Iditarod 2021- The Gold Loop Trail: Part II
Nikolai, population 125, is a welcome sight after hours of slogging through soft snow. The veteran team members recognize the approaching village a few miles out, and are attempting to push the speed into a lope. We cruise up the riverbank at a good clip, and are checked in by a couple of welcoming volunteers. I see, based on the clipboard, that the entire front field of mushers are still here and resting. Teams are parked on a wide-open section of the river bank, and we pull up to a volunteer, motioning us into our designated parking area.
As I strip booties from the team and get them bedded down, other teams continue pulling in, and soon we are surrounded by a group of mushers that I have shared the trail with for the last few years. Matt Failor, Lev Schvarts, Aaron Peck, and Jessie Holmes are some of the nearest teams. Riley Dyche, Fairbanks neighbor and a past guide at our tour business, is parked just a few feet away as well. His spirits are high, despite the tough run and hauling one of his biggest dogs, and as the sun comes out, we carry on a conversation. We discuss the trail conditions and return trip through “the burn.” We marvel at the fast pace of some of the frontrunners, and shake our heads about the heat, that is now baking us in full furry. As I continue chores with no hat or gloves, Riley goes on to talk about how there is no way some of the teams around us can keep this pace. “The carnage,” he continues, “is going to be intense.” I wonder who specifically he has in mind, but don’t voice my quandary. Instead, I focus on my team, checking wrists, shoulders and hindends, confirming that everyone is in 100 percent health before we depart for McGrath.
Heat is always a discussion among mushers in Iditarod. March is truly the start of spring, and direct sun can be overwhelmingly hot (especially for a group of dogs that is acclimated to -30 temperatures). Looking at Iditarod and creating a “plan,” I attempt to set us up to avoid the heat of the day. Arriving into Nikolai at 10:30 am has us about two hours ahead of our anticipated schedule. So, sitting on my cooler, eating a meal of roast chicken, mashed potatoes and gravy with green beans (have I mentioned how awesome it is to have my dear Mother’s cooking on the trail?!), I decide my next, best move.
My team is at a point in the race where a rest of more than four hours is simply not necessary. They have arrived to Nikolai strong and healthy, and just got a bonus hour and a half as I overslept at Tin Creek. However, leaving Nikolai after only four hours will set us up for marching directly into the afternoon sun. My thermometer is currently reading 55 degrees in the sun, and although there are ways that I can compensate for the heat, I know that our next run will be painfully slow. I better nap for an hour, and wake up with a fresh perspective.
As my alarm jars me awake, I pull up my hat and see that Moose is standing, wide awake, willing me to get up. As I roll towards him, he bats the air and gives me a wag. “I guess we better get going, huh bud?” After stashing my sleeping bag in the sled, I throw the team a healthy portion of high fat snacks. The fat will not only supply sustained energy for this next run, but will help with hydration in the heat. I also pack two gallons of clear river water in my cooler, and plan to stop every hour for a water break (not giving my first trail snack to the team until the sun starts to set). In addition, I leave booties off all of the front feet, and give no booties to my “hot dogs” (namely Whiskey, Qarth, Braavos, Knox, Forty and Frito). The lack of booties will give their feet better contact with the snow, and help keep their body temperature down (as dogs sweat through their feet). The risk of splits and cuts to their feet from the sharp snow is certainly a concern, but I figure the benefit of free air flow currently outweighs that risk. “We will cross that bridge if/when we come to it.”
We pull the hook at 2:30 in the afternoon, and are one of only six teams to leave Nikolai between the hours of 1 pm and 4 pm. It proves to be as hot and slow as expected for the first three hours of our run. The dogs are appreciative of the clear water, and cool off breaks that we take every hour. By about 6 pm, the air temperature is back down in the 20’s, and we have hit a nice breeze as we cross the numerous swamps and stretches of the Kuskokwim River. Our speed picks up on the second half of our run to McGrath, and the trail conditions change from soft, mashed potatoes, to a solid base of frozen overflow along the river. We start to encounter sections of frozen ice, where clearly the trail breakers (maybe a half day in front of us) found water. 25 miles from McGrath, we pass our first big mess.
Trotting down the Kuskokwim on a nice, solid, single track trail, we see a jumble of ice and random tracks coming into view. At 100 yards, I see tracks split in all directions and a trail groomer lodged in the trail in front of us. This doesn’t look good, and I slow the dogs to a walk to determine the best way around the obstacle. I let the leaders decide, and we shoot out to the left, away from the river bank and the now frozen overflow. We bang across frozen tracks and skirt the doomed trail groomer. I think to myself, “that looks like a project to get out.”
About seven miles later, we approach our second stuck groomer. This one has gotten lodged into the overflow trying to cross the river, and has a sentry of trail markers announcing its doomed presence. It is fully dusk at this point, and I have been toggling my headlamp on and off to examine different parts of the trail. At this point, I decide in is better off, as the reflective tops of the two dozen markers are intensely distracting.
All overflow at this point has been frozen, so we charge ahead at full speed planning to make a smooth pass of our metal counterpart sharing the trail. I even pull out my phone to snap a quick video as we approach. And then, just as we drop onto the main body of the river and I am about to press “record,” my leaders disappear from site. I immediately jamb the phone in my pocket, just in time to see my swing dogs drop from the trail. I hit my drag, thinking surely my team has just encountered an open hole on the river, and are now being swept under with the current. Instinctively, I yell “gee” and indicate to my remaining dogs that we need to turn away from the hole, and do it NOW! Either listening to my voice, or more than likely, trying to avoid joining their friends, the team all jumps to the right and surges away from the water. In their determination to avoid the plight of their front-end team members, the body of the team drags the leaders and swing dogs back into sight.
We are now floundering our way to more secure footing. I quickly see that we have just hit some deep overflow and, in fact, are not going to drown just yet. We are now stopped in almost two feet of water, and I need to get the sled out of this quagmire before it joins the groomer as a relic of the 2021 Iditarod. The dogs, realizing they are surrounded by water, are now a bit unsure of their next move. I jump off the runners and holler “alright” as I push the sled forward. The weight of ice and water has turned the sled into a 300-pound beast, and the footing is making it nearly impossible for the team to dig in. I give them the go command again, and push the sled in more earnest. I drop through another layer of ice, and am now almost hip deep in slushy water. Thankfully, the team gets the sled moving, and seeing a strip of solid footing, drag me free of the water.
We get a couple yards down the trail, and I stop for a breath and a chance to take stock of the team. “Is everyone alright?! That was some wild shit, huh?!” I strip booties (I had stopped about an hour earlier to cover everyone who hadn’t been booted), and make sure no one breathed in too much water. Surprisingly, the team seems to have taken the event in stride, and only Myra, our one rookie, seems a bit shocked. I give her an extra moment of encouragement and attention, and then we head on. I don’t bother rebooting dogs, or changing my layers just yet, as it is very likely there will be more water. And sure enough, intermittent sections of slush make their appearance for the remaining 15 miles to McGrath. While closing in on the town, I analyze our situation, and remember the upcoming forecast (-30 predicted for the following night). Any hesitation I had about taking my 24-hour rest in McGrath is now gone. We will rest up, recharge, and dry out for a day at the next checkpoint.
Due to Covid, the health clinic/community center in McGrath will no longer serve as the designated checkpoint. Instead, mushers will lodge in a freshly renovated airplane hangar, donated to the race by McGrath resident, Robert Magnuson. Teams are parked along the airstrip in organized, diagonal lines. We pull in holding 14th. The dogs are thrilled to be at another checkpoint, and scream and bark with enthusiasm, hitting their lines and trying to pull through my brake. As we are guided to our parking spot, we pass Richie, Pete and Joar. I hear Pete comment, “They’re looking good.” I smile at this comment and know this type of praise doesn’t come lightly from the 2019 champ, and lifelong dog musher.
Our stay in McGrath is smooth and pleasant. Sleeping arrangements are tight, for both humans and dogs, so we probably don’t get quite the sleep we should. Teams are only a few feet apart, so my dogs end up waking every time neighboring teams eat or get up to shake off. That being said, they chow through their food like pros (the most important part of the 24-hour rest), eating almost 80 pounds of a combination of kibble, beef, salmon, lamb, turkey and beaver. I am not quite able to keep up with their appetite, but do my best.
In between naps and time taking care of the team, I chat with fellow mushers. Some of our conversations are focused on the race, but then others revolve around life at home, being married, having kids, and managing businesses, all while trying to build a winning race team. I find that we all share in similar struggles, regardless of where we live, and how successful we have been. I am comforted in learning some of the struggles I have had are not unique only to me.
As our 24 comes to a close, the mercury starts to drop. Dogs get bundled in preparation for the next run, and I get word that it is supposed to be 50 below in Ophir. “Great,” I think, “Got to love March in interior Alaska.” Kelly, my oldest team member, is pissed about the temperature drop. She stays behind and will meet us at the finish. And then, at the last minute, I make a change to my footwear. A few hours earlier, I had witnessed Joar putting trash bags over his socks, and discussed this with Wade. Apparently, the plastic acts as a vapor barrier and does an excellent job at holding in the heat. Figuring I have nothing to lose, knowing my feet will be freezing without the assistance of chemical toe warmers, I give the plastic a go. Instantly, I can feel the heat retention.
As we get on the move to Ophir, the team is obviously thrilled by the cooling temps. Their power is serious, and we rocket up and over Porcupine Ridge on the way to Takotna. As we move past the town (not a checkpoint this year because of Covid), I think “Wow! This is what it is like to have a team peaked for this race!” Every member is in perfect step. Moose and Forty are focused, but eager to increase the pace if they feel the opportunity. They have all eaten their first snack on the run, and I now have the tough decision of trying to figure out my next move.
Our arrival into Ophir is followed by a series of small calamities that cause us to falter. First, the checker is without clipboard and any information on surrounding teams. Knowing that I need to physically sign in, and still trying to make up my mind about whether or not to go through the checkpoint, I send her in search of the paper. While she is gone, Maple and Braavos both puke (the second calamity). As the checker returns and hands me the clipboard to sign, I see that the only musher to have left the checkpoint is Dallas. “Is this right?!” (Third mistake). Deciding we have wiggle room for a short rest with the whole field still in the checkpoint, I pull over for a few hours to try and get ahead of what seems to be an impending virus (Knox has had some diarrhea in the last 15 miles to the checkpoint).
As soon as I have the dogs on straw and booties off, the checker returns to tell me that she was mistaken on the clipboard, and in fact, all the other mushers are gone with the exception of two teams just getting ready to depart from their 24. “Well, that’s perfect!” I try and bite back any further comments, knowing that it was solely my decision to take a rest (and besides, I should not be running my race based on other teams). A few more volunteers gather at my sled, and soon there is a mini convention among checkpoint staff. As I go about my chores, I overhear that they are without firewood and fuel, and have no way to cook food in Ophir. The discussion continues, and I hear that it is now 55 below. “Christ, what am I doing stopping at this checkpoint?!” I know that if I would have stuck with my original goal of pushing 20 miles up the trail, it would probably be 20 degrees warmer. Yes, a few team members are suffering a bit of an upset stomach, but their spirits are great and would have probably appreciated resting some place a bit warmer. “Stupid me!”
The checkpoint staff continue their 4 am discussion around my sled. Finally, as the conversation degrades to the fact that there is no toilet paper (or at least that is what I think I heard), I snap. “I am sorry guys, it sounds like you are in a rough spot out here, but do you mind taking this conversation elsewhere? You are really starting to stress me out.” Poor folks, mushers are not always an understanding bunch in the middle of the night.
After getting everyone fed and settled in under their straw (anti-diarrheal for Maple, Braavos and Knox), I take stock of the checkpoint. Sure enough, there are not a lot of teams left here. Jessie Holmes comes out of an Arctic Oven tent as I pass on my way to the main cabin. Together we head up to see if we can get warm. Nope! Literally nowhere in the Ophir checkpoint has heat, and he tells me that the tents are the same temperature as the outside. Brrr! I confirm that the outhouse does not, in fact, have toilet paper. I walk back to the team and proclaim that it is time for us to hit the trail. I am encouraged to see that my three “sicklies” are most eager to get off their straw.
Knowing that I screwed up and stopped too early in Ophir, I now need to “make a move” to try and regain our position in the race (and attempt to climb up in the standings, if possible). It is 80 miles from this checkpoint to Iditarod. That is going to be too far to do in one run and hold any speed for the last 300 miles. Don’s Cabin is only 40 miles up the trail, and that is going to be too short of a run (at least for a team attempting to be competitive). So, the obvious choice is to go Iditarod and back in three runs, roughly 55 miles each. This seems reasonable, especially under the conditions, and I set forth with that plan in mind. It is really in this next 160 miles that I learn to understand what it means to truly “make a move.”
My instinct is to always act with caution when it comes to my dog team and the runs that I ask of them. I never attempt to “push the envelope” of their ability. This doesn’t mean that I don’t challenge them (and myself), but I don’t take risks. As I watch the schedule of the teams around me, working their way to Iditarod and back, I understand that in order to really gain ground (and “make a move”) we are going to have to take a risk. And what is a risk? In short, asking my dogs to do something that may be outside of their ability level. I grapple with this idea, debating the merits of such an act, and whether or not I would be able to make the appropriate decision when the time is right. “Is this the moment in which we can do that back-to-back 90-mile run? Will I be able to see that it is not working and abort the plan before the team aborts it for me?” I find myself feeling removed from the present environment, looking at our race from afar, and decide I don’t like that feeling. Time to focus on the here and now, and do what I know is right for the team in front of me. In the end, what the dogs get out of this event is the quality of the race, and not the placement. That is merely a human concern.
The stretch of country from Ophir to Iditarod is one of my favorite places on this Earth. Time stands still as we cross rolling hills and barren landscapes, and a musher can forget what century they live in, and what generation they are a part of. A person can focus fully on the animals in front of them, and the beauty that surrounds them. The weather can be harsh and unrelenting in this part of Alaska, but for this year, it is simply cold.
Our run towards Iditarod is uneventful. I pass a few resting teams on the way to our first camp, and at roughly 2 pm, find a nice, sparsely wooded hilltop to rest on. The sun is out, and the dogs get a quality nap in 10 degree “heat.” Forty and Moose have continued to show great energy and focus, and will remain in lead for the next run.
The team, booted and jacketed, embark to the halfway point at about 7pm. We enjoy an awesome sunset, right as we approach our first head on team. As we get close, I see that it is Dallas. Our teams scoot by one another in a flawless motion, giving up only a portion of the trail to the oncoming canines. Now, remember that our only two race groomers have been sunk in overflow about 130 miles back. So, the trail is tight, and has a significant crown. The fact that two teams can make it by effortlessly is quite an accomplishment in these conditions. We trot another hour down the trail, and meet our second team. I don’t initially recognize Ryan Redington as he comes over a rise in the trail. But, as we get close, I recognize his stance on the sled (we mushed many miles together in another life, and his style of sled driving is unique). His leaders falter as we get close, and unsure what to do, Moose and Forty also balk. Quickly, I jump off the sled and pull my team straight (trying to give space for Ryan to get by). His leader sees an opening to the trail, and moves forward. I wish him luck, and we are back underway.
We effortlessly pass a few more teams. The tree cover is almost completely gone as we get within 15 miles of Iditarod, and this makes head on passing much easier (the dogs being able to step off the trail on the wind-blown crust and give each team more space). I see a few friends that are currently running in good standing (Brent Sass holding 3rd, Wade Marrs in 4th, and Aaron Burmiester in 5th). I am continuing to count positions as I pass Joar resting at a shelter cabin, 100 yards off the trail and about 13 miles from Iditarod. “How long you been stopped, buddy?” He waves and shouts back, “Just got here.” Damn, I think, not bad. I should be back to that same spot in about three hours.
The defunct mining town of Iditarod sits in a cold draw between rolling hills, at the bank of the Iditarod River. To say it is a cold spot, is an understatement at the least. As we roll down the final hill towards the river, I watch the temperature drop from -30 to -40. By the time we hit the river and are getting checked in, the temp is down to -50. Its 11 pm. I hustle to grab what I know the team needs, and head back into the hills. It takes me 15 minutes to organize my sled, stuffing in straw, meat and kibble, fuel, my snakcs and personal food, and a set of booties. I thank the volunteers, turn my light on high, and follow the markers out of the checkpoint. Forty is thrilled to be running through the checkpoint, and I am riding the drag heavy to keep the team at 10 mph.
Pre-race, Katti and I had debated the reaction our dogs would have to “turning around.” Would they excel retracing their steps, knowing they were heading “home?” Would they want to stop at their previous camp spots, and wonder why we were continuing past comfy beds of straw from previous rests? I suspected that they would simply have the energy they had available, and would continue on in their “thousand-mile pace.” However, leaving Iditarod I have second thoughts on that, and hold on for a wild ride. Their energy burst is short lived however, and as soon as we hit the return trail, and pass another team head-on, the dogs settle in. “Good pups, that’s the idea.”
The passing is steady as we begin retracing our steps. In the 13 miles back to the shelter cabin where I saw Joar, I estimate that we pass 10 teams. They are all smooth, and I continue to be blown away by how well Forty and Moose are head on passing (not typically their strong suit). I almost miss the turnoff to the shelter cabin as we roll by, but am able to call the team “haw” at the last minute. We zip around the cabin in a loop, blasting over three or four different parking spots as we do. I see the quality of the frozen dog poop left behind, and keep my team moving until we hit clean snow. My three team members have had only minor diarrhea, and it has not spread to anyone else in the team. That has not been the case with other teams, however, and I pay close attention to where we stop (both on the trail for snacks, and off the trail for rests), making sure to not expose my team to other dogs poop any more than necessary.
I get the team stripped of their booties and bedded down. As the cooker rolls, melting snow into water, I go through the team analyzing joints and muscles, and taking care of a few of the known issues. Anderson and Maple have both had some tight shoulder muscles, and at 45 below, I know they are going to need massage and heat in order to prevent those tight muscles from locking. Barehanded, I squirt massage ointment onto their triceps, and spend five minutes working each muscle. I take intermittent breaks to warm my hands. I pour their now boiling water into my cooler full of meat and kibble. I silently wish it was just a bit warmer.
After an hour and a half, I have the team fed, four of my members in warm shoulder vests, and Knox, Braavos and Maple medicated. Knox has also been dealing with an enflamed carpus, and is wearing a compression wrap (after ten minutes of massage and stretching). I have hit a wall of sorts, and know now that I need sleep more than anything else in the world. I enter the shelter cabin and find that there is still a fire burning from the mushers in front of me. I stoke it with a few more logs (found conveniently split and stacked out the front door), and wolf down my dinner. I drink a liter of water, and lay down on a plywood bunk across the room from the woodstove. Using my parka as a mat for my upper body, I shed my overshoes and lay down. I manage to set an alarm before passing out (relishing in the idea of two hours of sleep). I know that it is going to extend our rest more than the ideal four hours, but in these wee hours of the morning, I simply don’t care.
My alarm pulls me from sleep, a zombie being lifted from the grave. I sit upright for only a half second before getting started on my routine. A sock change is a must, and I untie my boots to gain access to my feet. The plastic bag trick from Joar has been working wonders to keep my feet warm (literally haven’t needed chemical warmers). The downside, however, has been a complete lack of breathability. Within 30 hours, I have already started to suffer trench foot, and I cringe as I put on fresh socks and another layer of plastic. “Toughen up feet, the alternative is no better.”
Fifteen minutes later, I am back out with the dogs. The cold is breathtaking, and as I start the cooker, the HEET struggles to burn (always a good sign that it has “bottomed out”). I sneak a quick look at the thermometer, and wince as I see that it has passed -50. The dogs have slept comfortably in their jackets and straw, and I see a few have moved in tight to their neighbor for extra warmth. I walk down the line giving everyone a pet and ear scratch. They lift their heads in unison to face the trail, and I see a headlamp float by (the team’s breath looking like steam from an old coal train as they trot by). Suddenly, I realize there are more lights on the way, teams going in each direction. In the time that I make a second meal for the dogs, twelve teams pass. My anxiety level is rising, and I have to remind myself that I can’t rush the chores at this temperature, “We will get going when we are ready.”
The 60 miles back to Ophir are smooth sailing. We pass another ten teams head-on (the “back of the pack”) and pass a few more teams headed south bound, resting on the side of the trail. As we approach Don’s Cabin, nestled along a creek, the steam and exhaust of dog food cookers lingers in a low haze, forming a thick cloud bank as we run through. There are close to a dozen teams parked here, which I am surprised by. I figure the cold must be getting to some people, and this is a protected place to rest and retreat from the elements for a few hours. A few miles later we crest the top of a large hill, and are embraced by the rising sun. It is a welcome sight at these temperatures, and immediately begins to warm the landscape.
We are 10th into Ophir, and will take a solid rest after running eight hours to get here. The dogs get a large meal, and another thorough check and massage. I am then able to sleep for an hour in the sun (feeling warm and toasty in my sleeping bag). Teams arrive and depart as we rest, many jumping Ophir having rested only a few miles back on the trail. We are still at a place in the race where many teams are running varied schedules, and it can be tough to know where you really sit in the standings. I try not to feel as if we are “losing” the race as they go through.
Running to Mcgrath, I think about the remaining 300 miles of race, and the best plan for my team. We are still required to take our mandatory eight-hour, which I will complete in McGrath. We then have a 54-mile run to Nikolai. The overflow should be all frozen, but the distance will still be long enough that I will want to rest in the checkpoint before continuing on. It is then 240 miles to the finish. But really, Skwentna is the destination that we are racing to, as all mushers will be required to stop for a final eight-hour rest (just as we do in White Mountain in conventional years). So, 175 to Skwentna then. As I watch my group effortlessly climb the hills that surround Takotna, I know they have the ability to cover that distance in three, (essentially) 60-mile runs. This will include crossing the “Burn” and climbing “The Gorge” in one run. I theorize on other options, but decide to go with this plan.
I leave Knox in McGrath. It is not really a tough decision, although I am bummed to lose his energy. His stomach has still not fully recovered from the virus, and his appetite has taken a hit. Knox is not known for being an aggressive eater, and if anything is slightly off in his digestion, it is only half meals and salmon snacks for the “Shark” (and Knox does not hold his weight only consuming a third of his necessary calories). So, we say goodbye to our biggest team member and prepare to continue on.
It is another cold morning on the way to Nikolai, hitting 48 below as we trot up the Kuskokwim River. Paige Drobny has left McGrath only 25 minutes in front of us, and we catch sight of her about two hours into our run. We trail behind for another 30 minutes, and finally overtake her on a straight section of river. The team is eager to keep their speed, and we quickly lose sight of her as we wind through overland portages.
Our stop in Nikolai brings a warm and sunny early afternoon rest for the team, and another hour nap for me. I see a few more front running teams that have either slowed down, or are taking extra rest (gearing up for a two-run push to Skwentna). Travis Beals team is dealing with an especially bad case of the stomach virus, and will end up leaving and then returning to the checkpoint for more rest. Aaron Peck and Jessie Royer are still in the checkpoint when I wake from my nap, and Ramey Smyth has just pulled in, along with Lev, Jessie Holmes, Ryne and Paige, all in from McGrath. “Well pups, we are going to have our work cut out for us to stay in the top 15, but let’s give it a go.”
We are going to be leaving Nikolai in the middle of the afternoon (so much for that pre-race plan of avoiding the heat), and I decide to promote Qarth to single lead. Although not my fastest leader, Qarth is a beast at finding a good trail, and always eager to leave a checkpoint. I know that we are going to be heading into some tougher trail (wind has picked up across the flats, and we should expect drifting of up to a foot deep), and Forty and Moose could use a break (having been in lead together since McGrath northbound, about 270 miles).
As we hit our moment of departure, I look to Qarth and see that he is leaning into his tugline, facing the river bank and southbound trail. “Ready, buddy!?” And with that, he takes us through the remainder of the checkpoint, past the volunteers and few villagers that are out, and down onto the river. Within half a mile, we are trucking along at 8.5 miles per hour.
We hit our first swamp, and are met with a steady wind and blown in trail. Nothing major, but slow and soft going. My intent is to mush back to Tin Creek, and rest in the same spot we did almost a week ago. That was a seven-hour run through soft snow, and judging the trail conditions in front of us, I anticipate the same on our return. I pull up a good playlist, grab my ski pole, and get to work.
The going is sluggish, although we do get into tree cover and lose a lot of the wind as we get closer to the Alaska Range. Periodic moose activity motivates the team and keeps me on high alert. The sun sets at about 8:30, and with no moon, it is a dark night. I have my headlamp beam on high when we come over a rise and the dogs catch a glimpse of some bison. My attention has been on the wheel dogs and my ski pole at this particular moment, and I only hear the crunch of the ground as they hoof it through the brush. The dogs, convinced there are more around the corner or over the next hill, surge forward. Owl, always excited about a chase, gives it 100 percent and drives forward at a lope. There is no more wildlife to be chased, and as the team settles down, Owl begins to bob her head. This is the classic exhibition of a shoulder strain, and with Owl’s injury history, I am instantly sure of what is bothering her.
I stop and confirm my suspicions of a pulled triceps. I then have to decide whether or not to load her. We are about five miles from our camp spot, and although I typically don’t want a dog to run any further than they have to on a muscle strain, I figure Owl can persevere and would rather run than be tucked in the sled with all of our camping gear. I know that with this type of injury though, Owl will be riding in the sled from our camp spot to Rohn, and then flying home from there. “Darn Owl, you were having such a good race.”
Our camp at Tin Creek is marked by more cold temperatures. I struggle with numb hands as I massage a few team members muscles, sauve some feet, and wait for their water to boil. After the team has had their dinner and is back asleep, I take care of my needs. Sleep is not an option at this point (I will be pulling the hook in just over two hours). I need to repack my sled to accommodate Owl, and I need to strip all extra weight for our climb over the Alaska Range (heading up the Dalzell Gorge). We will ascend about 2500 feet in 10 miles, so I want to get rid of as much as possible on our way through Rohn.
I make a bag of extras to send home, and then think about stripping my extra clothes (both from the sled, and from my body). The thermometer currently sits at 30 below, so I am not thrilled about the idea of losing a single layer. I know, however, that I am going to be working as we head through the mountains, and the climate is supposed to warm dramatically on the south side of the Range. So, I grit my teeth and take off my parka. I need to get down to my fleece sweatpants, so off with the puffy vest, and off with the overboots and my bibs. Although I need to change my socks (and trash bag liners), I am going to wait on that until my parka is back on. I get my fleece pants off, leaving on my long underwear and lightweight puffy pants. I debate about shedding my synthetic, puffy jacket at this point, but my uncontrollable shivering has me holding off on that action. I layer back up. The shivering persists, and I walk up the trail to get water from the creek (hoping this will warm me up). Tin Creek is frozen solid, and I didn’t bring my axe to chop the ice, so back to the team I walk.
Feeling a bit warmer after my jaunt, I get my boots off and change my socks. As I am sitting on my cooler, Ramey Smyth rolls by. A few minutes later, Jessie Royer follows. “This cold doesn’t quit,” she mentions as she passes. I look at my watch and still have over an hour before I can start booting my team. Knowing I have zero risk of “oversleeping” in these temps, I tuck my arms in my parka, hang my head, and close my eyes.
I wake to the sensation of falling, and don’t register what’s going on until I hit the ground. I am on my side, locked in my parka thinking about how I got here. It takes a minute to work through the fog of my brain to remember that I am on the Iditarod Trail. I am just a couple hours from Rohn. We are about 150 miles from the finish of this race. “What time is it?!” I wriggle out of my predicament, upright my cooler, and check my watch to see that 35 minutes has ticked by. “Okay pups, that will have to do. Let’s get rolling.”
The Farewell Burn, which gave us a fright on the way out, is blanketed in almost a foot of fresh snow for the southbound return. All of the sections that had been terrifying five days ago, are smooth and easy for this run. I enjoy some good tunes, a few nudges and licks from my Owl (riding in the sled at this point), and some beautiful stars overhead. Just as we approach Rohn, Myra starts a hindend limp, and with a stop and further investigation, seems to have twisted her knee. We are literally a mile and a half from the checkpoint, so I let her stick with the team, knowing that she will join Owl on a flight home.
In Rohn, I hustle to get my girls in the hands of the vet staff, fill out their necessary paperwork, and get ready to head into the mountains. As I am finishing the “Return Dog” form, the checkpoint judge approaches and declares, “There is no Rainy Pass checkpoint.” For a brief and disturbing moment, I think something like it has been buried in an avalanche, or wiped out by winds. “What?!” The judge then explains that we will have no option to stop in Rainy, and should essentially think of it as not being there. In my mental state, I don’t think to clarify further, and just take her word that there is nothing there. So, I pack dog food, straw, fuel, personal food, snacks, extra plastic, etc. Essentially, I reload my sled with all the extras I had planned to leave here at this checkpoint. I already have a wet meal ready and made in my cooler, so I now have close to 60 additional pounds in the sled. I thank the checkpoint staff, say goodbye to our friend, Andy (volunteering in Rohn this year), and hit the trail.
The dogs aren’t bothered by the extra load, and our sunrise run into The Gorge is stunning. I feed out a portion of the wet meal I am carrying before we start into the seriously challenging terrain. At this point, I have a good feeling that, just like “The Burn,” this trail is going to be much easier than expected (thanks to the foot of snow). Sure enough, the trail is perfect, and aside from some tight turns and some serious climbs, it is a perfect run.
Midway to the summit, we stir up a large bull moose, and have to stop to let him find a spot to leave the trail. “The wildlife on this race!” I bang my snowhooks together as we run past, but the animal seems content to stand 30 feet off and watch us move by. The team is indifferent to his presence off the trail, and focus on their climb. Storm clouds brew in front of us, and the rising sun mixes with them to create a wash of oranges, pinks and purples. This is hands down the best run of the race!
As we crest over the summit of Rainy Pass, I debate about resting in our outbound camp spot. The temps have warmed significantly, but there is a stiff breeze in the mountains, and those clouds seem menacing. I don’t want to get caught in a storm in this treeless, alpine area. “Let’s see what exists at Rainy Pass, and go a few miles on the other side of Puntilla Lake if necessary.”
Rainy Pass turns out to have all the necessities! I probably could have clarified this in Rohn, but instead have hauled all of this gear with us over the mountains, only to have duplicates of everything here on Puntilla Lake. Oh well, I will grab a little more straw, a few more snacks (for me and the dogs), and maybe a dessert. “Actually, I think that dinner looks good too, I will throw that in.” Before I know it, I can hardly close my sled.
As for the situation at Rainy Pass, I learn from the checkpoint staff that horses have broken out of their pen, and are in hot pursuit of any flake of hay. Although, Iditarod supplies straw at all other checkpoints as bedding, hay is used in Rainy Pass. This is in arrangement with the residents of the lodge. They have 18 Icelandic horses, and harvest all of our used bedding to feed to their animals. And, apparently, these animals have a taste for Iditarod hay! So, mushers are not safe to camp on the lake, as a stamped will ensue as soon as a hay bag is opened.
I thank the checkpoint staff, and Qarth takes across the lake and up into the forest. It is downright hot at this point, my thermometer reading 30. That is 30 above zero! Yes, 60 degrees warmer than it was eight hours ago at Tin Creek. So, time to rest at the next available spot.
I find a snowmachine track parallel to the main trail, and call the dogs onto it. They know the drill, and are immediately rolling and shaking off as I hit the brake. I give them a chance to enjoy snow before laying down their bedding. They are obviously enjoying the change in climate, and are stretching out and getting their bellies cool in the soft snow.
Once the team is fed and sleeping, I inventory my plethora of food and gear that I managed to amas between Rohn and Rainy. I have two sets of plastic (that’s good, my current set needs a change); two sets of booties (seems overkill, but its almost 75 miles to Skwentna); three dinner meals (I will try and eat two of those in the next three hours); a dessert (I can probably eat that too); a bunch of personal snacks (are there any squirrels around); two or three extra dog snacks (hmm… any hungry foxes). “Oh, here is a little more kibble I slipped in!” At this moment Ramey Smyth mushes by. I am standing surrounded by food and crap from my sled. I imagine that it looks like I just had an explosion. “Want any food Ramey?!” He doesn’t hear me and just waves. I analyze his style of running and the way he has packed, and know that he is headed straight to Skwentna. That is a 106-mile run from Rohn, where he last rested. “Won’t be seeing him again.”
A few minutes later, after I have organized my sled, Aaron and Jessie mush by. These two have rested in Rohn (same as Ramey), but based on their length of rest and style of racing to date, they will be resting somewhere up the trail. If I play this rest right, and have a decent next run, my team can beat them to Skwentna. But, we can have no mistakes. These two mushers are tough drivers and multi-time veterans of this race (Jessie running her 19th Iditarod this year, and finishing 3rd last year). They will be resting the absolute minimum at their next stop, and will be pushing what speed their dogs have. “Time for our A game pups.”
It takes us almost the entire run to Finger Lake to find our stride. For a team that has had a near flawless race, this is not a great start to a 10-hour run. “Definitely not A game material, guys.” But, we are moving forward, and at last, as we near Finger, the dogs catch a rhythm and I feel their power increase. Heat has had a lot to do with their lack of oomph (it hit almost 40 at our camp). And, thinking about it now, I realize I overfed a significant amount at our rest. Either way, night is approaching, the temps are dropping, and we have 50 miles to Skwentna.
I am surprised to not see Jessie Royer resting in Finger Lake. According to the clipboard, Aaron is the only one in the checkpoint, resting, and no one else has been through in the last three hours. I guess we must have passed right by her and didn’t even see that she was resting. I unload my bag of trash, and bag of return items, and also my bag of extra dog food. The vets hand me a package to bring to Skwentna. It is snowing in earnest at this point (I guess those clouds from earlier today meant business), and planes aren’t flying at this point. I am happy to accept the small, five-pound package in leu of my 30 pounds of gear I just unloaded. “A fair trade,” I say as I pull the hook.
And now, it is the final stretch to some well-deserved sleep (for the team and for me). The snow is thick, and we are struggling to see the trail and trail markers. I have a moment of hesitation about my decision to go through Finger Lake. If these conditions keep up, this could be close to a 12-hour run. Not looking back now, though. We have full bellies, and snacks for later. Time to get down to business.
I let Qarth use his sense of where the best footing is, and try not to micro manage his steps. Trail markers are pretty sparse, and at times show multiple directions through the trees. In the forest, I can see tracks from Ramey, a few hours in front. Wind has ripped through this area in the last week, and any indent from the original trail is gone. So, in open areas, we just pick our way along, keeping an eye out for reflectors. It is not the type of challenge where I really feel on edge. It is just tough enough that I have to try and stay awake to make sure we don’t lose the correct direction. And so, as my head starts to bob, and my eyelids feel like lead, I fight to focus on the markers. Or, Qarth’s ears, or Whiskey’s tail in wheel, or the tree branches (anything to stay awake).
And after hours of travel, rolling through hills and densely wooded forest, we cross the Skwentna River. We come up on the other side and the dogs charge forward, so much power that I almost fall backwards onto my seat. “Moose!”
After 20 minutes of being parked and playing a game of “bluff,” in which this cow is the clear winner, Jessie pulls up. I am filled with a mix of relief (to have another musher), and also anger (at this moose for allowing us to get caught). I holler back that I have a moose that won’t move and ask her if she has a gun. “Nope.” As she walks up, she explains that in 18 Iditarods she has never carried a gun, and never needed one. I tell her this is the first time I have mushed without one.
I let her lead the way to the cow, still in her place 50 yards from my leaders. Jessie hollers at the top of her lungs (not an insignificant thunder), and attempts to stomp it off the trail. The moose only looks our way and twitches an ear. I hesitate as Jessie continues forward (at this point, I am no help whatsoever). She gets to about 25 feet from it, clapping and shouting, and that’s when the cow takes two quick steps her way, head down, ears back. We retreat.
I had just been in the process of pulling out my last bottle of fuel to light a fire when Jessie pulled up. I explain to her that I was thinking of lighting a branch on fire to try and spook the cow. She shrugs and I give it a go. I am hesitant to waste all of my fuel, though, and don’t dump enough on my branches to really get them torching. It’s a lost cause. We grab our cooker pots and ladles, and approach again, sounding like a middle school marching band on the first day of practice. The sound would entice me to move, and has my whole dog team awake and pinning their ears. The moose is unfazed. We get close, and she starts to close the gap in our direction. “This isn’t going to work,” Jessie acknowledges.
I have my Inreach out and am sending a message to the Iditarod Race Judge. It hadn’t occurred to me, but Jessie thought it would be worth a try. At the same time, I send a message to Katti and let her know what is going on. It’s midnight, and doubt that we are going to get through to either Mark or Katti, but figure an update is good. I snack my team. They lay down and curl up. The snow continues to fall. “Well, at least it’s warm!”
After a few minutes of chatting with Jessie, I walk to the front of my team and see the moose has moved. I catch a glimpse of her light-colored rear end walking around the next bend in the trail. “This is the opportunity,” I think to myself, and jog back to the team clapping my hands. Qarth sees the motion and immediately jumps up and hits his harness. “Let’s get that big momma!” I yell as I clap the rest of the team out of their snooze. They understand the chase, and are instantly ready to find their moose. “I think she’s moving Jessie, so I am going to try and keep her going.” We take off in unison, creeping forward at a walk.
It is difficult to see through the snow and tight turns, but so far, we are clear to keep walking. As we get into an opening, I am optimistic that I will see her tracks leave the trail. No luck! She continues to plod in front of us, clearly at a leisurely walk. We round another blind corner, and I hover over my brake. The dogs are enjoying the “hunt,” and crane their heads to catch a glimpse of their prey. Thankfully, nothing. And then, I see her. 50 yards up the trail she has stepped off to the north and is literally neck deep in snow. Pinned and floundering, we take our opening and squeeze by. As Qarth gets close, the cow moves in earnest to get away, and forces a path to the trees. The team watches her struggle, but dutifully sticks to the trail.
With the moose behind us, and eight miles to Skwentna, I focus on trying to put distance between myself and Jessie. It is slow going, 6.5 mph at best, but I ski pole and pedal in earnest, knowing that every minute we can gain is going to help with our departure from Skwentna. In the end, we arrive three minutes apart.
Our final run to the finish is a mix of emotions. I am excited to be nearing the end of over a week on the trail, but dreading the end of one of my favorite races. I want to enjoy the final run with the team, focus on each dog’s individual accomplishments, but instead, feel the pressure of Jessie leaving only minutes behind us.
Back in Skwentna, Jessie acted as if the race was over and I had far more speed. “There is no way I will catch you, and I wouldn’t feel right about it even if I did. You know, with the moose and all…” Her words almost lead me out of a competitive mindset leaving the checkpoint. Hell, who am I kidding, they totally do.
Five minutes after departing Skwentna, I stop my team and give every dog a congratulatory pat and praise. “This is it guys, final run.” I take a pee next to Qarth and scratch his ear. I am back at my sled when Jessie rounds the bend behind us, both ski poles out in full race mode. “Oh shit, here we go guys!”
And the rest of the run to the finish is a mix of ski poling and pedaling, and looking over my shoulder. We are faster, and are able to pull away from Jessie’s team on straightaways. But, our snack breaks every hour-and-a-half allow her to close the gap. She is not letting up, and so the race continues.
At last, we reach our departure from the Su River and climb Corral Hill. With the finish only two miles away, I feel confident to put the ski pole away and verbally encourage the dogs into a lope for the final few minutes. We see one more moose cross the trail not a quarter mile from the finish. It’s on the move, though, and poses no threat. We open into the swamp which a week ago held 1000 cheering fans, and today is quiet. We turn left and approach the snow fencing leading into Deshka Landing. Qarth gives me a brief hesitation, and thinks about 180ing, but I am able to encourage him forward verbally, and we shoot into the finish line.
And, just like that, the 2021 Iditarod comes to an end. Katti is just on the other side of the finish line to greet and encourage Qarth. Some of our closest friends and family are there to welcome us in. A small pool of people has gathered to congratulate us and see the dogs. Mark Nordman, Race Judge, is there for a handshake and word of congratulations. A mandatory drug screening for me and the dogs follows, and then it is time to load up and head… home, I guess. No banquet, no party with other mushers, no sit down with friends. But, Katti and I have a cabin reserved for a day at Sheep Creek, and thanks to some of our generous friends who have received our returned dogs from Anchorage, we can head straight there and get some much-needed shut eye. And, for the dogs, its lots of food and sleep. They are content in their boxes in the trailer for now, and I can see that in their eyes, the next adventure awaits.