Friday, 17 March 2000

Shaktoolik - Nome

Well, this is the entry I’ve been dreading. I’ve told this story a hundred times, it seems and this part never gets any easier. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t regret my decisions of that day nor do I blame the dogs for what happened, but Shaktoolik is still where my dreams came crashing down – and that makes it difficult to tell. But here goes…

One of the vets noted that Buddy was somewhat dehydrated upon arriving in the checkpoint. She said it wasn’t bad and as long as he ate and drank well during our break, he would be fine to go on. He and everyone else polished off their meals, snacks, and soup – a very good sign.

The group that I had been travelling on and off with during the Race, which included Melanie, Trish, Bill, and James Wheeler, had all made the trip over from Unalakleet much faster then I had. I debated cutting my rest short to go out with them, but eventually decided that giving my team their deserved break was more important.

As I started preparations to leave, I had the vets check Buddy over again. They gave him the go ahead, but something just didn’t seem right to me. After they left, I went and sat in the straw with him. When I looked in his eyes, I could see all of his 8-½ years of age – he looked old and tired. Buddy has been an absolute ‘rock’ in lead for me since his first season in harness - solid and dependable. I owe him a lot and I have tremendous respect for this wonderful canine and true friend. The only decision I could make was the one that put Buddy’s best interest first – he was staying in Shaktoolik. When the team left, Buddy just lifted his head from his cozy straw bed on the drop line – a sure sign I had made the correct decision.

Our exit from the village was not quite as bad as leaving Unalakleet, but it wasn’t pretty either. And this time, as we got further away they didn’t slip into ‘trail travel mode’ at all. I tried every combination of leaders I could think of, but with Gus, Camilla, Spud, and Buddy out of the team – my choices were extremely limited. Over 1 hour had passed and we had gone less then 3 miles. I weighed my options – there is a shelter cabin about 10 miles out, maybe I could make it there and rest or I could shut down right where I was and give them a break, maybe then if another team passed, my guys would want to follow. The problem was that, according to the information I had got before leaving the checkpoint, there was no team due for 12 or more hours.

I didn’t have enough dog food in the sled to wait that long especially considering I would still have to travel the 50 miles into Koyuk before being able to restock. Realizing that I was taking one GIANT step backwards from my goal of Nome – I turned the dogs around and went back to Shaktoolik. The dogs didn’t even go back down the trail with much eagerness – a bad sign. Interestingly, they didn’t want to go up into the village either, they wanted to go back down the trail towards Unalakleet.
I think they had it in there heads that once we got where we were going, I was going to turn them around and run them back – it is a darn shame sometimes that dogs don’t speak better English.

I bedded the dogs down for another rest. Over the course of the next hours I did all the things a musher should do when in this kind of situation – I got some rest, drank a ton of Tang, talked to my ‘support team’ and regrouped. The plan was to leave ahead of the teams that were behind me. Then when I was a way out on the trail and they passed me, my team would be more likely to want to go. To make a very long story short – it didn’t work. After another 6 or so hours rest, I got the dogs back on the trail. I walked in front for a few miles and got them about 3 miles out before Lynda passed me – they showed a small amount of enthusiasm for chasing her team, but that quickly vanished. Hours later, we had progressed only a few more miles and the last two teams passed. The dogs showed no interest in following and it was then that I knew my Iditarod was over.

The checkpoint was dark and quiet when I got back in. Doug, the checker, asked if I wanted him to wake the Race Judge for me to scratch. I said that I wanted a few more hours sleep and wanted to talk to my husband again before I would make any final decisions.

I remember waking up and realizing that the last hours had not been some bad dream. After talking to Mark, I filled out the paperwork to scratch from the Race. Signing my name on that piece of paper was more intensely painful then I can explain.

I am so, so very grateful to all the volunteers and Race Officials in Shaktoolik, as well as Race Marshall, Mark Nordman. Part of what makes the Iditarod such a wonderful event is the terrific and special people, like them, that are involved in it. I will always be thankful for the support and compassion that they all showed. To give you an idea of just how great they are – I was mentioning that every time I talked to someone on the phone, looking for Mark or making plane arrangements, and mentioned my name – their voices would take a sympathetic tone and they would ask how I was. I commented that I would probably have to answer that question a million times in the next days.
They quickly whipped up a button for my jacket that said BEEN BETTER. They told me that next time, when I finished, I could add a NEVER in front of it. (I still have the button on my bulletin board at home and I intend to send it out in my drop bag to Nome next year – where I will do just that!)
I ended up having to fly the team into Nome. I didn’t really want to go there, but airline travel in Alaska, especially with 11 dogs and a sled, doesn’t offer a lot of options. While I was waiting at the airstrip for the Bering Airplane to arrive, a mother and daughter showed up to wait also. The daughter bounced all around the team, asking me the name of each of the dogs. It was pretty tough to stay in a down mood with this cheerful child there! As I loaded the last dog into the plane, her smile vanished when she realized there were no more dogs to pet. She stretched to see into the plane and called goodbye to each dog, then she turned and asked me if I would be coming back next year. The answer was yes.

As the pilot was readying the plane for takeoff, he asked what had happened. I gave him the short version and he made a comment about how great it was that I was still getting to Nome, one way or another. I mumbled that I didn’t really want to go there, seeing that I was unable to finish the Race. ‘ Are you kidding?’ he said ‘Don’t you realize how far you did go? There is a party going on in Nome – and you are a part of it. You’ll have a great time.’ Are Alaskan’s just born with the ability to say the right things at the right time?

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