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Iditarod 2021-The Gold Loop Trail: Part I

The snow is coming down steady. Trail markers have been hit and missed, and at times we guess at the best trail. Light left the sky hours ago, and it has been a struggle to keep my eyes open as the dogs plod through the snow. I finally shut off the GPS when it showed our recent speed wasn’t getting above 6.5 miles per hour. We are retracing our steps to the finish line, and have only one rest left to make. Our current run, Rainy Pass to Skwentna, will be our longest at 75 miles, and we are now about nine-and-a-half hours into that leg.

As we cross the Skwentna River, and climb into the trees on the far side, the dogs hit their harnesses and give a burst of power and speed. There is only one thing this can mean: Moose! I am instantly awake, and see that we are on the tail of fresh tracks. Despite the heavy and continual snow, the lines and definition of the hoof are clear and crisp. She must be right around the corner! I jump on the brake and slow the dogs to a walk. They immediately start to scream and bark, still pulling the sled forward. (Perhaps I should have cut a little rest somewhere earlier on in this race, and they wouldn’t be quite so eager now!) I catch a glimpse of shining eyes through the trees, and immediately anchor my hook, holding the team temporarily.

I chose to leave my gun at home this year – a first in my five Iditarod’s. So, I am left to improvise for a weapon. I grab my axe and ski pole, and walk past my leader and down the trail. The cow is standing, broadside to the trail, only about 100 feet past Qarth. I scream and bang my “weapons” together, hoping to intimidate her into moving. She takes notice of my position, and immediately drops her head and pins back her ears (not a good sign!). I am not easily swayed at this late hour, however, and get more assertive with my voice and axe. At 30 feet, she spins my way and gives a couple stomps. I back up, and she follows, now closing the gap to maybe 75 feet from the team.

The dogs are ballistic, and she still isn’t moving. We are now eight miles from the last checkpoint of Iditarod 2021. It has been a near perfect race for this team, and the end has seemed so close at times. I am now quickly reminded that “it’s not over, ’til it’s over.” This beast in front of us is blocking our trail, and there is no alternate route. I am going to have to come up with another plan.

This year’s Iditarod was unique in many ways. COVID heavily influenced all aspects of the pre-race agenda, as there there was no Ceremonial Start, no pre-race Banquet with Bib Draw, and no Musher Meet and Greet. We did not attend meetings in person, and had no get-togethers with our mushing friends before the start. My entire race depended on being COVID negative, so social interactions were out of the question.

Ten days prior to departing Fairbanks for Anchorage, Katti and I went into strict lockdown and social isolation. Our tour business continued to function thanks to our hardworking and dependable guides, but no one came into our house, and any interface happened outside with at least six feet of distance, and usually with masks on. At times this felt a bit extreme, but I was not taking any chances on missing this year’s race. Oh, and I guess contracting COVID wouldn’t have been great either.

The social and physical distancing was actually a new and refreshing experience for the lead up to Iditarod. Instead of a full schedule of meetings and get-togethers, Katti and I had entire days to spend with the team, focusing on their comfort and mental state leading up to the start. Don’t get me wrong here, I love all of the fanfare and festivities that typically accompany Iditarod. I feel that the Ceremonial Start is key to keeping mushing in the limelight in Alaska, and showcasing our teams and the hard work that goes into these dogs. However, having the three days prior to the Official Start be entirely about our dogs, was really nice. It was almost like a pre-race vacation. Well, except for the COVID tests…

Mushers were required to be in Anchorage the Thursday morning prior to race start on Sunday. The reason: a mandatory COVID test at the Millennium Hotel. Now, we had all taken our first test ten days prior, and received results shortly thereafter. All mushers had cleared that PCR test, and were supposed to go into quarantine. But, as many of you can imagine, it is hard to isolate completely when you are trying to prepare for your longest and toughest event of the season – especially when it is dependent on motor vehicles to get you to the start line. So, Iditarod was requiring rapid tests on Thursday, then again at race start, as well as in McGrath (at about race mile 300).

So, we make our trip to the Anchorage area Wednesday night, and spend the night at Sheep Creek Lodge in Willow. Thursday morning, I am up early and drive the 75 miles to Anchorage to get my pre-race packet and quick COVID test. No big deal, I have literally not been in another building for almost two weeks, and have interacted with no one unless my N95 was in place and they were six feet away (yes, we still have N95’s stashed in our tool shed from our seasonal building projects).

At the Millennium Hotel, I start with a test in the parking lot before proceeding inside the building to get my packet, sign some sponsor swag, and get a quick photo and interview. A swab, then sit in the truck and wait for results. Twenty minutes tick by. My phone rings. As I look down to answer it, an email alert shows with the subject line: “Capstone Test Results: POSITIVE!” My heart stops. How can this be?! I answer the phone, and the “COVID Czar” is on the other end (Iditarod had an epidemiologist in charge of all things COVID). “Jeff, your first test is positive.” But, apparently rapid tests are super sensitive, so the chances of a false positive are high. “Come back to the mobile clinic for a second test.” We had been warned that upon a positive test result, we would be re-tested and double checked. But, the second test was it. If it is positive again, you are deemed to be a COVID patient, and are immediately out of the race, and in strict quarantine for 14 days.

As I walked back to my truck after the second swab, the idea of a false positive was not on my mind. I was, in fact, quite sure that I had COVID. I had felt a little under the weather for the week leading up to our departure from Fairbanks. I had interacted with hundreds of people throughout our tour season. I had been to numerous Fairbanks businesses throughout the winter. I must not have had enough viral load established for my first PCR test back ten days ago. That’s why it was negative. Now my viral load was up, and I was COVID positive.  And so, I waited for my second test results (thinking about what a plan B was going to involve: How could we turn this 600 mile round trip road trip with our dogs into something productive?). But at this point, you, the reader, have probably gathered that my initial positive test result was, in fact, a false-positive. I was cleared, and allowed to continue on, one step closer to the Iditarod start line. My recollection of the rest of the morning in Anchorage is a bit fuzzy. I sign some stuff, no idea what. I pose for a photo, looking fairly dazed and confused. I answer a few simple questions with unintelligible answers. I just want out of the city, and away from people!

Sunday, March 7th Race Start- 

It is a blue bird, stunning morning. As the dogs eat breakfast at our rental cabin in Willow, the temps are already getting above freezing and melting snow off the trailer. It is a mini checkpoint where we are staying, with at least six other teams also prepping for the start. Dogs bark, trucks idle, people are moving around with anxious intensity. My sled is packed, the dogs are now fed, and I am ready to get this show on the road!

For my previous four Iditarod’s, I have had some pretty serious pre-race jitters. My nerves have been rattled by weather, injury or illness. Or, by a complete and udder lack of comprehension for what I am about to embark on with my team (as in the case of my rookie race in 2008). But this year, 2021, I feel good. As I have been telling Katti for the last three weeks, “this race can start any day now, we’re ready!” And now, as our truck is parked at the start line, and the dogs are out, I feel calm and confident. But, there is still the challenge of simply getting out of our parking spot and to the start line.

The start is being held at the private establishment of Deshka Landing this year. We are staged in the “overflow lot” of the 100-acre boat landing. And, what a mess! The spots are too small to accommodate trailers, which 80 percent of us our towing, and whomever is in charge of organizing the numbered spots does not understand how dog teams take off. So, as we squeeze ourselves into our designated space, we see that low numbered bibs are positioned furthest from the start line. This means that teams taking off to the start are going to have to pass numerous other teams that are trying to get hooked up and ready. Because there is only about six feet of space between trucks and a large snow berm, this is going to be a TIGHT squeeze. And, although we have multiple COVID restrictions and supposedly limited help, people are everywhere, and mushers are right on top of each other as they are trying to get ready. Gunnar Johnson, who will later be withdrawn from the race in McGrath for testing COVID positive, is literally shoulder to shoulder with me as we try and get our dogs booted and harnessed. But, all a person can do is shrug and go with it. And at this point, my focus is solely on getting to the start line with no collisions and no dog feet getting stepped on.

Katti and I get the help of four generous volunteers to hold our team as we get hooked up. With leashes attached up the gangline, they help to move the team from side to side five mushers with higher bib numbers go past us. As Richie Diehl goes by, I see the sweat pouring off his face. It is hot! My thermometer is reading 45 in the sun! A few of my darkest, most heat sensitive dogs are wearing white jackets to deflect the sun. Katti made these last week, and we are trying them for the first time. A race is always a good time to test new gear, right?!

With the final members of the team attached, it is our time to pull forward and make the jog to the start line. We walk smoothly past the other teams, with no tangles and no issues. As we pull into the start shoot, no usual crowds line the edge, and no typical drone of snowmachines can be heard. My team is focused and eager, leaning into their harnesses but not overdoing it with a bunch of jumping and screaming. “Very good dogs, just like we train.” I give Katti a kiss, give the team a clap, and make it back to my sled by the time the announcer is at “2… 1…” And then, we are off.

The start chute, lined with snow-fencing, leads us through a stand of willows. As we make our way out, and into a large swamp, we are suddenly met with a crowd of well over a thousand fans. The roar of their cheers hits us, and suddenly it feels like a traditional Iditarod start. As a musher, this show of support is a welcome embrace, and I fill with happiness and pride for my team, so pleased to be exactly where I am (embarking on my fifth Iditarod). Kids line the edge of the trail, parents behind, drinking and partying around numerous bonfires. Beyond them, snowmachines rip across the open swamp. The team, having run this trail before, and seen many people in previous races, is unfazed. Knox and Moose lead with focus and energy.

The run to Skwentna is about as flawless as a musher can ask for. The clear sky and hot temperatures are cooled by a gentle breeze. The bands of snowmachiners and partygoers that line the trail, are polite and attentive to the dogs. A few teams pass us in the first ten miles, but not many, and I pay no attention. Unlike last year, where we battled through two feet of fresh snow and didn’t get over seven miles per hour in the first run, the dogs have been moving effortlessly at 9.5 mph.

 

a person standing on top of a snow covered slope

Moving up the Yentna River, 28 miles into the race

 

Although I have packed to rest a few miles short of the checkpoint, I decide it is worth going all of the way for a few reasons… First, time is “wasted” when a musher stops in a checkpoint and needs to gather supplies from their drop bags. Say it takes me eight minutes to grab my kibble, meat and booties from Skwentna. That is eight minutes of lost trail time. Resting on the trail also means taking the extra time to melt snow into hot water, as opposed to pouring boiling water out of the cookers provided by the volunteers at a checkpoint. The dogs may not get the same quality of a rest in a busy checkpoint like Skwentna, but to be honest, they don’t really need the rest at this first stop. It is more about the food, than the sleep. The time in Skwentna ends up being well worth the stop. In addition to hot water for the dogs and plenty of time for me to organize my sled, mushers are provided hot coffee, a breakfast burrito and warm water. What a treat!

After three and a half hours, a nice meal, and a high fat snack, the team is ready to roll out of the checkpoint. Teams have been coming and going during our time on the straw, and I know we are going to have some passing coming up in this next run. Moose and Knox are a couple of my most motivated leaders, so they stay up front to lead the charge past other teams.

We leave Skwentna sandwiched between two teams. The first two miles of river running give way to some long swamps and then rolling hills to Finger Lake. I follow the team in front of me, slowly gaining on them as we leave the river. Soon, we are on their heels, and I recognize Dallas Seavey, the four-time champ, making a comeback after four years away from the race. He pulls his sled to the side of the trail and lets us scoot by. As our sleds reach each other, I give him a quick thanks, and he responds with, “Go get ’em!” I get a chuckle out of this and think about our speed for the next few miles. We are averaging just over nine at this point, and the trail is well groomed and firm. The temps are right around zero, and I feel good about the way the dogs are moving.

Musher strategy in the first 200 miles of Iditarod is always so interesting. The amount of leap frogging that happens can be a bit mind-boggling for the average spectator, and it can be almost impossible to figure out who is actually leading this race. As a musher, I try not to focus at all on anyone else, and simply run my team based on how we have trained. “Know your dogs,” and “Run your own race,” are two quotes that are famous in the sport, and I try to hold those at the forefront of my mind, especially as we work our way over the Alaska Range. So, as we pass a previous four-time champ, or get passed by one of last year’s 13-day finishers, I give a quick wave, and know to trust my team and our training.

Monday, March 8th-

Another three-and-a-half-hour break at Finger Lake. The team eats another solid meal, and a few snacks. Attitudes are looking great, and there are no physical issues I have to worry about. I eat one of my Mom’s vacuumed sealed lasagna meals, a piece of tiramisu (again, thanks Mom!), and then sit on my sled to close my eyes for an hour. Our departure is a little wild, as the dogs “blow the hook” before I’m ready, and I have to catch the sled as it zips by.

We have a smooth run through the alpine forest and down the Happy River steps. This is still a harrowing series of drops to the river, but totally doable with this year’s decent snow base, cold overnight temps, and only minimal team traffic in front of me (I am maybe the 15th or 20th team through this section). Temperatures are getting warm as we climb towards the Rainy Pass Lodge, and I take a few breaks to pull booties and let the dogs roll around in the snow. A team or two passes us on this run.

We hit the Rainy Pass checkpoint at 11:30 am, and I know that I want to keep the team moving for another hour. Let’s get up to the pass itself before we shut down for a mid-day rest. I take ten minutes to grab food and fuel in Rainy Pass, and then blast through the checkpoint. The dogs are amped, and look quite impressive as they lope past the resting teams to keep moving up the trail. Michelle Phillips follows me across Puntilla Lake and further into the mountains. We leave all trees behind, and climb the rolling hills surrounded by stunning peaks to all sides.

At about 1pm, we reach the far edge of Ptarmigan Valley, and the upper flow of the Happy River. Just past a resting Mille Porsild, Michelle and I find a good spot to pull over and bed down our teams. We take advantage of an open hole on the Happy River (more like creek at this elevation), to collect water for the dogs and cook a meal. We chat about the race, our plans and the weather. Snow is forecasted, and we watch the clouds moving in from the northwest and anticipate that we will be in a storm here soon. The last forecast I saw, Sunday morning, predicted six inches of snow for Tuesday.

 

 

Our four hours of rest is up, and it is back to the trail. Light snow is coming down now; small, needle-like flakes that burn the skin. I stash my sun glasses, as its full-on grey now. I pass Riley Dyche just under the summit of Rainy Pass, and follow Michelle up some serious climbs; running and pedaling to take my weight off the sled. And, just like that, we are starting our descent down the Pass Fork and the Dalzell Creek. The flow of water is too fast for ice to form, so our creek crossings are either open, or on man-made, temporary plywood bridges (new for this year). Qarth and Forty are now in lead, having more experience with water, and better Gee-Haw abilities then Knox and Moose. We miss a bridge at one point and go crashing through scrub brush and willows to approach an open part of the creek. The dogs leap the gap, and I launch over the water with the sled. Wahoo!

Michelle remains in front of us, and I catch glimpses of her team as we hit straight parts of the Gorge. Another creek crossing, three feet wide and a foot deep. My leaders are not convinced, and attempt to scale the sides of the canyon to escape potential wet feet. I throw in my snowhook, and run up to the leaders. “Come here you knuckleheads, you can literally jump over this one!” I grab ahold of the leader neckline (that connects the two dogs) and hop across, dogs in hand. Having made it over, the two leaders surge forward, dragging the swing dogs through the water. I jog back to my sled, pull my anchor, and the remaining pairs of dogs all hop the open water. Michelle is gone now, but we appear to be following another musher. After a couple miles, we close the gap a little, and I see it is Kristy Berrington. She has a nice, smooth team, and lots of Iditarods under her belt. I will stay back and let her lead through here (there is no place to pass anyway). This is a bad call!

Following another team has benefits and drawbacks. And, what can be good in one situation, can be terrible in another. A team that is chasing is almost always more motivated and has the desire to “catch” whoever is in front of them. This can be nice if your team is a little sluggish, or has leaders that are not very strong under tough trail conditions. But on a fast and steep trail, this only adds unwanted power and speed. The musher can watch the driver in front, and see what obstacles or hazards are coming up in the trail, and plan their sled driving accordingly. On a moderate trail, this is nice. But on a trail that is nothing but tight turns, steep drops and dramatic water crossings, you don’t have time to watch that other musher, so only catch glimpses of harrowing body movements and seemingly out of control sled handling. So, as I watch Kristy hit every 100-degree turn, and see what is quickly approaching, I cringe, “How the hell are we going to make that turn and cross that bridge?!” But there is no time to think, here we go! 

Through this descent, I think about Katti, and the prospect of her doing this trail next year. What advice can I give her that will really benefit her and help prepare her for this section? The only thing that continually comes to mind? “Don’t stop!” Whatever we do, the best practice is to just keep moving. The quicker you make it to the bottom, the quicker it will be over.

Kristy does a nice job of leading us through the remainder of the Dalzell Gorge and out onto the Tatina River. She then stops to regroup and let me mush by. I holler something like, “What a trip!” and keep my team rolling. Our snack alarm goes off a few minutes later, and I stop to give everyone a piece of salmon (their favorite in warm weather).  Its currently about 30, but blowing 15 to 20 mph. I pull the hook, and we quickly leave all snow behind. The river is windswept and glassy. Dogs struggle to keep their feet, and multiple times they airplane out to the side, looking like cats that are walking a hot, tin roof (or, perhaps just landed in water?). It’s not pretty, and I just pray that no one pulls a muscle or sprains a joint on this ice. Oh, and there are stumps too! “Let’s avoid those!”

In the five Iditarods that I have done, these were the worst conditions that I have experienced in the Gorge and on the trail to Rohn. Snow was minimal in many places, there were more open holes in the ice then I remember from previous years, and once we made it on to the Tatina River, the glare ice was wicked! It is this section, on the Tatina, that would end Aliy Zirkle’s race.

 

a person is cross country skiing on a snow covered mountain

The Tatina River, before we loose all of the snow

 

I can see that as the river froze in the fall, the water level must have been fairly high. But throughout the winter, the water level under the ice has dropped, and the ice has caved in. So, the river ice is not level, and a lot of the larger stumps are actually trees that are stuck towards the center of the river. Perhaps you can see the dilemma? The sloping ice takes your sled right to the mass of large, frozen wood. Sleds and trees don’t mix, so these have to be avoided at all costs. Your feet do nothing on glare ice, the drag on your sled is useless, so it comes down to the bar brake and its sharp, carbide teeth. Ride the brake to straighten out your team, but not for too long or too hard that your dogs loose footing. It is really quite an act of finesse to make it safely across glass.

These conditions only last for about four miles, but in the last half mile or so, there is a perfect combination of sloping ice, and protruding stump. It is still daylight as we move down river, and I see the scratch marks from sled brakes gone by, and the missing chunks out of the stump. My sled starts to slide sideways, the wind helping blow us more off course. The stump is nearing, and currently my brake is doing nothing to straighten us out. Two options now: brace to hit it, and put faith in the strength of my sled, or risk jumping off and running on pure ice to yank the sled back on course… I built my sled and know its limits quite well. I opt for number two, and while holding onto the handlebar, jump off to the right and run at 10 mph. As we get within two feet of the stump, I lock my legs and drag the sled away impending doom. Lead dog Moose skids around on all fours, having lost his rhythm by being yanked back, but I tell him it is worth it to not have hit that tree. I give a quick glance back and think, that will surely ruin someone’s race!

Trail conditions never improve when you reach Rohn, they just change. This year, it was dirt, glare ice, rocks and wind. So, pretty much standard! After 15 minutes to load supplies, I depart Rohn and hit the Kuskokwim River with a loaded sled. I am shooting for Tin Creek, about 20 miles up the trail. The river is wet with overflow, and completely bare of any snow. The gravel bars are full of exposed, six-inch river rock, and the dogs aim for these instead of the ice. I can’t blame them, but try to explain that the ice is going to be better for injury prevention. But alas, they go where they want and I just keep my eyes peeled for more driftwood and the occasional trail marker. Oh, and it’s dark now, so the blowing dust and grime is making visibility with my headlamp a little limited.

We depart the Kuskokwim in pursuit of a few teams in front of us, and hit a trail of dirt and moss. Patches of limited snow exist in the trees, but anything exposed has been stripped of its cover. It is now about 35 degrees, and what snow is available is soft and slushy. So, we are honestly better on dirt. I catch the teams in front of me, and now we move together over wind blown trees, patches of glare ice, and up and down monstrous little hills. The sled doesn’t exactly glide on dirt, so mushers are doing a lot of running to keep their teams moving up hill. The mushers in front of me apparently don’t have the hill climbing ability of my team, and the uphill train is slow moving.

The 20 miles to Tin Creek is laden with hazards, and at each major obstacle, I glance back to visualize what it will look like in a few days (don’t forget reader, we are mushing back this way to finish the race in Willow!). After the ascent up the “Glacier,” 12 miles out of Rohn, I decide that I am done looking over my shoulder. We have literally just climbed a sheet of ice, riddled with boulders, sloping into a granite wall. Oh, and there is a 45 degree turn as you start the climb, alongside the rock wall. So, coming back, we are going to be bumping across bare ground, on a 15-degree slope, then crash over multiple rocks the size of your coffee table, launch onto frozen glare ice with a gentle side-slope (still descending, don’t forget), and also fight the fact that rock wall is waiting to “catch” you to the left, and you need to turn hard left just on the other side of it. But, the glacier will keep descending for another quarter mile, so if you miss your turn, you are quite literally off into the abyss. “Yeh dogs, let’s not look back anymore!”

A rest at Tin Creek is much needed, and I find a nice clearing and pull in next to 2019 champ Pete Kaiser. As I get the dogs laid down on straw and pull out my cooker, Jessie Royer comes in and calls her dogs into the clearing for a rest, too. Good company, I figure. The team eats a hardy meal, and instantly crashes out. At 1 am, I too, am a bit exhausted. My bag is laid out next to the sled, and my iPhone is positioned next to my ear, serving as my alarm. I have planned for a four-and-a-half-hour rest, and am looking at a solid two hours of sleep. Lights out.

I wake to the sound of a sled passing by, the bark of their dogs pulling me out of my coma. I look at my watch, 4:30. What!? I grab my phone, and see that the alarm is currently going off (and has been now for the last hour-and-a-half. WTF!? It takes me a second, and then I realize that my earbuds are still connected, and the sound is blasting from them, buried at the bottom of my sleeping bag. Very helpful!

We are back on the trail after a little over five-and-a-half hours of rest. A bit more then planned, but probably not the worst thing for the team. Snow is coming down in earnest, building up on my sled bag and parka faster than it can blow off. An hour into the run, we have covered only seven miles. “This is going to be a slow one guys.” We cross the Farewell Lakes, now with a two-inch cushion of snow, and slip past a few resting teams on our way to Nikolai. The 52 miles takes us a little over seven hours, and six inches of snow comes down during this time.

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