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.