2020 Iditarod: Part II – Ophir to the Burled Arch
A few miles out of Ophir, the Iditarod Trail splits. The historic route, and official trail, heads southwest to the mining ghost town of Iditarod. The 2020 route, heads almost due north to the camp of Cripple, and then onward to the historic mining district of Poorman (and eventually, the native village of Ruby, on the south bank of the Yukon River). I had last travelled this section of trail in my 2008 rookie run, and remembered it as being desolate and unending. In fact, this had been the toughest part of that entire race.
Back in 2008, Iditarod did not allow GPS or two-way communication. Mushers could carry a compass and map, and should plan on following the trail markers to know they are headed in the correct direction. As for knowing how far you have travelled in a given run? Know your teams average moving speed, and use your watch to keep track of time. As you can surmise, this allows a fare amount of room for mistakes to be made, and for people to get disoriented and lost.
In the 2008 musher meeting, we had been told that the distance from Ophir to Cripple would be roughly 50 miles. I took my 24 in Takotna that year, and had planned on two easy runs to Cripple, roughly 37 miles each (taking into account the 22 mile run from Takotna to Ophir). I moved through Ophir in the heat of the early afternoon, wearing no gloves, and took a rest about two hours out of the checkpoint. I had passed quite a few teams resting on the trail, and figured I was setting myself up nicely to watch them re-pass me, and then chase them to Cripple. As the sun set, I got my team of 15 dogs ready to go. I took off, mentally prepared for a slow 37 miles to our next rest (it was a warm race, and I estimated we would only be travelling at about seven miles per hour).
After an hour or so, I passed one of the slower teams that had gone by while I was resting. There were 112 of us to start that year’s race, so leap frogging was a common occurrence, and almost everyone passed at least a couple teams on every run (simply because there were so many of us sharing the same trail). Five and a half hours into our run, I fed out my last meat snack, and reassured my team that the checkpoint was no more than an hour away. I now had only a four pound bag of kibble tucked deep in my sled, and had no extra cooker fuel after making my previous camp (I was 19, and the idea of carrying extra supplies never occurred to my young brain. “What could possibly go wrong?!”).
I looked down at my watch after what felt like an eternity of travel, and saw that it had been an hour since our last snack. It was almost 2 AM. We had been moving for six and a half hours now (longer than any run in the race, so far). My earbuds were in, and I cranked the jams, surely blowing out a little of my hearing in an attempt to stay motivated and awake. The trail was truly miserable at this point. We would roll for five minutes on solid hardpack, and then be swallowed up by a bottomless pit of sugar that was roughly the length of two teams. The dogs would go from a comfortable trot at roughly eight miles per hour, to an immediate crash and subsequent swim at only three or four miles per hour. The team was quickly getting discouraged, and I was falling asleep at every opportunity. But, we continued. Cripple was surely around the next bend. Afterall, how many bends could this stupid trail have?!
At hour nine and a half, I gave up and pulled the team over. This is ridiculous! We have not seen another team or headlamp for hours, and I couldn’t recollect the last time I saw a trail marker. Yes, there were tracks from other teams and sleds, but maybe they were just as lost as I was. I knew that Cripple was off the main trail at a 90 degree turn (…and I think that you came and went to the checkpoint on the same trail, right?). I must have passed Cripple.
I stripped my team’s booties (what was left of them after nine hours and so much sugar snow). Everyone got a handful of kibble, and a dog jacket. It was above freezing, so I didn’t even bother with my sleeping bag. I walked midway up the team, and crashed next to Charlie, comfortably curled up in some soft snow. 20 minutes later, a fellow musher pulled up and stopped to check on me. He was a good deal older than I was, and was definitely handling the sleep deprivation better than myself. I explained that I was fine, but we must have passed Cripple. He was dumbfounded by the length of time we had been travelling, but was adamant we had not gone passed the checkpoint. I told him I fed out my last bit of food, and he nodded and said he had done the same about two and a half hours back. Not wanting to delay any longer, he double checked that I was going to be alright, and took off. I gave the dogs another hour to sleep, and then got everyone up and on the trail. They were not impressed, but trusted me that food was up ahead somewhere. The light was just coming up, and as we went through what must have been the thousandth bend in the trail, I saw the obvious 90 to Cripple. A mile later, we arrived in the checkpoint. Total distance, Ophir to Cripple that year: 82 miles. For those of you math wizards, that is 32 miles further than we were told at the pre-race meeting.
Sitting in Ophir in the 2020 Iditarod, I look back on this memory of 2008. Instead of dread, or hesitation, however, I feel interest and excitement. I am 12 years older, after all. Since that race, I have moved to a far more remote training area, run tens of thousands of more miles, and have taken this experienced dog team through two previous Iditarods. Let’s see how we can make this the best part of this year’s race.
As the dogs rest, I chat a little with my buddy Lev. We each have similar goals for this race, and want to try and gain some time on those teams in front of us. “I am thinking three 50’s, how about you?” Damn it Lev, you read my mind. “Yeh, I think that is a smart way to do it.” We are setting ourselves up perfectly to avoid the heat of the day (which is now going to be a reality with a forecast calling for rain by the time we hit the Coast), and capitalize on some still decent trail conditions from the cold snap (hopefully…). Lev has an hour on me, but as he gets ready to go, he is generous enough to ask about my meat situation. “If you have extra beef in Cripple, I would take it.” He smiles, and tells me something like he has a whole cow waiting there. “I tell you what. I will sign my bags over to you as I go through, and you just take what you need.” That is a very generous thing to do, and when I thank him, he tells me it’s all about the dogs, and making sure we can all work to give them the best experience. “I know you would do the same for my team.” His care and sense of sportsmanship stays with me as I travel down the trail.
Our three runs to Ruby take 29 hours, rest included. To give some context, it took me 19 hours to simply reach Cripple in ’08. These runs are the antithesis of what I remember from that previous experience, and I find that they are some of the most enjoyable pieces of this whole race. We catch the remainder of the waning moon on our second run, and the hill country is illuminated for miles. There is no development, and no travel in this region (save for Iditarod). A large fire burned the majority of the country many years back, and what trees remain are small and scraggly. It feels otherworldly in the moonlight.
Our camps are efficient, and the team eats well (thanks to a combination of Lev’s beef, and a blend product that I sent out, which they have finally decided is okay and worth eating). I sleep a couple of hours at each stop, comfortable in the snow next to the team. Our second rest is in the afternoon sun, and the heat actually warms the dogs to a point where they stretch out and lay painting (as if on a beach, as opposed to the Iditarod).
A few miles north of Poorman, we link into the road to Ruby (snow covered and unused in winter). It is a hilly section of trail (this piece does match my memory from ’08), and makes for a long, but relatively enjoyable evening trek to the village. We descend the final hill into town at just after 10, and I am met with an immediate feeling of tension (the hair on my neck actually standing up). Images from “The Raven’s Gift” (a novel about a pandemic in northwestern Alaska) come to mind, and the streets of the village do nothing to dispel this feeling. They are empty. The houses are dimly lit (if at all), and the breeze causes electrical lines to dance and give off a shrill moan and cry as we mush under them. I recollect to talk about the Corona Virus in McGrath, and immediately wonder if things are moving more quickly than anticipated. I am reassured, however, by a couple volunteers who are motioning me to continue forward.
I get parked and snack the team. They are eager for their “secret weapon,” and then celebrate their arrival into a checkpoint by rolling and stretching and shaking off. They are not tired. As I toss out straw and prep my cooker, I see that Linwood, parked to my right, is prepping to go. It has been 400 miles since I last saw him. We chat a moment, and he warns me of some upcoming changes in the race related to the Corona. I will have to learn more once inside the community center.
Tim Pappas is to my left, and I recognize Matt Failor’s team parked a little way down the hill. I haven’t seen these guys since the start line. Tim is in good spirits, but says that he is slowing down and going to have to give his guys more rest. “They look good,” I tell him, as I watch his team devour a meal. Their weights are excellent, almost fat. Matt’s team is comfortably sleeping, and I guess he must be finishing his mandatory eight hour rest here (teams have to take an eight somewhere on the Yukon River). My team eats with relative vigor, by current standards, and I fluff everyone’s straw before grabbing my supplies to head into the checkpoint. I am planning a five hour rest here, and hope to get a couple hours of sleep. In addition to my sleeping bag, I grab my water bottle, coffee cup, and frozen meals (I am currently putting away over 7500 calories a day, and will eat two large meals during this rest).
As I chow down on some lasagna, I review the race stats and look at runs times from the front of the pack. I am interested in their speed to Galena, our next checkpoint. I see that only seven teams have made it there, and they averaged between six and a half and seven and a half hours. For 48 miles, this is slow (especially considering almost all of these teams took their eight in Ruby). “Looks like we are in for a slog,” I say as I pass the computer off to Lev. We get news that further down river, Nulato has closed down the town to outsiders. The checkpoint will be on the river, and straw and drop bags will be there. As for other amenities, don’t plan on it. Snow is forecasted, and the temps are now up to almost 30. We are going to get wet here soon. I think back to Rohn and -25, picturing my rain poncho stuffed in a return bag somewhere…
The run to Galena is a bit of a mess. We leave Ruby, and almost immediately the snow starts. I find that trying to follow the marked trail is actually a terrible choice. It has no base and bogs the team to a six miles an hour. In fact, the better route is a few hundred yards off to the north, but has no markers. I give the dogs the command to leave our current path, and bound through the unbroken snow to the better, village to village trail. Fresh snow is now covering everything, but the definition of the packed trail remains. I trust the team to follow the hardpack, and give them no further commands. We crisscross the marked trail from time to time. I am tempted to get back on it for the security of the markers, but find its base has not improved. Soon, there is no discernable trail anywhere, and it is now on the leaders to feel out the best footing.
About two and a half hours in, the dogs get their first snack. They eat with enthusiasm, and I take a minute to sweep off their legs and booties, now encased in a clingy snow mass. A breeze has picked up, but I am thankful for its presence to help keep the team cool. Braavos and Frito got promoted to lead at our last camp before Ruby, and they are excelling in their trail breaking down the Yukon. Frito in particular has been quite impressive on this run so far, as he has always been only a semi-decent leader at best. They give me some barks and yips as I get back to the sled, and in the faint light of early dawn, we get back to moving. I have a timer set for an hour and a half later, where the team will get another snack break and snow wipe off. This will become our routine for the rest of the race: A stop one hour out of a rest to roll around and get wiped off, and then stops every hour and a half for a snack and another wipe down.
We reach Galena after six and a half hours. I feel encouraged by the teams appetite and performance on this run, and know that a long break will benefit their attitude and set us up for shorter rests further down the trail. We take our mandatory eight here.
As we rest, the snow continues in a thick downpour. At 32 degrees, it melts as it lands, soaking the sled, my gear, and the dogs. I attempt to cover the team in blankets that I have sent out, but the dogs are not tired enough to tolerate this pampering, and shake them off immediately. I strip their harnesses to bring inside and dry. The Galena checkpoint is a large building with an open boiler room, perfect for drying out wet gear. After a nap, I feed the team a second meal. As I am going through the dogs, I am approached by a resident of Huslia, 50 miles north. He is a village musher, and has come down to watch the race. He is wearing an awesome anorak, and I ask him if he has a rain jacket he would want to sell. He thinks a moment, and then says he will check with his friend across town. An hour later, he buzzes into the checkpoint on his snowmachine, and walks up with a wide grin, presenting me with an old, reflective safety jacket (like what people on the road crew wear). I am grateful, and offer him some money. He turns it down and says sharing is the Koyukon Native way. “But, I would take your leftover dog food.” I am happy to oblige, and give him 60 pounds of extra food that my team isn’t going to consume. I notice that he has a freight sled behind his snogo, and has already collected a few hundred pounds of unused dog food from teams in front of me. It is always good to see that the excess we send out does not go to waste.
Before departing Galena, we get word that Nulato has been reworked, as a checkpoint, and there is now a cabin available for mushers on the edge of town. This is welcome news, as we are looking at an eight hour run in heavy snow, and will surely get wet.
Nulato turns out to be a wonderful stop! The “cabin” has a toasty oil heater, running water, and two private bedrooms, each outfitted with three beds. In fact, it is so comfy that I oversleep by an hour, and only wake from unconsciousness because of an annoyed volunteer who can no longer stand the sound of my alarm going off (positioned a mere four inches from my head, and turned up to its loudest setting). As I throw on my bibs and boots, I see that the gear from all of my fellow mushers is gone (never a good sign). Luckily, I find that most of them our out on the river tending to their teams, and haven’t completely left me in the dust.
I mix up a quick meal for the team, and pack my sled with a few snacks. My buddy Matt, although already gone, has left a bag of fish on my sled. I am in awe at the generosity of my fellow mushers, and appreciate the concern they have shown towards my team and their appetite issues on this race. I chat with Lev about his team, and this upcoming run. We watch Robert pull the hook, his dogs literally loping out of the checkpoint. Lev points to his straw and states, “You aren’t going to catch that guy.” I look back to him, but don’t say anything. At my sled, I find my second ski pole.
The run to Kaltag takes us five hours flat. I double ski pole the entire way, head down and focused. The river banks are beautiful in the morning grey (the snow has let up), and I allow a glance here and there to admire them. But, the race is on, so my sightseeing is short-lived. Qarth is in single lead, and after 600 miles of only so-so performance, he is finally looking 100 percent. His head is down to where I only see the tips of his ears, and he is putting his entire weight into his harness. It is not a great trail, but he is driving like it is the best he has seen all race.
As we get checked in to Kaltag, the dogs scream and jump with enthusiasm. I know that most of it is out of excitement to get to straw, but it looks impressive nonetheless. I am wide awake here, and have a few chores to tackle before going in the checkpoint building. The precip from the last 48 hours has left my sled bag a frozen mess, and the zippers are useless. Heet will remedy this, and I tip my sled, coating all of the zippers in gas line antifreeze (you can light it on fire to ensure its effectiveness, but I avoid this unnecessary step). I have some extra gear that I have been carrying (no, I didn’t send everything home back in Rohn), and I go through, keeping only the essentials. I change my runner plastic to account for the warmer temps, and then go through the team to ensure everyone is comfortable and getting the highest quality rest. My plan is to only spend three hours, so I don’t bother with my sleeping bag as I go up the checkpoint building. Food and coffee are my only needs.
Tim, Matt, Robert and I chat as we eat some food. A weather system is moving in from the Bering Sea, and storm surges and high winds are expected, with snow, over the next couple of days. I make note, and decide to stick with my plan of “short runs, short rests” for the next couple cycles, ensuring speed and enthusiasm from the dogs. Greg Heister, the “voice” of Iditarod (he narrates all the documentaries and insider videos) pops in and gives us a Corona Virus update. Apparently, checkpoints along the coast are taking it seriously, and no one will be coming around the mushers or buildings, unless they are deemed essential to the race. This should be different in a region whose people are usually immersed in the race as it goes through.
Back in the dog yard, I snack the team and start getting them ready to go. Qarth has a swelling the size of a tennis ball on his forearm. Alarmed, I grab a wrap out of my vet kit, and spend a minute massaging the swelling, before compressing it for 15 minutes. It is in a bizarre location, and I try and picture what the muscle and tendon look like in that spot. I decide it is not a tear of any kind, and is probably inflammation related to traumatic event (perhaps he banged it on some shelf ice coming into the checkpoint). After seeing a reduction in swelling in the 15 minutes of compression, I opt to run him out of the checkpoint and keep him in lead. There is no associated pain, and he seems ready to hit the trail.
The run out of Kaltag is a miserable, mogul filled experience, and can suck the speed right out of a tired dog team. This group, however, takes all the bumps and tight turns in stride, and are eager to hit a decent pace as soon as the trail improves. As we get onto a wider trail, I can pull out both ski poles again, and go back to assisting the team when the conditions allow. We enjoy some beautiful views as we work towards our camp, and although Old Woman cabin had been my plan, I decide to shut down our run an hour early. The remaining 42 miles to Unalakleet will be completely flat and effortless (compared to what we have just run), and the decision to break up the total distance into equal amounts of time, as opposed to distance, makes more sense. Qarth gets an immediate wrap on his leg, but still shows no pain with the inflammation. Everyone eats, and then it is time for a sleep. I give us three and a half hours here, allowing for the extra bit of much needed sleep (for me, more than the dogs). Jason Compeau mushes by, followed by Tom Johansen who we passed enroute to this camp. Perhaps another team goes by, but I am asleep before I recognize who it might be.
The remainder of the Kaltag portage goes by smoothly, and we are in Unalakleet in early morning. I am met by friend and fellow racer, Charlie Benja, race judge in this checkpoint. He gets me checked in, and does a sled gear check. I take a look at the clipboard, and see an assortment of mushers are still in this checkpoint. I am parked just behind defending champ Pete Kaiser, and next to another competitive YK Delta musher, Richie Diehl. Aliy Zirkle, Mille Porslid, and Kelly Maixner have come in only an hour to two in front of me. “Hello friends, it is nice to see you.”
I catch another nap, waking after an hour and a half without help from my alarm. The dogs eat a couple square meals, and get a thorough check from a couple vet staff, including the chief Iditarod veterinarian, Stu Nelson. We discuss Qarth’s leg, and he concurs that the swelling must have been from some type of impact. Either way, the swelling is down, and he appears good to go. Every dog in the team gets a little walk up and down the line before we depart, checking for flexibility and any potential muscle strains. The checkpoint of Shaktoolik has been moved out of town because of virus concerns, and there will be no vet or dog drop until Koyuk, 90 miles away.
It is late morning when we pull the hook and leave Unalakleet. Forty and Marten are back in lead for this run, as I know it is going to be hot (It is already 40 degrees as we move down the slough, on our way out of town). There is a nice breeze, however, and the dogs almost immediately, find their stride. The Blueberry Hills lay in front of us, and I have a ski pole at the ready. The hills on the coast of Norton Sound often times get overlooked as we worry about blizzards and winds coming off the Bering Sea. However, their presence is not to be forgotten, and this run to Shaktoolik can be a heartbreaker for many tired mushers.
As we get through the first half a dozen climbs, the clouds start to lift and reveal the rolling beauty of the Nulato Hills to our east, and frozen water of Norton Sound to our west. It is awesome! The temps have continued to rise, however, and the snow has turned to a springtime slush, collecting under the sled like concrete. I fight to rid its presence at the bottom of every descent, before heading up the next climb. I turn off the GPS, it is better to not see how slow we are going.
The sun breaks as we drop out of the hills and onto the beach towards Shaktoolik. The breeze attempts to keep us cool, but is unsuccessful. I am in a hoody and ball hat, no gloves, and the dogs are bootie free, allowing more exchange of temperature through their feet. I keep those ski poles moving.
As we arrive in “Old Shaktoolik,” the location of the new checkpoint, I see that most of the residents of “new” Shaktoolik have ventured over to watch the mushers and dogs in the checkpoint. I crack a smile as I see a dozen or so kids playing on the snowbank next to ALiy’s team, and brand new pickup make its way into the checkpoint with ten people in the bed. This is the busiest checkpoint of the entire race.
Parking is a bit chaotic, but the villagers of Shaktoolik have gone above and beyond to make us comfortable. In fact, these accommodations are much nicer than they would be in a typical year. An abandoned cabin has been opened up for our use. There is a giant wood stove, cranked full open. A coffee pot, microwave and boot dryers have all been setup (powered by a local’s, donated generator). There are two couches and a cot to sleep on (strategically positioned out of the steady drips of water coming from the ceiling). “This is really great!”
A few more “new” faces are in this checkpoint. Lance stumbles out of the cabin as I am feeding my team. Nic is in some process of complaining or preparing to go, maybe both. Jessie Holmes is around the corner, as well. We are at the stage of the race where it will be hard to catch many of these teams by cutting rest. We are all going to need to give our dogs about the same amount, and none of these mushers are going to oversleep. At this point, I look to my dogs, and go simply based on what I know they can do.
We take a three and a half hour stop in Shaktoolik, and sit tight as Pete, Nic, Lance and Mille leave during our rest. Kelly, Aliy and I prep our teams at the same time, and leave only a few minutes apart. Knowing that I have the fastest team from our group, I don’t worry as they pull the hook a few minutes in front of me. I thank Gary, and the generous people of Shaktoolik who donated so much of their time and provisions to this checkpoint. I then get their help to swing the dogs out of our parking spot.
This run takes us 12 miles overland, across Cape Denbigh, and then 30 miles across the frozen salt water of Norton Bay. Known for wind and unpredictable trail marking, this section has caused some serious upset in race standings over the last couple of years. Nic Petit lost the lead in the last two Iditarods on this run (getting off trail in ’18, and having his team quit in ’19). Mitch Seavey spent four unplanned hours in the middle of the bay last year, and a few other teams took unplanned breaks of between eight and 20 hours, holing up in a shelter cabin only 12 miles out of Shaktoolik.
I am confident in my team’s ability, and their level of rest at this point in the race, and have no concern about “unplanned breaks” on this leg. However, weather comes up quickly in this region, and with a storm in the forecast, I have thrown in an extra 4 pound bag of kibble, and a few extra meat snacks (since my experience on the way to Cripple in 2008, I always have extra food in the sled). The dogs take a good half hour to warm up, and Kelly remains in front of us as the team finds their step. The sun drops below the horizon, giving us a beautiful array of purples, pinks and oranges. A light breeze comes off the water to our left, and the temp drops down to 10 degrees as the skies clear. We make it by Kelly, and quickly catch up to Aliy. We pass the shelter cabin as we drop down onto the sea ice.
Forty is JACKED about this run. He is trying to drive the team into a lope at every opportunity, and I ride the drag steady with one leg. The ski poles are in the sled, and I get to enjoy watching the team flow. After a few hours, the aurora comes out, dancing over the distant city lights of Koyuk, our next stop. I periodically cover my headlamp and glance back to check in on Kelly and Aliy (I wouldn’t want them to see me glancing back to check in…). On the ice, it is hard to judge distance, but I can clearly see that these two have separated from each other. Kelly’s light is so bright, I can’t discern if he is a quarter mile back, or 10. I don’t give it more thought, and go back to my team. Far in the distance, I can see Mille (or maybe Lance), look back now and then. Again, maybe 7 miles, maybe 15.
We have been averaging eight and a half miles per hour for this run, and Koyuk grows in front of us far quicker than anticipated. With the increase in speed, I can see a few team members that aren’t quite as peppy as the rest of the group. They are there and travelling nicely, but not contributing much. It doesn’t matter for this run on a solid trail, but I make note for our upcoming runs. My three siblings, Qarth, Mereen and Whiskey, all missed out on a significant amount of training this season. I can now see those lack of long runs coming through. “You are doing fine guys, that checkpoint is coming right up.”
The team is energetic as we pull into Koyuk, barking and lunging into their harnesses. I struggle to keep them slowed enough to follow the checker to our parking spot. Despite their show, I know they are going to need a touch more rest than we have been taking recently. I also need to sleep a solid hour, so I plan a four hour and thirty minute stop here. It is the middle of the night, and the dogs and I will get some quality rest.
As I get up from my nap, I see that Lance is also up and attempting to get going. He looks rough! His head bobs as he fights to stay awake in the sitting position. I wonder about my own condition. Do I look that tired? I don’t feel particularly human, but drink my coffee and force my boots on anyway. Outside, I give the dogs another meal. Appetites are no longer a concern, and everyone cleans their bowl. Kelly and Aliy seem to be in the same stage of prep as I am, and Mille appears to be only a few steps in front of us. I suspect that she will depart with a 45 minute lead.
The trail from Koyuk to Elim is typically well travelled by villagers. This year however, the locals have taken a different route to Elim, and the Iditarod trail breakers have followed their GPS from previous years. The first 15 miles through rolling hills, is a sugary mess. There is no base, and willow and small spruce trees poke through like little javelins. It is rough, slow going. I have left Koyuk in front of Aliy, and about ten minutes behind Kelly. I catch Kelly as we get into the first steep climbs out of Koyuk, and lead him through the remaining hills. The trail then descends onto a large flood plain, that leads to Moses Point. The winds are now accompanied by snow, and we are soon mushing into a solid storm (black clouds looming in the hills to the north). I have been able to keep Kelly in sight behind me, but as visibility diminishes, he disappears. The dogs are rolling nicely now that we are out of the hills, and have linked back in with the village trail. I seriously contemplate jumping Elim, and continuing on to White Mountain. It is a move that has been made by plenty of teams over the years, and I know that our dogs could handle it. This would put us into a 13 to 14 hour run. It would be a haul, but might get us in front of the worst of this snow that is quickly building.
After miles of flat travelling, we join into a summer road and start climbing towards Elim. The snow is five inches deep at this point and coming down heavy and fast. It is 30 degrees. Any hopes of going through the checkpoint are quickly dashed, and I know a few hours of rest are going to be critical to make it through the upcoming hills to White Mountain.
As I check into Elim, I see that Pete and Nic are in the checkpoint. But Mille? She has gone through, checking in and out 20 minutes before our arrival. “That’s nuts,” I think. As I get my team bedded down and relaxed, I notice that Pete and Nic are in preparation to depart. Well, that is the last I see of them. “You have done a hell of a job to get us to this point, dogs. We can be happy with 17th.”
Kelly comes in shortly behind me, and we discuss the weather and upcoming trail. He declares that he is spending five hours here. He concedes that I have him on speed, and knows that Aliy isn’t going to catch us. The next team is Tom Johansen, and he is over four hours back. “So, might as well get some sleep and give the dogs a solid break.” I agree that sounds good, and know the extra hour or two will really benefit when it comes to climbing the “mountains” on the way to Golovin.
Elim and White Mountain are separated by some pretty incredible terrain. As teams leave Elim, they are confronted with some of the most daunting climbs of the entire race, including “Little McKinley,” aptly named for its resemblance to the highest peak in North America. I think I counted in last year’s Iditarod, that we summited twelve major hills on this run. At times, the snow was so drifted and deep that I had to run in front of the leaders to put in some kind of track from marker to marker (there was absolutely no definition for them to see, and no trees to use as markers to call them to). This year, we are given a slight reprieve from the hills, and start off with an eight mile run on the sea ice, before ascending “McKinley” and the remaining five summits.
After we make it through the hills, we then hit the frozen Golovin Bay. This is a notoriously windy spot, and has been the folly of many Iditarod teams over the years (you might be catching a theme here, the Coast is brutal!). In 2004, Ramey Brooks had his race come to an immediate end as his team caught one glimpse of the upcoming, desolate white, and just crumpled. He was stuck there for hours, and eventually turned back to the community of Golovin to scratch. In 2014, teams were hit with a storm that kept most of the front runners in Elim for more than 14 hours. A few daring individuals forged ahead, to varying degrees of disaster. Hugh Neff was the only musher to go through Golovin in that storm, and hit the bay in winds of 70 plus. He made it about seven miles across the ice before losing all direction, and any semblance of marked trail. He attempted to turn around, but couldn’t convince his team that going back was a logical idea. He hit his emergency beacon, but the winds were so strong that the snowmachines attempting to leave White Mountain to check on him, flipped in the cross wind. He sat on the ice for 16 hours, until finally he got a break and made it to White Mountain (forfeiting his race after pressing the beacon button).
Recollecting on my previous experiences on this section of trail, and thinking about these other mushers from the past, I want to make sure the dogs are mentally rested and physically capable for what will surely be a tough run. My three weaker team members are going to stay behind, I decide. I don’t want to risk having to load any of them, and want to ensure that we can keep a faster speed than Kelly. Qarth, Mereen and Whiskey are all some of my most solid veterans, and I know that they will be back for future Iditarod’s.
As I consult with a vet and fill out paperwork to leave my three siblings, Nic comes loping back into the checkpoint. He has been gone for almost three hours, and I know this is not a good sign for his race. Inside, he is flabbergasted with his team. “They barely move on flat ground, but hit a hill and they just want to lope.” I scratch my head. “They didn’t want to come back to the checkpoint. They all turned around, and were like, “Dad, what are you doing?” I am tempted to tell him I have the same question, but just nod my head instead. Better let that discussion go.
I lead Kelly and Aliy out of Elim, and onto the sea ice. Kelly, the dog, is not thrilled about a different departure from the checkpoint (as compared to her four previous races), and we have to have a brief rearrangement of team members (Kelly ends up in wheel). I double ski pole as the dogs warm up, and quickly we are moving at seven miles per hour, breaking trail through six inches of wet, coastal snow.
The eight miles of flat running are quickly over, and the Darby Mountains now await. Little McKinley is our first climb on this route, and the two year olds, Marten, Moose and Lynx, get some big eyes as we approach a white wall, trail markers leading straight up, into the clouds. I pedal, run and ski pole, and everyone digs in. It is a 15 minute climb, and brings us above the snow and clouds to travel a saddle to the next peak. Another climb, followed by a long decent. Winds have picked up here, and the visibility is now down to about 200 feet. There is no discernable trail to follow, but I can see marker to marker. Braavos is in single lead (has been since Koyuk), driving harder than I have ever seen. But, he makes no effort to find the best footing, and keeps plowing off the solid base and into untouched powder (it all looks the same, so a leader needs to use their nose and sense of feel to stay on the trail). In this moment, I miss Qarth’s leadership under these conditions, but also realize this is a learning experience for Braavos. I watch and wait over the brake, ready to slow the team and give him a verbal command to get back on the hardpack as he falls off. It is slow going, and I expect to see Kelly behind me at any minute. Eventually, though, we make it out of the hills and catch a glimpse of Golovin, 45 minutes away.
Most years, the trail takes us across a piece of Golovin Bay, and into town. Although it is not a checkpoint, we cruise through the village streets before returning to the frozen bay. This year, however, we divert around town in a horseshoe formation. Just as we round the point of Golovin, I look back and see Kelly and Aliy’s lights hitting the start of the bay. “45 minutes, alright!” I give the dogs a snack break, and check their booties. They are crazy eager, and keep pulling the hook and getting tangled as I attempt to work with their feet. Braavos is pissed with the rest of the males, and I deal with a momentary spat between him, Forty and Marten. I make note that I shouldn’t be an idiot, and work more diligently to make sure they don’t pull the sled forward as I am in the team.
Immediately after departing our snack break, we are hit from the west. Not a breeze. Not even a wind. A ground storm! It comes out of the west with true power, and takes my sled for a ride. I am pushed at a 45 degree angle to the team, and the dogs struggle to keep their footing as I jostle around to gain control. The wind chill has a bite, especially considering I am drenched with sweat from our hill climbs an hour earlier, and I am forced to stop and dig out my parka (worrying that if I attempt to pull it out on the run, I will lose grip and have it blow away in the wind).
As we continue into the storm, I go back and forth from ski poling, to pedaling, to sitting down. After feeling like nothing makes a difference, and we seem to be standing still, I pull out my GPS. 6.8 as I am hunkered out of the wind, actually sitting on my sled runner. I stand up and start pedaling; 6.4. I grab a ski pole and continue pedaling with the pole; 6.2. “What!?” I start the experiment over. 6.9; 6.6; 6.0. “Fuck it!” I put the ski pole away, secure my hood and hunker behind the sled, trying to be as small of a wind catch as possible. “The Outsider” has ended, “El Cuco,” in his present form, has died (spoiler alert), so I just listen to the sound of the ripping wind. The dogs are into the run, and work hard to push forward. After a very long time, we reach the edge of Golovin Bay, and climb over a small hill to Fish River. Almost immediately, the wind is gone, and I pull down my hood. It is, in fact, completely still.
White Mountain. It is a welcome sight. Our final stop in this years race, and a nice reprieve from the last few hours of weather. My group of eight dogs share an entire bale of straw, and eat a large, protein packed meal. Everyone gets a thorough muscle and joint check, and rub down before some solid sleep. As I finish my chores and head up to the checkpoint, I chat with Mille who survived her straight-through run from Koyuk; 15 ½ hours! “Wow,” is all I can muster. “How was that,” I find a few seconds later. “Terrible,” she replies. I nod my head in agreement. “And Golovin Bay was a punchy mess.” “Any wind out there,” I ask. “Nope. Totally still.” I shake my head in amazement with how quickly weather can change in this area. I eat, and then crash for a few hours.
It is 35 degrees as the team eats their second meal and I pack my sled. I put all of my outer layers in the back portion of my seat, wanting to be dressed down for the 20 miles of climbing through the Topkok Hills (again, the coast is brutal!). I include my water proof overshoes in this packing, and will now be running in my unprotected felt Lobbens. This should be fine, it is the final run, and there is no water on this section…
12 miles out of White Mountain, we cross our first section of overflow. I see it coming, but don’t hesitate to go right through the middle of the pond (following the trail markers, and ignoring the marks from the teams in front, who clearly went around). A few inches, I think to myself. As the dogs splash in, I stand on my cooler to keep my feet dry. Suddenly, Braavos is neck deep and swimming through the water. “Oh Shit, gee! Gee!” Now, most of the team is floundering and bobbing in the water, and I am forced to jump in and push the sled to alleviate weight from their harnesses. We splash to the other side of the 40 foot crossing and regroup. “Good dogs, that was fun, huh?!” They shake off, and we keep rolling.
Over the next hill, we cross another section of blue water. This time, it is 100 feet wide, and I pay a little closer attention to the depth. I gee and haw Braavos through the shallowest sections, but am forced to keep my feet on the runners for control. My felt boots are now soaked, and I am wet up to my knees. Whatever, at least it is almost 40 degrees. After a few more hills, the Bering Sea will come into view, and we will have smoother sailing from there.
I prep for the notorious “blowhole” as we descend our last hill. After last nights experience in the wind, I am not taking chances. We drop the final piece of trail through some willows, and pass the Topkok safety cabin. It is dead still. The sun comes out. The thermometer reads 45. The dogs slow to six miles per hour. “Did we just step through a time warp? This can’t be the blowhole.” I pass a trail marker, very… slowly… We see some tripods. I recognize them. This all seems right, but something is off. I am starting to sweat from the layers I added in preparation for wind, and strip them off. I give the dogs a snack, and strip a few booties. We get back to our walk.
Just as I am getting comfortable with the sun, double ski poling along, the western breeze returns. Suddenly, the sun is gone and a chill starts to grow. “Well, at least the dogs will appreciate that.” The wind builds, and soon I am working to keep the sled on a straight trajectory behind the team. I return to the same conditions we had on Golovin Bay the night before, and store the ski pole in my sled. I have been carrying an InReach for this race, which has allowed me to text with Katti here and there. I turn it on, and get a message a few minutes later. She warns me about a winter storm and tells me she wants me to “be careful and be prepared.” Her tone is more adamant than normal, and she seems genuinely concerned. Well, too late now. Nome will be our next stop, hell or high water!
By the time we are five miles from Safety, I have had to dig in the sled bag for more clothing. I have dry socks at the toe of my sled. I get those on while the dogs continue to run. My lobbens, and boot liners, are a soaked mess. I rummage and come out of the sled with the bag of dog jackets. “These will do.” I wrap a jacket around each foot and stuff them back in my boots. “Not bad.” It is still 25 degrees, so the dogs aren’t going to be needing their jackets anytime soon. The wind has only increased, but I have found that I can double ski pole as long as I keep my knees on the runners, crouched behind the handlebar of my sled.
We cross the Nome-Council road, and go under a bridge towards the Safety Roadhouse. I pull out my vet book, pre-emptively, and ready my sled for a quick check. As I pull into the checkpoint, the volunteers and vet are more than happy to chat and ask me questions. “I really want to keep moving guys. Here is my book, and here is my sled.” The vet takes the book and asks if I want any coffee, or to park for a time. “Are you crazy?! Nome is right over that hill, and it is blowing like hell out here!” I bite my tongue, and graciously decline. “We just want to keep rolling, thanks.” Poor guys, no one ever wants to stop in Safety. I thank them, and pull the hook. The dogs are all business, and get right back to their rhythm. Some kids on a snowmachine cruise by, and I discourage the team from giving a hard chase.
We have one final climb before the finish, the 900 foot Cape Nome. We ascend with no difficulty, and enter steady snow at the top. It is quiet, except for the sound of the panting team members, and we enjoy some of our final moments out of the wind. Descending the other side, I know that we will be hit from the open ocean to our west.
As we rejoin the coast, I am surprised to find that the wind is at our back. It is strong, but pushing us down the trail. That is a welcome gift! We begin to pass old fishing and mining shacks, and soon link up with the now active, Nome-Council Highway. Residents are out to watch us come in, and honk and wave. Braavos is thrilled to be at the front of the team, and more than once, tries to take us to random vehicles and photographers. He is completely passed listening to commands at this point, and forces me off the sled to correct his direction. For some reason, I insist on keeping him in lead as opposed to putting Marten or Forty in this position. Perhaps, I feel that Braavos has led most of the coast and “deserves” to cross the finish line in lead. Perhaps, I am just tired and ready to get there myself. He snarls at the dogs behind him anytime I hit the brake, and swaggers past anyone who is within 100 feet (hackles and head up). He is honestly quite the showman, and it gives me a good chuckle.
Our final challenge comes less than a mile from the finish. In the final stretch before climbing on to Front Street, we run on the frozen shoreline. With the winds and changing temperature, water has moved in and the tides have risen. It is wet! There are multiple sections of knee-deep water, and the dogs and I struggle to find the best way through them. Well, actually, I give up on saying anything and just let Braavos pick his way through. He seems determined to reach that finish, and charges forward in what he feels is the best path. I trust him, more or less, and just hang on. This will be is third finish in lead, so I figure he has earned the right to decide what route we should take.
At last, after 10 days and 5 hours, we pull up onto Front Street. The finish is now a few blocks away, and we have a police escort to the line. I give the dogs a whistle, and they break into a lope. “Lets give this last stretch a run!” The dogs are eager to move on good ground, and after miles at only six to seven, we hit 11 miles per hour in the final quarter mile. “That feels good guys!” They show me that they seem to agree. With smiles, and wags, we cross under the burled arch.
Our time in Nome will be short lived, and bizarre. But, in this moment, we are grateful to have arrived and finished another successful race.
Braavos, obviously pleased with his performance