Saturday 22 December 2001

December 22, 2001 White Mountain to Safety

I had to go looking for officials in White Mountain. As it was the middle of the night, I (and the locals) were lucky that the first door I knocked on was the right one! With the help of a checker, I got the dogs parked. They ate ravenously and then curled up in their straw beds. When I got up to the checkpoint, I was delighted to find a mattress and blankets in the corner for mushers. What a treat to get a few hours of real comfortable sleep.

When I woke up the officials were up and about. I snuck into the shower and just stood under the hot water. Neither that, nor the soap I sent out in my drop bag made a dent in the deep layers of grime that I was coated in, but it still felt wonderful! In clean clothes I padded into the kitchen in my socks and scrounged through my stuff for food. While that was heating up, I got chatting with Slim - trailbreaker extraordinaire - he was telling me about the next piece of trail. It hit me like a brick - I was 77 miles away from the Nome. I was so wrapped up in just going from 'tree to tree', checkpoint to checkpoint, that I had failed to realize just how close to my goal I was.

I went down to feed the dogs. As I was picking up bowls I was telling the dogs what Slim had told me about the trail (this may seem weird to you folks sitting in front of your computer, but after spending 2 weeks with these guys as my constant companions - it sure seemed logical to me.) I was picking up Jake's bowl when I was overcome with a wave of emotion - we were going to finish the Iditarod. I wrapped my arms around his neck and cried.

I left White Mountain under the most beautiful blue sky you could imagine - it completely matched my spirits. The trail was spectacular. My only disappointment was that I finished up the last picture on my disposable camera on the way out of Elim and I hadn't sent one to White Mountain.
For only the second time on my trip I had pulled out my Walkman. It was Sunday night and the Officials Finishers Banquet should be on KNOM - one way or another, I was going to be there! Sure enough, I was able to pick up the station as I worked my way over the Topkok hills. It was great fun to listen to. I was deeply touched when Palmer Shagnoonik was awarded 'Most Inspirational Musher' - they could not have made a better choice. Palmer is a class act and a real, identifiable role model for kids in the coastal villages.

As we came off the hills and onto the coast my batteries died. I rifled through my sled bag but didn't find any fresh ones. I even waved down a few snowmobilers and asked if they had any. They didn't and I resigned myself to not hearing the rest of the celebrations. As nighttime fell I could see a glow ahead on the trail. Over the last years I have done probably around 60 - 70 presentations on sledding and Iditarod. I have a three-minute video 'Idit-a-Rock'n' Roll' that I show each time. On of the lines in it is 'see the lights of Nome coming up the coast'. Since my scratch in Shaktoolik in 2000, every time I showed the video when that line came up I would quietly vow to myself that I was going to do just that in 2001. My friend and handler for Grand Portage race, Bill Boutang, emailed me that wish prior to the Race "See Nome from the coast". It was my mantra and there, ahead of me I was seeing the glow of the lights of Nome. WOW!

There is a road through Safety out of Nome, so starting 25 miles out there were mileage markers along the way. When I saw the first one, I knew I was just 3 miles from Safety. I looked at my watch and was pleased to see I was right on the schedule I had hoped. I decided to stop and snack the dogs as a treat. STUPID…STUPID…STUPID. All that did was put the idea of taking a break in their heads. They inhaled their snacks and lay down for a break. I suggested we get going and they pretty much flipped me the canine finger. The next 2 hours were spend begging, cajoling, switching leaders…..anything to try to get us going. About ½ hour into this we had moved along just enough that I could see the headlamps of the checkers at Safety. The dogs refused to be impressed by this and continued their protests. Finally frustrated, exhausted, and very angry with myself for my stupid mistake we arrived at the Safety bar.

December 22, 2001 Elim to White Mountain

In Elim, despite the kind words and helpful nature of the officials, I really felt that I was holding things up. The trail sweeps left town the second I showed up, checkers were making flight arrangements out and sweeping up, and, worst of all, the outhouse stuck on the ice outside the checkpoint door was full!! YUCK!

I had to make sure the vets didn't misinterpret the blood on my dogs - it wasn't theirs, rather mine. Blood had soaked through my thumb dressing and everywhere I had touch the dogs without my over gloves I had left tracks of red. One of the checkers re-wrapped it for me. Bleeding like that, it looked worse then it really was.

I didn't want to spend a lot of time here as I felt some pressure to get moving - although Jasper, the checker made it perfectly clear that he was happy to wait until whenever I wanted to leave. By the time I packed up, he was waiting with a pilot and they roared over head before I was ½ mile out of town! J
I did take the time to phone Jamie, Mark was already in Nome and pretty much unreachable. I don't even remember what we talked about (but I'm guessing it was dogs!), but it was reassuring to speak with her.

The dogs left town smartly, but slowed up pretty quickly. I think they had been planning on a longer break! Eventually they resigned themselves to forward momentum. The trail out of Elim was spectacular. It hugged a rocky coastline, seabirds swooped and dived, at times I could see open water out on the horizon. As we came off the ice Grover got a real treat - a herd of about 200 caribou! Of course that picked the pace of the team up and we began the climb up Little McKinley at a good clip.

One of my strangest encounters of the Race happened as darkness took over that evening. I had stopped to straighten out a problem when a snowmachine came up from behind. The driver cut his engine and came over to talk. I was already using a headlamp and was careful not to blast him in the eye with my light. We chatted for a moment, and then he asked whether I was a guy or girl. When I answered, he uttered a oath and said he was hoping to take a leak (well, that's not the EXACT word he used, but you get the picture). I promised discretion and called up my team, leaving him to his business. You would think that with only a handful of people within 20 miles or so, privacy would be pretty easy to find!

The dogs were pretty flat as we rounded the top of the Mountain. They picked up a little as we began the downhill side. I was snapped to panic mode when they made an abrupt 90 degree turn off the trail and bolted down a hillside. It seems a few grouse flying up under their noses was more then they could stand. It took a few moments to get things under control but, when asked, they quickly swung around and worked their way back up the hill to the trail.
I was grateful for the 'heightened awareness' that the team had sparked in me, for when I looked up into the clear and cold night sky, I was treated to the only real display of Northern Lights that the trail granted to me this year. It was an amazingly bright and vivid display that I enjoyed from the back of my sled for well over an hour. Although dimmer by then, the Lights were still dancing as I came into Golovin.

Jasper had told me that Golovin wasn't really a checkpoint, but that a couple that lived in town would be there and would have me sign in when I showed up. Yet, as I drove my team through the sleeping town, I saw no one and no trail markers. We followed the road to an air field, when I saw the 'RESTRICTED AREA' signs, I figured we were lost. I turned the dogs around and made another pass through the community looking for markers I might have missed the first time. No luck. On my third pass through, I flagged down a teenager on a snowmachine. He pointed to a dark house as the home of the unofficial checkers. I asked the way out of town and he directed me to a downed trail marker with another one off in the distance.

The dogs were having flashbacks to Shaktoolik! 'That was a town and we should have stopped' was the message I was getting from them. I struggled along with them for a very long time, walking in front, switching leaders - eventually I hit upon the magic formula - Camilla and Kaylinn in lead. After her success coming into Kaltag, I had tried Kaylinn a few times in lead, but she would have none of it. Now she seemed to realize that she was really needed. The trip from then on was unbelievable! The girls literally smoked down the trail - maybe they sensed a checkpoint ahead, maybe they were sick of listening to me whining - who knows, but, man, did we make up time coming into White Mountain.

Monday 6 August 2001

August 6, 2001 Koyuk to Elim

Koyuk, in my books, rates as the friendliest checkpoint on the trail. For the first time, not only was I the last team on the trail, but also the rest of the teams had already left the checkpoint when I got there.

Despite that, a good crowd was there to greet me. My, now rising, spirits were further lifted by the terrific welcome I received. Kids came by asking for autographs and I handed out a bunch of little Canada flag pins that I was carrying in my sled. One of the locals brought by the most wonderful pots of homemade soup. YUM! I shared a big bag of beef jerky with them in return. As it turns out beef is a fairly 'exotic' meat along the coast of the Bering Sea - it was fun to see how much they enjoyed it.

The dogs were looking terrific. Mannie had been a little off, but the vets helped me find a small split on his foot that was probably causing him some discomfort. Now that I had found it, I was able to actively treat him and keep him bootied, which would bring him back around immediately! Everyone ate very well and seemed very happy and content with a full meal in their belly! They all got extra scratches and rubdowns. I can't tell you how nice it was to be sitting in Koyuk with 15 healthy, happy dogs.

While getting ready to leave, I made a bone head, 'Karen' mistake (that it looks like I will always carry a scar for) - I went to cut a piece of electrical tape joining a set of lithium batteries and took off the tip of my left thumb in the process. I was more angry with myself then anything, but the bleeding just didn't want to stop. One of the vets did a fine job of pressure wrapping my thumb to try to stop the blood flow. Before I left, less then ½ hour later, blood had soaked right through the bandages and I had to get it rewrapped. I had to cut and modify my liner gloves to accommodate my bandaged appendage. The checker also had to do up my parka as it was too awkward to do up a zipper. I did manage to figure out a system for putting on booties but was especially thankful for my team's tough feet, as it certainly took some time.

The trail to Elim was much different then I expected. For the first while it ran along the edge of the sea ice, then turned up into some hills. I was dozing on my sled when we made that swing and 'snapped' around thinking I was off the trail. Luckily, I trusted my leaders, mainly Grover, enough that I pressed on forward instead of doing anything rash, like turning around.

As morning rolled around we got into quite the windstorm. Some snowmachiners were holed up in a shelter cabin along the way. I felt no need to wait it out. I snapped some pictures of the dogs with all their tails blown over to the side from the force of the wind. I was very pleased with my 'kids'. They marched along without any hesitation into the weather.

We passed through the abandon 'Old Elim' - a product of a mass move of the village years ago. Slim and his trail sweeps passed by. I had the pleasure of running into an old friend out there! In 2000 I spend several hours at the Tripod Flats cabin with another musher and a friendly couple snowmachiners that were following the Race, one of them, Bob was on his way back down the trail after going to Nome this year. He took some pictures, passed on some encouraging words, and chatted for a few minutes.

The last little bit of trail into Elim follows a road that pops up seemingly out of nowhere. It seemed really strange to peer over a guardrail at the coast below! What a spectacular day!

August 6, 2001 Shaktoolik to Koyuk

I was a rambling, messed up musher in Shaktoolik. All the checkers had come out to say 'HI' and make sure I didn't park for a long visit (what a great group!) - they knew my plan and wanted to make sure I didn't waver.  First order for me was a trip to the bathroom. Once that was dealt with I walked out to figure out what I was going to do. I was greeting by a bouncing, barking dog team. That, the encouragement of the checkers and vets, and that darn promise to Jamie prompted me into action. I loaded the sled, secured some straw to the top of everything and headed out.

I will never forget the look on Surge's face when I asked that team to leave the checkpoint. Up to this point in the Race, checkpoints had always been a guaranteed spot for food and rest for my team. Surge, the youngest of the bunch didn't understand why we weren't stopping here. But they did leave. Their pace was little more then a walk. Clint, Buck, and Beth all passed us within the first couple hours. It was quite dark out, but I kept seeing shadows of trees and power poles (don't ask) along the trail. I was confused, I thought once we left Shaktoolik we were on the ice all the way to Koyuk. I saw no sign of the shelter cabin and finally decided to shut things down for a break anyway. I fed the dogs and laid out the straw for them. Bed for me was the top of my sled bag.

As the morning started to lighten things up I was amazed to realize that there was no trees, no power poles, no NOTHING around me…..well, except for that shelter cabin that was visible about ½ mile ahead!! ARGHHH!! The dogs had been resting 4 hours and I made a halfhearted attempt at getting them up. They looked at me like I had ROCKS in my head and went back to sleep. Okay….2 more hours seemed like a good compromise.

During that 2 hours, Dave Tresino's team passed. As it turned out, that was the last dog team I would see in the Race.

After the extra 2 hours, the dogs were willing to head out. The trail was every bit as flat, featureless and intimidating as people had told me. I stopped briefly at the shelter cabin and stuck my head inside. Turns out cross-country skiers had spent the night there and there was still a warm woodstove. Oh well, my night on the ice probably built more character then a night in a warm cabin would have done!
Several hours closer to Koyuk the trail breakers passed me. They were encouraging and said they would see me in the checkpoint.

A few hours after that a plane flew fairly low overhead. I later learned that it was Doug Swingley doing his 'victory visits' to the coastal villages!! :)

A little more then a hour out of Koyuk the dogs and I hit the other side of our 'slump' and they were really moving well, loping in fact, when we came off the ice and into town.

August 6, 2001 Unalakleet to Shaktoolik

I really knew '2000 baggage' was getting to me when I even opted out of a pizza feast from the best little pizza place in Alaska - 'Peace of Earth' pizzeria in Unk! I didn't get a lot of sleep and prowled the checkpoint rather aimlessly. I left the dogs pretty much alone after initially feeding and bedding them down. I didn't want my feelings of dread to rub off on them.

A bright spot was a quick visit from Tanya, who had graciously opened her house to us in Nome in 2000. She was now working in Unalakleet and I was touched that she was tracking the race well enough to know when I would be showing up.

As I packed the sled up, the flashing little snowbirds that live all around town flitted around the team. They are really cool little birds!

To my delight, the dogs left the checkpoint not too badly at all. Absolutely no repeat of the turning around that was the problem last year. Once we got into an uphill portion of the trail they really slowed down to a crawl. Now, with distance and time, I can confidently say that they were playing off my moods and fears, but at that time I began to think that the end might be near.

We had a momentary spark when a herd of 7 caribou started shadowing us along the trail. Grover definitely has a thing for caribou and the team was almost out of control for close to a mile. When we hit the base of the Blueberry Hills things really got into a rut. Somewhere in there Dave Tresino passed us and that picked the dogs up (further proof they weren't really tired, just playing off my mood). One of the checkers came up to the top of the hills to see my team. He said he had heard a lot about my pretty Siberian team and wanted to see them on the trail. That was neat! I double checked with him about a cabin Palmer Sagoonik had told me was at the base of the Hills. I was planning on stopping for an hour or two there and then going straight through Shaktoolik and onto the Rock, a shelter cabin 7 - 10 miles out of town, for a longer rest. I had PROMISED Jamie Nelson I wouldn't stop in Shaktoolik under any circumstances - just pick up my supplies and get outta' town. All part of a 'master plan' to prevent a replay of last year's 'crash' on the ice.

I flayed around looking for that cabin and never found it. In fact, I wasted close to an hour looking - so much for the 'plan'. I decided to head straight into Shaktoolik and work on reformatting a new plan on the way in. We chased caribou for a bit and then settled into a decent pace. The wind really began to pick up. I had Camilla / Grover and then Camilla / Gus in lead. The team kept veering around and going off the trail. It took my Iditarod fogged brain a long while and a lot of wasted time to figure out that the problem was Camilla. She didn't like the wind! About 1 mile out of town I switched her out of lead and we started going straight ahead, but of course, I hadn't been able to concentrate on a 'new plan' and came into the checkpoint not sure of what I was going to do.

August 6, 2001 Kaltag to Unalakleet

Well, back on familiar ground! The checkers had a treat for us in Kaltag. Instead of the community hall they had set up for us last year, the local school had been opened up to the mushers. Running water, flushing toilets, kitchen facilities, and gym mats to sleep on the floor (don't think I've done that since kindergarten!) made it seem like we were in a luxury resort!! How wonderful. While wandering around looking for a washroom I found the most thrilling thing - a Coke machine!!! I was practically drooling as I searched the 300+ pockets on my parka. All I had was some bills, thank goodness for the teacher walking by that took mercy on me and gave me change for the machine. It must have been the drool and the crazed look in my eyes that prompted her to be so kind! Never has a Diet Coke tasted so good.

The dogs had chowed down really well and settled in for a nap. I did exactly the same, getting a few of the best hours sleep I'd had in a long time - since Shageluk, actually.
I borrowed a phone in the checkpoint and called Jamie again. I wasn't down or anything, but I was still a little discouraged that the team still wasn't 'coming together' like they had on Grand Portage. They were still doing much better then my 2000 team though - and we were still 15 strong - now the largest in the Race!

One of my favorite memories of the Race happened as I was getting ready to leave. A local Elder came by and we were chatting about the days that they used to use dog teams as their main mode of transportation. He commented that most of the front runners don't have the time to chat and I noted that they were running a much different 'Race' then I was. He said that he would have liked to run the Race himself one day, but that if he had 'he wouldn't have time to waste talking to people in checkpoints.' I smiled and told him that one of my favorite things about the Race was the opportunity to do just that and besides, I was packing up my gear while we talked, so it wasn't taking up any extra time. He wished me luck and began to walk away, and then he turned around, walked back and stuck out his hand. As we shook, he thanked me for 'taking the time to talk to him'. The privilege was
With help from checker (and Iditarod veteran) Linda Joy, I got the dogs out onto the trail. Last year I had a fair amount of troubles getting them out of Kaltag. This year, they moved solidly. I remember very much liking the terrain and trail from Kaltag to Old Woman Cabin. Memory served me well - it was as pretty and enjoyable as I recalled - and without a lot of the backbreaking moguls that plagued us last year.

Dave Tresino's team passed right around Tripod Flats. Dave was insistent that Old Woman Cabin was much farther then the 1 ½ hours away I thought it was. He ended up pulling over at the 'old' Old Woman Cabin (which is little more then a dilapidated shack). When I pulled into the 'new' Old Woman Cabin not 10 minutes later I felt for him.

Old Woman Cabin is a real luxury on the trail. It is cute, cozy and usually warm. Beth Manning left shortly after I pulled in and I had a couple hours to relax by the woodstove. For some reason, despite knowing Dave was a few miles behind me and Beth and others weren't far ahead,I was really overcome by a feeling of being alone out at Old Woman. Maybe it was the ghost of the old woman for which the cabin was named playing mind games with me. To appease her, I left a customary snack behind.

Turns out I was far from alone. As we left the cabin Grover got VERY animated! He and the rest of the dogs were barking as they ran (despite what Walt Disney will tell you - that is very unusual for sled dogs on the move). I could see a lot of dark shapes and movement just off the trail. Caribou, I'm sure, but it gave me quite the start!!

The trip into Unalkleet from there was windy and stark - a warm up for the coast ahead. As we got closer and closer to the village the snow got less and less. My feelings of dread as I approached my problem areas from last year got more and more. This year I was withholding my 'got to the coast' euphoria until Koyuk.

Tuesday 10 July 2001

July 10, 2001 Eagle Island to Kaltag

Eagle Island is not much, it's only inhabitants living in a small cabin on the banks of a tributary of the Yukon. The cabin is so small that it is not used as the checkpoint, a canvas tent on the river serves that purpose. For sleeping quarters a workshop worked into the bank had plastic hung around it and straw laid on the ground. The outhouse was the 'highlight' of the place! It perched on the edge of the bank and had the most spectacular view - no wonder they didn't bother with a door.

The dogs came in grouchy and ready for a rest. They dived into a pile of straw used by another team, looking for interesting leftover snacks. A few of the cockier boys got into a little scrap over some frozen treasure. Like kids, they get cranky, especially with their 'siblings' when they are tired. No one was injured and they soon settled down to rest.

The clouds from the night had blown over, leaving a spectacular sunny day. I sorted through my sled bag until I found my sunglasses and sunscreen. The sunscreen was frozen solid, I guess most manufactures don't even put a moments thought into the freezing point of their products! After a good rest for the dogs and a terrific meal of eggs, sausage, and toast (vacuum sealed by my friend Lynda earlier in the year) for me I started to get ready to leave. All the dogs watched me out of the corner of their eyes. They all knew the routine by now and realized I was starting to get ready to go. I should say - all watched me out of the corner of their eyes but Kaylinn. When I started packing the sled, she popped up and started barking every now and again to speed me up. When Dave Tresino asked if I had every tried her in lead, I had just been thinking the same thing! I thought leaving a checkpoint was a bit much for an untrained leader, but vowed to try her out somewhere along the trail.

Under a spectacular blue sky and warm sun, we rolled out of Eagle Island. Okay - rolled was a bit of an optimistic verb - let's try shuffled. Under a spectacular blue sky and warm sun, we shuffled out of Eagle Island. Looking for a little more enthusiasm, I switched Kaylinn into lead with Grover. That worked and our shuffling switched into rolling! Kaylinn was amazing. She has not had 1 mile of training in lead, in fact she was introduced to running in harness last April. I was so surprised she actually made the Iditarod team, the fact that she was leading us down the Yukon River was incredible! Yeah Kaylinn!!!

After about 2 hours on the trail, I stopped to snack the dogs. I took the opportunity to put on another layer of clothes, as the wind was starting to blow and it was getting chilly. Off to the west I could see some dark clouds gathering and moving in. I hoped we could get off the river before the storm really moved in.

I passed a couple Idita-sport cross-country skiers. It is sadistic fun to sneak up on those guys and then cheerfully call out 'TRAIL' just before you run them over!!

As dusk closed in the storm caught us and snow started blowing and swirling around. I was really tired and dozed off on the sled a few times. It is quite startling to snap back to reality and not be sure whether or not you are on the right trail. Because the snow was blowing, there wasn't even tracks from Clint, Buck, and Beth who weren't that far ahead of me. Around this time I spotted a light off in the distance. Lights at night on the trail are horrible things, they tend to look closer then they actually are, giving mushers false hope that they are closer to a checkpoint then they actually are. For the longest time, it looked like we were moving away from the light, then SLOWLY the trail turned towards it. Still the trail went on and on with that light looking tantalizingly close.

Blowing snow and dark nights always gives me the feel of being in a cocoon with my dog team, but this cocoon felt like something was hanging around on the very edges of 'our world'. Sure enough, I was up working with my leaders when I noticed a single set of very fresh, very large wolf tracks traveling the trail just ahead of us. How cool! I figured the wolf was only a few minutes ahead, but never did catch a glimpse of it. When I got into the checkpoint other mushers had stories of running into locals on snowmobiles that were out wolf hunting. They had seen numerous wolves on the trails that night. I silently wished my traveling companion of the night before safe journeys.

Again on this stretch I had that bizarre feeling that this wasn't the first time I had been down this trail. As that light came very close to driving me CRAZY, I kept reminding myself that it was the same the last time we traveled this trail - only we had never been down this way before. It was kind of creepy and I was grateful when, finally, we arrived in Kaltag!

July 10, 2001 Grayling to Eagle Island

Grayling was a neat community, although I learned quickly not to turn my back on anything - my clean socks and later, a bag of herring vanished right from under my nose while I was there. Okay, in reality, anything could have vanished from under my nose without me noticing - but I did have checkers, who are somewhat more alert, help me look for them!

The dogs ate veraciously! That was really neat, especially when I looked at the piles of uneaten food in front of dogs in other teams. My whole team was looking really good. I gave ear scratches and some belly rubs and then headed to the Community Hall. We had to be out of the Hall in time for the Bingo game that night (Grayling obviously has their priorities figured out! VBG!), so I grabbed just a few hours rest. If I had planned for a longer rest, maybe I could have stayed and tried to recoup some of my Race expenses! After my nap the communications guy offered me one of the satellite phones to call home. Mark and I had a great, up beat chat until the satellite moved behind a mountain and abruptly cut us off!

While I was resting, Dave Tresino passed through Grayling without stopping, so when I pulled out of the checkpoint at dusk, for the first time, I was officially the last musher on the trail!

There was alittle bit of snowmachine traffic on the trail for the first few miles, but quickly things quieted down. From this point to Kaltag, I found this the most desolate, remote feeling piece of trail I had ever been on. The wind was blowing pretty hard. The moon and northern lights peeked out from behind the quickly moving clouds. The temperature dropped rapidly and harshly throughout the night. Two or three hours out we passed Dave Tresino camped next to the trail. He had hunkered down into his sled bag to get out of the wind. My stint as the Red Lantern musher was over - for now!
During the night I had a 'hallucination' (I guess that is what you would call it) that reoccurred a few times during the Race - I was POSITIVE that I had been on this trail before. I seemed to be familiar with the terrain and know what was coming up. On the odd moment, I would 'pop' back into reality and remind myself that I hadn't been there before. It was spooky and the hair on the back of my neck still stands up when I think about it.

Just before dawn, the team got sluggish. They wanted a break and I wanted the warmth of a checkpoint. I played around with a few different leaders, hoping to get some rhythm going. All of a sudden the dogs picked up and there was Beth Manning camped. I stopped and snacked while talking to her. I thought we were closer to the checkpoint then she did and shortly after I got going, I saw her headlamp coming down the trail. The dogs picked up a bit knowing there was another team behind them. Eventually, I stopped to fix a few booties and Beth passed. The dogs weren't much interested in chasing and we moved down the trail, although lacking direction and fluidity - we were moving forward! Always good news!!

Finally, the checkpoint of Eagle Island came into view. I remember thinking as we pulled up to the tents and camped teams - 'Hmmm, this will be good practice - it is set up JUST LIKE an Iditarod checkpoint'. I almost laughed out loud after reminding my foggy, sleep deprived, easily amused brain that this WAS an Iditarod checkpoint.

July 10, 2001 Anvik to Grayling

After settling the dogs in, I tried using the phone in the checkpoint to make a call back to my friend and mentor, Jamie Nelson. I couldn't get a line to charge to a calling card and no one seemed to know how to make the satellite phone work. I was ready to scream or cry (or both) when one of the checkers graciously got the call through for me (actually, I think they were scared to be stuck in the practically deserted checkpoint with a crazy person and he figured I might leave if I got the call through!)
For those of you that know Jamie, you know that it usually takes days of trying to reach her on the phone. The chances of her actually being there the first time you call are practically NIL, but yet she picked up on the 2nd or 3rd ring. I whined, I sniveled, I complained - she tolerated none of it. DARN! She reiterated the discussion we had prior to the Race about focusing on running 'from tree to tree' instead of to Nome. She reinforced that I needed to keep doing what I had been doing leaving Shageluk, letting the dogs work through things, and be confident that they would 'come together' as a team later. Jamie told me what I needed to hear.

A couple hours later, now on an 'up' on the roller coaster of moods and emotions otherwise know as Iditarod, we hit the Yukon.

I had alittle treat in my drop bags in Anvik. Unlike most mushers, I don't carry a Walkman with me on the trail. To me they are an 'escape' from the quiet and solitude and that is one of my favorite parts about distance racing. I love having nothing but my canine companions and myself for company! However, I had thought I might be needing a 'pick me up' for the river. So I sang and danced on my runners while traveling down the Yukon to music picked out for me by my brother. I also had a great tape done up by a group of school kids I know from the Internet! They read poems and sang great songs like 'The 12 days of the Race' to the tune of 'The 12 Day of Christmas'! That was a lot of fun. Despite my amusement, I only carried the Walkman for another few checkpoints and never used it again - some old dogs are hard to teach new tricks! I was in pretty good spirits when I pulled into the cozy little village of Grayling!

July 10, 2001 Shageluk to Anvik

Shageluk apparently translates to 'Village of the Dog People" - and that it was! Dogs in yards throughout the village barked their welcome. We got parked right across from the 'Washeteria' (a very Alaskan term for a Laundromat - but appropriate in that you can wash people as well as clothes there)! Hot, running water was a treat we hadn't seen in a long time! I gazed longingly at the showers, but didn't figure I had the time to dry my hair and such before I wanted to leave.

One of the checkers was giving back massages to the mushers. Pedro's groans of pleasure echoed all our feelings at this special treat!

A couple of the dogs weren't eating really well. They were all taking their snacks (in fact, I still had to count my fingers after handing food to most of them) and would pick at their meals, but they weren't diving into the bowls as per usual. I took extra time snuggling, massaging, and whispering loving words in all their ears. That really seemed to do the trick, but for the first time this Race, the dogs left the checkpoint badly. As I had been training all season, I put my foot down on the brake and let them work through it - just like training, they popped out of their funk in no time. It seemed like we were making really good time for the short trip over to Anvik. I was in a great humor, that is, until I saw a sign that said 'Anvik - 9 miles'. They had to be kidding or just plain wrong. There was NO WAY Anvik was that far away. As I passed each successive sign counting down the mileage, it became less and less likely that they were wrong. By the time I hit the Yukon, fatigue and frustration had taken over. At one time, I had thought about going right through Anvik, but that didn't seem wise now - if the dogs were moving as slowly as our times showed, maybe they needed more rest. I definitely needed a mental pick me up.

Wednesday 27 June 2001

June 27, 2001 Iditarod to Shageluk

Things looked better as soon as we got into the checkpoint. Many of the other mushers had similar problems coming into Iditarod (misery loves company)! The checkers pointed out an inviting looking tent on the river. Inside 1973 Iditarod Champ, Dick Wilmarth was cooking for the mushers. After getting my dogs all looked after I drifted over for a 'moose-dog' (as opposed to a hot dog) and a couple glasses of milk! What a treat! I was disappointed that I wasn't going to be around for fresh baked apple pie in the morning. What a privilege it was to get to meet Dick! Who is not only kind and personably, but darn good looking! Sleeping accommodations for the mushers was a tent on the river. There was a small stove in there and a good thick layer of straw on the ground. It wasn't the Regal Alaska, but I slept so soundly, it might have been. I really had trouble convincing myself to get out of that sleeping bag! Luckily, I had to make a visit to the outhouse or I might still be there!

Leaving Iditarod the trail climbs and climbs and then climbs alittle more. It had begun snowing pretty good and soon was a full blown storm. We came to a large, fairly open area and the trail VANISHED!! I put Grover and Camilla in lead and they did a real good job staying on what, I hoped, was the trail. We came to one spot where they got alittle confused, I couldn't find any trail markers to help them out, so I went up front and walked ahead of them. After a bit, I came across Pedro from Argentina. His team had entirely shut down and was curled up in little balls with snow drifted all over them. Pedro seemed to want me to stay there with him. I was adamant this was not a good camping spot and we needed to get moving. My leaders didn't seem any keener on heading across this open blow. Clint Warnke came along and had the same problems. Finally Pedro put on his 'platters' (took me a while to understand this was his translation of 'snowshoes') and put in 20 or 30 feet of trail. Camilla was now up front with Gus and they took off down the trail now that they had something to follow. There was no hesitation when they hit the unbroken stuff and they did a fine job of leading. Clint soon straightened out his problems and was on my tail with his faster team. He took over leading and his amazing leader, Skoal, broke the trail the rest of the way into Shageluk.

My dogs did amazing, keeping up with the likes of Clint, Elizabeth Manning, Pedro, Danny Seavey, and Dave Tresino's teams. I took an extra snack break about 5 miles out of the checkpoint and came in shortly after the rest.

June 27, 2001 Ophir to Iditarod

The rest of the mushers in Ophir were startled to find out that we were now the 'Back of the Pack'. Danny Seavey seemed almost panicked, but he stuck to the Race plan.

The atmosphere in the checkpoint was much lighter and welcoming then last year. The checkers were downright jovial and a few of the mushers sat up listening to their stories. The rest of us crashed in warm spots around the cabin. One of the Idita-sport competitors was there too. I was telling the story of my time in the Health Clinic when he popped up and asked if that was in McGrath. He said that he had had a similar situation, having gone in for a relatively simple reason and getting diagnosed and treated for things he didn't even know he had!

While we were napping word came through that the trail was blown in and difficult to find on the way into Iditarod. They recommended that the mushers travel together. We discussed it, but all really had our own game plans that we wanted to stick to. Clint Warnke and I had been in this same situation in the Grand Portage Race earlier this season. The trail turned out to be not nearly as bad as advertised. We gambled that it would be the same here and although 4 of us left right around the same time, we had no intention of traveling together unless things were really bad.

The first half of this journey was spectacular. It was lightly snowing and blowing, but the clouds were high, making for a bright night. The dogs moved strongly. Occasionally, I saw the flash of a headlamp way ahead or behind me. Finally, the trail broke out above the treeline, this was the portion of the trail that we had been warned about. It was rough and difficult to find, even with Clint's team only an hour or so ahead of me on the trail. It seemed like this portion went on forever. I was on unfamiliar ground now, as just after Ophir the trail turned onto the southern route. I had read Don Bower's trail notes on this section, but it was very different from what I had pictured. I was tired and looking forward to taking a nap at Don's Cabin, the halfway point to Iditarod. 'Lucky' for me the tussocks and clumps of snow that the sled kept banging over kept me awake!

After driving through the Twilight Zone time warp (several hours by the clock, an eternity in 'reality') we came upon Don's Cabin. Palmer Shagoognik said it best at the Red Lantern banquet - 'the sign over the door, saying 'Don's Cabin' was nice', but that was it. The cabin had been BADLY vandalized. I felt like I had been rudely dragged back to the modern world. The stove was missing, the walls had huge holes, litter and droppings were everywhere - tired as I was, I was not laying down a sleeping bag in here. I gave the dogs a 4 hour break and headed out. We bounced and bumped along the trail. We past an Idita-sport cyclist, pushing his bike along - and the dogs and I thought the trail was bad for us! HA!!
A few miles after that the trail improved and went through a really pretty section of creek crossing and portages, the dogs flew over this good stretch. Then we climbed for quite a bit and came over a pass. The terrain changed drastically, now winding through stumps, over, around creeks, and narrow corners that eventually turned into long, rolling hills. I was thinking the checkpoint wasn't that far away - I was WRONG!

I was talking to a former Iditarod Champion after and she said she listens to recorded soundtracks during this part of the Race. She says it is the only time she needs an escape! Roy Monk described this portion of the trail as 'soul stealing'. I spent a lot of time thinking about the miners and the millions of dollars of gold that past through this area in its heyday. The fortunes earned and the fortunes lost. It seemed to me like I could feel the spirits of broken souls throughout this section. It was haunting and spooky. As time and time again, we crested one hill, only to see another just like it stretching out ahead - I almost felt I could hear laughter echoing through the hills.

The dogs were grouchy and short-tempered. They had numerous little skirmishes throughout the day - nothing serious though. I remember wondering what exactly I was doing out there on the trail - 'The dogs weren't ready. They couldn't do Iditarod. What was I thinking entering this Race….' We were all in a funk. It was so exciting to finally see the legendary ghost town of Iditarod pop into view ahead. The dogs agreed, picking up their speed and loping into town, leaving the discontented spirits behind us.

Thursday 21 June 2001

June 21, 2001 Takotna to Ophir

The hospitality in Takotna is legendary. It was a shame to still be so full from all the terrific food in McGrath. I still managed to inhale a hamburger and a piece of pie! I popped into the health center for another checkup (a promise to the N.P. in McGrath) and scrambled to get out to town.

There are no food drops in Ophir, the next one from Takotna was Iditarod, so I had to pack the sled for a long haul. I went to grab some more bottle of HEET (what we use for fuel in our cookers) but there was only one box left. Thinking of the other teams still behind me, I only took 2 bottles. Race judge Mark May told me to take whatever I wanted. I expressed my concern about the teams behind me, 'There are no teams behind you" WHAT??? There were 4 other teams that should have still been in McGrath, but Mark said they had all scratched, so Jason Halseth, who was parked here in Takotna and I were the last two teams on the trail.

A few miles out of Takotna, I switched a few leaders around and tossed Butchie up front with Sissy. Any time Butchie is in lead it is a gamble - he loves to lead, but HATES to listen to anything I have to say. Luckily the trail, although drifted in and covered with a layer of new snow didn't offer many options and we had one of the nicest runs of the entire Race on this leg.

June 21, 2001 - McGrath to Takotna

Dawn was just breaking as I came into McGrath. The checkers had a great system worked out in the checkpoint with teams 24'ing in one area and those staying for shorter amounts of time in a different area. They manhandled my rowdy crew into a parking spot and I got busy laying out straw and taking off harness. This would be the only time on the trail that the dogs actually got out of their harnesses. I was speaking to one of the vets, when I noticed someone standing off in the background intently watching the team, - it was Mark! I was thrilled to see him, but the best reaction belonged to Sissy.

Sissy has always been one of Mark's favorites and she absolutely knows it! She locked a stare on him and didn't take her eyes off him for the entire time I was doing chores. Where some of the other dogs might have been puzzled by Mark's not coming over to say 'HI' (it is against the rules for Mark to offer any help in the checkpoint, so we make it a point that he stay completely away from the team) - she was RIPPED. That stare let him know it! There would be lots of time for him to make it up to her in Nome!

For the first hours of my break things were pretty much 'normal' - eat, nap, care for dogs, eat, shower, nap…The dogs looked GREAT! No one even had to have wrist wraps - what a good sign. Since I didn't have to spend time pampering any soreness or injuries, I used up the extra time playing and rubbing down the dogs.

I switched over to my second sled. My starting sled was well, alittle bent, and I had planned to switch to my Bernie Willis sled here anyway. My B.W. sled is like a Cadillac, it tracks so nicely and steers on a thought, - I couldn't wait to get it out on the trail. I sorted through the things in my bag, looking for places to reduce the load, but everything seemed necessary. That is one area I really want to work on - efficient and organized packing of my sled. I'd love to get a chance to rifle through Swingley or Dee Dee's sled bag - just to see how and what they pack. Mark and I wandered through McGrath. As we passed by the airport on our way to a cafe for yet another meal I glanced over at the dropped dogs waiting to be flown to Anchorage and there was Oreo!! We went over to say "Hi". She was delighted to see us, bouncing and jumping. Hmmm, she didn't look nearly as miserable as she did 18 hours ago. I think I had been had by a little black and white furball con artist. Oh well, I gave her a good ear rub and wished her a safe flight home.

As night came around, and after the dogs were again fed, Mark headed off to his room at Joe's Bar, I went upstairs to have a good, long sleep. Sleep didn't happen - I just couldn't stop coughing. I had been battling a bad cough since about Rainy Pass. It had worsened to the point that I couldn't even fall asleep. I went downstairs and talked to one of the vets, who I really respect. He suggested I get into the Health Center for a checkup.

I knew I was in trouble the second I stepped into the Health Center, the nurse practitioner was MAD - mad she had been woken up and mad that I had waited so long before getting medical attention. It became really obvious, really fast that she didn't understand Iditarod mushers (okay, who does?). She was concerned that my face was so red and that I had experienced chills out on the trail. Hmmm, I had been living outside for almost a week - of course my face was suffering from exposure and I had been chilled. Thank goodness she didn't notice the cracks and splits on my hands. Finally she said that if 'I was going to continue on with my little journey' I was going to need some major antibiotics so this didn't develop into pneumonia. She mentioned needle and everything came to a SCREECHING halt. Confession time - send me out in the woods, I'll battle off angry moose and hungry polar bears, careen down the side of icy mountains and inch across thin ice, but come near me with a needle and I turn into a shimpering fool. I'm TERRIFIED of needles. It took awhile to convince the N.P. that I was serious, finally I held out my sweat soaked palms to speak for me. She vanished to consult with a doctor in Anchorage. She came back and announced that I had 'cold weather induced asthma'. WHAT??? She bustled around preparing treatments while my head was in a fog - I just had a cough. I endured a few hours of treatment that made me jittery and uncomfortable, thinking all along - I should be sleeping! Finally I said 'ENOUGH'. She wanted me to come back before I left McGrath, I said no. I didn't agree with their diagnosis and was happy about the treatment. Dying on the trail seemed like a more pleasant option then another round of inhaling steroids! A checker showed up to rescue me (did I mention that the nurse practitioner locked me in the clinic with her once the checker left us!). It was know close to 4am, time to get another meal into the dogs. I had blown most of my sleep time on this 'wild illness chase'.

The dogs ate well and I began to get everything organized for the trail ahead. I need to deal with the headlamp issue. I was suspecting a short in either the battery holder or headlamp, but different combinations of both didn't seem to resolve the problem. I tightened some wires and checked connections. Mark had come back down to the checkpoint. Watching me fumble with the lights was very frustrating for him. One of his trades is an Electrician. What would have been a quick and simple task for a rested, skilled tradesman was an awkward and painful to watch job for a ill, sleep deprived musher. Rules state that although Mark can't help me, another musher can and musher, Roy Monk eventually came to my rescue - loaning me another lamp, battery pack, and new batteries. Bless him.
Eventually, I got all packed. The dogs were rested and ready to hit the trail. The checkers helped me get to the top of the riverbank that leads to the main trail. As I got tugs done up and the team ready, I looked up for Mark - he was headed straight towards me. We gave each other a big hug and kiss and promised to meet up in Nome.

The trail to Takotna is quick and fun. It has got open swamps, rolling hills, and winds through the trees. The dogs did it much quicker then I expected, despite the fact I was riding my brake most of the way.. .

Thursday 7 June 2001

June 7, 2001 - Nikolai to McGrath

Lots of teams were in Nikolai, many taking their 24-hour layovers after the brutal trail we had all just been over. I toyed with the idea, but was better set up to 24 in McGrath and I had a new sled waiting there, so I could use some of that time get everything switched over. The original plan had me taking my 24 in Takotna, but my team 'attitude -o- meter', Surge was showing me they would be ready for a big break soon. At 2 years, Surge was the youngest member of my team. He is a cheerful and hardworking young boy who really likes to play. Throughout most of our hard training he would still try to coax me into playing when I unhooked the team. In Nikolai he only put a halfhearted effort into it when I roughed him around.

During our break I took the opportunity to phone Mark. I told him of my change of plan on my layover. He figured he could get into McGrath to visit while I was there. That was something to really look forward to.

As night rolled around I made the decision to leave Oreo behind. I considered taking her to McGrath and seeing how she looked after a 24 hour break, but we were still 40 or so miles from there and I was worried her attitude would rub off on everyone else. It was quite disappointing for me. Oreo is 6 and was having her best season ever! She had come into her own this year and had been a really key leader during the Grand Portage Race in January. I had been kind of looking at her as my 'Ace in the Hole' for later down the trail. With many ear rubs and hugs, I turned her over to the vets.

The 15 remaining dogs and I headed out. It was a beautiful night. Many stars were washed out by the spectacular full moon. A faint display of northern lights brushed the sky, but it was very muted by the moonlight.

Within the first hour I started having trouble with my headlamp. My batteries, which were new in Nikolai, went dead and when I switched over to my spare pack, it went dead in about 20 minutes. This was a predicament. I had a back up, back up set, borrowed from Beth Manning, but I was worried about a short or something in the lamp. I switched over to the less effective alkalines and a new headlamp. The light started to dim almost immediately. Had I done something to upset the headlamp Gods???

Russell Lane came along shortly after, I flagged him down and asked if he had any spare batteries. He didn't. He suggested I take advantage of the moonlight and a good leader - what choice did I have?? I moved Grover up front with his brother, Gus and told them I hoped they remembered the trail from last year. Looking back, it was a pretty magical run. I was able to turn my very dim light on every now and then for a few seconds to confirm a marker on the side of the trail, but basically, I was in the 'paws' of my wonderful leaders to guide us to the next checkpoint. What a rush when the town of McGrath popped into view across the river. That is one of the big thrills about the Race for me, just when you think you couldn't be more in awe or have more respect for your dogs, something like this happens to prove you wrong.

Wednesday 6 June 2001

June 6, 2001 - Rohn to Nikolai


I love Rohn. It is so picturesque, quiet, and secluded. Traditionally, mushers can breathe a sigh of relief that the worst of the trail is behind them when they are here. The thought kept popping up in the back of my mind that last year I thought the trail to Nikolai was the worst part of the trail, but I couldn’t quite remember why I thought that (I believe this is the same thing that allows woman to continue to have babies – we have really bad memories when it comes to pain!!) Pushing the nagging thought back, I tended to the dogs and myself. I tried to grab a few hours sleep, but just couldn’t fall off. The checker gently reminded me at one point that, in order for them to wake me up at the time I had requested, I first needed to fall asleep! 

Just before nightfall the officials helped me disengage my team from the trees and we headed out. In no time at all I was on my side, wet, and body surfing behind my sled down a river. I tried ‘WHOA’ but that just announced to the dogs that I was in trouble. I swear Grover had a sparkle in his eye as he drove into his harness and led the team off the trail and down the river. We seemed in no imminent danger and I was overcome by a case of the giggles as I tried several different body positions to get comfortable as we slide down the ice. Every now and then I tried ‘WHOA’ – I swear they picked up speed each time! Finally, I heard ice cracking. That quickly chanced the picture. Lucky for me, Grover realized it too and knew ‘Playtime with Mom’ was over. Without a command, he swung hard to the left and led us up over a bank and out of danger. Game over, they stopped on command and I was able to upright the sled, brush off some indignity and verbally steer them onto the marked trail.

The next miles were dirt, ice, and rocks, with a small spattering of snow for color. We bounced and bumped along. Bob Chlupach and Buck Church passed when we had a break from the narrow path through the trees. We came to a big spot of overflow that was so deep that my smaller dogs, like Nik, Striker, and the girls were literally swimming. The trail was a little confusing and with no ability to really stop the sled, I allowed Grover to make the decision as to which way to go. As we rounded a clump of alders, still in about 5 or 6 inches of water, I heard Buck yelling ‘Whoa’. As it turns out many teams had taken the trail to the right, which explains why Grover had gone that way, but it was the worst way to go! The trail made a quick uphill climb as it came out of the water, the water dripping off the sleds and dogs had frozen into something that best resembled a bobsled run! The approach we were making on it came at it from the side and a large tree stump where it joined into the correct trail added to the excitement. Buck was still trying to get his team up the slope and my leaders had run right into him, tangling with his team.  Things were so slippery that I literally could not stand up on the hill. I know for fact that without the help of Buck and the solid foundation of pull training on my dogs (courtesy of Jamie Nelson) we might still be on that hill! I dreaded the Post River Glacier ahead, but it turned out to be only a glacier of rocks and gravel this year!

At one point during the night a headlamp appeared ahead of me on the trail. It was Art Church. He was having a bad time – he had temporarily got separated from a few of his teammates, he was feeling ill (turned out to be pneumonia and he scratched due to that in Nikolai), and blood was dripping from a good size cut on the bridge of his nose. We chatted for a bit and just before I left, I asked him if he had something to clean up his face with. He looked incredulously at me and asked what was wrong with his face!! Turns out he was unaware of the injury!! 

Grover was invaluable over the many snow-less, icy lakes that we crossed. After the last big lake, I stopped and camped with Bob Chlupach for about 4 hours. It was nice to ‘chat Siberian’ for a bit. Other teams passed by on a pretty regular schedule. All of us had horror stories and near misses to tell about the trail. I vowed that I was finishing this Race, so I NEVER had to come back and do this piece of trail again. 

As the sun came up the next day, things were looking up. The trail through the Burn had snow, the dogs were moving pretty good, thoughts of never running this Race again were banished as I played over early run/rest schedules and thought about what I could do better in future Races. (See – bad memory about pain!)

About 12 miles outside of Nikolai Oreo quit pulling. She stuck her ears out the side of her head to let me know she was unhappy about something. Oreo is the Queen of acting pitiful. When she is unhappy, she makes sure everyone is aware of it.  All I could find was a little pain in her lower back. I moved her around in the team and gave her a massage. Despite that she seemed to become more unhappy and uncomfortable. I stopped and loaded her into the sled about 9 miles out. About 1 mile out of the checkpoint, I re-hooked her up to see if the rest made her feel any better. She came into Nikolai under her own steam, but she wasn’t pulling.


Saturday 5 May 2001

May 5, 2001 - Rainy Pass to Rohn

I took my time getting my chores done. The dogs seemed none the worse for the wear after our little adventure on the way in, in fact, all that resting as I pried my sled out of tree wells made them downright spunky. Everyone ate and snacked well.

Bob Chlupach offered to help me bend my sled back into shape, but it was tracking well and I figured I should leave well enough alone. I sure didn't want to drive a badly steering sled through the Gorge and into Rohn.

I was going to stick to my plan and leave the checkpoint around first light. That perked me up as last year I thought the Pass up to the Gorge was some of the prettiest and most amazing scenery that I had ever seen in my life - and besides, the thought of running the Dalzel Gorge in the darkness made my knees quake. (Sorry, if that dispels any myths about mushers being tough and fearless!)

After getting the critters all settled I headed up to the checkpoint. Last year they had the mushers sleeping in a large, cold room with a fireplace that offered no warmth for the only heat source. It was a treat to find that the mushers were sharing cabin space with the checkers and officials. The floor was hard and dirty, the cabin was completely crowded with musher, officials, and trophy mounts of moose, mountain sheep, deer, and unheard of species in Alaska, like African antelopes. It made the whole scene seem a little absurd. But, regardless, watched over by the unseeing eyes of animals that had probably never in their life seen snow, I drifted off to sleep.

Before heading down to the dogs, I snuck in behind the bar and slipped into a nice clean set of underwear and longjohns - what a delight! Snow was falling fairly heavily as I walked down to the teams. I witnessed a team coming back into the checkpoint - always a not good sign! It was Roy Monk. I helped him get back into a parking spot and asked what was up. Seems the visibility through the Pass was really bad and he had gotten turned around somewhere after the entrance to Dalzel. He felt the trail markers might have been moved around and once realizing he was on his way back to Rainy Pass, decided to come back and rest before trying it again, about 40 extra miles of trail this was going to cost him!

Somewhat confident that I could find the trail in the daylight, I set off to meet the Gorge. It was clouded in and snowing as we moved up through the Pass. The light and color was amazing. The journey above the tree line, between spectacular snow covered peaks can only be described as majestic. In all my life experiences, I have never encountered anywhere that does such a wonderful job of reminding us of how small and insignificant we are in the grand scheme of things. One of my favorite works of art (and one that I have been on the hunt to own for a long time) is the 1983 Jon Van Zyle Iditarod poster. It depicts a team traveling through this section of trail under a full moon - the caption is "Iditarod - Alone on the crest of you dreams." I quietly repeated that line to myself under my breath. This IS the Iditarod.

The clouds started to break as we came up into the start of the Gorge. A helicopter made several low, slow passes as we approached the 90-degree turn that signals the head of the Pass. Lucky for me they had just vanished from sight as the team cut the corner too sharp and tossed the sled and I ungracefully up into the rocks. My dogs know all my weaknesses and have seen me in several undignified situations, but there is no need to share the visual evidence of that with the rest of the world!
Just before the start of the real tough stuff, I came across Dave Tresino being fitted with a 'Sled Cam' by the USA network folks. I waited for a bit, but then found a spot to slip by and get on with the business ahead. It didn't seem as bad as last year, but it still has the power to awe and demands a musher's respect. The trail spits mushers out onto a river leading into Rohn - and I mean that literally! The bank onto the river is about a 3-foot drop off! After the drop, you are on clear, smooth, trail-less ice - completely at the mercy of your dog team. If they choose to meander and wander - you meander and wander! Lucky for me - Grover is a pro on ice and we trucked along without incident. Gosh, I adore that dog!

The trail pops up off the river and winds through the trees for a bit before you end up running along the edge of the Rohn runway and into the checkpoint.

Sunday 29 April 2001

April 29, 2001 - Finger Lake to Rainy Pass

Finger Lake is a really pretty checkpoint on Iditarod - and very hospitable!!!  There was lots of activity there too - dog teams, spectators, media… There was an incredible amount of snow in Finger Lake this year! Race folks had packed down parking spots for the team, but one step off the beaten path would you crashing though the snow up to the top of your thigh. I slopped dog food all over myself numerous times walking around the team with full dishes.  Most of the dogs ate really well, but 1 or 2 seemed distracted and not quite into their trail routine. Nor was I into mine  - despite GREAT food up at the checkpoint and a warm, quiet cabin to sleep in, I didn't feel like either. I picked at a meal of chicken, rice, and black bean salsa and then dozed in front of a warm stove in the cabin's living room. I had looked longingly at the coffee stand set up out on the Lake. I craved a Latte, but I'd been avoiding caffeine since the beginning of December and that shot of Espresso now would have sent me into space, I'm sure!  The trip to the outhouse was pretty interesting - there was so much snow, it was over the top of the outhouse. There was a tunnel with 4 steep steps to get to the door!

While I was puttering around the team Mike Nosko came by looking for extra drop lines.  Sadly, he had had an accident with a snowmachine just hours after the Race started. Although no dogs were badly injured, there were enough bumps, bruises, and soreness that he was going to have to scratch here at Finger Lake. How disappointing that must have been for him.

I did the math and figured out that if I cut my rest a little shorter then planned here I could work things so I got to go through both the dreaded Happy River steps and the Dalzel Gorge in the daylight! Seeing that I had over-rested here last year and left with a team so fresh I had lost them within ¼ mile of the checkpoint, leaving here with them feeling not so spunky really seemed like a wise plan. So at around 5pm, I pulled the hook.

The team had some 'zip' in their step as we left, but quickly settled into a disjointed effort, I kept reminding myself that it was early in the race and they would eventually gel together as a team. The trail actually seemed better then last year. It wasn't until right before the Steps that I even got the chance to dip my face into a snowbank. I had Sissy and her sister, Oreo up front. Sissy is both a name and a description of this little black and white gal. I would never put her up front for a crowded situation like a race start, but out on the trail she is a solid and dependable leader. Oreo proved herself in the Grand Portage Race earlier this season and I felt very confident that these two girls would take me safely down this trail. Shortly before the Steps, we passed some people camped out, they wished us luck for the trail ahead. I stopped and undid 10 tuglines to cut down on the dog power.

The Steps are 3 notorious tight turns combined with steep drop-offs that get you down the bank and onto the Happy River.  I thought they were a little trickier to negotiate then last year, because they seemed a little more 'bottom-less' and I couldn't get much purchase with my foot brake, but we did stay upright for Steps 1 and 2. Coming down the last Step Sissy ran into the thing she fears most - people. There was a camera crew set up to get 'disaster-Cam' footage. Sissy balked and the lack of forward momentum tipped the sled over onto it's side. In a fairly non-spectacular crash we slid to the bottom of the drop off, problem was my Bunny Boot slipped through the bar brake on my sled and got wedged in. I struggled for a moment to free my foot before a cameraman took mercy on me and came over to assist.

My sigh of relief at getting through the worst of this trail was early! After my little tip over, the sled was pulling to the right. Just my luck, the majority of the rest of the trail into Rainy Pass curves left around a mountain making for lots of side hills that my sled was going to want to slide down! Sure enough, in no time I found myself wedged against a tree in a deep well made by the abundance of snow. The front of my sled was pointing upward at a 90 degree angle. Not good. A survey of damage showed that things were bend, not broken  - phew. I was NOT going to repeat last year's broken sled incident in Rainy Pass. I went up and kicked the tree a few times for good measure, at which point I recognized it as a tree I intimately visited last year.  If I ever get a summer vacation in Alaska, I'm bringing a chainsaw!

On a nice flat lake crossing I stopped to play up the dogs and check on things. I jumped up and down on the brush bow a few times to try to get it bend back so it looked a little more like a sled - no luck. It was now pulling to the right much worse then before.  The next few hours felt like a pinball game as I bounced off trees and struggled to keep the sled up on the trail on sidehills. Finally I got the sled so jammed against a tree I had to unhook the dogs from it. I tied my snub line to a big tree to anchor the team while I worked on extraditing the sled. The well was so deep that I couldn't stand up to push the sled out. I ended up tying a snow hook line around the handlebar and muscling the darn thing out that way - the whole time berating myself for packing so much gear and making it so heavy. I was so pleased when I got free - I figured after dealing with that, I could handle just about anything - so the trail threw something at me I couldn't handle - just to keep me humble, I think! I came around a corner to find a nasty sidehill with an open creek at the bottom. There was a spot in the middle where the trail had a 'hole' that looked like it had sucked in many other teams before me. Thank goodness, as I was trying to work my sleep deprived head around a method for getting an improperly steering sled through this mess musher Ben Grey came along and agreed to help. I took the dogs and he took the sled and we safely got across!  

One more little smack into a tree and be darned if the sled didn't start to track better. In fact, it was almost tracking true again, still Rainy Pass looked like a haven when I got there!

A quick feeding after arriving at the truck and we were loaded and headed home for my last night on a comfy bed and the dogs last night in their cozy straw filled houses.

Wednesday 25 April 2001

April 25, 2002 School Presentation

Dear Karen,

Thank you again for your visit and great talk yesterday. The kids were very interested and were jealous when I mentioned your offer to help out next year!

Attached are some of the photos taken in atrium. There will be a news article in the Western Wheel, published in Okotoks, next Wednesday. We'll send you a copy. I know your mom said she was going to pick one up, but that will probably be for herself!

Thanks again for your time and enthusiasm. Joan and I will be planning for next year and will definitely be keeping your offer of materials and visits in mind.

Take care.
Carrie Duncan-Moore
Grade six classes (6A and 6B) from Strathcona-Tweedsmuir School
(South of Calgary, just outside Okotoks)

For pictures click here

Monday 23 April 2001

April 23, 2001

…And I thought things were supposed to SLOW DOWN after Iditarod….

There are all sorts of things going on around here. First off, we are expecting a couple litters of puppies. A few weeks back we bred Grover to Visa – she is due around June 7th. Then this past weekend we bred Jetti (Mannie’s Mom) to Spud. As Spud will be turning 10 this August, this will probably be his last litter, so we are especially looking forward to little ‘Tater Tots’ running around the house!

Last Friday we spent the day with a reporter from our local CTV station, CFRN. Chester, Camilla and I did a brief spot on their Noon news after which one of the producers made arrangements for them to do a piece on us for the evening news. The reporter came out and we hooked the entire 16 dog Iditarod team up to the 4 wheeler and went for a run. What a hoot that was. Most of the dogs hadn’t run since getting back from Alaska and they were KEEN to go!! 

The screaming as we were hooking up was ear piercing! Partway through the run we stopped so they could ask some questions on camera. We didn’t get too far into the talk when the team took off with the Quad – all the brakes were locked up and it still took me a long way to get them stopped again. It wasn’t quite as amusing the 2nd and 3rd time the dogs did it! After getting everyone put away, we packed up Chester and headed off to the Rochester School to do a visit. Rochester School has always been very supportive of us and I have spoken to the kids there on a couple of occasions, so it was an obvious choice of kids to include on air with us! 

On Saturday I ran a bunch of dogs into the city to get some eye testing done. Due to some hereditary problems that Siberian Huskies are prone to, it is the wise and responsible thing to do to get a Specialist to check them out before they are bred. We are happy to report that all 7 we took tested normal. 

Saturday evening was a hectic one. The community of Perryvale hosted a potluck dinner for Mark and I in honor of our Iditarod run. I did a presentation and slide show for everyone. In addition to lots of local folks, my Mom, my brother, and Mark’s parents all showed up from Calgary for the weekend – what a treat! The community presented Mark and I with a gift certificate for an evening in Edmonton at a Dinner Theater! They said that after all the time that we had spent apart this winter, they wanted to make sure we spent some quality time together. What a thoughtful and appreciated gift! We are so grateful to live in such a supportive community! A special thanks to Barb, Patti, and Phyllis for organizing the evening! 

Sunday I ran back into the city to drop Raptor off with his new Mom and Dad. I stuck around to watch some of the Edmonton Kennel Club Dog Show and to have dinner with a friend from Grande Prairie who was down for the show. 

This week is looking to be busy too. Tomorrow night Fly (my Australian Shepherd) and I start obedience classes. I’ve competed in the obedience ring with a few of our Siberian Huskies and I miss the being there. Hopefully, Fly will progress well in classes and I can get him out in the ring before winter rolls around! Contrary to what many think – he is already quite a well mannered fellow!
Later in the week, I’m heading off to Calgary for a few days to do a school visit and an on-air interview with CFCN. 

….I’m so grateful for all this SLOW TIME….

April 23, 2001 - Yentna – Finger Lake

Pretty much right on my schedule of resting 4 hours in Yentna, I pulled the hook and we headed off into the night. 

The trail ended up being fairly busy and I saw many mushers out there, including one (I never did figure out who it was) that was way off the trail along the bank of the river. From the shouts and curses it was pretty obvious that the trail wasn’t good over there and the mystery musher wasn’t having a lot of fun.
I had a great run. I had vowed not to use Grover in lead too much early in the Race – he is my best leader and I didn’t want to burn him out, however he loves leading and I didn’t want him to sulk too much about not getting a turn up front. So it was decided prior to the Race that he would get to lead on the short, easy 35-mile stretch to Skwentna. That basically set us up for a great trip down the Yentna.
There were a lot of teams still hanging out in the checkpoint. Typical to form, the dogs dove into the straw of the team next to them looking for leftover snacks. A little bit of muscling and I got them into their own spot, hooked the front end out, got their own snacks into them, and got some straw spread out. With just a little fussing they settled down while I cooked for them. After big, warm meals they were ready for their nap. 

I hiked up the riverbank to Joe Delia’s Cabin for some much appreciated warmth and good food. A quick snooze on the floor upstairs and I was ready to roll again. 

The dogs were quick to get up. I can’t remember which two leaders I put up front, I’m thinking it was Chester and Orion. Whoever it was, they certainly weren’t strong on their commands and ignoring my “HAW” they drifted off the trail to the right of the River. Finally they made a 90-degree turn and headed parallel to the checkpoint. The trail got slushy and wet and I couldn’t get a hook in to go up front and straighten out the problem. They barreled towards the left bank and at the last second their ears kicked into gear so they were able to hear my frantic shouts of ‘GEE’ and they swung hard to the right, which hooked us back up with the main trail. I think maybe they knew where we were headed the whole time and were just playing with me. 

As everyone had said, there was a lot of snow out there. The trail was somewhat soft, but not too bad. It was pretty obvious by the high banks though that stepping off the trail might mean you wouldn’t be found till spring. A real plus was that the moguls that pounded mushers and sleds last year weren’t nearly as prevalent.

Once pointed the right direction things settled down. Lance Mackay and I played ‘leapfrog’ a few times, Danny Seavey smoked by and my team kicked it up a gear for a few miles. I finally stopped for a snack break on One Island Lake, knowing Danny would get far enough ahead that the dogs would settle back into their own pace. The trail to Finger Lake is really a lot of fun. There are some open swamps, a few creek crossings, some twisty trails through pretty forests, and some wonderful views of the Alaska Range looming ahead.

I was pleasantly surprised by how much I remembered from last year. It made the trail seem shorter then last time and I was very happy as we made the journey around the Lake and into the checkpoint.

Tuesday 3 April 2001

April 3, 2001 - The Restart to Yentna

The real deal! At the last minute the restart had been moved from it’s usual location in Wasilla to the community of Willow. In 1998, when I was ‘Chasing the Race’ the restart was held here, so I pretty much knew what to expect. For mushers, the Willow restart is a delight. No double sledding, no roads to deal with, you are out and right onto the trail! 

Our morning started really early. Vivian was wonderful enough to get up and cook steak and eggs for breakfast. What a treat, especially when I didn’t know when or where my next meal was going to be.
As we were sitting in the Willow Community Hall a reporter from the Anchorage News came over and asked if he could talk to me about my Siberians – gosh, I find it sooooo hard to talk about my dogs ;) We had a nice interview and it resulted in, what I thought was a good article in the Anchorage paper the next day. 

When I eventually wandered out to the dog truck, Mark told me that the drug testing crew had been by and collected urine from some of the dogs. We laughed and wondered if they knew something we didn’t – usually they only test the top teams. 

Microchips were checked on the dogs, the sled was packed, checked and rechecked and eventually – it was Show Time!

I made a last minute decision to put Camilla in lead with Gus instead of Oreo. It wasn’t a good decision, as Camilla seemed preoccupied with the crowds. Sure enough, they felt like a herd of cattle thundering out of the chute – which was confirmed by a picture that ran on the front page of the A.D.N Sports section the next day. The dogs looked happy and enthused, which was cool – but you couldn’t even tell who was supposed to be in lead! Oh well, it was still a LONG way to Nome. 

The team didn’t feel good right from the start. They seemed to lack the focus and power that I had come to expect from them through out the season. I vowed to be patient and let them work through it. In no time at all Dee Dee’s team BLEW past us. She brightly called out ‘Thanks Karen’ as I stepped on the brake to allow her an easy pass. Shortly after Rick Swenson’s crew passed too. I still find it quite the thrill to share the trail with teams of this caliber. 

The trail winds along a river until it hooks up with the Yentna River. The weather was great, the trail lovely – a great day all and all. 

Well before dark we pulled into Yentna Station. Last year I had gone right through here, having stopped earlier on the trail, but with the change in distances due to the restart being in Willow, a 4-hour break seemed wise. I got the dogs settled in and fed and got up to the Roadhouse for a great feed of spaghetti! Sure was tastier then, say – extra firm TOFU would have been!! 

There is a little inside joke to this. Lloyd had been trying to convince me the entire time we were in Alaska how good Tofu pancakes were. I was thoroughly unconvinced (and still am). This led to a lot of jokes going around about Tofu. When I pulled into Yentna and started unpacking my sled to cook for the dogs, what did I find in my sled bag but a package of extra firm TOFU. Seems Greg and Marie Stevens from BASH thought this would get a good laugh out of me – and it did. The checkers probably wondered what that twisted musher was doing over there, laughing away to herself!

Monday 2 April 2001

April 2, 2001

Yesterday morning, as I lay in bed with the window open I heard a Canada goose fly overhead. That and the lack of snow on the ground here are good signs that winter is over and spring is arriving. And so brings to close an amazing and never to be forgotten winter.

Over the next few weeks I’m going to make an effort to get all the stories down and online. I hope you will all enjoy them and that in this small way, I can repay everyone for the tremendous outpouring of support and good wishes that I’ve been overwhelmed by.


The story begins…..
Ceremonial Start
As last year, the Ceremonial Start of Iditarod is a well-organized circus! And one I thoroughly enjoy! We arrived early and got the truck parked in our designated spot. In no time at all the street was packed with other teams, fans and volunteers. Arriving late was Charlie Boulding. The crews had dumped a lot of snow on 4th Avenue this year, much more then last year. Great for dog teams, not great for dog trucks. Charlie spun and slid his way around the corner and up the street, sending Mark and I SCRAMBLING to rescue dogs from the side of our truck. He slid by us and inched by Devan Currier’s truck with his wife, Robin yelling out apologies as they went! Trust Charlie to add flavor and excitement to the morning!!!

Waiting to Start
Our helpers this year were a lot of fun – friends from the Bay Area Siberian Husky Club (B.A.S.H.) had flown up for the start. They were terrific, helping out any way they could and taking lots of pictures!!  One favorite picture was when Libby Riddles came over. Any of you who have followed my diaries since last year know that I am a big fan of Libby’s.  Her book, Race Across Alaska was one of the things that got me hooked on the idea of Iditarod. Libby came and asked about my training this year and what I had done different to prevent the problems I ran into last year. Always gracious and friendly, she posed for some pictures with my Idita-rider Liz, and myself.  Definitely, a highlight in my mind!
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Libby & Karen

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Libby & Karen


In no time at all, it seemed, the dogs where hooked up and we were standing in the starting chute. (Did everyone see the spiffy looking red and black bandanas with the maple leaves on them that the team was sporting at the Ceremonial Start? They looked so good. Our thanks to my terrific ‘landlady’, Nancy Black for sewing these up for the dogs!)  

Starting Chute

It seemed just as special this year as last.  This time Mark had opted not to ride the second sled for the Ceremonial start and had passed the honor on to our friend, Lara Baker. As the team shot out of the chute, I gave Mark the ‘high five’ that we have exchanged so many times in so many starting chutes. (This tradition arose from a late entrance into a chute at one of our early races. I missed the chance to get a ‘good luck smooch’ from Mark and had to settle for a high five as the team rocketed by – it has become sort of a ‘good luck’ ritual for us.)

Our ride to the end of the shortened course was solid and uneventful. Lara did a fine job on the tag sled and Liz was an engaging and interested Idita-rider. She and I chatted almost none stop along the way!  I was very pleased with the dogs, they pulled solid and strong, if not fast through the 11 miles.  The only ‘incident’ of the trip was my leaders attempt to ‘clothesline’ official Iditarod photographer, Jeff Schultz. I run my leaders without a neckline hooking them together. Each leader chose a different direction around Jeff’s legs as he stood on the side of the trail taking pictures. Luckily, I saw it coming and was able to stop everyone before I had to foot the bill for a bunch of very expensive camera equipment! 

A quick feeding after arriving at the truck and we were loaded and headed home for my last night on a comfy bed and the dogs last night in their cozy straw filled houses.

Thursday 29 March 2001

March 29, 2001

More details coming...stay tuned! :)

Click on the images to view much larger versions.  I have purposely left the originals very large, generally 1024x768 so that details will be more easily visible. 

I'm sure these will be way out of order, but in the interest of getting them posted as quickly as possible...

Wednesday 28 March 2001

March 28, 2001

More to come soon! :)

Go here and click on the images to view much larger versions.  I have purposely left the originals very large, generally 1024x768 so that details will be more easily visible. 


Monday 19 March 2001

March 19, 2001 - The Finish

She did it!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
Karen arrived in Nome with 15 beautiful Siberian Huskies, riding her sled in style (not running, but riding). 
Her time: 14 Days  23 Hrs 53 Min 16 Sec
As the final musher to successfully complete the 1000+ mile course to Nome in this year's race, Karen will receive the Red Lantern trophy.

We have no close up pictures of her arrival yet, but I'm sure she was smiling from ear to ear (as the siberians might have been too to see Mark waiting for them).

Hundreds of people spent most of the afternoon checking for her arrival on the Live Nome Webcam. With the way the camera was cycling, all that people got to see was the two lead dogs and then Karen's back.
Stay tuned for stories from the trail...
"Iditarod: Red Lantern
As Karen Ramstead brings in the last team on the trail, she will receive the Red Lantern Award and bring closure to another fine Iditarod race. Stay tuned - We're here till the last musher crosses the burled arches in Nome."

I hope they're ready for the hits on their server...
"In the early pioneering years of Alaska, dog teams were used to carry freight and mail between the Anchorage, Seward and the interior. Along the way, roadhouses were set up as rest stops and shelter. The mushers made their way across the Alaska wilderness in all types of weather. To help them, a kerosene lamp was hung outside each roadhouse as a beacon. These lamps helped the mushers find the roadhouses, and served as a notice that a musher was out somewhere on the trail. The lamp was left to burn until the musher was safely at his intended destination.

In 1986, to address and continue the tradition, Chevron USA hung a Red Lantern on the burl arch in Nome. The lantern is lit at the beginning of the race every year, and it burns brightly until the last musher crosses the finish line. The last musher across the finish line puts out the lamp, officially signifying that the Iditarod Sled Dog Race has come to a close. This practice has identified the last musher in the race as the Red Lantern musher.