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.