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.