Well, we made it to Willow!!! Yes, as most of you have heard, I traveled with Karen and the 23 NW woofs from Athabasca to Willow. My adventure started when Karen picked me up at the Edmonton airport on Saturday, February 3. I helped around the kennel, scooping and getting teams off on a few training runs. A lot of time was also spent packaging items for drop bags. As usual, Karen and Mark have detailed lists of what is needed for each drop bag, right down to the number of pairs of socks that Karen will need. The detail is mind boggling but with two experts leading the way, I did what I could to help.
When we weren’t packing, Karen and Mark were taking teams out on training runs. While they were gone, I’d poke around the yard and scoop while visiting with the dogs. They were all very willing to have their ears scratched and a snuggle or two. The excitement of someone new in the yard always stirs everyone up and everyone's tails were wagging.
On Tuesday morning, Mark headed off to work and Karen and I started to load the dogs into the truck. It is one thing to take dogs from their chains to the ready chains before a training run but once the dogs know they are going to the truck, trying to move them forward gives you a clear message of just how strong these dogs really are. I think Odie won the contest for strength and brute force.
I’m not sure who was really leading, me or the dogs, but I got them all to the truck and Karen organized who went where. We were on the road by 7:00 a.m., arrived in Fort Nelson 12 hours later and dropped and fed dogs in the hotel parking lot. Another advantage of Karen and Mark having done this trip many times is that they have scouted out the “dog friendly” hotels. Of the three hotels we stayed at along the way, all three were more than happy to have 23 dogs live in their parking lot for the night. As no surprise, the dogs were little angels and if a little howl slipped out, Karen would quietly tell them to “shush” … and they listened.
Wednesday was a beautiful, scenic drive into the mountains and Karen, patient as usual, stopped while I took photos of caribou, buffalo, moose and of course the scenic mountains. The caribou were of particular interest to the dogs that were lucky enough to be on my side of the truck. They barked at the caribou but once they truck started moving again, the dogs went back to sleep and no doubt dreamt of having caribou steak for supper rather than the usual kibble. Just before sunset, we also saw a wolf feeding along the tree line in the ditch. We didn’t see it until it was too late to stop for a photo, but the image of the wolf looking up as we went will stay with me forever.
We arrived in Whitehorse around 8:00 p.m., dropped and fed dogs then joined Doug Grilliot, a good friend of Karen’s who was in town for the Quest. Doug is a Quest race veteran/ race judge, and I had met him last year during Iditarod so it was nice to see him again.
Thursday morning during breakfast we spent visiting with mushers who are in town for the Quest. There were also a few fans mulling about who were more than surprised to see Karen in town. After a trip to Karen’s favorite bookstore and gift shop, we had a quick visit with Lee Desjardin from Ancaster, Ontario who is in town for Quest. Lee was more than pleased to have a few minutes with Karen and the dogs. Then we were back in the truck and on the highway. The worst part of the trip is after Haines Junction and for most of the next few hours it was a bumpy ride as the truck made its way over the ice heaves in the highway. We made an uneventful and quick stop at the border crossing then made our way to Glennallen where we stayed at the Caribou Hotel. Breakfast on Friday morning was complete with caribou sausage, eggs and biscuits at another favorite stop of Karen’s, The Caribou Restaurant.
Karen said the drive from Glennallen to Palmer has some of the prettiest scenery and she was right. She pointed out some of the trail for the Sheep Mountain race and explained the steep climbs over the mountain passes. Then we were back into the twisting and turning drive along the mountains and prayed that we wouldn’t meet too many semi-trailers along the way. Before I knew it we were pulling into the Freddy Meyer parking lot in Wasilla to pick up some groceries before heading to Jamie West’s at Willow. It was nice to reminisce on the drive from Wasilla to Jamie’s. I thought my trip last year to Iditarod was a once in a lifetime trip, but as it turns out here I am a year later and I’m here again. Life is like a box of chocolates!!!
As we made the drive up the grid road to Jamie’s, the dogs started to bark and howl. Karen glanced over and smiled. Other than the bit of noise that came from the truck when we saw the Caribou early in the trip, the dogs hadn’t made a peep. They obviously knew exactly where they were – just minutes from their temporary home at Jamie’s. We unloaded the dogs and moved them to the dog yard, deciding to put the veteran dogs on the same chains they had last year. As it turned out, Karen and I did not have to know who went where. The dogs remembered their spots and led us right to the house that they had the previous year.
The seven rookies were more than pleased to take over the remaining vacancies and everyone bounced and dug in the snow, checking out the new smells and rearranging the straw in the houses. I think the most exciting site and smell in the yard for the dogs is the presence of Jamie’s two horses. The dog yard has a clear view of the horse paddock and even Bat Dog who is likely the furthest from the horses has his eyes securely focused on the horses. Before we headed back to the house, Karen gave the word and everyone joined in a group howl to celebrate our arrival in Willow. The rest of the day was spent settling in and unpacking the truck. It felt like it was just yesterday that I was here as we went through the routine of feeding and souping the dogs. Oh, what a feeling!!!
So with a good night’s sleep behind us, Karen will be spending today running the dogs and I will do what I can to be helpful. The one difference from last year is that there is LOTS of snow. I can’t say that I envy Karen, today at least. After three days traveling on the truck and the excitement of landing in Willow, the dogs are full of beans. Charge has been swinging his paws in anticipation of his rookie year and everyone is showing signs of being more than ready for Iditarod 07. My time in Willow comes to an abrupt end tomorrow when I head back to Whitehorse then home to Craven on Tuesday.
Well, I had better get moving and limber up for the day’s events. The dogs have been fed this morning so they will be ready to rock in a few hours. Karen and Jamie are having a visit over breakfast and the day is underway. Life is good!!!