Friday, 17 March 2000

Finger Lake to Rainy Pass

After feeding, checking over the dogs, massaging Spud’s shoulder and putting a jacket on him, I went up the bank to find the loveliest Roadhouse.  A warm kitchen, wonderful food and the offer of a real bed was unbeatable - although, the bed didn’t last for long. A number of guests checked into the Roadhouse and the mushers had to give up the cozy mattresses – oh well, even a spot on the floor underneath the kitchen table is good when you are tired! 

I had decided to stay 11 hours in Finger Lake. I had to give Spud at least 6 to 8 hours rest for his shoulder and if I went then, I would be doing the Happy River Steps in the dark with a fresh 16-dog team. I figured if I waited 11 hours, I would leave the checkpoint in the dark, but not hit the Steps until just after daybreak. 

Spud and the rest of the dogs looked good as I prepared to leave – in fact, a little too good. As I hooked up the last two tuglines, all 16 dogs began barking and pounding at their harnesses like they were standing in a starting chute.  They shot out of the checkpoint when I pulled the hook. The trail took a sharp left turn off the lake, as I rounded the corner I hit a rut in the middle of the trail. With the combination of speed, corner, and rut I was unable to keep the sled upright. While clinging desperately to the handlebar, I struggled to plant one of my snowhooks with my elbow. It worked and brought the circus to a screeching halt. I quickly scooped out some of the snow that got down my pants while I was being dragged (as it turns out, I frostbit my stomach where the snow contacted my skin. This probably makes me the only musher in Iditarod history to bear permanent frostbite scars from the Race ON HER BELLY!) As I worked to quickly sort my sled out, Trish Kolegar came barreling down the trail behind me. I asked her to give me a second and I would be on my way – no problem. I’m not sure exactly what happened as I pulled my hook out of the snow, but within a split second I was once again being dragged down the trail – only this time I was unable to hang on. Off went my crazed, 16-dog team – down the trail without me. As Trish went by, I told her I was going to run back to the checkpoint. Race rules state that you may use ‘whatever means necessary to catch a loose team’. I knew the checkpoint had snowmachines and that was going to be the fastest way to get a hold of my dogs. I arrived back at Finger Lake frantic and covered in sweat and snow – frankly, not a good combination. The checkers were great at trying to keep me calm and getting things organized to go after my team. In what seemed like hours, but in reality were probably mere minutes, I was on the back of a snowmachine headed after the dogs. The ruts in the trail proved to be just as difficult for a snowmachine as they had been for me. Twice we crashed into the bank. The second crash was to avoid Trish’s team. It seems Trish had ‘missed’ a corner on the trail and her sled was quite literally up a tree (In fact, she later told me she had to chop the tree down with her axe to free her sled!). We stopped to make sure she and the dogs were all okay  - they were. She said she could hear my team barking up ahead, which meant they were stopped – hopefully everyone was okay. 

We came around a corner in the trail and there was the most beautiful sight – my 16 dog team barking impatiently wanting to go, but the sled upright, still on the trail and not one dog even slightly tangled. My Rusty Hagen rollover snowhook had once again more then paid for itself, catching in the snow and holding the team. I checked the team over –everyone was just fine.  I shakily climbed on the runners and headed out to deal with the Happy River Steps.  

The dogs ran harder then I would have like – jazzed from their earlier adventure. I was still shaky, cold, and feeling really clumsy on the sled. Despite it all, I do remember that the early morning sky was spectacular – millions of bright stars peering over the peaks of majestic mountains, with vivid streaks of Northern Lights dancing back and forth.  The trail was tough right from go – it twisted, turned, and dipped. Deep ruts from snowmachines and previous musher’s brakes were everywhere. I feared that, despite my planning in Finger Lake, the dogs were moving faster then I expected and we were going to hit the Steps in the dark. I was right. 

They say that there is one of the legendary Iditarod ‘Dangerous Trail Conditions’ signs at the top of the Steps – I never saw it, but the second the trail did a 180 degree turn and dropped off the face of the earth – I knew where I was.  The ruts on the Steps were 2 ½ to 3 feet deep – if you hit it right, you just hang on and ride your brake for everything you were worth. After leveling out only long enough to take a deep breath, the trail swings 180 degrees back on itself and straight down again. I remember thinking as we plunged down this step ‘hey, this looks exactly like it does in the Iditarod videos’. One more ‘turn and plunge’ and we dropped onto the Happy River. I felt like the weight of the world had been lifted off my shoulders – I had made it down the Steps. I looked back down the trail and grinned the biggest grin! 

The rest of the trip into Rainy Pass was certainly no piece of cake. We bounced and crashed over moguls and through ruts. Several times I tumbled to the ground and once wedged my sled so badly into a tree well, I thought I would still be there come spring. 

About 5 miles out of Rainy Pass, I heard a snapping noise from somewhere on the sled. I gave a quick survey as we were moving and didn’t see anything amiss, however the sled was not handling well. I think I spent more time on my butt in that 5 miles then I did on the runners. I figured I was just tired from my rather ‘eventful’ morning. 

As I pulled onto Puntilla Lake, I was surprised to see Jamie Nelson still there. She grabbed my leaders and steered them into a parking spot next to her team. As I stepped off the sled, I noticed that the left rear stantion was snapped in half. I was halfway relived to know that there was some sort of excuse for my inability to drive a sled for the last bit.  As it turned out 5 mushers arrived in Rainy Pass with broken sleds – countless others with damaged ones. 

Jamie said her team had come down with what the vets thought was kennel cough. She was going to be staying awhile. She offered to help me repair my sled. I grateful accepted.  It looked like I was going to be staying here for awhile too!

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