Sunday, 7 April 2013

Tales from 'the Bench' - Finger Lake

Turns out my pilot for my flight out to Finger Lake was Iditarod veteran Phil Morgan. That was good, as flying with Phil was waiving my number one 'flying in Alaska' rule - only fly with grey-haired pilots. "There are old pilots and bold pilots, but no old, bold pilots!!!"
Joking aside, the Iditarod Air Force pilots are an incredible group and I never had any reservations about climbing into a plane with any of them, despite a lot of less than perfect flying weather!

Phil's plane - a pretty little Cessna 185

Phil getting ready for take off
A spectacular view.
The flight to Finger Lake was absolutely incredible. Phil pointed out a bunch of moose.
Finding them from the air is actually really easy once you figure out what you are looking for!!!
We saw a few of the trail breakers out on the trail and you could actually even pick out the Iditarod trail lathe (markers) along the way!

I think Bet had mentioned in a blog that the Finger Lake checkpoint was remote and with no amenities. Actually, not true. This is where the checkpoint actually is - WinterLake Lodge. Yeah, Carl and Kirsten run a really swanky place. Now, Iditarod personnel and mushers don't actually stay in the Lodge, but we do get a bit of food, COFFEE and warmth from there. The Lodge staff actually refer to Iditarod personnel as 'The Lake People' as our camp is down on Finger Lake itself.

The crew at the checkpoint was amazing. A really great group for my first checkpoint - and they were here well in advance of me (like a day) so everything was set up and ready to roll. Which was good, as that meant we were able to attend the 'Ice Cream Social' up at the Lodge.
'Ice Cream Social' you ask???
"Mmmmmmmmmmmmm" is my reply!!

Lodge owner Kirsten and her daughter, Mandy, are ACCOMPLISHED chefs and they do a big dessert buffet for all their Lodge guests and the 'Lake People' the night before the race comes through. Myself and one of the vets did a bit of a talk for the guests and answered a bunch of questions all the while sampling amazing desserts. Quite an evening!!!

Then it was back down to the Lake where the first order of busy was checking the trackers to see where the teams were and what the ETA on the first team was.
It quickly became obvious that Martin Buser was up to something new and was going to arrive at the checkpoint in record or close to record time.
It was actually a lot of fun to watch all the 'media' - Bruce Lee, Joe Runyan, Sebastian Schnuelle, and Greg Heister - staring in disbelieve at the tracker and trying to sort out exactly what Martin was doing.
And now for a bit of 'inside information' - race judges have a spreadsheet of how many drop bags each musher sent to each checkpoint so we can make sure everything is accounted for prior to the musher's arrival. I knew Martin had sent 5 drop bags to Rohn, so once he passed the 'normal' camping spots outside of Skwentna, I pretty much knew he was doing one or two big runs to get to Rohn where he was likely to 24!!! But I wasn't telling!

In record time Martin rolled into Finger Lake. Reporters swarmed him as he watered and snacked his team. He was in great spirits and obviously having a lot of fun playing with everyone's heads! His dogs looked really good and when he walked up front and pulled the leader hook that was securing his front end, the entire group of dogs jumped to their feet and started barking! Off he went!

We had a few hours break and then teams started to roll in again. Things were pretty much full steam ahead for us from this point on.  We had tweaked our procedures for welcoming, parking and settling teams and things were clicking along really well.

Kelly - one of the wonderful Comms people

One of the nice things about Finger Lake is that the teams drop onto the far side of the lake and then work their way along the shoreline until arriving. That gives us a 15- to 20-minute warning of approaching teams (yup, trackers help too, but even ION earth trackers aren't as certain as a visual!). That allows us to discuss where we will be parking teams (if they are staying - and the tracker helps us figure out the likelihood of that as we can see where they last rested).

Parking a bunch of dog teams in a relatively small area is a definite art form. You must have spots that are relatively easy to maneuver into (and it is WAY harder to steer a sled when you are standing on the brake for everything you are worth. Physics means they plow through stuff rather then curving artfully around them as they do on the move.) and out of (and teams don't leave in the same order they come in in), not too close together that dogs can bother each other and allow mushers room for their cookers, drop bags, etc.
We were slammed with lots of teams at various points of the day, but I'm proud to say got everyone well parked.
Thank goodness for a great crew!!!

Team coming into the checkpoint

Mikhal's team

The 'out trail'

By 3 pm we had welcomed the last team, James Volek, into the checkpoint and were all very spent! There was still a lot of work to be done helping teams get out, hauling off garbage, shoveling dog poop, raking straw, reporting times, etc, etc ... but we were able to get a warm meal cooked and some food into everybody!!

The 'Lake People' and musher Newton Marshall goofing off. 
By nightfall, there were only a few mushers left in the checkpoint. Checker Mark and I celebrated with a 'Finger Lake slushie' - Jack Daniels over pristine (in other words - far from the dog teams) Finger Lake snow! A perfect nightcap.

Leaving instructions to 'wake me up if you need me', I crawled in my sleeping bag for my first sleep in 48 hours.
I woke at 7 am to the stirring of the checkpoint - generators firing up and volunteers moving about. I headed up to the Lodge to use the outhouse, check my phone for messages (no signal down on the lake), and grab a cup of coffee. As soon as I turned my phone on it lit up with messages. Uh oh!!!
Turns out a small plane had gone missing in the area yesterday - family and friends were wanting to make sure I was okay. We were all very sad to hear later in the day that the plane had been found and there were no survivors.

All the mushers were long gone, so after a bit of breakfast it was time to start breaking the checkpoint down. Lots of work but made easy by many eager hands.

The checkpoint on Tuesday morning.

Around 11am word came in that a plane was on its way to the airstrip to pick myself and one of the vets up.
I gave lots of hugs goodbye to the BEST CHECKPOINT STAFF I'VE EVER WORKED WITH (yeah, they knew they were the only checkpoint staff I've ever worked with - it was a bit of a standing joke) jumped into a sled and was escorted by snowmachine over to my plane.

Looking back at the checkpoint from the trail to the airstrip.

Our pilot for the flight back to Anchorage was very delightful. 

He happily dropped down and went 'moose hunting' (all we found were interestingly enough in herds of 8 - 17! No kidding!!!! Maybe because of wolves was all we could figure) and pointed out various landmarks.

"What do you do when you are not flying for the Iditarod?", vet Jim Kenyon asked. After a bit of pressing, Erin admitted to being a Superior Court of Alaska judge. You just never know who you will meet on the Iditarod Trail!

We landed in Anchorage, all ready for the next adventure!


AK Michele RN said...

Great reading & seeing your "adventure" come to life... and after living in Alaska for nearly 10 yrs, you are SO RIGHT! You never know...

Helen J. said...

Love hearing about the other side of the Iditarod adventure.