Friday, 22 February 2002

February 22, 2002 Safety to NOME!

Well, I don’t know quite what I had pictured the Safety checkpoint to be like. Whatever it was, it didn’t live up to my expectations! Safety is a roadhouse – and that’s it. One single, solitary building stuck out on the coast.  Regardless, it was great to be there. The dogs and I all needed a little break from each other, so we were going to take a bit of a rest here. I snacked them, but left everyone’s tug lines done up and put down no straw to make it very clear to them that we were not here for a long time. They rest like this a lot in training, so they were quick to curl up and take advantage of being stopped. I went into the roadhouse and treated myself to a cup of coffee. Nick, one of my very favorite trail vets was working this checkpoint. I’ve worked with Nick at the John Beargrease Marathon, Grand Portage Race and two Iditarods. He is getting so familiar with my team (and he is such a attentive vet!) that he knows most of my dogs by name!! It was great to have a friend to visit with! Nick said Mark was at the Iditarod Headquarters in Nome waiting for me and if I wanted they would be happy to reach him on the phone so we could talk. I said no – I’d talk to him when I got there in the morning!

After about ½ hour I went out to leave. The dogs made it very clear that they were not ready to go. Although I spend a lot of time in training explaining to the dogs that when to go and when to stop is my decision, this seemed like a good opportunity to compromise. Again without straw and with tugs still done up, I let them rest.

After we had been at Safety for about 2 hours I went out and called up the team. They shuffled and protested but started down the trail. I promised them a great surprise at the next checkpoint!

The sun was coming up as we passed the vacant and drifted in cabins along the road. The morning seemed magical. Every single moment of that sunrise is burned in my memory.  There is one last major hill to climb as you approach Nome, the dogs climbed steadily upwards. As we crested it, there a little over 5 miles ahead lay the city of Nome. I can’t do an adequate job of describing the feeling that gave me, but I can tell you that, even now, almost 1 year later, my stomach knots, and my eyes threaten to tear up at the thought. Mixed in with all the other emotions was one I didn’t expect – sadness! I’ve heard other mushers describe feeling a sense of sadness as they reach the end of the trail, but I never really believed them, but there it was – sadness! This has been the most amazing adventure – not just the last 15 days, but the last 2 years. Iditarod and Nome have never been far out of my mind. I’ve been striving and reaching for this very moment. I’ve learned so much, about mushing, dogs, and most importantly, about me! I reflected upon all of this and once again, found myself wiping tears away. Of course this isn’t the end of the learning, or the mushing, or the last time on the Iditarod trail for me – I know that – but it is the end of a chapter. As all this was racing around in my mind, one of the dogs got his leg over a line and started to fuss. I was snapped back to the present and set my snow hook to go up and fix the problem.

As I was walking up the team, with Nome laid out in the early morning light on the horizon, I knew this was the moment to thank my dogs. Most mushers do this in Nome under the arch, but I wanted this to be between them and I alone. I untangled Nik and then walked back to the wheel dogs to work my way up hugging and thanking each one. Sissy, my little man - Striker, handsome Mannie, amazing Kaylinn, Surge the ‘puppy’, Nik, Butchie-boy, arrogant Chester, Camilla, big Jake, Smiley, the brothers Orion and Draco. I just clung to Grover and Gus, my main leaders for a bit. What amazing animals they all are.

That done, I pulled the snowhook and we headed into town. About 3 miles out we started seeing signs of civilization. A TV crew filmed us as we crossed a few of the roads. “How do you feel?” called out the reporter. “Never been better”, I smiled. The dogs were definitely perking up, they knew something was up. They took a wrong turn onto one of the roads, I stomped on my brake and they proceeded to drag me down the road a bit before I got them stopped and back onto the right trail.  Spunky, little turkeys! By the time we got to the outskirts of town, there were a bunch of vehicles pacing along side us on the road. As we came up off the coast and into the city limits where our police escort waited, I pleaded with Grover to behave going down Front Street. No visiting bars – I begged. The crowds lining the street overwhelmed me. How wonderful of everyone to make us feel so special! About 1 block before the Arch Race Director, Joanne Potts jumped out of the crowd and handed me the Red Lantern. I held it up high as we approached the finish line. The dogs were hesitant coming up onto the snow and into the crowd, but once they heard and saw Mark, tails started to wag! The next bit is pretty much a blur. Lots of hugs, smiles, a few tears, and some special words from special people that I will always cherish. Mark Nordman tried to phone Jamie Nelson for me on his cell phone, but couldn’t get a connection. Kids begged my Mark for the few booties the dogs were wearing, which he happily gave to them. I blew out the Widow’s Lamp, which had burned on the burled arch since the race started in Anchorage, 15 days ago and the 2001 Iditarod was officially over!

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