Saturday, 25 March 2006

March 25, 2006 Wishes: Be Careful!

I've spent a good part of February this year insisting that I was not totally pleased to have missed "The Storm" that hit the Quest this year. So, when on Iditarod, I found myself blown off the side of a mountain and into a snowbank and willows at the bottom of it, with no knowledge of how I was getting out, or even where 'out' was - I have to admit that my first reaction was to LAUGH HARD at the irony of it all.
 
 I'll save all the drawn-out details for my Iditarod diary entries, but in the meantime - here is the 'Reader's Digest' version. 

When I was sitting in Elim word came back from mushers who had just arrived in White Mountain that there was a storm brewing on the backside of Little McKinley and across Golovin Bay. Confirmation came from snowmachiners who stopped into the checkpoint on the way back from Nome. All reported the trail as 'do-able, but difficult' - and all recommended traveling in pairs. Lachlan Clark was in Elim with me and we discussed traveling together, but ultimately I wished to leave the checkpoint an hour or so before him. We agreed that if things looked 'really bad' I would camp on the trail until he caught up with me. I've been through many storms in the past on races - and I must admit not one of them lived up to the hype it got before I ventured through it. 

So, right around 2:30p.m. I pulled the hook and headed for White Mountain. "You'll be in Nome in 24 hours", were the checker's last words to me. 

On the climb out of Elim I met up with a few more snowmachiners. The first young man seemed concerned about me getting through the storm, particularly about the entrance into Golovin Bay. The last man I spoke with was an Elder, who pronounced the trail as passable "in the daylight". As it was getting towards dusk I decided it was time to just get this over with. 

Sure enough, as we climbed Little McKinley, the winds picked up considerably. Snickers and Dasher continued to do an excellent job picking out the drifted-in trail and moving us from marker to marker. However, once we got around the backside of the mountain, things picked up to a level I had not before experienced. I was now unable to see anything more than the next marker ahead of us - and sometimes in strong gusts, I was unable to even see my leaders or the front half of my team.

Eventually there came a point where neither I nor Snickers could sort out the trail. I hesitated too long and Snickers made what she thought was the wisest move - a turn to put the wind at her back.

Unfortunately, that sent us plummeting down the steep and rocky side of the mountain. For about a 1/2 mile or so we plunged down. It was a wild and rather scary ride, but all of us made it to the bottom in one piece. We flayed around in deep drifted snow before making another plunge downhill. 

 I slogged around in the snow drifts and willows for awhile, but being that it was still storming at a fierce level, it was almost dark, and I had no idea where the trail was, it quickly became obvious to me that my best plan was to hunker down for the night. The dogs obviously agreed, as they had all nestled into the snow with their backs to the wind. I floundered over to them, undid their tuglines and took off their booties, so they could get as comfortable as possible. After surveying the lay of the land a little, I dug out my axe and hacked a trail out of the willows that we could use come morning. I was beginning to get uncomfortably cold, so I tipped my sled over on its side, dug out a sleeping bag-sized area that was mostly protected from the storm, pulled out my sleeping bag and crawled in.


Honestly, the night passed rather comfortably. I woke up once to find the storm quiet and the northern lights out dancing - an hour later the winds had picked up and visibility was down near zero again. Just goes to show how much a trail can change moment to moment - if I had been trying to get through to White Mt during that calm window, I would have wondered what all the fuss was about!


It got light around 7 am, but the winds were still howling. I thought if they died down some, I might be able to hear snowmachine traffic on the trail and know which way to head out. I decided to hold off till 9 am before starting to try to figure my way out. At around 8:45, I thought I might hear someone yelling and stuck my head out of my sleeping bag to find Bobby, the checker from Golovin, jumping up and down, waving his arms. As he worked his way over to me, I woke up the dogs and hurriedly stuffed stuff into my sled bag. Bobby asked if everything was okay and offered to show me the way back to the trail. I readily agreed. He also informed me that Lachlan had spent the night on the mountain just a 1/4 - 1/2 mile or so from where I was. I had no idea!  The trip back up the mountain was as difficult as anything I've ever done with a dog team. It was steep, racked by winds, and had massive drifts - we were so grateful when finally we hit the trail. Bobby had taken the time to upright the markers blown over in the storm - and although still windy, it was nothing like last night, so it was now much easier to stay on the trail. He waved goodbye and headed back to Golovin. 
I stopped the team - snacked the dogs, put on some booties, scratched a few ears and then pulled the hook for White Mountain. They are a tough dog team and looked none the worse for their night on the mountain. 

I've read lots of posts admonishing Iditarod for not sending someone out looking for me sooner and I must say, I thought Iditarod handled the whole situation perfectly. Their response (sending a local out on a snowmachine) was appropriate and well timed. I know and, by my participation, accept the risks associated with an event like Iditarod. I knew leaving Elim that I was headed into a storm. If I had not the skill to look after my team and myself in that storm overnight, I had no business being on the trail to begin with.  I would have been upset and embarrassed had someone else felt the need to tackle that storm looking for me that night. 

...and that's the story!

Karen

Wednesday, 22 March 2006

March 22, 2006 The Feet

I'm still a long way from getting through all my emails and starting diary entries, but I thought that I would take the time to let you all know about the 2 'big' issues of the race for me this year.

First the feet.

As I believe you are all aware, I began having feet issues with my team in Galena (first we thought it was Ruby, but turns out Olena probably stepped on something on the trail and had a puncture wound in her foot that was unrelated to the issues the others had.).  Anyway, leaving Galena I was battling some infected splits on the feet of Skor and Kara. These splits were in the webbing between the pads.
Kara ended up riding in my sled for the last 25 miles of the trip into Nulato and both she and Skor where dropped as soon as I got into the checkpoint.

As the vets and I began checking all the feet on the team, it became apparent this was no longer a 'one or two dog' deal. Seven of the remaining 11 dogs on the team were affected. (One more became infected later on too) We were all puzzled and concerned.  To make a very long story shorter...at about 3pm the vets came up with a plan to try a strong antibiotic combination on the dogs to see if it would bring down the swelling on the feet. It is important to note that, despite the feet condition, the dogs were all still in very good spirits at this time. Everyone was eating, drinking and resting well. Had that not been the case, the decision to pull the plug on this race would have been the obvious one.
Anyway, after 6 hours the feet showed no improvement - not after 9 hours either, but when I checked them around 3am, the change was startling. I decided to feed and water again, giving the dogs even alittle more time to respond to the drugs before leaving.

When ready to go, we again rechecked all the dogs. Batdog didn't respond as well to the antibiotics, so the decision was made to leave him behind.

I knew the race was now a 'checkpoint to checkpoint' thing for me and that there was still a good chance that I was not going to finish, but we were going to give it our all.

We had one small setback in Shaktoolik, as the vets in Unk recommended a slightly different protocol of treatment that the dogs didn't respond well to (you do never know until you try), but once we got them back on their 'pink' foot ointment, things improved again.

 The vets on the Race were great to deal with. They were phoning ahead to the vets in my next checkpoint and bringing them up to speed on the problems I was having and how they were being dealt with.

The dogs did great - although we did lose alittle of the drive and speed that they were showing earlier in the event, they ate and drank well and stayed in good spirits.

Many folks have commended me for continuing on in the Race despite these problems - I deserve not one bit of credit for that. I simply stuffed pills, massaged feet, applied ointment and bootied. It was the dogs who got up and willingly hit the trail checkpoint after checkpoint. If at any one point they had told me they had had enough, I would have been happy to respect their decision - but they didn't. They are amazing creatures. Driving them along the sea ice outside of Nome, I was having a real hard time fighting back the tears this year - not something I had to deal with on either of my previous finishes (yeah, I cried in '01 - but not in the same spot and not really for the same reason). This year it was all about pride for an amazing and inspirational group of dogs.

As to what the problem was - that is still up for discussion. I, and most of the vets I've spoken with, seem to be leaning towards a zinc deficiency in the diet. Siberians do need more zinc then alot of breeds and the thought is that now that we are asking the dogs to 'give more' on the trail, their zinc requirements have outstripped even the top of the line Alaskan Husky diets. Some more testing will be done on zinc levels to sort this out - but I am completely confident we will sort it all out.
In hindsight, this is looking like this was the same problem we experienced last year on the trail, although at the time, the strange weather seemed as good a thing to 'blame' it on.

So, that is the feet thing....next up ...the night on Little McKinley.
Karen

Monday, 20 March 2006

2006 Iditarod

The Ceremonial Start
 
I know that some mushers charge for their Iditarod journals or only tell the tales in books, but I feel so much gratitude and thanks to all of you who support and follow our adventures that I think I owe all of you these stories.
As you read these entries, I ask you all to remember that none of it could have happened without the support and interest of each one of you.
Please never underestimate how thankful I am.

Who would have thought that the Ceremonial Start of Iditarod could become a routine thing? But yet, here we were for the 6th time and indeed, it was comfortable and almost routine!
We slipped down to our favourite restaurant on 4th Ave, where Mark and I don't even bother to look at the menu anymore - Eggs Benedict for us each time. We read the paper and speculated with our 'pit crew' - Colleen, Harry, Doug, Samantha, and Janet - over who we thought were the teams to watch on the Race this year.

We worked our way back to the trucks where, as in past years, fans were already hanging around waiting for the dogs to come out.

Iditarod did have a few little surprises for us this time. Instead of the normal, highly organized, like clockwork organization we were used to, parking was badly organized, it was hard to get volunteers, and things otherwise just didn't run as smoothly as we had seen in the past.

Despite a few unexpected stressful moments, the team made it into the starting chute on time - and Mark even managed to ride up to the line with me. The thought that he might not be able to, because of his leg, had been bothering me for the last couple days.

I got lots of comments on my 'paw' gloves - which, btw, I purchased at Title Wave books in Anchorage!

My team for today was:
Kara - Dasher
Loki - Odie
Herman - Hector
Draco - Barq
Junior - Crunchie
Batdog - Q

My buddy, Doug Grilliot, drove my second sled - always fun to have Doug along - and my Idita-rider was Kathy. She was super enthusiastic and declared herself an honorary Canadian for the day, as she proudly waved Canadian flags from her spot in the sled.


The trip itself wasn't the best - but the trend seems to be that if I have a so-so run on the Ceremonial Start, I have a good run out of the Restart. So I wasn't at all upset. I imagine the year the team rocks on that first 11 miles, I'll be a wreck at the Restart!

We made sure to get muffins at the muffin stop and stopped for hotdogs for Doug and Kathy at the 'Pitstop'. We tossed out booties filled with candies, waved, smiled and thanked everyone for their good wishes. Doug was behind me, mimicking race fans' cries of 'Oh, what a beautiful team'. I cut him some slack; after all, he's only ever done this run before behind Alaskan Husky teams - so he's not used to fans being overcome by the beauty of a dogteam.

It was a beautiful day and fun 11 miles - the smiles were genuine and heartfelt on my end.
Then the run was over, the dogs loaded into the truck, and time to focus on the Race, for real.

The Restart


I know, politically, the re-start occurring in Willow is a big headache for the ITC (Iditarod Trail Committee) – but from a musher’s point of view – it is SSSWEET! We get out on the trail faster, without all the headache and stress of the first 11 miles or so out of Wasilla – and, for us at least, it is much closer and I can actually get to sleep in. 

Okay, I didn’t sleep in very much at all, but I was able to tie up some loose ends and sit down to a lovely steak and eggs breakfast (now an Iditarod tradition for us) before we loaded up the dogs and headed the short distance over to the Community Center. 

It was hard to drive out of the yard and leave Hilda, Pepsi, Nahanni, Jinx, Q, and Barq behind. All are great dogs and I’m sure would have done well on the Race, but I felt completely confident in the team members I had selected.

They are - in ALPHABETICAL order - 
  Dog Status DOB/
Age
Sex Finished
Batdog
 Son of Iditarod Finishers Odie & Kaylinn

Rookie 3/13/02
4 yrs
(next week)
M  
Crunchie
Son of Iditarod Finisher Grover
2 Time Iditarod Veteran 6/6/01
4 yrs
M Iditarod 2004
Finisher
Dasher
Daughter of Iditarod Finishers Butch
& Kara
Iditarod 2005 Veteran 12/21/01
4 yrs
F  
Draco
Son of Butch
5 Time Iditarod Veteran 11/5/97
8 yrs
M 2 Time
Finisher
Hector 2 Time Iditarod Veteran 8/28/01
4 yrs
M Iditarod 2004
Finisher
Herman
Hector's brother
2 Time Iditarod Veteran 8/28/01
4 yrs
M Iditarod 2004
Finisher
Junior
Son of Grover
Rookie 7/14/02
3 yrs
M  
Kara
Daughter of Iditarod Finisher Striker
2 Time Iditarod Veteran 7/27/99
6 yrs
F Iditarod 2004
Finisher
Loki
Son of Striker
Kara's brother
4 Time Iditarod Veteran 7/27/99
6 yrs
M Iditarod 2004
Finisher
Moses 2 Time Iditarod Veteran 1/4/00
6 yrs
M Iditarod 2004
Finisher
Odie
Son of Striker,
Kara & Loki's brother
3 Time Iditarod Veteran 7/27/99
6 yrs
M Iditarod 2004
Finisher
Olena 2 Time Iditarod Veteran 7/28/00
5 yrs
F  
Skor
Son of Grover,
Crunchie's brother
Iditarod 2005 Veteran 6/6/01
4 yrs
M  
Snickers
Daughter of Grover,
Crunchie & Skor's sister
Iditarod 2005 Veteran 6/6/01
4 yrs
F  
Sprite
Daughter of Butch
Iditarod 2005 Veteran 7/1/01
4 yrs
F  
Surge
Son of Butch
4 Time Iditarod Veteran 12/27/98
7 yrs
M 2 Time
Finisher

I must say, for the first time ever, there was no knot in my stomach on Race morning – I was just plain excited about getting out on the trail. The mood in the truck was downright GIDDY as we joked with the parking volunteers that steered us towards our parking spot down on Willow Lake. 

What a nice set up the re-start was this year, lots of room for the trucks, good approach to the start line and lots of room for folks to move around. It took a lot of the tension out of the day. Well-done ITC!! 
In fact the only real stress of my day occurred when I got back to the truck from the Community Center after a bathroom break (I use flushing toilets every chance I can in the days before the race). Janet met me and told me the Iditarod Chip Readers were by and Moses had failed his chip scan. At first I was sure Mark and crew were pulling my leg, but it became apparent fast that they were not. Janet gave me a piece of paper listing what Moses’ chip was supposed to read and what it actually read. The problem was the last 4 digits, 3 of which should have been letters, but showed up as numbers on the Chip Readers scanner. To me it looked completely like an equipment or bookkeeping problem – well, heck, I know it was that – because I know Moses was the dog that went through all the pre race checks and that same dog was the one on the truck now. And there was NO WAY an equipment/paperwork error was going to stop one of my key leaders from hitting the trail with me. Hell may have no fury like a woman scorned, but an Iditarod musher being stopped from taking a key dog the morning of the race has to come a close second. 

Piece of paper in hand, I stormed off to find the Chip Readers. I didn’t have any luck finding them, but I did stumble into Race Marshall Mark Nordman. I explained my problem to him and showed him the problem digits. “It’s not an issue Karen” he assured me. “Tell them to see me if they give you any problems about taking him”. I swear, Mark is the perfect Race Marshall for this Race. He claims to marshal to the spirit of the rules/race rather then to the letter and he does. You can always count on Mark to make good common sense decisions (as was also apparent in the excellent and fair treatment of Paul Gebhardt when he lost his team and recovered them with a snowmachine later in the Race.)
I did run into the Chip Readers on the way back to the truck and we wrote “See Mark Nordman” next to Moses’ name. When I got back to the truck another group of Chip Readers, headed by head vet tech Jan Bullock had stopped by to wish me well. I had them scan Moses for curiosity’s sake. The chip showed on their scanner as it should have. Problem gone. 

My sled was packed - you know, one of the my most commonly asked questions is what exactly is in that sled, so why don’t I take a moment to tell you what is really in there. First off, underneath everything is a sleeping pad, it gives padding to everything and in an emergency, makes the sled a pretty comfortable place to squeeze into. If camping on the trail, I will dig it out to spread my sleeping bag on top of. 

The key big things in there are my cooker (mandatory gear) and my cooler for mixing dog food (we only use the cooker to heat up water, never to mix dog food). Inside my cooker are 16 lightweight aluminum dog dishes and 3 bottles of HEET (gasline antifreeze), which is what it normally takes to heat up enough water to feed the team. Inside the cooker is 8lbs of kibble, meat and fat supplement, which is a feeding for the team – and a couple snacks for them. If it is a long trail, I will carry a few more snacks on top of the cooler – and maybe an extra feeding if I’m planning on camping. Stuffed next to the cooler is my dog food ladle.

Then there are my snowshoes (mandatory), which happen to be big and rather cumbersome, but they are good ones that I could actually use in an emergency (or so I though – but that is a tale for later). I have a couple compression sacks, one with dog ‘clothing’ – a couple jackets, my checkpoint blankets, spare harnesses, a few shoulder rub shirts, and a few shoulder jackets – and one with my extreme cold weather clothing – a pair of Northern Outfitters bib pants, a spare pair of socks, a spare hat, a spare pair of overmitts, another liner for my parka and a wind suit (actually, I forgot my wind suit this year, but it should have been in there!). I also carried my big white Bunny boots for most of the Race and a pair of Apocalypse Design wind bibs. 

Of course there is also a dog and sled first aid kit – the dog one being the bigger of the two. For me I have a small bag with lip balm, sunscreen, stomach remedies, antibacterial lotion, moisturizing lotion, painkillers, and the likes. This year I also had my back brace and some heat wraps. I also had a bag of snacks and some of Doug’s fantastic smoked salmon to keep me fed – and a thermos, Nalgene bottle and some juice packs to keep me hydrated.

Buried well in a secure pocket are my trail mail packet (mandatory) and a few other small good luck items. Also in secure, but assessable pockets are my vet book (mandatory), my notebook with my race plan and trail notes, my I pod, spare batteries for it, a gun, ammunition, and a book (no kidding – I often have trouble sticking to my schedule of trail rest early on in the race and a book keeps me amused enough that I will not cut the dogs rest short. Later in the race I just sleep whenever I can. This year’s book was one by John Grisham, but I didn’t find I needed it much). 

Stuffed in the toe of the sled bag is my sleeping bag (in the bottom of that bag is a small bivy sack too) – and carefully stowed in their place in the ‘nooks and crannies’ are my axe (mandatory), dog booties (mandatory) a spare piece of gangline, my ski poles, 2 headlamps, battery packs for the headlamps, some small lights for the dogs, a small Petzel Tikki light for me to use in checkpoints and matches. On the driving bow are a number of spare necklines and ITC specified cable drop lines – and finally, very securely attached to the back sled stanchion is a knife. The one I carried this year was a beautiful handcrafted one that was a gift for doing a presentation at the Ontario Federation of Sleddog Sports a few years back – it is a wonderful knife.  I don’t guarantee the list to be totally inclusive, but it is close! 

Now race ready - we passed the time chatting with friends, fellow racers, race officials and spectators. We watched teams go by, commenting on others gear, sleds, dogs, etc until finally it was time to start hooking up our dogs. I have such a great support crew; they all know me well and can be relied on to do everything exactly right as we get the team hooked up. My role is just one of an overseer at that point, which gives me a great sense of calm and control at the start. I’d be lost without folks like Mark, Janet, Colleen and Doug. 

I’ve got to confess, I get a real rush in the starting chute of Iditarod. For the last few days, I’ve just moved around at the whim of others. Iditarod schedules events for us - Mark, Colleen and Iditarod officials shuffled me around to get me where I needed to be, when I needed to be there. I move around flanked by others at all times, it seems. If feel all the time like I’m being ‘carried’ by others. Then in the starting chute, everybody ‘sets you down’, moves aside and sends you off on your own. For me ‘the’ moment is when the starter announces ’10 seconds’. Right then everything around me ‘falls’ away and my focus narrows down to just the 16 dogs and the trail stretched in front of me. It’s an unbelievable moment that just never gets old for me! 

Here we go….

Willow to Skwentna

WillowSkwentna.jpg (492341 bytes)
The trail from Willow to Skwentna

The team moved strong and steady out of Willow. My feeling was that I was in exactly the place I was meant to be. There was no nervousness, nor fear – just contentment and happiness to be out on the trail.

The atmosphere of the fans was different than in previous years. The ‘Show’ was almost over, most were keen to get home before dark and they were either on the trail home or packing up. I passed more snowmachiners headed back to Willow then I thought snowmachines were in the state. I’d come over a hill and see a PACK of 20 or 30 machines headed my way. It was often unnerving. Snowmachiners are for the most part gracious and thoughtful around dog teams, but some continue to bear down the trail towards you, giving no clear indication they have seen you and are going to give you the trail until the last minute. I’m sure they don’t realize how scary this can be to mushers. I was just glad I had taken my blood pressure medication that morning.

As I got closer to Yentna we were well into dusk and although I would have rather continued to travel without my headlamp, I figured it wasn’t wise with all the traffic on the trail and stopped to put a few flashers on the dogs and strap on my lamp.

The team continued to move strongly.

Most years my race plan is to drive the team straight through to Skwentna. However, this year Mark and I hadn’t made our yearly trip to the Roadhouse and as it had been quite awhile since the dogs had done an 80+-mile run, I wasn’t sure if it was wise to make such a long run on the first leg of the Race. I had left Willow with a ‘Plan A’, ‘Plan B’ and ‘Plan C’ and figured I’d figure out which one to use based on how the team felt once we were out on the trail. As they were still strong and happy, it was an easy decision to forego ‘Plan C’ and pass through Yentna. I stopped only long enough to have my vet book signed, turn over my bib, autograph a few posters, and sign in/out.
‘The Chicks’ – Snickers and Dasher – did a great job ignoring all the distractions in the checkpoint and left with no problems, however within a few hundred yards of leaving I ran into one of my biggest Iditarod pet peeves.


Let me first quote a couple race rules…

Rule 26 -- Parking: A musher must select a campsite off the race trail so that the team cannot interfere with other teams, i.e., no snacking of dogs on the trail. A musher needing to stop momentarily must not interfere with the progress of another team. Teams must be parked at checkpoints in places that do not interfere with the movements of other teams and mushers. A musher is responsible for properly securing an unattended team. No parking or camping is permitted within one (1) mile of checkpoints or villages.

Rule 28 -- Litter: No litter of any kind may be left on the trail, in camps, or in checkpoints. All material remaining in checkpoints must be left in designated areas. In localized holding area and on the trail, excessive left over dog food is considered litter. For purposes of these rules, straw is not considered litter. Straw must be removed from plastic bags before it is taken from the holding area at checkpoints.

Now, many mushers, myself included will hand out a quick snack on the trail as long as there are no other teams around. Dogs will in seconds clean up their snacks and even if a piece gets left behind, it is really no big deal. However in recent years it has become a practice for many mushers to stop and lay down full scoops of kibble on the snow for each of their team members. I guess often the dogs either don’t feel like or don’t have time to eat all the kibble and these mushers drive away leaving many large piles of kibble on the trail behind them. I see this practice being in violation of both the above rules, but that doesn’t seem to matter to these mushers – and to be honest, Iditarod never enforces those rules, so why should it??

My dogs happen to travel better when a little on the hungry side and I run my race on a schedule that takes advantage of that and has them napping on full stomachs. Add to that that my dogs have great appetites even at the worst of times and you can imagine what happens when I run into these piles of leftover food. My dogs are very well trained, but some temptations are too much, even for well-trained teams!

I’ve complained many times – and even come into checkpoints with steam coming out of my ears over it – but Iditarod officials maintain they don’t have any way to police this rule. (I actually don’t buy that, if you have a rule, you better figure out a way to ensure it is enforced, but …whatever.) (I wonder if the musher featured doing this on the trail outside of Shaktoolik in the OLN coverage of this year’s Race was censured or even spoken to about it?). Anyway…

Just outside of the Yentna checkpoint I ran into someone’s left over food piles in the middle of the trail. A solid wasted 5 minutes of dragging my team and swearing at mushers in general passed before we were underway again. A few hundred yards down the trail ran us into another set of food piles.

Grrrr……

‘Plan B’ had been to stop somewhere outside of Yentna for a couple hours or so to break up the run to Skwentna and that was actually the plan I was favoring. But after everyone getting out of their nice traveling mindsets at the rule-breaking food piles, I wanted the team to get back into 'synch' before considering taking any significant break. I traveled a few miles and stopped to quickly hand out snacks and ruffle dog ears. They were obviously still spunky and happy, so I decided to just head up to Skwentna.

Part way to Skwentna, along the river is the small community of McDougall. There were a number of now-abandoned campfires; however, a few still had enthusiastic race fans. The group that last year advertised (and delivered on the claim) the ‘Best Hot Dogs on the Iditarod Trail’ was back – and I stopped for 30 seconds to visit and grab a ‘dog’.

A few miles later we came to a ‘y’ in the trail. There were no markers in sight (really, as long as you stay on the river, you are usually fine) and ‘The Chicks’, especially Snicks, really wanted to head to the left. I was pretty sure the usual trail headed right, but decided to trust the dogs. Even if they were wrong, the trails would eventually hook up again. I hadn’t counted on the overflow though.
We went about a half-mile and the sled started to bog down in soft snow with water underneath it. I put a foot down to give a helping push, but I was immediately in water almost up to the top of my boot. The trail we were on had deteriorated into just a small snowmachine trail, but trying to turn them around in this would have been a mess, as I could not walk on the trail at all. I saw a few headlamps moving easily along on the far right side of the river and had a few ungracious thoughts about my leaders. Then I spotted another snowmachine trail crossing straight across this one a little ways ahead. In my best 'everything is great – we aren’t in any kind of a jam' voice, I encouraged the team forward. Snickers redeemed herself for getting us on this trail by taking the ‘Gee’ onto the tiny cross trail without hesitation – which was good, ‘cause I couldn’t have walked up there to pull them onto it. In a few sled lengths we were back on solid ground. I stopped and went up to ‘happy up’ everyone before getting underway again.

The rest of the trip was pretty uneventful and I pulled into Skwentna at 12:49 after just a little over 7 hours on the trail.

Due to a number of teams all pulling in at once and getting ‘stuck’ behind a musher that was raiding their drop bags before heading straight through town, it took about 10 minutes before we got into our parking spot. Frustrating, but really no one’s fault.

The dogs devoured their meals and settled onto their straw beds. The vets checked them over and told me what I already knew – ‘no problems!’. Once they were all settled and my drop bags and sled were organized, I hiked up to the checkpoint building for some great food (there is ALWAYS great food for the mushers in Skwentna) and maybe even some sleep. Nice concept, but sleep just wouldn’t come.

I did an interview with Paul from KTUU. Paul is out on the trail every year and he is a really nice guy. He gets about as much rest as the mushers on the trail, but he is always upbeat and asks good, intelligent questions. I can’t imagine ever declining to do an interview with him.

I drank lots of Tang and just enjoyed some down time before heading back out. As I left the checkpoint building, it was getting light and I watched a bald eagle fly loops over the dog teams while I was waiting for the outhouse.

A TV crew followed me down to the river and filmed while I puttered around the sled and got ready to go. When I asked him, Hector led the team in song for the cameras before we finally pulled the hook to leave.

HectorSings.jpg (48463 bytes)

It was right around 8 am and we had had a nice 7 hour rest.

Updated:  Monday 5:40am AST
Pos Musher Checkpoint Time In Time Out Dogs Rest Travel Previous
Checkpoint
Previous
Time Out
Speed
Status
1 Bryan Bearss/3 Skwentna 3/05 21:14:00 3/05 21:19:00   0:05 3:32 Yentna 3/05 17:42:00 9.60   24  8
2 Ramy Brooks/16 Skwentna 3/05 21:41:00 3/05 21:46:00 16 0:05 2:41 Yentna 3/05 19:00:00 12.70   24  8
3 Melanie Gould/23 Skwentna 3/05 21:45:00 3/05 21:50:00 16 0:05 3:29 Yentna 3/05 18:16:00 9.80   24  8
52 Jamie Nelson/79 Skwentna 3/06 00:30:00   16   3:47 Yentna 3/05 20:43:00 9.00   24  8
57 Karen Ramstead/76 Skwentna 3/06 00:49:00   16     Yentna       24  8

 
 Skwentna to Finger Lake


I've seen the trail from Skwentna to Finger Lake be a lovely, enjoyable trip through some beautiful wilderness - and I've seen it rutted and super challenging. This year it was pretty fun.

The trail out of Skwentna follows the river for a bit then crosses a series of swamps. Other mushers are often camped in the shelter of the portages, which makes things more interesting for all. Sometimes the mushers will call out a greeting, sometimes nods will be exchanged and sometimes the camping musher is wrapped up in a sleeping bag, oblivious to passing teams.

The snow was pretty deep crossing the swamps, and the trail was narrow with big banks on the side. The odd track crossing the trail got me thinking that this would really not be a good spot to run into a moose and they were obviously in the area. The early morning dusk can make trees appear like a variety of things, including big, hulking herbivores. I doubled checked to make sure my gun was within easy reach - it was.

The team was moving great and I continued to just have an enjoyable run. Once it was fully light, a few odd planes buzzed overhead on their way into Finger Lake.

A few partiers were left at the legendary One Stone Lake bonfire and they kindly called out to warn me about a nasty little rut just ahead. I waved and called out thanks. 

The deep snow continued and passing became pretty tricky. That isn't much of a problem later on in the race, but this early, teams were still juggling position. No big problem though, as debatingeveryone was still in good spirits and even the tangles and passing messes were cheerfully sorted out.
As we got closer to Finger Lake it got REALLY warm out. I even debated stopping and camping on the trail for a bit and then running right through Finger Lake, but I didn't have my supplies set up to do that.

I always misjudge the distance into Finger Lake. There is a small, oddly shaped mountain peak and I know the checkpoint is behind that landmark, but despite having been on that trail 5 times now, I can't get it into my head that it is still about 8 miles from there to the Lake.


The team was moving in the heat without a lot of oomph now, but finally we dropped onto Finger Lake and worked our way around the edge and into the checkpoint.

Teams were coming, going and passing right through despite the afternoon heat. I was surprised to see Lance Mackey pulling out with his enthusiastic team as I did my chores. I expected all those 'players' to be into Rainy Pass by now.

The heat was very reminiscent of last year and I was hoping like crazy that the rest of the race wouldn't be like '05!! I went up to the checkpoint to eat, but just wasn't very hungry, so guzzled a bunch of water instead. I was very tired and I tried to lie down in the musher's tent for awhile, but it seemed colder in there than outside in the sun, so I went back and puttered around my sled
Finally, the four-hour rest I had scheduled for myself was up and we headed into the heart of the Alaska Range.
 

Updated:  Monday 4:20pm AST
Pos Musher Checkpoint Time In Time Out Dogs Rest Travel Previous
Checkpoint
Previous
Time Out
Speed
Status
1 Ramey Smyth/8 Rainy Pass 3/06 14:39:00 3/06 14:46:00 16 0:07 3:54 Finger Lake 3/06 10:45:00 7.70   24
 8
2 Doug Swingley/5 Rainy Pass 3/06 12:53:00   16   3:21 Finger Lake 3/06 09:32:00 9.00    24
 8
3 Jeff King/30 Rainy Pass 3/06 13:23:00   16   3:30 Finger Lake 3/06 09:53:00 8.60    24
 8
27 Jamie Nelson/79 Finger Lake 3/06 12:48:00 3/06 12:53:00 16 0:05   Skwentna        24
 8
63 Karen Ramstead/76 Finger Lake 3/06 14:23:00   16     Skwentna        24
 8

 Finger Lake to Rainy Pass

FingerLakeRohn.jpg (413841 bytes)

This chunk of trail is perhaps one of the most infamous in the sport – and rightfully so! Everyone knows of the Happy River Steps themselves, but what many don’t realize is that the trail is challenging right from the moment you pull out of Finger Lake and almost the entire way to Puntilla Lake, on which Rainy Pass Lodge and the checkpoint reside.

In fact, whenever something particularly challenging or intimidating faces me in my life (behind a dog team or not), the pep talk I give myself is the reminder that I have driven a 16-dog team over this particular piece of trail. Honest.

The trail dips, winds, and twists. It is often filled with ruts – back-breaking, nasty, wheel-dog pounding, sled-bashing ruts - and trees hanging out particularly close to the edge of the trail. Sometimes this is good, because sometimes they are the very things that will keep your sled from plunging over cliffs.

For the last 2 years I have had various sponsor patches literally ripped off my parka by close encounters with these trees. Had a knife ripped off my rear stanchion in ’05 too – despite having been securely attached with zip ties and electrical tape at the starting line.

For those reasons, I never rest too long in Finger Lake (that was a lesson learned in ’00) and have no issue leaving in the warm daylight hours. So, hitting the trail at 4:30 after a four-hour rest in Finger Lake was about perfect – sometimes going slow isn’t a horrible thing! Turns out the precautions weren’t really necessary, as for the first time in my experience, this trail was a gem!!

Of course, it was still challenging, but rather then muscling the sled and hoping luck was riding with me, I just had to stay on my toes as we scooted around sharp corners and over hill and dale.
I even found myself humming a few times!! What was up with that??

I thought I had left during a ‘lull’ at Finger Lake and didn’t really expect to see any other mushers on this leg, but a couple teams passed me shortly before the Steps. When the second team passed me, I noticed another team a bit behind them, but they seemed content to hang back. I stopped just about a ½ mile before the actual Steps and waited for them to catch up. I wasn’t familiar with the musher, but they had that ‘rather worried, slightly panicked’ look that I well remembered from the 2000 race, so I asked if they had been over this trail before. It turns out the musher was rookie Randy Cummins and he admitted he hadn’t. I told him that if he was inclined to undo any tuglines in anticipation of the Steps (some mushers will do this to decrease the power of their team for this tricky bit), now was the time. I told him what to expect ahead and warned him he shouldn’t follow too close for the next few miles (getting in a pile up on the stretches of the trail like this only make things worse!). He thanked me and I wished him a good ride – all the while hoping for the same thing for myself.

The Steps turned out to be in the same condition that the trail leading up to them had been. A few quick turns, a few quick drop offs and we were spit out onto the Happy River – in one piece and UPRIGHT – always good!

I moved the team a bit down the river and stopped to pet everyone and see how Randy did on his descent. He did just great and we exchanged a few words while his eyeballs returned to their normal size.

My team managed the sharp climb up off the Happy River with no problem. We glided and slid through the tight trails with hardly any issue – I did however brush hard against a big old tree and tore my ‘SOS-SRF Siberian Rescue’ Patch ¾ of the way off. This was really turning into a trend.

As the trail dropped off onto Long Lake I glanced over my shoulder and thought I saw a dog team closing in on me. It was dark now and I was confused over who would be trying to negotiate the trail behind me without a headlamp – and why?? Something wasn’t right. I asked my team to ‘whoa’ and watched the trail for a second. Sure enough, it was a team coming down the trail behind me, but the musher wasn’t traveling with their headlamp off - the musher wasn’t there. I solidly set both of my hooks and waited for the team to catch up with me. By this time I could see the bobbing light of a musher running on foot coming through the trees. Turns out it was Randy’s team and I visited with his leaders for a couple minutes waiting for him to catch up. He got his hook firmly set and I moved my team forward out of his way and then headed off down the trail.

The night was lovely. I was definitely having my most fun run to Rainy Pass ever! I had Kara and Junior in lead and they seemed to be having as much fun as I was. Junior had excelled in lead on winding trails on Copper Basin and was just now confirming that this was his ‘thing’.


NorthWapiti's Long May You Run
"Jr"

Ch. NorthWapiti's Valkyrie Kara
"Kara"

Of course, this was Iditarod and everything can change really quickly out there. I missed my brake on a steep downhill plunge and all of a sudden was out of control. For a minute I thought I was going to be able to pull off the upcoming corner, but in reality, I never stood a chance. All I had done was stayed upright long enough to build up some momentum to make my crash more spectacular. I plowed to a stop with my face, clinging on to my driving bow for dear life and spitting snow.

Before I had even cleared the snow from my face or properly planted my snowhook, another team came barrelling down the trail towards me. I had had no clue anyone was right behind me. I yelled out “WHOA” to them, as my team and I were spread right across the trail. The musher (I know who it was, but I’m going to be polite and not name names) asked if they could get by and I told them they were going to have to give me a minute. They then proceeded to berate me for picking a ‘bad spot’ to crash. Well duh!!! That was why I crashed – because it was a ‘bad spot’. “Can you speed things up?” they yelled. I replied, rather sarcastically, that if they wanted to come hold my leaders while I pulled my sled out of the snow bank, it would probably speed things up. “I can’t get a hook in” they replied. “Then I’ll be clear when I’m clear”. You have to understand, I was stopped for all of maybe 2 or 3 minutes - tops – and it wasn’t like I did it on purpose. GEESH!! The musher was bitching and griping the whole time I was pulling my sled back onto the trail. Can’t say I’ve ever had such a rude encounter on the trail before. Not like I expected them to help me out, but show just a little patience.

Once back on the trail, my team pulled and stayed ahead of the rude musher and their team. A nice moving team and a gorgeous trail on a gorgeous night soon restored my scene of peace and calm. We pulled into the checkpoint about ¾ of an hour before midnight.

Junior had never been in lead coming into a checkpoint before and he seemed rather taken with his new sense of control. The poor rookie checker they assigned to my team was in over her head with this group. Next thing I knew Junior had his head in one of Ken Anderson’s drop bags and was helping himself. Immediately after parking and securing the hooligans, I went back to Ken’s parking spot and offered to replace anything Junior had devoured. Ken shrugged and said the dog hadn’t gotten much, so it was no problem. Phew!

Dr. Denny Albert was the vet assigned to check my team. I really like and respect Denny and was very pleased to be working with her. Snickers and Denny had a bit of ‘history’ from the Sheep Mountain race (Snicks had actually tried to bite her when she went over her in one of the checkpoints), so I took the time to make sure to point her out, so Denny could be extra careful when examining her. Of course she was a peach this time, but Draco and Surge took the opportunity to get into a scrap. Quite unlike them. We checked them over and found no injuries, but a few minutes later I noticed Draco’s face was swollen. Denny checked him over again and we could find no puncture wounds to explain the swelling, but it seemed too big a coincidence that it had happened right after the fight, so we put him on some antibiotics.

Finally, everyone was fed and bedded down and I headed up to the promised warm sleeping spot.
Karen

Rainy Pass to Rohn

Updated:  Tuesday 2:18am AST
Pos Musher Checkpoint Time In Time Out Dogs Rest Travel Previous
Checkpoint
Previous
Time Out
Speed Status
1 Doug Swingley/5 Rohn 3/06 22:32:00 3/06 22:45:00 16 0:13 3:48 Rainy Pass 3/06 18:44:00 12.60  24   8
2 Jeff King/30 Rohn 3/06 23:06:00 3/06 23:23:00 16 0:17 4:09 Rainy Pass 3/06 18:57:00 11.60  24   8
3 Ramy Brooks/16 Rohn 3/06 23:50:00 3/06 23:59:00 14 0:09 4:27 Rainy Pass 3/06 19:23:00 10.80  24   8
35 Jamie Nelson/79 Rainy Pass 3/06 17:21:00 3/07 00:15:00 16 6:54 4:28 Finger Lake 3/06 12:53:00 6.70  24   8
55 Karen Ramstead/76 Rainy Pass 3/06 23:14:00   16   4:44 Finger Lake 3/06 18:30:00 6.30  24   8

 
 Rainy Pass to Rohn

Rainy Pass to McGrath

I don’t think the sleeping spot for mushers in Rainy Pass is ever the same – the last few years the one thing consistent about whatever shelter has been found for us is that it has been COLD!!

It never helps that I am usually more tired in Rainy Pass than at any other point during the Race.

I rarely sleep in either Skwentna or Finger Lake, so by the time I get to Rainy Pass, I've been awake about 48 hours and all I want to do is get my chores done and get some shut-eye. Later in the Race, mushers, at least this musher, seem to be more settled into a routine and can get by with less sleep.
Anyway, chores done, I packed up my personal junk (sleeping bag, clean socks, juice packs, Gatorade, snacks, toothbrush, etc.) and headed up to the, promised by ITC, warm sleeping spot. I wouldn't call the place toasty warm, but it was definitely warmer than outside and many mushers had clothes hanging about the room that had obviously dried out while they slept. So I peeled off all my outer layers of clothes and found spots to hang them, laid out some juice packs to thaw, and grabbed a spot on the floor to sleep. There were some very comfy looking (remember, I hadn’t slept in 2 days) cots in the room, but all were taken when I arrived. After about an hour someone vacated a cot and I scooted up onto it. Heaven!

What I was unaware of was that the sleeping room had indeed at one time been warm, but shortly before I arrived, one of the doors to outside was broken and became stuck partially open.

When I woke up after about 4 hours sleep the room was FREEZING!! All my gear was frozen solid and none of my drinks were drinkable. If I had realized it was going to get so cold in there, I would have just slept in my gear – now I had the miserable task of climbing into frozen solid clothes. I’ll admit to using some really not pleasant language under my breath as I got dressed.

I plodded out to the dogs in my heavy, cold clothes and set about my dog chores. The dogs seemed to have rested well – better than I – and lapped up their meals with gusto.

After they were taken care of, I grabbed some juice packs and headed over to the checkers' tent, hoping to find a little heat. Lynda Plettner was in there doing the same and I managed to swap some frozen juice packs for thawed ones, so I got some fluid into me.

About a half hour before I wanted to leave, I walked back up to the sleeping area with an extra layer of clothes I wanted to put on before I left. This included my spiffy, new this season, Apocalypse Design wind bibs.

I sat down in a chair to pull off my boots. Next thing I knew my head snapped up and over a half hour had vanished. Man, I was more tired than I thought. Now I was annoyed with myself and hurried through my clothes change and back out to the team.

Finally I pulled out of the checkpoint almost an hour later than I had wanted to. At least kicking myself helped keep me warm.

I do love this leg of the race and always take the time to appreciate the beautiful scenery as we climb up to the Pass and start back down. Everything through there is just so big – and so ALASKA. I LOVE it!

It was storming pretty good near the top of the Pass and Kara made it perfectly clear that she was not up to finding and breaking trail in those conditions. I played around with leaders for a while until I got a pair that seemed up for the challenge. As I was doing that I realized that my legs were cold. What’s the deal? I had been really pleased with those wind bibs during pre-Iditarod racing and training. I looked down and realized I wasn’t wearing the darn things! My mind flashed back to a mental picture of them slung over a chair back in Rainy Pass. Damn it! I had been so flustered by my unplanned nap, I'd rushed out of the building without putting them on.

Again I helped stay warm by kicking myself as I headed down the trail.

A team or two passed as we headed down the top of the Gorge and I enjoyed catching occasional glimpses of the teams ahead winding back and forth through the narrow pass.

I, and I’m sure every other Iditarod musher, had the death of Iditarod volunteer Richard Strick Jr. on our mind as we headed down the Dalzell Gorge. A trail like the Gorge demands a musher’s undivided attention, yet we had been told that a marker was going to be placed where he had been taken by the avalanche, and I was watching out of the corner of my eye for it. At a particularly tricky and narrow but spectacularly beautiful spot, I glanced up to my left and saw a lovely, simple cross. A fitting tribute. Unfortunately, the trail was not conducive to stopping and paying respects, but I was certainly thinking about Richard as we wound down the pass. May he rest in peace.

The run was going really well and I found myself humming once again. All of a sudden, as we approached some of the trickiest spots on the trail, right before the first ice bridge of the actual Dalzell Gorge, I could hear dogs barking - A LOT of dogs barking. Never a good sign. Sure enough, at the top of a pitch down the side of the Gorge I came across Lachlan Clark stopped in the trail. He held his hands up to stop me and explained that there were FIVE teams on the trail ahead of him (it was narrow and windy enough that I couldn’t see anything in front of him). Apparently, Lynda Plettner was the one at the front of the line. She had hit a tree or some such thing and rumor was she and Paul Ellering were trying to, basically, winch her sled back down onto the trail, over the top of Paul’s leaders. Gives you an idea of how tricky this trail is!

Thankfully, my team is used to stopping and taking trail breaks and they were reasonably well mannered. It took about 15 minutes and things finally got moving again. Of course, I now had a rested, rather jacked up team on one of the trickiest pieces of trail on Iditarod – but we made it down and across the bridge without issue.

For the rest of the way down to the Tatina River, the trail winds back and forth over ice bridges across the roaring Dalzell Creek. Huge rocky cliffs hold the creek in tight. It is definitely a dangerous piece of trail, but it is also so beautiful it is grabs at your heart.

The team and I dropped down onto the River and it occurred to me that I hadn’t put my sled down once on the trip over from Rainy Pass. That was definitely a first. Still whistling and humming, we pulled into Rohn.

Updated:  Tuesday 6:00pm AST
Pos Musher Checkpoint Time In Time Out Dogs Rest Travel Previous
Checkpoint
Previous
Time Out
Speed Status
1 Doug Swingley/5 Nikolai 3/07 12:56:00   16   14:11 Rohn 3/06 22:45:00 6.60  24   8
2 Jeff King/30 Nikolai 3/07 13:18:00   16   13:55 Rohn 3/06 23:23:00 6.70  24   8
3 Mitch Seavey/12 Nikolai 3/07 14:23:00   15   14:08 Rohn 3/07 00:15:00 6.60  24   8
43 Jamie Nelson/79 Rohn 3/07 04:29:00 3/07 11:41:00 15 7:12 4:14 Rainy Pass 3/07 00:15:00 11.30  24   8
51 Karen Ramstead/76 Rohn 3/07 12:16:00 3/07 16:22:00 16 4:06 4:06 Rainy Pass 3/07 08:10:00 11.70  24   8

 Rohn to Nikolai

Nikolai to Unalakleet

I love Rohn. I think most Iditarod mushers do, actually. It’s a great little cabin in a beautiful spot – surrounded by mountains and nestled in the trees, manned by helpful and friendly volunteers. What’s not to love?


There was an extra special treat waiting for me in Rohn this year too. One of the vets was a 'neighbor', well, neighbor on a middle-of-Alaska scale. Dr Markus Barth lives and works in Grande Prairie, Alberta. Many of you may remember that before living in Perryvale, Mark and I lived in the Grande Prairie area. Although Markus wasn’t there when we were, we have a number of mutual friends, including my very best friend, Lynda. So after the dogs were checked over and as I was going about my chores Markus hung around and visited.

Being out in the middle of Alaska is so far from everyday life, hearing the names and chatting about the happenings of friends back home, especially after the winter I had been having, was like getting a big hug it was so grounding and comforting.

The dogs didn’t eat big here, but all ate something. Draco and Surge still seemed a bit grouchy and out of sorts, but nothing seemed really wrong with them. The swelling in Dra’s face seemed to be responding to the antibiotics and he was not having any problems eating.

I finished up chores and headed into the cabin. Jasper and Terry run a tight ship in the cabin. It is crowded, but always neat and clean. They will help you find good drying spots for your gear and help you warm up your meals in pots of hot water on the stove.

They were gracious enough to send a message back to Rainy Pass about my wind bibs, which they assured me would catch up with me somewhere up the trail.

I was tired, but I didn’t plan on staying long in Rohn, so I didn’t try to catch any sleep here.
Just before 4:30 in the afternoon, volunteers helped unwind my team from their snug resting spot in the trees and helped manoeuvre us onto the out trail. I thanked everyone for their fantastic hospitality and waved goodbye.

Once again, the trail was as good as I’ve ever seen it. No overflow, no dirt, no dead moose - all good! I had the iPod humming along and the dogs and I were ‘bopping’ down the trail to all sorts of great tunes.

At the Post River glacier, which was a piece of cake compared to previous years, I found my buddy, Bob Jones camped along the side of the trail. I first met Bob in ’00 at the Tripod Flats cabin between Koyuk and Unalakleet. He and a friend were camping there when Melanie Gould and I pulled in for a break. Each year Bob and a friend travel the trail by snowmachine and each summer Bob will email me a few of his pictures, which I always enjoy receiving.

The dogs were traveling very well and I was having a most pleasant trip. It was snowing lightly and the lighting was kind of flat – at least that is what I’m blaming what happened next on. We were scooting across a bunch of little lakes and portages near Farewell Lake when a moment of inattention and that flat light caused me to not notice a rut in the trail. I caught an edge and felt the sled tipping over, really no big deal EXCEPT as I was about to hit the soft, fluffy snow I noticed a small tree directly in front of me. I could do little more than squint before my face hit the tree with that sickening smack a watermelon makes when it falls onto pavement.

Right away my left eye started to swell. I packed a little snow on it and off we went. Darn, it sucks to have a visible injury with no good story to accompany it!

Each year John and Marty Runkles leave their ‘Buffalo Camp’ open for mushers and other travelers of the trail to stop at. The Runkles guide buffalo hunters in the area and set up a very cozy camp. I’ve never run into the family there, but I have warmed up in their cozy tents a number of times. Little did I know what a treat awaited at the Camp this year.

As I came over the hill and dropped into the Camp, young and very enthusiastic PJ Runkles jumped out to greet me and offer to help me park my team. I agreed and as he helped me steer my leaders onto a pile of leftover straw, his parents joined us. They pointed out the sleeping tent and invited me to join them in their main tent for moose stew. Saying ‘no thanks’ never even crossed my mind.

I fed the dogs and packed up all my extra bottles of HEET, any extra trail food and the majority of my snacks to give to the Runkles as 'thank-yous'. Turns out many other mushers had done the same and I found PJ sitting on his sleeping mat surrounded by piles of candy. That explained the ‘very enthusiastic’ – I bet he didn’t sleep through the night for a week after ingesting all that sugar!
The stew was fantastic – it rates as the best meal I ate on the race this year – and I snarfed up a couple bowls.

John told me it was pretty crowded in the sleeping tent and offered me a spot in the main cabin to sleep. The kids all helped me clear out an area and I was asleep in no time. I had wanted to stay 4 hours, but messed up the math before falling asleep and set my alarm for later than I had really wanted. Unlike Rainy Pass though, I had such a good rest here, I didn’t regret the extra time.
The trip from Buffalo Camp to Nikolai was pretty uneventful. I generally don’t like traveling in the dead of the night, but a happy dog team, some northern lights, and some good tunes on the iPod made it more than bearable.

I should say, a happy dog team, except for Draco and Surge. Neither one seemed lame or ill and they were working okay, they just didn’t seem happy. When I’d stop and go through the team petting and praising everyone they’d wag their tails, but not enthusiastically. They were eating their snacks too, but again, it seemed liked they were just going through the motions.

I figured we would get to Nikolai and I’d spend some extra time with them to see if I could perk up their moods.

It was cold as day broke and we pulled into Nikolai.

Updated:  Wednesday 11:38am AST
Pos Musher Checkpoint Time In Time Out Dogs Rest Travel Previous
Checkpoint
Previous
Time Out
Speed Status
1 Doug Swingley/5 Takotna 3/08 02:25:00 3/08 08:19:00 15 5:54 2:07 McGrath 3/08 00:18:00 10.80  24   8
2 Jeff King/30 Takotna 3/08 03:00:00   16   2:13 McGrath 3/08 00:47:00 10.40  24   8
3 Aliy Zirkle/26 Takotna 3/08 04:59:00   14   2:38 McGrath 3/08 02:21:00 8.70  24   8
45 Jamie Nelson/79 Nikolai 3/07 23:32:00 3/08 08:02:00 15 8:30 11:51 Rohn 3/07 11:41:00 7.80  24   8
61 Karen Ramstead/76 Nikolai 3/08 08:05:00   16   15:43 Rohn 3/07 16:22:00 5.90  24   8

Nikolai to Takotna

Nikolai to Ophir

In ’05 a local in Nikolai chewed me out because he thought race officials had parked my team too close to his house. Apparently, this man had had these kinds of concerns with the Race passing through for a number of years. Well hats off to him, because rather than just complain about the situation, he did something about it. This summer he apparently took a Cat and cleared out a spot for the checkpoint along the bank of the river, so the dog teams wouldn’t be parked in town.

It worked out very well. Officials had a warm tent near the dogs, they heated water up in a drum for us – as Skwentna and Takotna have done for years – and gave snowmachine rides up to the school, which was open for the mushers! I thought it was great!

Nikolai is the first time since the starting line that we have access to a phone, running water and flushing toilets and I had full intentions of taking advantage of all that – but first dog chores had to be done.

With hot water readily available I varied my routine some and made up a kibble, chicken and herring soup for the dogs. Everyone seemed to really enjoy that and with their bellies full, settled down into the straw. As I worked, Iditarod photographer Jeff Schultz worked around the team taking a number of shots of the dogs, including a really nice one of fancy pants show dog, Dasher.

Draco still had a lump on his face, but the soft tissue swelling was down. I was leaning strongly towards sending him home, but undecided about what to do with Surge. On one hand I felt they both may get into the routine soon and their attitudes would pick up, but on the other hand, what if they didn’t and brought down the attitude of the rest of the dogs? Something to sleep on!

Up at the school I laid down for a bit, but after my good nap at the Buffalo Camp I wasn’t too tired (tired is a relative term on the Iditarod!). I locked myself in one of the lovely large bathrooms, completely changed clothes, gave myself a bit of a sponge bath and checked out my eye – which was now almost completely swollen shut, but no longer as painful as it had been the day before. Lucky I’m fairly ‘squinty eyed’ at the best of times, so the swollen shut eye wasn’t overly obvious. Many times over the next few days though, I wished for a more exciting story to go along with it, as I answered folks' questions about what I did to my eye.

I took advantage of the phone and called Mark. We had a nice chat; I was so grateful to Janet Mattos for the use of her calling card while I was out on the trail.

I caught a ride by snowmachine back down to the dogs. Most folks hopped into the basket on the sled the snowmachines were towing to catch a ride, but not me - this big, tough Iditarod musher hopped onto the short runners of the sled for my ride. The runners were iced over and standing on them was next to impossible, so my ride down looked like a bad scene from an Abbott and Costello movie but I arrived at the checkpoint tent with everything but my ego intact.

I visited with Draco and Surge for a bit and finally made the decision that they were going to go home. Both pranced on the end of their leashes on the way to the vet’s cabin. That was a sure sign I had made the right decision – if they were happy to be dropped, it was time for them to go home. (As a side note, Mark took Draco to the vet when he picked him up from ITC and the clinic found and removed an abscessed tooth – so dropping him was absolutely the right thing to do!). I gave them big hugs and headed back to my remaining 14 strong, happy teammates.

The sun was beating strongly has we left Nikolai just after 2pm, but a strong wind was keeping it from being too warm out.

The trail out of town is a nice one to travel, crossing lakes and swamps with nice portages between, along with a bit of river travel. Nothing very demanding, but interesting and enjoyable. Olena and Moses were in lead and doing a fine job.

The only thing marring an otherwise lovely day was that I had to pee – badly. There were a number of planes buzzing overhead, so this was going to take some planning (you guys just don’t appreciate the planning necessary for a woman musher to pee out on the trail). I waited till there was a spot that I could see a ways behind me to make sure no other teams were coming and then planted my hooks and went up front to the leaders (that way, if something happens and the team pops the hook, I won’t be left stranded with my pants down – I can catch them as they go by). I could hear a plane coming from behind us and waited for them to pass over, waving as they did so. Once there were past, I quickly seized the moment, but what’s that??? The plane was circling back very low. Damn. I did some scrambling and managed to be mostly presentable before the plane came over the tree tops again. As I was pulling at various layers to try and get straightened out, the plane landed on the lake just ahead of me. I gave up on the idea of a pee for now and headed down the trail. A photographer had hopped out of the plane and snapped a picture of my team as we came out onto the lake – it ran the next morning on the front page of the Anchorage Daily News sports section. If you look closely you will probably notice my eyes were yellow, I had to pee so bad!

The rest of the trip into McGrath was pretty uneventful and enjoyable. The dogs charged through one of the portages chasing something, but I never did catch a glimpse of what it was.
I switched leaders awhile before heading up the hill into McGrath so Kara and Snickers were in lead. I figured they were the best combination to get us out of town with the least amount of problems, as we weren’t resting here.

I was very pleasantly surprised to find that the checker in McGrath was Lisbet Norris, the lovely granddaughter of Natalie. My wind bibs were waiting here for me too, so I grabbed those, signed in, signed out, said goodbye to Lisbet and headed out.

The dogs weren't pleased, but the fact that it was dark and cold seemed to make it better than it was in '04 and '05 - and they left without too much protest.

The trip over to Takotna was short and sweet and we pulled into town just before midnight. The trip so far had really just been fun and easy, but a long break was still going to be welcome!


 

Updated:  Thursday 9:12am AST
Pos Musher Checkpoint Time In Time Out Dogs Rest Travel Previous
Checkpoint
Previous
Time Out
Speed Status
1 Doug Swingley/5 Cripple 3/09 00:09:00   15   13:08 Ophir 3/08 11:01:00 4.60  24   8
2 Dee Dee Jonrowe/31 Cripple 3/09 02:51:00   15   9:56 Ophir 3/08 16:55:00 6.00  24   8
3 John Baker/56 Cripple 3/09 05:37:00   14   12:11 Ophir 3/08 17:26:00 4.90  24   8
40 Jamie Nelson/79 Takotna 3/08 16:12:00   15   2:35 McGrath 3/08 13:37:00 8.90  24   8
48 Karen Ramstead/76 Takotna 3/08 23:28:00   14   2:46 McGrath 3/08 20:42:00 8.30  24   8

Takotna to Ophir
2006 Iditarod Trail

I got the dogs all checked out by the fabulous vet crew – which included both Markus and Denny. Everyone was looking pretty good, just a very few minor issues here and there. I took the dogs' harnesses off – a signal to the them that they are going to get a nice long rest here, and got straw laid out. This year Mark and I decided to mail a bale of straw out to Takotna on our own – totally within the rules – and now I had lots and lots of straw for the dogs to bed down in. A special treat easily worth the trouble and expense!! I didn’t feed the dogs right away, as I felt maybe I had been overfeeding them a bit in the past years on our 24, so I let them nap for a couple hours before offering food. It worked super and when I did offer food, they were very keen to eat! Also, after sorting a bit of gear out around my sled, I was able to run down to the checkpoint building, use the washroom and grab something to eat before heading back up to get a meal ready for them.

After they were all snoring in the straw under their checkpoint blankets on full bellies, I headed up to the church to sleep.

The church was wall-to-wall people, but I managed to find a spot to hang gear and a bit of space to stretch out under a table.

The rest of my 24-hour layover passed pretty uneventfully. I fed and cared for dogs, slept, ate, grabbed a wonderful hot shower, visited, called Mark, sorted and repacked gear - all good. Finally it was time to head out.

The temperature had been dropping throughout the day and by the time I left the warm hospitality of Takotna at 1 minute past midnight, it was plain and simple – COLD!

The dogs liked it though and left town strong. I stood on the drag for a long while, not wanting them to overextend themselves after their break.

When I left Takotna, I hadn’t really decided whether or not I was going to stop in Ophir – or go straight through like in ’04. I could feel the cold seeping into my clothing, so I knew the thermometer must have taken a real nose dive – and that was what ended up making the decision for me. With it being in the 'extreme' cold range, I felt not only did I not want to camp for 6 hours on the trail (we were still going to camp on the way over to Cripple, just for 4 hours instead of 6), but also I wanted to make extra sure that the dogs were kept well fed and hydrated.

So stop we did!
 
Updated:  Friday 5:06am AST
Pos
Musher
Checkpoint
Time In
Time Out
Dogs
Rest
Travel
Previous
Checkpoint
Previous
Time Out
Speed
Status
1
Ruby
3/10 00:05:00

15

10:17
Cripple
3/09 13:48:00
10.90
 24   8
2
Cripple
3/09 14:45:00
3/09 22:45:00
16
8:00
7:54
Ophir
3/09 06:51:00
7.60
 24   8
3
Cripple
3/09 23:30:00
3/09 23:40:00
13
0:10
5:39
Ophir
3/09 17:51:00
10.60
 24   8
48
Ophir
3/09 18:45:00
3/09 22:41:00
14
3:56
2:23
Takotna
3/09 16:22:00
16.00
 24   8
54
3/10 02:52:00

14

2:51
Takotna
3/10 00:01:00
13.30
 24   8


Ophir to Cripple
McGrath to Cripple

Well, truth be told, where Takotna may be musher paradise, Ophir is pretty much the opposite. The cabin, which is the checkpoint building, is owned by a private individual who doesn’t seem very fond of mushers. He would certainly prefer that none of us come inside his cabin and god forbid if one of us should try and grab a couple winks of sleep in there. A couple years back Iditarod built a nice little bunkhouse at Ophir, but it is always crowded with vets, pilots and race volunteers.

Of course, the race vets and volunteers are still a terrifically friendly lot, but they are kind of ‘stuck’ due to the attitude of the owner.

Lucky for me, said owner was either asleep or away when I was there and after feeding dogs, I was able to sneak in the cabin to warm up for a bit. Seeing that it was –40° F outside, that was very appreciated!

A couple other mushers were in warming up too. We were all discussing how long a break we were going to take here. When I was asked, I said I had to leave. "Had to leave?" I went on to explain that last year, all I did was complain about the heat and moan about wanting it to get cold. Now that it was doing exactly that, I would lose all credibility and my husband would never let me live it down if I sat inside a cabin and shivered through the cold temperatures.

So, at 6am, probably the coldest darn part of the day, wearing just about every piece of clothing I had brought with me, the team and I left for the long hike over to Cripple.


The dogs were jazzed by the cold and rolling along really, really well. Even with the temps hanging out below –40° F, I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t having a good time.

I was traveling on and off with three other mushers, two very nice men and the guy that berated me for picking a bad spot to ‘block the trail’ on the way into Rainy Pass. I was behind him at one point when he began to dig around in his pockets for something, taking off his big overmitts. One of them bounced off his moving sled and into the snow without his noticing. I yelled a couple times, but he didn’t hear me, so I stopped and picked up the mitt. It took about a 1/2 mile, but finally he started frantically digging through his sled bag and then slammed on the brake. Losing a glove is a big deal in those temperatures and sadly, nothing to play around with. I held it up as my team passed his and he gratefully took it back, showing more graciousness than I expected by saying ‘Thanks’.

The trail over to Cripple is ‘big’. Low, rolling hills with scrub trees that you can see for miles and miles over. It is as vast and desolate as any landscape I have ever been in. I find it as challenging as the Yukon River, as each rolling hill offers the promise of something new over it, yet dashes those hopes when you crest it to find only more and more hills.

At about 11 am, I found a nice abandoned camping spot with leftover straw and pulled over. I cooked the dogs a warm meal and they devoured every bite of it. It was still cold, but the midday sun made it bearable at least. I busied myself cleaning my sled bag up, but since I had just done that in Takotna, it wasn’t too bad. I sat on my cooler and read a bit of my book, but it was too cold to stay still for too long. Finally the dogs all began to wake up and fuss around, a good sign it was time we could get moving again.

Camping on the way to Cripple

I tossed everyone a snack for the road, packed up the sled and got moving.

The trail gets a little more interesting to drive after the halfway point of the run. Nothing particularly challenging, but the dips and valleys offer some nice variety.

I had been swapping leaders throughout the race, but more and more now Snickers was finding herself in lead. As was the case for much of the season, the chicks in the team were the ones that seemed to be shining the most for me up front, although Jr, Moses, and Skor had all been doing their share too.
Overall I was very pleased with the team. They were running reasonably well, resting great, and best of all, eating fantastic. I was quite convinced that our goal for this race - an under 12-day race - was well within reach.

The sun started to sink as we got closer to Cripple and the the cold air began to look for weaknesses in my clothing. Thankfully it was having trouble finding any!

It was about 8:30 in the evening when we hit Wolf Kill Slough and the checkpoint of Cripple.



Updated:  Saturday 7:14am AST
Pos
Musher
Checkpoint
Time In
Time Out
Dogs
Rest
Travel
Previous
Checkpoint
Previous
Time Out
Speed
Status
1
Galena
3/10 22:09:00
3/11 03:28:00
15
5:19
6:08
Ruby
3/10 16:01:00
8.50
 24   8
2
Galena
3/10 15:34:00

15

7:00
Ruby
3/10 08:34:00
7.40
 24   8
3
Galena
3/11 01:40:00

15

5:55
Ruby
3/10 19:45:00
8.80
 24   8
4
Galena
3/11 03:18:00

13

6:09
Ruby
3/10 21:09:00
8.50
 24   8
5
Galena
3/11 05:18:00

14

6:04
Ruby
3/10 23:14:00
8.60
 24   8
6
Galena
3/11 05:20:00

14

6:20
Ruby
3/10 23:00:00
8.20
 24   8
35
Ruby
3/11 03:10:00

14

9:55
Cripple
3/10 17:15:00
11.30
 24   8
51
3/10 20:35:00
3/11 05:18:00
14
8:43
14:35
Ophir
3/10 06:00:00
4.10
 24   8

Cripple to Ruby
Cripple to Galena

My experiences in Cripple in '00 were not pleasant ones. It was a miserable, cold and windy place, with no warm sleeping spot and nowhere private to even drop your pants! In '04 things had improved quite a bit and I fondly remember getting a great sleep there, but it was still miserable and cold and not really a place that you wanted to hang out at for long periods of time.

Leave it to Jim Gallea to be behind the crew that changed everything about Cripple in '06 - well, almost everything!

Many of you will recognize Jim's name from following the Iditarod. Jim, his Mom (Cindy Gallea) and his Dad (Bill Gallea) are all Iditarod finishers. I've known Jim since he was about 17 and he has grown up to be a charming, handsome, Iditarod-finishing, soon-to-be doctor (girls take note - this is a MAJOR catch!). Anyway, in '05 Jim and fellow Iditarod veteran Clint Warnke turned Eagle Island into an oasis (okay, an Iditarod-style oasis) on the Yukon River.

This year, Jim roped in another Iditarod veteran, Scott Smith, and took charge of Cripple. Despite temperatures cold enough to make the vet's stethoscopes freeze straight out (I'm not kidding), Cripple was also an oasis this year. Okay, maybe the blow-up palm trees (still not kidding) had handled the cold badly, but there were still 2 warm cabins to sleep in - and miracle of all miracles - 'HIS' and 'HERS' outhouses.

The down point was that the parking spots were pretty crowded and the wind was blowing strong and relentlessly. It wasn't until Ruby that I realized that from my working in such tight quarters, the flame off my cooker melted the sleeve on my Northern Outfitters Prima Loft liner, which I was wearing at the time.

Anyway, the dogs got fed and burrowed down against the windblown snowbanks for a sheltered nap while I headed up to the cabin.

It was a pleasure to find 'Harry' Harrisberg, Martin Buser's 'puppy team' driver, finishing off his 24-hour layover. We chatted pleasantly while I sorted out gear and got organized in a bunk. Soon others, like Paul Ellering, Tom Knolmayer, and Lachlan Clark, came in. All are good guys to share the trail and a cabin with, and in no time, all was quiet as we caught some shuteye.

I woke up quickly when my alarm went off, but it took some doing to get really moving again. I was still tired and the combination of that with the bitter cold made all my preparations ineffective and slow. Finally, about 45 minutes later than I wanted, I headed out into the wind.

For the first time this race, the dogs didn't hit the trail well. With almost 9 hours rest behind them and the kind of temperatures they normally enjoy, I was surprised. The trail out of the checkpoint comes out of the scrub trees the teams are sheltered in and then 'T's' at the end of the makeshift runway. Olena actually tried to head back down the runway back to the checkpoint. I had to sink a hook and run up and pull her back around to the right.

We eventually got rolling, but not with a lot of enthusiasm or punch. I fiddled on and off with leaders and finally ended up with Snickers and Dasher in lead. Olena and Kara both seemed to be having issues with their feet and I bootied both of them. Olena's were serious enough that she didn't feel like leading and Kara has never much cared for leading through wind anyway and the wind was certainly still blowing, although the first part of this trail is rather protected.

Eventually, about 50 miles from Ruby, the trail joins up with a summer mining road. It's not at all maintained in the winter and crosses several ridges that are often glaciated and/or very windy, but still, it is a bit of civilization, which seems like a nice change out here.

It became apparent quickly that the trail was going to be much windier from this point on. Gusts of wind were blowing snow across patches of the road and covering up the trail in a number of spots. Completely 'do-able', but not a fast, easy trail.

At one point the trail dips down across a creek and then scoots back up a hillside. In the dip, the wind was pretty calm and Ed Stielstra, who had passed me a bit earlier, was camped along the side of the trail. He graciously encouraged me to join him, but I was planning on making the trip in one shot, so I thanked him and continued on.

We climbed the hill and out of sight of Ed and if I thought the going at been tough before, things suddenly got much tougher. The wind was blowing at epic levels and the trail was COMPLETELY gone. I mean completely, not even a brief indent where it used to be.

I knew Snickers and Dash had never seen anything like this before and they took one look at the trail - well, lack of trail ahead and stopped dead. Both looked over their shoulders at me with puzzled looks.
I sunk my snowhook and battled against the wind to the front of the team, making sure to talk happy and upbeat to the dogs on the way - I didn't want them to think anything was wrong. After taking a minute to give the girls ear scratches, I stepped out ahead of them to show them where the trail was and promptly crashed through the snow up to my hip. After flaying around a bit, I did manage to find the trail again (you could figure out you were on the trail only because, due to the packed base, it was the only spot you didn't crash through). I took a few steps down the trail to show it to Snicks and Dasher and then got back on the sled and pulled the hook. With only slight hesitation and a few glances over their shoulders, the girls found the trail and we made it across the few hundred feet of missing trail. I stopped and heaped praise on them for their brilliance.

Within a very short stretch, we were faced with another completely blown-in area. This time the girls sorted out the trail all on their own. Pretty much the entire rest of the way to Ruby was like this - one blown-in section after another. I'm surprised that I didn't frostbite my tonsils, as my jaw was hanging open most of the time I was so impressed with the job my team was doing finding the trail and punching through drifts. The odd time when I thought I knew where the trail went better than they, I was proven a fool; eventually I just smartened up and just let them find the trail without offering my pitifully inadequate human input.
┬ęPenny Blankenship for NorthWapiti.com
©Penny Blankenship


A number of times the wind moved the sled to the edge of the trail, where it was really easy to get sucked off the firm base (especially when you couldn't see where the edge actually was) and into the heavy, bottomless drifts lurking at the sides. That would require considerable effort by both dogs and musher to get us back underway.

With the weather as it was, the run was slow going and taking longer than I anticipated. If I had realized this before, I would have taken a break with Ed, but now we weren't finding anywhere out of the wind to shut down for a while and powering through was really our only option. Some of the dogs began having issues with their feet, particularly Olena and Kara, so in addition to the booties, I also put the two of them on antibiotics as a safeguard.

The team eventually began to get discouraged with the wind and I tried a number of leaders, having brief success with some, but eventually going back to the combination of Snickers and Dasher.
As we were closing in on Ruby I began seeing some odd tracks on the trail. It took me awhile to figure out they were from one of the 'Idita-sport' Extreme competitors. These guys are REALLY crazy, if you ask me! They walk, ski or cycle down the Iditarod Trail. Anyway, this was one of the walkers. The dogs were actually enjoying having a broken trail to follow for a while and we were all bummed to catch him quickly; however, he was oblivious to our approach. I hollered out 'TRAIL' but he didn't hear me. In normal trail conditions the dogs would have just scooted around him, but they were in no hurry to be breaking trail again and happily settled in behind him. The speed wasn't great, but it was a nice mental break for the dogs and there wasn't much I could do about it anyway. I occasionally yelled out 'Trail' and after about 10 minutes he heard us and about jumped out of his skin. He asked how far behind him the other walker was (I think there were only 2 of them still on the trail) and I told him I passed him coming into Cripple. We passed by and now he had the pleasure of a broken trail to travel on.

About 3 miles outside of Ruby the trail joins up with a plowed road to the dump. It is downhill and usually very icy. This year was no exception. I was stomping on my drag brake and claw brake for all I was worth to keep the sled under control and the dogs at a reasonable pace. Going too fast on an icy, downhill trail is a sure way to hurt shoulders on dogs!

Oh, and did I mention that at the bottom of the hill is a sharp corner into Ruby?? I thought I had things under control, but ended up kissing the ice as I rounded the corner. I very quickly (mostly because we are near houses and someone might be watching) up righted everything and the team and I climbed the hill up into the village of Ruby.

Out of Ruby and on to the Yukon River

My respect and awe for my dog team, which was already huge, had grown a large amount on that trip over from Cripple.


Cripple to Nome Trail out of Cripple After Cripple - Almost to Ruby
Updated:  Sunday 3/12 5:22am AST
Pos
Musher
Checkpoint
Time In
Time Out
Dogs
Rest
Travel
Previous
Checkpoint
Previous
Time Out
Speed
Status
1
Kaltag
3/11 18:10:00
3/12 00:21:00
13
6:11
5:04
Nulato
3/11 13:06:00
8.30
 24   8
2
Kaltag
3/11 18:21:00
3/12 00:57:00
15
6:36
4:54
Nulato
3/11 13:27:00
8.60
 24   8
3
Kaltag
3/11 20:28:00
3/12 03:30:00
13
7:02
5:01
Nulato
3/11 15:27:00
8.40
 24   8
4
Kaltag
3/12 03:24:00
3/12 03:37:00
14
0:13
5:13
Nulato
3/11 22:11:00
8.00
 24   8
5
Kaltag
3/12 02:31:00
3/12 04:10:00

1:39
4:36
Nulato
3/11 21:55:00
9.10
 24   8
6
Kaltag
3/12 01:50:00

15

5:08
Nulato
3/11 20:42:00
8.20
 24   8
7
Kaltag
3/12 02:08:00

11

6:10
Nulato
3/11 19:58:00
6.80
 24   8
36
Galena
3/11 17:53:00

14

6:43
Ruby
3/11 11:10:00
7.70
 24   8
49
3/11 19:35:00
3/12 04:14:00
13
8:39
14:17
Cripple
3/11 05:18:00
7.80
 24   8
Ruby to Nome Ruby to Unalakleet

News from Ruby
Dropped dog was

Olena