I took my time getting my chores done. The dogs seemed none the worse for the wear after our little adventure on the way in, in fact, all that resting as I pried my sled out of tree wells made them downright spunky. Everyone ate and snacked well.
Bob Chlupach offered to help me bend my sled back into shape, but it was tracking well and I figured I should leave well enough alone. I sure didn't want to drive a badly steering sled through the Gorge and into Rohn.
I was going to stick to my plan and leave the checkpoint around first light. That perked me up as last year I thought the Pass up to the Gorge was some of the prettiest and most amazing scenery that I had ever seen in my life - and besides, the thought of running the Dalzel Gorge in the darkness made my knees quake. (Sorry, if that dispels any myths about mushers being tough and fearless!)
After getting the critters all settled I headed up to the checkpoint. Last year they had the mushers sleeping in a large, cold room with a fireplace that offered no warmth for the only heat source. It was a treat to find that the mushers were sharing cabin space with the checkers and officials. The floor was hard and dirty, the cabin was completely crowded with musher, officials, and trophy mounts of moose, mountain sheep, deer, and unheard of species in Alaska, like African antelopes. It made the whole scene seem a little absurd. But, regardless, watched over by the unseeing eyes of animals that had probably never in their life seen snow, I drifted off to sleep.
Before heading down to the dogs, I snuck in behind the bar and slipped into a nice clean set of underwear and longjohns - what a delight! Snow was falling fairly heavily as I walked down to the teams. I witnessed a team coming back into the checkpoint - always a not good sign! It was Roy Monk. I helped him get back into a parking spot and asked what was up. Seems the visibility through the Pass was really bad and he had gotten turned around somewhere after the entrance to Dalzel. He felt the trail markers might have been moved around and once realizing he was on his way back to Rainy Pass, decided to come back and rest before trying it again, about 40 extra miles of trail this was going to cost him!
Somewhat confident that I could find the trail in the daylight, I set off to meet the Gorge. It was clouded in and snowing as we moved up through the Pass. The light and color was amazing. The journey above the tree line, between spectacular snow covered peaks can only be described as majestic. In all my life experiences, I have never encountered anywhere that does such a wonderful job of reminding us of how small and insignificant we are in the grand scheme of things. One of my favorite works of art (and one that I have been on the hunt to own for a long time) is the 1983 Jon Van Zyle Iditarod poster. It depicts a team traveling through this section of trail under a full moon - the caption is "Iditarod - Alone on the crest of you dreams." I quietly repeated that line to myself under my breath. This IS the Iditarod.
The clouds started to break as we came up into the start of the Gorge. A helicopter made several low, slow passes as we approached the 90-degree turn that signals the head of the Pass. Lucky for me they had just vanished from sight as the team cut the corner too sharp and tossed the sled and I ungracefully up into the rocks. My dogs know all my weaknesses and have seen me in several undignified situations, but there is no need to share the visual evidence of that with the rest of the world!
Just before the start of the real tough stuff, I came across Dave Tresino being fitted with a 'Sled Cam' by the USA network folks. I waited for a bit, but then found a spot to slip by and get on with the business ahead. It didn't seem as bad as last year, but it still has the power to awe and demands a musher's respect. The trail spits mushers out onto a river leading into Rohn - and I mean that literally! The bank onto the river is about a 3-foot drop off! After the drop, you are on clear, smooth, trail-less ice - completely at the mercy of your dog team. If they choose to meander and wander - you meander and wander! Lucky for me - Grover is a pro on ice and we trucked along without incident. Gosh, I adore that dog!
The trail pops up off the river and winds through the trees for a bit before you end up running along the edge of the Rohn runway and into the checkpoint.