Part Two of Four
I awoke from my nap in the NIKOLAI school. It was one of those naps that physically made me feel better, but mentally made it harder to focus. My brain needed more sleep. “Where am I?” I sat in a haze and looked around. “Ahhhh. NIKOLAI.”
I managed to gather my gear and walk down to the team. They were literally, in the middle of a “Sea of Dogs”. Over 40 teams had come in since I arrived and the parking was ... how should I say ... lacking forethought. There were teams on every side of us. There were teams even parked in our exit path. Interesting. “Well”, I thought “If this is my biggest problem...” But, I did go find the NIKOALI Race Judge, Rhodi, right away. She is one of my favorite people to see on the trail. She is a very fair Judge but she’ll also tell you like it is. I found her and simply asked if she’d help me navigate “the Sea” in about 45 minutes. She said she’d be there in 30 minutes.
|Beemer and Aliy|
I fed the team a watery broth to hydrate them, took off blankets and put on booties. I kept Beemer in lead with Quito. Dingle had been running the entire race solidly in swing, right behind the leaders, so I kept him there. Olivia ran with Dingle. Nacho and Boondocks are such a comedic pair that I enjoy watching them run side by side. Scruggs and Chica were next. Scruggs was being a little cheerleader for the squad. Then, came Nutmeg and Scooter - I could keep an eye on “Nuttie” right there. The rear of the team was the same pairings I had since the start: Willie and Rambler, Tatfish and Biscuit, Viper and Bonita.
Rhodi soon appeared from a crowd of mushers, dogs and spectators. I asked her to drive my sled. I put a leash on Quito and trotted alongside my leaders as we tiptoed through the teams scattered here and there. A hundred yards later we were free and clear of “the Sea.” It looked like I was going to be the first team to leave this checkpoint. I yelled, “Well, what do you know?! Thanks, Rhodi!” And we were off.
We trotted out onto the Kusko River. The dogs were perky and I tried to settle them down. Once we ran a few miles, they relaxed. The trail conditions were not ideal for fast racing. It was obvious that this part of the race would be a bit more of a grind than a sprint. There were 4 to 6 inches of fresh snow on an already soft base. There was no sign that a snow machine had been over this trail recently. I wondered how much of a disadvantage it would be for me to have left first.
The trail veers off of the river, heads over land, through swamps and across tundra fields. Our progress slowed every time the team popped out onto a windblown, snow-drifted area. The Iditarod Trail looked like a slight dimple in this vast snowy landscape. The dogs even had a hard time finding it in some places. The wind was constant. There were low clouds and light snow. A “perfect” winter afternoon!
We traveled like this for about an hour. I talked to the team very little because they were in a zone and working hard. I looked back periodically. Since I was breaking trail, I thought that another team was bound to catch up to us sooner or later.
In the afternoon silence, I heard the rumble of a snow machine from further down the trail. I could hear it coming closer so I stopped my team on a straight section of the trail. No need to chance a head on collision. The machine whizzed around the bend and saw me parked. The driver pulled off to the side of the trail and turned off the engine. In seconds another machine appeared behind the first. After he turned his machine off, we started up again and passed the two friendly guys. They asked “How far behind is the next team?” I thought about that and said, “That’s a good question!”
After I passed these snow machines there was actually a trail to follow! When a snow machine (or snowmobile as they are called elsewhere) passes over a trail that has 6 inches of fresh powder snow, it helps to pack it down. The machine acts somewhat like a plow and pushes some of the loose snow to the side. The rest of the snow gets packed underneath the track of the machine. Some tracks are up to two feet wide which is as wide as a dog sled. If the trail is then left alone in these cold temperatures even a few hours, it freezes and “sets up”. That’s how we can travel in parts of Alaska with such deep snow conditions. Snow machines, dog teams or people on snow shoes will go out ahead, break trail, pack it down and let it “set up”. You do that over and over and over as winter drops more and more snow. But, in this current situation, there was no stopping to let the trail “set up”. So, we forged ahead. I’m not sure that we traveled any faster, but at least now we could see the trail.
DON’T FLAVOR YOUR FISH
Quito was still trying to canter down this slow trail, but Beemer kept a steady trot. He was enjoying being in lead. I continued to look back now and then to see if anyone was catching up. I really had no idea how soon teams had left NIKOLAI after I did. I had seen John bootying his team, so he wasn’t too far behind.
We were about half-way to MCGRATH and I started to think, “Hey, I could win the Pen Air Spirit Award!” It’s a pretty neat concept that the Seybert family awards the first musher into MCGRATH. I immediately got irritated with myself for thinking so far ahead. Anything could happen. My mind meandered off to over 20 years ago when I was fishing for dinner on the Alaskan Peninsula. I had a nice salmon on my line and I was reeling it in. I was hungry and I started to flavor my fish. BBQ was good, lemon butter is really good, but baked in tin foil with garlic and onions would be great. I keep reeling and I kept flavoring. When the salmon got right up next to the shore I could taste it. I went to grab it and POP! My line broke and my dinner swam off. Since that time, my self admonishment whenever I get ahead of myself is “Aliy, don’t flavor your fish until you catch it.” Lesson remembered as we mushed closer and closer to MCGRATH. Eventually, I made a deal with myself that when I saw the lights of the village and saw no headlight right behind me I could get excited.
The last few miles before MCGRATH are back on the Kusko River. The sun had set, so it was dark and peaceful. I made a steady stroke of my ski pole alongside the dogs. We were working as a true team. As we got closer the spectators started coming to greet me. A group of six snow machiners were parked alongside a sharp turn onto the river as I went by. They all had cameras, so I waved and they yelled “We came to see you, Aliy!” That was nice.
Pretty soon I began to see the lights of the village. I looked back and only saw the lights from the machines that I had passed. I let myself think that I was going to win the Spirit Award. I gathered my thoughts as we trotted up the steep bank and down the road into town. I knew that the daughter of the long-time checker, Mark Cox, was back in town for the race. Cameron was an excited young girl the first year that I raced Iditarod and now she is a capable grown woman. We shared a special bond on that first race, so I was eager to see her. If I wasn’t careful, I could stay way too long in MCGRATH!
I pulled in towards the lights and was immediately surrounded by a huge crowd of fans. I couldn’t see very well because the lights were shining in my face. I couldn’t see my dogs at all. It was a bit overwhelming. Mark was standing with a clipboard on my left. I said to him “I heard a rumor that someone special is here this year.” He was all smiles and he pointed at Cameron. We shared a hug and I felt truly part of the Iditarod family at that moment. They checked me in: mandatory gear, number of dogs and Vet Book. I handed the Vet Book over to the veterinarians and they went about their jobs without fanfare. I then looked to my right and there stood Danny Seybert. He presented me with the Spirit Award, a spectacular Native Alaskan crafted art piece. It was very special. I mumbled something to him about flavoring my fish and he looked at me puzzled. There were spectators everywhere, but this was a race and I had a few more miles to cover before we rested. So, I signed an autograph and got ready to leave. I still couldn’t see my team very well, but I asked them if they were ready and the tight pull on my sled gave me the answer. We were again headed down the Iditarod Trail.
|Penn Air Spirit Award|
I left MCGRATH feeling pretty good, yet I was surprised that no one had caught up to us yet. With all the hype, I didn’t know exactly how long I had stayed in the checkpoint. They had to be right behind me!
We jumped back down onto the Kusko River and paralleled the town lights. The dogs were amped up to see the lights and listen to the villagers hollering “Good Luck” from the river bank.
I stopped the team after we turned a wide river bend and the village was out of sight. I wanted us to focus on “here and now”. Besides they needed a fish snack to keep up their energy. We had 20 miles until we reached TAKOTNA and these were important miles. We would take our 24 hour mandatory rest when we arrived.
During the Iditarod there are three mandatory rests: one 24-hour and two 8-hour. These are important to the musher, dogs, race officials and veterinarians. Everyone (dogs and mushers) is evaluated during these rests. The dogs are examined with a fine tooth comb by the veterinarians. The mushers are evaluated by the Race Officials. They forward any concerns to the Race Marshall. All mushers must “qualify” before they are allowed to enter the Iditarod. But, during the race we aren’t “off the hook”. The Iditarod is not a “no holds barred” type event. Mushers must follow the race rules, care for themselves and their dogs and make a reasonable effort to stay competitive. The Iditarod is a race, not a camping trip, therefore all teams have to stay reasonably competitive or they will be withdrawn from the event.
As I snacked the dogs along the trail and checked a few booties, I looked through the team. Nutmeg was out of sorts. She wasn’t pulling as much as she normally did. She ate all of her snacks but seemed “off”. I know my dogs intimately and when I say she was “off”, it was nothing obvious, just a feeling I had. Nutmeg had been one of Allen’s main “go to” gals on the Yukon Quest so this surprised me a little. I rubbed her back and took off her front booties. She had no limp or other obvious issues. I decided right then to drop her in TAKOTNA. She is an awesome, hard charging sled dog - just because the veterinarians or myself couldn’t find anything doesn’t mean she didn’t have something bothering her.
Rambler was my other concern. He was obviously tired. One of the problems of passing through villages and checkpoints is that the dogs get extremely excited to arrive. They give an extra 25% to get there as fast as possible. It’s thrilling for dogs to see the lights from a distance and charge ahead! If the team then stops to rest at that village, the dogs will sleep and easily regain that “extra” they expended to get there. But, if a team passes through a village and continues down the trail, without resting, a dog might have given too much in order to get there. A dog like Rambler, who was behind in training miles at the Race Start, who also works tremendously hard and had given that extra 25% coming into MCGRATH was now officially .. “tuckered”. He is such an honest worker that when his tug line went slightly slack, I couldn’t stand it anymore. I loaded him into my sled.
I can make a dog bed in the rear of my sled pretty quickly. I have the green sleeping pad (my bed when camping) and then I layer it with several fleece dog blankets. My cooker gets shifted to the bottom of the sled and my gear bag goes on the outside. It took less than a minute to unsnap Rambler’s tug line and bring him aboard. I zipped him in and he curled up. Just his head stuck out on the left side of my bag, so I could pet him with my left hand and ski pole with my right. I quietly asked the rest of the team to carry on. Rambler fell asleep in less than 5 minutes. I told myself and the team that this gesture (they were now hauling their team mate) would pay us back ten-fold. I really believed that if I rested Rambler now instead of running him, he would come through for us in the long run. But now, I was absolutely sure that a team from behind us would catch up. No way could I subtract a team member, add his weight to our cargo and stay ahead of everyone.
The fastest that I have ever run this section of trail from MCGRATH to TAKOTNA was just over 2 hours. A more common run time for me is 2 hours and 30 minutes. This year we completed this run over the mountains, with 45 extra pounds and one less team mate, in 2 hours and 59 minutes. I was ecstatic! What a great run. And no one even caught me. Unbelievable!
Rambler didn’t wake up until we climbed the river bank to the village of TAKOTNA. He stirred when the local dogs let loose and howled as we passed. Those dogs would have an exciting few days of greeting over sixty dog teams to their home in Alaska.
I checked in and everyone was pretty excited. I parked just behind the checkpoint building - in sight of the trail. You never rest from “the competition”. I was eyeing my watch and the trail as John and Mitch checked in just 30 minutes behind me. I remembered that John started number 11, but I couldn’t remember what Mitch’s bib number had been. Since this is where the starting time differential is made up, our starting positions would now determine in what order we left after our 24-hour rest.
It is not critical to be first at this point in the race, but it’s nice to be close.
THAT WAS 24 HOURS?
The dogs knew they were in TAKOTNA for a good rest. Just minutes after we arrived, I had their boots off, jackets on and kibble for them to eat to their heart’s content. I laid out straw beds and some of them settled in right away. I didn’t want to go inside until the entire team was resting, but some of them just weren’t acting tired. Quito and Boondocks sat up and watched John and Mitch park next to us. Quito was circling and circling. I finally gave her a longer lead line so she could wander a little bit and find the perfect spot. Nacho and Scruggs dug through the snow looking for more kibble, so I walked back and forth to my food drop bags getting them full handfuls of Eagle Pack. Nutmeg tried to stretch across the “alley” to John’s team to steal a hunk of meat. As I had mentioned, John’s dogs are quite a bit bigger than mine. His dog snacks are quite a bit bigger as well. Some of those snacks were about the size of Boondocks’ head and John’s dogs gobbled them up. I told Nutmeg that she should probably back off.
Everyone finally got somewhat comfortable and I allowed myself to go inside. I brought my sleeping bag, gear bag and dry clothes into the mushers’ sleeping quarters. I hung up my Northern Outfitters parka and pants. It’s amazing gear. It is basically a big sponge that draws the moisture away from your skin. No moisture means no chill for me. I am honestly warm - regardless of temperature. But, now I needed to dry out this clothing since I had the chance. I also thawed out my Algaval liniment. I would need that over the next 24 hours to massage dogs muscles and feet (and perhaps myself.)
When I lay down, I found my brain circling. This happens when I get tired. I unintentionally repeat the same thing over and over in my head. I am subconsciously trying to focus, but my brain won’t settle down. So, I sat up, grabbed my Vet Book and opened it up to an empty page. I always tie a pencil to my Vet Book, so I can jot down anything at anytime. I started to write down a 24 hour rest schedule: when to feed, massage, sleep, repack sled, walk dogs, and prepare to leave. For some reason, this rejuvenated me. I now had a schedule to follow! I work a lot better knowing what I have to accomplish and in what time frame. It is amazing how many mushers (including me) have been caught off guard when their 24 hours expire and they don’t have their dog booties on yet!
Some of my scribble looked like this:
2 PM Sleep
5:30 PM Wake up
6 PM Walk dogs, Feed, Pack
8 PM Sleep
10:30 PM Wake up
11 PM Pack, Eat, Broth dogs
Midnight Ointment, Booties
1 AM To Line
Looking back at this now, I can appreciate the extra time that I added to this schedule. It seems that I gave myself a little flexibility. When camping on the trail, I have zero flexibility. The moment my alarm goes off, I am up and packing my sleeping bag. But in TAKOTNA , I scheduled a full 30 minutes to wake up before starting chores. Nice! I guess there are a few perks during a 24.
I must have thought I was going to have a lot of rest later on because I got out of bed and walked next door to the kitchen. I drank 4 glasses of Tang and ordered an egg sandwich. As I waited for my eggs, I decided to call Allen at home. I had misplaced my calling card, so I tried calling collect. It was the middle of the night and the answering machine at home wouldn’t accept my call. Oh well. I got a few bites of egg down - which I was very happy about. I went back to lie down, set my faithful alarm and went to sleep.
The key components of a 24-hour rest are to feed your team as much as they want to eat and to let them rest as much as they want to rest. Other important “to do’s” are: massage the dogs’ muscles and feet, repack and/or fix my sled and hydrate and feed myself.
Feeding is obviously important. The dogs need fuel to function effectively. My first feeding was just after we arrived. They got lots of dry Eagle Pack kibble (calories!) and some fish snacks. This dry food in their belly and a subsequent nap, makes them wake up thirsty. So, my next feeding is after their nap. I wake them up with a warm brothy meal. In TAKOTNA this year, the timing was perfect. This big meal was at 4 in the morning when there wasn’t a lot of commotion. So the dogs didn’t stir much from their beds, but they all ate extremely well. Then I left them to sleep again. I fed them two more full meals in the next 14 hours and a final broth just a few hours before we left. A total of 5 meals in 25 hours. They also ate snacks.
The next key is rest. The dogs will rest if they are able. I plan their meals as far apart as I can, so that they will sleep in between. I also try to “protect them from sleep interference”. I had parked my team so that the leaders were removed from pedestrian traffic and the wheel dogs were tucked back by the sled. I had spread out the dogs along the mainline with extras tie-outs. I always hope for a good parking place and this year I had a great one! It’s a bummer to have to park next to a crazy, hyper dog team and I didn’t have to. I had a building on one side and John’s mellow dog team on the other.
Of course, a dog can only sleep so much before it is ready to get going down the trail. I try to curb this enthusiasm by taking each dog for a walk (in partners) about half way through their 24. They get up, move around, pee here and there and come back to the team and get a snack.
This is when the Iditarod Media “Pundits” met my team. I could tell that they were not very impressed by their stature. Especially Joe Runyan. Joe was a fantastic dog musher. No one will ever take that from him. But, many of his opinions are based on racing sled dogs over 20 years ago. Our sport has evolved a lot since then. I think, in this day and age, dog individuality has a lot to do with the composition of a team. At least, it does with my team. Sadly, a small female dog like Quito wouldn’t have had a chance of making any of Joe’s teams. But, to me, she radiates the spirit of an truly awesome Iditarod sled dog.
Joe was unimpressed by my team from from the outset. He pointed to their small stature and abundance of females. He favored John’s big dogs and Mitch’s all male team to my unique independent squad. He claimed that Mitch had “the best sled dogs in the world”. However, the only time I really had a conversation with Joe was in TAKOTNA and it centered around his retirement home in New Mexico or Arizona or whichever sunny spot he now resides.
These days Iditarod mushers are pensive, strategy-minded people. There is more than one way to try and win this race. Pushing the “accelerator” down and “gunning it” from checkpoint to checkpoint with a dog team on autopilot just might not be the ticket for 2012. But, I digress here from my story. I have to admit that I am happy that I was out racing the Iditarod and not at home listening to the “Pundits”. It would have probably really pissed me off!
So, back to my key components of a 24-hour rest. Food. Rest. What else?
Who doesn’t like a foot rub? Our dogs feel the same way. Once my Algaval completely thaws out it becomes a oily liniment that I can easily rub between the toes of a dog. It is a holistic mixture of oils that reduces inflammation and feels slightly “tingly”. So, I rub down all the dogs’ feet, their long shoulder muscles, biceps and triceps. Olivia was a little tight in her front end, so I spent a great deal of time rubbing her muscles. After the massage I cover the area with a blanket or special t-shirt. This keeps the area warm and loose.
Next, I had to think about re-packing my rig. I cleaned my sled bag of all the ice that had accumulated, changed plastics and checked all of the bolts. Mitch was outside messing with his rig while I was looking at mine. I saw him tossing out extra harnesses and dog blankets. I asked him “You think it’s time to start lessening the load?” I had been carrying six extra harnesses in case any dogs got harness rubs. One of our main leaders, Scout, had gotten a rub during the Yukon Quest. Allen had to borrow a harness from Dave Dalton so that Scout could finish the race.
I looked at Mitch’s discard pile and it was getting bigger. Then we both eyed John’s sled, that sat between his and mine. It was a monster sled, packed to the gills with dog gear. John also had a heavily built seat on the back of his rig and dog snacks poking out of every pouch. And to top that off, John is not a small guy. We both agreed that John wasn’t worried about paring down on weight. I kept my six harnesses.
I did start to think more about my race plan. Allen and I had mapped out the next 210 miles - from TAKOTNA to GALENA. It was the same plan that Allen used to run the Yukon Quest from Dawson City to Pelly Crossing. Break 210 miles in three equal sections of 70 miles and camp twice out on the trail. Allen’s 210 mile push was after a 36-hour rest and mine would be after a 24-hour rest. But, his was 500 miles into the Quest and mine was less than 400 miles into the Iditarod. So, we thought these two facts would equal each other out.
Now that GPS units are legal, both Allen and I carry them. I don’t constantly look at my digital unit, but I do periodically check mileage and average speed. Info like that is nice to know if you are planning a non traditional race plan like I was. Carrying a GPS is the only way a musher can truly contemplate this race plan. Years ago, a musher would guesstimate what speed they were traveling or where they were on the trail. Sometimes this worked and sometimes it didn’t. Until we had GPS units we never knew exactly where we were (okay maybe Rick Swenson or Sonny Lindner did!)
Anyhow, I had a race plan and needed to pack accordingly. I needed to keep all of my camping gear for myself and my dogs. It wasn’t very cold now, but you never know. There was a lot of snow out there, so I needed plastics, lots of dog boots and plenty of dog snacks. I would resupply in both OPHIR and CRIPPLE, but only for dog food, not for supplies or gear. I kept absolutely everything that I thought I might need. So much for parring down! It appeared that Mitch would be carrying a lot less than I, but if my plan worked I would soon be ahead of him!
My time in TAKOTNA was nearly done. I had just a few more things to do. For one, I had not seen Ryne yet. She had stormed into the checkpoint only 12 hours behind me and exactly on schedule. I walked up the hill to visit her team and found her snacking the dogs. We were able to chat for a short time. She was having the time of her life and had a great big smile on her face. To me, that means the dogs were having a good time too. She had some rookies in her team that we would be counting on in future races. I was pretty happy to see the brothers, Waylon and Lester, still in the squad! Those two are “just another pair of tiny little under-rated SP Kennel huskys” and they were kicking butt!
I hadn’t worried too much about Ryne thus far in the race. I did think of her as she mushed across the brutally rough trail from ROHN to NIKOLAI and hoped that her sled would hold together. And I thought about her team breaking trail in the deep snow. But, as we parted ways, hugged each other and said our “good lucks”, I knew that her race would be good. I literally washed any worries about her out of my mind. Fantastic ... one less thing to think about!
I went into the checkpoint building to fill my thermos. There were a few mushers sitting around swapping stories. I remember seeing Pete Kaiser in there. He is a very talented young musher with a huge future in Iditarod. I knew I had to watch out for his team this race. He's also has a sense of humor. He told me that he had been watching a TV special sometime before the race about top women mushers. He said, smiling, "Aliy, apparently Zoya Denure is the top Iditarod woman musher this year. You don’t even rank."
Hummm. I don't exactly remember what I said but it was something like ... "Pete, I have no desire to be the top woman Iditarod musher. I want to be the top Iditarod musher.” Pete smiled. There are no gender categories in Iditarod. There shouldn’t be. We are all on the same playing field and I have never considered my gender a handicap or a disadvantage. I have to admit however, I did think about this notion for some time over the next few days.
But, it was almost time to go and I needed to focus on my race.
I was out getting my team ready over two hours before my “go time”. I really didn’t want to be late. It was mentioned to me several times that the Seaveys had me “right where they wanted me.” Mitch just a few minutes in front and Dallas just behind. What I wasn’t sure everyone realized was that father and son were much more interested in beating each other than me.
ONWARD, ACROSS THE HEART OF ALASKA
My great little dog team pulled up to the restart line in TAKOTNA and acted like professionals. They aren’t a group of sled dogs that go ape-crazy - barking and jumping everywhere. They are a very contained team and sometimes this “look” is a little bit deceiving. We had a few excited individuals, Scooter for instance was more than impatient and pulled from side to side in her harness. And Tatfish is always up for causing some trouble, so he yelped and barked until he got his brother, Biscuit, worked up as well. I left when the count down ended... “3 - 2 - 1!”
Scooter was running by herself since I had dropped Nutmeg as planned. Nutmeg had flown back to Anchorage where my Dad was staying at Clarion Suites. They are the “doggiest” hotel in downtown Anchorage. My Dad has been SP Kennel Pit Crew Chief the last few years. With 32 SP Kennel dogs out on the trail, it is important to keep the flow of communication open between race staff in Anchorage and our team. He does that. And I think this year, as he does most years, he went out of his way to haul dropped dogs in and around Anchorage for many different racing teams.
Rambler was back working in the team and looked rested. He had really taken his 24-hour break seriously. I was very happy that I had chosen to carry him in my sled into TAKOTNA. He was now charging down the trail well rested.
It was cool and dark as we headed out about one in the morning. I watched the sled runner tracks in front of me to see if I could tell if they were going faster or slower than ours. Sometimes you can tell when you watch runner patterns as they glide over hills and through dips. I thought Mitch was probably moving just a hair faster. When we pulled into OPHIR, I looked at the official time sheet and I was right.
OPHIR was a critical resupply spot. As mentioned I had packed all of my camping gear in TAKOTNA, but I had sent a lot of camping dog food and snacks to OPHIR, so I went through my food drop bags meticulously. I reminded myself to pick up a few extra bottles of HEET and filled my straw bag with bedding. If we weren’t slower than Mitch before, after loading 50 pounds, we certainly would be now. But, the gamble we were taking was that we would only run a 70 mile leg before our rest. Mitch was going to run a 100 mile leg - straight to CRIPPLE - before a rest. I thought that seemed a bit far for my squad. My teams was “on fire” right now and if I ran them a comfortable 70, instead pushing them 100, I thought they would keep that blaze burning. Heaven knows they could run 100 miles, even 150, but why? 70 would be just right for my team.
The team fidgeted and circled while we were stopped in OPHIR. The checkpoint is a little challenging to pass through. The “check in” area is directly parallel with the parking area. A dog can’t really tell whether they are continuing on or parking. Finally, I took one of my snow hooks and attached it to the leaders’ line. This helped the team focus. I didn’t want anyone confusing this checkpoint with one that we were actually stopping at! Repacking didn’t take too long, but longer than I had hoped. I looked back and Dallas hadn’t quite caught up to me yet. So, I pulled the front hook and then the rear hook and we were soon off again.
The trail wasn’t hard packed but it was a lot faster than previous sections. And looking at my GPS we were traveling at a nice pace. It was still dark. I looked behind me every so often and could see the glow of Dallas’ headlight. We were traveling just about the same speed. I saw where Mitch had stopped his team to snack them at certain time intervals and I was sure that Dallas was watching my calculated snack stops as well. I kept the dogs energy level up by stopping at least every two hours to give them frozen fish or meat. The dogs would hear the rustling of the food bag when I prepared to snack them. They would collectively look back and nearly stop in unison right then, so I only grabbed the snack bag when I was seconds from stopping. Overall, they had great appetites and even Bonita was eating her snacks. Viper who was still in wheel position, was my weak link eating. His appetite had never really taken hold like the rest of the dogs. Maybe he had a belly ache or perhaps he just wasn’t up to eating on such a pace. He is a slender dog anyhow. I was a little worried about him. I would have to watch him closely.
We covered ground rapidly. Through rolling hills and past small river beds. This is vast land without too many prominent landscape markers. The sun started to rise and glow over the hills to the east. It was magnificent. I kept an eye on my GPS mileage, we were getting close to 70.
I decided that I wouldn’t start to look for a good camp spot until we passed our mileage goal. I saw a few areas before 70, but left them behind. I was determined to stick to the plan. When we were there, I began to look in earnest. I love it when the best camping spot appears right when you start looking. Bing! There it was.
As the trail gently curved to the right, a lone snow machine had jumped off the main path and made a casual path off to the left. The machine’s driver must have recognized his mistake because the path gently curved back to greet the correct path. I gave the team a simple “haw” and we trotted into our camp spot. I laid out straw and we were literally camping in minutes.
I left the team and walked back down the path from which we came. I grabbed two trail markers and brought them back to my turn off. I made an obvious “X” blocking off our trail. My sled was 50 feet farther down the trail, so any wayward team wouldn’t run over me right away.
My feeding routine was a dry meal first and a wet meal just before leaving. I took off booties, put on jackets and tended to feet. I took special care of Olivia’s shoulders. She seemed to be doing okay, but better safe than sorry. Viper once again refused to eat a full meal. Bonita picked at hers with dissatisfaction. Nacho and Chica couldn’t get enough to eat, so I found more for them. I always pack extra!
I made my bed and started to get comfortable. About an hour after I arrived, I heard a team go by. It was Dallas. I thought out loud “Well, that smart Alec didn’t jack rabbit after his Dad after all.” Dallas had rested his team on the trail. That meant that, of the three of us, only Mitch had run the 100 mile section in one shot. I knew that this would help Dallas further down the trail. I thought right then and there ... that smart move just made Dallas Seavey a real contender. But, since he didn’t rest his team very long, it was obvious that he would stop in CRIPPLE for a longer rest and then make the standard run over to RUBY. With my calculations, that meant that I would be ahead of him and his Dad soon enough.
I did sleep for about an hour. I think I heard a few teams pass by my camp spot. These were all the teams that had gotten into TAKOTNA several hours after I had. My alarm went off and I sprung out of bed. Time to get going!
I decided to switch around my front end a little and put Dingle up in lead with Quito. He was happy to be there, so why not? This gave Beemer a break from leading for a while. I think some dogs are born leaders and they don’t feel any pressure with their job. That is Quito. She wants to be up front all the time. Other dogs are great leaders but they get worried about doing their job right. They put pressure on themselves and this mentally tires them out. So moving them back removes that pressure and they can trot down the trail like a “no brainer” for a while and relax. Beemer was now relaxing in swing.
Since we had rested for quite a while we were now moving along rather quickly. By my calculations, we still had about 30 miles to travel before we arrived in CRIPPLE. This gave us plenty of time to get in the groove. And we did! We started to pass teams one by one who had gone by us while we were napping.
Most of the time, passing another dog team is not an issue. The team behind yells “Trail!” and the leading team stops their dogs and pulls their sled a little to the side, if needed. I came up on DeeDee and she was stopped snacking her team. Her dogs were loudly barking and excited to get going. She might have had music in her ears as well, so she didn’t know we were even behind her. She finally saw me and tried to move her sled off to the side, but her strong team pulled the hook and took off. DeeDee is agile and athletic so she was able to jump onboard, but a few of her dogs hadn’t been ready and were now tangled. I was a little impatient and decided to pass right then. My team bunched up as we passed and in the chaos Dingle shied away and went way out into the deep snow. Then both of our teams were independently tangled and it took a few minutes to sort out. I looked at Dingle and he seemed fine, so we continued.
We then came upon Sonny. He always has a nice group of dogs - well mannered and managed. He stopped on a wide section of trail and I started to pass. Dingle balked again. What? I had to run to the front of my 15 dog team and untangle him from Olivia and Beemer who had stepped over his tug line. Weird. I looked at Sonny and shook my head. He and I train on the same neighborhood trails all season, so it wasn’t like Dingle hadn’t met these dogs many times before. I was a little worried, maybe something had happened when he passed DeeDee.
We continued on down the trail towards CRIPPLE. This section of trail is incredibly vast and endless. We were honestly in the “middle of nowhere”. No villages, no big rivers, no notable mountains, just a huge infinite landscape. The Iditarod trail is an obvious ten foot wide swath of cut timber and willows in the middle of otherwise undisturbed wilderness. The trail doesn’t run straight, it meanders here and there. It is not a heavily traveled trail. There is no sign of human civilization. If you don’t like seclusion, you wouldn’t like it here.
CRIPPLE checkpoint is hidden in this vast landscape. It usually catches me by surprise. The race trail makes a sharp turn off of the main trail and onto a slough. Usually the trail is soft and deep just before the checkpoint. This year, the trail was either better or we had been traveling in deep snow for so long that it didn’t seem any different. I could see the checkpoint tents as we rounded the bend. There was a lot of activity. Obviously teams had been streaming in - one after another.
I was greeted by the checker with a statement, "Lance just got here!" Interesting, I thought. Lance has a great way with dogs and is a true champion. I respect him immensely. But, I had seen his team in comparison to Allen's on the Quest and I wasn't threatened by it right now. Lance has many fans, as he should, but I knew that I wasn't racing him right now.
So, of course no one (except me) was in a hurry at the checkpoint. I tried to expedite the process by asking for a veterinarian. I wasn’t worried about any dog in particular, but I would need an official veterinarian to "OK" my team before I could continue down the trail. I’d have them look at Viper and Bonita as well. But, they were all busy looking at other dog teams.
I looked around for Jim Gallea, the checkpoint manager, who I’ve raced Iditarod with before. I thought that he would help me get through this checkpoint. I saw him coming from behind a tent. Then I saw Jessie Royer. Jessie wasn't racing this year either. She is a true cowgirl and a horse had stomped on her leg last summer and she needed reconstructive surgery. She is an extremely tough competitor. So, she was missed. These two picked up on my anxiety to get in and out of CRIPPLE as fast as I could. They showed me where food drops and fuel were located and agreed to take my return bags. They also found a veterinarian to look at my team.
I needed to look at the official time sheet. I wanted to calculate how fast Mitch had run this 100 mile leg and how long Dallas had rested on the trail. That would give me an idea of how far behind they would be after they rested a few hours. I memorized some times so I could ponder race strategy later down the trail. Right now I had to get my used booties and gear out of my sled and repack more supplies and dog food. I talked to the team all the while. “Stay lined out Quito. Leave your boots on Nacho. How are ya doing Scruggs?” They needed to know that we weren't stopping here. Just before I pulled out of CRIPPLE I moved Dingle back to swing and Beemer up front again. The rest of the crew was ready.
I do not know how long it took me to go through the CRIPPLE Checkpoint, but it surely took me longer than I wanted.
A SKY FOR THE RECORD BOOKS
The evening came on us quickly as we now charged north toward the Yukon River. The temperature cooled as the sky cleared. There were just faint wisps of clouds here and there.
Once again, we were the first team on the Iditarod trail and there was a lot of snow. It looked like the trail breakers had a hard time finding the old trail in some areas. There were trails here and there as they tried to urge their machines through the deep powder. Overall, they did a fantastic job. I can't imagine getting stuck with heavy snow machines in that deep snow.
The trail was generally good. It had set up somewhat so we were moving at a reasonable clip. I periodically stopped the team to hand out snacks and adjust booties. Viper was no longer eating all of his snacks. He was caught in a spiral. Don't eat much, have less energy, feel worse, keep working, feel even worse. I talked to him and told him that we were camping soon and he could recharge “his battery” there. He trotted along, always working. I was doubting that he would stay on the team much longer.
I spied the sky off to the east and there was a awesome red glow in the clouds on the horizon. I stared and racked my brain. What was that? It looked almost like the glow of city lights off in the distance. Then it got brighter and red. It soon was this ominous red cloud covering nearly a quarter of the sky to the east. I have never seen a sky like that. It really looked like Armageddon. Then, directly above us, a band of green aurora borealis danced toward the red glow. Finally the full moon ended the mystery as it came out of the red clouds and greeted us. The aurora topped it all and danced purple. Wow. I was in awe.
I had attached a brand new light to my handlebar just before the race. A company called Light & Motion had generously donated this light and one other. It was very nice to have this handlebar light always showing the team the correct way. My headlight obviously only shines in the direction that my head is facing. So, as I looked this way and that and up into the sky, my headlight would have severely confused my dog team. I continued to gaze up into the heavens at this awesome sky. I was mesmerized.
It was amazing out there. There are no words to describe this beauty. Long ago an Athabascan Indian friend told me that her elders had taught her to sing to the lights and they would talk back. Other people have told me that the aurora makes sounds. So, I listened. I really listened. Besides the stillness of the night and the pitter-patter of my dogs’ feet, I am pretty sure that something whispered to me, "You should win!"
This light show went on for a long time. I would have to look down periodically to focus on the team and what I was doing. But, it was so intense to watch the sky. I looked from horizon to horizon. As I was scanning, behind me I saw headlights. Headlights? Plural? I wondered if Dallas had left with Mitch and cut his rest short in CRIPPLE. Mitch shouldn’t be very far behind me - my guess was an hour. But, I thought that Dallas would have stayed in CRIPPLE longer. Why were there headlights?
This section of trail is very “old timey”. The trail is a well worn swath in the Alaskan wilderness. It cuts across rivers and up cut banks. It gets on an old mining road that leads to the Yukon River. There is a strange bridge and sign of gold miners and prospectors from years past. I could imagine the many dog teams that traveled here years ago: some hauling gold treasures, some hauling families and household goods, some just hauling meat or fire wood for survival. Alaska history was etched in the trail and I could almost feel it.
We had traveled nearly 140 miles from TAKOTNA and I once again, according to my GPS, I needed to start to look for a camp spot. The tremendous amount of snow didn’t make this easy. The snow berms were 5 or 6 feet deep and my dog team would just drown in powder if we camped in something like that. It was the middle of the night and I was rather weary. It would be great to stop and sleep for a short time.
There were high snow banks on either side of the trail. It was clear that the snow machines did not dare get off the beaten path here. I didn’t blame them. They would become stuck in the deep drift in seconds. I tried to keep my hopes up for finding a side trail or wide spot in the trail, but I was doubtful. I looked and looked and nothing showed itself, so we continued down the trail.
Then I finally saw a cabin way off to the right and the Iditarod trail curved abruptly to the left. There was an old hardly used trail leading back to that cabin. I mushed the team past this trail and stopped my sled at the junction. The dogs stood ready and looked back for my command.
I turned my back on my team and picked up my sled - a runner in each hand. (Yes, it was heavy!) I shined my headlight down the unused trail towards the cabin and started to walk back while dragging my sled. I called to my team, “Come on guys. This way! Come on!” I couldn’t look back to see if they followed. I just hoped that they would. I felt no resistance, other than my heavy sled. I went as far and as fast as a human could trudge through deep snow with a heavy sled. I only stopped when I thought that my leaders would be far enough off the trail. I dropped my sled and looked quickly back towards my team. All 15 dogs were facing me with grins on their faces. People who say that a dog team doesn’t have reverse are wrong!
I did have to untangle a dog or two but with no one wearing neck lines, this was just a minor chore. I got everyone facing the correct direction, if there was a correct direction at this point. I put on jackets, fed the team and in no time we were again camping.
I looked back down the Iditarod trail and could still see the headlights coming toward us. Now it was evident that the lead light was a musher and the two trailing lights were bright yellow snow machine headlights. I soon heard the loud, steady rumble of engines. Why were these three traveling together? Dog teams don’t travel with machines. I hate the sound of a machine behind my team as I mush through the wilderness.
Mitch soon passed my camp spot. Two snow machines were right on his tail, no more than 25 feet behind his sled. I was tired and started thinking weird thoughts. I couldn’t understand why these three were traveling together. There was no reasonable explanation. I had to force myself to stop thinking about it as they traveled out of sight.
In order to change my line of thought, I decided to build a small fire from my garbage. I gathered my used food bags, snack wrappers and anything that would burn. I warmed my hands and my face in the flames. I set up my camp site and repacked my sled.
It was cold. Maybe 30 or 40 below. I could tell because the ziplock bags that held my gear and snacks were brittle. As I picked through them, they feel apart. Exactly how cold? I don’t know. I find thermometers to be generally unreliable. During a cold snap this winter, thermometers across the Two Rivers community varied from -60 to -25. So, I don’t carry one on Iditarod. I guess, truth be told, I just don’t want to know. But, for future reference, you know it’s cold when your “Freezer Lock” Ziplocks crumble with your touch.
I was able to sleep a short while. But, I did make a big mistake. I didn’t eat my freeze dried meal soon enough, because by the time I brought it inside my sleeping cocoon it was mostly frozen. Frozen pasta primavera. Yummy. I did however, bring my drinking water to a boil before putting it in my thermos - at least I’d have non frozen gatorade for a few hours.
I got up as soon as I heard my alarm sound. We had miles to travel yet. In addition, I wasn’t exactly toasty warm after sleeping in frigid temperatures. I warmed myself by running back and forth on the trail and sprinting in place. That gets the blood flowing. There were a few runner tracks in the snow which indicated that several teams had passed as I had slept. I somewhat remember hearing them.
I started to ready the team to leave. I took off all of their jackets and changed some of them into windbreakers. My dogs are by no means cold when they are trotting down the Iditarod Trail. The husky is adapted to live in extreme arctic temperatures. And all of my dogs have a double layered fur coat for which the husky is known. They have a dense cottony layer next to their skin and then a longer guard hair layer that grows up through the cotton. This guard layer traps air between the individual hairs and creates a warmer environment around the entire dog. Therefore, the longer the guard hairs, the larger the area of trapped warm air and the warmer a dog will remain. But, the shorter the guard hairs, the less warm air is trapped next to the dog. Beemer, Chica, Olivia, Scooter and Viper have short guard hairs. So, these are the dogs that I dressed in windbreakers.
I packed up my sleeping bag and camping gear. I separated the gear into a bag that I would leave behind in RUBY and gear that needed to continue down the trail with me. Used booties, several frozen dog jackets, used runner plastics and frozen gloves (they freeze after I sweat in them) filled a garbage bag with this “return” gear. When I arrived in RUBY I would put this bag into an official Iditarod Return Bag and the race volunteers would do their best to have this bag sent back to Iditarod Headquarters in Wasilla. I was then responsible for picking up it up after the race.
I also thought about what I needed from my food drop bags that were sitting in RUBY waiting for me. I had a laminated spread sheet that listed everything in RUBY. But... what did I need?
We were nearly ready to go and I heard the jingle of a dog team. You can sometimes hear a dog team coming before you see it. The identification tags that hang from their collars actually jingle as they hit the collar buckles. I looked down the trail and here came Aaron’s team. They were very smooth and barely took notice of my team. As he passed I saw that he was carrying a bale of straw. That meant that he was looking for a spot to camp. Interesting.
Soon enough we were back on the trail, trotting towards RUBY. The dogs were spunky right away and Quito tried to drag the team into a lope from the start. I had Olivia back in lead and she was game for this speed as well. We really motored for the first few hours away from our camp spot. It was nice to have a rested team in this section of trail. The hills here are long and constant. We would run along a ridge for several miles and then drop down into a valley only to head back up onto the ridge. From the height of several tall ridges I could see the valley to the north that must hold the Yukon River. An amazing sight even from a distance.
We soon caught up to Aaron and passed him. The pass wasn’t smooth. I really think that the dogs were influenced by passing DeeDee’s team the day before. I sure don’t know what happened, but they didn’t like coming up beside another team anymore. So, I got off the sled, talked to Aaron for just a minute, straightened out the team and continued on. He said that he hadn’t found a camp spot yet. I was doubtful that he would. I asked him if he was going to carry that straw all the way to RUBY. He said “Maybe!”
The trail just outside RUBY really starts to take form as a true road. Villagers often drive their snow machines here, so it was a packed trail and we gained momentum. From the top of the last ridge, I looked down into the valley and saw village cabins dotting the horizon line. We raced downhill several miles. The dogs were excited. I was excited. I had done calculations in my head and wanted to see the official time sheet to learn when teams had arrived in RUBY ahead of me. I would then extrapolate my speed compared to theirs. No one, except me, really knew how long we rested so no one, except me, could tell if I was moving faster or slower than the competition. And I knew we were cruising.
I wanted to pass through the checkpoint as efficiently as possible so I prepared for our arrival. I decided that I would be leaving Viper with the veterinarian crew in RUBY. He was now too skinny and his appetite just wasn’t there. He hadn’t eaten much at our last camp spot, which was the final straw in determining whether I would allow him to continue. I was bummed. It was too bad because he is such a solid athlete. I prepared a cable leash, a dog bowl and dog food to leave with him.
I also had a list of gear that I wanted to remove from my food drop bags to take with me and I had my gear set aside to put in official return bags. Lastly, I grabbed my Vet Book and placed it on top of my sled. I wanted it handy so the veterinarians could look through the team and make any notations quickly. I was ready.
We whizzed down the trail. There was a sharp turn to the right and the dogs picked up even more speed when they saw the checkpoint ahead. The sled tipped slightly as I rounded the 90 degree corner and I tried to calm the team. There were volunteers standing in the trail so I stopped. They asked “How long are you staying?” This is a normal question in a busy checkpoint and RUBY would soon be a very busy place. The volunteers will park the teams that are staying a long time (8 hours) in one designated area and park teams that are staying a shorter duration (4 or less hours) in a different area. This way as the teams exit they leave in a pattern that opens up accessible camp spots for future teams. NIKOLAI could learn from the parking authorities in RUBY. Anyhow, I said “I’m going through.” They asked me again “You’re not staying at all?” “Nope.” I don’t think they were quite prepared for this option, so they had me jack knife my team and turn them about 160 degrees to the left. The team picked up even more momentum with this move and we passed the food drop bags and stopped directly in front of the checkpoint building.
I immediately asked for a veterinarian so that I could share my concerns about Viper and leave him in their care. I looked for my Vet Book and it was missing. I could not find it. I rummaged through my sled, through my pockets and started to go through the bags that I had packed to return my gear. It was no where. This was a huge concern. At every checkpoint, race officials must verify a musher’s mandatory gear before that team can continue down the trail. A musher’s Vet Book is mandatory gear.
The Race Judge in RUBY carefully quizzed me about where I had it last. I just scratched my head and said “I think I just had it.” I always keep my Vet Book in a rear pocket designed especially for it. But, it wasn’t there. I was dumbfounded. This could clearly ruin my race plan. I started to completely unpack my sled.
|Iditarod Vet Book|
Suddenly from behind me a man (who will remain nameless due to his wishes) ran up behind me. He was completely out of breath and he gasped “Aliy, is this yours?” It was my Vet Book! He had been walking along the race trail and at the sharp corner, nearly a 1/2 mile back, he had seen a bright yellow book laying in the snow. When he picked it up he saw my name written on the cover, so he brought it to me. I gave him a huge hug. I will never be able to thank him enough for finding that book and bringing it to me. I didn’t even remember placing on top of my sled until he handed it to me. I’ll never do that again!
At this point, I was able to refocus. I talked to the veterinarians about Viper. My only concern with him was his lack of body fat. I thought that he was too thin to continue. They didn’t seem to worried about him, but they agreed he was skinny. We agreed that I would drop him and they took him from me. I did ask them if they could please not walk him away directly in front of my team. This would just confuse my squad if they saw Viper being led off to the right and out behind the checkpoint building. “Hey.... where the heck is he going?!?” So, the were kind enough to hold him out of sight, behind my team until after I left. Thank you for that.
I then rummaged through my food drop bags. I had packed quite a bit of gear for RUBY. So, I opened bags and tossed ziplocks full of jackets, socks and booties either into a “keep” pile or a “return” pile. By this time, a small crowd had converged around my team. An elderly Native woman came up to me and wished me luck. At first I just looked at her and said “Thanks.” Then she said something that really hit me hard. She said “Aliy, you are racing for all the women of Alaska.”
This was a pretty heavy statement for me to ponder. I hadn’t been racing for anyone but myself. I hadn’t really thought any deeper than that for 500 miles. It had been my just dogs and me out on the trail. Every once in a while I’d think about Allen watching the computer or my mom. But, otherwise I felt no outside pressure. Gulp. I gave her a big huge and told her that no matter what, I would do my best.
As I went through my bags I found a spare red SP Kennel fleece hat. I didn’t need it. I tried to find the woman in the crowd, but she had gone. I gave it to someone to give to her. I hope that she got it. I had to go.
The dogs were certainly ready. RUBY sits high up on a ridge above the Yukon. It was straight down to the frozen riverbed underneath. When I finally let them go, the dogs did not take their time getting down that hill. I had to ride my brake with both feet in order to keep them to a canter.
We headed out onto the mighty Yukon River in first place again. Fourteen dedicated huskys and and a rather enthusiastic woman.