Saturday, 5 April 2008

April 5, 2008 Tales Of The Trail - Rocks In Places You Don't Want Them & Sleepy Hands

Well, this story (or at least a shorter version of it) was told around the musher's table in Takotna and it was the one I told at the Red Lantern Banquet in Nome (it went over so well there that a gentleman approached me at the airport later that evening to shake my hand and tell me how much it made him laugh) - so I guess it is time it gets told here.

As many of you have heard the trail out of Rohn, through the Buffalo Tunnels and over the Farewell Lakes all the way to Buffalo Camp was pretty light on snow. In fact, it was mostly ice, rocks, grass, water, and MUD! The Iditarod Trailbreakers did a phenomenal job of putting in the trail and I thought it was much safer then previous low snow years, but it was still a challenging section!

I left Rohn with Spidey and Jinx in lead and was more then impressed with the job they did picking their way across the frozen Kusko River. It was so icy and windy that I was completely at their mercy and they kindly worked with me to get us across the tricky parts of the trail.

We skidded and bumped along while I fretted about the Post River Glacier. The Glacier can either be a piece of cake, or a true nightmare. We had been warned this year it was pretty bad - and although I'd survived bad trips up it before - worrying is something I do well, so I was focusing on that.

Of course, because I spent all that energy fretting about the Glacier, it wasn't too bad at all. The warm daytime temperatures had made the top layer of ice alittle slushy, which allowed the dogs some decent footing and they powered up the ice with no problem. I told them all what stars they were and their little tails all wagged as they trotted along.

It quickly became apparent that rather then worrying about the Glacier, I should have been spending some time fretting about the Buffalo Tunnels, especially now that I had just 'talked the team' up telling them all how brilliant they were. I was actually getting air off some of the clumps of mud and rock when  Lachlan Clark's team roared by mine. They were rocking along so well, I expected to see Lach's feet flapping in the air behind him. "They are trying to kill you Lach!", I called out. "At least I'll die with a smile on my face", he quipped as he careened by.

Of course, my already happy group of pups fell in line behind Lach's completely ignoring my pleas of 'easy, easy'. In close to horror, I watched Lach's team hit a small SUV sized mound of dirt, hang a hard right at the top and shoot off into space. All landed intact on the other side - I doubt fated had the same thing in store for me.

My team hit the mound, the hard right and then shot off into space.I held my breath. We hit the ground, upright and intact. I glanced behind me and marvelled at what we had just successfully negotiated (I hear many teams had less then positive experiences in this spot and about every musher I spoke with after the race knew EXACTLY what you were talking about when you said 'that giant mound of earth'). I was actually kind of gloating - a bad way to tempt the fates - when one of my feet caught a small clump of dirt and knocked me off the runners. I found myself hanging onto the driving bow of the sled with my feet dragging behind me. Well, so much for the gloating.

To be honest though, this isn't a position uncommon to most mushers. Unfortunately, what made this situation slightly more unique is that what I was being dragged through was rocks and mud. I was stressing about my lovely new Skookum parka getting torn (which it didn't) and muddy (which it did) when things got worse - much worse. My pants which were getting grabbed by the rocks slid down towards my ankles. Joining them on the trip south were my long underwear AND my underwear.  I was suddenly having parts of me exposed to the rocks and mud that no musher should have to. I was pleading with the dogs to stop and keeping my ears peeled for Discovery Channel helicopters and snowmachines at the same time. Thankfully, it appeared that I was alone, even Lachlan was out of sight now. 

 I couldn't let go of the driving bow to grab at my pants without risking losing the team, so I had to figure out a way to get them stopped. I opted to tip the sled over, hoping more drag would slow my charged (and I'm sure laughing) dog team down. They slowed down a bit, but showed no sign of stopping until the driving bow smacked into a rock - the fact that my hand was between the sled and the rock seemed like a minor inconvenience at the time.

I pulled my pants mostly back up, then righted the sled, brushed some rocks out of my underwear, picked up the left over shreds of my dignity and continued down the trail.

A stop at Buffalo Camp and many miles of trail meant that it was early the next morning before I reached Nikolai. I worked my way through dog chores before finally heading up to the school, which was offering fabulous hospitality to the mushers. In the cafeteria, I plunked down at a table and started stripping off layers of clothes. When I pulled my gloves off, which I had not done since my 'incident' in the Buffalo Tunnels, I was in for a big and rather blue surprise. My middle finger was very swollen and discolored. A big part of the issue was that I wear a ring on that finger and it was pretty obvious that the ring was now cutting off circulation. I headed to the bathroom to clean up and tried to get the ring off myself - no luck! But I did use the opportunity to clean up the remaining bits of rock and mud in my pants!

Because I'm very good at ignoring things, I got something to eat and grabbed a bit of sleep before stopping to look at my finger again. Seems the swelling hadn't magically vanished in the last few hours - go figure.

Cindy Gallea, who is a nurse in real life, was sitting across from me when I took another look at my finger. She very clearly indicated that I should get it looked at. I like and respect Cindy, so I headed over to see if I could find a doctor or physician's assistant. Turns out there are neither in the village, but in no time I had the school's maintenance man with a pair of side cutters on the problem. As my finger really didn't fit inside my ring anymore, it should come as no surprise that a pair of side cutters didn't really fit in there either.

As this was going on, one of the vets popped up from the checkpoint to look over the situation. She got on the phone with the P.A. in McGrath and they started strategizing.

Turns out that they had a special tool in the Clinic in McGrath to cut rings off, but the consensus was that it couldn't wait till I got over to McGrath to by dog team to get taken care of. I'll shorten this telling up a bit by saying that a lot of discussion ensued about what to do.

Finally the vets got some rubber surgical tubing and wrapped my finger as tightly as they could starting at the tip and all the way down and under the ring (yes, that took some doing). The thought was to force some of the swelling out of my finger so they could get the ring off.  I could say that wasn't painful or uncomfortable, but, well.. that would be a lie - however, by now it had been impressed upon me that this needed to be dealt with and if this didn't work, other solutions would involve me staying in this checkpoint longer then I wished to. So, I gritted my teeth and kept telling everyone that what they were doing was fine. After about 15 minutes sitting in the vet building with my wrapped finger held over my head (to also help get the swelling out) they soaped my hand up, then tugged, twisted and yanked until the ring finally departed my finger. I tucked the ring in a pocket, massaged my finger a bit, thanked the vets, and headed out to get back to my chores. What a RELIEF!!

So, now the postscript to the story..

My finger actually didn't bother me for the rest of the race and after I confessed to Mark on my next phone call that he was right and I should have taken that ring off before the Race, I thought the incident was behind me. However, a day off the trail the nerves in my right hand started to be a problem. They felt stretched, out of alignment and very painful. My trip to 'Dr.Phil' (the chiropractor in Nome) for my back helped the finger a bit. He also advised me that I was still kind of dehydrated and that that messes some with nerves. He recommended lots of fluids and time. I did both and the pain eventually subsided but now my middle and ring finger were numb all the time.

One of the first things I did when I got back to Perryvale was make an appointment to see my doctor. I'm happy to report that all is going to be well with my fingers. She tells me that I killed the main nerve that runs up to those to digits. However, nerves regenerate when given time. She says in 6 - 8 months, I should be like new. In the meantime, I need exercise my hand a lot, but be careful with the numbness, as I won't feel pain, hot, cold, etc like I normally would.

So, if anyone sees me standing around this summer with my hand in the fire pit and not noticing it, could they mention it to me??? I'd be grateful!

As for the lessons I learned from this incident - well, there are a few. Let me summarize -

4.  Never tempt the fates when on the back of a dogsled

3.  Don't put off seeking medical attention when you arrive in a checkpoint

2.  Take all jewelry off before heading out on a race

And the Number 1 thing I learned from this incident -



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