Ray, my brother-in-law, and I were standing on the finish line in Whitehorse, Canada staring blankly out into the darkness. Allen and his team of SP Kennel huskies were due any minute, but so was Hugh Neff and his fine group of Alaskan huskies.
We didn’t have to wait long until we saw a headlight pop up from the frozen river and begin its final 1/2 mile journey towards the end of the 2012 Yukon Quest. Then, only seconds later, another headlight appeared.
Ray and I grimaced and looked at each other.
We watched as the two headlights weaved and bobbed. The first would periodically look back at the second. After traveling across two countries and 1,000 miles of wilderness, it came down to this.
Allen, along with Olivia, Quito, Nacho, Boondocks, Scruggs, Meg, Chica, Scout, Biscuit and Tatfish, finished 2nd place only 26 seconds out of first. It was difficult to be happy right then, but it was impossible to not be extremely proud!
We brought these awesome sled dogs home to Two Rivers - a 14 hour drive by truck and trailer - only 24 hours after their finish. The focus of SP Kennel thus far had been the Yukon Quest. Now, it was on to... the Iditarod!
The Ceremonial Start of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race in Downtown Anchorage is a sight to behold. Any dog lover or outdoor enthusiast should have this event penciled in on their “bucket list”. If you are not there because of the dogs, 1,000 excited, happy-go-lucky huskies, then it might be because of the raw sense of adventure. A single human being is finding his or her way across a thousand miles of rugged untamed Alaskan wilderness in the heart of winter. If one of these two things doesn’t get your heart pumping and adrenaline flowing then Alaska, during the month of March, is simply not for you!
|Aliy kisses Mom "Goodbye"|
There was a slight difference between Quest dogs and non Quest dogs. The overall training, mileage and race preparations were similar, but the extreme self assurance that existed in the Quest dogs was not bubbling over in the others. The six dogs that had not competed in the 2012 Yukon Quest were by no means “slouches”. Beemer, Bonita, Dingle, Rambler, Viper and Willie were all Iditarod veterans with tremendous knowledge and ambition. So, I kept this dog imbalance in my mind as I started the race.
The line up when we left the Iditarod re-start was:
Quito - Olivia (leaders)
Beemer - Dingle
Nacho - Boondocks
Meg - Chica
Scooter - Scruggs
Willie - Rambler
Biscuit - Tatfish
Viper - Bonita
The SP Kennel Red Team started position number 14 in Iditarod 2012. I like to start the race near the front of the pack. I believe that there is an advantage to starting earlier: checkpoints are not as hectic, the trail is not as chewed up, and you aren’t constantly passing and re-passing teams. When you start near the front of the race pack, manage to keep a good overall pace and don’t stop too often, you can stay out of the traffic. And as you can imagine, over sixty dog teams can create quite a traffic jam!
Our run from the starting line was like that. We did pass several slower paced teams, but we were also passed. I tried to slow my powerful squad. They get so amped up at the beginning of the race and often the: “3, 2, 1 .... GO!” puts them over the edge. This year, I got cramps in my calves from pressing all my weight on the drag in order to slow their pace.
Our run from the starting line was like that. We did pass several slower paced teams, but we were also passed. I tried to slow my powerful squad. They get so amped up at the beginning of the race and often the: “3, 2, 1 .... GO!” puts them over the edge. This year, I got cramps in my calves from pressing all my weight on the drag in order to slow their pace.
The amazement that I feel when I think about a long distance sled dog race centers on respect. There is an underlying sense of respect out on the trail. Not the respect between competitors, because it’s pretty obvious that dog mushers are just like any other sporting competitors. We take our mental jabs and don’t always keep our insults to ourselves. What I am talking about is the respect that must exist between sled dogs and their musher. In order for the Iditarod to actually work, there needs to be an deep underlying communication through respect. A bond of understanding.
This understanding is made of respect and love. It might sound cheesy, but, to me ... dog mushing ... racing ... is a fine balance between respect and love. I know what my dogs need, what they want and what they will do for me. That’s where the respect and love come into play. I must respect their limits and abilities and only then will they continue to love me and do what ever they can to please me. I need to know exactly what I can ask from each individual dog. They are my team mates, my buddies and the bottom line is; their love and respect is my only mode of transportation through 1,000 miles of Alaskan wilderness.
GETTING INTO THE GROOVE
The travel this first day is predominately on frozen rivers. Much of the route is very accessible to all. So we passed thousands of spectators, on snow machiners, skis, and in airplanes. It was a pretty day and everyone was out enjoying the Iditarod!
I am a social being so my tendency is to wave and greet everyone that we pass. The dogs picked up on this and inched closer and closer to the fans. They nearly ran into some spectators and crept extremely close to the bonfires. I could literally feel the heat on my face as we trotted by the flames. The dogs were obviously into it!
The biggest concern on this first run is to just get in a groove. I must get the dogs moving at a comfortable pace and get a routine established that we can follow for the next 1,000 miles. I was happy to be out there. This was our chance to shine.
We arrived in SKWENTNA along with a rush of other teams. DeeDee Jonrowe had passed me several miles before the checkpoint and parked her team on our left flank. Paul Gebhardt soon came up behind us and parked his team on our right flank.
I was not familiar with the SKWENTNA Checkpoint. In my twelve years racing, I had stopped there only once - my first race. Since that year, my race plan has been to rest the team on the trail before this checkpoint. But this year, this checkpoint location fit perfectly into my schedule. So, when I parked the team, I situated them for a several hours long nap. This veteran squad of dogs was familiar with this routine so they ate and immediately went to sleep. It was a huge benefit early in the race that my team was “race ready” because they wasted no extra time or energy. Think about fifteen extra minutes that a dog sleeps instead of horsing around. Over the course of the 9 day race, they will get, literally, hours more sleep that of a rambunctious team. It makes sense that the rambunctious teams early in the race, are the tuckered out teams towards the finish.
When I hiked up the steep river bank to the SKWENTNA checkpoint building I turned and looked back at my dogs who were all curled up peacefully sleeping. Teams everywhere were barking, playing and bickering. I was speedy to finish my chores because I was the first musher inside the checkpoint building. I was offered soup, salad and a meal -- I took them up on the soup. My belly is never very settled for the first few days of the race, so why stress it with a three course meal?
Mushers began to file in after me and everyone was excited. It was the same scene that I witnessed among the dog teams, only these were humans. At the table where I was sitting the talk centered around food and what was, and wasn’t, shipped out in musher’s food drops: ice cream, jelly beans, caffeine drinks, power bars of all varieties. My boring freeze dried meals seemed a little dull in comparison. I moved to a comfortable chair to get away from the chatter and kicked up my feet to get some rest. I covered my head with my jacket and tried to cancel out some of the noise. But, in this corner of the building, the conversation was centered around girlfriends, ex-girlfriends and pre-race Iditarod parties. I tried to act like my dogs and ignore my surroundings and just sleep, but I found it challenging. When I left, I found myself saying “You wondered why you had never stayed at SKWENTNA checkpoint before?” Whew! I walked back to my dogs and teams were still rioting around them. We left as soon as I bootied the team and repacked my sled.
This next run really showed me the strength of my dog team. They weren’t race track fast, nor were they banging at their harnesses to go. They were simply: S - M - O - O - T - H.
Quito and Olivia kept us at a relatively fast pace, but most of all, they seemed to really connect with their job or their mission. This was truly one of the most confident group of dogs I have ever brought to a starting line but they were also happy. When ever we stopped their tails would wag, they would roll in the snow and they would look back at me questioning. They were never really in a hurry, but always ready to go.
After hours of motoring down the trail, we passed through the FINGER LAKE checkpoint. It looked like it was going to be a busy place in a few hours. I decided that we needed to stay away from the hype this time. So, I let the dogs have their pace for the next 35 miles through the mountains and continue their run to RAINY PASS.
This section of trail is hilly and windy and downright fun to mush a team of huskies through, basically an “Alaska Range roller coaster”. The Happy River steps are in this section. The race officials had found a route around the occasionally dangerous section, but as it turned out, due to deep blowing snow, the bypass was more treacherous than the original route. One thing that I have learned in 15 years of long distance racing is that getting worked up about a tiny section of trail on a 1,000 mile route is ridiculous. The trail is going to be how the trail is going to be. Period. The trail breakers will do their best to put in a safe, passable trail, but Mother Nature has the final say and she’s usually not easy on you.
So the team zigged and zagged through the tall forested areas and across barren frozen lakes. They would shift into low gear where they needed and I hung on for the ride. The snow was deep, but overall the trail was still fast. There was no fresh powder to slow the pace. That would come later.
The Alaska Range is amazing. Huge mountains cover the horizon in every direction. It is breathtaking every year. This year the clouds lowered themselves onto the peaks and the sky and mountains became indecernable. I knew this would mean that no airplane traffic would be able to reach RAINY PASS. This is a plus for a resting dog musher, but a minus for the sport and the spectators.
The team saw the RAINY PASS checkpoint as we dropped down on the frozen lake and they sped up with excitement. I really had no complaints about the team, the trail or the musher. We were holding together. The checker greeted me and I went to grab my food drop bags. I always have to talk to my team as I walk off to their side. They are my team and therefore think that they ought to follow me. It makes sense. So, I walked backwards, away from them and towards my bags, but I was looking at them and saying, “Line out. Stay. Line out.” I was able to sort through the alphabetically placed food drops (a benefit when you are a “Z”), grab my two bags and run back to the sled before they pulled my two snow hooks to join me in the search.
The checker asked me if I wanted to park my team on the right or left of the main trail. There were a few teams here ahead of me, so I asked who was parked where. He said Lance Mackey was on the right and Hugh was on the left. I said my dogs were familiar with both teams (from 1,000 miles during the Yukon Quest.) Lance tends to have a high strung crew. He is energetic and so are his dogs. Since I was hoping my team would rest,I chose left. I parked the team and immediately two of Hugh’s dogs started to aggressively flirt and start to breed. I looked across the trail to the dog commotion at Lance’s sled and they were bickering and soon.... breeding. Well, the chaos of an Iditarod checkpoint was in full display at RAINY PASS! So much for resting!
I was pretty proud of my dogs. Despite all the commotion they settled down. Of course, 50% of my team is spayed or neutered, so their hormones didn’t get the best of them. Hugh calmed his dogs down and Lance re-situated his main leader, Maple, behind his sled and away from her male team mates. So, it soon quieted down until more teams began to file in, one after another.
I was very surprised to see four airplanes land in these stormy conditions. I hoped that none of my relatives were on those planes. The flying conditions were like pea soup with huge mountains floating here and there. Dangerous. I saw no one that I knew climb out of the airplanes. I grabbed my bag with dry socks, headlights and some munchies and headed over to a plywood uninsulated cabin that is designated the “Mushers’ Sleeping Area”. It is the only spot for mushers to get out of the weather. There are wooden bunks built along the walls and a drip oil stove added some heat. There was a six inch gap along the roof line, so the heat went straight outdoors as it left the stove. There was a lot less talking and hype at this checkpoint.
I laid down for two hours and closed my eyes for some of that time. It had only been 24 hours since the race start, so my race plans and thoughts filled much of that rest time. But, my body got a well deserved physical rest. I wanted to give the dogs a long nap so that our run up over the pass was strong. I stuck to my schedule and the first few teams pulled out a half an hour before we did.
When we pulled out, we were like a well oiled machine. The dogs weren’t crazy and unfocused heathens. They listened to me and tiptoed out of the checkpoint and up into the mountains. Quito and Olivia were still in lead and they gave me no signal that they wanted a break from that spot. I still partnered Dingle and Beemer, happy and hard workers right behind those two girls.
I had moved a few dogs around in the team layout. I really liked the way Bonita and Viper worked in wheel together. They are both such agile dogs that they have no problems leaping and ducking around the mainline when the trail turns sharply. Plus, they both weren’t eating as well as I had hoped they would. So, they would pick at their food dishes in unison and slowly consume their treats.
Eating is probably the number one issue in long distance racing. And it is a huge problem on my team for one individual in particular - me! Funny, huh? You would think that a musher who knows the physiology and science behind calories and energy requirements, and who often “toughs out” some of the most challenging physical situations, can conquer this minor hurdle of eating. Nope.
I have a “nervous stomach”. Simple as that. It has been this way for fifteen years. Even in 1998, during my first Yukon Quest, I was incredibly sick to my stomach for 250 miles. I was convinced that I had gotten food poisoning at the pre race banquet. So, annually since then, I’ve either had bad luck with banquets or I have a “nervous stomach”. The phenomenon is entirely predictable and actually doesn’t bother me much; I am used to it. I do not actually feel nervous and my stomach doesn’t hurt. For the first twelve hours of the race I eat, drink and feel 100% normal. But, from about mid-way through Day 1 until about Day 4, I am nauseous and have no appetite. For the last two years, I have been prescribed an anti-nausea medicine that really helps. However, the primary side effect is drowsiness. So, I limit my dosage so that my nausea is under control, but my appetite is still nonexistent. The bottom line is... we all have our problems. Right?
Anyhow, I have a difficult time getting upset at dogs who don’t eat well at the beginning of the Iditarod. I utterly empathize and perhaps it doesn’t worry me as much as it should. At least Viper and Bonita were eating more than I was. Just not as much as Nacho, Biscuit and Meg!
THE TEAM UNITES
We climbed through the mountains out of Rainy Pass Lodge. The clouds still hung low on the peaks. The team was really on fire. As we climbed, I ski poled in unison with the team. Quito and Olivia loped through the mountainscape. There was quite a bit of snow up there. There were enormous cornices overhanging the trail near the summit and I hoped that the inevitable avalanche would hold off until after the race.
We saw a team ahead of us and soon caught and passed Aaron Burmeister. He had told me earlier in the season that he was training his dogs to travel at a slower speed. He said if they were a “slow” 8 mph at the beginning of the race, the they would be a “fast” 8 mph at the end. So, our dogs moved along about a mile per hour faster then Aaron’s.
We summited and passed just in front of the “Rainy Pass” sign marking the elevation of the trail. There are large granite boulders capping the top of the pass to the left and right of the sign. Annually, our race route will vary due to snow conditions and boulder fields. Sometimes the trail will travel 100 feet to the right or left of that sign. During years of blizzard or cloudy conditions, I don’t even see the sign. I learned from a reporter after the race, that only 30 minutes before I arrived at the sign this year, Ray Reddington and his team missed the correct trail routing and tumbled through the treacherous boulder field. He was lucky that a dog didn’t get a leg caught in between these huge rocks.
We mushed downhill through the infamous Iditarod roller coaster called the Dalzell Gorge. It was still early in the evening so the sun was shining brightly on the tops of the mountains and created a purple glow. Gorgeous.
I talk to my dogs a lot when we are on a tricky trail. Most of all, I want them to “Take it easy.” Just like people, dogs will get nervous on an icy or windy section of trail. The Dalzell is just that. You have to keep your speed up as the trail twists and turns. So, the entire team snakes along through the deep curves and troughs. If you slow down or use your brake on a curve, the hind end of your team, including the sled, will cut the corner - which more often than not is an ice patch or open water. So... we moved along rapidly. But, as intense as a 16 dog Iditarod team can be, my team listened to me carefully. I stopped them several times to drag the sled away from oncoming ice shelves or willow bushes. I figured that I didn’t need a busted sled here. (That has happened before!)
We pulled into ROHN after a nearly flawless run from RAINY PASS. As I look back at the race/run times now, it appears that we had the fastest time of all the teams for this section. I wouldn’t have guessed that since we didn’t ever hurry.
I rarely stop long at the ROHN checkpoint. Not that it isn’t manned by some of the best volunteers on the race! It simply doesn’t fit into my race schedule. I like to keep the dogs on a consistent and reliable schedule. This is how we train all season long - a constant, steady, uniform schedule - so, this is how we race.
Therefore, I parked the team in the “temporary” parking area just off to the right of the checker’s cabin. Jasper was there to sign me in. I had pre packed a food drop bag that was a “pick up bag” for just this occasion. I usually do this for several of the checkpoints that I might pass through. But, oftentimes, the race route or the dogs’ appetites or the weather conditions are not what I had planned for during Food Drop Week (which is three weeks before the Iditarod starts.) But this year, surprisingly, my pre packed bag had almost everything that I needed for the next 75 miles. Also I grabbed some extra HEET bottles (fuel for my dog food cooker.) I carry 4 bottles with me at all times, but I threw in a few extra just in case. And I loaded up a half of a bale of straw. My custom built sled bag is equipped with small bungee straps that I can quickly arrange around a big bag of straw. I was ready to leave in less than 7 minutes. (Even Dale Earnhardt would be impressed with that pit stop!)
I looked around at the teams camped in the woods off to the left. There seemed to be a lot of them. I asked, “Has anyone left?” “Nope!” That somewhat surprised me. That meant that all the teams resting here now would make the run to NIKOLAI in one shot. This is not uncommon for some teams; Lance and DeeDee always train their teams for that run. But, usually quite a few teams will break this section into two shorter runs and pass through ROHN, as I was doing.
The 75 miles to NIKOLAI has been unpredictable for me in the past. It can be a hard, fast trail. But, more often than not, it gets warm in the afternoon as you approach the Kuskokwim River. The trail gets soft and slow. A soft, slow trail can be a real mental bummer for a dog at the end of a long 75 miles. And for a musher! I have seen a few mushers mentally break down in NIKOLAI.
My attitude is to always expect the worse trail conditions possible. Some people call that negativity. I like to call it realism. Things can always get worse! I’ve witnessed it. So, I jumped on my sled and asked the crew “Ready?” It was a unanimous “Yes!”
ITS ALWAYS AN ADVENTURE
We charged through the dense spruce forest for one quarter mile, waiting for the drop down onto the frozen river. Smack! There it was. It was dark now, so I scanned my headlight beam up and down the vast open expanse that was the wide river bed. It was very windy and cool. I scanned for any sign of the trail. Of course, no dog team had been over this section of trail yet, so there was no scent for my huskies to follow. The team naturally took the path of least resistance and let the wind blow them directly down river on the glare ice. Their feet barely kept up pace with the terrain passing underneath. There was zero traction. I was happy that both Nacho and Boondocks had taken off their booties in ROHN - at least they had a little foot traction.
We traveled for what I thought was way too long without seeing any trail markers. In years past, the trail did not stay on the river for very long, but in the back of my mind, I recalled something in the pre race Mushers’ Meeting about the trail washing out in this area. Hum...
I asked Quito to turn the team and head towards a patch of snow covered ice for better traction. But, the heavily loaded sled kept its course downriver and the wind blew the dogs at their flanks. Quito leaned into her harness, but the whole team bowed away from her destination and soon Scruggs and Scooter (in the middle of the team) were farther down river than she was. She was being pulled sideways and then nearly backwards, so I had to call her off that goal. We raced downriver.
As I shined my headlight to and fro, I spied another patch of debris covered ice, perhaps a gravel bar. I told the dogs “haw” and the front six dogs veered towards it. I tried to slow my sled with pure brute force as I pressed all of my weight onto my brake bar. My calves were shaking, then finally one claw grabbed the ice and slowed us just before the entire rig blew over onto its side. The sled, myself and the rest of the team slid along side the gravel bar and came to a sudden halt. A piece of drift wood stopped our progression by lodging up in between my runners. A perfect crash.
I got up and walked through the team to see if everyone was okay before righting my sled. My sixteen dogs were all standing on a tiny patch of gravel, rocks and logs in the middle of the icy frozen river. The gravel bar was about 15 feet in length. The Howling Dog harness system that I use gave the dogs the freedom to “find a spot” to stand. They are only attached to the mainline by a tug line. They don’t have any attachment to their necks. So, they can turn forward, backward or any direction with out getting tangled in their neighbor’s line. I like to have this freedom at the beginning of the race. I feel like we have a lot fewer injuries when a dog can choose its own path in order to avoid hazards or obstacles. This was definitely one of those circumstances.
The dog team was scattered. The back six dogs were all standing next to each other in a row: Viper, Bonita, Biscuit, Tatfish, Rambler, Willie. Chica and Meg were way off to the right sitting down. To the left, Dingle, Beemer, Scruggs, Boondocks, Nacho, and Scooter were tangled around a willow bush. Apparently half the dogs went on one side of the bush and the other half choose the opposite side. My leaders, Quito and Olivia, were standing behind the six tangled dogs. They didn’t want want anything to do with that mess! It is at these times when I can smile and thank heavens that my dogs are a friendly, happy bunch. No one seemed to be worked up or grumpy.
It is not simply by happenstance that this is the case. I keep a very “tight ship” in my dog yard at SP Kennel. Arguing and fighting is simply not tolerated. I got my first sled dogs almost 20 years ago. On the first fun run, I took four dogs for a mile run and there was immediately a dog fight. That wasn’t fun. The best looking, strongest, biggest male was the culprit. I gave him away that same afternoon to the village preacher. I replaced him with a smaller, scrawny, happy-go-lucky village dog; Fats. Fats is the great grandfather to many of the dogs on this team. Genetics play a key role in dog team dynamics, but even more, I think, is the general attitude that a musher expects from dogs. My dogs know what to expect from me, just like people know what to expect from me. I am rather predictable. My decisions do not often catch dogs or people off guard. I am a dog musher first and foremost because I enjoy dogs and the adventure of the Alaskan wilderness. I am a competitor only second to that fact. That’s who I am and that fact will not change no matter how many years I race the Iditarod or what place I finish.
Back on the river, the dogs were patiently waiting for me to solve our predicament. The solution was quite simple Take out my ax and cut the willow bush out of the middle of the team, at the same time as I chop the driftwood out of the sled runners. But first, I needed to decide where we would to go. I scanned the area for trail markers. I was amazed to see a glow from a marker just 100 yards away on the river bank. Now, we simply needed to get off this “Traction Island” and cross a 100 yard ice skating rink. At least now, I knew where we should go!
I decided to dislodge the driftwood first. The dogs were still somewhat calm, so I chopped the log out from under the sled runners. When my sled broke free the dogs in the rear felt their tugs loosen and they automatically tightened there harnesses. This sent a chain reaction up the team and they pulled the sled on its side all the way up to join the tangle at the willow bush. Sixteen dogs and a sled standing in a 10 foot by 10 foot spot. Tight quarters! I still had my ax in hand, so I did away with the willow bush in two swift wacks. Now anyone was free to move about on our little island.
I could ask them to go straight ahead towards the marker on the river bank, but in all honesty, the ice was so slick that when I walked out on it I immediately fell. I really didn’t want anyone to get hurt slipping and sliding across 100 yards. So I shined my headlight downriver and Quito didn’t take too long to pick up that cue. She headed the team in that direction and they strung out behind her - two by two . And once again, we picked up speed, moving downriver. There were a lot more obstacles on this side of the river and we jumped logs, rocks and more willow bushes as we inched closer to the bank. I asked the team to “stay haw” because we needed to get onto that far river bank. I was sure that we’d have to back track along the bank to get back to the marker I had seen. At one point, Quito must have seen a way across because she made a sharp left and we found ourselves on the bank. I shined my light straight ahead, and by golly, if there wasn’t a trail marker directly in our path! “You have got to be kidding me!”, I said out loud. “Quito, did you know where we were going this whole time?” She probably did.
At this point, I literally laughed. Earlier in the race, I had been “micro-managing” the team. If I thought that there was a better trail 10 feet off to the left or right, I would nag them until they took my command. Now, I consciously decided to have faith in the team and see where they bring me for 1,000 miles.
They didn’t waste anytime scampering up the bank and down the well worn trail. There was little or no snow covering the frozen earth. You would have thought that fact would have slowed our pace. Nope. I was exerting tremendous energy just trying to hang on. I was happy that my ever present surf board leash was wrapped securely around my right wrist.
It was a wild ride for the next two hours. To say that there was little snow on the ground would have been an exaggeration. There was none. This, for some reason, enhanced the team’s enthusiasm. So, they flew this way and that. I worried that if I used the brand new drag that Allen had bolted on my sled, it would catch on a stump or root and rip my rig apart. So, I used it sparingly and we zipped down the trail.
We came to the infamous Post River Glacier. The team trotted up the steep side, across the angled ice face and over the top. It all took less than a minute! The dogs then dragged me up and down the steep hills. They never slowed, so I just hung on.
|Beemer at the Start|
CAMPING ON A BUSY TRAIL
Before long it was time to camp, so I began to look for a spot. You have to be rather particular in order to find a good spot for sixteen dogs and a sled. It must be far enough off the trail that the dogs don’t wake up every time another team passes by. But, it can’t be so far from the trail that it takes 30 minutes to park. Even though the team was still strong, I wanted to give them a solid rest now. If I rested them before they got tired, think of how great they would feel when they woke up.
We came upon an flowing creek where I have camped in the past. I anchored the dogs and walked ahead to look at my camping options. The trail crossed the creek only 20 feet ahead of us. It looked like, if I asked the team to stay to the right before this water crossing, I would be able to camp the team parallel to the creek and quite a ways from the trail.
Parking my dog team is generally easy. The dogs comprehend: “We are stopping now to eat and sleep.” Unparking is where it gets tricky. A musher must always think about the unparking while parking. But, you can’t dilly-dally when considering a spot either. If you do then you’ll waste critical minutes when your dogs could be sleeping and you could be cooking their meal. So it’s like anything else in life: make an educated decision and then efficiently execute it.
In two minutes I decided, “This is the spot.” I asked the team to swerve to the right before the creek crossing. I then pulled ahead until my sled was 15 feet off of the trail. The team was stretched out perpendicular to the trail, so my leaders were over 75 feet from the commotion of any passing dog team. Perfect! Just in case, I walked back down the trail and re marked the section leading up to my team. Since we were the first team to come this way, it might look like the main trail swerved to the right - as we had done. I took two trail markers and put a big “X” on the trail leading to my sled and then put three markers along the trail on the other side of the creek. I thought it was obvious.
I quickly went about my camping routine - taking off booties, jacketing dogs, laying out straw beds and portioning out Eagle Pack dry kibble and salmon snacks. The dogs were sleeping in 15 minutes. There was running water trickling right beside our camp, so I didn’t have to melt snow. I decided to re pack my sled and make a bed for myself. As I repacked my sled, I thought out loud, “Any lesser sled would have broken on a rough trail like that.” I spoke too soon because as I turned the sled on its side the runner plastic hung from the runner by only one bolt. I had obviously been mushing for some time on the metal runner itself. Oops.
I turned the sled upside down. There is a groove in the aluminum runner that allows me to slide a plastic cover on top of it. These covers we simply call “plastics”. People use different width and temperature rated plastics depending on weather conditions. Some mushers change plastics often and others do not. Allen actually waxes all of our race plastics and we change them quite often. But, as I looked at the groove on my left runner, I noticed that it was packed full of frozen mud, tundra and ice. I started chipping away at the groove with my knife. I could tell that process would take a considerable amount of time. So, I grabbed one of the extra cans of HEET that I had picked up in ROHN and poked a small hole in the cap. HEET is actually a fuel antifreeze, so it melts ice. I slowly poured the contents from the bottle into the groove and chipped the melting ice away. I pecked and pecked away with my knife for 20 minutes and managed not to severe any fingers. I soon had the groove cleared of ice. I had spare plastics in my sled, so I slid a new one on the naked runner. I contemplated changing the other plastic at the same time - it was pretty damaged from the rough trail as well. But, if I did this I would have no emergency plastic, should I need one over the next 50 miles. So, I left it as it was. I wasted over 30 minutes of rest time with this repair.
During this time, a dog team had passed us. It crossed the creek and pulled off to the left to camp. I heard Jeff talking to his team. Then I heard him banging on his sled. Well... apparently, I wasn’t the only one experiencing a few repair difficulties.
As I mixed the team’s food, it started to snow. I filled up my thermos and prepared a freeze dried meal for myself. I put all of my gear away since it was now getting covered in snow and I got into my cozy camp cocoon to rest.
When ever I camp with my team I really try to make both the dogs and myself as comfortable as possible. I have seen mushers just stand or sit right next to their sleeping dogs as the hours pass. My entire history with sled dogs has revolved around traveling and camping. So, why not camp and be comfortable for even 45 minutes if given the opportunity?
Not surprisingly, I have a routine for setting up my camp spot. I have a sleeping pad that always rides in the bottom of my sled. It is actually the cushion that I’ll use as a “dog bed” should I have to carry any team member. I lay that out between a few dogs - this time it was between Biscuit and Bonita. I then lay my straw bag on top of the pad. I stuff my sleeping bag into my bivvy sack and lay it down next. I use my gear bag as a pillow and my beaver mitts as extra cushioning for my hip. (I always lay on my left side.) I then sit down on my “bed”, take off my boots and put them inside the bivvy, but outside the sleeping bag. I climb into the sleeping bag, take off my parka, hunker down into the bag and lay my parka on top of me. I curl it around my head so that no outside air comes into my cocoon. I have to remember two critical things: to set my alarm, which goes inside my hat over my right ear, and to put on a headlight. That way I will wake up to the alarm, but I can also turn on my light to check my watch periodically. Whenever I lay down to rest during the Iditarod, my biggest paranoia is oversleeping! The two other things that I do in order to make my rest comfy is: I put on a pair of dry fleece gloves and I bring a warm freeze dry meal to bed with me. That way, my belly and my hands are warm and cozy.
I was quite comfortable and had convinced myself to have a few spoonfuls of freeze dried “something” when I heard the jingle of a dog team coming down the trail from ROHN. It stopped just before crossing the creek. Then I heard dogs barking just over my head. Bonita and Viper jumped up, as did Tatfish and Biscuit. The whole team was in a ruckus. Darn it!! I threw off my parka, turned on my light and saw dogs standing nearly on top of us. I found my boots, struggled out of “bed” and into the commotion.
I looked back at the musher. It was Mitch Seavey. He yelled, “Is there a way around your team?” I was pretty irritated and said “Well, yes.. if you stay on the main trail!” I grabbed his lead dogs and lead them over to the left. They were crazy to go and had tremendous strength. Mitch paused on the trail, looking for a place to camp. I walked back to where I had placed the “X” and I remarked it. His dogs had charged through it. I gazed back at Mitch just when his team lurched forward. That momentum threw his snow hook off his sled bag and down into the creek. As his team kept moving ahead, the snow hook caught the ice shelf and the line to the hook snapped. The hook tumbled down into the water. All he could do was look down into the water at his wayward gear. He could not keep his team stopped and retrieve the hook.
I mumbled under my breath. I walked up to the creek, put one foot into the water and reached down to collect the hook. I put it on his sled and he took off like a rocket. As I stood in the creek, I was simply hoping that I had missed his “thank you”. But, after I thought about it for a while, I was pretty sure that he never mentioned those two words.
I got back “in bed” and was more than slightly pissed off. I lay there and rested until my alarm went off. This area around the creek had become quite a popular camping place. Thankfully, no one else had run through my camp spot.
We left with out too much difficulty. I asked the team to “haw” where there was a small ice bridge over the creek. The dogs and sled had to jump a small spot of water. Most of the dogs jumped over it with ease, but Rambler made a miscalculation and fell into the water. I soon had to stop to navigate around teams who camped right along the trail, so I bathed him in snow in order to dry him off.
There were several inches of fresh snow on the ground and this helped the runner plastics, but it slowed our overall progression. From the tracks in the snow, it was now obvious that there were several teams ahead of us. I saw in the distance that I was catching up to one of those teams. We soon passed Hugh. I think he was carrying a little black and white dog named Juanita. As a dog musher, this is a dilemma. I hoped that the dog was okay, but I was not unhappy that Hugh’s pace would now be slower with a team member in his basket.
This part of the trail is comprised of small rolling hills with vast tundra in all directions. The clouds were still low and snow continued to fall. I came up on Lance’s team next. He looked back and purposely pulled his squad off to the right for a snack break. Then I came up on John’s team. His dogs are truly awesome animals. If there are any two teams that are more dissimilar, it is John’s and mine. Boondocks is literally a 1/3 the size of his largest dog. We talked before the race about teaching our dogs to use their rest time wisely. In other words, they learn to sleep whenever they have the opportunity. Most of my dogs know this skill because of their years of racing. An important annual goal at SP Kennel is to give every dog a chance to race. They learn a lot during preliminary races. That’s why you will see that SP Kennel will have 36 dogs in the Sheep Mountain 150, 36 dogs in the Copper Basin 300 and as many dogs as possible in the Yukon Quest and Yukon Quest 300. But, John’s dogs simply learn this through life experience. They are working dogs. They don’t get a lot of time off, so when they do... they know exactly what to do: rest!
Anyhow, John was moving along at his normal pace - a steady trot. He looked back and let us pass. We slowly crept out of sight. We were now the trail breakers. There were several inches of fresh snow. But the dogs just keep churning along. Once again, they were: S - M - O - O - T - H!
Daybreak came and the trail did get softer. The dogs’ paws would sink deeper into the snow as the crust on the snow thawed. This was more of an effort, so we did slow down a little. Nutmeg wasn’t working as hard as she is usually does. I checked her out and came to the conclusion that she needed a chiropractic adjustment. I would give her a super rub down when we arrived at the checkpoint. The rest of the Yukon Quest dogs were good. I had moved Olivia out of lead and placed Beemer up front with Quito. The Big O was driving well, but Beemer was pretty excited to be leading the team down the trail.
The last few miles into NIKOLAI, I felt like we slowed even more, so I helped the team with my ski poles. But, I didn’t rush them or talk to the team too much. They didn’t need a cheerleader right now. I did look back a few times to see if anyone was catching us. You never know!
Getting into NIKOLAI first was exciting. The folks from that village are super friendly and really go out of their way to help mushers. They keep a huge pot of boiling water ready all the time, so we can thaw meat or fish in an instant. They also open their school to us and provide food and drink for the mushers.
I spent a lot of time with my dogs after we arrived. I really wanted to look through them carefully. I did wrap a few wrists just for precaution. I rubbed down some triceps and biceps as well. I asked the Veterinarians to examine Nutmeg closely. They found nothing of any consequence. Rambler was a little tired, as he should have been. He had frost nip in November and had not trained in the cold temperatures much. He was chosen as dog number 16, purely on his heart and drive. I told him that he needed to rest here, but in 60 more miles, he would get his 24 hour rest. I thought if he could make it to TAKOTNA, he would make it to the finish as well. He was sound asleep as I walked away.
I repacked my sled and changed my runner plastics so that both runners had a fresh set. I laid out the meal that I would feed the team prior to leaving. I set aside their dog booties and jackets. I packed the rest of my unneeded gear in a “return bag” and carried it to the tent where these would be gathered and transported back to Wasilla Iditarod Headquarters. I was completely ready to leave the checkpoint. Only then did I walk up to the school to rest for a short spell.
It is a bit of a jaunt to the school, so I grabbed my gear bag and started to walk. I saw a few mushers walking towards me and recognized father and son - Mitch and Dallas. In my head, I started to get angry at Mitch for being inconsiderate and pushy. I shook my head when we passed. Back at the creek, I had decided that I simply didn’t want to associate with him anymore. Just a few feet after we passed he stopped and turned around. “Hey, Aliy. I really want to thank you for helping me out. You have always helped anyone in need and I appreciate it.” Funny, huh?
I got to the school and there was no printout showing arrival times or run times from ROHN. Or maybe I just couldn’t find one. It’s nice to look at where you stand in comparison to other teams. But, I had a race plan mapped out already, so I guess my competitor’s run times were irrelevant anyhow. The school kids were cooking and asked what they could make for me. I really wasn’t feeling up to eating much just yet, so I just had a few crackers and a lot of Gatorade. I found the Mushers’ sleeping area and curled up on a mat. Of course, I set my alarm.
I feel asleep thinking “I know this is just the beginning of the race, but boy, does my dog team look spectacular!”