I love being out in the Alaskan wilderness with my dog team.
And, as we went in and out of the tiny little IDITAROD checkpoint, the team seemed to gel. No one was stressed or over worked. They all looked powerful.
The terrain in this area is hilly and the trail seems to run perpendicular to the mountain range. So, soon as you descend one summit, you are greeted by an ascent to the next. We were told to expect poor trail conditions here, but surprisingly, the snow laden track was firm and provided fantastic footing for the dogs. I was very pleased as we scooted along down the trail.
My wrist watch was timing our run so, I started looking for a camp spot 10 minutes before time was up. I soon found a small snow machine trail off to the left into some spruce trees. I gave the leaders a "haw" and they went without hesitation.
The spot was good for the dogs, but a little challenging for me. It had been only a few hours since a snow machine had created this trail, so it was not firm to walk on top. I sank up to my hips when I got off the sled runners. In order to make the next few hours of my life easier, I wallowed back and forth beside the team creating a deep trench where I could walk more easily. While doing this, I also cut all of the small spruce trees and boughs in the vicinity. This was because, I had carried less straw than usual (in order to lighten our load in the mountains). I used the spruce for dog beds. As I put dog jackets on, they curled up on their "Christmas smelling" beds.
It was colder here than it had been all race. Without a thermometer, I was not sure of the temperature.... 10 below, maybe.
The moon had not come up yet, so when I turned my headlight off, the darkness was complete. I turned it back on and went about my chores of massaging, cooking, feeding and repacking. Then, I set up my sleeping spot in between Willie and Tatfish. I took out my pad, sleeping bag and bivvy sack and laid them down. I hadn’t cut any spruce for my bed, which turned out to be a lazy mistake.
I fell asleep as soon as I got comfortable, but, I woke up 20 minutes later, curled up in a frozen ball. I had slid off of my pad and down into my walking trench. My right hip was frozen to the ground and I could feel the cold as it inched up through my joints. Brrrrr!
I rolled out of my bag with my teeth chattering. In the darkness, I found my boots and parka and went stumbling down the trail. A quick sprint got my blood pumping again and I could soon focus.
I had to re make my entire sleeping outfit - something I should have done correctly in the first place! I grabbed all of Willie’s spruce boughs since he didn’t seem to appreciate them and moved away from the trench. I gathered a little more spruce and piled the whole lot under my sleeping pad. Then, I laid my beaver mitts directly under my hips and the straw bag under my upper torso. My bed looked quite a bit better now! I laid down, looked at my watch and only had about 15 minutes until I had to get up. Argh! That’s why efficiency and planning are so important in this race. When you are disorganized, the first thing that goes is your sleep!
When I did get up, I would have paid $100 for a good cup of coffee. For anyone who doesn’t know; coffee is the second love-of-my-life. I had gone “cold turkey” off coffee on February 16th - over three weeks ago. I have done this for years now and sincerely believe that removing caffeine from my system for those few weeks results in my body’s low resistance to the effects of drug. When I really need to stay awake on the race, caffeine does the trick! This is the first time in the race that I allowed myself a “No Doze” caffeine pill. It wasn’t too much later that I was literally zooming back down the trail towards SHAGELUK.
A few dog teams had passed our camp spot while we rested. I soon caught up to one. It was Karin Hendrickson. She had a huge sled. It was a “sit-down” variety with a front sled bag as large as my entire unit. The trail was quite skinny in this area, so I stayed behind her for a little while. Finally, I guess I got impatient (caffeine?) and passed in a bad spot. When I started to pass, she couldn’t get her sled very far off the trail. Quito and Scout were not as aggressive as I had hoped in passing the team and they just strolled up next to Karin’s team. Immediately we were all bunched together with my sled stuck behind hers. The dogs were visiting each other and tangling lines. No one got grouchy, so it all eventually worked out.
I thought about it later, and realized that there was probably a reason behind her massive sled. She had crashed early in the 2010 race and I believe her sled had actually broken in two pieces. I guess this year, she had reinforced it, so that it wouldn’t happen again!
We left her team and trotted towards the next checkpoint. It was morning now and the sky was once again bright blue with not a cloud to be seen. The horizon looked hundreds of miles away as we crested several treeless summits. I was amazed that from the top of one of these summits, I could see the cliffs of the Yukon River. They had to be 40 miles away. I was sure that I was smiling, as we made our way west.
We still had a few hours left on our run time as we approached SHAGELUK, so we wouldn’t be stopping at that checkpoint either. It was a shame because it is such a nice village with super friendly folks. When we arrived, I joked around with the checkers. In such great weather, everyone was in a good mood.
While parked in the check-in chute, I left my team and I walked in front of them toward my food drop bags. I took the booties and fish snacks. While walking back, I checked out my team from a different perspective - their eyes were bright, tails were wagging and Quito was jumping in her harness. Scout was a bit more reserved, but Nacho and Olivia were literally bonkers as well! So, when I got back to the team, I moved Scout back two spots back - where Butterscotch had vacated. I had Quito in single lead and Nacho and Olivia screaming to go behind her. I had to run back to my sled because the threesome were about to pull the snow hook. As we loped out of town, we passed a few parked teams. Dallas Seavey yelled, “See you down the trail!” I tried to wave but the team sprinted down a side hill and I had to grab my handlebar with both hands to keep from falling.
The trail from SHAGELUK to ANVIK is like a moonscape. We traveled over vast wide swamps and tundra. In some areas, the tallest vegetation is only about 6 inches. The horizon is so far off you might think that you were in the middle of the frozen ocean. As we traveled, I wondered how the locals ever knew where to put the trail. I saw no natural break in terrain or vegetation that would show a person which way to go. It is a mystery to me how they mark the trail without getting lost. But, I was pretty thankful that they did!
Soon, the sun was making its presence known and the dogs were warm. Their pace slowed a bit. I still had a few hours of run time on my schedule, but once again I had to consider my “chess game”. ANVIK was only an hour away and GRAYLING was at least 4 more. I needed to take an 8-hour break at one of the checkpoints along the Yukon. I did some quick calculations and “what-ifs” and reworked my race plan. I would stop in ANVIK for the remainder of the warm afternoon then during the cooler night hours I would push past GRAYLING, all the way to EAGLE ISLAND, where I would rest 8 hours. Now, we just had to implement that plan....
We made our way through the moonscape and onto a river drainage. One river fed into the next and they got larger and wider. We popped up over a twenty foot portage trail and came shooting down an icy slope onto a large vast river. “This has to be the Yukon”, I thought. (Believe it or not there aren’t many road signs on the 1,000 mile Iditarod.) But, then the trail turned due south and I knew that couldn’t be. We have to travel north on the Yukon in order to make it to Nome! I had a minor panic until this drainage, once again, opened up on still a larger river, and there she was .... the mighty Yukon. We now were heading north.
The Yukon River
I have been here six times. Every time I am amazed by the utter enormity of the Yukon. It is almost 2,000 miles in length and about a mile wide near ANVIK. My mind started to wander as we crossed the frozen river and headed towards the western shore. My team and I had trotted down the Yukon earlier in the winter during the Yukon Quest 300. We started that race a month ago at the Canadian headwaters of the river. I wondered how fast the water traveled underneath the ice and whether I got here first or the water did. Calculations started to roll around in my mind: speed, distance, time. Equations and mathematics were never my strong suit when I was wide awake and concentrating, so I soon gave up. It was challenging enough to focus on my current run/rest schedule and how long I intended to stay in ANVIK.
The team perked up when they saw a snow machine parked off to the side of the trail. I could also see the village on the river bank just behind the machine. The dogs have a slightly different perspective, so it took them a few more minutes until they focused on the buildings in the distance. As we neared, the hustle and bustle of a Yukon River town became apparent. We trotted up the bank and followed the race markers down the main street. We made our way, passing cabins, vehicles and dogs. The whole team was excited and trotted with their tails high in the air. The checkpoint was a mile down the road and around a corner.
I pulled in and parked the team. I was right in front of Rick Swenson’s team and to the right of Ramey Smyth’s. There were a few more teams scattered in the area. The checkers were super friendly and the Vet’s started to look through my team. I had no big issues, so after bedding everyone down, I went inside.
I was tired. It had been a day and a half since I had been indoors. I was looking forward to taking off my boots and resting in the warmth. But, I only wanted to stay until the sun went down. My rest time would be limited. I had a quick bite to eat and laid down in the communications room. I think the “No Doze” pill still had some lingering effects because I had a restless sleep and woke up every time the “comms” volunteer would send or receive info on the HAM radio. I did, however, learn where all of my competitors were as I listened; “DeeDee Jonrowe, left Anvik 1805, 12 dogs.”
I got up after laying down for about an hour. I wanted to change my runner plastics and go through my gear before leaving the checkpoint. I went back outside and greeted the team. I could tell that they had a great rest in the sunshine. Most of them barely lifted their heads as they saw me approach. Peaceful.
Rick Swenson was talking up a storm to his dogs as he switched out harnesses. I was thoroughly impressed with his resilience. He was still caring for his team - over and above what the average musher would do - and his broken collarbone couldn’t feel very good. This really inspired me and I went through my team with a fine tooth comb before leaving.
Quito was a little thin, but her favorite time to eat was after running for 5 hours. So, I made a full meal in my cooler and carried it in the sled. Scout was solid. Nacho liked to eat with Quito, so I had him covered. Olivia was very intense. She slept, ate and worked like a champion. Meg was strong. Tony was a professional. Willie continued to surprise me with his great rookie attitude. Boondocks was a trooper, but she didn’t care for the wind. Beemer was a little “hum-drum” at times, but was thoroughly in love with Boondocks so they were teamed up together. Biscuit was flawless. And Tatifsh was his usual silly self.
I packed my sled full with fish snacks and prepared dog food. I planned to offer the team food every other hour. And not just a tiny snack. I probably carried 75 pounds of food. We left in the late evening.
The Yukon welcomed us with a slight breeze. The dogs appreciated it. The river ice was covered with snow. Not the dozen feet that we encountered two years ago, but plenty to keep the trail soft. There was not all that much snow machine traffic either, so it was a nice night to travel.
It wasn’t too long before we saw the lights of GRAYLING. I was almost bummed because the team was moving so nicely. I didn’t want to break up there rhythm. But, we trotted up the river bank once again and headed towards a crowd near the checkpoint building.
There was a cheerful group to greet us. I told them that I wasn’t stopping, but needed to go through my food drop bags. I needed to take out the booties and dog blankets that I had sent ahead. I send so much gear out on the trail that I would really lose a great deal of money if I didn’t sort through my bags at every checkpoint. So, I stood beside my sled and looked through the bags. But, suddenly the team was ready to go! They began to bark and leap in the air. They surged ahead! Luckily, someone quickly jumped on my break and halted them a few feet down the trail. This amped energy was a good sign as long as they didn’t leave without me.
I asked if any teams had made it to EAGLE ISLAND yet. No one had. It was nice to know that the race leaders were right in front of me!
Soon, we were back down on the Yukon River. I estimated this run was going to be the longest of my race yet. I was pleased that the dogs looked so energetic. It had something to do with the cooler night temperatures.
The moon began to rise over the river bank. It was enormous as it crested the horizon. What a gorgeous night. The dogs and I traveled the next 70 miles and watched as the moon went up overhead and back down toward the opposite horizon.
There is an overwhelming feeling of wilderness here. There are no villages and no snow machine traffic. There are no sounds other than the dogs “pitter-patter” and the occasional “hoot” from a Great Horned Owl. When the trail ventured close to the river’s edge, I would shine my headlight into the trees and bushes and look for company. I saw very little.
Our solitude was interrupted only three times in eight hours. We passed two camping teams: Jessie Royer and Sven Haltman. I was impressed with their race plans - not many people camp on the Yukon.
The third interruption was a bit more comical. A red fox came trotting towards the team directly into my headlight beam. He became disoriented by the light and kept coming. Needless to say, the dogs got very excited for the canine company and ran to greet him. We were on a collision course when I realized that I was actually blinding the fox. So, I turned my headlight to the side and he saw the team only 10 feet from him! He did a quick side step and ran out to the side. Quito began to think this was a game, so she ran out to the side as well and followed the fox. The fox continued trotting parallel to the team, passing us just like another dog team would. My team began the 180 degree turn and started to follow the fox back down the trail from where we had just come. I stopped the sled and I yelled “Hey!!!” My whole outfit looked back at me with their tails in the air. “What?” “Gee. North.... please.” They sulked as they turned back around. The fox sat in the trail directly behind us. He, obviously, had never encountered a dog team.
We pulled into EAGLE ISLAND at six in the morning after a great night. The checkpoint was busy. Mushers and teams were everywhere. Only John Baker had left and, it turns out, I would never catch sight of him again. As I did my chores I looked around at the teams parked here and there. I went to talk to Sonny Lindner, who was near by, and Hans Gatt. Sonny was not very pleased with his last run, whereas Hans said his team was, just now, coming on strong. I overheard Hugh Neff say, “Can you believe John left already?” In only 30 minutes, Hugh followed suit. There was a steady stream of teams leaving the checkpoint through the early morning hours.
This checkpoint activity was actually irrelevant to my race plan because I had declared my 8 hour rest. I would not leave until two in the afternoon, regardless of when everyone else left. I went about my chores and took my time doing so.
There was an Arctic Oven tent set up for the musher’s sleeping tent. I moved some of my gear inside to dry out. It was warmer than outside, if you got near the oil drip stove. The checker had told me that straw was not allowed in the tent this year, so I laid out my sleeping pad on the cold ground and tried to make up a bed. I flashed back to my last camp out debacle. I went back outside and found my straw bag, filled it with straw and tied the bag up tightly. I was pretty sure that he meant that I shouldn’t bring loose straw into the tent, but a contained straw “mattress” seemed legal. This would be my longest rest since TAKOTNA and I needed to get some quality sleep. I slept for four hours.
When I woke up, I went outside and a whole different group of mushers had arrived. This makes you nervous when the race leaders are there as you go to sleep and the 20th place team is there when you wake up. The reality check is that Iditarod is a competition of the highest calibre. If you slow down or make a mistake your loss is the gain for someone else. I saw Ken Anderson’s team and then went to chat with Michelle Phillips. She had very bad luck during her earlier racing season, so I was sort of rooting for her to do well. I saw Rick Swenson at a distance. He was certainly getting a good rest - sound asleep, and snoring, on a huge pile of straw outside. He really knows how to make a straw bed!
Pretty soon we were back in the groove and trotting along the Yukon River. The sun was directly overhead, so we went slowly, but I tried to make the most of it. I fed the team a lot again. We stopped every hour to snack and every other hour to dish out a small meal to each dog. This slowed our overall progress, but it kept the dogs happy and well hydrated.
During the heat of the day, with the sun directly over head, it was hot for a husky. About 6 hours into our run, we passed a team camped off the trail. It was Mike Williams Jr. I stopped to snack the team and talked to Mike. When he had been in EAGLE ISLAND he had told me that he was worried about running in the heat of the day. Swenson had told him that he should wait until it cooled off, but I told him that I was was leaving after my 8 hours were up. Mike decided to leave and was now regretting that decision. So, he had stopped to give his team some water. I asked him if he wanted some dog food, since I had once again carried tons. But, he said he had plenty and would just rest for a short time. The effects of warm temperatures on the Alaskan Husky are deleterious. By stopping his team for a water break, Mike surely helped his team in the long run.
The Yukon travels mainly north/south here and the wind began to pick up from the north. This would be good for the dogs. There is a section of trail about 20 miles south of KALTAG that is notorious for wind. I knew that it if this breeze kept up, it would be a doozy again this year.
It started to get dark and the river veered to the east. I could tell the direction change because the wind started to hit me on the left cheek instead of straight forward. When the trail came out from behind a tall river bluff, the wind cut into us. It blew for about an hour until the trail started to hug the eastern shore of the river. This cooled the dogs immediately. Soon, the village lights of KALTAG came into view.
I knew that this run had taken me longer than expected. I had stopped too many times for an efficient run. But, the dogs were still looking great when I pulled into KALTAG, so I tried not to think about losing time.
I got to the checkpoint during the wee hours of the night and signed in at the checkpoint headquarters. The checkpoint is laid out such that after a dog teams arrives, it is parked quite a distance past the headquarters. After parking, I walked back to the headquarters to get a bucket of water. I fed everyone and a Vet looked through the team. I rubbed down some shoulders and gave Tony a full body massage.
The community hall was right next to the resting team. I went inside and saw a few mushers asleep. I looked at my wrist watch as I do ten-thousand times during the race, but I could not remember what time I had arrived. I hadn’t written it down in my Vet Book, as I normally do. There were several computer generated race print outs laying around on the tables, but none of them were up to date. I didn’t want to walk back over to the checkpoint headquarters again and I doubted if anyone was awake at three in the morning. So, I sat in a stupor for a while and listened to all of the snoring around me. Not knowing when I arrived, really threw me off. Finally, I decided that I would just set my alarm for an hour from the current time and lay down for a nap. I still didn’t like the idea of not knowing exactly when I had arrived, but I feel asleep anyhow.
I woke up a few minutes before my alarm went off. I wanted so badly to stay asleep, but I forced myself to stand up. It helped that I saw Sven getting packed to leave.
Sven is normally a very upbeat and happy guy, but he was irritated right then. He was doing his 8-hour rest and said that officials told him that he could leave at 6:50 AM. But, apparently it was daylight savings time and Sven thought that the race officials had tacked on an extra hour to his 8-hour. I tried to analyze his predicament and help out, but that surpassed my mental ability right then. I didn’t even know if the clock was moving back or forward. This made me think about my own situation. I didn’t know when I had arrived or how long I had rested. And, now, I didn’t even know what time it would be when I left.
I knew that I had to decide something immediately. So, I planned to leave at: 5:30 AM, regardless. Sven told me that he was leaving at 5:50 AM. (Of course, with a clear, rested mind it is obvious that 6:50 AM daylight savings time and 5:50 AM “Sven time” was, in fact, the same time!) It was obvious that I was pretty foggy. When I get extremely tired my mind spins in the same circle of thought. I told myself to just stop thinking and get moving.
The dogs were ready to go at 5:30 AM. KALTAG was great to leave, but challenging all the same. The route zig zags out of town through the lighted up streets. Since it was early morning, no one was awake yet, except for some barking dogs. I had planned to make the one long 90 mile run over to UNALAKLEET. The dogs had built up to this run and their spirits were great. They had been eating well too, so I knew it should not be a problem.
The trail heads west from the village. It is the same route that the Iron Dog Snowmachine Race followed only weeks earlier. These 75 mph race machines jump from mogul to mogul spinning their tracks underneath. This inevitably adds to the height and width of those trail bumps. The more machines that pass by, the rougher the trail becomes. The ruts were huge this year and my sled bounced from one to the next. The dogs even got frustrated as the sled would slap up and quickly down, pulling their harness lines with it. More then once a dog would look back like “What gives?!?”
I began talking to myself. I started to get silly. Out loud, I told the dogs to blame the politicians for the trail. “It’s always a politician’s fault, right? It’s got to be someone’s fault. Let’s blame it on Todd Palin. He was out here on a snowmachine last month. Hey! Maybe it’s Sarah Palin’s fault the trail is so poor.” During all of my complaining, the dogs just kept right on trucking. They are so forgiving ... I could learn a lot!
Sven caught up and passed us when I stopped to snack the team. Once again, the weather conditions were great - no wind and clear sky. As the sun came above the horizon however, I could tell that it was going to be another warm day. Sven and I ran about the same speed and I could see his team moving along the ridges ahead of us.
It is beautiful country here. It is high arctic tundra with bald mountains to the north and south. The sky became a light magenta during the sunrise and the white glow of the mountain peaks stood out beautifully.
In a few hours, we were passed by two snow machines. I glared at them! Then, I realized that they were probably even more uncomfortable on those moguls than I was. I couldn’t imagine the pounding in my back if I had to sit down on that trail. Ouch!
I was really pleased with the team’s speed. We reached the Tripod Flats shelter cabin faster than I had in the last 5 years. At this point, thank goodness, the trail widened every so often, and the bumps lessened. We tried to stay on the smoothest sections of trail. So, I would “gee” and “haw” the team every now and then. This got everyone excited and listening for the next command.
We traveled several more hours before nearing Old Woman shelter cabin. When the trail dropped down onto a windy little river, I knew we were within a mile of the cabin. I had carried a meal for the dogs, so I decided to feed them here. I parked in the shadows under several trees. When we stopped it was obvious that the temperatures were rising. The wind chill that is created on a dog team trotting down the trail has more effect that one might believe. When we stopped, the dogs laid down and began panting. Some of them dug little holes in the snow in order to find a cooler spot.
I fed everyone in individual little piles. To my surprise, they didn’t gobble it all up. Sometimes, dogs don’t eat for a variety of reasons, but this squad had been 100% hungry for much of the race. The heat was having an effect!
I scooped the uneaten dog food back into my cooler for a later time. I stretched the team out and rubbed a few dogs with handfuls of snow. They still looked a little warm, but ready. We started to head down the trail again.
Old Woman shelter cabin is a great place. It is tucked back in a small forested area off of the main trail. The thing is, most travelers stop at the cabin, so this side trail looks like the main trail and the main trail looks like the side trail. None of the front four dogs on my team - Quito, Scout, Nacho, or Olivia - had ever been on this part of Iditarod. I decided that I didn’t even want them to know that this “cabin option” existed. So, at the fork in the trail, I gave them a definitive “haw” and they took the route less traveled. We skirted entirely around the place. We did hear a dog team bark as we passed and smelled the wood smoke from the cabin’s stove. The dogs peered over towards the noise and barely got a glimpse of a parked dog team and a tiny cabin. Tony was the only dog who thought that I had missed our turn. He stopped pulling. I stopped a few hundred yards up the trail and got his mind off the cabin by giving him, and everyone else, small salmon snacks. They liked them and we continued.
This section of trail is vast with very few trees and rolling endless hills. It is difficult to estimate your speed because the land is so huge. You often feel like you are barely crawling. Overall, the team had lost it’s luster. It was due to the heat of the day, I was sure. It was about noon and the sun was pounding down without a cloud in the sky. We continued and I watched every dog closely. Many years ago - my first Iditarod race - I had a dog named Martin overheat. He actually got wobbly legs and after I stopped the team he had a seizure. I cooled him in the snow and carried him to the next village. He flew back to Anchorage with a veterinarian. Martin retired from racing that year and had a great life in Wisconsin without another medical issue. But, that whole experience makes me very cautious.
At about noon, Nacho looked back at me. He stared me right in the eyes. I stopped the team and looked him over. He jumped around and wagged his tail as I examined him. I moved him farther back in the team and moved Biscuit up to swing. I continued down the trail. In less than a half a mile, he did it again.
Something was wrong. Nacho never looks back. He’s the kind of dog that would leave with or without you. At times, I wasn’t sure he knew I was on board. I stopped again and took his boots off. Dogs sweat through their feet and thus running on a cold snowy trail “barefoot” sometimes will cool a dog. But, in doing this, you run the risk of damaging their feet. We continued.
I analyzed my current situation while on the move. Nacho was too hot. He was the thickest coated dog on the team. But, the other dogs must be rather warm as well. The conservative move would be to carry him. I considered this. He is a big dog. He probably wouldn’t cool off it I loaded him inside a zipped up sled bag while panting. And he surely wouldn’t stay in a non-zipped up sled bag. Most likely, when we arrived in UNALAKLEET, hours from now, I would probably have to drop him. Plus, the overall speed of the team would certainly slow down after I added an additional 50 “Nacho” pounds to their load. This would make the overall run time longer and thus the remaining dogs in the team would have to work harder. In the end, I might have to drop another dog as well if I carried Nacho.
Right at this moment, we came upon a split in the trail. The fork to the left was just a small trail that connected back to the main stem in 50 yards. “Haw.” We would camp.
When I first stopped, I was bummed. We had been moving so well for the last 250 miles. I felt like these eleven dogs would all make it to the finish line. We were nearly on the coast, for heaven’s sake! My mind was working overtime:
Was I being too conservative? This is a race and here I am camping again. What’s the race plan now? If I rest here for a hour, then I should stay in UNALAKLEET for 4 or 5 hours. But, it will still be warm when I leave, what’s the point of staying only an hour? If I stay here for a couple of hours, then I should stay in UNALAKLEET for only 3 or 4 hours. It is very hard to stay in a checkpoint less than 3 hours. No, I can’t stay 3 hours. If I rest too many hours anywhere, I will be giving up these hours and finishing places to my competition. Aliy.... that’s irrelevant if they need the rest. You won’t be going anywhere if you don’t rest them when they need it!
As I snacked the team and repacked my sled, I had settled on staying for two hours and moving down the trail to UNALAKLEET for a 4 hour rest. That would cool the team off and hopefully the temperatures would drop some. That would be a total of 6 hours rest - more than plenty.
The trail soon became a busy place. Two BLM rangers stopped their machines to say a quick hello. We talked about the new shelter cabins along the trail. They asked me why I stopped here instead of Old Woman cabin. They also gave me a cedar plaque that said “Iditarod Trail”. Kinda neat, but strange to be adding to my load during a dog race.
As soon as they left, two more snow machines pulled up. It was a cameraman for Iditarod Insider and his guide, Bernie Willis. I answered a few of the cameraman’s questions as he shot video. I think that I was rambling on a bit too much. They left after 15 minutes.
I sat down on my sled and looked at the team. They were sound asleep in the sunshine. What a perfect place to rest.
Then it dawned on me. What if I stayed here for a long rest and went straight through UNALAKLEET without stopping? Back to the chess game. That move made more sense than anything else. But, if I did that, then I needed to get a few things done right away. I would have to put jackets on the dogs. I don’t like them to sleep too long without jackets. I needed to make a good bed for myself. I definitely needed to sleep. I had to make water for myself, I had finished all of my Gatorade. In my hurry to make dog water when I first arrived, I had carelessly used all but one bottle of fuel. So, I would need to make a fire to melt snow.
Was this the final decision? How would the team do when I asked them to trot right through another checkpoint? I guess we would see.
I put jackets on all of the dogs and even cut a few spruce boughs. Most of them got up, peed and laid back down on their beds. Even Nacho looked comfy. I gathered up some additional spruce for my bed and took out my sleeping bag. It was practically summer time temperatures in the sunshine, so I knew that I would sleep well. I was very thirsty however.
I walked around and began to gather some firewood. As I did this a few dog teams passed me. First, I saw Martin Buser. He stopped his team and talked for a few minutes. He had just camped at Old Woman cabin and his thirteen dogs looked well rested. He didn’t stay long. Then I saw Mike Williams Jr. His team looked a little warm in the afternoon sunshine. Robert Bundzen was next. I think he was sleeping when he passed my camp because he looked at me like I was a hallucination. I said a quick “Howdy.” Then came Ken Anderson. He seemed worried to see me there and asked if I needed any dog food. I thought that was nice of him.
I had a pretty big fire going as the teams passed me. I had made a simple tripod to hang my cook pot on, so that I could melt enough snow for a half gallon of Gatorade or more. I was really looking forward to it. Soon enough, the snow melted, I hydrated myself and curled up on my bed. I slept great for two hours.
Both the dogs and myself were rejuvenated when we started again. I changed the team composition a little. I kept Scout and Quito up front, but Olivia was in swing by herself now. I moved Biscuit and Meg right behind Olivia. Then I put Nacho and Tony together. I still had Boondocks and Beemer in tandem and Willie and Tatfish in the rear. I was happy with this set up.
We left the camp spot with a great deal of energy and speed. At one time, I even thought, “Wow. If my race fans are checking my GPS tracker now they’ll be happy!” This was definitely the best run I have ever had into UNALAKLEET. When I spotted the village on the horizon the sun was just setting. This was the perfect time to be running a dog team!