Friday, 17 March 2000

Unalakleet to Shaktoolik

In Kaltag I was telling the other mushers about a great pizza place that I had been to in Unalakleet when I was there following the Race in ’98. So after all our dogs were fed and bedded down we decided a call to the ‘Peace on Earth’ Pizza Place was in order. Imagine the disappointment when I phoned and found that they were closed from 2 – 4 in the afternoon – it was 2:10. There was, however, a number to phone ‘for emergencies’…well, we had traveled close to 900 miles for this pizza - that had to qualify. I phoned and explained the situation. The owner laughed and agreed it was an ‘emergency’.
In no time, pizza, salad, and soft drinks were delivered to the checkpoint for us (and people have asked why I budgeted for cash to take with me on the trail – well, for pizza – of course!!). Our eyes proved to be way too big for our stomachs, so we shared with everyone who was hanging around the checkpoint! It was a terrific meal! If you ever find yourself in Unalakleet, wondering what to do for dinner – visit Peace on Earth Pizza. I highly recommend them!!

After 6 hours rest, the dogs seemed in good spirits, so I was very surprised when I had a BUNCH of trouble getting them to hit the trail. The snow was punchy and I was having trouble getting a snowhook to hold so I could get up front and get them back on the trail. They realized in no time that I was pretty much at their mercy with these snow conditions. We must have done about one dozen circles as I tried to talk them into going forward. Finally, they realized I just wasn’t going to let them have their way and they started out of Unalakleet with much less enthusiasm then when they had arrive.

We had been warned that the trail out of town was not well marked and other mushers had gotten lost! I could sure see that, trail markers were almost non existent. We spent ages working our way back onto the trail on the numerous occasions that I got off it. At one point the dogs ventured into an area that had a lot of wire and debris and little snow on it. I got them back onto snow and my stomach heaved when I saw the bright red footprints they were leaving. I thought they had walked into something that had cut up their feet! I ran up front and began to laugh, it seems they had stepped in some of last season’s berries and it was berry juice that was causing the footprints in the snow! What a relief!
I think most Race fans perceive that once the Iditarod hits the coast at Unalakleet, the trail is flat, boring ice. That is far from the truth. In that stretch from Unalakleet to Shaktoolik is the Blueberry Hills, which is some of the biggest climbs encountered on the Race. The dogs were okay on the hills, keeping the forward momentum going, but they lacked spark.

A few hours into the night we hit the worst overflow I had encountered so far on the Race. The trail was very confusing leading up to it and I was very grateful for Bill McKee stopping and waiting for me. He called out as he saw my headlamp approaching, so I was sure to take the right route. Our crossing was pretty comical. I kept walking onto the ice, pulling my leaders behind me. We would get so far and they would start going backwards. I was unable to find any footing on the glare ice under the water, so I would slide helplessly back behind them. We did this a few times before I gave Grover a good push into the overflow, he decided he was far enough out that the other shore looked pretty appealing and he and Buddy dragged the rest of the team to the opposite bank. My feet got very wet, but thanks to my bunny boots and the hills that I ran up behind the team, they stayed pretty warm for the rest of the night.

Finally, the trail descended the Hills before coming out onto the sea ice. My brake had broken earlier in the evening and I had a hairy ride down, hanging off the side of my sled, trying to slow the dogs down with my snow hook. I was amazed I stayed upright!

I could see the lights of Shaktoolik, tantalizingly close, when a snowmachine roared up behind me. It was about 2 or 3 in the AM and my visitors were obviously very drunk. I was nervous sharing the trail with them – drunk driving accidents aren’t exclusive to city streets and automobiles! I exchanged greetings with the pair and asked how far it was to the village, about 13 miles, they told me. I was sure we were closer, heck the lights were right ahead, I blamed it on the effects of alcohol. As it turned out, they were right – the lights just seemed closer then they were.

We arrived in Shaktoolik in the wee hours of the morning. The trip over had been the dog’s most lack luster performance of the Race. I wanted to give them a good rest before continuing on.

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