5 miles down the trail to a checkpoint. So, right now, things were looking pretty good.
There was one problem: Nacho. Just before I left TAKOTNA I was jacketing him and I rubbed his big furry head in my hands. He always likes the attention, but he didn’t respond then. I examined him closely and found a swelling on his cheek. I went and found a Veterinarian to take a closer look. There was no puncture mark or cut, only a swelling. She thought it looked fresh because it was soft and pliable. Maybe it was a foxtail. Foxtails are grass seeds that are sometimes in the straw that we use for bedding. They have a pointy tip and can get imbedded in skin. This causes an irritation and if you don’t catch it, an infection. She put him on some simple antibiotics and she told me to watch him closely. Well......
Nacho was working diligently for one hour. Pulling in harness and excited to go. But about an hour into the run, his tug line went slack. That is simply not normal. One hour later, I didn’t think twice about leaving him in OPHIR with the Veterinarian. When we stopped to check in, I looked through my Food Drop bags, grabbed some straw and unharnessed Nacho. It is sad to leave a team mate, but I knew my decision was correct. So, the rest of the team continued. While in the checkpoint I had moved a few dogs’ positions. Quito had been driving with excitement, so I put her right behind the leaders alongside Pud. I moved Bullet to the middle of the team with Skittles. Both of them had mediocre performances from TAKOTNA.
It was cold. I can still handle myself and my team in the cold but it makes many circumstances more difficult. Most people are intimidated by the cold. How do you stay warm when it’s 40 below zero? Well, it takes effort. Sometimes a lot.
My plan was to run the dogs from TAKOTNA to RUBY in 3 equal distance runs. The distance is about 200 miles, so three equal runs of just over 65 miles. I would punctuate these runs with rests at camping spots along the trail. This was the best strategy for my dogs. The other option was to run two long runs. My thoughts on that are that my dogs tend to slow down when they are asked to plod along for 10 plus hours. So, that was my plan.
Mushers talk about "sticking to their race plan". I think a race plan is an evolution over the journey. Of course, I have an overall strategy, but it includes: if "x" happens then I will do "y" or if "a" happens then I will do "b". People who stick to an exact schedule seem to be running a race according to numbers, not to their dogs.
But, the challenge with my plan is that I must guess where 65 miles is. The Iditarod has a rule that outlaws GPS units, so a Musher must be able to watch their dogs, know the terrain and follow a map. Often times we are mushing at night, so a map is useless in the dark. I usually estimate the speed that we are traveling, add on any stops and then calculate the distance. It’s not a science, but I do my best.
We were traveling nicely through the hills and valleys of central Alaska. The sun was out so the temperatures were probably below just barely zero. It was truly comfortable. I passed Zack Steer and Gerry Willomitzer camped along the side of the trail, but I saw no one else. That signified to me that most Mushers went straight to CRIPPLE in one long run.
I started looking for the perfect spot to camp and not very far down the trail we trotted out onto a frozen lake. There were a few snowmachiners on this trail earlier in the winter because they laid tracks out beyond the well traveled trail. This was the perfect camp spot. We were on a lake in the direct sunshine and I could camp the team far enough away from the main trail that passing teams wouldn’t be too much of a distraction. I wondered how far I was from CRIPPLE.
We stayed there and rested. I made a spot for my sleeping bag in the middle of the team. I rested but didn’t sleep. At least a half a dozen teams passed our camp spot on route to CRIPPLE.
As the sun started to go down, so did the temperatures. I packed up my gear and hit the trail. It was best to get the dogs moving and warm up their muscles. I looked at the squad and saw that Spot no longer helping the team. She must have stiffened up during our rest. She had been wearing a shoulder vest and jacket, but I could imagine the cold effecting to her shoulder. We moved down the trail and I couldn’t stop watching her. This happens when I worry about a dog, I become completely fixated on it and nothing else. The team was still moving well.
I looked up to the front of the team and the hard driving Quito was trotting with her tail down. What? I had specifically put her up there because she had looked great. I stopped and went to her. She didn’t jump around like the bubbly little girl that she is. I felt her shoulders. She too was had a sore right shoulder. So, both Spot and Quito had the same predicament. Darn!
We soon came into CRIPPLE checkpoint and I was a little bummed. I had just dropped Nacho 15 hours ago and now I would have to leave both his sister, Quito and his half sister, Spot. Was the team falling apart?
The first thing I did was ask for a Veterinarian to officially drop Quito and Spot. I took off their harnesses and explained their maladies. Now, I had to change my mind set and re pack for the next leg of the journey. I looked at the clip board with the Race Standings and only 4 teams had left. I was surprised that no teams had gone through as I was planning to do right now. Then the Checker walked over and gave me the weather forecast: 40 to 50 below tonight. Ohhh. That’s why no one had gone through. Seemed a little crazy to go out and camp at those temperatures, but the dogs would be sleeping in them regardless of where I slept, so I hesitated several seconds and then stuck to the plan.
I went through all of my Food Drop bags and cinched straw on top of my load. I packed a lot of fuel, so that I could make very warm soup for the dogs and myself and have extra. Right before I left, the Checker yelled “Hey Aliy, there’s hot water available if you want it!” That was my mistake. I almost always ask the Checker or volunteers what is available at each checkpoint. I had assumed that there was no water at CRIPPLE because in all the years I have run the race there never had been. So, I unpacked my large load and grabbed my insulated bucket. I mixed a meal that would be ready as soon as we got to our next camp spot. The only problem was that at these temperatures, if we took too long to get there, the food would freeze in the bucket. So, we scooted down the trail with two less dogs.
It was cold. I was helping the dogs by kicking and pedaling, but all the while I tried to ventilate myself so that I didn’t perspire too much. Perspiration is a killer in the cold. It’s not so bad if you sweat to stay warm out there and then get to a cabin or checkpoint and take off your wet clothes. But, if you find yourself drenched with sweat and camped at 50 below - you’ve got trouble.
We made good time through the night air. It was eerily quiet, which is what happens when it gets this cold. Nothing moves around. No wind. No animals. It’s snow, ice and darkness.
I found a spot to camp along side the trail. It wasn’t far enough off the trail for my liking, but it would have to do. I tried to hurry as I fed the dogs and laid out their beds of straw. I made another bucket of hot water and warmed my hands and face around the fire. I melted the icicles that were hanging off of my hat because I hate getting in my sleeping bag with icicles dangling. I knew that I had to get off of the cold ground, so I made a bed for myself. I chopped down several spruce trees and larger boughs and laid them right in front of Biscuit and Tatfish. I put my sleeping bag on top and then I went and got Homebrew. He snuggled up next to my bag.
I went back to the fire and finished mixing the team’s next meal which I stored in my insulated bucket. They would enjoy that! Then I went over to my sleeping bag. I took off my over parka and my overboots. I put my boots inside my bag with me or they would freeze solid and I wouldn’t be able to get them on again. I climbed in the sleeping bag and pulled Homey in with me. I then placed my parka over the top half of both of us for extra warmth. I rested for an hour and then got up shivering. Homey was happy to stay in the bag, but I warmed up by running up and down the trail for 5 minutes. After that, I was ready to go again.
It was the early hours of the morning when we left the camp. I let the dogs trot very slowly at first and then I stopped and rubbed them all down. I worried about their muscles tightening up in these temperatures. I happily ran beside the sled to keep my blood pumping and warming my core. I talked to the dogs. Just upbeat little comments to specific dogs. I wondered how far we had come and what the condition of the trail lay ahead.
We trotted along. Tatfish, my watchman, saw another object in the trail and turned around. I stopped the team and looked back. This time it was an even smaller, blue plastic unit, so I got off to retrieve it. It was a personal GPS unit. Not one that had been sanctioned by the race, but an illegal one. I was immediately speechless!
The remainder of my run into RUBY was ruined. I completely lost my focus on my dog team and my goals. I was more than angry.
I looked at the GPS and it told me my speed. I was shocked. Someone had actually been using it to calculate where they were on the trail and how far they had to go. I stayed hours in the freezing, bitter cold because I had calculated by an estimated guess of my team’s speed where to camp. But, this person knew where they were, or at least what speed they were traveling, so they camped where they knew they needed to camp.
Every year for 10 years, I had read the rules laid out by the Iditarod Trail Committee and I had signed a paper saying that I would race hard, but I would race fairly. The bottom line was there was a cheater ahead of me and it pissed me off. Yes, I guess it could have been from one of the few snowmachiners on the trail or from one of the few Ultra Sport competitors on the trail, but most likely it belonged to a Musher. There were 11 teams ahead of me by no more than 7 hours right now. Since, the GPS unit was actually displaying numbers when I picked it up it, hadn’t been out in the cold too long. The unit would have gotten too cold for the digital screen to work had it been on the trail longer than a few hours. I had seen no snowmachines pass me and the trailbreakers were most likely 12 to 24 hours ahead of the leaders.
My mind raced and I got more and more upset. I had to catch myself as I started ranting out loud because my dogs looked back at me like I was crazy. I had plans to call Mark Nordman from RUBY and get finger prints from the GPS. I was crazy mad.
This went on for several hours. It’s a shame because it’s gorgeous on the mountain ridges before RUBY. There is an old mining road that travels due north through the hills. I tried to distract myself and get back on course, but it was hard. I was convinced that someone was beating me because they cheated.
There are people in the world who cheat. That’s really just a fact of life. I was raised to be honest and fair. Not everyone lives by those standards or thinks they are important. I guess the most upsetting thing is the truth. I thought that Mushers on the Iditarod trail were all like me. The fact is: they aren’t.
The problem is that the Iditarod Trail Committee has put their faith in mankind to do what is just and fair. To follow the rules. So, to have a rule that is completely unenforceable is ridiculous. The Iditarod is a competition of the highest calibre and Mushers want to win. Obviously, some will cheat to do so.
I will never cheat to get ahead. I know that about myself even more now. It is something that has been engrained in me from when I was an infant. I couldn’t even choose to cheat if I had to. I began to laugh. How many others carry GPS units. Were Allen and I the only “fools” who didn’t carry them. Well, now the joke is on us, isn’t it?
As I closed in on the Yukon River and the checkpoint of RUBY, I shook my head, breathed deeply and forced myself to calm down. I would probably never find the owner! I decided that I would send the GPS unit home and I would use it in training next year. I would continue to try my hardest to race the Iditarod with honesty and integrity. Maybe I would ultimately beat this cheater or maybe I wouldn’t.