Thursday, June 23, 2011

Rohn to Nikolai

Start - Rohn: 272 miles

Rohn – Nikoli: 80 miles

Most of my time at Rohn was spent making different meals for the dogs (soaked meat, soaked meat and fat, soaked meat and kibble, dry kibble, fish, frozen meat snacks, all combinations possible….), most of which they ignored. I also typically spent a bit of time on dog care; wrapping wrists, short massages, etc. This all boils down to: a tired musher. I hadn’t gotten any sleep yet and I was beginning to feel it. But I scheduled myself to leave Rohn after a 6 hour stay, and I left after 5 hours and 56 minutes.

There were two final scare monger trophies to tackle, both in the upcoming run: the glacier out of Rohn, and the Farewell Burn. I was so tired however, that I just didn’t care about the ‘ooh scary Iditarod trail’ anymore. A note on 'glaciers.' Glaciers in the mushing world are sheets of ice, made by flowing water that surfaces and pools or runs down a slope then freezes. When trails cross these, dogs and sleds get no traction; everything slips and slides and/or flips on it's/their sides.

I left Rohn with 14 dogs and they all looked very good. Some people advise to never leave Rohn with a fresh dog team (more fear mongering); the trail is just too dangerous. They suggest going through Rohn and camping two or three miles out, once the ‘crap’ trail out of Rohn and the glacier have been passed. But, there a plenty of people who camp at Rohn and survive just fine. Some people also suggest leaving Rohn in the light, so as not to miss the turn onto the Kuskokwim River. Others say to leave in the dark, so that the reflectors marking the trail can be picked up more easily. All of the different options and suggestions could make a person a little nuts.

Anyway, I left Rohn at about 6:15 in the evening; it was still light. The first hazard out of Rohn was crossing the Kuskokwim River. It’s a very windy spot so all the snow was blown off the frozen river. The trail out of Rohn goes sort of diagonally down the river to the opposite bank. I didn’t see any markers right away, but Hailey seemed to know where she was going. Then I saw markers…. over there, to the right. I tried getting the team over to the markers, but I had no control of the sled due to being on glare ice. ‘Gee gee gee’ I kept yelling. Hailey’s an amazing dog, but not always the best gee haw dog (ie, doesn’t respond to commands so well). Then I saw a drop off where the ice had broken, ‘crap.’ Off the dogs went, and thankfully it was only a couple of feet. Then I saw the trail on the opposite bank, Hailey was heading right for it. The trail was fairly good for a short while, then I understood what they meant by ‘crap trail out of Rohn.’ There was no snow on the trail and it was full of roots. Sleds don’t handle well on frozen dirt and roots. They just slide and bounce around. It was very, very annoying. I can’t say I was nervous or scared, just annoyed. I was also anxious about the glacier, due about 45 minutes out of Rohn.

It was still light when we got there. The whole experience was a little surreal actually. Hailey was in single lead, picking her way along the windy trail. All of a sudden I saw the glacier on the right. It was very large (maybe 25' high), and very steep; but it was my lucky day, it was covered with a small layer of snow (traction!). Hailey just kept going along the base, like she knew where she was going. I didn’t tell her otherwise, because I sure didn’t want to go straight up the face of the thing. I just waited to see if the trail skirted around and up; sure enough it did. Hailey didn’t miss a step and gave no indication that this was anything but normal trail. She just followed a trail on the far side that went straight up the side of the glacier. There was no slipping, so scrambling, no confusion, no turning back. Piece of cake. I just started giggling out loud, ‘Dogs! That was the glacier!’ I later heard of all sorts of stories of people getting stuck on the glacier. One team’s dogs turning around and sliding back to the bottom. Art’s dogs wanted to go straight up the glacier, got all tangled up, and he had to let the all loose in order to untangle the gangline.

After the glacier the trail improved slightly and we began running up and down short hills, endless hills; this stretch is called the Buffalo Tunnels. It was dark, and time passes incredibly slow in the dark. Everything looks the same, just a headlamp glow in the dark. No mountains, or rivers, to look at, just dark. I stopped for a short break, to split the 80 mile run into two forty mile runs, at ‘Buffalo Camp.’ This use to be an area where buffalo hunters erected a few tent and camped out. It was abandoned now, and it was cold. I don’t know if the weather had changed or I had dropped in elevation, but it was noticeably cold, -35 was my guess. I bedded down the dogs with straw that I had carried and hoped for some better appetites while I got their snack ready. I had put soaked kibble and meat in the cooler and spooned it out for them. Very little action. I dumped the gruel on the ground before it froze solid in the bowls; a few preferred that option and ate, while some others just turned their noses and curled up for a nap.

When I arrive at Buffalo Camp there were 2 mushers, Karen Ramstead and Wattie Mcdonald. Karen left shortly after arrived, followed by Wattie. Wattie’s exit was not so smooth. He was parked facing the wrong direction, so I helped pull the dog around to fact the outbound trail. While he was leaving though, Art Church came barreling through with the young Buser dogs he was driving and both ended up in the outbound trail at the same time. They didn’t fit very well and got completely tangled. It was a mess, but they got all sorted out and I was left to myself, in the cold. I tried taking a little nap on top of my sled, which is difficult in the cold, but I was tired. I must have dozed for a bit, as I woke in a fog of disorientation. I heard what sounded like thundering hooves of buffalo. I opened my dried eyes and peered out my parka to see a herd of beasts running towards me, from what seemed to be the woods. There was steam rising from them and I could just see a herd of silhouettes outlined through a light beam. This must be a dog team but why are they coming from the woods?! I sat up in a panic and realized that I was just dazed and confused. It was Trent Herbst with his big, hairy Stealstra dogs, thundering in from the trail for a break. I chuckled and told him I thought he was a heard of buffalo about to run me over.

It was time to take off anyways (3 hour stop), so I packed up and set off for the last of the known trail hazards, the Farewell Burn. So far, the difficult spots were all doable. In fact, they weren’t just doable, they were just hard enough to be fun. The Burn was a different story. When mean people die, they go to the burn. This was an evil place. This is known as a difficult part of trail due to the miles and miles of tussock, with no relief. Tussock are balls of frozen grass stumps and can range in size from small and unnoticeable to basketball size. These were large and dangerous. And since there was no snow, not a bit, they were really large. Two other insults added to the excitement; we were running in the wee hours of the morning, and it was cold. Dogs like to run at night; they like to run at 2 am even more. They were crazy, wild beasts; hard to control and causing me to call them bad names. The cold was significant because I had to wear my glasses (contacts were lost). My glasses weren’t just fogged up, they were froze up. I couldn’t let go of the handlebar very often to rub the ice off them. I was half blind.

The trail was awful; scary and awful. We bounced terribly through the tussocks. I was unable to slow them down much because the brake pad would get caught up on the tussocks and I feared tearing it off. I would be in a real bind if that happened. So I would keep the brake pad up most of the time, then let it down (with a string pully) if I saw a gap in the mounds to give a break here and there, trying desperately to slow the dogs. I thought I would surely see sled parts, dog parts, people parts strewn along the trail; but I didn’t really. I saw a couple of runner plastics (the long plastic piece that goes under the sled runners), but that’s it. Keeping that sled upright though the 15 miles of tussock was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. I knew that if I let the sled tip, there would be a good chance of me being hurt and/or losing the sled. I held on for dear life and worked very hard to keep things upright. I was so very very happy when we were through the Burn. The dogs didn’t seem to understand my fear whatsoever. They were having a great time.

The run into Nikoli was a couple of hours after the Burn. It was wonderful, calm trail; in and out of sloughs. It was just quiet calm trail in which to see the sunrise. We reached Nikolai at 7:37 am. As I was checking in at the entrance to the checkpoint, the Iditarod photographer came over and got a shot of me and my frosted-over glasses, and Muggles, mid-air, as he jumped in impatience when the sled stopped. The little bugger wasn’t tired at all.

Nikolai is a small, low lying Athabascan village. Many of its people volunteer for the race; heating water for the dogs, bringing drop bags and straw to the musheres, cleaning up straw, etc. The mushers rested in the school building, and rest I did. I first ate a meal that the village women made for us, soup and bread, then I went into the darkened gym with pads on which to sleep. I put some earplugs in (Wattie, famous snorer, was there) and out I went for about 3 hours; my first sleep in my race.

I stayed in Nikolai for 8 hours, as planned. By racing standards, an 8 hour layover is a long stop. But for a rookie, it goes by very fast. My goal was to have the dogs bedded down and fed in 1 hour; this included any necessary medical care for the dogs. I also gave the dogs a snack 1.5-2 hours before we left a checkpoint. So I had a few hours within this window to heat my food, eat, unpack drop bags and pack for the next run. My window became a little smaller also as dogs didn’t eat and I put together different meals to see what they’d eat. I also had a lot of wrists and body parts to care for. As I got more tired, any checkpoint routine that I might have had became a bit blurry. I found myself walking in rookie circles and not being efficient. Top mushers have strict routines and learn to shave every second of every movement. They can do their work in their sleep, literally. No wasted walking, no wasted time. They also have the best of the best dogs; ones that don’t get injured, or require a lot of work. But us rookies have a lot to learn and just do the best we can. 8 hours goes by very, very fast.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Rainy Pass to Rohn

I pulled the hook from miserable, windy, cold Rainy Pass at 7:55 am. It was windy in the Rainy Pass checkpoint, and it was windy going out of the checkpoint, but not awfully horrible, just moderately horrible. We left a sort of bowl area and started to climb……. then……. it got WINDY! Holy cow it was windy. It was a horizontal white out; just like the film clips I’ve seen of the Iditarod. There was no apparent trail. It was blown over and under a good foot of snow. I remained calm and thought, “no one in front of me has turned around, so this is all completely doable.” This thought, and the actions of my dogs kept me calm. I had Hailey and Dill up front, my two best leaders. I couldn’t see a trail but I could see the markers. The dogs also couldn’t see, smell or feel the trail, as the wind-blown snow was so deep. So I just had to ‘gee’ and ‘haw’ them to the next trail marker, one trail marker at a time. The trail markers are slats of wood with the top painted bright orange and a small piece of reflective tape stapled to the top. The markers are actually easier to pick up in the dark, with the reflectors beaming back at your headlamp light. But it was light out, which I chose to leave in so that I could see, but I couldn’t see, because it was a white out. Go figure. So we traveled marker to marker, meaning that I would steer the dogs to the next marker, the only one I could see, then I would usually be able to pick up the next marker and steer them to that one, etc. Occasionally I would have to stop to fix a tangle or look for a marker. During these stops, the dogs would bark and scream and jump up and bang on their harnesses. The little buggers were having fun! They gave me absolute confidence that they could do this. We kept at this for a couple of hours (hard to tell), and finally the wind started to calm as we got further into the pass. With the white out behind me, I could see my surroundings. I was on a huge saddle, with peaks to each side of me and the trail meandering through thick willows. Gorgeous. The trail was now coherent, for the most part, and traveling was fairly easy. I had heard that the other side of the pass could be very tricky with a lot of side hill trail (meaning that the trail goes along a hill but is not cut into the hill, so you have to tip the sled up into the hill so that the uphill runner digs into the hillside vs just sliding down, off the trail). Once we were over the pass, we followed a little stream and dodged in and out of little willow patches and round banks. It was all fun and entertaining, no grueling sidehills to be seen. Hmm?
So to review the list that the fear mongers use to make Iditarod rookies wince: Happy River steps, Rainy Pass, Dalzell Gorge, crap trail and glacier out of Rhone, the Burn. So my next adventure was the Dalzell Gorge, gulp!
The trail continued in a downward orientation, nothing too drastic, just little ins and outs. I was in a constant state of holding my breath though, anticipating the drop into the Gorge. I then became abruptly focused when the trail took a sharp left, then a strong, steep descent. The trail was very narrow and there was a sharp drop off to my right. I knew I was starting into the Gorge. Wondering if that was the steepest part of the decent, the answer became apparent. No. All of a sudden the trail dropped out from under me. I hate it when that happens. It felt like a free fall almost, which it wasn’t, but that’s what it felt like. The dogs didn’t mind it. I never like the lack of control and I worry about hurting a dog through steep descents like that. All I could do was keep my balance while braking as hard as I could and know that it would be over in a very short period of time. And it was. We screamed to the bottom of the narrow descent and glided into the Gorge.
At that point, I was so thankful that I had left Rainy Pass later in the morning, because the Gorge was an amazingly beautiful place. I would have hated to miss it in the dark of an early morning run. The trail hugged the banks of the river and took several crosses to the opposite bank; all enclosed within the dark, rocky, vertical walls of the gorge. The river crossings were over ice bridges. Ice bridges are formed after a river surface has frozen and pockets of the ice collapse over the receding river water bellow. The resulting holes in the ice can be very large, with narrow ice bridges left between them. There had been a lot of concern about travel over the ice bridges before the race started, as there was very little snow at that point and the ice bridges were slick on top. Luckily, it had snowed quite a bit since the race start, leaving a trail of snow over the bridges, giving us a stable and maneuverable surface. My trip through the Gorge was uneventful and just an incredibly scenic ride.
Just before leaving the Gorge though, I did have an eerie experience. We were running along the left bank, almost to the last ice bridge, when I noticed out of the corner of my eye an ice bridge just upstream from the one I was about to cross. Most of the bridge had collapsed, with only about 6 inches of width left for a stretch of about 3 or 4 feet. What was eerie though, was the very fresh tracks that were on both sides of the collapsed section. The tracks were from a snow machine. I realized that this had been the Iditarod trail a very short while ago. The thought of my going over that collapsed bridge gave me sharp tingles of fear down to my toes. The bottom of the river was at least 8 feet below the trail. When I got into Rohn a short while later, a trail crew member found me and asked if I had noticed the trail redirection. I told him that I didn’t notice anything odd about the trail, but I did notice the old, broken ice bridge trail. He said that the bridge collapsed after he had driven his snow machine over it, and he had barely had enough time to find another bridge, get back across the river, ‘x’ off the old trail, and redirect it to the new bridge, before I came upon it. My run to Rohn could have been so very different.
I arrived at Rohn at 12:40 in the afternoon. The sun was out, winds were calm; it was a peaceful afternoon. Rohn is a picturesque checkpoint, centered at a recreational cabin surrounded by beautiful peaks. The dogs are parked in the middle of tall pines, thus sheltered from any wind. It’s a good spot for them to rest. The volunteers at Rohn have been working that particular checkpoint for many years. I know Jasper has been there for at least 18 years. He runs it like a veteran ship captain.
My first problem at Rohn was my dog Bullet. She had been running a nice, uneventful race, but came into Rohn favoring her left front leg. Nothing bad enough for me to put her in the sled, but I had noticed it shortly after leaving the gorge, and it had gotten worse as we made our way to the checkpoint. As soon as I got into the checkpoint, the vets were right there and I asked them to give her particular attention as they examined the team. It appeared to be a left shoulder. A ‘shoulder’ injure is a vague and frustrating injury. It could be one of many, many things in that complicated area of the body. So it was very hard to know if it was an injury that I could work on and get Bullet through the race, or if she needed to be dropped right away. The vets advised dropping her, as they see few shoulder injuries that improve along the race. I told them I’d think about it, but I knew I’d drop her. I just needed to time to come to terms with it. Bullet isn’t my best dog, far from it actually. But she is one of my favorite dogs. She is my buddy and I love traveling with her. She is the happiest dog in my kennel and just a joy to have around. So I was not happy to lose her, not happy at all. But the run out of Rohn is very long and treacherous. It is not a run where you want an injured dog, or to bag a dog. So to be on the safe side, for both Bullet and the team (and so I wouldn’t stare at her constantly all the way to Nikoli) I decided to drop her in Rohn.
My second problem in Rohn was that the dogs were not eating. I tried a couple of different meal options (taking more time away from my rest), but nothing seemed to interest them. I was starting to get really worried about this and was wondering what was going on. Feeding racing sled dogs is it’s own art and science, one that I had not (and still have not) mastered. When dogs race long distances, they lose their appetites (as do people). It takes a lot of experience to know what to feed them, when, and how much; not only during a race, but throughout the training season. Lance Mackey bases his breeding and selection of dogs, in large part on their desire to eat during a race. Appetite and durability of feet are his two main criteria for his dogs. Speed is less important, because as long as a dog eats and has healthy feet, he will be happy to keep going. I wondered how long my picky eating dogs would keep going.

completing projects....

I generally like completion. It's neat, it's tidy, it feels good. I would like to continue my Iditarod story for completion sake, but I also know that there a few people out there, like my friend Joe in Manteca, CA who would like to know 'the rest of the story.' I'd also like to summarize my Yukon Quest trip from this last winter, but I certainly can't dive into that story until the Iditarod race is finished. So if there are people still out there who are interested, I'll do my best to get this done.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Finger Lake to Rainey Pass

The trail out of Finger Lake was cut sharp and deep in the snow. In fact the dogs seemed to still have a sense of humor and played a little joke on me on the way out of the checkpoint. We had to climb up and over a little hill directly out of the chute. The trail turned and forked at the crest of the hill, with the left fork going back to the posh cookhouse and the right being the correct trail for the mushers. The corner was sharp enough that the lead dogs were well through the left fork by the time I saw their wrong direction…they obviously wanted an egg and black bean burrito and I sure didn’t blame them. I did not want to travel through the tight junctions within the checkpoint buildings, then down the steep embankment to the dog parking area; just to start the process over again. It was a matter of pride and practicality. So I stopped the dogs, and with no possibility of going in reverse, I simply drug the front half of the team through and over the waist deep snow of the ‘Y’, and over to the right trail. It was a sweaty ordeal. I was happy no one saw my state right out of camp and was actually a little surprised that my clumsy tracks were the first across the pristine snow between the fork in the trail. Anyway, THEN we were off.

Ok, so I left Finger Lake at 7pm. The trail was truly beautiful through this section. The heavy snow had obviously hit all of this foothill area, not just the river systems we had traveled already. The trail went through rolling hills and the base of the Alaska Range, through forests that were sparse, sparse enough to open up and feel surrounded by the blanket of snow. In the back of my mind, I had the anxiety of running down the Happy River Steps, but I tried, successfully, to just put that aside while we were all have a good time; and we all were indeed having a good time. The dogs loved this trail. They love ups and downs, ins and outs. They looked forward to each turn, to see what was around the bend. What was up ahead? What would the new trail bring. It was all just a beautiful thing.

We were told that we would come upon the Happy River Steps in about an hour and a half. At a bit over an hour, I let that lingering thought at the back of my head surface closer to the front. I had seen part of the Steps on the Iditarod Insider videos, but that’s all I knew of them. Martin Buser had mentioned them in the rookie meeting. Saying something about, ‘whatever you do, don’t brake into the corners and don’t let the fact that you see your lead dog coming around on the trail just below you bother you’. Yada yada yada. We had a few false starts at the steps; a number a little ridges that the trail crossed over. I thought, ‘well, that certainly wasn’t them.’ Then there were a couple of big steps, but big soft steps. I was thankful for the snow. ‘Was that them?’ I wondered. Then we went through a couple of steep and sharp turns; ‘was that part of the steps?’ Then we went down one more steep ridge, and I do remember thinking, ‘if there were no snow here, that drop would really suck.’ At that moment, I saw what I thought was a chair beside the trail. ‘Hmmm, maybe that’s where the cameraman sat for the first part of the group. Therefore, that all must have been the Happy River Steps.’ Turns out that the ‘chair’ was the back half of Karin Hendrickson’s sled. She had a sit down sled and the ‘chair’ was the back half of her sled. Her runners had broken between her bag and her ‘sit down’ part. I had indeed just gone through the Happy River Steps.

I thought I was suppose to go over the Happy River; but I just never could find it. I thought maybe I took a different route or something, it just wasn’t like the picture I had in my head. There were no turns off the trail though, and the route was very obvious. After the Steps, the trail just kept going through similar country of foothills, with switchbacks, drops and little climbs. It had gotten dark by this point. There was one more challenging section before Rainy Pass that I didn’t remember anyone talking about. There was a long decent, through very curvy trail, with every corner hugging a tree and with the trail having very very deep gouges due to everyone in front of me braking at the corner. The trenches were a couple of feet deep and I did not want to get sucked into them. If I did, and I did once by mistake, there was no way to control the sled, it would just shoot through the trench then pin ball down the lane, possible going off the trail and/or hitting tree(s) when out of control. Instead, I worked it. I tilted the sled up on the outside/uphill runner to steer the sled clear of the sled-sucker trench and have complete control out of the turn. My Gatt sled was amazingly maneuverable and I was saying good things in Hans Gatt’s direction during this run.

I was almost to Rainy Pass, when the dogs perked up their ears and started surging ahead. I then saw a head lamp. I thought maybe someone was just snacking their dogs, so just slowed down and hoped I wouldn’t run up on them. I then heard a voice, ‘I’ve had a crash.’ A musher had lost his team through the pin ball alley and was on foot. This is a scary deal for us mushers. Dogs just go, and with no musher on the runners to slow them down and control the sled, the dogs can just go too fast and slower dogs may trip and be drug, a potentially life-threatening scenario. I don’t remember if we even discussed the options. He was obviously going to get on the runners with me and I was obviously going to take him down the trail until we found his dogs and/or reached the Rainy Pass checkpoint. The checkpoint was actually not far, and his dogs were happy and healthy at Rainy Pass. He was leasing a team from a vetran musher, and these dogs were an older trap-line crew, amazingly constant and stable. They ran 8 miles per hour whether he was on the runners or not. No slower, no faster. What a team!

I arrived at Rainy Pass at 10:30 pm. It was not a pleasant place. The wind was HOWLING and it was cold. I parked the team in what felt like an open field, there was just no protection anywhere. The wind was relentless. I had to grab the food bowls as I spooned the stew in them for the dogs. I put my warmest jackets on all the dogs, even the furriest of the lot. I had packed 4’x4’ fleece blankets in the check point bags and put these on all the dogs, but the wind just blew them off. They didn’t really want to eat, and they didn’t seem to be able to sleep very well. I did not like Rainy Pass.

To add to my dislike of the place, my friend Allen Moore was just leaving when I was taking care of the dogs. It was nice to chat with him briefly, but he was just as unhappy as I was, maybe even more unhappy because he had to leave in this crappy weather. Allen may run the youngsters of SP Kennel (SP Kennel of Aliy Zirkle and Allen Moore), but he is one of the most successful and competent mushers in the race. I listen to Allen, I listen intently. When Allen is not happy with having to go through some weather, I am not happy about the same prospect. But he was sticking to his schedule and that was that. He was unhappy also because he had gotten stuck in such a storm in a previous Iditarod. He and a few other mushers left in a similar weather and lost the trail over the pass. They did find their way eventually, but it was a scary run for all of them. This is what was in Allen’s head when he and I were talking, as he was getting the dogs ready for take off. I continued to take care of my dogs and tried to not get weak legs.

I found the mushers cabin and hoped to get a couple of hours of rest. Karen Ramstead was in the small cabin, with her dogs already fed and put to bed. She runs Siberian Huskys and I was sure that their thick coats served them well at that moment. Karen is great fun to talk to and I have always enjoyed her company in the few races in which we both ran. I also remember Karen in the 2006 Iditarod, when I was a race veterinarian. She was one of my favorite mushers. She runs ‘sibes’, a slower dog than Alaskan huskies, thus she is not expecting to be in the top ten finishers. But by god she runs a good race. She is efficient, has good dog care, and has a great attitude. She is not going to let a few hours of negative sleep ruin her day! Having said that though, she was not having a good time. She had a wound on her hand that had gotten infected and her antibiotics were not settling well with her. She was planning on staying on schedule though and seeing how this would all play out.

I found a spot on a top bunk to lie down. I wasn’t able to sleep, but did close my eyes for a bit and tried to relax my head. I always hope that this relaxed state will somehow count towards brain rest. I was almost on schedule at this point. My runs were a little faster than expected and I was making up on some time that I had lost when I lost my contacts. I was suppose to rest for 5 hours and leave at 3:10 am. I got up at 1 am and checked on the dogs and the weather. The dogs were hunkered up in little balls, with the snow blowing up over them. The weather was just getting worse it seemed. I didn’t quite know how I was going to see through all of this. I was sure I would have to wear my goggles through the storm, but wouldn’t be able to wear my glasses under the goggles (the notorious fogging). So I scrapped the schedule and decided to leave a little after daybreak. I just felt too insecure. This gave me a couple more hours of rest too, which I didn’t complain about. I just wished we were in a more hospitable spot for the dogs.

The next time I peeked my head out of the cabin, it was just starting to get light. The wind was still relentless. At that point, I just wanted to get out of there. So I packed up and went out to the dogs. I went through my drop bags and packed the sled, in what was the most inefficient way possible, I’m sure. It took me half the race to get my checkpoint act in gear. I did finally get packed up though, snacked the dogs and got us all on the trail. The storm had not subsided in the least bit and I was heading out on my own. I used the logic: ‘if it was really bad out there, mushers would be turning around and coming back to the checkpoint.’ No one had returned. So I used my standby motivational montra: ‘if they can do it, I can do it.’ So off we went; 7:50 am.

I learned at the next checkpoint that Andy, the judge who was stuck at Rainy Pass (because nothing was flying in or out), closed the checkpoint shortly after I left. He let one musher leave behind me, Ross Adams, because he was a vetran musher with decades of experience, and would be there behind me if I had any troubles. No one else was allowed to leave for a short while due to the severity of the storm.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

The Start to Finger Lake

Start – Finger Lake

Official start time: 2:54 pm. The start of Iditarod was marked by people, lots of people. I saw people camped along the trail well into the night. They were mostly families wishing us all well, and young adults with bon fires and ample beverages. The dogs continued to do well through the crowds, but we all looked forward to quieter times ahead.

Our first run was along several lakes then onto large river systems. My goals were to keep the dogs slowed down enough to avoid injuries and also for me to get use to having 16 dogs in front of me. Yikes. The power was intimidating. Ok, short detour here. I have to admit that I had never run with 16 dogs prior to the start of Iditarod. There, I said it. I just didn’t have the conditions at home. Not enough snow, even in the White Mountains, to allow one to control such a crazy powerful group. Ok, back to the story at hand. We got to pass a couple people, but mostly got a good view of some great mushers passing us. Dee Dee passed in a flash of pink, turned around and gave us a wave. Martin Buser loped by like a freight train, with a nod in acknowledgment. That’s one of the cool things about this sport; newbies like me get to run with the greats (‘run with’ might be a couple of seconds, but we’re all in the same race!).

We reached Yentna while it was still daylight, 6:54 pm. I had Venus and Pepsi in lead, figuring that I’d have my third string leaders in the beginning of the race, as there weren’t many decisions to be made, and I wanted to keep my main leaders fresh for later. Another detour is in order. This was Venus’ first race. Her first race, ever. That is why she was ‘third string leader.’ She’s a great little dog I bought from Dean Osmar, but had a nagging shoulder injury earlier in the season, which kept her from previous races. Iditarod was her first race! Ok, back to the story. My plan was to stay in Yentna just a short bit, just enough to break up the run between the start and Skwenta (which would have been about a 7-8 hour run, a little far for my crew). The directions to the parking area of the Yentna rest area were confusing, but we got the turnoff right finally, accidentally actually. The parking area was right next to the through trail, which is confusing and distracting for the dogs. We also had to pull up alongside another parked musher, but without a volunteer to lead the dogs up. The dogs just think we’re passing someone, so they don’t know to keep a decent distance away from the parked musher. So we sort of ran up on the poor guy who was just trying to snack his dogs. Wait a minute, ‘poor guy’ my bootie, it’s Jeff King! Craaaaap. “What the hell are you doing?” was his first constructive criticism of my parking skills. He then brightened up a bit and said ‘welcome to Yentna!’ I got everyone straightened out and apologized for my rookie ways and all was ok.

The dogs didn’t rest at all though. Not one little bit. It wasn’t a good spot. We were too close to the trail and they just weren’t tired. But this was the plan and I stuck to it. The alternative would have been to run another 2 hours and camp between Yentna and Skwentna (a perfect distance for the dogs), go through Skwentna, then camp between Skwentna and Finger Lake. This is what I really wanted to do, but I just felt a little insecure about not knowing where the heck I was, and worrying that it might snow a lot (makes camping a pain, and snow is common in the beginning of Iditarod). I also wasn’t sure I’d be able to get the dogs off the main trail to a quiet camp spot. My dogs are not good at leaving the trail, we just haven’t done it enough. I can’t tell you how frustrating it is to put a snow hook in, run up and pull the leaders over to some little trail-like thing you want them to follow, just have them all reposition themselves back on the main trail, just as you get back to the sled. Do this over and over again and you’ll want to say really bad words. I found that an easier way of getting them over is to take the bale of straw up on the snow machine trail, then the dogs know what this all about – a nap! Then they’ll follow the straw and start camping on their own. But this requires me to walk around with straw and not be right by the team. No way was I going to do that with 16 dogs yanking on the snow hook.

I left Yenta at 10:54, after a 4 hours non-restful rest. The trail from Yentna to Skwentna was more river systems, which got progressively smaller. It was nice to get off the large river system that was basically snow machine highway, onto smaller, more intimate river bends. About half way between Yenta and Skwenta, Beaver, one of my main leaders started limping on his left front. It wasn’t a big limp, and he never quit pulling, but this had me worried. This dog rarely gets hurt, and he never stops. The snow was soft and a little deep. Dogs can pull muscles going through this stuff or by slipping off the side of the trail into deeper snow.

I arrived at Skwentna Road House at 12:24 a.m. and stopped for a real rest. Beaver was sore. He was also dramatic, which he can be at times. He just layed on his side, looking miserable. Once I parked, I looked him over and found that he had pulled a pectoral muscle (the muscle between his shoulder and his breast bond basically). He had probably pulled this the week before the start and it hadn’t healed up (my friends Sarah and Clint ran the dogs before the start, while I was in meetings and noticed that he was a little off). I found a vet and dropped him right away, making sure they give him some anti-inflammatories. This was not a happy decision for me. He’s a very strong dog and he will always lead. I was hoping to keep him in the team and put him in lead later in the race when some of the younger leaders would probably get insecure about being up front. But I knew that snow was in the forecast, and a deep trail is no good for s pectoral muscle pull; it was what it was.

Hindsight is 20:20 as they say. I can’t say that I shouldn’t have dropped him, but I can say that I shouldn’t have dropped him so fast. This is a long race; a long long race. It’s not a 200 or 300 mile race where you can drop a questionable dog with little consequence. In Iditarod, if you drop every dog with a little ding, without even trying to work them through it, there will be no dogs left. I learned this as I progressed through the race, as you will see. So one of my lessons from Iditarod is to not drop a dog when you come into a checkpoint (unless it’s a serious health issue of course). Rather, examine the dog, have the vets give a second opinion, then work on the dog while in the checkpoint. Make the decision at the end of the rest, or at the next checkpoint. Basically, see if you can manage the dog and injury. It took a couple of dropped dogs before I learned this, as I’m pretty tight with the dogs and I just don’t want to run them if they are hurt. You’ll see however, that I was able to work several dogs through muscle pulls and sore joints, and I was able to get slightly injured dogs to finish the race, with no injuries at all.

The Skwentna checkpoint was based out of a roadhouse high above the river. The cabin was warm and the gals who ‘womaned’ the operation were pleasant and very interested in feeding us well. The cabin was full, as the mushers were still close together in the race. I was just behind the main group, in fact Dee Dee was still there, talking and having a good time (how is she visiting while I feel so amazingly tired?). I got a good bite to eat, then went up to the loft for a little rest. I layed down for an hour but wasn’t able to sleep. It takes me a long time to be able to sleep on a race. I was tired, but there’s always noise in checkpoints; snoring being the main distractor. There’s also people talking and walking, coming and going.

I wear contacts in races but have to remove them whenever possible to give my eyes a break, they’re sensitive. I took my contacts out before laying down, and managed to lose them somewhere in the process. When I discovered this, I looked and looked – no contacts. This put me ½ hour behind my schedule, but I really did need my contacts. I knew I had packed backup contacts down the trail, but I couldn’t remember which check points I had sent them to. Luckily it was warm enough (at that point) that I could wear my glasses without them fogging up too much. I wondered how long the warm weather would hold out.

So after a 6 hour rest for the dogs, I just had to go, and hope for the best. I left Skwentna at 6:25 a.m. It began snowing shortly after leaving. It snowed, and snowed. The trail was over smaller river systems and land portages between them. The trail became slow and sloggy. But we progressed well and the dogs looked good. We weren’t getting passed, so I figured our speed, which felt slow to me, must have been not much slower than those around me. We left Skwentna in the early morning and got to see the sunrise after about an hour of running. This is my favorite time to run dogs. A sunrise in the Alaska winter is a beautiful thing; rosie colors over the white landscape. The daylight also helps keep me awake. The terrain was interesting also; in and out of spruce woods, over frozen ponds and lakes and areas that were impassable bogs in the summer. Looking back, I spent a lot of time trying to figure out what sort of landscape I was running over; or ‘waterscape’ for that matter. You can’t always tell. I sometimes thought I was running over a lake, just to suddenly see tuffs of dried grass poking up through the snow.

Finger Lake was the next checkpoint; I arrived at 12:10 pm, a little under 6 hours of running. It was nice to get that run over with. It had begun to snow hard, and the trail was just getting buried deeper and deeper. It was snowing so hard at the checkpoint that I had to be very careful not to leave my sled bag open at all; the bag would just fill with big fluffy, messy, snow, really quickly. Not only was this checkpoint frustrating because of the snow, but this is where I noticed that the dogs weren’t eating well. My feeding routine had been to get a pot of water heating up as fast as possible, add it to my frozen meat, fat and kibble; let that sit for 10 minutes, dish it out to the dogs. Half of them wanted none of it. I remember taking bits of lamb fat and feeding it to Kiana by hand. Many of them just didn’t seem hungry.

I did get to see a couple of friends at the Finger Lake checkpoint though. I caught a short conversation with Judy Currier soon after arriving. I wouldn’t see her again until Galena. Allen Moore was also there. Both Judy and Allen felt slow in the deep trail, so it wasn’t just me. Allen was also having some issues with a couple of sore dogs. Allen runs the young team of SP kennel, while Aliy Zirkle runs the A team. So Allen had a couple of 2 year olds that were just working things out and had to get use to the routine of a long race.

The roadhouse at Finger Lake was a bit surreal. The main room was a professional kitchen, with huge, beautiful stoves, ovens, prep tables, coolers and stainless steel racks of fruits and dry ingredients. It was just very odd and out of place. We were in the middle of nowhere. I mean really NOWHERE. Turns out it was a lodge which also houses a professional culinary arts school. Lucky us; as I ate one of the best, yet simplest meals on a race. Cuban black beans, white rice with cilantro, eggs over easy and flower tortillas. I was a happy girl. I was beginning to get really tired, but again, sleep escaped me. There were wall tents set up by the dog area – cold and noisy. No sleep. I tried laying my head down on the table in the roadhouse – uncomfortable and noisy. No sleep.

While not sleeping though, I had a good visit with other mushers and some of the race crew. Bruce Lee was in the roadhouse, grabbing a bite to eat while they were weathered in. Bruce Lee is a famous musher who retired a few years ago. He now lives down south, raising and running mules instead of dogs. He has been a main Iditarod commentator for the OLN network for several years, and it was fun to meet and chat with him (the film crew uses a plane or helicopter to go up and down the race, but couldn’t leave Finger Lake due to the snow). The fun however came to end when Celeste came into the kitchen for a meal. She began asking Bruce questions about all the fabled trail up ahead, like the Happy River Steps, the Gorge and the Burn. Bruce began a long description of the Gorge, talking about all of the mushers who had been sucked from the ice bridges into the 8 foot deep holes in the frozen river, into the ice cold water below. About how some people thought it was better to go through the Gorge in the dark, when one couldn’t see the horrors on each side of the trail. But that others didn’t dare send a rookie through the Gorge in the dark. Celeste got very quiet, and I was determined to ignore the man. Determined. ‘There’s nothing to fear, but fear itself,’ right? Later, as I was packing the sled and getting ready to go, Celeste came down to check on her dogs. I piped up with what I knew to be true, ‘Celeste, all sorts of people have run, successfully, through the Gorge.’ And to that, she replied ‘Hell yeah, you can even be blind and make it through!’

I left Finger Lake at 6:10 pm. I tried to enjoy the scenery instead of thinking about the trail to come: Rainy Pass, the Happy River Steps, the Gorge, and the Burn.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Iditarod: The Start

The Iditarod start is a little crazy; and that’s an understatement. It’s actually a circus; an exhausting but mostly fun, circus. I spent more than 5 months of training, almost completely on my own, with just the dogs as companions. Then I, and the other mushers, convened in Anchorage for meetings, more meetings, then a banquet, and many, many, many fans who love to have the mushers sign hats, and t-shirts and books, and posters, and even their arms.

Let me back up. Once the food drops were done, I had a couple of weeks to get back to running the dogs and try to maintain their fitness. The snow in Fairbanks was dismal, we just didn’t have any. Aliy and Allen offered to let me go out to their place in Two Rivers and use their 4-wheeler (rather than trailer mine out there). The trails are so big there that I could hook up 20 dogs at a time (!!); yeah, 20 dogs! After I got over the anxiety of seeing the lengthy dog team before me, it became addicting. I could train just about every dog on the team in one run! That was just amazing (I can normally train between 8 and 12, depending on conditions and location). The dogs also did great in such a potentially crazy situation; but they are so use to training in neighborhoods with loose dogs, other dog teams, moose, cars, etc etc. Rick Swenson even passed us once, head on, on a tight corner. He was on a sled, because he’s Rick Swenson, and my dogs were prefect; not even a flinch at having another team zip by us so closely. A proud moment.

Other than train the dogs, the couple of weeks before the start just entailed assembling everything I was going to pack in my sled, going over sled repairs, and sending out 2 sleds and sticking some supplies in each. Most people send an extra sled out the MacGrath; it has a good sized airport (so it’s not too expensive) and it’s shortly after the worst part of the trail (Happy River steps, Dalzel Gorge, the Buffalo Tunnels, and the Burn). Many people have had to scratch because of a broken runner sled through one of these sections. I sent a sled to MacGrath, then also to Unalakleet. Usually it’s the gunners who send a sled to the coast (Unalaklett). They dump most of their gear and use a smaller, lighter, mid-distance sled. I had a 3rd sled, so I sent it. I just wasn’t going to let a sled mishap keep me from finishing. I also stuffed a few extra items in each sled, like a ladle (for feeding dogs), dog bowls, dog blankets, and extra boots.

The starting 16! I have such a small kennel, that picking the final 16 wasn’t hard. Basically, it was everyone who had no lameness issues: Dill, Beaver, Hailey, Simon, Venus, Pepsi, Bullit, Levi, Kobuk, Kiana, Nikki, Pilot, Muggles, Wizard, Weasely, and Hermione. Eight 2-yr olds; 12 of my dogs and 4 of Judy’s; 8 males and 8 females. I was happy with the team. Grumpy didn’t make the team because of a persistently sore hock. I had been massaging and wrapping with linament but I could still see a lameness. This really disappointed me. Grumpy was one of the best dogs in my yard. Little Kora didn’t make the team because of a sore wrist that I just couldn’t make disappear. Sadie stayed home because she has terrible feet. I love that dog. She has great heart, loves to go, and is incredibly strong. But I was afraid that her feet just wouldn’t hold up. Joe almost made the team, and he could, if he wanted to. But he loses focus, and/or confidence in races and I thought it best to leave him at home. Kaligan, a great 2-yr old, never got over a sore shoulder. I have high hopes for him, as he is incredibly focused on running and eating and running and eating. A perfect Iditarod dog. He will prove himself next year.

I had a good team of friends to help with the start: Sarah Love, Clint Warnke, Margie Eastman, and Denali Lovely. Ideally, the musher shouldn’t have to take care of the dogs while in Anchorage. The few days before the race are full of meetings and people, and any spare/quiet moments should be spent resting. So I was able to pry my tight grip off the dogs, with a lot of coaxing, and let my friends feed them and drop them for bathroom breaks.

The Mushers Meeting was the first engagement to attend in Anchorage. It was held on Thursday, March 4, all day. It was impressive to be in a meeting with Lance Mackey, Jeff King, Martin Buser, Hans Gatt and many, I mean MANY, other great mushers. The meeting was filled with talks about itineraries, trail conditions, race rules, etc etc. The meeting concluded with a group picture and a toast. The Start Banquet was held that night in downtown Anchorage. There was also a wine tasting event, just before the banquet. A winery in South Dakota made a special wine to commemorate the 2010 Iditarod, and they made 3 bottles per musher, each with the musher’s picture on the label. A bottle was auctioned off at the start banquet, one at the finishing banquet, and the musher was given the third bottle. The start banquet was filled with a lot of talking; that’s pretty much what I remember. But there was also a lot of visiting with other mushers over a nice meal, and most importantly, we each drew our start number. Each musher went to the podium, in the order that they signed up, and drew a number from a mukluk. I drew #26. That was a nice number; even and pleasant, and not too far forward and not too far back. After drawing our number, we got in an amazingly long line in which to sign autographs. Fans lined up on the other side of a rope divider, and we just walked down and signed and signed and signed and talked to the fans. It made me feel sort of famous and I also realized how much this race means to people. They dig it!

Friday was a day off. It was filled with last minute shopping, and resting, and eating, and visiting.
The ceremonial start was held in downtown Anchorage on Saturday. There is no longer a trail out of Anchorage due to, I believe, population and warming. But a ceremonial start is still head in this large city in order to share the race with the many fans who follow it. The City trucks in snow for the path through downtown, then the trail joins the many miles of inner-city cross-country ski trails to the finish, about 11 miles from the start. The fans in downtown and along the trail were 10,000 plus in number. The ceremonial start also uses the Iditarider program to generate money for the race. Each of the mushers is up for auction and the winner gets to ride in their sled during the ceremonial start. My Iditarider was Joselynn Mott, a veterinarian from Southern California. Her profession gave us something to talk about (although she’s an internist and beyond my cow vet ways), but what I was really happy about, was that she was small! Easy to drive the sled! We got her comfy and warm in the sled and off we went when it was our turn. The dogs did just great during all of this excitement. We had bridges to go over, large culverts to go through, and of course miles and miles of people right on the trail, clapping and yelling and offering hot dogs and cinnamon rolls!

Kiana gives a little love to an Iditarod volunteer at the ceremonial start.

Venus and Pepsi get a pep talk from Clint. I think Venus is more interested in giving a kiss.
The vets getting ready: me, Jocelynn, and Sarah.

Mom sneaking in a free ride to the starting line.
Lots of volunteers helping/holding the dogs at the starting line of the ceremonial start. Look at Hailey (tan dog, sedond in line, on our right).... and hint of things to come.
The end of the ceremonial start. Dogs and people are happy!
The official start was held on Sunday, March 7, in Willow, Alaska. Willow is about 1 ½ hours north of Anchorage. The weather was nice, a little warm for mushers and dogs, but perfect for the fans who lined the trail for many miles. Now I was starting to get a little nervous; not too bad, just a little. I was looking forward to getting on the quiet trail with the dogs; I missed them, as I hadn’t done much with them for the last 4 days! We parked, then started the waiting game, hours of waiting. But it gave me plenty of time to get everything organized and packed in the sled. Clint gave me some last minute strategy recommendations (strategy???? I’m just trying to finish this thing!). It was finally time to get the dogs out, put their booties on and harness them up. Then…… a major bummer blow. Margi was getting Hermione out, when Herm bolted out of the box for some reason, catapulting over Margi’s head and landing on top of Margie in a big crazy mess. Herm came up lame, very lame, on a back leg. Her hock was swelling before our eyes. I couldn’t believe it. I just couldn’t believe it. This sort of thing happens in a book, or a movie, or some other form of pretend situation; not here, not now, not with me….. and NOT with a dog that is not mine! Hermione is one of Judy’s favorite dogs, and with good reason. She is calm and smart and athletic and only 2 years old. I kept watching her, waiting for the lameness to work itself out, but it didn’t. I knew she wouldn’t be going. That’s when Clint piped up that Grumpy was just 10 minutes away and could be here by snow machine in mere minutes (he was brought down to his owner, my friend Russ Bybe who lives in Willow). So Grumpy made the start after all.

Packing and visiting with Dr. Mike Davis.

Dr. Margie Eastman, Queen Pooper Scooper.

Things then went quickly. The start of a sled dog race is always nerve-racking. There is team after team of dogs being harnessed and hooked up to the gangline. The dogs go nuts. There are 100s of dogs, barking and going nuts. The sound can be deafening. So I gathered my thoughts after the mishap with Herm, hoped for the best for her in my absence, and got focused back on the team. I got the dogs harnessed up and put all their booties on. I then instructed everyone where to place the dogs on the line. Then all of a sudden we are being called up to the line for the start. Mom is getting anxious and I hear her calling my Uncle George so that he can hear all the dogs barking. I am hoping she’ll be ok, I know she’s on the verge of tears, which always makes me on the verge of tears. Julie is a rock, as always.

Clint and Dr. Denali Lovely, holding the team as we go to the starting line.

Getting the team to the starting line.

At the starting line. Someone pinch me!

I am surrounded by dear friends who wish me luck and give me strength. I am reminded how special this adventure is, this trek with me and the dogs. I see the start chute. I’m really here. This is really happening. I’m at the start of Iditarod, and holy crap, I’m driving 16 dogs(I had never driven more than 14 dogs prior to this moment). I hear the speaker say my name, ‘Tamara Rose from Fairbanks……blah blah blah’ then I hear ’10, 9, 8…..’ and my god, look at all the people; where do they end? ‘5, 4, 3, 2, 1’ and we’re off!

Monday, March 29, 2010

Iditarod 2010: 12 days 39 minutes

Hailey is my hero!

I've been back home for a couple of days. I finished the 2010 Iditarod over a week ago. I am ALMOST back to normal, almost. For some reason I thought after a couple nights rest I'd be back in the saddle, running around like normal and ready for anything. Wrong. I've been sleepy for over a week. So I am slowly catching up and am currently working on a summary of my great and wonderful Iditarod adventure. For now, I will just say that I had a great time, not without it's challenges, but I was strong and happy always and the dogs did a fantastic job.

Hailey deserves special mention. She ran in single lead for the last part of the race (from Koyuk to the finish), and was a major leader for the majority of the race. She heald us all together. Thank you Hailey!

Ok, more later, as I will transcribe the summary onto the blog. I hope I can remember things, as it all seems like a fuzzy dream right now.

'til then,

T Rose