Tuesday, 7 May 2013

Tales from 'the Bench' - Koyuk

It was very windy as I waited for my plane in Shageluk and I figured I was in for another 'sporty' flight but as it turned out, once we got up in the air it was a very pleasant.
I was rather amazed that when we flew over and then along the Yukon River I was quickly able to sort out exactly where we were and where the Eagle Island checkpoint was. It's been a lot of years since I've traveled that trail - and it looks pretty different by air than by dog team.

We were heading for Unalakleet and the scenery was lovely but I was exhausted and had to struggle to stay awake to take it all in.
My pilot was monitoring his radio and laughed. "You must be important", he said and went on to tell me that they were holding a commercial flight in Unk for me. I assured him I was only important in my own mind and asked where the flight was going. I had no clue!!! "Koyuk", was his response. EXCELLENT!!!!!!  (not that anywhere along the coast would have disappointed me!). I was a touch disappointed that there would be no time for a nap, shower and Peace on Earth pizza in Unk though!!

Sure enough we landed and I was immediately hustled onto the waiting plane. The trip over Norton Sound to Koyuk took about 20 minutes. It was surreal to look down and remember my journey across last winter that took 12 hours and where, in some spots, every step was struggled and fought for. I will say though that on landing in Koyuk this time the sense of accomplishment on arriving was not near as great!

When we all got down to the checkpoint building we found it locked. It was a bit windy and cold so while we waited for folks to track down the keys everyone busied themselves sorting drop bags.

The ITC trailbreakers were just passing through and were 'packing' down parking areas for teams.

I've always found Koyuk to be one of the most beautiful checkpoints on the trail and the sunset this evening was downright distracting!

When the keys to the building showed up under the careful eye of Kim (who has worked Koyuk for a long time and is very dedicated the checkpoint! Yeah Kim!) we started covering the floors with tarps, 'building' sleeping areas for the volunteers and mushers with tarps, setting up the kitchen and building the 'Dodge Lodge'.
Let me say a bit about the 'Dodge Lodge'. These are shelters meant to be used for drop dogs that Dodge donated to the race in the early 1990s - yes, that is correct, well over 20 years ago. They are .... well.....let me be gracious....showing their age. Yes, they still do the job, but assembling them has become quite ..... ummm.....let's see.....CHALLENGING! When we 'finished' and turned to see the huge pile of leftover bits and pieces I declared it an 'artistic interpretation of a Dodge Lodge' and pronounced the job done regardless. It did do the job, but had it blown like it can in Koyuk this year, Russians would be using our shelter by now!

Once Comms were set up I snuck onto the computer to check in with Shageluk. I was THRILLED to hear that Gerry's dog Montego had been caught. What a relief!!

We all staked out sleeping areas - being race judge I got the 'coveted' spot behind the Bingo table!!! It had a bit of privacy which was nice and I managed to spread out my meager possessions and make a mess of it in no time!

I choose not to think about the many stains on the floor!!!

After grabbing some dinner, volunteer Tom Marple and myself took time to walk up to the school and take advantage of the showers. That was more appreciated than sleep, I believe.
While my hair was drying a bit Tom and I sat and chatted with Greg Heister. You may not recognize Greg's name - but all Iditarod fans know his work and his delicious 'made for media' voice. Greg is the key guy behind the 'Insider' videos! He is also a very nice man who is very engaging to chat with.
The wind had died down and Tom and I had a lovely walk back down to the checkpoint.

The first team was still in Shaktoolik, so there was a nice block of time to crawl into sleeping bags and catch up on some sleep!!!

The next morning we busied ourselves with small chores. I was sorting through the drop bags of the already scratched mushers - putting the 'returnable' items in their return bags, dog food into a pile for the locals and human food in a pile for the checkpoint. One of the local woman watched me for a few moments - dressed in black and picking through the bags and said 'Tulugaq' (Two-lu-walk with a very strong 'throaty' sound to the last syllable). I asked her to say it again and tell me what it meant. "Raven" she said, "you are a Raven". Those of you who know my fondness for the clever, shiny black birds can imagine my pleasure at being compared to one. That became my 'nickname' for my time in Koyuk.

The checkpoint in Koyuk always bustled with activity. The mayor of Koyuk, Darren, is the head checker. His lovely and engaging wife Margaret was a frequent visitor too, as well as Elders, women in fabulous parkies (their work for anoraks), kids darting around on cross county skis and many more!

At about half past 7am a team appeared on the ice heading into town and a little before 8 am Mitch Seavey popped over the bank and into village.

Darren got him signed in, awesome parkers Josh (Who is Everywhere - my nickname for him from the '12 Iditarod) and Tom got him parked, brought over his drop bags, a bucket of water and a bale of straw.

About a half hour later Jeff King hit town and surprised us all by asking for his drop bags, sorting through them and 8 minutes later heading out!!

A steady, but not overwhelming stream of mushers rolled in throughout the day. We even had a couple significant breaks where we were able to have some good down time and even some naps!! How civilized!!!

Throughout the day locals were dropping by with food - fry bread, caribou soup and caribou stew. Heavenly!!!

I had a wonderful special moment during one of the 'quiet spots' in the afternoon. I was sitting chatting with one of the village Elders (well, he was mostly grilling me about why I had been married 26 years and didn't have any children!!! LOL). He was lamenting the fact that while his mind was still sharp (and it was), his body was not and now he couldn't get 'eskimo food' as not many of the younger generation was interested in hunting. I went and rooted around in the checkpoint fridge looking for a special package I had hidden in there.

Back in Shageluk I had found a leftover package of 'Eskimo salad' - a mix of muktuk, dried fish, 'beach greens' and other native delicacies - in John Baker's drop bags.  While many (perhaps MOST) don't enjoy this, I do and I was happy get a taste (it was shared with all the volunteers that wanted to try it). So when John left Koyuk I went through his 'trash' and found another package. My intent was to share it with the volunteers here, but in chatting with this kind, quiet man I quickly realized there was a better use for it.
I sat down at the table and passed over my treasure. When he realized what it was, the Elder's face lite up. "For me?" I nodded "Where did you get it?", he inquired and I explained.  "I can put it in my pocket and take it home?" I nodded again and it quickly vanished.
My apologies to the rest of the Koyuk volunteers, but the smile and twinkling eyes told me my call was very right on that!
Besides, with all the caribou, Kim's fantastic pickled salmon, homecanned tuna, chili, cornbread and everything else floating around the checkpoint, we certainly were not going hungry!!!

Some of the musher's leftovers in Koyuk. Photo by Patti Martin
During the afternoon of our second day Patti Martin, one of the school teachers, invited us to her house for a shower. Two showers in three days - and one with big white fluffy towels!!! Man, we were getting spoiled!!! It was nice and very interesting to chat with Patti, who is from Oregon (actually close to Joseph, Oregon!), about life in Koyuk, the town and the people.

For dinner that night locals Duma and Rose Mary Otton invited everyone from the checkpoint over for caribou roast, potatoes, vegetables and salad (a big deal in Koyuk in the winter). They shuttled us all back in forth in shifts on their ATV so everyone got to indulge. How kind and very appreciated. 

The race was getting close to ending now with Aliy Zirkle and Mitch Seavey racing hard for the Arch. We were all closely watching the computer - most of all Aliy's husband, Allen Moore, who was in Koyuk with his team. We tried to get TV coverage for him, but with no luck. Finally he could take the stress no more and went to try and nap, leaving me with instructions of why and when to wake him.  Aliy and Allen are friends and I have tremendous respect for them as mushers, dog owners and just in general, so it was sad for me to have to wake Allen up and tell him that Mitch was about to cross the line.
That said, congratulations to Mitch, who patiently pulled off a beautiful run to win.

It was a tremendously exciting race this year. From Martin's radical push to Rohn, to Jeff's blowing through Koyuk, to Mitch and Aliy battling it out in the last 77 miles.
I think a few other teams in the top ten showed GREAT potential too. Ray Redington Jr's team looked fantastic in Koyuk. I hear he had some bad luck out of Koyuk, but watch for him next year. Joar Leifseth Ulsom is most definitely a musher to watch!! In Shageluk, I was actually predicting a repeat win for Dallas. He was discounting the possibility of a win there, but I don't think he should ever be counted out. He is a skilled, savvy and patient-beyond-his-years musher. Jake Berkowitz too. He'll win this race one day.
I was also very impressed by young Josh Cadzow. I race judged the Yukon Quest the first year he ran that. His dog care was not perfected and he ended up scratching. Josh has now learned his craft and I think could be a contender in the years to come!!

Jim Lanier's team leaving at night!

Because the crossing of Norton Sound is so flat (being sea ice and all) you can see teams coming for a LONG way, especially at night.
The second night one set of headlamps had us puzzled. They just weren't moving and acting like dog teams - and sure enough, they were not. It was Fat Bikers -  my friend Billy Koitzsch (owner of Arctic Cycles in Anchorage), who was pedaling from Anchorage to Nome to Fairbanks - and Bob Ostrom, leader of the 1000 mile Iditarod Trail Invitational race.
At my invitation they came into the checkpoint for some food and to stay the rest of the night. It was great fun listening to their stories - and especially watching the video of the crazy marten that they had a run in with on the Yukon!!!

By now, despite the sleep, good food and showers, we were all getting a little silly!

Photo stolen from Josh Capps FB wall.
Yup, that's a pink mustache. Kind of clashed with the stick-on fingernail decals but you do what you gotta do!!!

The last of the teams were trickling in now and I knew it was just a matter of time before I got 'pulled'. I have to admit, I was going to be sad to leave Koyuk.

Sure enough a bit later the call came in. Darren ran me up to the airport, but no plane was there. I asked if he'd take me caribou hunting if I got stranded here and he readily agreed, so I was disappointed a half hour or so later when my plane did arrive.

For as long as I've been running Iditarod everyone has always asked me what my favorite checkpoint was. I've never really had one. I do now!

Thank you to everyone in Koyuk for making my time there so enjoyable!!!!


SAY said...

An excellent tale. You give a feel of what it is like in the checkpoint. Enjoyed it.

Barbara in IN said...

Love these trail stories Karen, every year - thanks for taking us along for the ride!