Wednesday 28 February 2001

February 28, 2001

What a difference a few days makes! 

When I last signed off, on Sunday morning, it was snowing and trail conditions were darn near perfect. At 5am Monday morning it was 40 degrees Fahrenheit. Tuesday morning the temperatures were still as warm and it began raining. At around 4pm yesterday SHEETS of rain were driving against the window. The trail has deteriorated horribly. Word is that the restart of the Race will now be in Willow instead of Wasilla. Feet of warm snow have fallen on the trail around Finger Lake. I’m thinking this will be a year that not a lot of records are broken – but who knows what the Alaskan weather holds in store for us next week.

The weather has changed our running plans somewhat. On Monday, Mark and I each ran a team 40 miles. I had planned on that being our last long run, but still wanted to get the dogs out for a short run on both Tuesday and today. With the weather what it was yesterday, we decided against running and again today, it is far too slippery and icy around here to take the dogs out. The risk of them injuring themselves on the slick trails is too high. So it looks like they are off until the Ceremonial Start on Saturday. That won’t hurt them any, in fact the extra time off might be really good for them. They have a good number of miles on them this season, they are spunky, and strong – all and all ready to go!!  I still haven’t narrowed the team down to a final 16. I think I have it down to 17 or 18, but those last cuts are turning out to be some tough decisions! (I will post the line up once I have made the final choices!)

Monday’s run was a good one, despite the fact that I actually got closer to a moose then I ever want to get again. I knew coming around the corner that something was there – I was hoping it was another dog team. It wasn’t. Less then 2-dog lengths in front of Grover and Orion was a big cow moose, luckily she choose to run off into the bush instead of stake her claim on the trail. Phew!

Yesterday we drove up to Talkeetna for the day. Talkeetna is a small town at the base of Denali. The Mountain did not grace us with an appearance, it remained hidden in the clouds, but it was swill a nice visit.  We got the chance to visit Dave and Barb Totten’s new Gallery in town and a quick visit out to their new house. I always love the chance to visit with the Tottens and see Dave’s artwork.

Well, today we are washing harnesses, drying sled bags, and organizing all the gear for my sled. Tomorrow is the mandatory Mushers' Meeting and the big Banquet down at the Sullivan Area.  I’m going to try to get one or two more posts in before I leave on Sunday. Like last year, Mark will be posting during the actual Race, I think he may even grace us with one or two before that, in the next day or so

Watch for that

Sunday 25 February 2001

February 25, 2001

Despite a bunch of fog and delayed flights, Mark and Terra arrived safely in Alaska. I was a bit concerned there for a while, as Mark’s plane was taxiing up to the gate, a bunch of Anchorage Police Officers and SWAT team members started lurking around. Same thing when we were picking up the luggage. I asked Mark if he was up to any trouble, but we found out later they were making a big drug bust of some sort.

Terra is already out at Norris’s and Mark is all settled in out here. Sure is nice to finally be together again.
Yesterday we (Mark, Lloyd, Vivian, and myself) went out to watch the start of the Jr. Iditarod. Sixteen very competent looking young mushers headed out on the trail to Yentna. Many of them have been supported and trained by some of the ‘big’ names in the sport – so they were well prepared and had some great looking dogs! We wish them safe and happy trails.

In the afternoon I took a friend from New Mexico out double sledding with me. We had a great trip until 1 ½ miles from the house when the 120 or so participants in the Idita-Sport race went by us on skis, bikes and foot. As they were racing and we were just training, I was quick to pull the team to the side and we ended up waiting for around ½ hour before we could get moving again! Only in Alaska!

Today I’m debating running because the Jr. Iditarod mushers will be coming back down the trail today – plus it is always busier on the weekends. Maybe I’ll just wait until tomorrow.

All other preparations are going pretty smoothly………Goodness – I just glanced out the window and it is SNOWING!! Even Mother Nature is doing her last minute Iditarod preparations!!!!!!

Thursday 22 February 2001

February 22, 2001

Last year while up in Alaska, I saw only 1 moose out on the trails. In fact, it was getting almost comical – folks would be out on the trails and see a moose, I’d go down the same trail, not 10 minutes later and no moose. This year is not like that. It seems around every corner there are moose lurking. I see them almost every time I’m out running.

On Tuesday morning a large cow moose and her calf were hanging out about 30 yards from the dog yard. This morning the pair was back on the main trail. Thank goodness that the winter has been fairly easy for them and they are not as grouchy and ornery as Alaskan moose usually are – a couple loud insults and they hustle off!! 

Last night we were in Anchorage (having a LOVELY dinner with friends at the Regal Alaska!!) and on the way home one was standing along side one of the major city roads. Perryvale sure doesn’t have to worry about the ‘urban moose population’ – even though moose probably outnumber actually residents of Perryvale, they tend to know they should stick to hanging out in the bushes

The most exciting news of the day is that Mark arrives in Alaska tomorrow!! YIPPEE!!! Since December 2nd, I have seen him only 5 days. Despite wonderful and kind friends that I’ve been hanging out with, it has been a pretty lonely winter without him.  I know the team will be happy too!! Last winter when he arrived up from Alberta, the yard went nuts when he called out a greeting to them.

Mark is bringing Terra, one of Keesa’s pups up with him. Earl and Natalie Norris were entitled to a ‘puppy-back’ in exchange for us breeding Keesa to one of their males, Skookum. Natalie and I were finally able to sort out which pup she wanted, so Terra will be staying up in Alaska at the famous Howling Dog Farms! I hope my ‘Terra-ific’ girl works out well for them!

On a personal note, I’d like to wish our dear friend, Roger, a speed and full recovery. He has been having some health problems since early January. Roger is the one who ‘spiffed’ up our dog truck for us with all those great looking maple leaves. Since we first began planning to move to the Athabasca area, Roger and his wife, Pauline have been terrific to us. We would have been lost many times without their help.  Know we are thinking of you lots Roger!

And oh yes, since Mark is on his way up here, we won’t be receiving mail at the telusplanet email address for awhile.

Tuesday 20 February 2001

February 20, 2001

Where to start…where to start…

Actually, I’m going to start in the middle today – just because this particular experience was so memorable!!

On Sunday morning I was out on the trail running the second leg of the Goose Bay 120 (more about that later!). I was coming across a section of the Iditarod Trail known as 3-mile swamp right at daybreak. The Chugiak Mountain range, which is right next to Anchorage, was stretched out across the skyline, bathed in the most perfect pink light. It was SO beautiful! Then I happened to glance over my shoulder to see one mountain peak towering above the trees behind me, it was Denali. The view was one that will stick with me always – the mountain itself was basically obscured by a hazy, deep blue, but one face of it had the rocks and ledges highlighted in a muted pink shade. It was simply spectacular. 

Anyway, it has been a busy few days (Maybe that’s why the time on the trail watching the sunrise seemed so special. Only 10 more days till all I have to focus on is the trail, dogs, and the beauty surrounding us – well, that and those moments of sheer terror – like when you are about to plunge down the Happy River Steps!)

On Friday all the dogs went to Iditarod Trail Headquarters for their pre race bloodwork, EKG and microchipping. Results of the bloodwork are already back and everyone is looking really good – as expected. We had done bloodwork earlier in the season to catch any problems well beforehand.
I continue to be impressed by the efficiency and skill of the volunteer vet techs that do this work. They will test around 1580 dogs prior to Iditarod – they handle each dog with patience, skill and efficiency. Amazing ladies! My hat is off to all of them.

That weekend I decided to run the Goose Bay 120. This race goes down the Iditarod Trail to Yentna Station, takes an 8-hour break, and then runs back. I took Orion, Camilla, Smiley, Grover, Jake, Mannie, Surge, Sissy, Cassie, Kaylinn, Striker, and Draco. Had a great time! Tim and his group at the Tug Bar went out of their way to make it a fun event!

I was the last finisher out of the 7 starters (1 scratched) but as I was just running it as a training run, I wasn’t at all disappointed. Unfortunately, it didn’t help me narrow down my team anymore. All the dogs had a good run and all showed signs that they want to be on the ‘A’ team. 

Early Monday we once again had the dogs loaded up into the truck. This time we were off to the Big Lake Susitna Veterinary Clinic for the dog’s pre race vet checks. Dr. Baetsle and his staff did a through check on the dogs, doing everything from weighing to checking feet, eyes, and ears. Once again, everyone checked out great!

So now we are pretty much done all the pre race checking. I will focus now on a little bit shorter, fun runs on the dogs and working on last minute packing details for my sled and such.

Thursday 15 February 2001

February 15, 2001

Twenty three hundred and ninety five pounds…

That’s the amount of gear and food I dropped off yesterday for Iditarod. Still well over the average of 1800 – 1900 lb. that most mushers send, but heck, I like to be well prepared! Last year that over-packing came in very handy when I had to unexpectedly take my 24-hour layover in Rainy Pass! I hope nothing like that happens again this year, but if it does, you can bet I will have something to feed us all!

To give you all an idea of what went into that ton (literally) of bags – for the dogs I packed their Firstmate kibble, horsemeat, beaver, healthy meatballs (these are meatballs made up with all their extra vitamins and such for the trail! Made up by our friends, Jackie and Rick.), herring, salmon, turkey skins, pork fat, and beef guts (the stinkiest thing in the bags – but well loved by the critters!). My food is definitely more appetizing – at least to me – it consisted of a huge variety of meals in vacuum bags (prepared by friends Lynda and Dwayne! Things like dilled sole and rice, roast beef and mashed potatoes, chili…), frozen orange sections, pepperoni, beef jerky, dried fruit, Pop Tarts, chocolate bars, Boost drinks, Capri Sun juice packs, Tang, and some Gatorade. Lots of things to look forward too!
Now that food drops are out of the way, I can focus on the running once again – although thanks to Lloyd and Vivian, I was able to get some good runs in even as we were working on the drop bags.

We brought 20 dogs up to Alaska with us. They are: Mork, Raptor, Butch, Jake, Camilla, Keesa, Cassie, Kaylinn, Oreo, Sissy, Chester, Gus, Orion, Draco, Grover, Mannie, Surge, Striker, Smiley, and Nik. Eleven of those are veterans off of last years team – a nice combination of the ‘old’ and the ‘new’. 

Everyone is spunky and looking really good. I have a couple indications about which two of the four that may not go on to Iditarod, but the last two are going to be tough to cut! Two more weeks to decide!!

Wednesday 14 February 2001

February 14, 2001

Well, first off I must address one very sad issue. On February 1 my friend and dear sidekick Skeeter left us. Some of you may not been familiar with Skeeter, but this personable little mutt had been a fixture and constant presence in my life for 16 ½ years.  I always felt that he and I were fated to be together. At 19 years of age, I went to some pretty extreme lengths to make that particular dog a part of my life. For all the years we were together, I think I could count on one hand the times I had to go looking for him – usually, he was wherever I was – following so close to the feet of my horse I was sure he’d get kicked, running next to dogsleds, tagging behind me in the yard, sleeping at my feet as I worked on the computer…

Both Mark and I will deeply miss him.

On a happier note, I am now up in Alaska!! The drive up was pretty uneventful. It sure was nice to have company, in the form of my handler, Vivian traveling with me. Viv’s husband, Lloyd was following in our Suburban pulling a trailer full of all my food drop stuff. Luckily, the Custom’s guys were in a good mood and gave us no hassles crossing the border (not so for the trip home from Minnesota, where 3 Canada Customs officers spend close to 1 hour crawling through the dog truck and trailer).

The snow conditions were pretty dismal when we arrived. I took a couple teams out along the Iditarod Trail (which the place we are staying at backs onto) and had a 6 dog team break free a snow hook when I went up to fix a neckline. I caught the sled, no problem, but the thought of running a 16-dog team down that snowless trail was downright scary. And then it happened…..Saturday we received a few inches of snow, followed by about a foot and a half of snow on Sunday night!! WAHOO!!! Things are looking good now!!

Sunday morning I saw a BIG cow moose out on the trail with 2 calves. Camilla thought chasing them might be a fun idea, but a strongly worded suggestion from me changed her mind. Thank goodness! That’s as close to a moose as I care to be!

Our first task after arriving was to get on food drops. That required a little shopping and some organizational details. Monday was spent actually bagging everything and double-checking all the lists. This morning we will hook up the Suburban and trailer and drag everything into Anchorage. I will be very glad to pass them over into Iditarod’s capable hands.

Things are staying pretty busy. On Friday is the team’s EKG’s and bloodwork and Monday is our vet check at the Big Lake Susistna Vet Clinic. Next Friday (the 24th) is Mark’s arrival date in Alaska – it will be so nice to have him up here. Being away from him for so much of the winter has been the hardest part of preparing for Iditarod this year! (Happy Valentine’s Day, Sweetie!)

Well, off to Anchorage for now!

Thursday 8 February 2001

February 8, 2001

Leaving Popular Lake was great. The dogs got up and left as asked – I always worry about asking them to leave checkpoints without a real rest – but this crew was well up to the task. Gus was terrific crossing the Lake, I was able to give him commands and ‘haw’ him exactly where I wanted on the trail. “Haw over, Gus...a little more…. more….right there…yes!” What a guy!!!

The trail ran mostly along a road, eventually it dropped down some nice hills and spit us out onto Gunflint Lake. I have been reading the book “Woman of the Boundary Waters” by Justine Kerfoot. It was quite the honor to know that Justine herself sat in her beautiful Gunflint Lodge and watched the dog teams come across the Lake into the checkpoint.

Bill, Sandy and Shelley were waiting. The spot set aside for us was WAY up on a hillside, as we maneuvered the team up to the truck, I was surprised to see that so many teams were still in the checkpoint. We got the dogs fed and bedded down. Butchie had had a sore shoulder on the way over, so Sandy got to work on massaging and then we wrapped him up in one of my new Mountain Ridge shoulder jackets with the pockets for heat packs. Talk about a content little guy!! Raptor seemed really grouchy about something, but we couldn’t put our finger on the problem.

After making sure everyone was settled in, I slipped down to the mushers sleeping area to try and catch up with Jamie before she left. We had a nice chat and she indicated she was leaving in a few more hours – around 3:00. Shelley and I went down to the Lodge for a meal. The folks at Gunflint really rolled out the welcome mat for us – great food, free bottled water and soda, and a terrific sleeping place for mushers.

At 5:00, I was woken up by Bill and JAMIE!! When I asked what she was doing still in Gunflint and she replied “I scratched” – you could have knocked me over with a feather. Basically, it boiled down to a solid dog care decision on Jamie’s part, made with the best interest of her young team in mind. I was still shocked though! Further surprises awaited though, when I heard that Mitch Seavey, Blake Freking, and a bunch of others had also scratched! What was going on???

As we got the team ready, the wind picked up and it started to snow. Butch’s shoulder looked great. We found Raptor’s problem – a blister was starting to form in between a couple of his toes. Not a serious  injury, but a painful one that he was pretty grouchy about, so I made the decision to drop him. During this time, Iditarod veteran Al Hardman returned to Gunflint to withdraw from the Race. Word also came through that several of the teams that left after him were having trouble crossing the lake due to blowing snow, downed trail markers, and open water. Race Officials offered to send snow machines out to break the worst of the trail for the 5 mushers remaining in the checkpoint, but they wanted us to travel in groups so they didn’t have to go out 5 times. I was the closest to leaving and I decided to wait to go out with others.

It was about this time that Race Judge Norman Lee called all the remaining mushers into the Lodge for an emergency meeting. It seems that the last 25 miles or so into the Whitefish Lake checkpoint was impassable by dog team due to blow down from the big storm a little over a year ago. The decision had been made that teams would be picked up by their dog trucks at this point and trucked over to Whitefish.  The layover in Whitefish was extended to 8 hours to give everyone additional time to truck in. This took away the ‘unassisted’ nature of the Whitefish checkpoint, but it was the best Race Officials could due under the circumstances.

At this point word also came through about Doug Swingley taking 9 hours to do the 60 miles to the halfway tent (not an actually checkpoint – just someone out there camping with a radio to keep an eye on everyone!). There were rumors of waist deep snow that slowed him down considerably. That scared me – if Swingley was taking that long on the trail – I might be out there forever! Eventually, I got talking to Joel Kersting, a friend and fellow musher – he proposed that we stay overnight and head out at first light to negotiate the trail. That sounded like a plan to me and after a little discussion with Race Officials, we settled in for the night.

The next morning Joel made the hard decision to scratch due to some health issues with his dogs. Two other mushers had made the choice to scratch last night – so only Clint Warnke, driving Doug Swingley’s puppy team and myself left Gunflint at 7am.

The first 3 hours was tricky. The trail was blown in and there were patches of slush and an open creek crossing. Our going was slow, but it wasn’t quite as bad as we had been led to believe. Clint and I decided on pretty different running plans for the supposedly 95 mile run into the new checkpoint. He was going to take a 4 hour break out on the trail, but I had decided to keep the team moving with only a few short snack breaks. This felt like the best option for this group of dogs – I vowed that I would give them a real break if they quit taking snacks out at any of our breaks. I stopped, watered the dogs,  and chatted with Clint when I came across his camp. What a nice guy! The break was a perfect length – about ½ hour. The dogs were traveling quite strong so I was quite surprised when it took forever to reach the 60 mile point (although the radio guy had long left, there was still signs of where he had been). We later found out that the reported 95 mile leg was actually more like 110 miles – that made things make more sense! Clint caught up with me again about 2 hours out of the checkpoint. We took a short break together and traveled near each other for awhile before his faster team pulled ahead. My team was just tickled to find their truck out there on the trail after 21 hours of traveling. At Whitefish we unboxed them and bedded them down for a rest.

I thought leaving Whitefish might be a bit tricky for the team. They didn’t rest really well during their time in the checkpoint and after their long push the night before I worried they might be a bit sour, but this was exactly the training and type of situation we needed to help this group get ready for Iditarod. Gus was dropped due to a sore shoulder, so with Oreo and Orion in lead, I headed out for what I suspected might be a long run.

Well knock my socks off!!! Oreo dug in and did a great job on the big climb out of Whitefish. I was very impressed. They were traveling at an okay speed and seemed to have no thoughts of anything other then moving down the trail. I stopped to snack and play with them for a bit, after that things really started to roll. I was delighted to pass a sign indicating only 20 miles to the finish.  The last leg into Grand Portage was delightful, the night was beautiful and clear, the dogs were traveling strong and fast. As hoped, they had really come together and become a team during this race. I was almost disappointed to see it all end as we passed through the culvert that meant the finish line was just around the corner. 

As we came around the bend and into sight of the finish line, a cheer went up from the surprisingly large crowd that had gathered at the finish line (they tell me only Swingley had a bigger one!). It turns out that an announcement was made right near the end of the mushers' banquet that I was 5 miles out of the finish line, so a bunch of folks took the time to come down after the banquet and watch the finish – how nice of them!!!

It turns out that 16 of the original 36 mushers in the race scratched, so that meant I actually got a paycheck for finishing 20th! WAHOO!! I was also presented with a very pretty finishers medallion and a beautiful handmade toque by fellow musher Jennifer Evans in lieu of a red lantern.  Quite the haul!
The dogs looked terrific - no problems or soreness to speak of. Everyone standing around commented on their great attitudes when I pulled out the snack bag and they all started barking and jumping for their treats! This was EXACTLY what I had hoped to accomplish on this Race!