Leaving Popular Lake was great. The dogs got up and left as asked – I always worry about asking them to leave checkpoints without a real rest – but this crew was well up to the task. Gus was terrific crossing the Lake, I was able to give him commands and ‘haw’ him exactly where I wanted on the trail. “Haw over, Gus...a little more…. more….right there…yes!” What a guy!!!
The trail ran mostly along a road, eventually it dropped down some nice hills and spit us out onto Gunflint Lake. I have been reading the book “Woman of the Boundary Waters” by Justine Kerfoot. It was quite the honor to know that Justine herself sat in her beautiful Gunflint Lodge and watched the dog teams come across the Lake into the checkpoint.
Bill, Sandy and Shelley were waiting. The spot set aside for us was WAY up on a hillside, as we maneuvered the team up to the truck, I was surprised to see that so many teams were still in the checkpoint. We got the dogs fed and bedded down. Butchie had had a sore shoulder on the way over, so Sandy got to work on massaging and then we wrapped him up in one of my new Mountain Ridge shoulder jackets with the pockets for heat packs. Talk about a content little guy!! Raptor seemed really grouchy about something, but we couldn’t put our finger on the problem.
After making sure everyone was settled in, I slipped down to the mushers sleeping area to try and catch up with Jamie before she left. We had a nice chat and she indicated she was leaving in a few more hours – around 3:00. Shelley and I went down to the Lodge for a meal. The folks at Gunflint really rolled out the welcome mat for us – great food, free bottled water and soda, and a terrific sleeping place for mushers.
At 5:00, I was woken up by Bill and JAMIE!! When I asked what she was doing still in Gunflint and she replied “I scratched” – you could have knocked me over with a feather. Basically, it boiled down to a solid dog care decision on Jamie’s part, made with the best interest of her young team in mind. I was still shocked though! Further surprises awaited though, when I heard that Mitch Seavey, Blake Freking, and a bunch of others had also scratched! What was going on???
As we got the team ready, the wind picked up and it started to snow. Butch’s shoulder looked great. We found Raptor’s problem – a blister was starting to form in between a couple of his toes. Not a serious injury, but a painful one that he was pretty grouchy about, so I made the decision to drop him. During this time, Iditarod veteran Al Hardman returned to Gunflint to withdraw from the Race. Word also came through that several of the teams that left after him were having trouble crossing the lake due to blowing snow, downed trail markers, and open water. Race Officials offered to send snow machines out to break the worst of the trail for the 5 mushers remaining in the checkpoint, but they wanted us to travel in groups so they didn’t have to go out 5 times. I was the closest to leaving and I decided to wait to go out with others.
It was about this time that Race Judge Norman Lee called all the remaining mushers into the Lodge for an emergency meeting. It seems that the last 25 miles or so into the Whitefish Lake checkpoint was impassable by dog team due to blow down from the big storm a little over a year ago. The decision had been made that teams would be picked up by their dog trucks at this point and trucked over to Whitefish. The layover in Whitefish was extended to 8 hours to give everyone additional time to truck in. This took away the ‘unassisted’ nature of the Whitefish checkpoint, but it was the best Race Officials could due under the circumstances.
At this point word also came through about Doug Swingley taking 9 hours to do the 60 miles to the halfway tent (not an actually checkpoint – just someone out there camping with a radio to keep an eye on everyone!). There were rumors of waist deep snow that slowed him down considerably. That scared me – if Swingley was taking that long on the trail – I might be out there forever! Eventually, I got talking to Joel Kersting, a friend and fellow musher – he proposed that we stay overnight and head out at first light to negotiate the trail. That sounded like a plan to me and after a little discussion with Race Officials, we settled in for the night.
The next morning Joel made the hard decision to scratch due to some health issues with his dogs. Two other mushers had made the choice to scratch last night – so only Clint Warnke, driving Doug Swingley’s puppy team and myself left Gunflint at 7am.
The first 3 hours was tricky. The trail was blown in and there were patches of slush and an open creek crossing. Our going was slow, but it wasn’t quite as bad as we had been led to believe. Clint and I decided on pretty different running plans for the supposedly 95 mile run into the new checkpoint. He was going to take a 4 hour break out on the trail, but I had decided to keep the team moving with only a few short snack breaks. This felt like the best option for this group of dogs – I vowed that I would give them a real break if they quit taking snacks out at any of our breaks. I stopped, watered the dogs, and chatted with Clint when I came across his camp. What a nice guy! The break was a perfect length – about ½ hour. The dogs were traveling quite strong so I was quite surprised when it took forever to reach the 60 mile point (although the radio guy had long left, there was still signs of where he had been). We later found out that the reported 95 mile leg was actually more like 110 miles – that made things make more sense! Clint caught up with me again about 2 hours out of the checkpoint. We took a short break together and traveled near each other for awhile before his faster team pulled ahead. My team was just tickled to find their truck out there on the trail after 21 hours of traveling. At Whitefish we unboxed them and bedded them down for a rest.
I thought leaving Whitefish might be a bit tricky for the team. They didn’t rest really well during their time in the checkpoint and after their long push the night before I worried they might be a bit sour, but this was exactly the training and type of situation we needed to help this group get ready for Iditarod. Gus was dropped due to a sore shoulder, so with Oreo and Orion in lead, I headed out for what I suspected might be a long run.
Well knock my socks off!!! Oreo dug in and did a great job on the big climb out of Whitefish. I was very impressed. They were traveling at an okay speed and seemed to have no thoughts of anything other then moving down the trail. I stopped to snack and play with them for a bit, after that things really started to roll. I was delighted to pass a sign indicating only 20 miles to the finish. The last leg into Grand Portage was delightful, the night was beautiful and clear, the dogs were traveling strong and fast. As hoped, they had really come together and become a team during this race. I was almost disappointed to see it all end as we passed through the culvert that meant the finish line was just around the corner.
As we came around the bend and into sight of the finish line, a cheer went up from the surprisingly large crowd that had gathered at the finish line (they tell me only Swingley had a bigger one!). It turns out that an announcement was made right near the end of the mushers' banquet that I was 5 miles out of the finish line, so a bunch of folks took the time to come down after the banquet and watch the finish – how nice of them!!!
It turns out that 16 of the original 36 mushers in the race scratched, so that meant I actually got a paycheck for finishing 20th! WAHOO!! I was also presented with a very pretty finishers medallion and a beautiful handmade toque by fellow musher Jennifer Evans in lieu of a red lantern. Quite the haul!The dogs looked terrific - no problems or soreness to speak of. Everyone standing around commented on their great attitudes when I pulled out the snack bag and they all started barking and jumping for their treats! This was EXACTLY what I had hoped to accomplish on this Race!