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

Monday, March 15, 2010

Iditarod Update- Posted by Julie


For those of you who haven't received my emails. I thought I would post a quick update on Tamara's blog. Including a picture of her after she lost her contacts and was forced to mush with her glasses when it was 25 below. This picture was taken when she came into Nikolai.

Tamara is doing great. Right now she is in Kaltag ending an 8 hour break before she heads out to Unalakleet. This is a very long run which is taking most mushers anywhere between 10-18 hours. She will have to stop for a rest somewhere along the way. The coastal runs are known for extremely high winds and cold making the mushers journey pretty tough. So, a good rest before this section is essential. Her run times are faster than she had predicted however, she has decided to slow down her pace a bit and take longer rests at checkpoints. She is feeling like her dogs need longer rests than she had originally planned. She is determined to reach Nome with a good healthy, strong and motivated team. So, if you notice her times being longer this is why.

If you are watching the Iditarod website and have access to the "insider" portion there is a great video of her coming into Galena. She talks about the cold.

Tamara has some dogs which are a little gimpy but for the most part they seem injury free, just tired. She dropped Weaselly back in Ruby due to a sore leg. So, she is down to 11 dogs. Unfortunately, she has had to drop all of her good leaders. Now she is just trying to rotate dogs through lead position who are willing to take that role for bits of time. Some of the dogs will, but not for extended periods of time.

For those of you who aren't in the know about mushing, the lead dogs are critical to a dog team moving forward. Without a dog or two who is willing to lead, the team will not go far. Lead dogs are a special bunch, basic leaders are able to learn commands like Gee and Haw (left/right), they are able to take the stress of having 14 dogs behind them and most importantly they are the cheerleaders of the team. The team follows the leaders spirits and direction, good leaders can raise the attitude of an entire team and get them to get up and go in some of the worst conditions. Many dogs don't like the pressure of the lead position. Also, many sled dogs don't have the attention to be a lead dog. A lot of sled dogs will turn around and go back towards the musher pulling the entire team with them, or they may goof off with the dog next to them and get the team in a big tangle, or decide to go hunting for grouse and rabbits. Some sled dogs are to social and want say "hi" to their neighbor or passing teams. A good lead dog will line out the team, stay focused on moving forward and following the mushers commands no matter what. They will never look back or goof around, and be able to take subtle directional commands like "Gee over". The best lead dogs are the ones who really "dig" this role..and get into figuring out what the musher wants.

Now she is running on the Yukon which is notoriuos for being windy and cold. She did mention that she is switching out her parka now to an even bigger one that should keep her warm on this very cold section.

Being a foody I always ask about the food on the trail. We had heard that The Iditarod is known for having some really good food available for the mushers at the checkpoints. Meals which the locals get really into preparing. Pies in Tokatna, Steaks, etc. Apparently that means that if you get there with the leaders you're guaranteed a good meal. Poor Tamara is arriving at the checkpoints sometimes two days after the leaders, to find the same pot of stew which was fed to the top mushers as an accompaniment to a bigger meal two days ago. Doesn't sound like she has come across any fresh steaks or pies yet. Or maybe she just forgot to mention it :)

While she says the locals are all very sweet and thoughtful, she just can't bear the thought of getting sick, so, she is eating her own food which was prepared by a friend of ours. Calorie packed meals like extra cheesy steak and bacon burritos, pancakes and sausage, extra rich stroganaff. They are shrink wrapped in seal a meal packages which she can toss in the water she boils for the dogs. She's also drinking lots of bottled water and Gatorade which she shipped out to the check points for herself.

On a side note: I was at a potluck this weekend where I was offered seal oil and fish eggs.
Definitely an acquired taste. I wanted to like it but honestly, I have never smelled any food quite like it. It's supposed to be really good for , I just couldn't get past the smell..who knows she might be so hungry by the time she gets to the coast she'll even be willing to eat seal oil and eggs....:)

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Thursday, March 4, 2010


We just got out of the Iditarod start banquet. Phew, long day.

The morning began with the mushers meeting. This is a mandatory meeting for all mushers. Role is taken then various subjects are discussed like ceremonial start instructions, the restart on Sunday, drug testing dogs, drug testing mushers, rules overview, and the trail report. In summary: we careen around downtown Anchorage with our Iditarider clinging on to dear life in the sled during the ceremonial start; we start the real race on Sunday 1 1/2 hours north of Anchorage in Willow on a mushy lake (it's been warm); pee is collected from dogs at some point (I didn't pay attention to the part) to test for steroids, non-steroidal anti-inflammatories and other drug; pee is collected from mushers in some random fashion (didn't pay much attention to that part either) to test for drug type things..... whatever; and then....... the trail report.

The trail is pretty bad this year. There's very little snow plus the Iron Dog snow machine race has gone over the bad trail and has made it worse, if that's possible. The Happy Steps (misnomer) and the Gorge are bare; which means it's very hard to control the sled and dogs, thus very hard to slow down, much less stop. I am very worried about hurting dogs through this stretch. There is a stretch of at least 13 miles between Rohn and Nikoli that is bare ground. No snow. This is hard on the dogs and hard on the sled.

Hmm. I am pondering running 14 dogs instead of 16. 14 dogs are easier to control than 16, especially through such crappy trail. Will think hard on this tomorrow and Saturday.

We had a little break after the mushers meeting then went to the start banquet. The start banquet began with a wine tasting deal. A winery made a special red wine for the 2010 Iditarod and made labels with each musher's picture on it. We each received a complimentary bottle (mine went to my mom) and 3 additional bottles were signed (by said musher) then auctioned off. Proceeds will be divided evenly among the mushers - yay!

The banquet then began with a bunch of milling about, people getting autographs, friends catching up with each other, and a lot of people watching. We ate a nice dinner while there were various speakers, then the finale of the night: we each drew our start number. The current number on the Iditarod site is the order in which we signed up; we draw a number out of boot for our real start number. I drew #26, which is a really nice number. 2 and 6, and 2 and 6 make 8, and all are nice even round numbers. It all feels good and this is how my brain works. So I will be starting out, in both the ceremonial start and the restart in Willow, in the 26th position (out of 71).

Oh, one additional comment about the banquet. After we drew our number, we sat for our picture (not sure where that will go), I think I talked to a reporter, then we went down an amazingly long line of fans to sign posters, books, hats, bibs, etc etc. It was a little surreal, and fun to connect with folks who just dig the race and the mushers.

I'll try to write at least one more time before I'm off to Nome.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Iditarod Food Drops: it's own chapter.

I'm going to do my best to update the blog in the next couple of days. I've completed two races and have gotten my drop bags done since my last post, which was so very long ago.

Iditarod Food Drops

Almost every mid to long distance dog race needs 'drop bags.' Drop bags cosist of large poly bags filled with food and supplies for the dogs, and a wee little bit for the musher. Drop bags go to each checkpoint, where the musher must register, as they either stop for a rest or pass through. So before a race, the musher thinks about a race plan and what they'll need and where (Clint Warnke, Judy Currier and Aliy Zirkle were instrumental in my planning for this crazy race). In the Iditarod, we are allowed 3 bags for each checkpoint. Most of the bags are filled with dog food; the rest of the supplies consists of dog booties, vet supplies, dog blankets, and a little people food. But there is so much preparation even before one starts packing the bags.

One of the many chores to do for Iditarod preparation is cutting meat. We feed all sort of meaty items to the dogs, both in their main meals and for snacks. The meat provides them with water and/or fat. Their main meals are fed as soon as possible when we come into a checkpoint (or camping spot; wherever we're going to take a several hour rest break). The meals consist of high fat/protein kibble, plus some meat, plus warm water to soak it all into a meaty stew. Dogs can get really finicky when racing, just like people on ultra-marathons; it's a combination of just being tired and getting an upset stomach from the work. So we offer them all sorts of things to maintain their interest in eating. The meat staple that I'm using ('Power') for their main meals will be one composed of beef, beef fat, tripe and some other goodies and vitamins. The meats come in frozen 50 lb. blocks. Here's a picture of chicken (light colored), beef (red), Power (pinkish), Hi-Pro (brown), and beef fat (bottom right corner, looks like dirty marshmellows).

In order to get the block into a usable form, it needs to be cut in small pieces:

This is Judy and Devan Currier's meat saw that I'm using. I'm not sure what I'd do without it! I cut the blocks into strips of meat that will thaw easily in hot water or eaten by the dogs easily as snacks. Snack time is a quick stop along the trail; they need to eat the snack quickly and easily so we can get going again. Remember that it can be really cold out, so the snack size has to be small. If the morsel is too big and hard (frozen) most dogs won't go to the trouble to eat it. I like to snack the dogs every couple of hours. This offers them a little mental break and a treat that provides water and fat to maintain hydration and calories.

Once the meat is cut into strips, it is put into snack and meal bags. Each snack bag will hold 16 strips of meat, each about 1/4 lb. The meal bags have 10 lb of Power and 2 lb of beef or pork fat. This is my friend Sarah who helped me, big time, packing snack bags:

Then once the snack bags, kibble bags, bootie bags, vet packs, socks, long underwear, people food etc etc etc are prepared, THEN one can pack the drop bags. Here is my supply of kibble for the Iditarod (each bag weighs 8 lbs):

This is a lot of kibble for sure, but I may use only half of it. I have one bag of their normal high calorie kibble for every meal. Then I also have a bag of an alternative high calorie kibble in case they decide they don't like their normal food. Then I also have a bag of high, but not as high calorie kibble as an additional 'just in case' bag. Just in case they don't like the rich kibble, or just in case a storm comes in and I get stuck at that checkpoint and need 3 meals instead of 1. I can basically get stuck, safely, at every checkpoint from Rainy Pass on.
Ok. Once you have all your bag ingredients ready, you can put out the bags for each checkpoint (Iditarod paints and labels the bags, we put our name on it though):

Once the kibble is in the bags, you get the shopping cart and grab the appropriate bags of frozen meat. Besides the boxes of meat that I ordered, I also have fish. Dogs LOVE fish. In Alaska, 'fish' = salmon. Last year I got a large amount of salmon from Nenana, a town just down the road. Native Alaskans use fish wheels to catch thousands of salmon as they make their way upstream. I think the native folks may eat these fish also but they are way too spent for white taste buds. The fish I get for the dogs have been laying on the bank for a little while and are a bit ripe. This is called 'sour fish.' I can't tell you how much the dog love sour fish. This year was a terrible fish year. Luckily, I still had fish from last year in the freezer!

By the next day, the drop bags are taking shape. After the kibble and the meat, come the supplies like booties, sled runner plastic, dog blankets, extra cloths for me, meals and snacks, vet supplies etc etc. I filled 3 bags at almost every check point.

Then my friends Liz and Marty helped with last minute packing and closing up the bags. I held my breath and just hoped I remembered everything.

Liz then put a little rope handle through the top of each drop bag. This will be a huge help at the checkpoints. The bags are not usually right by the parking spot so you have to carry/drag each bag to the sled/camping spot. The bags weigh between 20 and 55 pounds; I will love love love the rope handles!

The final step!!: Get the bags to the drop point in Fairbanks. My friends Pam and Kimberly were there to help. The bags didn't quite all fit in Pam's truck, so I put some in my little truck. So one trip into town did it.

Once at the shipping warehouse, we unload the bags onto two pallets.

They are then wrapped with plastic to keep it all together.

The pallets are then weighed and the musher gets their check book out. My drops were almost 1900 lbs. The bags are then shipped to Anchorage where they are sorted and flown out to each check point. I, and every other musher, worry about the frozen meat. It has been very warm for about a week now. I sure hope the bags are kept in refrigerated facilities.

Phew! That was a lot of work. I am so thankful to friends who helped me. Marie and Cord powdered, organized and packed my dog booties (36 bags, 16 sets in each bag, 4 booties per set....that's a lot of booties). Pam helped me cut the meat and transport the bags. Sarah got the ball rolling with the whole packing ordeal and just took charge of it. Aliy and Margie helped with packing and labeling the bags. Liz and Marty helped with the final packing and closing of the bags, and of course, with the all-important rope handles. Thank you friends!