Part Three of Four
THE YUKON RIVER
I really needed to focus as we trotted out onto the Yukon River. My time in RUBY had been emotional and disjointed. I misplaced my Vet Book, dropped Viper and started to feel some pressure to perform. Yikes. I could tell that I was hyped up because the dogs were looking back curiously. My team was in sync with me - perhaps too much so! They are happy when I’m happy, they are bummed when I’m bummed. I needed to stay upbeat and positive.
Then it hit me: Why shouldn’t I be upbeat and positive? The Yukon River was gorgeous. I was trotting due west. It was late morning and the sun was coming up behind me. In the chilly air I could feel the sunshine on my back. It was beautiful and I looked around from river bank to river bank. I thought “If we weren’t in a race right now, this would be one of the prettiest days that I have ever been on the back of a dog sled.” But, heck... I was in a race and it was still one of the prettiest days ever! There was no denying it: I was upbeat and positive.
I really started to enjoy the day as we moved along nicely. The hours passed.
The Yukon is quite wide here. I could see the far shore but certainly not make out individual trees or bushes. Often the trail traveled near one river bank o r the other. There are a lot of rolling hills and a few islands here and there. At times the hills beyond the frozen river bed would create a mirage. I continued to gaze around as we made some miles.
As we traveled along the southern river bank, I saw a snow machine parked beside the trail at a distance. The dogs got excited to see someone on this flat landscape and picked up their pace. We soon came upon a man with a big fur hat and warm parka sitting on a trap line snow machine. We passed and I smiled at him. He said “So, you’re the one causing such a stir on the race, huh?” I smiled bigger and said “That’s me!” After we passed him I looked back and watched as he slowly traveled north, across the Yukon up the river bank and into the woods. He was a tiny spec as he motored out of sight. I wondered how far he had come just to see us pass.
I started to think about the race and how exciting it was that the strategy that Allen and I had formulated was panning out. I had looked at the official time sheet while in RUBY. After some mental calculations, I was sure that no team was moving faster than us. I knew that this run to GALENA seemed like a gamble to the public, but it to me it was the logical final leg of a race plan that started in TAKOTNA. The next few legs would be logical steps as well. One step at a time down the Yukon and out to the western coast. The dogs were holding together and I was too.
I needed to focus on my 8-hour mandatory rest that I would take in GALENA. Eight hours was a long time to rest, but I also needed to get quite a bit accomplished. I wanted to feed the dogs twice plus make a meal for the trail ahead. They were now eating like true working athletes. It was like feeding a furnace and I didn’t want the flame to go out. Bonita was the only dog not licking her bowl and asking for more. I had started her on an Imodium tablet when I thought that she might have a stomach ache. This didn’t seem to help. She was still in wheel and was now partnered with Biscuit. He was sassy and she picked up on his energy. I would have the veterinarians look her over with a fine tooth comb in GALENA.
The morning turned into the afternoon and the sun was bright over my left shoulder. This big ball of fire warmed me and the dogs. It helped me, but it sucked some of the energy out of my arctic huskys. This warming also effected the trail. As the sun heats the snow the trail becomes softer. By no means were the temperatures above freezing, but they weren’t the cold, crisp, frigid temperatures of the night before. The only issue with this race plan was that it had the team running during the heat of the day along the Yukon. And to state the obvious, there are no trees on the Yukon River so there was absolutely no shade. So, the team slowed down and I started to ski pole with both arms. I continued to snack the team at regular intervals. The dogs were still very positive and happy. Whenever I stopped them, they would roll in the snow, gobble their snacks and look back at me ready to go. It somewhat surprised me how dedicated they were.
I could see GALENA from a distance, but the dogs couldn’t. You have to remember that their eyes are only 16 to 20 inches off the ground. So I talked the dogs up and even started singing to them. I even started to act like a cheerleader. I thought they would love it. With a pretty loud voice I started to do the a little cheer. I started with a “Give me a ... D - O - G - S .... Dogs!” Then I decided to spell GALENA. I said “Give me a G -....” and Quito pulled us off the trail to the right. Opps. (For those of you unfamiliar with directional mushing commands, “Gee” means go right.” Needless to say, I felt like a dummy and that ended my very short cheerleading career.
We soon came close enough that the dogs could hear the crowd yelling from the river bank. Boy, they perked up then! All ears were standing straight up as they scanned the horizon. We got closer and they finally saw movement and really started to speed up. By the time we reached the trail that went straight up the steep bank they were ecstatic. They started to pull me up but I was excited too, so I got off my runners and ran. We were here! The people were great - probably a hundred folks standing along the river greeting me! What a beautiful afternoon.
The team crested the river bank before I did and for some reason I told them to go right. By the time I got to the top of the bank, I saw a marker to the left. So, I stopped and corrected them. Not a huge error, but in the process of turning them, the dogs knocked down a few trail markers. We continued through the village paralleling the road with spectators everywhere. It was a warm afternoon and the whole community was out. It sure made me smile and the dogs loved the attention.
We trotted up in front of the checkpoint building. I would now be able to spend at least a few hours indoors - something I hadn’t done in 210 miles and two days.
The checker is a super friendly guy named Jon Korta. He had run Iditarod a few years before and had actually traveled with Allen. He lead my team to a nice camp spot off to the side. A large friendly group of people gathered around us. I even saw my old buddy Harvey.
People recognize Harvey because of his huge smile. (I guess we have that in common.) Harvey’s always been a dog guy and he’s often at the Iditarod and Yukon Quest start. Five years ago he helped me out in a pinch. During the Iditarod 11-mile ceremonial run through downtown Anchorage, race teams must tow a second sled. This sled has to be driven by a knowledgeable musher with the ability to control or even take command of the Iditarod team, if needed. My sister, Kaz, was scheduled to be my “second sled driver”. The morning of the start she explained to me in very simple terms (by running to the bathroom repeatedly) that she couldn’t do it. I went to downtown Anchorage three hours before I was set to leave the starting line. I ran into Harvey and asked him point blank if he could help me out. All he had to do was smile and I knew. Kaz did end up feeling better that afternoon, as well as 7 months later when she had her baby boy!
Anyhow, it was like homecoming at GALENA that afternoon. I talked to as many people as I could while I massaged the dogs and wrapped wrists. I had Olivia all bundled up in wrist wraps and shoulder warmers - I was being overly cautious with my Rock Star. I also had the veterinarians look closely at Bonita. They told me that she appeared hydrated and had no fever or significant issues. They switched her medication to help battle her belly ache. So, I wasn’t panicked about her condition, but I was still concerned.
I had one other predicament. The snow conditions on the trail were causing a phenomenon on the dogs called “chicken legs”. The snow gathers on the back of the dogs’ wrists and sticks to the hair. As more and more snow adds up it eventually falls off and takes the dog’s hair with it. The next time the snow accumulates on the dog’s leg there is no hair to protect the skin. Many of my dogs had patches of hair missing. This meant that I needed 14 pair of leggings.
Wendy, of “Wes and Wendy” fame, who volunteered at SP Kennel this winter, had spent many an hour sewing red stretchy leggings for our dogs this winter. I had brought 18 pair on the race with me. At the beginning of the race, the snow conditions hadn’t required their use and I had even sent a few pair home early on. But, now I needed them and I wasn’t sure if I had enough. I talked out loud about spending an hour sewing some additional leggings from dog jackets. Someone in the crowd heard me and went home to get me her sewing kit. I never used it, but that was very sweet. After rummaging through my very messy sled bag and looking in every pocket, I found 14 pair! They were solid gold! I ran into the checkpoint building and hung them up in the boiler room to dry out. Then I came back to the team.
Jon Korta asked me if there were any issues with the trail. I said that the entire route had been an adventure, but overall it was well marked. But, then I stopped myself. I mentioned the spot only a mile before the checkpoint where I had turned my team wrong and then they had knocked down several trail markers. Most of the veteran mushers would know that they needed to turn left, but they weren’t who I was thinking about. Ryne!
An almost identical situation happened during the Sheep Mountain 150 race in December. Ryne had been racing a very competitive SP Kennel team and was running second place in a field of 50 racers. She was a rookie to the race course and came to a spot in the trail just before the final checkpoint that was quite confusing. I had passed by this spot only minutes before her and had noticed the error in marking but I knew the correct path from racing there previously. Ryne didn’t. She went completely the wrong way and lost many minutes and ultimately her second place finish. If the trail had been marked correctly she would have been in the top three. I was going to make sure that didn’t happen again! So, I asked Jon to go back to the river bank and look at the trail as if he were a rookie who had never been there. He said that he would.
I lolligaged around with the dogs for another hour. I’m not sure what I did for this long when I should have been sleeping, but there I was. The Iditarod Insider cameramen came over to interview me. He asked about my run, the chicken legs and the Northern Lights. I talked for quite a while. Then, since I knew he was traveling by snow machine I asked him about the machines traveling with Mitch. I said “To a competitor, it sure looked like Mitch had two machines pacing him all the way from CRIPPLE to RUBY.” The cameraman laughed for a while. He said those machines were the two other cameramen for the Iditarod Insider. So, I said “What gives?” He said, “Mitch wouldn’t stop and let them pass. Since the snow was too deep off the trail to pass, they were stuck behind him for 5 hours.” Now, of course, I do not know Mitch’s story, I didn’t ask him. For all I know he could have been passed and re-passed a million times by those two machines. So, as it turns out there really was no musher-snow machine conspiracy as had been floating around in my brain earlier.
I finally did go inside and lay down for a short time. The checkpoint building has mattresses set aside for mushers. Pretty fancy! I didn’t sleep well or at least not very long. I even went and checked the standings twice to see when Mitch had passed through the checkpoint. I learned that it had taken him longer to run from RUBY than it took my team, even though he had rested 8 hours there. That was a good sign!
I wanted to get out to the team early - long before my 8-hour rest was over. I knew that it would take me quite a while to dress all of the dogs in booties and leggings. So, instead of laying awake inside the checkpoint, I got up and prepared to leave. When I did finally walk out to my team I looked over to the right and saw my competitors. Dallas was actually walking back to his team with a meal. I asked him, “You leaving soon?” He said, “I’m thinking about it.” Once again it was interesting to note the different strategies of racers here. Dallas choose to do shorter runs punctuated by shorter rests. Mitch choose to run longer legs with longer rests. John stopped in GALENA, as did Jeff.
My 8 hours snuck away and I was not prepared to leave on time. I still had a few leggings to put on. Never the less, I pulled out of my parking spot nearly on time and headed back out onto the Yukon River. I stopped to let the dogs wake up and tinkle several times over the next few miles. At each tinkle break I would get off the sled, run up to a dog and dress them in bright red leggings. Twenty minutes after leaving the checkpoint everyone was finally dressed and no longer needed to pee!
Once again the Northern Lights were magnificent. Green, purple, white. Spectacular. They were dancing in front of the team, so I could watch and not fall off the sled. I did however become incredibly tired in the silent darkness. It was 3 in the morning. I cursed myself for not sleeping more on an 8-hour rest stop. Stupid! I decided it was time to have a “No Doze” caffeine pill.
I wean myself off of caffeine three weeks before the Iditarod begins. My morning passion: a homemade tall latte with fresh ground dark roast beans is replaced by a hot Vitamin C beverage. It’s not hard to go off coffee - I just do it. Of course I miss it, but there is a legitimate reason for my madness. I know that there will always be a point on this 1,000 mile marathon race when I just can not stay awake. My knees buckle, my head bobs and if I were to sit on my seat, I would surely fall off into a slumber (or a snow bank!). This is when I finally let myself have caffeine. And after completely avoiding the drug for nearly a month, I can tell you with all certainty ... caffeine works!
(Note: Iditarod mushers are drug tested. The drugs tested for during the 2012 race are those listed on the DOT illegal substance list. Caffeine, which I believe to be one of the most powerful and overused drugs in our society, is not on this list.)
Anyhow, soon after taking my “No Doze” I was certainly not dozing! I was singing to the team without music and talking to individual dogs. I often comment to my dogs how pretty the trail is or I ask them if they see the same things that I do. If a person might hear me out there they would think that I had another human being sitting in my sled as I ask my dog team questions and talk to them like my best friends.
As the sky was lit up by the aurora, I could see some distinctive cliffs along the Yukon ahead: Bishop Rock. This is about half-way between RUBY and KALTAG. I started to ask my dogs if they thought we would soon see Mitch’s team camping. I made a fun game out of who would bark at his team first. Tatfish won.
We passed Mitch and his dog team camped along the trail. This meant that he was splitting the Yukon River into two 90-mile runs. He was either cold or anxious when we passed him because he was pacing as his team slept. I greeted him with my standard “Howdy!” (I am not Southern, but living with a husband from Arkansas for 10 years has rubbed off.)
The team perked up with the smell of the other dogs and I perked up with the fact that we passed Mitch. The Yukon River is a long, long way - but, we were now halfway down it. I continued to talk to the team and ski pole into the night.
The village of Koyukuk sits along the northern shore of the Yukon River. Each time I have passed the village I have noticed a smoldering bonfire and signs that people celebrated the first team to the village (used fireworks, beverage containers, etc.) I have even seen a person or two as I passed by in years past. This year, I came up on the still flaming bonfire, chairs on the river bank and expected a greeting. No one was there. I gazed toward the village and saw a few lights on at cabins. I wondered if I snuck by while everyone was eating dinner. Oh well, first place might be over-rated!
We continued toward the next checkpoint village, NULATO. My plan was to pass through and continue to KALTAG. These flat river runs can be very long if you have any negative thoughts or let your mind start wandering. So, I always try to keep myself from ever thinking “how much farther?” That mindset is no good. I figure that when a musher starts thinking like that, then they are no longer enjoying the moment. The dogs pick up on this immediately. Dogs will stay positive, upbeat and motivated as long as a musher is. So, I try to never let my mind get ahead of my dog team. Plan for the future, but live in the moment.
I was pretty content in the rhythm of my team so I was surprised when I saw a single light ahead of us. It sat out on the river, not along the bank. Interesting. Then the light moved, began to turn away and then scooted down the trail. But, now the glow of a red tail light from a snow machine lit up the horizon. “Wow.” I thought. “I can’t believe we are almost be there.” The dogs really picked up when they saw the light. Nothing gets a dog team more excited than a snow machine leading the way. It was the first discernible human sign that we had seen since passing Mitch. They knew that a checkpoint lay ahead, so they were soon loping down the trail. Those were some happy dogs.
We climbed up the river bank and saw cabins off to the right. The team was tearing up the trail. I was actually standing on my brake with both feet as we saw the checkpoint building at a distance. We came around the final 90 degrees corner like a sprint team and stopped just outside the dog parking area. I was greeted by a great group of guys from the village. I was a little surprised to be there already.
As we stood there for our gear check, the team got a little anxious and they strayed off to the left. I knew that I had to turn them around in order to leave the checkpoint, so I continued to ask them to turn left (haw). They soon made a full “u-turn” and were faced back where we had come from. Well, that was easy!
I checked in with the veterinarians as well. They asked if I had any issues with specific dogs. I asked them to check Bonita. I told them she was on drugs for her stomach ache. I also looked through my food drop bags and packed plenty of frozen snacks for the next 40 miles to KALTAG. I joked around a little with the guys, but I was somewhat in a hurry. I mentioned that extra motivation that the snow machine had given my team when they saw it at a distance. They said that their internet and phone lines were down, so they had a watchman stationed out on the river all night looking for teams.
The veterinarian said that Bonita looked okay. He recommended that I add another medicine to sooth her stomach. So, I gave her a tablet and told him that I’d give her another in 8 hours. Maybe that would help and she would start eating like the rest of her team.
I had been there for over 5 minutes, so I decided to give the dogs a piece of salmon before I left. Of course while the team waited for the snack both Boondocks and Nacho removed their booties. I could hear the Velro, “Zip. Zip. Zip. Zip.” Darn it! I put a few booties back on as a few more came off. It was obvious that I needed to get outta there! I pulled the hook and the team zipped back out the trail at the same break neck speed that they had come in. My goodness they were on fire.
We stayed up on the northern bank of the river for a short time and then jumped back down on the frozen Yukon. The sun wasn’t quite up yet, but there was a distant glow on the eastern horizon. The trail moves from one shore to the other as the river bends and curves. The dogs were completely focused and kept an amazingly steady pace. I stopped them at regular intervals to give them double snacks. They were burning tremendous calories now, so I needed to do my best to replace them at a constant rate. I started to feed just plain dry Eagle Pack kibble on the snow as well. It has the most calories per pound of anything I feed (except pure chicken fat.) They gobbled that up as well.
It was cool in the early morning and I had wind jackets on nearly all of the dogs. I was a little concerned about Rambler. He had frost nipped himself a little in November. So, just like my previously frozen fingers, I had to be very cautious of protecting him too. I made sure that his wind jacket was adjusted to divert any wind chill. He also wore an additional fox tail ruff around his belly. The rest of the dogs frosted up around their faces and along their backs. I could tell that it was at least -20 F because of this frost. “Well, cold is better than warm”, I thought.
The team suddenly jolted froward and I nearly lost hold of the handle bar. I looked off to the north where Willie was looking and saw the shadow of a moose. The river bank was a steep 40-foot cliff so the animal could not climb up off the river. So, it ran parallel to us, not on the trail, but through tremendously deep snow. It tried desperately to stay ahead of us. The snow was above the animal’s chest and it barreled through it like a freight train. We ran for quite a ways like this and I looked down the river and saw that there was nowhere that the moose could “escape” us. It ran and ran. I could hear it panting and breathing. That was an incredible sound in the otherwise eery silence and it turned the dogs into predators. They wer practically hunting the moose. Finally, I stopped in hopes that it would turn around and run behind us. But it kept going. So, then I asked the dogs to speed up. They were already excited, so they easily galloped down the trail, periodically looking over at the struggling animal. I ski poled and pedaled to try and get us ahead. After a lot longer than I had hoped, we finally surged ahead of it and it stopped. It must have been exhausted! But as soon as it stopped, it then turned around and ran in the opposite direction with the same force. It was clearly running for its life.
Life in the Alaskan arctic winter is a harsh reality. Moose, especially, have a difficult existence. That moose would have run until it dropped or turned to fight only when it had no energy left to run. I started thinking that in my entire life I have probably never physically worked as hard as that animal just did. My thoughts circled around this event for quite a while. Finally, I tore my mind away when I saw the sun rising above the southern shore of the Yukon.
I had been looking back now and then to see if I could see head lights following me. The checkers in NULATO had mentioned that Jeff King was right behind me. I wasn’t sure what “right behind me” meant, or how they knew if their internet was down. But, I kept an eye out. As the sun rose, I knew that mushers would stop using their headlights and become much more stealth. I looked back on long straight stretches.
In this silent wilderness you can hear everything very clearly. From a far off distance I heard the buzzing of snow machines. The dogs also heard it and sped up. They get excited just like me at the sounds of human beings. I thought that I recognized where we were on the route - although it is deceiving to differentiate nearly 175 miles along the Yukon River. Many river bends look just like the next.
The snow machines appeared on the horizon and pulled off to the side of the trail. Drivers got off to take pictures of us as we trotted on by. I usually don’t ask, but I couldn’t help myself, “How far are we from KALTAG.?” I think they were Iditarod volunteers, not locals, because they didn’t immediately know the answer. Finally one guy said, “About 10 miles.” I left them behind and immediately told the dogs that there’s no way we had that far to go.
The team rounded the next bend, went down onto a small slough in the river and there sat the village of KALTAG directly in front of us. I was pretty proud of myself for knowing where we had been and not letting “outside information” contaminate my judgement. I had recognized this spot in the Yukon like it was the back of my hand. I guess I have run this race a “few” times now!
The dogs didn’t see the village from such a distance, but as we got closer some local dogs started to bark and they knew we had arrived. Nacho and Chica perked up in an instant and Biscuit’s hair stood up like a “tough guy”. Beemer and Quito ran up the sloping river bank towards the crowd. There was a loose dog barking and yipping at the team. Scruggs and Boondocks drug the entire team after the dog and the crowd started yelling at the dog. I think that the poor mongrel could tell that he was out numbered because he soon tucked tail and headed back towards a cabin behind us. But the team was again on fire. People yelling and talking, dogs barking, and snow machines everywhere. It was just before noon on Saturday and it was sunny and beautiful.
The crowd was great. I mean great. In years past, I have arrived in KALTAG in the middle of the night when only one checker and one race official was there to greet me. But, on this day, the whole village was there to welcome us. There were a lot of young people too, which was neat to see.
They lead the team through the crowd and around village cabins. The flow of people followed us and I talked to as many folks as I could. When the volunteers parked the team some of the villagers wandered off but many stayed to chat. The media was also there in force. They had been in RUBY when I had shot through, but they had missed me in NULATO, so this was the first chance they had to ask questions about the race. So, I tried to stay focused on the team, but answer questions the best that I could. The feeling that I got from several reporters was the thought that I had this race “wrapped up”. I made it very clear that we were a long way from the finish line and that there were super calibre teams just behind me.
My goal was to rest my team and myself six hours here. I knew that there were probably teams behind me who would not rest as long, but I felt that I owed that to my dogs and myself. The dogs were in a perfect spot in the sunshine, they ate well and were resting comfortably.
I had made a decision about Bonita a few hours before we had arrived. I made an agreement with her that if she didn’t eat her full meal this time, she wouldn’t be allowed to continue. When I dished out meals to the team, everyone gobbled them down. I got to Bonita last and put a warm soupy bowl of food just in front of her nose. She stood up from her cozy spot, turned around and laid down with her back to the meal. “Alright, girl. I get the picture.” I went and found the checkpoint veterinarian and we filled out paperwork to drop her. I took off her harness and adjusted her jacket. I checked to made sure that her identification tag was on her collar and her name was legible. I spoke at length about how Bonita had been working so hard, but just not eating. I had so hoped that this was her year. Her three siblings were doing so well (Quito, Chica and Nacho) and I had really thought that she would pull through. But, she was reminding me of her mother, Venus, who had some belly ache issues on Iditarod in years past. I rambled on and on and I think finally the race official walked up and asked if I was going to get some sleep.
(A funny side note that I only learned of this summer. The SP Kennel Pit Crew was picking up dropped dogs in Anchorage and they had known that Bonita was the next to arrive. When Wendy and my mom went to pick her up and the Iditarod volunteer asked: “Are you here to get “Venus?” and my mom just instinctively said yes. Mom had known Venus for many years as one of SP Kennel’s Super Stars but, Venus hadn’t raced with me since 2008 and Wendy had never known Venus. So Wendy panicked and said we don’t have a “Venus”, we are looking for a “Bonita”. Apparently, in all of my ramblings in KALTAG, I had confused the veterinarian terribly about the name of the dog that I was actually dropping. But, there sat Bonita - who, by the way, is the spitting image of her mother, Venus!)
I finally went into the checkpoint building. Only Andy, the Race Judge, was there. Pretty peaceful. There was a microwave so I heated up some food and drank as much water as I could. I sat down and we chatted for a short time. He told me a few stories from the trail. He also said that he had a message from the Race Marshal, Mark Nordman. “UNALAKLEET was going to be very chaotic upon your arrival with people every where. So, Mark will be there and just tell him if you want the award presented right away or if you need a few minutes first.” I immediately said, “How do you know that I am going to win the award?”
Yes, I was the only one in KALTAG right now, but by no means had I “claimed” this race. I didn’t even know how far ahead I was from the next team. In years past, Lance had blown through KALTAG and ran all the way from NULATO to UNALAKLEET. John could do that now. Mitch was surely right behind us. Dallas was plotting some move. And the two other teams that I couldn’t ever count out were Jake and Pete. I was not as sure of my position as everyone else seemed to be. Anything could happen! I thanked Andy for his insight and let him know that I’d look for Mark when I arrived on the coast.
I made a nice warm bed on the floor near the wood stove and actually slept for about an hour and a half. When I woke, they had all caught up. There were mushers everywhere. As much as I knew that there were other teams in the race (many other teams), I had been in somewhat of a self induced bubble for the last 350 miles. I started my same routine of getting myself and the team ready to go. I was still planning on resting about 6 hours, so there was the possibility that I wouldn’t be the first team to leave.
I went outside and fed the team again. I walked a few dogs around to stretch them out. I asked Scooter if she wanted to get up and she did. She stretched out and immediately started limping! What? I could see that her right leg was swollen. I found a veterinarian immediately. On his primary examination, several hours ago, he hadn’t seen anything that would cause this inflammation. Obviously, Scooter would have to be left in KALTAG. Huge bummer. I didn’t really have the time to pamper her either. I did wrap her leg however, took off her harness and dressed her in a jacket. I scribbled on the drop dog paperwork and she was lead away from the team.
That is the worst. When you have a dog on your team who is not acting up to their potential (Nutmeg) or a dog who has a issue that you are aware of (Viper, Bonita) you can justify these losses. But, when you have a 100% healthy, happy team member who wakes up from a nap and is lame, that’s a blow! I would now leave with a 12-dog team.
When I got down to dressing the dogs in their leggings and booties, I looked around at my competition. No one else was bootying dogs. It seemed that I would be the first to leave.
The team was a little sluggish. I actually pulled Beemer out of lead and moved Dingle up with Quito. Nacho, Boondocks, Chica and Scruggs were peppy. Biscuit seemed a little tired still and Olivia needed to loosen up. Willie and Rambler were now in wheel. Tatfish ran with his brother one spot up from wheel.
We tiptoed out of KALTAG. Meandering past cabins, barking dogs and a few spectators. The villagers had gone home after all of the hype. It was about 5 PM.
A LONG RUN TO THE WESTERN COAST
This was the beginning of a very long run to the coast. My run was 13 hours from KALTAG to UNALAKLEET. This 90-mile run is often long, but not that long.
For my own sake, I divide this 90 miles into 3 sections. The first section is to Tripod Flats cabin. The trail climbs from the Yukon River valley up into the hills. In the beginning, it is a windy narrow trail that is usually washboard wavy. The ruts were not as bad as normal, so we actually made good time. I ran up the many small hills and the dogs scurried along. We were all together pretty happy.
The trail comes out of the trees and runs through the high tundra. The mountain scape was absolutely beautiful. The sun was setting and the hills glowed with a the purple haze. This area is so serene and there was an absolute silence that is rare in our world today. I was certainly enjoying the moment.
I snacked the team religiously - they needed calories and a lot of them. Everyone ate every ounce that I portioned out for them. The sky was fairly clear as it got dark and I could tell that it was starting to get a bit cooler. We arrived at Tripod Flats cabin in great time. I snacked them again. I had packed over 60 pounds of dog food and snacks for this run and I was determined to feed it all. We crossed the small wooden bridge that starts the second section.
For me this area is an “in between” area. I probably don’t live in the moment as much as I should here. The mileage is rather short in from Tripod Flats to Old Woman Cabin - but often I find myself just wanting to “get there”. We trudged along due west and I tried to see Old Woman Mountain on the western horizon, but the darkness was now complete, so I could never see it. When we meandered down onto the snaking river that travels in front of Old Woman, I thought “We are almost there.” I don’t necessarily like being in this mindset, but at this point it seemed unavoidable.
There are two trails past Old Woman Cabin - one to the right that goes directly in front of the shelter and one to the left that circumvents it. I was hoping to stay to the left, although sometimes that trail is not broken. I needed to snack the dogs soon. I decided that I would pass by the cabin a few hundred yards and then give everyone tasty fish snacks.
I also thought about Susan Butcher’s family - who I was told would be there. This was a special place for Susan when she raced Iditarod so Dave and the girls come here often during March to feel close to their Mom. I smiled thinking about how peaceful it was on a cool crisp night.
We neared the cabin and I started to see a glow in the sky up ahead. How strange? We followed the zig zag of the creek bed and then popped up on the trail. The sign for the cabin was just to the right. I started to talk to the dogs and ask them to stay to the left. But, when we rounded the corner, there were people everywhere. Everywhere.
There was an enormous bonfire, people in the trail, snow machines parked in all directions, lights in my face and folks screaming. The people made a thin path for my team to skirt in between - but I was confused about where it lead me. Were we going to the cabin or left of the cabin? People were yelling and congratulating me. Everyone was extremely happy. I looked around and was completely disorientated.
Who were all these people? Were Dave and the girls even here? I didn’t want to stop the team, but I wasn’t sure where the trail lead us. The crowd thinned out as we continued and I soon got my bearings. We had passed the cabin, but there were still people, machines, noise and lights. No way could I stop my team and have them focus on me and our mission. So, I kept going a ways down the trail, trying to get away from the ruckus. A few dogs looked back - Beemer, Willie, Rambler. They wondered why we weren’t staying where all the “fun” was. I talked to them and asked them to give me more. My plan to stop just past the cabin was no longer an option.
I just wanted to get away from the hype. Our run had been so peaceful and smooth up until now. So, I told myself: “Just a little further.” Then the machine engines revved up behind us. The noise began to follow us down the trail and one machine after machine zipped by us.
There was plenty of room on this open tundra for machine and dog team to run side by side. But, it was pitch black and the middle of the night. I was pretty sure there had been some alcohol at that bonfire and I wasn’t convinced that everyone would see us in their path. Two winters ago a man had been killed when a snow machine ran over the dog sled that he rode. Needless to say, I was more than worried.
I got nervous then the dogs got nervous. The team would shy off the trail and stop when a snow machine zoomed by. I couldn’t blame them really, the machines were traveling 40 mph minimum. I worried that some of the drivers wouldn’t see me, so I looked back now and then and flashed my headlight beam on and off. The dogs then picked up on my concern and starting looking back as well. This went on for 30 minutes.
There was a short calm in the storm. Then I heard more engines behind us. I looked back just in time to signal a machine to not run over us. It veered off at the very last minute. The problem was that there were four machines traveling at the same high speed directly behind the first. One after the next the machines whizzed past my sled, barely missing me. I nearly jumped off at one point, but the machine turned suddenly and ran over the six foot high trail marker tripod. The huge wooden stakes splintered in all directions and the dogs stopped in a ball. “Holy cow. We might get killed out here.” I thought.
So, we just stopped for a while. I was very uptight. I was mad and scared. How could these people be so thoughtless? I snacked the team and it was obvious that they were picking up my attitude. I moved a few dogs around, but kept Quito and Dingle in front. Dingle was more scared of the machines than anyone, but he was fine when no one was around.
This was the start of the third section of the trail to UNALAKLEET. It started negatively, got worse and ended only when we pulled into the checkpoint at 39 degrees below zero with frost nipped fingers and a chill to the core.
The specifics over the run from Old Woman Cabin to UNALAKLEET are hazy. I remember the team going very slowly. I remember being very tired and angry at myself for almost dozing off. This was a critical time in the race... how could I possibly be dozing off now? I had run out of drinking water and was as thirsty as could be. I ate snow from the berms along the trail. I ate “No Doze” caffeine pills like they were M&M’s.
The dogs never stopped, but their spunk and general happiness was gone. I pushed the sled much of the time, especially up small hills. I felt if I didn’t push, the team would stop. I don’t know if this was true because I never stopped pushing in order to find out. I worked incredibly hard to keep the team moving ahead. I ran, I kicked and I poled. But, I was not happy. I was no longer the team’s cheerleader or coach, I was their dictator. We moved along at a snail’s pace.
Only when we crested the last hill outside town and saw the lights, did I stop pushing and kicking. I stood on the runners and said to the squad, “There we go, you guys take it from here.” And they did. They trotted with renewed energy along the frozen lagoon towards the checkpoint lights.
Only then did I realize that I was cold - very cold. My gloves were soaked. I hadn’t been using my beaver mitts because I could not grip the ski pole well enough to be effective. My fingers were white. I changed gloves as the dogs charged ahead. I was somewhat dizzy too. Either from the lack of water or the 8 “No Doze” pills that I had chewed up over the last few hours. And worse of all, I was convinced that I had ruined my race, my dogs hated me and they didn’t want to race any more. We were done!