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.