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.