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.