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Iditarod 2018 – Part 2: Rainy Pass to Don’s Cabin

The slow ascent into Rainy Pass is quite an awe inspiring experience. Huge peaks loom overhead, and you are truly mushing in the mountains. I arrived into this area in late afternoon, and the light quality on a clear day was just breathtaking (and, I am not someone to use that phrase lightly). The elevation is not actually that high (the checkpoint at Puntilla Lake is right around 2800 feet), but it feels like you are about to summit Denali. There are quite a few steep climbs to reach the lake, and this year’s trail was rerouted to go over a “wall;” a 300 foot climb at a 50 degree incline. This was probably one of my favorite parts of this run, as our team is so talented at climbing hills.

We train in an area with lots of hills, and we work at motivating our dogs to charge up steep inclines. As we approached this particular ascent, my dogs spotted two teams parked on the hill and got excited to catch up to them. I also got excited to see the teams, and figured this would be a great opportunity for us to show off our hill climbing strength. I unzipped my jacket in preparation, and whistled to the team as we started the hill (a good reminder to really hit the harness and give it your all). The dogs took little encouragement, and were in a full lope for the first half of the ascent. We passed the first team without even a glance, and quickly gained on the second team (which was moving slowly forward). As we got to their heels, the musher stopped and my leaders flawlessly dodged to the left and powered past their first pair of dogs. Just to keep our speed and energy, I hoped off the sled and gave the team the “alright” command to really drive us past. The dogs were incredibly motivated and charged to the top of the hill in one smooth motion. Good dogs!

a man walking across a snow covered mountain

A few miles from Rainy Pass

After ascending the wall, it was now quite apparent that the checkpoint was only a few minutes away (we could hear the roar of small planes and snowmachines on the lake). In my previous Iditarod, this had been a quiet checkpoint to rest in, and I actually overslept my alarm by a few hours that year. My arrival time in this year’s race was much earlier, and consequently, the checkpoint was a much different experience. There were about 30 teams on the lake, either parking, resting, or getting ready to depart, and they were complimented with 8 planes on the lake and about 10 snowmachines buzzing around (either watching dog teams, or transporting goods to and from the airstrip). The lodge at Puntilla Lake runs a year round business, and one of their busiest times coincides with Iditarod (people pay to stay at the lodge and watch teams come through). The guests also take flight seeing and snowmobile tours over the trail, so on a beautiful afternoon, there was quite a lot of activity. Although the dogs and I got very little rest, it was a fun place to watch other dog teams and see a few friends (one of our fellow mushers was watching her husband in the race, and was able to take a message back to Katti).

a group of people sitting in the snow

Parked at Rainy Pass (on Puntilla Lake). A vet checks over the team as they catch some rest.

I had planned a longer rest at Rainy Pass (about six hours), but after about three hours of commotion, I decided it was time for us to get moving and attack the Dalzell Gorge (hands down the most technical part of this race, and a place where many people have had their race come to an end). I was not particularly worried about this section of trail, having done it before and also having a very well trained and obedient dog team. You can imagine the difference between a group of dogs who barks and screams to go as soon as you stop, and a group that simply wags their tails and eats some snow. The first group of dogs can easily “pull the hook” and send you careening down the wrong trail, or into open water, risking the entire team and the outcome of your race. The second group, which our dogs fall into, I would feel pretty confident stopping almost anywhere. All of that being said, the Gorge was still one hell of a wild ride!

We left Puntilla Lake (Rainy Pass checkpoint) at about nine in the evening. A gentle breeze had picked up, and as we climbed out of the checkpoint, and towards the pass itself, I expected a full on storm. The wind, however, remained only breezy, and the dogs were in perfect movement as we neared the 3,400 foot summit. This was also some of the coldest weather they would experience all race, about 5 degrees, and they were loving the trail. After 18 miles, we peaked the summit and began our descent through the mountains and into the Dalzell Gorge. This section is so infamous because of its steep descents, glare ice creek crossings, and minimal snow coverage (often leaving rocks and tree stumps fully exposed). Oh yeh, did I mention that there are large trees on this section as you drop in elevation? Well, lookout!

The “Gorge” starts out pretty mild, with gentle drops, sweeping turns, and a few creek crossings that are only a foot or so deep. We had only minor hiccups with a couple of the water crossings, getting slightly wet feet as the dogs got confused about the best way to cross. And then, this is where details get a bit foggy. After about two and a half hours of running, we really start to drop, following the edge of a small creek that brings us through the mountains. Following a creek sounds all nice and dandy, but imagine a mountain creek for a minute. It has quick moving rapids, shallow falls, and sharp turns with little to no bank. I have to give an incredible amount of credit to the Iditarod trail breakers, they are able to make a trail where one should not viably exist.

The climax of this run includes a 200 foot descent that is well over 45 degrees in pitch, and has trees lining the drop, and boulders waiting on either side at the bottom. There is also a 90 degree turn in there, as well (I do remember that clearly). Although a lot of this run will be blissfully forgotten until next year, I do distinctly recall dropping this hill and realizing that if I made a false move, the chances of getting hurt and destroying my sled were quite high. I carried a GPS for this race, and logged every section of this year’s trail. The GPS also notes max speed (something I would rather not know). On this drop, we hit 21 miles per hour. I believe that to be 100 percent accurate (I have never gone so fast and out of control on a dogsled). It was also the most fun and exciting sled driving I have done in recent memory! You just have to block out all the potential disasters, and enjoy the thrill of the moment.

The last couple miles into Rohn give mushers a chance to mentally decompress and regroup (we are running the Tatina River, and it is smooth and easy trail). My original plan, had been to “jump” Rohn and continue another 18 miles. However, with the warmer temps, and a team that was a bit under the weather, I figured it was best to rest in the checkpoint for a few hours.

Parking in Rohn is a nightmare! It is a heavily wooded checkpoint that is managed by the BLM (no chain sawing allowed). The volunteer crew at the checkpoint does an amazing job of walking your team into the woods to park, but it literally takes 6 people holding the gangline to get you to your parking spot. Because teams are still very close together at this point in the race, we end up waiting for quite a few minutes to actually get help to park. The process is pretty funny, and involves a bit of yelling between the volunteers and the musher on the sled. Once teams are parked, it is about a 20 minute round-trip walk to the Kuskokwim River to collect water for your dogs (we often melt snow, but this checkpoint sits in a rain shadow on the north side of the Alaska Range, and has only a couple of inches of snow on the ground).

This was definitely the low point in Iditarod for me, and was the turn where we went from a goal of racing, simply to a goal of mushing; one run at a time. As I got the team bedded down, I offered all of the dogs a snack, of which only three ate (not a great sign). I gave them an hour to rest, hoping that their appetites would perk after a little sleep and a chance to cool down (the temperature had risen dramatically on our run through the mountains, and it was about 32 degrees in Rohn). I tweaked their meal recipe a bit, and made it as appetizing as I knew how. Yunkai and Qarth were my only takers on food. Discouraged, I picked up all the bowls, and offered a different type of snack that most of them hadn’t eaten yet this season. They all ate a portion, and that got me a little irritated with them (thinking they were just being picky). Almost immediately, the entire team expelled what little food they had taken in. I walked through the team picking up their piles of vomit, and then sat to think things through for a minute.

The vets in the race are often a good resource for advice and medication, and I was also carrying a decent amount of Immodium, which helps with diarrhea and vomiting. Following a quick discussion with the vet staff, I gave all the dogs a dose of pills, and then some clear water (which almost all drank). It was clear, though, that they were in no shape to get off their straw and run six hours down the trail, as I had planned. So, I gave all the dogs a pat (about as much as I could do in the moment), and unrolled my sleeping bag to nap for a few hours. I figured I would sleep and reassess the team after they got a few quality hours of rest. Scratching from the race crossed my mind, but flying out of Rohn is almost as crazy as the mush to get there, and I didn’t want to put that logistical challenge on the race. I figured I had better get us the 80 miles to Nikolai, at the very least.

As I walked through the team after our nap, the dogs were all alert and up off their straw (it had been about five and a half hours since we arrived into Rohn). That looked like a good sign, and I decided I really needed to make a plan for how to get calories into the dogs over the next 12 hours. What is going to make them most engaged with food even if their stomachs are under the weather? I figured I would start by giving them some frozen meat snacks before leaving the checkpoint (avoiding bowls, and water, and all of that mess). The dogs would get a little less hydration from frozen meat than they would in a soup, but I figured eating something was better than nothing. Every dog ate two snacks. I then prepped a meal to feed on the way to Nikolai, and we got ready to run.

This section of trail, known as the Farewell Burn, is another notorious piece of the Iditarod that has caused heartbreak to many teams over the years. There is never any snow for the first 25 miles of this run, and the wind tends to rip out of the Alaska Range and through the valley that we are running, blowing away any snow that may be there. Leaving Rohn is a comical experience, because you tend to find a whole array of valuables strewn across the trail. Due to the lack of snow, sleds careen into trees, fall into holes, or tip on sections of glare ice. Although this year had decent snow compared to some, the trail of goodies did not disappoint. I think I counted 13 dog bowls, two ladles, one cooler, multiple pairs of gloves, entire packs of booties, at least one pair of sunglasses, a knife, and one snowshoe… Wow! I, of course, was not able to pick up a single item, because all of my concentration was on keeping my own sled upright, and not losing any of my own gear.

a group of people cross country skiing in the snow

Approaching Egypt Mountain (off to our right)

I was very fortunate to be able to run almost the entire way to Nikolai in the daylight (I had previously run this section at night). As a matter of fact, my “unplanned” schedule put me running this race about 12 hours faster than my previous Iditarod, so I got to run every section of trail in the daylight that I had previously run in the dark (there is an upside to everything!).

Anyway, after banging over tussucks and gravel patches for a few hours (with some wicked downhills in there for fun), the snow improved and our trail became a bit easier. The topography is pretty interesting, and we climb over ancient glacial deposits and frozen lakes (it is a very cool piece of trail, travelling over what feels like very old country). As the clock approached noon, I could see that the sun would soon be out, and I should plan on resting my team before the heat of the day (especially if I wanted them to consume any food). So, I looked for a nice spot to pull off the trail that would serve two purposes: keep us in the sun and also allow us to be exposed to the steady breeze that was coming out of the west. I figured that if I could get the dogs a bit chilled in the wind, they would feel encouraged to eat their meal (reverting to survival mode). After a few miles, I found the perfect spot, and pulled the team off at the end of a long swamp. I got everyone out of their booties, off their tuglines, and checked for muscle and joint injuries. But, I did not immediately lay down straw, or offer any food, and instead got my personal cooker going, laid out my sleeping bag, and took care of my own chores (the opposite of what mushers typically do in their “checkpoint routine”). I then, after an hour, dispersed the bowls, pulled out my soup (that I had made back in Rohn), and grabbed some kibble. The dogs hopped off the snow and appeared pretty interested in what I was doing. As I ladled out the meal and offered it to each pair of dogs, they all greeted the food with eagerness. I patted myself on the back, and considered myself a dog feeding genius (with some amount of humor and self-mockery). Although not all of the dogs ate everything, it was certainly an improvement from the last 24 hours.

The remaining 40 miles to Nikolai is painfully boring. It makes up for the roller coaster ride of the last 100 miles, and has every musher wishing for some kind of hill by the time they reach the checkpoint. There is, however, some decent overflow that should not be overlooked. About 15 miles before town, we mush through a Larch forest. It is all swamp land, and because the swamps and ground are frozen solid, and there is permafrost beneath that, spring water (and any snowmelt that occurs above freezing) has no place to go, but up. So, you will get standing pools of water in the middle of the trail that can sometimes be a foot or more deep. This was the case in this particular section of trail, and we went through about a mile of standing water. Luckily, Nikolai is a wonderfully hospitable checkpoint, and the local school has a clothes dryer.

A few factors led to my decision to take my mandatory 24 hour rest in Nikolai (earlier than I planned, and earlier than I would have liked). The dogs being a little underweight, but yet starting to eat, was certainly one. The warm weather, and additional rest I had taken because of it, was another. Wet feet also helped make the decision easy. Basically, all signs pointed to making a long rest in this village. As it turned out, I was very happy with this decision.

The snow really started to dump on us as we approached Nikolai, and by the time we were parked in town, there was two inches of fresh snow. It was 28 degrees, so everything on me and the dogs was soaked. All of the dog’s harnesses came off, their jackets were put on, and they got a small meal (dry kibble and frozen meat, which they all ate). Once they were bedded down on straw, I threw some fleece blankets over them in an attempt to keep the fresh snow from melting into their fur in the warm temps. The dogs were pretty comfortable with the blankets, and did a surprisingly good job at staying under them. Once all of my chores were complete, I loaded up a small sled full of dog and personal gear to dry, and made my way to the school.

a dog lying on a bed

Moe and Yunkai (not cute at all)

As I had remembered from my first Iditarod, the Nikolai School was amazing. They have volunteers in the cafeteria to cook three meals a day (free to all mushers); a quiet, dark place to sleep; and an entire boiler room devoted to drying out gear (complete with a functional dryer). I made myself at home, and before falling asleep, ate two helpings of moose spaghetti.

A 24 break in the middle of a distance race, feels like an eternity. I spent the time feeding the dogs (who, for the most part, ate), stretching and massaging muscles, eating (my food intake as I mush is incredible!), and basically waiting for the clock to tell me it was time to go. I did get an opportunity to chat with Katti, which really helped boost my morale. I also got a few hours to lay in the hot sun with the dogs. Storm clouds gave way in the middle of Wednesday afternoon, about 14 hours into our break, and the sun came out bringing the ambient temperature to almost 40 degrees. The resting dogs loved it, and were all stretched out on their straw, bellies up towards the sun. I laid on my sleeping bag next to them, and soaked up the rays as well.

a group of people sitting in the snowa group of people sitting in the snow

As night came, I packed my sled, ate one final meal at the school, and readied the team for our 48 mile run to McGrath. The clouds remained patchy, and it looked like we would have a nice run to the next checkpoint. Most of the teams in the race had very slow run times over this portion of trail, and I was confident that with the cooler night temps and no fresh snow, we would be traveling over a mile per hour faster. I perhaps got a little too excited about this idea. It started snowing only a few miles into our run, and snowed most of the way to McGrath. Oh well… Luckily, I enjoy mushing in fresh snow, and the dogs were great at breaking trail through what built to almost six inches by hour four.

McGrath was another place to rest and get a couple meals in the dogs. About ¾ of the team was eating well and looking strong. There were, however, three dogs that were under weight, and two of those guys had developed sore shoulders on our previous run. I decided it would be best to send them home, and continue with the strongest members. Pogo, India and Elton all left the team in the capable hands of the vet staff.

Leaving McGrath was another moment in the race that gave me a lot of pride as a musher. Typically, volunteers will assist to guide your team out of a complicated parking area. This checkpoint was setup around the community hall, with teams parked in a counterclockwise pattern surrounding the building. In order to leave, you needed to hit the loop road, pass every resting team and run a 360 circle around the center to hit the outbound trail. A gentleman offered to help, and I took him up on his offer to run in front of the dogs. I did mention that if he couldn’t keep up, to just jump aside. As I clipped in my group of 12 dogs, they were all hitting their harnesses and screaming to go (more eager than they had been all season). I pulled the hook and we immediately overtook our volunteer leader. Forty and Knox then easily passed four resting teams and took my command to turn left and loop the community center. Without hesitating, they passed eight more resting teams, the giant pile of leftover dog food, a group of school children, and the vets who were conveniently standing in the middle of the trail with the three dogs that had just left our team. The entire group didn’t miss a step, and dropped right out onto the Kuskokwim River and into a 15 mile per hour breeze. The next 40 miles through Takotna and into Ophir were easy and enjoyable.a man and a woman taking a selfie in the snow

Working our way to Takotna

As we approached Ophir, situated in a fairly wide, alpine valley, I could see dark storm clouds to the Northeast (the direction of our next run). By the time we were parked in Ophir and were eating a snack, the dogs and I were being covered in a light snow. This gave me a slight bit of hesitation about our next run. The next 90 miles of the race would be through fairly exposed country, that has absolutely no traffic (other than from mushers competing in the race). It would be slow, and potentially difficult going, if the snow really started to come down. But, I didn’t let it bother me much (what are the alternatives, after all?). The dogs ate (again!), and I rested for a few hours. By the time I got the team ready to go, we were in the middle of a full on snow storm, with three fresh inches already on the ground.

a group of people that are standing in the snow

Parked with Aaron Peck and Noah Pereira in Ophir (just as the snow started)

We, unfortunately, did not make it far out of this checkpoint before looping around and coming back. Forty had pulled a muscle in his groin (which I did not catch until we started this run), and it was clear he would need to head home. I quickly filled out the necessary paperwork, spun Qarth (who was single leading for this snow storm), and left Ophir for a second time. I had been leading a small group of mushers out of Ophir, but had passed all of them head on as I came back with Forty. We now had an obvious track to follow, and the next team was only minutes in front of us. The dogs found their rhythm in the soft snow, and we settled into a pace of about 7 miles per hour (about what we had been doing for most of this race).

As time passed and the trees got a little smaller and fewer between, I realized the wind had picked up. It was about two in the morning at this point, and I could not really gauge the topography, but it felt like we were running through a sparsely treed pass. As we started ascending our first rolling hill, my question about the terrain was answered, and it appeared true that we were in a wide and exposed pass. The moment we left the trees, the wind kicked us at full force, and any semblance of a trail was gone. This was some of the coolest mushing of the entire race, and I really got a chance to watch Qarth in his element.

I have always joked with Katti, that Qarth is a dog who only performs when the going gets tough. He barely works on a hard packed trail, seeming disinterested and bored. But man, as you hit a hill or deep snow, he puts his power into that harness and is unafraid of anything. It is really something to watch! He is also very good with his gee/haw commands, and has a natural ability to feel and sense a good trail under a foot of fresh snow (not an easy task).

The next team was still only a handful of minutes in front of us, but the majority of the next 25 miles were run with absolutely no trail, and cross winds that were gusting close to 40 miles per hour. It was wild! At one point, we lost the trail markers and were following this ridge with no clear path in any direction. I kept after Qarth to hold the peak of the ridge, and eventually we crossed a line of markers, moving in a perpendicular direction to the path. I hesitated our direction for a moment, and then called Qarth to the left, being pretty sure that would keep us headed the right way (navigating gets harder at three in the morning). Every now and then, we would descend a hill and drop into a quiet patch of woods. I would then see the tracks of the team in front of us (quickly getting covered by the falling snow), and know we were headed the correct way.

Eventually, we dropped another hill and suddenly bumped into a bustling checkpoint. This took me by surprise, as the ghost town of Iditarod was supposed to be another 40 miles away. In fact, we had hit Don’s Cabin (a very old safety shelter), and met up with about 12 other teams resting and waiting out the worst of the wind. I had planned to stop here, and pulled through to a decent parking area. The place was a little chaotic, with teams facing multiple directions and mushers in all stages of disarray. Apparently, four teams had tried to leave the cabin after a few hours of rest, but had been forced back when they couldn’t find the trail. Those mushers were a bit panicked about the next leg, and a couple were discussing waiting out the entire storm until snowmachines could put in a new path. I was overhearing all of the conversations as I went through my chores, and felt very thankful to have my group of dogs. I knew that with a little food and some rest, we would be ready to tackle the next section, trail or no trail.

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