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.