Monday, 15 April 2013

Tales from 'the Bench' - Shageluk

Once again though our pilot was top notch (and again a judge!!!) and we landed in Shageluk with our stomachs only a minute or two behind us!

Flying to Shageluk. Photo by Nancy Yoshida
The airstrip in Shageluk is 8 miles away from the village, so thankfully Greg landed on the slough closer to town. We lugged out gear and supplies up to the nearest road, thanked Greg and started walking. A snowmachine stopped for us. The driver introduced himself and offered to run our gear up to the checkpoint. We gratefully turned it over.

As we began to settle into the checkpoint building local checker Arnold showed up to introduce himself. Arnold was our 'go to' guy for Shageluk.
I was keen to get going on the drop bags, as our first musher could possibly arrive in under 12 hours, but Arnold waved his hands and encouraged me to relax. "After lunch" and he drifted out the door to attend to his meal.

Recall the group photo from Finger Lake and the good number of 'Lake People' here we were in Shageluk - Nancy and I. Apparently there was a vet around the village, but we hadn't seen her yet. No one was sure whether or not another planeload of volunteers and supplies was going to make it in today. This could be interesting.

Janine, the vet who had been in the village a few days prior to the Race arriving and was doing a free vaccination clinic for local dogs (courtesy of ITC), showed up. She was really pleased to see us. Her roommate in the building for the last couple days had been a half butchered moose carcass!!! And NO, I'm not kidding!

She had just a few village dogs left to vaccinate whose owners weren't around, but had indicated they wanted shots for their dogs. She needed a hand holding these dogs and I was happy to help.

There was a moment as I was wading through thigh deep snow to get to a large, VERY exuberant husky type dog when I thought this might not go as well as I originally hoped but Janine assured me she 'had my back'! It turns out 'Spot'  and his kennel mates were happy guys just pleased to have attention!

As we were walking back to the checkpoint a plane roared overhead and landed on the slough!!! Two more vets (Vern and Jewel), two Comms people (Martha and Stacy) and more supplies!!!! Happy day!!!!

Everyone set to organizing the checkpoint. Arnold showed up with his nephews and began tackling the drop bags. Pretty much in no time the checkpoint was up and 'functional'.


The first of the 'trail travelers' arrived in town and surprisingly they were not dog teams!!

Gotta say, this intrigues me!!!

A few of the Fat Bikers came up and asked about a supposed shortcut from Shageluk direct to Grayling. Iditarod Trail Invitational competitors (their race - done by either bike or foot) don't have to stick to the trail like Iditarod mushers do - but everyone needs a packed trail to move around Alaska in the winter!!! Sadly, I could't help them - I only know to follow trail markers to make my way across Alaska!!

We had some dinner (baked salmon - the only thing I cooked the entire time I was on the trail!!) and settled down to wait.

At this point, Martin's early push had paid off with a tidy little lead and he rolled into the village just after 10pm. Twenty-one minutes later, with dogs snacked, watered, and drop bags sorted, he pulled the hook heading for Anvik.

Next in was personable Jake Berkowitz and he decided to stay and partake of our hospitality for 4 hours. After him a steady stream of mushers started rolling in keeping our small group very busy!

Most of the leaders blew through town on their way to Anvik, but a lot of the second wave of mushers opted to take their mandatory eight-hour break on the Yukon with us. The checkpoint was a little beehive of activity with mushers coming, mulling about, leaving.

In the midst of it all we were dealing with some other logistic issues. The biggest one had to do with dropped dogs. The ITC's chain for dropped dogs for the village was missing in action. We had borrowed some chain from one of the locals, but we were quickly running out of room for dropped dogs - this was made worse by the fact that planes were only sporadically flying due to weather and were desperately trying to 'stay ahead of the race' with race officials and drop bags when they were.
I would cringe every time a team rolled around the corner into town with a dog in the bag.
Finally I bought some iron rope and an extra piece of cable gangline off a few of the mushers. The amazingly creative vet team borrowed a ladder from the firehall and lashed it to the checkpoint building and then were able to attach dogs to the ladder rungs!! Is that thinking or what???? At the peak we had over 20 dropped dogs rooming with us.

Another issue going on revolved around musher Gerry Willomitzer. Word had come into the checkpoint from a few sources that Gerry had had a dog get spooked in a tangle, slip its collar and dart off the trail. He had been camping out trying to locate her. I spoke to Mark Nordman about the situation and then tracked down a local on a snowmachine who was willing to go out and check up on Gerry for us.
Did I mention that it was storming pretty good while all this was happening??? Rain, snow, wind....just downright miserable!
That also meant that most mushers were soaked to the skin upon arriving. Thankfully the 'Washeteria' next door had dryers that were available to mushers. Hats off to Ramey Smyth and Justin Savidis who each bought $20 worth of quarters for the machines, used the few they needed themselves and left the rest with us for other mushers to use. Dry mushers are happy (or at least happier) mushers!

Around 9 or 10pm one of the locals came into the checkpoint looking for me. 'How many mushers do you have sleeping in the community hall?', he wanted to know. "Why?" He went on to explain (as my jaw hit the ground) that they were going to hold a dance and the band was going in the hall, so I needed to move the mushers. He walked me up to the new building they were going to open.
HUGE thanks to the mushers who were in the checkpoint as they all took being woken up and moving really, really well.
Locals and villagers from 'neighbouring' communities started to arrive and, sure enough, around 11pm the band fired up.
We were kept pretty busy for the next 8 hours (yes, I am saying the dance went till 7am) managing dog teams, snowmachine traffic and partiers, but we were successful in making sure that all the dogs and mushers stayed safe.

Just as things slowed down a bit in the AM the phone rang. "A plane is landing on the strip in 20 minutes to take 10 of your dropped dogs". YEAH but....the airport is 8 miles away (only planes with skis can land on the slough and all the planes with skis were busy) and we have no transportation. With some cash and some help from Insider cameramen Bodhi we were able to secure a truck/driver and get the 10 dogs down to the strip for their flight. (We will overlook the fact that the driver kind of ran out on our vets, who had accompanied the dogs, and abandoned them at the airport. Thankfully they only walked a mile or so before the local mail truck picked them up.)

Photo by Erin Hooley (Jeff Schultz's awesome assistant!)

Gerry Willomitzer was now in town - but not officially. A musher MUST check in with all the dogs they left the last checkpoint with. Until Gerry reunited with Montego he could not officially check into Shageluk. We were helping Gerry with logistics in his search, making some phone calls for him and even did some walking through the village after some of the local kids reported a stray dog (false alarm).

A few Fat Bikers and walkers were rolling through town too and we offered them food, Tang and coffee - which they all gratefully accepted.

Jodi Bailey arrived in the village with a badly broken sled. I managed to sort things out so she could get it patched enough to get her to Anvik, where I got permission for her to use a sled Dallas Seavey had dropped there (it was actually Mitch's sled - but it is a long and complicated story about how it got there) to get her to Unk, where her 'backup' sled was waiting.

Bodhi and myself. Don't I look GREAT? LOL. Photo by Stacy Cardy

Around 7pm the band showed up again and the party got back underway. We all slipped back into 'Bouncer' mode to look after dog teams and mushers.

Around 11pm, although the dance was still going strong, things seemed to be going pretty 'smoothly' (all relative!!!) and I lay down on my sleeping bag for a few minutes. When I opened my eyes a half hour later Stacy asked if I had seen the notice in the Washeteria? Why did I know this wasn't going to be good? "What notice?" "They are going to be shooting fireworks off at midnight".
I debated whether just banging my head against the floor for 10 or 15 minutes might make this all go away. Yeah, probably not.

It was too late to find anyone to try and stop the display, so I went and woke up the few mushers who were in town and had them go down to hang with their teams. We did the same with the vets and dropped dogs.
Midnight rolled around and nothing happened. About 20 to 1 a young local guy came in and asked if it would be good if they postponed the fireworks to another night as they thought they 'might scare the dogs'. I enthusiastically agreed!

By the next morning things were slowing down a lot. We were down to just one dropped dog and just a few teams left to pass through. Montego was still missing. We had been asking each musher who arrived in if they had seen any signs or tracks, but they hadn't. The one musher I didn't ask was Mikhail Telpin. The language barrier was just too daunting for me, but not for Gerry. I glanced out the checkpoint window to see Gerry and Mikhail hunched over, drawing pictures in the snow and using hand gestures to communicate. How cool AND it paid off. Mikhail had seen tracks!!! Great news!

Around this time word came through that a plane was arriving to pick me up in less than an hour. I can't lie, it had been a few challenging days and I wasted no time packing up my gear and saying my 'goodbyes' to my great co-workers. NO DOUBT our time in Shageluk wouldn't have 'worked' without such a great group of volunteers!!!

I jumped into a skidder along with one of Ken Anderson's dropped dogs and a bunch of musher return bags for my 'taxi' to the air strip!

Photo by Nancy Yoshida


1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thank you so much for posting your stories of being a race judge. I didn't know so much went on behind the scenes.