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.