Iditarod 2019 Part I of II. The Start to McGrath.
Iditarod start is something like controlled chaos. 54 teams park in two semi-circles at the Willow visitor’s center. The typical parking arrangement, on Willow Lake itself, is not an option for this year because of warmer than normal temps. This has left the lake with spots of thin ice, and an abundant amount of overflow (water sitting on top of the lake ice). So, trucks and trailers are packed into a relatively small area, and mushers do their best to setup sleds and dogs without entangling their neighbors. With the help of some wonderful friends and family, the dogs and I get off without a hitch. I have decided, somewhat last minute, to leave that start line with 13, as opposed to the maximum number of dogs allowed, 14. Spears and India have come into heat, and are going to be breedable during the race. Because two of our best leaders are intact males, Braavos and Forty, I make the decision with little hesitation, and know that having fewer distractions for those two males will pay off in the long run.
The race trail is a soft mess within the first 100 yards of takeoff. The Southcentral part of Alaska has received almost three feet of snow in the two weeks leading up to the race, and with temperatures around 30 degrees, the snow has not setup. It is essentially like running through a foot of sugar. The dogs are focused and I keep their speed steady and under control as we pass crowds of onlookers and fans. The Iditarod start is a giant party for people in the area, and snowmachine tailgate parties line the trail for the first 25 miles of the race.
We are passed by multiple teams in this first run, a few catching us only a couple miles from the start line. This doesn’t concern or worry me, and I remember a great quote from a fellow musher: “The race can’t be won within the first 100 miles, but it can be lost in that time.” With incredibly soft snow, and deep moguls that tend to jerk the dogs around, throwing off their rhythm, I tell myself that I can’t possibly go too slow. So, I just embrace the conditions and we slog our way out onto the Susitna River, and then plod down to the Yentna River, which we then follow northwest to the first checkpoint of Yentna.
Leading up to the start of Iditarod, I had been watching the weather in this area pretty closely. I knew the trail was going to be slow, and had made some last minute adjustments to my schedule to account for those conditions. Originally, I had planned to go through Yentna, and rest between the first and second checkpoints. I would then rest again between the second and third checkpoints. However, with so much snow, I cut the first few runs short, and was one of two teams in the race to rest before the first checkpoint of Yentna. Just as light was completely disappearing from the sky, I found a nice side track about 100 feet off the main, marked race trail. I got the dogs snacked and bedded down in about ten minutes, and proceeded to watch everyone in the race slowly pass by. The dogs got a nice meal, which they all ate with vigor, and then closed their eyes for an hour. They are not tired, but have enough training and experience to take full advantage of any opportunity to sleep on comfortable straw.
After a two hour break, we are back to running and blow through Yentna, with a quick gear check and hand off of my race bib (which we are required to wear for the first leg of the race, and will get back for the finish). The trail to Skwentna is probably the best of the whole race, and the dogs trot effortlessly on the solid, flat river. We pass 15 or 20 teams on this leg, and will get repassed as we take our next rest (the game of cat and mouse in these long races is really quite interesting). I stop in Skwentna for three hours, and pay a visit to the old Skwentna Roadhouse. There are a group of women that run this checkpoint, called the “Skwentna Sweeties,” and they live up to their name! The trek up the river bank is rewarded with a hot wash cloth for your hands and face, and a dinner and drink spread made fresh for the mushers to enjoy, along with coffee to-go. Their support of the race is really quite incredible, and I think most mushers would agree that they would love to take this service and hospitality all the way up the trail (it would feel incredible to have a warm face wipe at mile 700!).
Leaving Skwentna, we quickly climb onto a ten mile swamp. The trail has some punchy sections and holes that will swallow your team into bottomless snow, if you are not careful to direct the team around them. The skies are clear, and the northern lights are out in a strong display (especially for being so far south in the state). I take moments to look up and enjoy the show, and just appreciate where I am with my dogs. The joy that I get from running this race, and travelling so much incredible country, often fills me with emotion on the trail, and this was one of those points where I felt I might overflow with gratitude and love for my dogs and their ability. I am pretty quickly brought back to reality, though, as the trail drops onto the Skwentna River, and we mush around some open holes in the ice, and then leave the river to start our slow climb into the Alaska Range.
Most of our training season has been spent running fast, hard packed trails. As much as we tried to find soft snow for quality muscle training, the majority of the state was pretty dry this year. So, our team is faster and lighter footed than they have ever been. This is great for a race with smooth trails, and no fresh snow, but a little less than ideal for slow, soft conditions. This knowledge is the primary factor for starting the race on a very conservative run/rest schedule (at least for our team), and making no run longer than five hours until leaving Rainy Pass. In hindsight, I could have been a little more conservative for a little longer. Anyways, we make another stop before reaching Finger Lake, and take a nice siesta in the late morning. This would actually be the coldest part of the entire race (something like 5 degrees).
Departing our camp, we will be running through the heat of the day on primarily south facing hills. It is going to be hot. I decide it will be smart to leave booties off most of the team, and allow them to remain as cool as possible while running in the hot sun. I figure later in the race, I can manage any small foot problems that may develop from abrasive snow, and the benefit will out way the potential negative. That turns out to not be the case, and I spend the remainder of the race nursing small foot injuries.
We have a nice run through Finger Lake, across FinBear Lake, and down the Happy River Steps. “The Steps,” as they are called, is a series of steep descents from an alpine forest onto the floor of the Happy River valley. It is a wild experience to say the least! (If you want to enjoy a portion of it, see last year’s Iditarod blog for a GoPro video). This year does not disappoint, although with so much snow, we have no choice but to follow the trench from all the teams in front of us, and just fumble our way down. We stop for a brief snack and untangle on the river, and then get ready for the climb back out of the valley and up to Rainy Pass.
Our dogs tackle hills with vigor, and I am always so impressed with their ability to climb ascents that I would struggle to even walk. Leaving the Happy River is a good test of a team’s ability; we are met with a 50 foot wall, which is easily steeper than 50 degrees. The dogs shoot right up that, with a little running assistance from me, and then continue to climb an 800 foot hill. From this point, it is 15 miles to the checkpoint, through rolling hills, surrounded by stunning peaks with jagged rock faces, and small glaciers. This is one of the most beautiful sections of the entire trail.
Our arrival into Rainy Pass is smooth and we check in for a few hours of rest. I park in line with three past champions, all in different stages of rest. Martin Buser, a four time winner, has beat me into the checkpoint by about five minutes. Jeff King, also a four time champ and one of the oldest people in the race, has been in the checkpoint for about 45 minutes. Mitch Seavey, the most current champ from these three, is just getting ready to pull the hook and continue up the trail. I take this as a sign that I am either racing out of my element, or am on track to have a semi-competitive race if I can hold everything together. I feed and care for the dogs, checking for muscle strains and joint issues, and after a thorough check and appraisal of their attitude, decide we are on track for a good race (easy to say at mile 140, haha). Picket is left in Rainy Pass for a slight tear to his left gluteal muscle. He catches a flight back to Anchorage, and actually leaves the checkpoint before the team does.
The 32 mile run to Rohn is always one of the most stressful of the race. We climb to the summit of Rainy Pass, about 4000 feet, and then drop off the north side of the Alaska Range, losing about 3500 feet in elevation in only 15 miles. The descents are wicked, and made worse by multiple open creek crossings and the close proximity of so many teams. I leave the checkpoint of Rainy Pass within a few minutes of five other teams, Jeff King and Martin Buser as a part of that group. It is dusk, and pretty quickly a string of headlamps appears, all from teams making their way through the pass. I follow a friend, Aaron Peck, for a few miles, and then pass him as he makes a brief stop. I know it was going to be a slow, frustrating run, when we all bottle neck at the first creek crossing. There is only room for one team at a time, and if the dogs don’t immediately jump into the water, things can go awry. Both Jeff and Martin run their dogs with no necklines, meaning that the dogs have only one attachment point and can spin circles if the team is not moving. This can be an absolute mess when trying to convince them to cross open water, and sure enough, the first crossing is a complete shit show. While Aaron helps Jeff get his dogs across, Martin comes up behind me, and hooks down his team. He walks up to see what is going on, and at that moment, his team pulls through the hook, and immediately, our two teams become one. His dogs, with their no neckline, weave over and under my team, and we have a giant ball. Thankfully, my dogs are super calm, not aggressive, and stand patiently while I try to untangle the mess and Martin yells out expletives about the incompetency of other mushers. We finally have ourselves sorted, more or less, right as his team yanks the sled out of his hands and goes blowing by. At the last minute, I dive at his handlebars and get the sled stopped for him to run and jump on. Wahoo!
After getting through the first crossing, and getting our positioning established, it seems like things might flow pretty smoothly. Well, I shouldn’t be fooled. The entire rest of the run is a cluster of teams at every water crossing and every steep hill. At this point, Martin and Jeff have excelled to the front of our group, and Aaron is travelling right behind me. There is one team separating us from the two champs, however, and he has a hell of a time at every patch of water, bringing Aaron and I to a complete halt.
Although our sled dogs tend to love water in the summer months, they are smart, and the idea of getting their feet wet in winter is less than appealing. Some mushers are able to train for this, and teach their dogs to cross water regardless of the conditions. Others, like myself, just count on the fact that the dogs will baulk. I simply drive the team until they are in a slight ball (picture an accordion being pushed from either side), and then anchor my hooks, jog up to the front of the team, take ahold of my leaders and guide them into the water, pointing them to the other side. My feet get a little wet, but this system works great when in a hurry, and the dogs trust that I am acting with our best interest at heart, and tend to follow me right into the water. That being said, I strategically place leaders for this type of run that are small and easy to work with. This year that was Braavos and Fierce. They are both under 50 pounds and easy for me to handle.
So, this team in front of us is really struggling at every crossing, and is in turn costing us about five minutes at every patch of water. Time is not my primary concern, really. I am more frustrated about the break in rhythm that it is causing for my dogs. The team finds their stride after a couple of hours of running, and unnecessary stops mess with their speed and attitude.
We finally make it through one of the final creek crossings, and start the final descent into Rohn. This is by no means a straight forward trail, and is some of the most technical driving I will ever do (avoiding boulders and large tree stumps, while also skating across patches of pure ice; all intermixed with drops of 45 degrees and steeper). Well, this team that we have been following, is still in front of us, and is now having issues on the downhills. As they start the steepest part of a drop, it seems as if the leaders stop and let the whole team run them over. The musher is then forced to stop and run up to untangle everyone. I come upon this ball right as my team and I are descending the steepest of the hills. In a moment of panic, halfway down the descent, I yell “whoa” to the dogs and force my anchor into the edge of the trail. I am praying it grabs something of substance to stop the dogs, before we literally run over this team in front of us. We do manage to stop, and I immediately spin around and attempt to yell back to Aaron before he drops into my team. It is now night and completely dark, in a tight canyon, with thick trees surrounding us. Communication is nearly impossible, so we have resorted to flashing our headlamps back and forth, as warning. This happens on three of the steepest drops, all within about five miles. Because the trail is so technical, and so narrow, passing is completely impossible and a faster team is simply forced to follow the slower team. Just before Rohn, the trail drops onto the Tatina River, and Aaron and I can finally get around the slower musher and trot easily into Rohn.
Despite the slow run out of the mountains, I stick to my plan of going through Rohn, and spend a quick fifteen minutes packing my sled with dog food, straw and fuel before leaving the checkpoint. It is well known that the run out of Rohn can be one of the worst of the whole race. We leave the thick forest surrounding the Rohn roadhouse, and drop out onto the South Fork of the Kuskokwim River. This area gets very little snow, and what snow does fall, gets completely stripped away with strong winter winds. So, the river ice is completely exposed, and you have almost no stopping or steering ability. This is where a well-trained, and calm team comes in handy. This year, the river ice is frozen as smooth as glass, with four foot drops that lead down to the open river. There are no trail markers at this point (there is nothing for them to stick into), and mushers are expected to travel two miles downriver and then look for a blinking red light, which marks the turnoff to leave the river and get back into the woods. Following a couple scratch marks from teams in front of us, we blast down the river, attempting to avoid the frozen driftwood, and also not get blown sideways into the open water. About a half mile out of Rohn, I catch a glimpse of a team a hundred yards off the “trail,” crashed on the ice just a few feet from the open river. I pull out my snowhook, and anchor the team in a small crack in the river ice. I step off the runners, and my feet immediately go out from under me, landing me flat on my back. I struggle to get up, and as soon as I am standing, start drifting with the wind towards the team I have stopped to help. It is so slick that I need only take one step in the correct direction, and the breeze does the rest. As I approach the dogs, I see it is my buddy, Lev, with an entire team in fresh booties (covering all four feet). They have absolutely no traction on the ice, and can’t keep their feet under them. I chose to strip booties from my team in Rohn, and now try to convince him to do the same. He is determined to keep them on, however, knowing that we will have 15 miles of incredibly abrasive snow once we are off this ice. So, together, we drag his 14 dogs up the ice towards my team. We get them more or less straightened out, after only a few wipe outs on our end, and I hop on my sled to guide his team in the correct direction. Looking back on this moment, I think I gave him some instruction like: “don’t worry, follow me.” As I pull the hook, we immediately go shooting across a gravel bar full of round river rock and large pieces of driftwood. With a nice tailwind, the sand that I am churning up with the drag is curling around my sled and blowing back into my face. With that impediment, and the rocks which are jostling my body so bad that my headlamp looks and feels like I am attending a European rave, there is absolutely no way to see where we were going. Through little moments of relief from the sandblasting, getting brief squints, I am able to catch sight of the red light, and our turn (after maybe three or four of those gravel bars, all in a row). At this point, I look back for Lev, and not seeing him, figure it is every man for themselves out here, and keep moving.
Leaving the Kuskokwim River, we enter an area called the Farewell Burn (see last year’s blog for some cool video and pictures). I have survived this section of trail twice before, both times in the daylight. Well, doing it at night adds a completely different level of thrill to the experience of dodging stumps, rocks and open holes. This entire section has absolutely no snow, so the dogs have perfect traction, and our sleds have almost no stopping or slowing ability. As I careen down hills, run over frozen sections of glaciation, avoid sharp pieces of granite, and bounce across huge clumps of earth, I try not to focus on any one obstacle. Instead, I watch my leaders first and foremost, making sure they are headed in roughly the correct direction. Then, I skip over all the other dogs, and keep an eye on what next hazard is about to destroy my sled, and think quickly as to the best way to avoid certain catastrophe. Sounds fun, right?! Well, it is pretty awesome as long as you only do it once a season!
Somehow, we survive this 13 mile section unscathed, and slowly get back into decent snow. At this point, we have been running for over seven hours, and I am now seriously in need of a break, and know the dogs should have a meal and a rest. My intent had been to run to Tin Creek, but at 2:30 in the morning, I can no longer remember if it is 16, 18 or 22 miles out of Rohn. I pass the 16 mile mark (according to my GPS), and decide to take advantage of a stand of living trees for wind protection. I make camp right on the edge of the trail, and set the dogs up with a heavy straw bed. I had been thinking of a five hour break originally, but opt for a six, giving me an additional hour of sleep, and the ability to feed two large meals to the dogs. One of my childhood idols, Ramey Smyth, is parked a couple team lengths behind me, and throughout the course of our rest, more than a dozen teams trot by.
At dawn, I wake the dogs with a snack and their second meal. A few dogs have slept with heat packs and shoulder jackets (treating a couple sore muscles from the rough trail) and I remove these dressings and get them ready to roll. As everyone gets lined out and clipped back into their tuglines, they show me they are ready with some tail wags and quick little barks. The remaining 55 miles to Nikolai are straight forward and tame, when compared to the Gorge and early part of the Burn. We cross the Farewell Lakes, vacant of snow, and get a pass in with Jeff King while he replaces runner plastic. But all in all, an easy run. In fact, the final 25 miles into town are quite boring, running an old survey line, with nothing but moguls for entertainment.
The town of Nikolai is a welcome sight, and signals the end of the first stage of Iditarod. Although it is a completely unofficial way to analyze the race, I break the trail into four parts: The Alaska Range (the start to Nikolai – 238 miles); The Interior (Nikolai to Shageluk – 220 miles); The River (Shageluk to Kaltag – 164 miles); and the Coast (Kaltag to Nome – 308 miles). This system allows me to more easily tackle the entirety of the trail, and gives a tired musher a few more finish lines throughout the race. Nikolai is a wonderful place, with a welcoming community that provides piping hot water in the dog yard, and free meals at the school (an eighth of a mile walk through town). I am especially excited to be arriving in Nikolai this year with a healthy and hungry dog team. As you may remember from last year, my team had started the race with a stomach bug, and I was really struggling to get the calories into them at this point in the race (and actually, took my 24 hour rest at this checkpoint). Well, that is not an issue this year, and as we pull into the dog yard for a break, the team is ravenous for their high protein snack. Nikolai is also a unique stop, because one of our friends and sponsors is volunteering for the race and supposed to be stationed here for a few days. As the dogs finish their snack, and get comfy on their straw, Kurt greets me with a smile and handshake, and he gets a chance to socialize a little with his sponsor dog, Kelly. We chat for a bit as I do chores, and attended to Kelly’s sore wrist, and then it is time for me to visit the school, and eat a couple free meals. Throughout this Iditarod, I would typically eat a large meal, nap for an hour to hour and a half, then wake up and eat another small meal before hitting the trail. Nikolai is an exception, and I eat three large meals over the course of three hours!
Departing Nikolai, I had a few different plans for how to tackle the interior, and when to take my mandatory 24 hour rest. All mushers in the race typically take this large rest somewhere between Nikolai and Iditarod, based on trail conditions and team training. My “plan A” had been to mush to the halfway point of Iditarod before taking this rest. However, with a slow trail into Nikolai, and very slow and soft trail out of Nikolai, I decide a 24 in McGrath makes the most sense. I also have to think about the time of day that I depart my mandatory rest. Doing the math, it looks like I will be starting my rest at 4 A.M., and then departing at about 5 A.M. the following day (you make up your start time differential on this rest). An early morning run is perfect for a dog team, because we take advantage of cooler air temperature and better trail conditions. So, this helps to further support my decision for stopping in McGrath.
McGrath is one of the larger towns along the Iditarod trail, and is located along the banks of the Kuskokwim River. The trail coming into town follows the river, and we can see the lights of civilization for about an hour and a half as you slowly close in on the checkpoint. It takes forever to get there! However, the slow arrival is offset by a welcoming crew (even at four in the morning). Once I am parked and the dogs are cared for, we are welcomed into the local clinic/health center which is transformed into the official checkpoint. Food is abundant (all provided by local residents), and mushers are setup with gym mats for sleeping in the attached daycare center. I am fortunate enough to find a nice, secluded corner in a back room of the center, and settle in to get some quality rest. Don’t be fooled though, on a 24 hour stop the dogs will eat five meals and five snacks. They are basically consuming food every 6 hours throughout the period, and in addition to calories, they will need foot care, massage and stretching. An important part of this health care procedure involves the chance to get off their straw and move around, which means multiple leash walks for every dog. So, I am as busy as ever during our time in McGrath, and sleep in a series of four to five, three hour naps.
I do get a chance to catch up with a few friends in the race, as we have all decided to take our 24 hour rest in McGrath. Wade Marrs is running a few hours in front of us; Seth Barnes and Lev Schvarts are basically right with me; Richie Beattie, a friend from Fairbanks, is a couple hours behind; and another couple friends from around the state are coming in as I am finishing up with my final round of chores. This is a good time to drink some coffee together and discuss the trail conditions, and health of our teams. Often times, a few minutes together can help ground a musher and make them realize the challenges they are facing are not unique only to them alone. A broken sled, sick dog, or personal injury is often shared by many others in the race. Of course, this is also a great time for competitive mushers to play head games with one another, and try to throw the competition off your personal race plan (essentially distracting them by talking about the poor trail, warm temps, and upcoming challenges). All part of the fun of racing, I guess. So, after an entire day in the same location, the dogs and I are very much ready to get back on the trail and keep moving towards Nome.
Knox and Pogo, enjoying their straw in McGrath
The team, parked along the edge of the Kuskokwim River (McGrath)