Thursday, 27 March 2003

2003 Iditarod Recap

Well, this morning is the first morning I've 'bounced' out of bed at my normal time (5am), so I thought I'd celebrate by starting my Iditarod journals! This morning - The Ceremonial Start.

Ceremonial Start
Finally, after all pre-race headaches with lack of snow, rain and warm weather we were ready to get this show on the road! As the previous years, we were one of the first trucks on 4th Avenue and were able to sneak down the road for a nice breakfast. By the time we got back to the truck, folks were mulling around waiting for us. We got half the dogs out and the smooshing began. 

One of the first people by the truck was one of my real heroes, Libby Riddles, the first woman to win Iditarod. Since I first ran in 2000, Libby has been very warm and friendly to me and my admiration for her has only increased. I got to play 'fan' and asked her to sign a copy of her book 'Race Across Alaska' for me. For those of you that don't know, it was that book that got me hooked on the idea of running the Iditarod. 

My precious Idita-rider, Megan showed up and got to meet the dogs. It was very obvious that she was used to large, boisterous dogs, as she showed no hesitation around any of ours. The dogs loved her and there was a lot of really cute photos taken of her and the team. 
With the exception of walking down the Avenue to wish fellow Siberian driver, Blake Matray a safe and fun journey to Nome, I stayed close to the truck and that was easy to do as there where so many folks to visit with. 

Jamie Nelson, gave me a few minutes of panic as we were getting close to my start time and she hadn't yet appeared to take her allotted place on my second sled. I really should know Jamie better by now - of course, she arrived in time.

Junior Iditarod finisher, Lynzie Bacchus got the honor of taking my leaders into the chute. Mark rode on the sled with me. I still find it such a rush to work our way by dog team up 4th Ave. I told Mark that the day this got 'old' we could stop doing Iditarod. He's not counting on that anytime in the near future!
They counted us down in the chute "3...2...1...Go" - and Smiley peed on the snow bank. *sigh* 
Thankfully, Smiley quickly came to his senses and we headed off down the street. For the first few miles things went okay, but after that the run was pretty dismal. I guess like anyone, even dogs are entitled to bad days - interesting how 7 of mine decided to have a bad day all on the same day. Freya was the only one that truly worked on the 12 mile run. 

Over halfway out I decided maybe taking Smiley out of lead would help, he just hasn't been having a good season, and I shouldn't have asked him to take on such a big job. Chester stepped up with Gus and that helped a little, but this still wasn't the team I had been driving all winter. 
Oh well, times don't count on the Ceremonial Run and I just wasn't going to let it get me down. We packed up the dogs and headed back to Wasilla. 

The Restart

This year’s restart was, as most everyone knows, different because it was a) in Fairbanks and b) a day later. 

That meant we were able to get a reasonable night’s sleep, get up, feed dogs, pack the truck, load dogs and then make the 6 hour drive up the Park’s Highway. A pretty relaxing day actually – or so it was to be. 

The night before I had read Joe Runyan’s Cabela's site and he was talking about how all serious mushers would have made the drive up on Saturday night because of the chance of weather moving in. I couldn’t see how driving up, while tired, in the dark and making your dogs spend another day in the dog truck was to anyone’s teams best advantage. 

The next morning, it was lightly raining as we loaded the truck and dogs – that’s sure a pain, but by now we were getting used to it! By the time we hit Talkeetna, the rain was heavy and thick. In no time I was beginning to see some wisdom in Joe’s words – now we were in an honest to gosh snowstorm - so much for catching a glimpse of Denali on the way up the Highway. 

The storm continued on until the halfway point on the highway, and then like someone flipped a switch, it was over. Phew! The rest of the drive was pleasant and uneventful. Some folks had signs out on the Highway wishing Iditarod mushers ‘Good Luck’. How thoughtful!

We quickly got settled into our hotel. The Seavey’s, Ted English, Todd Capistrant, Vern Halter, and a number of other sprint mushers were all staying at the Comfort Inn too. A few friends from California were there too and were gracious enough to help with dropping and feeding the dogs – always a treat to have help at the truck! Mark and I ordered pizza and I fussed at a bit of packing. 

The next morning we were up fairly early. I jumped in the shower and enjoyed a nice, long, hot shower – I knew it would be awhile before I’d see another one! We found a Denny’s for breakfast and I had my, now, customary pre-race steak and egg breakfast! Yum!! 

The set up for the re-start was pretty nicely set up, especially when compared to the small, crowded parking lots that we had previously used in Wasilla and Willow. 

I packed and re-packed the sled. How is it that on my 3rd Iditarod I still have the "rookie sled bulge" happening??? I tossed a few things out of the sled, squished a few more items, and jumped up and down on the load a few times trying to make a lot of gear look like a little gear. 

In no time, it seemed, it was time to hook up dogs. I went over and hugged Pirate, Mannie, Freya, and especially Smiley before Mark loaded them back into the truck. This group of 20 dogs and I have logged over 2200 miles in harness this season – we are a team – if you think leaving 4 of those team members behind isn’t hard, think again! 

But then it was time to focus on the 16 that would be my constant companions for the next few weeks. I shuffled dogs around in the line, settling on a final team makeup of:
In lead – Gus and Draco
Swing – Grover and Camilla
Team 1 – Chester and Orion
Team 2 – Odie and Loki
Team 3 – Surge and Nik
Team 4 – Denali and Squeaky
Team 5 – Kara and Nahanni
Wheel – Kaylinn and Olena
Olena was tucked into wheel because she was in standing heat and I didn’t want her distracting the boys. I placed the rest of the girls around her to act as a ‘buffer zone’. 

Grover never goes in lead for stuff like this. Honestly, crowds aren’t his favorite things (although he will lead through them if asked) and I’d rather keep him fresh for situations when I really, really need him. His brother, Gus, always seems to be the leader I choose for this sort of thing. He is solid, dependable, and always has the greatest smile on his face when he roars out of starting chutes. 
This was Draco’s first time leading in a huge crowd, but he has well earned the spot this season, especially after coming back from his December injury. I never regretted my decision to give him this responsibility at the start – he did a super job! 

The team had been ‘soft’ on their starts this season, so I really wasn’t expecting the amount of power that came down the gangline as the sled was released. The smile on my face was a fake one until I managed to get my foot on the brake and some semblance of control over my 16 powerful teammates. 
The crowds continued on and on down the river. Even Susan Butcher and her two children were out wishing teams well on their way to Nome. I wonder if her soul aches for the trail as the teams pass by – that is, before her head takes over and reels it in?

The afternoon was lovely. I visited with a few of the mushers as they passed by. Rick Swenson had some encouraging words to say about the team – that was really nice. I was getting just a little discouraged by being passed by so many teams, but chided myself to not get caught up in the day and be tempted to do something foolish with my team. When we caught up with and passed GB Jones, that buoyed my spirits some. Soon after I passed a few teams, including Charlie Boulding, camped on the river. I figured we must be getting close to Nenana – and we were. Just before getting there we caught sight of Blake Matray just ahead of us. The dogs and I were all jazzed about catching up with another team and steamed up into the first checkpoint.

Nenana to Manley

Mark was waiting at the top of the riverbank to guide the team into a parking spot. The dogs didn’t want to stop for me to check in and it took some doing to hold them while I did so. I was so pleased with their energy level. I patted myself on the back for sticking to my race plan and taking it easy on this leg. Little did I know that in no time I’d be kicking myself in the butt for sticking to that very plan.
We got the dogs parked and some snacks into them. Mark had a great sandwich waiting for me that I munched on while stuffing more junk into my sled for our planned trail break ahead.  I ran in to use the washroom. Musher Rule #4 (Numbers 1 – 3 are “Never let go of the sled”) – Never pass up a flushing toilet. I replaced some booties on a few dogs, put some on a few others and took some off yet a few more and then we were ready to go. 

It was a pretty straight shot out of the checkpoint, so Mark and I figured we could get the team without having to bother the checkers. He snapped a neckline and leash on Draco and Gus and began to lead them to the out trail. I was standing on the brake for everything I was worth and it wasn’t making much of an impression on this pumped up team. I couldn’t even stop them so Mark could get the leash and neckline off, he had to run along side them and work at it. He managed to get the leaders free and get his hand up for our ‘traditional high five’ as we roared out of the checkpoint. We were both grinning about how great the dogs looked. Worries created at the Ceremonial Start were firmly SQUASHED!

We sailed around a corner and back onto the river. I was riding my drag brake with both feet and verbally urging the team to ‘settle down’. Thankfully, after realizing I wasn’t going to let them sprint, they settled into a beautiful pace. 

The trail was littered with camping mushers. The first I passed is one of my favorites, Aliy Zirkle, we exchanged a cheerful greeting as my team rolled by. Some of the other mushers I recognized, some I didn’t. Some were rolled up in sleeping bags, some still tending to chores. Mike Williams was sitting on a cooler, sipping something from a steaming mug. “What a beautiful trail”, he called out. It was – a beautiful day and a beautiful trail.

The next musher I passed caused me a small amount of concern - it was Jeff King. I don’t think I’ve ever been in the same checkpoint as Jeff, forget passed him, even if he was resting on the trail. I tried to mull over in my mind what his race strategy would be for so early a break.
A little while later I spied Martin Buser’s team pulled off along the bank of a little creek. Okay, now I was getting really worried. 

I briefly stopped to confirm the length of the trail with Jason Barron. He thought the distance was actually a little less then I thought, which settled my flip flopping stomach somewhat. My race plan was to go 2 – 3 hours down the trail and then take a 4-hour break. After 2 hours on the trail I came across Sonny Linder and Rick Swenson camped. I asked Rick how far out we were. “Halfway between Fairbanks and Manley, Karen”, he said. He also commented that there were no good camping spots past the big hill that loomed ahead of me, so I decided to pull over. 

The spot I picked on the side of the trail turned out to be not as great as it originally looked, the dogs and I punched through the snow with every step, but I managed to get them in, fed and bedded down – all while not looking like too much of an incompetent fool in front of Swenson (who was probably busy with his own team and not paying any attention to my crashing around anyway). I wiggled into my sled bag and tried to close my eyes, but all the teams I had previously passed were now on the move and there was a constant stream of mushers passing by, most glancing over at the team as they passed sending a headlight beam glaring into my face. I pulled my parka over my head, but curiosity kept getting the best of me and I kept peaking out to watch the teams pass by – not very restful, but it was fun watching the top teams!

After about 3 hours I heard Rick making preparations to go. It took him around ½ hour to get ready and his team moved strongly onto the trail. 

About that time I decided it was time to start making my preparations. I repacked the sled, snacked the dogs, and put on a few booties. I was worried the dogs wouldn’t like crashing through the unbroken snow to get back to the trail, so I walked it to give them a path to follow. When asked they very willingly pushed through the snow and back onto the trail. 

The night was lovely for travel and so was the trail. It was fairly straight, but with a number of rolling hills to keep it interesting. A few other mushers, like Cali King were camped along the side and a few others like Ted English and Palmer Shagoonik caught up with and passed me during the night. After awhile we came to a really large swamp. A lot of mushers were camped in this area. Things were going very well and I stopped to snack and ‘pet up’ the dogs. 

Eventually we dropped onto the river. The trail wasn’t as good here, in some spots the snow was blown away and it was hard and fast and in others it was drifted in and heavy going. I worried about the dogs injuring their wrists and shoulders on this unpredictable trail. 

The night was now dragging on. I began to think that the checkpoint should be coming up soon. At one point I could hear dogs barking on the far riverbank. That was Charlie Boulding’s dog yard and I tried to remember how far from Manley that was supposed to be, but that tidbit just wouldn’t come to mind.
We had been on the trail for close to 7 hours now and I began to worry that maybe the dogs should be getting another break, they were really slowing down, obviously thinking the same thing I was, but I didn’t have enough food for another major break, so I pushed them on, hoping Manley would magically appear. At around daybreak, we passed a sign that indicated Manley was 7 miles away – so much for right around the corner. 

Just before we came up off the river, Charlie Boulding and Jim Lanier passed. Finally, Manley came into view. The dogs had been on the trail for 9 hours, certainly within their ability, but not the wisest thing to ask them this early in the Race. I mentally kicked myself in the butt for not breaking up the run better or planning for 2 trail breaks. 

The dogs came into the checkpoint strong, but I knew they were owed and deserved a good break here.

Manley to Tanana

We settled into a nice resting spot in the checkpoint – right near the hot water that they had available to all the mushers. I snacked everyone and was able to offer a warm meal pretty quickly thanks to that hot water. Thankfully, the dogs ate pretty well when I offered them their meal. That’s a good sign that I haven’t pushed them too hard. I breathed a sigh of relief over that. The vet came over and did their check, there was a number of wrist injuries, but nothing too critical. I massaged down the sore wrists with a rosemary based massage oil, Algayvl, and then wrapped them in neoprene wraps to ‘sweat’ them out.

That done I got some of the hot water into a rolling boil in my cooker to thaw some juice packs and cook a meal. While I was waiting I sorted through my bags and managed to accomplish one of the stupidest things I’ve ever done on Iditarod. My Mom had made up ‘Clean Up Kits’ for me for the trail, consisting of a facecloth, soap, toothbrush, toothpaste, moisturizing cream, etc. I noticed when I was doing drop bags that she had thrown the odd treat in their for me, like candy Popeye cigarettes (one of my favorites!). As I came across my Manley Clean Up Kit I noticed she had thrown a piece of chocolate in a Ziploc in there. Moms always pack the best treats, cause they know what their kids like, so I was eagerly anticipating this chocolate as I bit into it…remember me mentioning the SOAP she packed in these kits??? That’s right – what I had bit into wasn’t a crumbled piece of chocolate, but rather a crumbled half of a fancy bar of soap.

ACK…GAG…SPUTTER…HACK. Gosh it tasted awful. I spit and rinsed for about 15 minutes before the taste started to go away, but it would be hours and a lot of food later before I really chased the taste away. The positive side?? Well, I figured I could swear all I wanted for the rest of the Race – after all my mouth was already washed out with soap. 

The checkpoint building was a long walk from the team, but after making sure the dogs were soundly sleeping I hiked down to see about grabbing a nap. Cindy Gallea, Karen Land and Mike Williams were all soundly sleeping in there. I tried, but just couldn’t fall asleep. I enviously listened to Mike snoring, wishing I could fall asleep. After a bit, I gave up and hiked back to the teams. 

Word was circling around that the next section of trail could be a tough one. Ramy Brooks had told someone, who told someone, who told me (gosh, and you wonder how rumors get started on the Race) that Fish Lake, which was halfway between Manley and Tanana, was known to sometimes be glare ice with high winds. He, apparently, said that he had been stranded on the edge of the lake before, unable to get his team across until the winds died down and recommended that we pack an extra meal for the dogs in case we got stuck out there. There were also rumors about how long the trail was – some said in the 50 mile range, some said as high as 65. I fretted and worried about whether or not to break up the run with some trail rest. Oh well, at least that gave me something to do since I couldn’t sleep. 
Finally, my 8-hour rest was up and I made plans to leave. Karen Land intended to leave at the same time and I was looking forward to having her company out there. 

The dogs all woke up well and munched down their snacks. They even drove pretty nicely off their bed of straw, but once we hit the trail they would go 10 feet, stop to pee/poop/sniff…go 10 feet…stop… They were driving me nuts! Then all of a sudden they found some motivation as we plunged over a bank and onto a creek. Half of the bank was missing and the sled crashed into the void. The dogs dragged me down the trail for a bit until deciding they had pushed their luck enough. Strange how a bunch of dogs that 30 seconds prior couldn’t move 10 continuous feet, now found the enthusiasm to drag me down the trail. 

Once I was back on the runners the dogs settled back into their shuffle. * sigh * After about an hour, Palmer caught up with me and passed. I wondered where Karen Land was – turns out she stayed longer in Manley and I never did see her on the trail again. The dogs picked up for a bit and then slowed back into the ‘Siberian shuffle’. My patience was at its end. I stomped my foot down on the drag brake and said ‘Everybody HIKE’. This is a fundamental part of their training program and I hoped to get their minds back to the job at hand by reminding them of the basics.

Grover cast a quick glance over his shoulder and then dropped into his harness and began to PULL. The speed and drive of the team picked up remarkably. As each mile rolled by, they seemed to get stronger and stronger. Within no time, the ‘Siberian Shuffle’ was history and they were moving down the trail like the team I had been so proud of all training season. We passed by some old houses and shacks – Tofte, I’m told it’s called, but I don’t know if anyone lives there even in the summer now. The trail was beautiful and interesting. The dogs and I were having a blast. 

The old road through Tofte ended and we came out into an area of winding trail through some stunted spruce forest. We were really flying now. All of a sudden the dogs were on ice, Grover swung wide to avoid a patch of open water and the ice gave way beneath him. He and Orion quickly clambered out of the water, but all of the dogs got wet as we went through that section. Once we were on solid snow again, I stopped to let them shake and removed soaked booties before they froze. I decided not to put any new ones on, as I thought there might be more open water and I figured that they would do better on the glare ice of Fish Lake, which shouldn’t be too far ahead, barefoot.

As I walked through the team and gave them all a pat, they all looked at me with smiles on their faces and gleams in their eyes. “’Bout time you found us something challenging”, they seemed to be saying! They started to bang on the lines and bark to get going, so I quickly stepped on the runners and called them up.

The rest of the run was one that will be burned in my mind for all time. The dogs performed beautifully all the way into Tanana. The trail was interesting and fun – some more open water, quick challenging portages, narrow trails, wide featureless lake crossings - even the ‘dreaded’ Fish Lake was nothing to worry about. A while after crossing the lake the trail got onto Fish Creek – as we traveled along this stretch the northern lights put on a SPECTACULAR display right in front of us. It was as close to perfection as a run can get – only two things marred it. Earlier in the evening, Kaylinn hurt her shoulder and had to get loaded in the sled bag. She was a gracious and problem free passenger though.
The other incident was a little more painful. I kind of, dozed off for a brief second and was quickly and painfully snapped back into the moment when a tree hanging over the riverbank caught me on my forehead. Oh gosh that hurt. I was lucky though – if the branch had been lower, or I had been taller – I probably would have broken my nose. It also caught me just above my headlamp, so the lamp didn’t get broken and driven into my skull. I kept reminding myself how ‘lucky’ I was as I rifled through my sled bag for aspirins. 

With smiles on all our faces, and under a canopy of northern lights, we rolled into Tanana – at that moment there was no one in the world I would have traded places with and no where in the world I would have rather been. Amazing.

Tanana to Ruby

I knew coming into Tanana that Kaylinn was going to have to be dropped and told the checkers and vets so, but instructed them that I would keep her with the team so she could eat and rest with us until I was ready to go. No point in her spending any more time away from folks she knows then necessary.

The dogs ate well and settled quickly down to rest. We had solved most of the wrist injuries, but now had some foot problems. With the trail having so much glare ice and overflow, it had not been possible to keep my problem dogs bootied all the time, so this wasn’t a surprise to me. I got ointment onto the ones that needed it while they snoozed. 

The folks in Tanana were wonderfully friendly. A few came over and introduced themselves, shaking our hands and welcoming us to their village. I thought that was very special. The checkpoint building was toasty warm, with lots of spots for drying clothes, yummy food, and a blocked off area for mushers to sleep. I got my sleeping bag and for the first time in the Race, closed my eyes for some real rest – okay well, 2 – 2 ½ hours may not seem like real sleep to some of you – but it was decadent for me. 

As daylight washed out the northern lights, I went out and offered the team another meal. This second meal usually doesn’t go over as well with my dogs as their first one, but if even one dog eats, it was worth the time and energy it took to prepare it.

After that I fussed around repacking the sled and sorting out gear from my drop bags for the long trail ahead. Rumors had the length of the next leg at somewhere between 120 – 135 miles – whatever it was, it was the longest leg ever on an Iditarod.

Sled packed, it was now time to say goodbye to Kaylinn. I gave her hugs and wished her a good flight home. I promised her that Mark would spoil her once she got back to Anchorage and called the vet over to take her to the dropped dog line. * sniff *

As we had been parked wedged in behind another team that was taking a longer break, it took a bunch of checkers, vets, and other volunteers to extract my team from their bed and get us onto the trail. Grover and Orion in lead, we headed out to face the first of the 600 + miles of the Yukon River that lay ahead.

It was the worst time of the day to be traveling and the wide-open river offered no escape from the beating rays of sunshine. I hadn’t wanted to wait another 4 hours to leave Tanana, so I was just going to have to be happy with the pace the team set through the heat of the day. It wasn’t the fastest pace, but it was steady and we clicked off mile after mile of river.

About 40 miles out there was, apparently, a cabin that many teams were going to stop at, but I wanted to get the dogs 60 – 65 miles out to nicely break up this long leg. Sure enough, about 6 teams, including Jim Gallea, Tyrell Seavey, Melanie Gould, and Mike Williams were camped there basking in the sun when I passed by. It looked like a really inviting place to stop, but I forced myself to keep going.

When I was 5 or so miles past the cabin, Mike Williams caught up with me – he had been making preparations to leave when I had passed him. He mentioned he was going to stop somewhere ahead to put booties on his dogs – nice of him to let me know. My team picked up being with another team and followed him for a bit. At one spot the marked trail took a sharp turn and crossed open running water. Mike’s team hadn’t made that turn and I stopped to debate what I wanted to do. Grover looked over his shoulder at me and then slammed into his harness to get going. I made a half hearted ‘Gee’ command to see if he wanted to follow the marked trail. His “Are you INSANE??” comment was clear and I took my foot off the brake and called him up to allow him to follow Mike. Sure enough, the trail Mike had followed neatly skirted the open water. I heard many mushers tell stories later in the Race about that water crossing and was grateful that Mike and Grover led me around it. 
Several hours later, I passed Palmer camped along the trail. I stopped and chatted for a moment before continuing on to find my own camping spot. Just ahead Clint Warnke was stopped and I directed the team into an abandon bed of straw just up from him.

I got the dogs settled in and snacked. While water was heating in my cooker, I walked back to talk to Clint and to see if he had any extra Algavyl. He did and was happy to give it to me, as he remembered that he had borrowed some from me in ’01! J I asked him how far out he thought we were and he said a snow machiner had told him we were 56 miles out. DRAT, that wasn’t as far as I wanted, but we were just going to have to make the best of it now.

I went back to the dogs and fed them, wrapped wrists, put foot ointment on, gave massages and covered them with their big ‘checkpoint’ blankets – well except for Orion and Grover, who get offended if I even head towards them with a blanket in my hand. The rest of the dogs love these big, windproof blankets that Louise at made up for me. They can shut out the world and stay warm during their naps. One of the best things I pack in my sled!

By now Clint had pulled out and darkness had set in. I decided it would be a good time to get some sleep, so I crawled into my sled bag, I think I slept for about 15 minutes and then was wide awake. This has always been an issue for me – I get camped on the trail and if I can’t sleep, I fuss and fidget until I can’t stand it anymore and then end up cutting the dogs rest short and hitting the trail. Plus the dogs don’t rest well if I’m up and down and unsettled. So this year I am trying a new trick to deal with this – I brought a book with me on the trail. I can’t remember the name of it (and I left it in the airport in Unalakleet after I finished it) but it was by one of my favorite authors, Jonathon Kellerman. I flicked on my headlamp and lay in my sled reading. Eventually, I did nap for a bit longer, but by then the temperature on the river had really dropped so I got up and put on some warmer clothes and started preparations to leave. 

The dogs moved pretty steadily for the first few hours and beneath layers and layers of warm clothes I was able to enjoy the crisp night. Twice during the night I had the sensation of some thing (or someone???) brushing against the back of my legs. It was a real enough feeling that I jumped around to see if another musher’s leaders were right behind me. There was nothing but darkness back there. Maybe it was a weird hallucination…or maybe it was a visit from Edgar Kalland, who carried the serum over this trail in 1925. It was fun to speculate and I spent some time thinking about the mushers that made that lifesaving run (as every Iditarod musher should). 

The night really started to drag on. I passed a few mushers camped along the trail and wondered if I had made a similar mistake as on the leg into Manley and really should of broken this trip into three segments instead of two. In hindsight, I believe that is what I should have done.

Dawn finally started to break and the dogs picked up chasing wildlife that only they saw along the riverbanks. Gerry Sousa caught up and, after a few attempts (his dogs were acting up), passed. I said ‘Good Morning’ or something to Gerry and he basically growled back at me. Guess his run wasn’t going very well! (My respect for Gerry was really raised when he came over to find me in Ruby and apologized for his behavior. That was a very nice thing to do! Lots of mushers get tired and grumpy on the trail, but I’ve never had anyone take the time and trouble to make amends for it.)
I began to wonder where the heck Ruby was….it must be around the next bend….nope….then it must be the next one…..

Finally we hit a spot where the trail crossed over a wide-open spance of the Yukon, instead of hugging the riverbank. The wind picked up to the point that I just focused on the next trail marker, rather then worrying about Ruby. Eventually, above the ground storm I saw the welcome, distinctive cliffs that border the village. A camera crew was waiting to take some footage and told me it wasn’t far. Three or four miles later the team, excited about hitting another checkpoint, pulled strongly up the steep hill into Ruby.

We were done with the ‘unknown’ and back onto familiar ground!

Ruby to Galena

I love Ruby. Nestled into a hillside, framed by wonderful rock cliffs, it really is everything an interior Alaskan village should be. The village always seems to be alive with the laughter of children sliding up and down the steep roads that go through town. The villagers are open and friendly.
The checkers steered me into a great parking spot near the church. From the vantage of my sled, I realized that this was the exact spot where I photographed Dee Dee Jonrowe’s team when I was ‘Chasing the Race’ in ’98. I got that tingling feeling I get in my stomach when it occurs to me that I’M RUNNING THE IDITAROD. So cool!

I was, however, a little disappointed with myself. Twice now, I had stuck firmly to my Race Plan and ended up pushing the team farther then I should have this early on. We were all mentally down and the dogs had a fair number of small aches and pains. As I snacked them I debated how I was best going to pull everyone back together. Some mushers were 24’ing in Ruby, but that didn’t feel right for my group. I felt that making a disciplined, steady run – even if it was slow, into Galena and then taking our long break there would be better for them both mentally and physically.

I noticed that Nik was quite sore on his front, so I wrapped him up in wrist sweats and a shoulder jacket hoping that I could make him feel well enough to get to Galena. That was not to be though – after a few hours rest, I got him up to walk around and his front had stiffened up. I scratched his ears and told him he was going home, put him back in the line for now, and informed the vets that I’d be leaving a dog behind.

After getting some food into the team and myself I phoned Mark from the checkpoint and whined about the aches and pains of the team and the fact that I had put two too long runs on them already. He reminded me that I was back on familiar ground now, so I wouldn’t be making any more mistakes like that. I bounced my plan for the rest of the river off him and he agreed that that sounded like the thing to do.

When I headed back outside the vets were looking for me. Head Vet, Stu Nelson was flying out and was taking the few dropped dogs with him – it was time to say good-bye to Nik. I got him up, gave him a quick rub down and hug and handed him over. His over enthusiastic reaction to food always drives me nuts at home and in training, but I knew I would miss it now. At least I know stood a better chance of getting off the trail with all my fingers intact.

I was parked next to Dean Osmar and Jessica Hendricks, both who were 24’ing. Jessica is an amazing teenager who seemed very organized and collected for a rookie. A young lady to expect big things from was my impression of her. Dean Osmar is a former Iditarod champion, he was telling me how sick he was and I truly felt sorry for him. How awful it must be to be that sick on the trail. Little did I know………

Early in the day I had been delighted to find out that Ruby had added a ‘Washateria’ since my last visit. These buildings are unique to Alaska – containing washing machines, dryers, toilets, and showers. In many communities, like Ruby, it is the only running water in town. The walk down (and eventually back up) the steep hill was well worth the chance to use a flushing toilet and to wash my face and hands. The downside was I got a look at myself in the mirror – oh scary. I now understood why Bill Gallea had wanted to take a ‘bad hair day’ picture – as he called it, for their Ultimate Iditarod site! Check it out at

Anyway, before I started preparations to leave, I thought I’d hike back down for one more trip to the bathroom – I was CRUSHED to find out that they locked the building up at 5pm. WAAAAAAAHHHH!! Knowing the condition of the outhouses in town, I decided to hold off until I got out on the trail!

I carefully repacked my sled and organized my gear that had been drying near the heater in the checkpoint building, I even took time to put fresh batteries in my MP3 player (a Christmas gift from Mark), so I could listen to some music on my way to Galena.

Just as darkness was closing in, I pulled the hook and headed down the hill and back onto the Yukon. The dogs left the actual village well, but balked a little once we got out onto the river. I had expected that and put my foot on the brake to focus them all again. It didn’t work as well as it did outside of Manley, but they did settle into a steady pace. I glanced over my shoulder and watched the sparkling lights of Ruby for a while. They stood out intensely in the darkness and were quite beautiful. I switched on my MP3 player and slipped down the trail into a magical night, surrounded by the tunes of Toby Keith, the Dixie Chicks, Elton John, Jennifer Lopez, and Hobo Jim (hey, not much of my lifestyle is ‘normal’ – why should my musical tastes be any different??)

About two hours further down the trail the mood was broken by dying batteries. I realized I had failed to take a backup set. I took the batteries out of the player and put them in my over glove with a hand warmer to see if I couldn’t rejuvenate them somewhat. I said a little prayer that they wouldn’t get too hot and explode – I’d have a hard time explaining that one. It worked and I got another hour or so of music.

The dogs slumped for a while and I messed around switching leaders a few times to try and pick things up. Draco and Camilla ended up being the combination that ‘clicked’ that night. They certainly weren’t smoking down the trail, but they were moving and that was all I had expected for this leg.
Lights on the far side of the river distracted me. They looked like cabin lights, but it was the middle of the night and I couldn’t imagine why anyone would have lights on at this time. They would have to have a generator going to have power and who wants to sleep with the noise from one of those disturbing you. It gave me a bit of the creeps, although I really don’t know why. Maybe because I expected to be all alone out there – maybe because I didn’t get any sleep in Ruby – who knows??
The trail eventually began drifting north across the river and onto a bend, as I knew it needed to. The river was a little narrower through here and loaded with moose tracks. The dogs got more jazzed, as they kept catching sight, scent, and/or sound of critters. I, of course, saw, smelt or heard nothing – one of the many downsides of being a mere human.

The town of Galena is visible for well over ½ hour before you actually get to it – that is soooo frustrating! Finally, at close to 4am the trail headed up an incredibly steep bank and into town. The dogs stalled on the hill and the Checker came partway down to grab the gangline and give them a hand. I, politely called him off and said the dogs could do it. A firm ‘Everybody HIKE’ brought the desired response and got us to the top. I told the checker that if we had to leave down that same hill, I was scratching NOW! He laughed, said I was not the first one to express that sentiment, and assured me that this was not the ‘Out’ trail.

I declared my 24-hour layover.


I was exhausted upon arriving in Galena, I just couldn’t wait to get inside and into my sleeping bag, but there was much to be done before that could happen. 

I spread large amounts of straw for the dogs and quickly offered them a bunch of snacks, which they snarfed up with enthusiasm. Then their harnesses came off – that is a sign for them that they can settle in for a good long break. The veterans knew this routine – the rookies looked at me wondering what I was up to this time! I then got their meal soaking and slipped into the checkpoint building to see if I couldn’t find something to eat for myself while I waited. I scored big on that count, finding all kinds of fabulous dishes donated by the fine folks from Galena. The checkpoint was literally buzzing with activity; many mushers were taking their layovers here. I sat and visited at one of the tables until I realized I was dozing off as I was chatting. I knew I needed to finish up my dog chores and get to bed. 
After the dogs got fed, I spent time applying foot ointments, Gold Bond powder to Nahanni’s harness rub, rubbed Algavyl into wrists and feet, wrapped the odd wrist, and scratched a lot of ears and Grover’s belly. When everyone was settled in and napping, I grabbed my sleeping bag and headed inside to do the same.

I had so been looking forward to the beds I knew were available here, but with all the mushers 24’ing, there were none left. Hmmm, I guess traveling further up in the pack isn’t always such a great thing. With the checkers promising to wake me as soon as a bed became available, I threw my sleeping bag into a corner of the busy room and within seconds of crawling in, was fast asleep. 

I have no clue how long I slept, but as promised, the checkers woke me and steered me towards a real bed when the next musher left. I quickly got my sleeping bag laid out and was back asleep.
To be perfectly honest, I’m not exactly sure of the true sequence of events in Galena. I know I sat and talked with Jason Barron for awhile, chatted with the vets, I know Paul Gebhardt gave me some great ointment for my cheeks, which had some windburn on them, I visited a bit with Lynda Plettner, Mike Williams, and other mushers I’m sure I don’t remember talking too! I was very tired. Between the visiting and sleeping, I snuck out to check on the dogs a few times. They were curled up in the straw, sleeping soundly and I could see no good reason to wake them up.

The rooms we were using had 4 beds in them with a divider down the middle. Dean Osmar was in the bed next to me. He was still really sick and I was sympathetic, but he fussed and fidgeted constantly. Up, down, light on, light off…..ARGGHH!! Many hundred miles later I was much more sympathetic and understanding of his situation.

The day was wonderful. The checkers had my team in a terrific spot – sheltered and relatively secluded from the bustle of the checkpoint. As the afternoon wore on, the sun came over the building and the dogs were able to bask in the warm rays. I caught Grover and Squeaky sleeping on their backs to enable them to better soak up every last bit of the sunshine.

It was funny to watch the difference between the veterans and rookies in my team at this point in the Race. After 10 hours or so of rest, the 7 veterans were sitting up and watching me, wondering when we were going to get going – the rookies were still a little ‘shell shocked’ and zonked out.

As I was puttering around an older native gentleman came over and told me I had a very special dog in my team. I smiled and asked which one he was speaking of – of course, I think they are all special. He pointed out Grover, who was sitting up watching us. I smiled a bigger smile and told him I thought he had great taste – that Grover was my favorite and I thought, the best dog in my kennel. “I’ve been watching him all day”, he said, “and that is an exceptional dog.” I thanked him for the kind words and went back to my chores with a bigger grin on my face.

A little while later I decided to take each of the dogs for a short walk. This allows them to stretch their legs a little, gives me a chance to take a look for any soreness or stiffness that may have set in while they rested, gives the boys a chance to pee on snow banks (which they love), and is just a general positive thing for them all.

While I was doing that two ladies with children came by and were watching the team. Chester was sitting up and fixated on the little kids. He just loves visiting with kids and I know he was trying to figure out why these kids weren’t coming over to say ‘HI’. I told the Moms that they were welcome to pet the dogs. I don’t know who was happier, the Moms, the kids, or Chester!

One of the women then told me that they had been talking to Sydney Huntington earlier and he had told them that he had been watching the teams come through the checkpoint and he had picked out 5 exceptional dogs out of the whole lot. He had indicated to them that one of those dogs was on my team and asked if I knew which dog he was referring to. I said he had been by and complemented me on Grover, but I had not known that he was Sydney Huntington. Sydney is father of 1974 Iditarod Champion, Carl Huntington, author of one of my very favorite books, Shadows On the Koyukuk, and an accomplished and respected dog man. I was so very honored. I desperately wished I had had my copy of his book to get autographed, but I know his words will stay with me for always. 

After getting the dogs fed and settle back down, I went back to the checkpoint. Palmer Shagnoonik asked if I liked lobster. I emphatically replied ‘YES’ and he split his lobster dinner with me. YUM! Now in a REALLY great mood, I phoned Mark. We had a great talk and I shared a bunch of stories and information with him. Afterwards there was more visiting, eating, another stop outside to check on the dogs, and then it was off to bed again. Did I mention a shower?? Somewhere in the day I also had a shower - ahhh. The soap Mom sent worked much better in the shower then as a snack! Where was Bill Gallea to take a picture of me now?

Finally, my break was winding down. I got up, packed up my gear, abandoned my bed and headed out to offer the dogs another meal. They all seemed totally revitalized and ate with gusto. 

Several hours later we signed out and headed back onto the river. My dogs never seem to charge out of checkpoints when we are well into a race, even after major rests, but this time when I whistled them up, I they took off with enough energy that I had to do some fancy sled driving to manage the 90 degree corner out of town without landing on my face! I couldn’t have been in better spirits!

Galena to Nulato

There just isn't a lot to say about this leg of the journey. Perfection just speaks for itself sometimes! The trip to Nulato was one of the nicest legs I've ever had on the Iditarod trail. The dogs were well rested, happy and wanting to rock! Their little aches and pains - and mine - were a thing of the past. I was actually riding my drag track with both feet on occasion as we traveled through the cold, early morning. 

I was looking for Bishop's Rock - which is close to the halfway point between the two villages. Many teams camp there - and that was actually my original plan, until I messed up the run to Manley and the run to Ruby and had to regroup. 

I had talked to Bob Chlupach prior to the Race and he had told me that the name of the rock came from Hudson Stuck's time. Stuck was Archdeacon of the Yukon in the early 1900's and his wonderful book, Ten Thousand Miles with a Dog Sled I had just started reading in the weeks prior to Iditarod. When I saw the Rock, it was another chance to appreciate the trail that has remained unchanged for more then 90 years and to marvel at the people that traveled it in those times. 

I was rather amazed at myself when the trail took a slightly different route then in 2000 and I realized I remembered this trail like I had only been on it yesterday. Maybe it was because the team was going so slow at this point in 2000 that the details had time to engrave themselves in my memory. I even remembered the exact spot I lost my team in 2000 and earned the nickname Karen 'Runs-instead'. No such incidents this year though - my frisky and happy team moved at a good clip down the river and into the checkpoint of Nulato.

Nulato to Kaltag

Palmer Shagoonik was standing outside with the checker when I pulled in. He casually mentioned that my team had done that leg faster then his. My eyebrows waggled a little at that thought! (He didn't mention until later that he took a bit of a detour and went a ways up the Koyukuk River and into the village of Koyukuk before realizing he was off the trail! What a gentleman!)

The day was beautiful and sunny and the dogs sprawled out in the straw and basked in the warm rays. Grover worked his way over to a huge pile of straw left in the checkpoint and made himself a bed fit for a lead dog of his caliber. Everyone ate great. My only worry was amazing little Olena. I was so pleased that she had recovered from an earlier wrist injury, but then just a few miles outside of the checkpoint she had started to limp. It didn't seem to be the wrist again - I thought it was a shoulder this time and those are much harder to bounce back from. I gave her a good massage and wrapped her up in a shoulder jacket with heat packs - hoping for the best. 

Inside the checkpoint, one of the ladies from the village had brought in a soup made from moose brisket and homemade buns. I inhaled two bowls of soup and a couple buns - I would have had more if there were any way I could have gotten it into my stomach. Absolutely one of the best meals I've ever had on the trail. I can still taste that delicious food!

After all that rest in Galena, sleep didn't want to come, so I pulled out my book and read a few chapters. 

Finally, it was time to hit the trail again. I went outside and woke up the dogs. I unwrapped Olena and took her for a little walk. Her shoulder was bothering her as much as it was when we came in. It was time for her to go home. That was very disappointing. Although, at 2, she is still just a youngster, Ollie is one of my hardest working and favorite dogs. Her sassy and bossy personality provides me with lots of amusement - even if it does occasionally get on the nerves of her canine teammates. I gave her a whole bunch of hugs and turned her over to the vets - then snuck over for yet a few more hugs. 
The dogs weren't dazzling leaving the village, but they were going forward. It was still pretty hot out and I figured things would improve as the sun went down, so I just stood on my drag brake and let them get back with the 'program'. 

As the shadows of night crept over us, the team got into the groove of things. In no time they were flying down the river. I just love that solid, steady feeling that comes through the gangline and the sled when everyone is in their harness and focused on the task of pulling. I set the hook and went through the team to pet everyone and tell them how great they were. They absolutely danced in their harnesses as I played with them all. 

Another magical night on the Iditarod trail! 

One rather scary incident almost marred things. Just a few miles from Kaltag I had seen lights closing in on me over my shoulder. It was some local snowmachiners. I glanced back at them a few times and moved my headlamp rather erratically to warn them I was ahead. Just as they were getting close to passing my headlamp bulb blew - I was suddenly in complete darkness and unable to let the snowmachiners know my exact whereabouts. I fumbled for my spare lamp but didn't find it in time. Luckily, the folks had seen my light earlier and steered well wide of where they had last seen me. 

PHEW - what a relief.

The dogs charged up the bank and into Kaltag.

Kaltag to Eagle Island

I was parked and going about my chores when the 2 women that had been out on snow machines as I was coming in came along to chat. They assured me that they had seen me long before my headlamp went out and that we were never in danger. That was reassuring.

They were chatting away with each other about local gossip, occasionally stopping to ask me about my cooker, what I was feeding the dogs, or such questions. It was nice to be reminded that while this is a life consuming adventure for mushers - life in the villages doesn’t stop for the Iditarod, it just continues on with a bit of extra excitement. We exchanged a pleasant goodnight as I continued working with the dogs and they headed off for a cup of tea.

The dogs were still in a great mood. They all polished off good meals and quickly settled into the straw for a nap. Even the rookies were now acting like pros.

I organized my sled a bit and puttered with my drop bags before heading off to the community center for some food and a nap – but not without taking a quick run up to the Firehall, aka Race Checkpoint for a visit to the village’s one flush toilet! * Sigh *

Many snacks (for the dogs and I), visits to the flush toilet (for me, not the dogs), and some sleep (for all) later, at just after 7 am, we pulled out of Kaltag.

I think I had been spoiled by the way the dogs charged out of the last 2 checkpoints and I was a little disappointed with them as we headed down the trail this morning. I stopped and switched leaders a few times, which was foolish of me. I was playing mind games with myself, and losing. I got passed by a few teams, which further screwed my mind up, but finally I gave my head a few shakes and got back on track. At this point Denali was up in front of the team with Draco. He actually did a pretty fine job for an hour or so, then his age got the better of him and I slipped him back into the team with an ear scratch.

In 2001, I traveled much of this trail in the dark, in a storm and half asleep, but I would have SWORN that a good portion of it was a hilly, overland trail – turns out the whole darn thing was on the river. I puzzled over that for a bit and then had a good laugh at myself. That actually explained a lot. J
Finally, I came to the part that I had seen in the daylight. There I passed Tyrell Seavey camped in a nice secluded spot. I had planned on stopping for 4 hours through the worse of the heat of the day, so I started to look for a similar spot to get out of the fierce wind that had kicked up in the last few hours.
I came to a curve in the trail that seemed to offer some shelter along the edge of the bank. I pulled the team off the main trail and fired up the cooker to get some snow melting for them. At about this moment, as my dishes and the lid to my cooker started sailing across the snow on the wind, it became obvious that I had not found a secluded spot - the wind had just had a brief lull. As I chased items across the snow and attempted to weight down others, Carla Kelly came along and thought she might camp with me. I suggested that that was a BAD idea and we should both find a better spot to stop. She agreed and pulled her dogs back onto the trail, as I hastily packed up my sled. Too hastily, actually, as I forgot that my cooker had been flaming away moments earlier and I grabbed it with light gloves on to put back in my sled. The gloves offered no protection and I knew right away that I had burned the two middle fingers on my right hand pretty bad. I jumped up and down, swore A LOT, and tried to take away some of the pain by cooling the burn down with snow. The snow worked to cool the cooker down enough to pack in my sled, but that was about it. Once we were back on the trail, I found some burn cream that Paul Gebhart had given me in Galena for some windburn on my cheeks. That, finally, offered some momentary relief.

I re-passed Carla and then came across Jim Gallea and Dexter Kancer camped along the trail. Although this was still a windy spot, at least things would be eased by having company on my break – and someone to whine to sounded like a great idea about now.

I pulled in between the two of them and Carla pulled in a few moments behind me. After the dogs were snacked Dexter pulled out his first aid kit and taped up my now badly blistered fingers. Jim pulled out a pack of small cigars and the four of us smoked, joked and had a great time. We swapped a few snacks with each other (Carla’s 2 granola bar/peanut butter ‘sandwiches’ were a great idea!) and everyone settled in their sled for a rest. I pulled my book out again and read a few more chapters.
Finally my four hours were up and I set out on the trail again. Carla was making plans to leave, although Dexter and Jim were going to stay another few hours.

The dogs were traveling pretty well, but it was still sunny and warm out, so I was just patient.
An airplane passed overhead going the opposite direction, then a few guys on snow machines. “The leader is coming!”, he shouted. “Robert Sorlie”, he replied to my question of who exactly that was. Sure enough a few moments later Sorlie and I did a flawless head on pass. He was poling along with a ski pole and his dog team looked strong and solid. We exchanged greetings as we passed by.
The dogs enjoyed the little excitement in their day and picked up their pace. Evening was setting in and the temperature was steadily dropping, and my team’s pace kept picking up the cooler it got.
We passed Ramy Brooks, who told me I had about 20 miles to Eagle Island. I mulled the math over in my mind a bit and decided I was very pleased with the run so far.

The trail actually headed off the river and onto a little island or sand bar for a bit. The dogs charged through there, especially when a cow and calf moose were spotted on the trail. After a few tense moments, Mama moose decided to move on. A couple miles later I could see a playful fox on the trail ahead. The fox spotted me and began to run TOWARDS me. He kept getting closer and closer. Suddenly he spotted the team in front of me and the little light went on in his head. I swear he did a 180-degree turn in mid air and bolted off. The team only spotted him as he was heading away from us, but they gave a spirited chase anyway.

Many of you have heard the story of my next strange encounter. By now we had been completely swallowed up by the night and we were traveling along in the narrow tunnel of light created by my headlamp. All of a sudden blaring music and flashing lights invaded our little world. I thought I was hallucinating a traveling disco! “Who’s that??”, a voice called out. To my answer the voice replied, “Looking good, Karen!”. I was still blinking and shaking my head, trying to clear it as the ‘party’ receded off into the night. Turns out that was Jeff King. The flashing lights were the bike lights that he puts on all of the collars of his dogs and he has lightweight, external speakers mounted on his Trans Alaska suit for the music!

Powered only by the music of my heart, the rhythm and sound of a strong moving dog team, we covered the remainder of the distance into Eagle Island. 

Eagle Island to Grayling

Looking back now, I can see the ‘wheels on the cart’ begin to rattle a little here in Eagle Island, but at the time I was jazzed by a solid run in and by all the excitement in the checkpoint.

With mushers heading in both directions here, I was awed to be hanging out around the likes of Martin Buser, Rick Swenson, and others.

After snacking my dogs I headed down to find my drop bags and got hung up playing spectator for a few minutes as I watched John Baker’s team come in, heading back to Kaltag. John was running a number of dogs that belong to Jamie Nelson, dogs that I had got to know while training with Jamie last fall, so I watched to see them and whispered a ‘Hello’ from the sidelines to her favorite dog. Charge furiously wagged his tail at the mention of his name.

One of the things I really like about John is how he always retains his manners and quiet, friendly demeanor out on the trail. Honestly, some mushers do fall apart with the lack of sleep and stress of racing. Not John, he is always so courteous to the volunteers and officials in the checkpoints. Very inspiring!

I got back to my team and got them all fed and bedded down for a nap. The comings and goings of so many teams didn’t seem to faze my guys at all and they napped well. Me – not so well. Eagle Island is definitely one of the more rustic checkpoints on the race – just a few tents set up on the ice of the Yukon. They had a couple tents for mushers to sleep in, but the wind was flapping around the tents, mushers were coming and going, and those that were sleeping were, mostly, snoring – it just didn’t look like a comfy place to crash, so I puttered around my team and hung out in the warm Checkpoint tent for the duration of my break. Early in the morning, after making several visits to the ‘outhouse’ (a small tent with a bucket and a toilet seat) because of an unsettled stomach, we headed down the river to Grayling.

There were lots of other teams on the river, both coming and going. My team moved steady, although not as solidly has their run yesterday. I had been in a bit of a quandary as to whether to go straight through to Grayling, or whether to take a break out on the trail. The wind had been blowing all morning, but the sun beat down on us too! When I came to a sheltered spot about 20 miles from the Checkpoint and found several other teams camped there, I decided to do the same. In hindsight, I think I should have pushed on – but run and learn!!!

After getting the dogs settled in, I had to make an emergency climb up the riverbank to find a little privacy. I was glad that this camping spot offered that option. My stomach was still really unsettled.

To pass the time I read my book some, napped a bit, visited with other mushers I was camped with and a few heading back the other direction.

Jim Gallea had worked out a nice run/rest schedule that he and a few others were going to stick to for the rest of the river. He asked if I’d like to travel with them. I thanked him for the offer, but declined, as I felt the best routine for my Siberians was a bit different then their plan.

Around 4 in the afternoon we hit the trail again. Unfortunately, it was not with tremendous enthusiasm, in fact, it was with very little enthusiasm. I was somewhat puzzled, as the dogs should have come back strong after their rest - maybe it was the heat. I put my foot down on the drag track to get their minds back on their jobs and tried not to be too discouraged.

I was glad to finally head up the bank into the friendly village of Grayling!

No comments: