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2020 Iditarod: Part I – Willow to McGrath

The wipers are on steady now, and I have just shifted into four wheel drive. The snow has increased its intensity, and there is about 3 inches on the highway. Its 5pm and we have just driven past the Willow Community Center, the official start line of Iditarod. In just over 16 hours, we will be pulling into our parking spot, and preparing to embark on my forth Iditarod. Am I crazy?! I am excited, but also filled with anxiety and stress. Iditarod 2019 proved to be a good year for our team, and I now feel increased pressure to perform, and follow up a 15th place finish. I know the dogs are capable. I know that I am capable. But what about the unknowns? How are we going to contend with 30 other teams capable of finishing in the top 15? How do we prepare for 12 feet of snow in the Alaska Range, and moose that have been charging 4000 pound SnowCats?

                Sheep Creek Lodge is a welcome sight after slogging through a field of white. Parking is tight. There is about 8 inches of fresh snow at this point, and 10 foot snowberms are encroaching from all directions. We are able to position our 50 foot rig at the back of the lodge. Sleds come out of the trailer and get covered. Dogs are brought out and given a chance to shake off and stretch in the snow. As I am at the front of the truck, a young bull moose plows past at less than 100 feet away. The dogs go nuts! Apparently thwarted by the berms and unhappy with its trajectory, the moose returns at a trot and takes another direction around the lodge. I step in the trailer and grab Katti’s 357. As I am stepping out, the dogs alert me that it is still lurking, at a loss as to where to go with all of the snow. Is this an omen for what is to come? After a few minutes, the dogs seem to think the threat has passed. I don’t see the moose.

                With dogs fed and back in the trailer, Katti and I enjoy dinner and a shower at the lodge. We have a private cabin for the evening, and take advantage of the space to do a final inventory of miscellaneous items before the race. After days, weeks and months of prep to get to this point, the bed, and a full night’s sleep, calls. We surrender.

a group of people in a boat on a body of water

In Skwentna, taking a few hours under the full moon.

Sunday morning is a torrent of snow! There is now 16 inches at the lodge, and we are expecting as much as three feet by the first checkpoint. Parking in Willow is cramped, and people struggle to wade through the snow. A few trucks are stuck in an attempt to make it to their spot, but we are lucky and get into our position. We meet up with our friends and family who have come out to help and send us off. We have plenty of time, but of course, I can’t sit still and feel like there is something that I am going to overlook before taking off. (I am correct in my misgivings, and will end up leaving the start line without my coffee thermos).

                Fourteen dogs are harnessed and connected. They have power and focus; more than I have seen from them at previous races. Our jaunt to the start line is quick, less than 100 yards from our truck. I walk to the front of the team to give a quick pep talk to Braavos and Fierce. There is a good crowd of spectators and fans, despite the tough road conditions and extreme weather, and we are grateful for their encouragement. I give every pair of dogs a quick hand clap on the way back to the sled; “Its time guys!” With a three, two, one, we are off.

                To say that the first leg of this race was a slog, would be a gross understatement. The snow is deep and unpacked. Snowhooks do absolutely nothing to hold the team, so I count on training and their good behavior as I tell them to stop and let the first few teams to catch us, go by. Tailgate parties and bonfires line the trail for the first 10 miles. Their presence, however, is subdued compared to normal years, and by the time we hit the Su River, almost all people are behind us. Despite the soft conditions, and bottomless footing for the dogs, I feel the need to ride the drag mat heavy, holding back the team. I want to keep everyone in a slow and comfortable pace, regardless of how slow that appears to be.

I look at my GPS for the first time 15 miles in. We have been averaging 6.9 miles per hour. What!? I know that I have been holding them back, but that is crazy slow! I ignore the number, and trust my instinct to keep everyone trotting. After the 15th or 16th team passes us, I feel a crack in my confidence. I laughed at the first 7 or 8 teams who rolled by… “I will see you guys again,” I told myself. But can I really see all of these teams again?! Their dogs sure do not look like they are in a comfortable rhythm, but maybe they can sustain that pace through this stuff? Oof, maybe our competitive goals are unrealistic…

I have spent years analyzing this race and coming up with competitive “race plans.” Well, this year, after a lot of training, and lengthy discussions with Katti, I have thrown out any “plan” for this race. I have ideas, of course. “This is what I think I will do here, if the conditions look a certain way. Perhaps I will 24 in Cripple if we have a good trail north of the Alaska Range.” But, a step-by-step schedule is not in my play book, and I hope that this will give me more freedom to really race based on the dog’s ability. Well, in the first 32 miles of the 2020 race, I question the efficacy of not having a plan.

We make our first camp. At mile 32, just before Yentna, I pull over in the exact same spot I did in the 2019 race. The trail conditions have actually been quite similar to the previous year, and I feel like a four and a half hour run from the start, is plenty. Let’s eat a little bite, let the remaining teams in the race go by, and set our run/rest clock to avoid the heat of tomorrow afternoon. The dogs are in great spirits, despite the slow trail, and enjoy a light meal. The snow has started to subside, and we actually glimpse a few stars as night settles in.

We are the final team into Yentna, almost two hours behind the next team in the race. There is no checker waiting, but a race vet comes over to give the dogs a glance and sign my vet book. I ask if she can check me in. A moment later, a snowmachine buzzes down from the lodge, and a checker jumps off with the clipboard (“Whew! I am glad I avoided that walk in this snow”). We pull through and continue to Skwentna. The trail improves slightly, and it seems that the upper part of the Yentna River did not get the predicted three feet. “Nice!” Don’t get me wrong, I like snow. But, it seems we already have plenty.

The checkpoint of Skwentna is amazing! I stopped here last year, and remembered the excellent team parking, and wonderful hospitality in the lodge. This year did not disappoint. Everything on the river is meticulously organized, and the wonderful volunteers have piping hot water for the dogs. I mix a meal for the team and offer everyone a light soup after 45 minutes of rest. I don’t have many takers, which is not great, and I pull the food back after a few seconds (planning to offer it again in snack form before we take off).  I head up to the lodge and as I enter, am greeted with a bowl of hot, wet face towels. I must admit, it does feel pretty good. Once my boots, and bibs are off, I walk into the inner dining, lounge area. There is a list of food being offered, and the “Skewentna Sweeties” are there with hot coffee, tea and Tang. Few restaurants have such nice service! I eat and spend another half hour inside, chatting with the volunteers that are there and a few other mushers. It is about 4 AM, and time for me to think about getting the team up and ready to go. I step out of the Skwentna Roadhouse, and the full moon has come through the clouds to illuminate checkpoint. The light is incredible! You can see everything with absolute clarity. I feel very lucky to be here.

a sunset over the snow

Skwentna Roadhouse

a group of people on a beach

Teams on the Skwentna River

The run to Finger Lake is a beautiful ascent into the mountains. The sun rises behind us, washing all the mountains in pink and orange. The trail is unpredictable, firm in one spot, bottomless sugar in the next. Travel is slow, as I want to prevent any potential injuries from hitting these holes with too much speed. The team is not interested in their snacks, and refuses the majority of what I offer them on this run. “Damn!”

                We get to the checkpoint of Finger Lake just as the sun starts to really put out some heat. Its 11 AM. Let’s hangout and rest for a few hours. The dogs take their arrival snack, a special blend of meat and supplements that Katti spent hours mixing in our kitchen. We coined it the “secret weapon,” and if there is one snack that is important, it is this one. “Good dogs!” I decide to wait a solid hour before offering any more food. There is a nice breeze with the blazing sun, and I figure this is a good combination for encouraging decent rest, while boosting a better appetite.

                I leave the team and the lake, and walk up to the lodge. Their excellent staff put together an array of delicious meals for paying guests, but also for competing mushers. They serve me an egg and reindeer sausage breakfast burrito, accompanied with a cold bean salad. Very good! I fill my water bottle with coffee (remember, 30 hours without sleep at this point), and head back out to the lake.

                The team is stretched out in the sun, and looks the epitome of relaxed. I give everyone an ear scratch and brief squeeze as I head down the line, towards my sled. I pull out my dog food cooker and gather water from a hole in the lake. While the water heats, I prep my cooler with frozen Power, a rich beef based product we have fed the majority of the season. The dogs have typically been big fans of this as their soup base. With the addition of about four pounds of kibble, and a little more frozen meat added for crunch, we haven’t gone wrong yet. Well, today is the day… Qarth is my one taker from the 14 dog team. That’s a depressing statistic!

                As I dump each bowl back into the cooler to offer later, I look over to Lev (parked next to me), and see he has the same issue in his team. Each of us with a full cooler of food, I suggest we trade and try our dogs again. It’s a hit! Everyone in my team thinks Lev’s special blend is just what they need. In truth, it is just a simpler list of ingredients. And sometimes in life, simpler is just better. In this case, straight lean beef and kibble, no fancy blended products. I return Lev his cooler, and repack my sled.

                The run from Finger Lake to Rainy Pass consists of pretty densely wooded forest. We cross a few lakes and some alpine swamps, but the majority of the run is shaded. With this in mind, I don’t hesitate to pull the hook and depart Finger at the warmest part of the afternoon. There is no “warm up” period for the dogs as you leave this checkpoint. Teams climb off the lake, pass the back door of the lodge, and immediately plunge down a steep, two-hundred foot hill. “Wahoo! Everyone awake?!”

                There are drops and climbs as we work our way to the infamous Happy River steps. For those that are unfamiliar with this section, imagine a 600 foot decent in less than ¼ mile, accomplished by a series of switchbacks cut into a thickly wooded canyon wall. Sounds great, right!? Well, with the abundance of snow this year, and the cold temperatures through early March, the conditions are nearly perfect. The usually insane decent, seems tame and under control.

                Once down on the Happy River, we cross and then head up the other side of the canyon (ascending the “chute,” which is appropriately named). At this point, Qarth starts to back off his tug. A few minutes later, he expels his lunch from Finger Lake. “Oh buddy!” I stop and give him a check, making sure everything is out and his airway is clear. He wags his tail, eats some snow, and acts like he is ready to go. I debate loading him, but at 62 pounds, decide against it. I am not worried so much about his weight on its own, but more about the fact that 62 pounds of Qarth is NOT going to want to ride in the sled. “Run along then, bud.”

                As we continue climbing into the mountains, I give extra attention to Qarth. He doesn’t really get back to working very hard, and is definitely bothered by the afternoon heat (warmer than I anticipated, at nearly 40 degrees). Mileage wise, this is a short run. However, the 30 miles seems to take forever, and Rainy Pass feels like it might never appear (the early stages of sleep deprivation may already be working there magic here). At last, I can see the saddle of the pass, and know that Puntilla Lake, and the checkpoint, are only a few minutes away.

                I spend longer at Rainy Pass than I had planned for. The dogs don’t touch their meal, and eat only a few snacks. As the sun goes down, the wind picks up, and it is now zero degrees with a 10 mile per hour breeze. The team’s lack of appetite has me really bummed, and I start thinking of the potential hazards if they continue to refuse food. In dog racing, it is usually a terrible idea to look too far down the trail. A musher should focus on the here and now, and what the dogs need in this exact moment. I have told many people over the years that we don’t look at Iditarod as a thousand mile race, but a series of 50 mile runs. Well, on Puntilla Lake, I do not heed my own advice, and start worrying about portions of the race that are still hundreds of miles away.

                After five hours, I decide that more time in Rainy Pass will not benefit me or the team. Unfortunately, Owl’s shoulder injury from the Copper Basin has reappeared, and she is going to need to fly back home. Delivering her into the capable hands of a race veterinarian, I ready the rest of the group for our next run.

The departure off of Puntilla Lake, takes us further into the mountains, and to the summit of Rainy Pass (at about 4000 feet). This run turns out to be one of the coolest of the whole race (both literally and figuratively). Five miles out of Rainy Pass, we have left all trees behind. Completely exposed in a wide valley, the wind rips at a 45 degree angle to the team, coming from behind. My thermometer reads -10, and I guess the gusts are starting to reach 30 miles per hour. The dogs are in jackets, but I have dressed a little light. In anticipation of the Dalzell Gorge, I want to be light and nimble, ready to actively drive the sled through the steep ravine. I contemplate stopping to add my puffy jacket, but instead attempt to seal my parka a little tighter. We have a full moon for this run, and it is just starting to make its way over the surrounding mountains, illuminating every ridgeline and gulley for miles. I spot a headlight a mile or so back, and know that Jessica Klejka has decided to chase me down the trail. The two of us are currently running in our own bubble, and the next team is at least an hour in front of us.

                The wind has increased now that we are nearing the summit, and I work with difficulty to hold the sled on the trail. All loose snow is gone, and the trail is essentially a wind-blown glaze. The plastic runner plastic has no desire to stay in place, and it is my feet that keep the sled behind the dogs (dragging my boots alongside the runners to act as a rudder). I would estimate wind gust of 50 plus at this point, and the dogs are charged with the cold temperatures. I can feel their energy, and despite a cutting chill, I smile with joy at the conditions and challenge that awaits. I have my headlamp off, running by moonlight. It has been years since I have “seen” the Dalzell Gorge (all the way back to my rookie run in 2008, where I ran through this section in mid-morning), and I am excited to have the ambient light to take in the surroundings.

                As the team and I drop onto Pass Creek, the mountains move in closer. We are now in a tight valley, protected from the worst of the wind, and the moon is working towards its peak in the sky. It is truly bright out! I can watch the snow blowing off the 10,000 foot peaks above. I can clearly see every open hole in the creek, and maneuver around every low hanging branch from the encroaching willows. As we continue our descent towards the Gorge, driving becomes more challenging, and I pop my headlamp back on. Pass Creek grows in size, and the trees return. Alpine black spruce at first, and then larger and larger White Spruce. The trail is nicer than I have ever experienced. It is hard packed and fast, and there is so much snow, that the boulders and stumps that usually raise the hair on your neck, are deeply buried.

                The turns get tighter, the drops steeper, but I still sneak in quick glances at the surrounding rock ledges and jagged peaks. I have forgotten all worries of the greater race, and truly enjoy the moment. The dogs are a fluid, succinct unit. The trail is unlike anything else we mush in the year. The moon creates elaborate shadows as we weave through trees, and then blazes on the wide creek surface as we cross from one bank to the other. My only wish, is that Katti were mushing with me to take in this incredible experience.

                As we make it out of the mountains, the Dalzell Creek joins the windblown Tatina River. This year it is nothing but glare ice, and the moon shows every crack and hole. There are a few trail markers and scratch marks for the team to follow, but at times, we lose sight of both. The experience is a bit eerie, perhaps more so because of the bright moon and harsh tail wind. From previous race experience, I know that we should be on this river for only a few miles before climbing its western bank and heading overland into the Rohn roadhouse. But, is it three miles or seven that we run this river? Are we taking this all the way to the Kuskokwim before turning in towards Rohn? “Oh, there is a marker! Haw!”

                Back in the trees, the snow accumulation is incredible, especially when compared to “normal” years, where there is at most six inches. The dogs bust through a drift, belly deep, and then climb over a wind-hardened drift that is at least three feet high. Snow should be plentiful in the checkpoint, and there will be no need to make the quarter mile walk for water at the banks of the Kuskokwim.

                As we round the bend into the checkpoint, volunteers meet us to assist in parking the team. Space is tight, to put it mildly, so it takes a whole crew to help weave the dog team through the trees to a decent resting spot. I grab my drop bags and rummage out a selection of snacks for the dogs. I select the “secret weapon,” thinking some lean beef will hit their spot. About half of the team goes for this treat. Of all our options, this is the one I know they should enjoy the most. I go back down the line offering a higher calorie, beef blend. A couple takers. Discouraged, I shake out some straw for everyone, give them a quick rub down, and opt for a few hours of sleep before cooking up a bigger meal. I don’t bother with an alarm. It is 25 below, and I know after a couple hours I will wake from the act of shivering and need to get up. I pitch my sleeping bag next to Jane and Mereen in wheel, and climb in, ready for my first real sleep of the 2020 race.

                I wake to a strong fit of shivering. Looking at my watch, I see I have only slept an hour. I readjust in my bag, pull my parka over my head (using it as a blanket), and force myself to stop shivering. An hour and a half later, I wake feeling well rested. Half the team is up and looking at me. I guess it is time for us to eat some food and think about our next move.

                As I start the cooker, and grab snow from the surplus that surrounds us, I think about our next run. The dogs have only picked at the most recent snack offering, and I am seriously stressing their calorie intake. How do I convince them to start packing away the food? Cold typically does the work for us. A dog’s metabolism ramps up in these conditions, and they feel the need to eat everything in sight. Well, that is not working currently. So, what is next?

It is 75 miles to Nikolai. At this point, I see no reason to camp halfway through that run. In previous years, “heat of the day” has been a serious concern on this stretch. However, with the temp still around -25, I doubt it will get much above zero for this run, and hope the long trek will spike the team’s appetite. If not, there is at least a decent airport to fly out of in Nikolai (positivity really kicking in here…).

                The teams un-touched meal goes back into the cooler, and I prep our sled for departure. In frustration and haste, I decide to send some of my excess gear home. Some of the gear I have been carrying for warmer weather. That 12-ounce rain poncho? That is unnecessary weight and space at this point, get out! A few extra harnesses of a different design in case the dogs get rubs? I need that sled space open! Cleary, that two-and-a-half-hour nap has clarified my thinking at mile 170 of this race, and I am able to determine exactly what I might need in another 500 miles… Well, to be honest, I do not see us making it 500 more miles, and decide to just clean out my sled. As I walk through the team, getting them booted and clipped in, I notice Jane come off her straw a little hesitantly. Stretching out her back and hind legs, I find she is quite tight on her left side, and has some pain in her left hip. Knowing this is a strain that will take more than a few minutes to recover from, she is forced to stay behind. “OK Jane, we will meet you back in Anchorage here soon.”

                Our departure from Rohn coincides with sunrise, and the clear skies make for a truly stunning experience. The first 15 miles of this run are usually some of the worst of the whole race. There is rarely any snow to cover the gravel and rock bars for the first couple miles of running on the Kuskokwim River. And then, as we get in the woods, sleds usually suffer from exposed stumps, rocks, and dramatic hills. As we did this run in the very early morning hours last year, we had a thirty mile an hour tail wind that created a dust cloud which was almost impossible to see through. As we banged over rocks and tussocks, my eyes full of dirt and my headlamp beam obliterated with blowing crud, I just prayed that the dogs held their footing and my ability to drive by feel would be enough to keep the sled upright. Well, our experience this year is one of scenic beauty, and I chuckle to myself remembering our previous ordeals on this run.

a group of people riding skis down a snow covered slope

A nice snowpack on the normally wind-blown river, just outside of Rohn.

We weave through the torched landscape of the Farewell burn, taking in the surrounding mountains and ancient glacial formations. Even with the snow, the trail still has its challenges, and I am wide awake from the effort of driving and maintaining a reasonable team speed. There is fresh bison activity, and a few of the dogs with a keener sense of smell, drive into their harness with excitement (adding to the challenge of speed management). We make our first snack break about an hour and a half out of Rohn, next to Egypt Mountain (aptly named, as it looks just like a large pyramid). The team is offered a portion of their meal from the checkpoint, and everyone is now eager to gobble this up. “Good dogs!” With the rising sun, and rising temperature, I strip the jackets off the dogs. It is now only five below, and I don’t want them to get too warm as we make our way through miles of swamps and lakes, fully exposed to the beating sun.

                Before pulling the hook from our ten-minute break, I pop my earbuds in and pull up a Stephen King book I started just before the race. With “The Outsider” now playing in my ears, and a timer set for every hour and a half snack breaks, I can let my mind go and just enjoy the run, the scenery and a book that features a shape-shifting “el cuco,” consumer of souls… Perfect!

                The team rocks this run! They eat some portion of food at every snack break (not perfect, but better than nothing), and Marten is crushing his role in lead. The team moves effortlessly on a decent trail, and we pass a few resting teams here and there. After about 40 miles, I dig in my sled and pull out my ski pole. The team has been averaging 9.2 miles per hour, but I know the trail is going to deteriorate as we get closer to Nikolai, and I need an activity to keep me alert on the runners. I often times use the ski pole to encourage blood flow, keeping my mind and body alert, while actually riding the drag with one foot. There is a balance to assisting the team, and in an event like Iditarod, you don’t want to encourage the dogs to run too quickly, too soon. So, for the next couple hours I just ski pole for my own benefit. At last, we find softer trail conditions, and I start to pole in earnest, pedaling on the backside to keep the momentum smooth, and the team at a steady speed of 8.

                We find Nikolai at 6:30, Tuesday evening. Kelly’s sponsor, and our friend Kurt, is volunteering at this particular checkpoint, and is currently in the position of checker. He gets us logged in and parked, and we catch up a little as I work on chores. The previous night was pretty cold in Nikolai, and Kurt got a chance to test out some of his winter gear in the -35 temps. Hailing from Florida, Kurt is a relative new comer to sub-zero weather. Quality gear is essential, and Kurt and I had chatted quite a bit as he first looked into volunteering with the race. He made the investment into a true winter wardrobe, and I am happy to hear that my recommendations held up to the test in their first taste of true cold.

                After feeding the team a light meal (to which most eat), Kurt and I walk up to the school to grab a bite to eat. I tell him about my disastrous oversight in leaving my coffee thermos at the start line, and how I have had to choose between water OR coffee in what is typically my water thermos (well, lets be honest here, there is no decision to make, coffee is the obvious choice). Without hesitation, Kurt offers me his travel mug. Looking back Kurt, I am not sure this is allowed in the rules, but I sure am happy I had that mug for the rest of the race. Thanks bud! (And to everyone reading, shhh…)

                The rest of our time in Nikolai passes without note. I take a nap, the dogs are offered a second and larger meal, to which most refuse. I change to a wider, cold temperature runner plastic, anticipating a softer trail and temps in the -30’s. Fierce has to stay behind with the vets due to her lack of appetite (I worry that her body condition is declining to a point that puts her at risk if we get into any serious trouble on the trail). I say goodbye to her, and promote Forty to lead with Marten. As I bootie and clip the dogs in to their lines, I see that my sled thermometer already reads -32. “Look sharp guys, its going to be a cold one out there!” I strap a few fox tails to my vulnerable males, protecting their penis tips from frostbite, and loosen a few jackets, giving extra wind protection to flanks. “Here we go.”

                The run to McGrath has never ranked top on my list of “best experiences along the Iditarod trail.” I don’t know if it is just the timing in which this piece of trail hits, or if it is actually that boring and mindless… I haven’t decided. Anyways, this is not my favorite run of the race. This year, it is marked by cold. As we cross back and forth over the Kuskokwim, traveling pieces of the river followed by long, swampy portages, the thermometer bounces between -35 and -50, hitting 52 below on one of the deepest swamps. The dogs refuse the entirety of their leftovers from Nikolai, and only eat a few frozen snacks here and there. We get passed by three teams.

Combined with the temperatures, this is one of the more demoralizing experiences I have had on the race trail. I console myself with the fact that they still have decent attitudes, and wag their tails at every stop. I know, based on their food consumption, this will not last. At some point, weight loss is going to catch up with us, and that is going to take a serious tole on their morale. I decide that I am going to take my 24-hour rest in McGrath, and make an agreement with myself that if they do not eat three solid meals in this time, we are going home.

                Iditarod is an addictive experience for many reasons. The scenery and challenge of the trail is, of course, one of the big draws for most mushers. The comradery, and competition, is engaging for every person and team out there. But I think more than anything, what appeals to most of us as mushers, is the learning and personal development that takes place on the trail. The challenge of covering such a great distance with your friends and allies, your dogs, is unlike any other experience. And, it is always changing. There is a different challenge every year, with every group of dogs. Even if the team is made up of the same core athletes, and the training is fundamentally the same year to year, the race will throw a variety of unexpected curveballs to a musher and their dogs. I think this unknown, and the challenge to overcome, is what keeps us coming back. Those challenges may not be enjoyable in the moment, but hopefully we can look back and learn from them. If we can make it through, we can then know how to better plan for the future, and how to react if in that same situation presents itself in the future.

                My experience in McGrath is one of personal growth. I must adapt to the situation, or go home. In the first few hours of rest, I call Katti to discuss the team. I am an emotional wreck in regards to their poor appetite and weight loss. Uncharacteristically, Katti is consoling and supportive of the possibility of returning home. “This may just not be the year.” I tell her that I plan to wait a while and see how the dogs do for the remainder of our mandatory rest. After hearing her voice, I strengthen my resolve to at least attempt to continue down the trail.

                I chat with a few of my friends that are also resting in McGrath, and hear that most of our dogs are in similar condition; happy, but not eating. A few hours in, I trade food with a few other people, and get a meat variety that encourages the bulk of my team (and coincidentally theirs) to finish a square meal. I get some solid sleep, three hours at a time. The race starts to seem more manageable.

                The dogs get some leash walks around the public health center, which serves as the checkpoint. A mental break from being in the team is important for each dog, and they enjoy the opportunity to add their contribution to the local pee spots. Another wet meal is mostly successful, and everyone eats a mass of frozen steak afterwards (a nice find in the leftover food pile from other mushers). “Two down, and still 14 hours to go. Lookin’ good, guys!”

                The temperatures have warmed dramatically since our 40 below arrival. 18 hours into our rest, it has risen to almost zero. I start to organize my sled and prep food and gear for our run to Ophir. The next decent airport is in Galena, so I guess we should make it there and see how things look. I think back on some advice from a multi-time veteran of this race, “Trust your dogs, they will eat when they are ready. No dog has ever starved with food in front of them.” As hard as it is, I tell myself to worry a little less. Do my best to provide what they need, but trust that will help themselves too.

                After 25 hours and eight minutes of rest (making up the start time differential between teams), we depart McGrath with a more solid outlook on the remaining race. The dogs are eager and immediately find their rhythm. I know, watching them move, that we are going to make it.

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