Sunday, 2 September 2012

Tales of the Trail 2012 - Shaktoolik to Koyuk

When I showed up in front of Rhodie, the race judge in Shaktoolik, she smiled. "We knew you were a bit lost as we had seen your headlamp coming in and then lost it", she said. "The checkers wanted to go out looking for you, but I said it was Karen, she'd sort it out."

That made me smile. It's nice to be thought of as self sufficient, even if it was my getting off the trail that required me to be self sufficient in the first place!!!

"We are going to park you down on the beach", she went on. "It's less windy and quieter down there", she assured me. Less windy sounded good to me. "We are just going to do your vet check up here and then maybe you want to undo your tuglines (which takes power away from the team) before you head down."

WAIT A MINUTE.....where exactly were they taking me???? Checkers/friends Rick and Mark from McGrath were there too and all assured me that "It would be good", so after the team was sorted a bunch of volunteers helped us down a rather 'sporting' path to the 'beach'.

Rick visited with me as I went about chores. It was still VERY windy where I was parked and I had to be careful about setting light objects down on the ground lest they blow away.

The dogs weren't terribly enthusiastic about eating, mostly they just wanted to curl up in a ball and get 'out' of the wind. Me too. I finished chores and headed up to the fire hall, which is the Shaktoolik checkpoint.

I had a lot to drink and a bunch of food before using the very unique and awe inspiring big red composting toilet (it's more like a giant red throne.) I did puzzle over the list of things not to throw in the toilet - it included the 'regular' items they don't want thrown in rural toilets (like condoms, feminine hygiene products, paper towels, etc) and CUTLERY. Whaaat????? Strange.

Anyway, I secured a sleeping mat on the floor and drifted off for a few hours sleep.

The dogs didn't seem to have slept very well when I got back down to them. Roscoe in particular wasn't looking well rested and he hadn't been eating well. He's such a strong, steady dog who never usually gives me a moment's worry, so when he starts to act like things aren't well, it is time for him to head home. As I readied the team to go, I filled out paperwork to drop Roscoe.

Our departure from Shaktooklik was far from inspiring, but that wasn't too surprising. Shaktoolik is a hard checkpoint to get the dogs out of on a perfect clear day - on a windy, stormy day like today it is made even harder!!

Rookie Travis Cooper left with me and we struggled along together in the strong winds and blowing snow. To begin with Travis's leaders weren't at all interested in leading into the wind and staying on the trail. I have the amazing Jinx, so I had her leading the two teams for quite awhile, but was having trouble finding someone to run with her. Our progress was slow and really difficult. The wind kept getting stronger and stronger.

At one point when I walked up to my leaders I was able to lean all of my body weight against the wind. CRAZY.

We came to a point where none of our leaders were really interested in going up front. The trail was completely shut in and it was difficult for any of us (dogs or humans) to even find it.
Travis and I stopped and had a little meeting. We were only about 16 miles out and it had taken us a very long time to get to that point. There was concerned that if the storm continued with this ferocity or, if possible, got worse, we could get shut down with not a huge amount of supplies. But honestly, neither one of us was even vaguely interested in giving up any hard won ground, so going forward was the only option.

For the record, let me say that Travis is one truly cool young man. he did a great job managing his team and myself in a difficult situation. He kind of 'stumbled' into this Iditarod 'thing' and I know he has no plans for another one in the future but I am certain whatever adventures he does turn his attention to, he will find success!!!

For the next few hours our progress was likely fought in yards or meters rather then miles. Hats off to the dogs, who really did their best to work with as as we walked and struggled to move forward.

Finally things began to 'break' a bit. It was still RIDICULOUSLY windy but the dogs were now at least able to mostly find the trail on their own. A snowmachine passed us heading back towards Shak and I thought that might give us more relief but the trail blew in as quick it opened leaving nothing behind it.

All our dogs were pretty wiped out, both mentally and physically, at this point but not only did they continue to work, they all picked up speed admirably when they could. Such good puppies!!!

With about 10 miles to go to Koyuk a convoy of a snowmachine and 3 dog teams caught up with us. It was Dave Monson, his two kids, a handler and snowmachine driver. They were traveling from Nenanna to Nome to show his 12 year old the trail that her deceased mother, Susan Butcher, became a legend on.

Dave knows the rules of Iditarod well, so to be totally 'safe' he sent his snowmachine driver far up the trail as to not be 'aiding' us. Their 'fresher' teams, having had trail put in by a snowmachine the whole way (and not having been on as aggressive a schedule for the last 900 miles as our teams had been) quickly outpaced us and the trail blew shut right behind them, but the break in the monotony of snow and ice seemed to perk the dogs up a lot anyway.

There was a bunch of jumble ice on the trail that required some zigging and zagging. The dogs thought that was good fun. On one of the zigs, they cut the corner and shot the sled off a big block of jumble ice. We hit the ground with a good SMACK and as we did I saw something white fly off the sled. I looked back over my shoulder to see what it was and was puzzled for a moment before figuring out it was my GPS Tracker.

NO WAY was I taking the enthusiasm out of the team by turning them around to go back for it. It was a GPS unit, so I figured Iditarod would have no real problems finding it if they wanted to (to be honest though, the units aren't accurate enough to lead them right to it and finding a white box on snow and ice wouldn't have been easy. They do have a flashing red light on them, but mine was taped over as its flashing would have driven me crazy).

I went about another 1/2 mile and a horrible image flashed into my head ... my long suffering Mother staring at that non moving 'blip'. Oh, my poor family!!!! I was going to be in Koyuk in a few hours anyway, so she wouldn't have too long to panic!! And besides, it's not like it is the first time I've given her heart failure. (Right Mom?)

The last few miles into town were tough. For some reason the dogs kept drifting off the trail and they were simply sick and tired of me correcting them. We were all exhausted and getting grouchy. Thankfully, we all knew we were getting close to town.

As we came into Koyuk the dogs threw a mutiny. They wanted to beeline for the nearest buildings rather than follow the marked trail to the checkpoint. I didn't want to come into our well deserved rest with the 14 of us not speaking to each other, so I just went with them.

We rolled up into the road system of Koyuk and I flagged down the first person I saw and asked directions to the checkpoint.

"Up 2 blocks and hang a left."

We did and rolled in moments after Travis. We were all hungry, exhausted, windburned and MORE than glad to have that section of trail behind us.

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