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Iditarod Recap – Part 4: Kaltag to Nome, the finish

The arrival into Kaltag brings a huge sense of accomplishment to every musher who has ever run the Iditarod and mushed the Yukon River. It is a major step in the race, and the finish line suddenly feels within reach. As I cared for my team in Kaltag and prepared for our next leg of the race, I discussed this with my fellow racers (there were about a dozen of us parked together at the checkpoint). A few people in particular were getting excited about how close we were to Nome. There was a pause in conversation, followed by a contemplative silence as everyone calculated how far the finish really was. A somber mood fell with the snow, as I pointed out that we still had over 300 miles left in the race. This was actually the first time that I thought about the finish of the race, and looked at the big picture.

It is very important when running such a long distance, with so many runs and rests, to focus on one leg at a time. “How is the team looking, and what is my plan for the next run (or two or three at most)?” It tends to be quite discouraging to look 300 miles down the trail and try and think about scenarios that are days away, and out of your immediate control. Our conversation in Kaltag did not help any of our spirits, and made the remaining part of the race seem quite daunting. With a team of eight dogs, I had to really fight the feeling of being overwhelmed. For a brief moment, I started to compare the remaining part of this race to the Copper Basin (a 300 mile race that is one of the toughest in the world, and one I have run a few times). I had to quickly change my outlook, and go back to focusing on the immediate: “How are we going to most successfully run the next 80 miles to Unalakleet?”

The goal of “racing” had long since been set aside, and the focus was now on making it to Nome with the remaining eight dogs. Peter Fleck and I had made a plan to run the remaining race together. We had a well matched group of dogs, and each team had different strengths. My dogs were always eager to jump off the straw, and Pete’s group (still having 12 members) had a little more power to break trail. With the trail conditions, the plan for the remaining part of the race was to stop at every available opportunity. Old Woman cabin (located at mile 40 on the way to the Bering Sea coast) conveniently broke this upcoming run in half. We would stop here for a couple hours and give the dogs a meal and a rest. I knew the trail conditions would be slow, and I was not disappointed.

Having a GPS is not always helpful when running dogs, and it was quite discouraging to look down and read that we were moving at just over six miles per hour. This was especially annoying because for the first time in a few hundred miles, we were actually following fresh snowmachine tracks. But, the quality of the snow had recently changed, and this new texture was quite abrasive and grippy (a coastal snow, which is known for having the texture of sand). All in all, the run to Old Woman was uneventful and smooth, but just felt to be passing in slow motion.

In the light of early morning, we arrived at our camp. The dogs ate, and then curled on their straw. We were getting a reprieve from the snow, and I took the opportunity to stretch out and sleep with my team. It was a quality nap, and I awoke feeling rested and ready for the coast, which was now one run away. A few miles out of Old Woman, I came across a team stretched out in the middle of the trail. They were in full on camp mode, and I recognized the musher immediately.

Brad Farquhar had been a beginning musher the year before, and had lived and worked for Ken Anderson, one of our neighbors who has run the Iditarod for the last two decades. Brad had learned to mush and run his Iditarod qualifiers in one year, and was now attempting to finish Iditarod before moving on to his next “bucket list” item. This phenomenon is somewhat popular with Iditarod, and the musher is known as a “rent a teamer” (because they lease a dog team to race with). A lot of mushers who own their own kennels and have put in the time and labor of raising and training their own group of dogs, are a bit prejudice towards “rent a teamers.” The resentment typically stems from the feeling that these people are simply buying their way into an experience that most people have worked and sacrificed for years to achieve. Regardless, there is no doubt that someone who is running a new team, with little experience in mushing, tends to be more at risk for having difficulty while travelling such a long distance.

Brad had left Old Woman an hour or so in front of me. After a couple miles, he had trouble convincing his dogs to keep moving down the trail and had no leaders to take the team forward. As I came upon him spread across the trail, I had to call my dogs around his crashed out team and convince them to pass his piles of food. I had to jump off the sled and guide the team by, acting as the lead dog. This was the only time in the entire race I had to do this. As I returned to my sled, my anger and frustration (about far more than this team being in the trail) was directed at Brad. I unloaded on him, and pointed out that he needed to move his outfit off the trail for other teams that were going to need to pass. I explained this in short order, with a few expletives thrown in for good measure, and then called to my team to leave this show behind. I was mean, and as soon as we got back to moving, I felt bad.

A few miles down the trail, I looked back to see a team quickly approaching. Expecting to see Pete, I was surprised to see Brad (easily recognizable with his bright, orange hat). I put on the brakes as he caught up, and hollered back to apologize for yelling at him. Brad is a very nice guy, and took it in stride with no hard feelings. He responded by saying that “you wouldn’t believe it, but as you went by, my dogs jumped right up to follow you.” I shook my head, knowing how dogs love to chase, and we continued towards Unalakleet, his team following mine for motivation.

a group of people cross country skiing in the snow

The trail from Kaltag to Unalakleet. An overland trade route that has existed for millenia, connecting the Bering Sea to the Interior and the Yukon River.

Pete, Brad and I travelled together around the Bering Sea coast towards Nome. With the continual wind and snow, we each brought our own, unique energy to the group. Our teams were all well matched, although with different strengths. I ended up leaving each checkpoint first, as I was running the smallest group of dogs (less time to get them ready to run). My dog’s attitudes were also exceptional, and they were the most eager of the three teams to get off the straw (as we prepped to leave Unalakleet, my eight dogs were actually jumping and screaming with excitement). Pete’s team was the most powerful, and he would end up passing me to break trail. Brad had an amazing attitude, and was loving every moment of traveling down the trail. He was a very uplifting person to travel with, and his dogs (actually Ken Anderson’s) were strong enough, but just needed a team to follow (he would usually stay on Pete’s heels and pass me as Pete did). Brad also had an amazing supply of goodies in his sled, and loaned me a pair of boots and book of matches in Unalakleet. I was very grateful for both, especially the boots which allowed me to run and pedal up every hill to the finish.

Mushers often forget the amount of hills that surround Norton Sound. They are not to be overlooked! With the exception of the second coastal run from Shaktoolik to Koyuk, which is all on frozen sea ice, the other four runs have monster rolling hills. These add thousands of feet of climbing in the last 250 miles of the race. Although these hills are an incredible workout, for dogs and musher alike, they give way to amazing views at the top, making the reward worth the work.

The weather had started to break as we mushed from Koyuk to Elim, and by the time we left Elim in late afternoon, the skies were clear. The 45 miles from Elim to White Mountain were a culmination of a season’s worth of hard work, and embodied everything that the Iditarod represents to me as a musher.

a group of sheep that are standing in the snow

Resting in Elim. Well, everyone but Knox.

At this point in the race, I knew that one way or another we would reach the finish line. With that realization, I was able to set aside any stress, and with clear skies and only minimal wind, enjoy every moment of this run. We started with a seven mile climb up “Little McKinley,” bringing us about 2000 above the coast. We then followed one ridgeline to the next, chasing the setting sun. The views were incredible in all directions, and the color in the sky was just amazing to watch (especially after over a week of nothing but snow). In the distance, I could watch Pete and Brad slowly gain ground on us. It was fun to feel that comradery of traveling with other mushers, knowing they too were enjoying this amazing piece of trail.

a man riding skis down a snow covered slope

The view as we mush towards White Mountain

At last, the two larger teams caught up to us, and together we ran over the remaining 10 miles of hills into Golovin (a small community about 16 miles from White Mountain). Just as we approached town, the northern lights came out, and we pointed a portion of our attention to the sky. At this point, Pete and Brad had passed me. On the other side of Golovin, I stopped to put on dog jackets and give my team a snack. The wind had picked up, and the temperature had fallen to -15. I was so startled and confused, when suddenly a team came up behind me and went whizzing by! After initial surprise, I started laughing as I realized it was Brad. Apparently, he had devoted a little too much attention to the sky, and missed the trail out of Golovin.

Leaving the town, we run across Golovin Bay. With a nice tail wind, I was able to sit on my sled, shut off my light, and watch the sky. Even though I have grown up in Alaska, and see the lights frequently throughout the winter, the aurora never loses its beauty and intrigue, and I spent the better part of two hours watching it dance, the lights of Golovin slowly fading behind us. The emotional realization that this was our last night on the trail, and that we were going to finish, suddenly hit me. With tears in my eyes I watched the form of my team move in the subtle light from the sky. I thought back across the last 11 days, and the ups and downs of the race. I thanked my team. I thanked them for their loyalty and their strength. I thanked them for their intelligence and their drive. I thanked them for being there as my family. I knew that this had not been an easy race for them, but these eight dogs had tackled the challenges head on, and had never shown a moment of hesitation. In that moment, I felt that I could travel with them, like this, forever.

As we prepped to leave White Mountain, after serving our mandatory eight hours, I almost regretted having to call this our last run. Reality took hold, however, and I thought about the remaining 60 miles. Many a team has had their race come to an end in this stretch, and that thought helped to get me back on track. A breeze had picked up on the river where we were parked, beneath White Mountain, and I knew that this was an ominous sign of the miles to come. If it is windy here, the exposed Topkok Hills would be storm. And past that, the coast of Norton Sound, and the infamous “blowhole,” would be wild!

In 2014, this section of trail completely changed the outcome of the Iditarod front pack. Jeff King had his entire team blown off course in the “blowhole,” and the dogs got tangled in driftwood lining the coast. In the time it took him to get them untangled, they laid down and decided it was time to camp. Aliy Zirkle then passed him, unknowingly, and when she reached the final checkpoint of Safety, stopped to reassess her team. As she was stopped, Dallas Seavey mushed through. He signed in and out of the checkpoint, and went on to win the race, all the while thinking that he was still in third position.

Three miles out of White Mountain, we climbed off Fish River and were confronted with a strong breeze. Looking across the five mile swamp we were currently running, the Topkok hills were locked in cloud cover. Except, it was a blue sky day, and there were no other clouds around. What I was seeing, in fact, was blowing snow, crowning off the hills and forming “snow clouds.” I decided I was now ready for the race to be over. I did not want to face anymore wind.

In a protected spot just before the hills, I stopped and put jackets back on the dogs. I had removed them before leaving the checkpoint, thinking the temperature was going to rise. It was currently five degrees, however, and it looked like we were going to be facing dangerous winds as we got into the hills. As I pulled the hook and climbed the first small rise into the hills, the strong breeze turned into a 40 mile per hour cross wind. Despite the fact that Pete was only minutes in front of us, Qarth and Knox were breaking through belly deep drifts with no sign of any other team. We would see obvious sled tracks and an icy, rock hard trail one moment, and then bottomless drifts and soft powder the next. While I fought to keep the sled behind the dogs, cutting one side slope after another, the dogs fought to keep their footing and a steady pace with the extreme variation in snow conditions. We were about 12 miles into a 60 mile run… By the time two and a half hours had passed, my shoulders and arms were more fatigued then they had been the entire race. The side hills, coupled with the strong winds made for some of the most demanding sled driving of the whole race. And, I knew we had not hit the worst of it.

After about 25 miles, the trail through the Topkok Hills spits you out onto the coast of Norton Sound for the remaining 35 miles to Nome. But, you must immediately pass through an eight mile section known as the “blowhole.” Regardless of the weather, this piece of the coastline is pummeled by a constant wind that funnels out of the mountains and straight out to sea. This constant wind only increases when there is a storm, of course. During the last couple miles of the Topkoks, I could look out to sea and watch the wind rip across patches of open water. The view was amazing! Watching the turbulent salt water while mushing at five degrees in a winter storm, was a very cool experience. Rounding the final hill, I could keep one eye on the open water and then look over the coast to a grey/white expanse. What is usually definable coastline, was nothing but a cloud. One look told me that was the “blowhole,” and I could follow the distant trail markers straight into the middle of a whiteout.

As we dropped out of the hills and approached the edge of what now looked like a living beast, I was met with a single second of hesitation. Just before we hit the coastline, there is a tiny safety cabin. Parked against that cabin, was a team that had left White Mountain four hours in front of us. Knox saw them, and before I could give it thought, I was calling him and Qarth out towards the coastline. The power of the wind that hit us twenty steps later, is hard to describe. I had one more second of mental pause, and then watched the way my two leaders leaned into the wind and hit the storm with more drive than I could have ever asked for. I knew at that moment that there was nothing else in the world except the here and now. It was time to mush!

The wind went from strong to absurd! I had never mushed in anything close to these conditions before. I went from an aggressive crouch, to sitting on my right heel and holding onto the base of the upright stanchions, my hands positioned only about six inches off the runners. I was trying to get as low as possible and hold the sled down to the trail. Any moment that I relaxed, the sled would spin perpendicular to the dog team, pointing into the wind. In order to keep the sled tracking behind the dogs, I pulled out my knife and drug its blade through the ice on the uphill side of the sled, using it as a rudder. This was a first!

Fifteen minutes into the harshest of the wind, I needed to reposition my legs. After sheathing my knife, I straightened my back. As I did so, the wind caught my body and immediately blew us over. This would be the one and only point in the entire race where I tipped my sled and drug behind the dogs. The ground was completely flat.

I estimate the wind was blowing a steady 70 miles per hour for this eight miles of trail. I stopped twice in this section. Once with my tipping and dragging activity, and then again as Mereen got blown into her brother and tangled in his line. Each time I walked to the front of the team, the dogs would have a layer of snow and ice caked to one side of their tail and face (the majority of their bodies being protected by the jackets). I would brush them off, give them a quick pat, and then get back to my sled which was ready to go airborne if not for the snowhook rope keeping it anchored down. Every time they felt me pull the hook, they hit their tugs and were eager to get going. I guess they trusted that I would get them out of this weather eventually.

At last, the wind calmed to a pleasant 30 miles per hour, and I deemed it safe to stop and make a snack break. In the last mile, I had noticed Qarth make a change to his gait, and now as he stood in lead, I could see that he had pulled something in his back. It was time to give my heaviest dog a ride in the sled. He did not protest, and seemed happy to find reprieve from the storm. With Braavos joining Knox in lead, we continued our progress towards the finish line, albeit at a markedly slower pace with now only seven dogs in harness. I pulled out the ski pole and began my familiar motion of pedaling and ski poling with the team. The wind was now calm enough I could stand upright on the runners, and only needed to have a mild lean into the wind.

The final challenge before reaching the burled arch of the finish, is a climb over “Cape Nome.” Just for fun, the race trail goes up and over a thousand foot hill 12 miles from Nome. Although there is a trail around the “mountain,” the markers take teams straight up the long climb. The view of the western Seward Peninsula is admittedly beautiful, but I am not sure it is worth the tradeoff. This hill was a workout for the seven dogs hauling Qarth, but they tackled it honestly, and reached the top with wagging tails and alert eyes. This would be our final stop on the Iditarod Trail, and I took a moment to give every dog another snack, a fresh change of booties, and a quick rub. In this time, Brad gained on us and attempted a pass. Although his team had somehow been able to power through the “blowhole” on their own, the team was not motivated to stay in front of my dogs. After a few attempts, he took my suggestion and stayed a little ways behind me for the remaining miles to Nome.

It is a bizarre experience to go from the complete remoteness of the Topkok Hills (and the majority of the Iditarod Trail, for that matter), to the relative urban development of Nome. As we trotted down the beach towards the city, cars drove up and down the road next to us, snowmachines buzzed by, a jet took flight in the distance. We were still mushing, still leaning into a steady cross wind, but something had changed. I embraced the change. I congratulated the dogs. As we approached Front Street, I made a quick stop. I pulled Qarth out of the sled and put him in team next to his sister. This dog had led through each of the most difficult sections of trail on this race, and I thought he deserved to be a legitimate finisher, in harness. I guess, it was what I wanted to see from him, more than anything.

The eight dogs that had run with me for the last 450 miles moved as they had for days, light and easy, making their steps seem effortless. As we ran down the paved street to the finish line, and KattiJo and my Mom who were eagerly awaiting, I could see more finishes in their future.

Thank you to my amazing group of dogs!

Finishers:

Knox – Led for over half the race, and has attitude and endurance that is unmatched

Qarth – The most incredible dog I have ever owned!

Mereen – Smooth and fierce, her future is bright

Braavos – The most eager dog in this year’s race, he loved tailing Spears (who was in heat, haha)

Tundra – At 10, this was his final Iditarod. The couch is in his future

Spears – The easiest dog on the team, her four foot leap to run is pretty inspiring

Moe – A surprise finisher! Let’s see if he is ready for next year.

Whiskey – Our youngest team member, at 20 months. Super appetite, light step. Good boy!

Dropped:

Polar – (Anvik) I had the hardest time dropping this guy. He has grown immensely this year, and should make next year’s team

Ambler – (Shageluk) Super strong, but suffering from chronic shoulder issues, Ambler’s racing career is uncertain

Frito – (Iditarod) This guy loved every minute of the race. A swollen wrist knocked him out this year, but he will be back next year

Forty – (Ophir) Outgoing as ever, he should be ready for next year

India – (McGrath) As with her son, Ambler, her shoulders have proven to be a problem on tough trails. Her attitude on new trails, however, is great!

Pogo – (McGrath) The smartest Gee/Haw leader we have! I sure hope I can get this guy through next year’s race (his physical durability is the issue)

Elton – (McGrath) This little nut is living on the couch! He was adopted after the race by a local Fairbanks resident

Yunkai – (Nikolai) A beast! No dog has his appetite, or his semi-psychotic attitude… His racing career comes down to whether or not he wants it. It is all mental with Yunkai