The atmosphere in the checkpoint was much lighter and welcoming then last year. The checkers were downright jovial and a few of the mushers sat up listening to their stories. The rest of us crashed in warm spots around the cabin. One of the Idita-sport competitors was there too. I was telling the story of my time in the Health Clinic when he popped up and asked if that was in McGrath. He said that he had had a similar situation, having gone in for a relatively simple reason and getting diagnosed and treated for things he didn't even know he had!
While we were napping word came through that the trail was blown in and difficult to find on the way into Iditarod. They recommended that the mushers travel together. We discussed it, but all really had our own game plans that we wanted to stick to. Clint Warnke and I had been in this same situation in the Grand Portage Race earlier this season. The trail turned out to be not nearly as bad as advertised. We gambled that it would be the same here and although 4 of us left right around the same time, we had no intention of traveling together unless things were really bad.
The first half of this journey was spectacular. It was lightly snowing and blowing, but the clouds were high, making for a bright night. The dogs moved strongly. Occasionally, I saw the flash of a headlamp way ahead or behind me. Finally, the trail broke out above the treeline, this was the portion of the trail that we had been warned about. It was rough and difficult to find, even with Clint's team only an hour or so ahead of me on the trail. It seemed like this portion went on forever. I was on unfamiliar ground now, as just after Ophir the trail turned onto the southern route. I had read Don Bower's trail notes on this section, but it was very different from what I had pictured. I was tired and looking forward to taking a nap at Don's Cabin, the halfway point to Iditarod. 'Lucky' for me the tussocks and clumps of snow that the sled kept banging over kept me awake!
After driving through the Twilight Zone time warp (several hours by the clock, an eternity in 'reality') we came upon Don's Cabin. Palmer Shagoognik said it best at the Red Lantern banquet - 'the sign over the door, saying 'Don's Cabin' was nice', but that was it. The cabin had been BADLY vandalized. I felt like I had been rudely dragged back to the modern world. The stove was missing, the walls had huge holes, litter and droppings were everywhere - tired as I was, I was not laying down a sleeping bag in here. I gave the dogs a 4 hour break and headed out. We bounced and bumped along the trail. We past an Idita-sport cyclist, pushing his bike along - and the dogs and I thought the trail was bad for us! HA!!
A few miles after that the trail improved and went through a really pretty section of creek crossing and portages, the dogs flew over this good stretch. Then we climbed for quite a bit and came over a pass. The terrain changed drastically, now winding through stumps, over, around creeks, and narrow corners that eventually turned into long, rolling hills. I was thinking the checkpoint wasn't that far away - I was WRONG!
I was talking to a former Iditarod Champion after and she said she listens to recorded soundtracks during this part of the Race. She says it is the only time she needs an escape! Roy Monk described this portion of the trail as 'soul stealing'. I spent a lot of time thinking about the miners and the millions of dollars of gold that past through this area in its heyday. The fortunes earned and the fortunes lost. It seemed to me like I could feel the spirits of broken souls throughout this section. It was haunting and spooky. As time and time again, we crested one hill, only to see another just like it stretching out ahead - I almost felt I could hear laughter echoing through the hills.
The dogs were grouchy and short-tempered. They had numerous little skirmishes throughout the day - nothing serious though. I remember wondering what exactly I was doing out there on the trail - 'The dogs weren't ready. They couldn't do Iditarod. What was I thinking entering this Race….' We were all in a funk. It was so exciting to finally see the legendary ghost town of Iditarod pop into view ahead. The dogs agreed, picking up their speed and loping into town, leaving the discontented spirits behind us.