Wednesday, 22 March 2000

March 22, 2000

Hello again and thank you for following our Iditarod adventure!

You may have read that I had to scratch from the race, some were concerned for our well being.
The Iditarod was truly the most WONDERFUL experience of my life. Every day was filled with wonderful, unforgettable moments and challenges. I will try over the next few weeks to share some of the 'tales of the trails', but first off - I'll share the final story.

By the time I left Shaktoolik, I had dropped five dogs. Four of them were key leaders: Spud (dropped in Nikkolai), Gus (dropped in Cripple), Camilla (dropped in Cripple), and Buddy (dropped in Shaktoolik). Spud and Buddy are my veteran, main leaders. The simple fact of the matter is that when I went to leave Shaktoolik, I just didn't have a 'strong' enough front end to get out of the checkpoint. Leaving checkpoints is usually more difficult later in a race and Shaktoolik is legendary for being difficult to get out of. I struggled with the team for close to two hours on the ice and then turned back to the checkpoint. I gave them another six hours rest and tried again. This time I spent over five hours out there, much of the time walking in front of the team to get them going. During this time, three teams passed by and when I couldn't get my team to follow them - I knew my race was over.

I don't really think that the sea ice was a factor in this. The sea ice is not glare ice (which we had been over many times during the course of the Race, and which my dogs excelled at), but rather a flat, vast, featureless terrain that can be mentally intimidating to mushers and teams. But for my team - at that particular time, I think a winding, treed trail would have been a insurmountable obstacle as well. Of course, I am very disappointed that I was unable to finish the Race - we were so close, but I am proud of my dogs and blame them for nothing. They did the very best they could.

A few of the dogs will be retired and a few others are for sale to select homes. The rest will be back with me NEXT YEAR - yes, we are juggling the finances and getting ready to kick off our fundraising for next year. Originally, the plan was to spend this year recouping financially from the Race, however Mark and I both feel that this is now unfinished business that needs to be taken care of sooner rather then later. I thank you all for your interest and concern about the dogs and I. It has been very touching (and healing) to read many of the messages that have shown up in my mailbox and on the various lists. Stories to follow soon!

Friday, 17 March 2000


When we landed in Nome, Mark, my brother, Jim and Jamie Nelson’s husband, Ken were all waiting for me. Many hugs and tears later we got the dogs loaded up and into the Iditarod dog lot in town. Everyone was so good about telling me how proud they were of what we had accomplished, but the knowledge of what we hadn’t was still a little too fresh in my mind. 

Over the next days we spend in Nome, I went through about every emotion in the book. Seeing Jamie Nelson again for the first time was really difficult. Jamie has helped me so much over the last year and become a very good friend – I really felt like I had let her down.  She assured me I hadn’t and helped me get focused on looking forward, instead of backwards. It was also her who insisted I attend the Finishers Banquet. I thought that was a pretty dumb idea, but I went and after a rough start, things improved.  Going was the right decision. I was really happy to be able to watch these people, many who had become friends go up and receive their belt buckles. I was especially glad to be there to be able to stand and clap for Jamie. She did something truly amazing – she finished with all 16 of her dogs in harness. I’ve heard rumors that that is the first time in 15 years that that has been accomplished. Remarkable – but she is a remarkable lady, so I guess it was to be expected!

There was only one thing I, religiously, avoided doing while in Nome – and that was to stand or walk under the burled arch. That is for next year when I intend to drive my dog team under it.

There is a good reason to not want to wait a year – in the eyes of Iditarod, I am still a rookie for 2001. Unlike the Quest, which drops the rookie status once you have completed over 500 miles of the Race, Iditarod considers you a rookie musher until you have finished. That means I have to re qualify to run. Qualifiers for 2001 must be run in 2000 or 2001, so if I run in 2001, I can use the 2000 Klondike 300 as one qualifier and will only have to do one 200-mile race. To be honest, I’m not quite sure of what 200 miles of the Knik 200 (which is probably the qualifier that I will run – and a race that I successfully completed in ’99) will teach me that 900 miles of Iditarod didn’t – but rules are rules!

We have had some dog happenings since the Race. Doc has taken up permanent residence in Alaska. He is living with our ‘landlady’ and friend, Maureen Chrysler. One new Siberian came home with us – Earl and Natalie Norris of Howling Dog Farms, whose dogs Blake Freking ran the race with this year, sold us Jumper. A lovely 3-year-old bitch that we have very high hopes for! They also leased us a 2x Iditarod finishing female, Keesa. Before we came home we bred her to one of their males, Skookum.

Hawk has also left us. He is living with Denise and Scott Linley. Denise is that artist that did up our ‘Nightrunners’ print for us!

Thanks for reading!

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?

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.

Nulato to Kaltag - Kaltag to Unalakleet

Obviously, my improved state of mind rubbed off on the dogs. They had a mere moment of hesitation going out of Nulato and back onto the river, but after that, the trip was smooth and quick!

I was in a great mood at Kaltag, my problems of the previous day seemed well behind me. Trish Kolegar, Melanie Gould and myself had decided to ‘run together’ to Unalakleet. We decided on breaking the 90-mile leg into three sections, stopping at the Tripod Flats cabin, 30 miles or so out of Kaltag, and again at the famous Old Woman Cabin, a further 30 miles down the trail. This nice easy run/rest schedule should really pick up the dog’s moods!Leaving Kaltag was tough sledding. The trail was one mogul after another. The constant pounding was agony on my tired back and I’m sure no picnic for the dogs either! The moguls ended and a long stretch of side hills took their place. About the time our frustration levels peaked, the trail broke into the rolling Caribou Hills. Some year’s mushers are lucky enough to encounter caribou along this stretch of trail. There were none this year, but I did see a really neat antler shed under one of the trail marking tripods. I loved this section, it was pretty and interesting country. The hills were big enough to keep up our interest in what was over the next one, but not too big!

The dogs seemed to enjoy themselves too and rolled along at a good steady pace! Just before Tripod Flats I passed Melanie. When we pulled into the cabin it was occupied by two snowmachiners that had passed us earlier in the day. They said that Trish had decided not to take a break at there and had continued on to Old Woman. Melanie and I opted to stick with our game plan and fed the dogs and took a 4-hour break there. A warm cabin and nice company made the time pass quickly! The snowmachiners told us that Old Woman wasn’t the 30 miles away that we thought it was, it was actually closer then that. Melanie and I discussed not stopping there and going straight into Unalakleet, but when we arrived at the cabin early in the morning and found a bunch of teams parked there and a equal number of snoring mushers inside the toasty cabin, the temptation was too great! A few solid hours sleep felt great! The dogs obviously thought so too, even though they had had plenty of rest in the last 24 hours, they didn’t want to leave. Lynda Plettner gave me a hand getting them straightened out and back on the trail. True to form, once they got going, they traveled well.

A few miles outside of Unalakleet, a snowmachine with two people drove by. The passenger yelled out that she was my friend, Barbara ‘Dog Drop’ Schaffer, and wanted to welcome me to Unalakleet!
What a nice welcome! The dogs came in strong and happy. The vets and many race volunteers commented on how good they were looking. I was delighted! They did look good and we were to the Coast – Nome was just a hop, skip, and a jump away!!

Galena to Nulato

Just like Spud, the vets figured Buddy’s shoulder wasn’t very serious and a little rest would put him back in the team (they were right, of course). Everyone else was looking and feeling good.

What a treat Galena was. The checkpoint was located in a hotel, so in addition to lots of food and a warm place to hang out – there was real beds and showers!! I took advantage of both! In the bathroom, I got a good look at the frostbite on my stomach. What I saw wasn’t good, it was infected and oozing. Rather disgusting! I cleaned it up as best I could and put some antibiotic ointment on. I vowed to start watching and taking better care of it.

I left Galena in the early, early morning hours. The dogs left well, but I made an error leaving the checkpoint and got on the wrong trail. I knew almost right away that I had made a mistake, but I still traveled for about ½ mile down to see if the trails joined up. I stopped and turned the dogs around. I could see instantly that I was in trouble – the dogs thought we were going back into the checkpoint. They smoked back down the trail, but when I called them onto the right trail heading back out onto the river they balked. The next few hours were a battle with little forward progress. I had put the idea of turning around into their heads and they weren’t going to give it up easily. We had some amazing tangles and messes as they kept trying to whip around and go back to Galena. Eventually, we came to a agreement and got moving out towards Nulato.

Around mid morning the wind picked up considerably. The swirling snow across the River made for a cool visual effect, but the wind bit into our faces. I knew we were getting close to the checkpoint, small signs of civilization, such as cabins every now and then and snowmachine traffic told the tale. I began to get dozy in the warmth of the day, but had no idea how tired I was until my head bounced off the ice of the Yukon River. Ouch that hurt! And to make matters worse, the dogs were headed down the trail without me!!! I called, I begged, I pleaded – I’m almost positive I could hear the dogs snickering under their breath as they continued down the trail without me. When they were about ½ mile ahead of me, they tired of their game and slowed to a stop. They were all watching my plodding progress down the river with obvious amusement. I had visions that I would get an arm’s reach away from the sled and they would take off again! About that time an Eskimo man on a snowmachine showed up. Was I okay? Did I need a ride? I told him I was fine and I would continue my walk, but if he could just stop at the sled and drop a snowhook into the ground – I would be very grateful. He did and with a wave was back on his way.

Ten minutes or so later the dogs and I showed up, together, in Nulato. As the checker signed me in, he commented that he heard I had done some walking out there. I was amazed, after all it had just happened. ‘What did that man do?’ I asked, ‘Run straight in here to squeal on me?’. I was informed he had and with a wicked grin the checker told me he had come up with a new name for me – Karen ‘Runs-instead’.  Very clever!

With my swollen eye from my crash, still smarting from the struggle on the ice and the disappointing run in – I was not in good spirits. I needed to talk to Mark. I ended up not only talking to him, but also getting a pep talk from Lynda Plettner and a particularly helpful call from Jamie Nelson who was in Unalakleet. I am so lucky to have the support crew I have! By the time I settled in for a nap – things were looking much better!

Ruby to Galena

As soon as the dogs were taken care of, I hustled into the checkpoint and told the Ham radio operator of my stupid mistake in Cripple. I wanted him to radio the checkers and have them get the gun out of my mailbag. The radio guy just stared when I told him my tale. With a weak smile, I blamed it on my lack of sleep – feeling very much like an idiot.  He tried to get the message through to Cripple, but the radio signal was bad and the message never got through. (My gun arrived safely back in Willow in my mailbag – still loaded!) 

I briefly talked to Mark from Ruby, advising him to watch for Gus and Camilla. After a few hours sleep and another good meal for the dogs we set out to tackle the Yukon River. 

The Yukon is nothing short of amazing, up to 1 mile across in places! We were shuffling along in the heat of the day again. We took frequent rest stops and at one point I stopped and tousled and played with the critters for awhile. I was messing around with leaders, trying to give Grover a break, and had settled upon Buddy and Chester as a good combination. Chester is young and has a tremendous ego. He doesn’t work well with many of the dogs up front – his swelled head seems to irate many of them and they just flatly refuse to work with him, but he seemed to click with Buddy and the two of them worked well together on the river. That is until Buddy began to limp. I ended up having to put him in the bag – very much against his wishes. He struggled and complained as I loaded him into the sled. To make matter worse, I was having trouble finding a combination of leaders that had been working as well as those two. Finally, I ended up with Grover back up in front with Doc. Buddy resigned himself to riding, but he serenaded us along with low, pitiful and continuous howling from the sled. 

Again Lynda Plettner passed me just outside of the checkpoint. As usual, she was cheerful and her dogs were traveling quickly and happily down the trail. I came into Galena, once again, just behind her.

Cripple to Ruby

I ended up spending a good long rest in Cripple. I was toying with the idea of dropping Camilla. Gus was a little sore on a shoulder too. Lynda Plettner recommended that if I had any doubts about them, I should drop them. She was right and I sent both dogs home. I had been told that the trail into Ruby was mostly uphill and that clearing out extra baggage in my sled bag would be a good idea. I sent home a whole whack of stuff, including my gun – I had been told that if you don’t see a moose by McGrath, you are pretty much out of the woods. 

We left during the daylight, it was still warm, but I knew it would quickly cool off. I was planning to stop four or so hours in for a little break as well. The dogs had a lot of trouble leaving the checkpoint. They shuffled along without much enthusiasm for the first little bit, but as the miles passed by they picked up and by the time they came to where I had intended to stop they were roaring down the trail.  I didn’t want to interrupt them while they were moving so well, so I decided to forego the rest. Thinking back, that might have been a bad move, but who can know for sure. 

Along this stretch of trail I saw more moose signs then anywhere else on the Race. I was wishing I had my gun when it occurred to me that not only had I MAILED my gun back to Willow through the US Postal System, but also, it was LOADED. My stomach lurched at my stupidity! I was going to have to advise Race Officials of my mistake when I got to Ruby.

I had lots of company on the Trail. I traveled with Vickie Talbot and Kevin Kortuem for a bit and Edward De La Billaire and I were together for the last bit into the checkpoint. The school kids of Ruby have the greatest treat for mushers as they come into town – beginning 10 miles or so prior to Ruby, the kids line the Trail with signs of encouragement for the mushers. The good luck wishes and cheerful drawings can help even the sleepiest mushers along the Trail. 

The last bit into Ruby is a plowed, icy road. I was stomping on my brake for everything I was worth to keep the dogs under control, but to no avail.   They missed the corner into the checkpoint and ended up coming in via a back way. My brake was bent all to heck, and my nerves frazzled from the out of control ride, but we had made it to the Yukon!

Ophir to Cripple

My night in Ophir turned out to be the coldest on the trail. Temperatures dropped to around –30. The sun was just starting to rise as we pulled out. I was so happy with the dogs, when it was time to go I just had to ask them to get on their feet - they all rose, shook off, and headed down the trail with no help from the checkers. 

The day was bright and sunny. I had taken some painkillers for my leg in Ophir and the pain had diminished considerably. The team wasn’t moving great – I was attributing it to the heat, but the performance of Camilla was concerning me. Camilla is a tough, hard working little girl, but for the last several miles her tug line had been slapping loosely around her legs. I went up and checked her over but could find nothing wrong. I thought maybe she was pouting – she likes to run lead and I hadn’t had her in front at all on this race. I stuck her in lead for a bit, but that didn’t seem to help either. I tucked her in front of the wheel dogs and kept a close eye on her. 

The trip over to Cripple was a long one, so we had planned to camp awhile on the trail. The day was hot and we found a nice ‘pullout’ and stopped. I fed the dogs and we all settled down for a short nap in the sun.  About 3 hours later, I was awakened by the sound of a helicopter overhead. It was obviously looking for mushers, as I could see it circle over the approximate areas that I had passed mushers camping earlier. It made 3 passes by me, each one lower then the previous one. I gave up trying to sleep. I puttered around for another hour or so, letting the dogs rest before hitting the trail again.
Later on, as night fell, I experienced my most vivid hallucination of the Race. The trail was straight and fairly boring until we came across Candy Land - that’s right – Candy Land. Right smack in the middle of the Iditarod Trail. Complete with slides made out of Candy Canes.  I wasn’t surprised or amazed, in fact, it seemed perfectly normal to me! About a mile or so later, I started to see a bobbing light ahead. It didn’t move like a team and I was puzzled when I came across 2 people walking along the Trail. They were participating in the Extreme Iditasport. They asked if I was running Iditarod and I was hard pressed to come up with an answer.  Gosh, I was tired! I asked these folks if they were a hallucination too and they assured me they weren’t. It wasn’t till I passed them the next day on the way to Ruby that I actually believed them though!

Lynda Plettner passed me just outside of the checkpoint. I rolled into the halfway point of the Race shortly behind her. 

My night in Cripple is one of my most favorite memories of the Trail. Cripple is simply a few wall tents stuck up for the Race. The area around there is mostly open, but the dog teams are nestled into the trees. After caring for the dogs I was lying in the straw with my leaders watching the most remarkable display of Northern Lights I have ever seen. Bob Hempstead was camped in the next spot over and was likewise spending time watching the Lights with his leaders. ‘You know’, he called over, ‘thousands of people would kill to be where we are right now!’. They would be justified – what a spectacular night!

Takotna to Ophir

They tell me that they used to give an award each year for the best Iditarod checkpoint, but word is Takotna used to win every single year – so they eventually just did away with the award. I can sure see why they would be perennial winners – the entire town bends over backwards for the mushers. The hospitality is terrific and the food second to none. I can see why so many mushers take their 24-hour break here. After some food, I settled down in the library to try and catch a quick nap, but I was having trouble falling asleep. I looked at my watch to see if Mark would be in McGrath by now.  The thought was no sooner out of my mind when the door to the building opened and in walked Mark and Jamie’s handler, Lori. WOW – what a terrific surprise. I was so happy to see them. I don’t think I realized just how much I missed my husband until I saw him. I asked if Spud and Smiley were safely home. He said they were and that neither was showing any signs of lameness anymore. We chatted away about the dogs, the trail, and lots more until we just couldn’t stretch the visit anymore. Mark and Lori’s pilot had to get going and I had a race to get back to. 

After they left, I was hanging around the checkpoint for a few more minutes, digesting the wonderful feed of Alaskan King Crab legs that was offered to the mushers when someone mentioned that there was shower facilities available here. I was humming and hawing over that idea when musher Bob Hempstead piped up and said I should shower. He said he had and he felt great. That was all the push I needed. An hour later, showered, dried, stuffed with good food, and in high spirits we rolled out of Takotna.
The dogs left strong. Like I had hoped, the short run from McGrath and a rest here picked up their spirits too. 

The trail into Ophir is basically an old mining road – easy sledding, except every now and then, on the inside of tight turns it would drop dangerously over the bank.  One second I was whistling along the trail, the next I was tumbling down an embankment. The sled took about 3 rolls before stopping. I quickly shook myself off and tried to walk up the hill, but it was too steep and the snow kept collapsing under my foot. It took some major determination and work to eventually get the sled and myself back on the trail – thank goodness for my long snub line and my team that knows ‘stand/stay’ very well! 

It turns out that I had messed up my leg on the tumble. It’s throbbing kept me awake for the rest of the journey into Ophir.

McGrath to Takotna

Since this was were I had hoped take my 24-hour break, I had all sorts of goodies packed in my drop bags. We all ate like kings and queens here! 

A little later I looked out the checkpoint window to check on my critters. There they were, sprawled out in their straw lapping up the rays of sunshine – a few were even lying on their backs sunning their bellies and around them were a couple newspaper photographers snapping pictures. I muttered under my breath – couldn’t those darn dogs pretend to be ‘rough tough sled dogs’ just during the Iditarod! Then I figured, what they heck, if they weren’t going to pretend – neither was I. So I went outside and dished out some good belly and ear rubs.

I had a nice conversation with one of the reporters about Siberian Huskies on the trail. Some of you reading this might not be aware that Siberian Huskies are not the norm on Iditarod, in fact only 3 all Siberian teams were participating in the Race this year (myself, Blake Freking, and Nelson Shughart Jr.). The rest of the teams consist of Alaskan Huskies, which are some sort of Nordic breed with other breeds added for speed, such as German Shorthaired Pointer, Saluki, Setter, etc. They are fast, for sure, but have lost a lot of the durable features that the Siberian Husky has – such as tough feet and the ability to stay warm in just about any temperature. The front cover of the Anchorage Daily News the next day featured a lovely photo of my Howl a.k.a. Ch.NorthWapiti’s Mr. Thurston Howl SDU and an article on Siberians with quotes from both Blake and I.  I heard some comments that the article portrayed Siberians in a less then great light – but I thought that it was pretty accurate!

The dogs didn’t start out of McGrath great. I was surprised because they had come in so well. Maybe I hadn’t rested long enough. It was just a quick trip over to Takotna and I figured I’d give them a four-hour or so break there to try and pick up their spirits. The picked up pretty good once we were on the trail and came into Takotna looking not too bad. 

To my surprise, Jamie Nelson was still there finishing up her 24-hour layover. After I got my dogs fed and bedded down, I was able to have a quick hug and a word or two with her before she headed out.  Her dogs were looking great, they seemed to be recovering well from their bout of kennel cough and she still had all 16.

Nikolai to McGrath

While I was having a meal in the local restaurant (which served either burgers or burgers and fries – that was it! But they were good!) I spotted a pay phone. I took the opportunity to call Mark in Willow. He and I went over my run/rest plan for the next few checkpoints. I was completely off my schedule after having to take my 24 in Rainy Pass.  Prior to the Race, Mark and I had been planning that he was going to try to fly out to McGrath and spend some of my 24 hour layover with me. Obviously, that was out the window, but I still wanted him to get out on the trail and see what a checkpoint was all about.  I asked if he had made arrangements. He had and we would miss each other in McGrath by about 4 hours – how disappointing. 

As I was taking care of a few ‘last minute’ things before heading inside to take a nap, a guy with a camera came around looking for me. He told me was with Associated Press and that Canadian Press had paid to have him flown back to Nikolai to take photos of me. Lucky me, they want to run Canada wide pictures of me and I hadn’t showered in over 4 days and my hair was standing on end!!! As it turned out, I never did hear or seen any sign of the pictures being run anywhere – but it was still flattering!
As nighttime rolled around, I started to get ready to leave. Smiley had stiffened up during his rest and it seemed like it was his shoulder that was the problem. I made the decision to drop him. After filling out the paperwork and giving him a kiss goodbye, I went back to rousing the team. To my shock, Spud wouldn’t even bear weight on his left leg. I couldn’t believe it – he had shown no signs that it was bothering him coming in. With a heavy heart, I called the vets over and filled out the paperwork to drop him. I couldn’t believe how hard it was to leave the two of them behind. Three times before leaving, I found excuses to take a run over to the drop dog area to check collars, give them hugs, wish them a good flight home……

The trip over to McGrath was FAST – too fast actually. With Gus and Grover in lead, they were running so well and it was such a lovely night, I had to keep chiding myself to stay on the brake. They roared up the bank into McGrath and ran all over the poor volunteers that were trying to help us park. They settled down well though, like seasoned Iditarod veterans!

Rohn to Nikolai

I’ve heard varying opinions from mushers on the Rohn checkpoint, I personally thought it was a lovely spot. The checkers were helpful and friendly and there were nice sheltered spots for the resting teams. It would have been nice to spend awhile there, but seeing I had just taken my 24 – the dogs weren’t really ready for a big rest. 

I had heard that the first 20 miles or so of trail out of Rohn could be pretty tough going, culminating in an icy scramble up the Post River Glacier. I wanted to try to get to the Glacier before it got too dark, so with three hours rest we rolled out of the checkpoint. 

Not to be blunt, but the trail out of Rohn SUCKED! It had hardly any snow and we just bounced along across the frozen ground. It was dark when we hit the Glacier, but it didn’t matter. The team went up and over the frozen ice with no problems. Grover would prove himself on the ice again and again over the course of the night, as we crossed many large lakes that had all the snow completely blown off them. He never hesitated or strayed from the markers – what a boy!!!!

I did have trouble at a water crossing though – that bugged me as I spent a lot of time in the summer and fall working with the dogs on water crossings. I thought they were solid on that, but they ducked away from the crossing before I even saw it was there. We crashed around in the bush for awhile while I tried to get them back on the trail. During all this Neen Brown came up behind me. Neen and I had been sharing living and training accommodations in Willow since January, so it was nice to see a familiar face out in the middle of nowhere. She secured her team and came up and rode my sled across the water, while I walked the leaders across. I repaid the favor by going back and leading her team. My feet got drenched in the process, but my bunny boots kept them reasonably comfortable. Neen’s leaders weren’t doing well on the lake crossings, so I told her to stay close and see if they would follow mine across.  She had trouble on one crossing and I stopped to wait for her. As I was waiting I heard something moving around in the bush a little ways off.   The dogs all turned to stare and then started low, deep barks. Usually when they see game, they get excited and start barking in a high pitch, so this ‘warning bark’ kind of spooked me a little. Thank goodness Neen got moving around this time. When she caught up, I told her I wanted to get going, because we had some sort of company. She later told me that as I called my team up something dark jumped into the trees ahead of me. I’m assuming it was a wolf – very cool!

We passed a few teams camped on the side of the trail. I didn’t like the looks of their camping spots and decided to keep moving. One of the musher, Shane Goosen told me about a buffalo camp about 5 miles down the trail. He said it was a nice place to stop, it even had a wall tent you could crash in.  I was aiming for it, but lost my resolve when I came across Kevin Kortuem in a lovely spot with lots of room. I pulled in well ahead of him and made camp. As I was doing chores, Neen pulled in and decide to stay as well. As I was finishing up my feeding, Neen called over and asked what the noise was she was hearing. I listened for a moment and identified the sound as wolves. I wondered if it was my ‘friend’ from earlier on in the night.

I was trying to decide whether or not to go to the trouble of unpacking my sleeping bag and sled and getting a good sleep or just napping on top of the sled bag. My feet were wet and my pants frozen from mid calf down, so I really should have been getting out of them and, besides I thought, ‘it’ll be good practice for when I run Iditarod. I had a good giggle when I realized I was on the Iditarod. I have spent so many years training and preparing myself for this that it was hard to believe I was actually standing in the middle of the Farewell Burn. I did go to the trouble to settle in for a nice sleep in my bag. As I snuggled deep into my warm sleeping bag, the wolves began their howling again. The Northern Lights almost seemed to be reacting to the wonderful song they sang. I could imagine no more incredible place to be in the world then right were I was. I will NEVER forget that moment!

When I woke up 3 hours later, my bunny boots were frozen solid. I pulled out my spare Northern Outfitters boots and a few extra layers of clothing. Kevin and Neen were stirring too. I was the first to get packed up and back on the trail. Neen was close on my heels. Just a little ways past our spot, we passed Bill McKee and Mike Murphy camping. I wished them a good morning and kept going. Neen must have stopped to talk to them, because I didn’t see her again.  

The trail through the Farewell Burn is straight and flat – a nice treat after the awful trail from the night before. As I looked back over my shoulder I was given a wonderful treat – the sunrise casting back on the mountains of the Alaska Range had bathed them in a wonderful pink color. The sense of accomplishment at having realized that I had just driven a dog team right through them was just as glorious.

With the exception of one more problem at another creek crossing  (we would obviously have to go and spend more time on this back at home!), the rest of the long trip into Nikolai was pretty uneventful. Smiley stopped pulling a few miles out of the checkpoint. He was still easily keeping up with the team, but his tug was slapping loosely around and that is very unlike him. Nothing obvious was wrong, but I suspected maybe something similar to Spud’s shoulder problem on the way into Finger Lake.

The dogs happily nested into the straw offered at Nikolai. I was going to need to stay for at least long enough to dry out all my clothing. Seven or eight hours sounded like a good plan...

Rainy Pass to Rohn (the Dalzel Gorge)

Also still in the checkpoint was my friend and fellow Albertan, Ross Adam. His wife, Karen, had flown in for a visit. She and I traveled the trail together in ’98 - ‘Chasing the Race’ from checkpoint to checkpoint. It was nice to get to visit with her for a bit. 

Jamie and I shared some lunch (a really tasty meatball, potatoes, green beans, and gravy dish done up by my friends Lynda and Dwayne from Grande Prairie – gosh, it tasted good!) and set about fixing my sled. Further examination of the sled showed that 2 of the rear stantions were broken. We puttered with it some and discussed a few different ways to make it stable enough that I could get it to McGrath, where my second sled was waiting. Race judge Terry Hinsley came over and took a look at things.  He finally decided that although I might be able to fix it enough to ‘drive with a 4 dog team around my dog yard – I wasn’t going to be able to fix it well enough to drive it behind 16 dogs through the Dalzel Gorge’. He deemed the sled unusable and gave me the required official permission to ship in another. It now looked like I was going to be taking my 24-hour layover in Rainy Pass.  Although my plan was to 24 in Nikkolai, McGrath, or Takotna I had packed lots to each checkpoint – just in case. Thank goodness. 

My 24 certainly wasn’t spent like I had hoped – resting and recovering – many hours of it was spent on the phone trying to find a plane big enough to hold a sled, that had skis on it and could land on Puntilla Lake.  I’m very grateful to the people at the Rainy Pass lodge for allowing me to monopolize their phone for a good part of the afternoon. Eventually, with assistance from my husband, Mark it was arranged for my sled to fly in first thing the next morning.  I went down to the building set aside for mushers and got a good 6 hours sleep.

The dogs were refreshed and, quite frankly, bored the next morning. They had been doing a lot of resting up to this point in the Race and they wanted to get moving! I puttered away with chores waiting for the plane. 

After it arrived and I put the sled back together (the pilot had taken it apart so it would fit in his small plane) I set about switching my gear over. My snowhooks and all the lines were already transferred over when I decided I better get some water heating to give the critters one more meal before we hit the road.  I was over at the water hole when I heard a commotion in my team! I had forgotten that Butch had been tied to the broken sled, when I switched the hooks over to the new sled he was able to drag the sled he was tied to wherever he wanted – and where he wanted was with Sissy, who was in heat.  It looks like Sissy was going to be having ‘Rainy Pass’ babies in 63 days. Oh well, Mark would be delighted – Butch and Sissy are two of his favorite dogs in the yard and he had been trying to convince me for years what a good breeding that would be. 

The section of trail ahead, the Dalzel Gorge, was certainly the topic of conversation in the checkpoint. Some say it is harder and more dangerous then the Happy River Steps. Many time Iditarod finisher, Lavon Barve was a checker in Rainy Pass. He told me the worst part of the trip is the worrying about it. He did recommend, though, that I put two older, a little slower, but more reliable leaders up front. I shuffled the team around and headed out with my veterans, Buddy and Spud up front. They ignored my command on the very first corner and tried to take a little side trip down the Puntilla Lake landing strip. I guess with age and experience can also come stubbornness! Within 2 miles, Grover was put back up front with Buddy. 

The trip into Rohn was spectacular fun! Challenging enough to keep you awake and on your toes, but with the good snowfall this year, none of the dreadful icy sections, I hear it can often have. Just outside of Rohn the dogs got their first real taste of true glare ice. Stakes frozen in the ice and a few faint scratch marks from previous sleds were the closest thing to a trail. I realized just how much trouble a musher could get in if a team decide to do their own thing on the ice – you would have no way of stopping them. Grover marched that team across the ice like he had done it a million times. What a neat dog!!! What a neat trip!!

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!

Skwentna to Finger Lake

The Skwentna checkpoint was filled with teams. Up in the lodge mushers were catching naps all over the place. The ‘Skwentna Sweeties’ provided excellent food. Conversation revolved around who was leading the Race and strategies for the trail ahead. Although the trail from Skwentna to Finger Lake is a pretty uneventful stretch, the other side of Finger Lake is home to the legendary and dreaded Happy River steps. Jamie, race judge Terry Hinsley and myself were discussing whether it would be better to go through Finger Lake and do the Steps with a tired team in the dark or rest there and run it in the daylight with a fresh team. Terry and Jamie agreed – a tired team in the dark.  

The dogs really weren’t all that tired and weren’t resting well. Every time I peeked out to check on them, one or two were looking up the bank watching for my return. Flattering, but I would have rather they settled down and slept! As time came to start getting ready to leave, I headed down to the team and ran into Harry Caldwell. I was sure I had seen him leave earlier and inquired what was up. I was sad to hear that he was having trouble with his team and had returned to Skwentna to scratch from the Race - how sad.

We left the checkpoint at the beginning of the hot time of the day – not good planning, but I had done lots of training in warmer weather and was confident my dogs could handle it. I played leapfrog with Rich Bosela’s team for a ways out, then Jamie passed both of us and my team settled in. We passed lots of teams camped out to beat the heat. About 15 miles out of Finger Lake my leaders decide to try out a piece of trail that was running parallel to the main trail. It was not well packed and they quickly jumped back on the better-packed surface. As they crossed over the loose snow between the two trails, Spud, who was running in swing seemed to misstep and began to favor a leg.  My stomach churned at the thought of having to leave him in Finger Lake – Spud is a long time main leader in my team and has never been dropped from a Race. I stopped and massaged the leg and shoulder, it improved a little and he kept his tug line tight, but I could still see he was favoring it. I slowed everyone down to a pace more comfortable for him and did the remaining miles into Finger Lake.

Pulling into the checkpoint, I was really bummed out over Spud. As soon as the vet came over I had him look at the shoulder. Happily, he felt it was only a minor strain and thought with massage and some rest, he would be 100% again. So Plan "A" was out the window - I was staying in Finger Lake to rest and would have to deal with the Steps with a fresh team, but it would be worth it to have Spud still in the team.

Knik to Skwentna

This part of the trip, out of Knik, to Yentna and down the river to Skwentna, is a familiar one for me – I’ve traveled it on the Knik 200, Klondike 300 (twice) and the Goose Bay 120. But this time it has surprises! All along the trail there are people that have traveled out by snowmachine to watch the Race go by. Everyone is in a cheerful mood, yelling out good wishes, handing out cookies, coffee, and chocolate. It is along here that I see the stress that 81 mushers could potentially put on the Race – the hotdog stand is out of hotdogs by the time I roll by!!

Jamie Nelson sailed by. My team managed to keep pace with her for a bit and she and I had a nice little chat as we traveled down the trail. Many mushers were stopped along the way, resting their dogs during the heat of the day. I had planned on pushing through to Yentna Station, where I was going to take a 4 hour break, although Jamie had mentioned she was going to take a similar break near Flathorn Lake, which is about 25 miles before Yentna and that was a good option too. 

As I came off of Flathorn into the trees that border it, many teams, including Charlie Boulding, Russell Lane, Harold Tunhiem, Kevin Korteum and Jamie were camped there. There was a little pull off next to Jamie’s team and Kevin grabbed my leaders and helped steer them into the camping spot. After everyone’s chores were done Jamie came over and we organized some comfy spots on my sled and settled in for a visit and eventually a nap. As night fell the quiet was only disturbed by dog teams occasionally passing by. 

There is nothing quite like the sound of a team in motion. Contrary to movie depictions, dogs are silent as they travel down the trail. The only noise comes from the runners gliding on the snow and the jingling of snaps and hardware in the gangline. Iditarod teams have their own special sound too. The small plastic Iditarod ID tags that the dogs wear make noise against the rings of the collars and the brass neckline snaps!! It’s a soft and magical ‘Iditarod symphony’. 

Jamie’s four-hour rest was over ½ hour before mine. After a big struggle to get her snowhook off the tree she had anchored too (it took both of us and a lot of sweating and muttering!), she was on her way. My trip to Yentna was quiet and uneventful. I intended to ‘blow’ (in other words – ‘not stop at’) the checkpoint and go straight through to Skwentna. The dogs are really familiar with the Yentna checkpoint, as we have spent lots of time there on other races, and I was a little worried that they would get mad or pouty when we didn’t stop. We stopped, checked in, the vet went through the team, I booted Oreo, and when I asked the dogs if they were ready to go – they roared out of the checkpoint. I guess my worries where unfounded. The trip to Skwentna was the fastest trip I have ever had on that stretch of trail. I rode on my drag and foot brake trying to keep the speed down. 

When we pulled into Skwentna the team was barking and lunging in their harnesses. The vet’s were teasing me that I should just keep going – they didn’t need to rest, but this was very early in the race and I wasn’t going to tire them out this soon!

Iditarod – Pre-Race, Start, and Restart

Thursday is the day that the festivities really begin. First off in the morning is the Musher’s Meeting. During the actual meeting, which goes almost all day, the room is cleared of everyone but mushers and race officials. Race rules, procedures, and trail conditions are just some of the topics covered. We also drew our starting positions, but we don’t get to see the numbers – they are in sealed envelopes that we wrote our names on after drawing. We wouldn’t know our actually Bib number until the Musher’s Banquet that evening. 

During the lunch break we got to meet our Iditariders. The riders come from all over North America and have paid to ride the first 11 miles of the ceremonial start with the teams. My rider was Carol LaRotonda from New Mexico. Carol’s husband was riding with my friend and fellow rookie musher, Rob Gregor. Her father in law was riding with Iditarod veteran, Harry Caldwell.  What a nice family!!
After the meeting we headed over to the hotel that Mark’s parents where staying at.  That gave us a chance to do some visiting and get cleaned up for the Musher’s Banquet.

The Banquet

You know, everyone asks me if I was nervous at the start of Iditarod. I can honestly say that the only time I was scared was when I got up to say my ‘thank you’s’ at the Banquet.  As I stepped up to the mike to address the 1800 folks in the room, I honestly thought that I was going to throw up. I mumbled through a speech that sounded nothing like the confident speech I had worked on all those hours out training (well, ya' gotta do SOMETHING to pass the hours during training. Note for next year – write speeches down.) As soon as I stepped off the stage, my nerves settled and I had a great time chatting with and signing autographs for the folks that lined up next to the stage. 

I was announced as Bib # 61-a good number. Most of the ‘serious’ mushers were ahead of me, but I was not right at the back of the pack – like poor Charlie Boulding!

Anchorage to Eagle River

Mark summed the Ceremonial Start up well in his diary entry – ‘WOW’.  The whole atmosphere of the day was festive and relaxed. Everyone knows this day doesn’t count and it gives us a chance to do some visiting. I got to meet all kinds of folks that I have chatted with on the Internet, but never met. A reporter from Canadian Press spent close to an hour interviewing and taking pictures.  I went over and got my picture taken with Jamie Nelson. Those of you who have been following our progress throughout the year know what a key role Jamie has played in helping us get ready for this Race.  In addition to Jamie being a good friend and mentor, I am a HUGE fan of hers and I will treasure the picture. 

Iditarod veteran, Wayne Curtis and his wife, Chris were there, helping to bootie the dogs. Carol Nash had a bunch of red/black hats for our handlers, that she whipped up on her sewing machine so our team would look spiffy going up to the start. Not quite as slick as the DeeDee Jonrowe/Eddie Bauer parade, but spiffy – none the less! 

Before I knew it the dogs where all bootied, harnessed, and lined out in front of the sleds. Our handlers were all in position with my brother, Jim up front with leaders Grover and Spud. Carol was settled in my sled for her ride. My Mom jumped onto Mark’s sled for a ride up to the start. Another Iditarod veteran and friend, Rob Carss stepped onto the runners with me for trip to the starting line. We were standing waiting for the signal to start moving and I looked at Rob and commented that I thought this should feel more exciting – after all, this was the start of Iditarod. At that moment, they called to start moving up. The team started forward and my sled swung out from behind Ramey Smith’s truck and into the middle of 4th Ave.  That moment – as the crowd and the Iditarod start banner came into view is a memory I will ALWAYS carry with me. My heart leap up into my throat and I could feel a tears threatening in my eyes – THIS was Iditarod. 

The team slowly worked it’s way up to the line. The teams actually start moving up around 15 minutes before the start, so everyone is in line and ready to roll at the right times, so the march up to the start has many stops. Jamie Nelson ran out as we passed her truck and gave me a hug. About 1 block away Joe Runyan came over and introduced himself. No serious Iditarod fan, of which I am one – needs to be introduced to Joe – he won in 1989! He commented that I looked relaxed for a rookie – very relaxed and, you know - I felt it. I was excited, for sure – but I had worked long and hard for this day and it felt really right to be there. 

We got into the chute, I went through and thanked all the handlers, gave Jim a hug, patted all the dogs, gave Mark a hug, did a quick TV interview and we were off! 

The trail through Anchorage is one that you could never train for. Through crowds, culverts, over bridges….I was so proud that the dogs took it all in stride. 

Eleven miles in was the drop off point for the Iditarider. Carol was a lot of fun to have along – she assured me she had had a great time too. 

The rest of the trip was also filled with smiles, waves, and good wishes. 

We got into Eagle River, watered the dogs and headed back to Willow for the night.

The Restart

The restart has a totally different feel then the Ceremonial start. Everyone is a little more tense and there are no fans allowed around the trucks – so it is a much more ‘down to business’ attitude.   Even the dogs seem to know that this is the ‘real deal’.

I spotted Libby Riddles walking around the dog trucks. Libby, who was the first woman to win the Race, is my hero. It was her book on her 1985 win, ‘Race Across Alaska’ that got me hooked on dog sledding. I’ve seen Libby around before, but always been too nervous to go say ‘Hi’. ‘If I can drive a dog team across Alaska,’ I said to myself, ‘I can say ‘hi’ to Libby Riddles’. So I did. I introduced myself and told her that she had been my inspiration to try dog sled racing. Not only did she recognize me and know who I was, she told me that she had given my leader, Spud, some good comments during the Race Start TV coverage. Well, if that wasn’t enough to make my day! 

As with the start in Anchorage, the course is lined with fans and well-wishers. The highlight was coming across Wayne and Chris Curtis’s  Iditaparty where the trail passes their house. Among the guests were my Mom and in laws.  As I had promised my Mom, we stopped the dogs and I quickly jumped off the sled to give her a hug and a kiss. Another big hug to Mark’s Mom and we were back underway. 

Just before the Knik checkpoint there was a memorial to Joe Redington Sr. Joe is the father of the Iditarod and his passing in June saddened the entire mushing community. Prior to the restart each musher had been given a flower to lay for him at the memorial. A lovely and fitting tribute to a great man. 

At the Knik checkpoint the second sled is disconnected, you turn you Race Bib over to race officials, and you are really on your way.  Mark and I exchanged a few last minute hugs and words, the dogs were impatient to get going and tried to head out of the checkpoint without me. I jumped on the runners and we were off. 

The feeling leaving the Knik checkpoint and actually heading out on the Iditarod Trail was indescribable. I actually let out an excited holler as we rounded the first corner and off into the wilds!

Thursday, 16 March 2000

March 16, 2000


Just a quick note this time. I'm off to Nome in a few hours. Karen is on her way to Unalakleet, this the last of the long stretches, now its just a hop, skip and a jump to Nome.

You guys are on your own now, the next time that anything is posted it will be from Karen.

That's it for now.

Wednesday, 15 March 2000

March 15, 2000


The rollercoaster ride continues...

Karen made it in to Nulato last night after what she called "a very slow run". She is very tired and was raving on about how slow her dogs are. I tried to explain to her how she has sibes and everyone around her has Alaskans, then I told her to go have a sleep and I'd call her back. In the mean time I phoned ahead to Unalakleet and arranged to have Jamie Nelson give Karen call once she got in. About 4 hours later, I phoned Karen back to tell her about the phone call she was about to make. She was in much better spirits and had spent some time at the check point with Lynda Plettner who has run Iditarod 7 times before. Words of encouragement from a veteran are priceless.

Karen is now sporting a big shiner and a new nickname. I guess on her way into Nulato she fell asleep and fell off her sled landing on her face, when she woke up she had to get up and run after her team. Now her new name is "Karen Runs-instead".

Karen is now in Kaltag 802 miles into the race where she plans on spending a very long time before she makes the last long run of the race to Unalakleet.

That's all for now. Stay tuned.


Monday, 13 March 2000

March 13, 2000


I now know the two other dropped dogs, they were Camilla and Gus. Both are now home and doing fine, these two came into Anchorage late last night then spent most of day in prison getting spoiled.

I talked to Karen this morning, she is doing great and was just finishing her mandatory 8 hour layover on the Yukon river at Ruby. This years race looks like its going to be a record breaker, they're predicting that Swingley will finish before noon tomorrow.

That's all for now. Stay tuned.


(See additional images of Karen & her dogs as well as the Iditarod Start banner taken by a friend - still more to come!)

Sunday, 12 March 2000

March 12, 2000


Haven't heard from Karen, all I know is that she is on her way to Ruby and that she dropped 2 dogs in Cripple. I don't know which 2, so don't ask me. One thing that I've learned from years and years of handling and waiting for Karen is that no news is good news.

Well that's enough about Karen. Today I entered Sunny, Breezy, Draco & Hawk, plus 2 borrowed dogs into a 6 dog 10 mile purebred race. It was fun, but another thing that I've learned from years and years of handling is that you can't spend 10 months training distance dogs then expect them to run a sprint race. We finished 7th or 8th out of 10 teams, I really wasn't paying attention, there was a potluck supper and I haven't eaten a home made meal in a while.

I leave for Nome on Thursday, Karen's Mom and brother are still trying to get their tickets, Nome gets pretty crowded this time of year.

Mr. Howl made the front page of the Anchorage Daily News. The story talks about some of the differences between Sibes and Alaskans.

That's all for now. Stay tuned.

(See images of Karen's dogs taken by a friend - more to come!)

Saturday, 11 March 2000

March 11, 2000 -2

Hello all---

Just picked up Karen's "dropped" dogs this afternoon, Spud and Smiley. They are currently in the backyard bright-eyed and waggy, trying to make friends with the Sheltie.

Northern Air Cargo flew in about 50 dogs this afternoon from McGrath, considered a hub to which dogs are flown in smaller planes, reloaded and flown to Anchorage. The dogs are picked up at the airport, or at the prison in Eagle River by a person designated in a contract signed months ago by their owners.
I saw a lot of energetic dogs there. Both these guys didn't go further in the race because they had sore shoulders. You couldn't tell it this afternoon as they tried to pull me across the parking lot. They look GREAT!

I also got to see Blake Freking's returned sled, the one that hit a stump on the trail and exploded releasing the 14 dog team he was driving. If you haven't checked out the website lately, give it a "look and see" The journal is being updated whenever we hear from Blake.

Blake also dropped 2 dogs. I saw them both at Howling Dog Farm yesterday. Poorga is a little stiff. Freckles was hard to pick out from the other dogs that wanted to go for an afternoon run.

Later, Jamie

March 11, 2000


Let me start out by making a correction, a few postings ago I said that Smiley made the big team and then said that he was left behind. Well Smiley is on the big team, it was Sunny that was left behind.
Speaking of Smiley, Spud and him are on their way home. Karen dropped both of them because of sore shoulders. This is the first time that Spud has ever been dropped from a race. The dogs get quite the ride, they're flown to McGrath where they then catch the big plane to Anchorage, once there, if their pick up person isn't waiting for them, they are taking to a near by prison were inmates that have had special training are given the privilege of taking care of them. Jamie West-Banks our friend in Anchorage was waiting for Spud & Smiley when they got off the plane, and tomorrow she will deliver them to our home in Willow. (Read Jamie's post)

The reason why you have been waiting for this post is because I went out to Takotna to pay Karen a surprise visit. I got a ride on a very little plane that landed on the very big river at the Takotna check point. I took a big chance, because with the updates being so slow, I wasn't sure if she would be there our not. She was. We were able to spend about an hour together, she looked good and was very upbeat and happy. She said that all the dogs were strong, healthy, & happy. I had a cheese burger while Karen and several other mushers ate steak a crab legs. The only thing that I can remember right now is that she has had Grover in lead the entire way, and before he goes to sleep at any of the check points he has to have a belly rub. Any way I told her that she's making us all very proud and to keep up the good work.

Today I booked my ticket for Nome.

That's all for now. Stay tuned.


Wednesday, 8 March 2000

March 8, 2000


Good news, Karen made the front page of the Anchorage Daily News newspaper.
Bad news is it was because she broke her sled. 

Good news, she got her second sled this morning and is on her way to Rhon.
Bad news, she stayed in Rainy pass for over 26 hours. 

Good news, the dogs are all in great shape.
Bad news, They're feeling so good that Butchie bred Sissy. 

All and all it was a learning experience. The rules say that if you feel that you are going to use a second sled that it must be sent out on the trail before the start of the race. What we assumed is that when we needed the second sled, all we would have to do is ask for it and it would be delivered. We were wrong. We are 100% responsible for moving the sled. This means that we have to find a plane with skis, that can haul a sled and hasn't been booked already. At 9:30 last night I finally had confirmation that Karen's sled was slightly disassembled and sitting in the plane that Karen Adam (wife of musher Ross Adam) had chartered to follow the race, and would be leaving at first light. Now Karen could get a good nights sleep.
Anyway she is off her race plan for now, but in a few days when everyone else has taken there 24 hour layover, everything will be back to normal. 

We just had a little earthquake here, the house shook a bit. Is there anything else that we'll have to deal with? 

That's all for now. Stay tuned.

Monday, 6 March 2000

March 6, 2000

Let me start this diary with some official business, here is Karen's team that she left the starting line with on Sunday morning

Draco, Smiley, Hawk & Breezy were left behind for various reasons. It was a very hard decision making the cut down to the final 16, but we are happy that we had so many strong dogs to choose from. I don't know who won our contest, I'll let Karen take care of that when she gets back from Nome.

All I can say about the start in Anchorage is "WOW". We got up at 4:30 Saturday morning, fed dogs then left for Anchorage. The 1 1/2 hour trip in was like a dogtruck parade, once we were in town we were directed around by the army of volunteers to our parking spot. We were barely out of the truck before more volunteers approached us to scan the microchips in the dogs to make sure that every dog there was an approved dog. Once that was done we set out to have breakfast before the excitement started. Too late.

By the time we got back to our truck, Fourth Ave. was packed. We let out a few of the dogs for some schmoosing, and for the next few hours I'm sure that several thousand pictures were taken of them doing everything from kissing little girls to peeing on the mudflaps. Then teams started coming through. Because we were team 61, we were close to the starting line and got to watch all the teams before us leave. These teams included Matin Buser, Dee Dee Jonrowe, Jeff King, & Rick Swenson. Once we left it was all a blur, running through town was hot and there were people lining the trail almost the whole way to Eagle River. People shouted words of encouragement & clapped. One guy even played "O Canada" on a trumpet, I had to take off my hat. The dogs finished strong in Eagle River, we took it slow and took lots of breaks.

Sunday was more like a normal race setting, except 10 times bigger. This time no spectators were allowed near the trucks, but there was a few thousand there. It was cooler & the trail was packed harder. Again there were spectators all the way to Knik. Once we were in Knik I unhooked the second sled and Karen was on her way. The first chance I had to check the race results was this morning and Karen was already in Skwentna. It looks like she's been traveling with Jamie Nelson, her friend, coach & mentor. I don't know how long this will last, but any time they stay together is bound to be good.
Well that's all I can think of for now, so many things have happened in the last few days that I'm sure that it will take a while to filter through the old grey matter. Keep track on the Iditarod home page, look at more than the race result, press releases and newspaper articles are also interesting.

Stay tuned