Remember to Breathe
"Remember to Breathe!"
The last line of my sister-in-law Linda's "good luck" card flashed before my eyes. I knew I had to get a grip on the fear that loomed large over this infamous section of the Iditarod Trail, the Happy River Steps.
Over the last two years, I had been imagining the moment I would be face-to-face with the trail's sheer drop-offs and treacherous 90-degree switchbacks. In an odd way, it was almost a relief to finally be at the Happy River, ready to take on whatever the Iditarod Sled Dog Race had to throw at me. I knew that in less than a few hours the Happy River would just be a memory, hopefully a happy one.
After just two days on the trail, I had already managed to ignore the advice of my mentor, Terry Adkins.
"Don't stop at Finger Lake for very long. You DO NOT want a fresh team running down the Happy River," Terry warned me. "You want tired dogs so you have more control on the steps."
I arrived at the Finger Lake checkpoint just before dark. My plan was to rest six hours and then hit the trail down to the Happy River. After a long talk with a group of fellow rookies and Doug Swingley, the four-time Iditarod champion from Lincoln, I became convinced that I should wait until daylight to better see the rough trail ahead. I decided to leave at 6 a.m. with everyone else.
After close to 14 hours of rest, my dog team was insane with enthusiasm. They pounded forward, leaped into the air, barked, and howled like it was the Iditarod Race Start back in Anchorage.
"Terry was right," I thought, horrified by the power of my well-rested team. "I'm going to die."
I pulled the snowhook and my team bolted, making a sharp left turn back onto the Iditarod Trail. There was no time to "warm up" to the idea of the Happy River. Within moments I hit my first sharp twist in the trail. I lost control of the sled and flipped, dragging by the handlebars until my team stopped.
"Good Pig, good Gnome," I thanked my leaders and righted my sled. Seconds later we were off again, barreling down the narrow, winding path like a runaway freight train.
I held on with a white-knuckle grip that sent sharp pains up both of my arms. Images of lost dog teams, crashed sleds and broken bones flooded my thoughts.
And then Linda's one line advice raced across my mind.
"Remember to Breathe!"
It was as simple as that. I took one long breath of fresh, cold air through my nose deep into my lungs. I concentrated on the act of inhaling, exhaling, inhaling. My grip softened, my legs relaxed, and I became totally focused on the challenging trail before me.
Finally I let go of the fear that woke me at 4 a.m. every morning for months before the race when I was overwhelmed by the nightmares of a trail I could not handle. I let go of the doubts that made me sick to my stomach and inspired hour-long sessions of uncontrollable sobbing.
I realized I CAN do this. My dog team was powerful, confident, and listening to my commands. I actually had fun dropping the 700 feet down the Steps to the Happy River.
Now I know the difference between being a rookie dog musher and an Iditarod dog musher. Before Iditarod, I could recall the number of times I had fallen off of the sled. Crashing is such a common occurrence on the 1,100-mile Iditarod Trail that a musher loses count of her falls. As long as I was able to pull myself back up again, falling did not matter. On the Iditarod, you and your dog team get to the next checkpoint any way you can. It does not have to be pretty.
Scramble up "the glacier"
And there was nothing pretty about my team's scramble up the famous "glacier," a frozen waterfall that has been an obstacle on the trail for the last 30 years.
"When you see the glacier, climb it from the right side," Terry instructed me. "Whatever you do, don't let the dogs run back down it. If you end up at the bottom you'll never get back up."
Terry was right about the Happy River but wrong about "the glacier."
For one long, miserable hour, my dog team and I struggled to scale the vertical sheet of ice. The right side of the glacier had enough pitch to it that ice climbers might have opted to face it with ice picks and crampons.
Pig and Gnome dragged the entire team up the first quarter of the glacier and braced themselves against a rock outcropping to prevent themselves from sliding back down. The other dogs, slipping and sliding in place, could not gain enough purchase on the ice to haul the heavy sled up the glacier.
Several times I crawled on my hands and knees up the ice, using the gang line and dogs to prevent myself from sliding back down. I tried to coax, drag, lift, and push the team and sled uphill but for every inch we gained, we slid backwards a foot.
Suddenly Pig and Gnome could no longer hold the team. They slid down the steep incline into the other dogs creating a huge tangle.
The gang line was in knots. Every dog faced a different direction. They scrambled in place, their toenails clicking against the ice like a chaotic tap-dancing routine.
I tried to sort out the mess but I could not stand up on the ice. Then I felt us all start to slide in slow motion down the glacier.
"Ohhhh, God," I called out as my dogs and I, now piled on top of each other, gained momentum down the ice like an Olympic luge run.
I knew we would end up at the bottom of the glacier. Terry's words, "You'll never get back up," haunted me.
We landed at the foot of the glacier in a twisted ball with the sled crashing in on top of us. Bandit squirmed underneath me. Pig sat in my lap. Pepper stood over me, wildly wagging his tail as he surveyed our situation.
And then I looked up. A rough ice trail sprinkled with gravel gradually meandered up the left side of the glacier. For the first time in the history of Iditarod, the trail climbed up the glacier to the left.
I spent a half-hour untangling and praising my confused but devoted dog team.
"HAW," I told Pig and Gnome to go left. We trotted up the glacier, reaching the summit in five easy minutes.
PIG, a dog to lead
Pig led all 1,100 miles from Anchorage to Nome. To the casual observer, Pig is nothing flashy. As a pup, she resembled a black and white Hampshire pig more than an Alaskan Husky and was named accordingly.
She is small, weighing about 40 pounds, but she is all muscle. Pig is quiet, meek, and a true lady until it is time to run. Then she steals the show, setting a fast pace, disciplining unruly teammates, finding trails in whiteout coastal storms.
To me, Pig is an amazingly tough girl, a true genius, and a best friend. And that is why my little argument with her 2 miles outside of Unalakleet still leaves me wracked with guilt.
For 890 miles, the Iditarod Trail was perfectly marked with orange reflective stakes that led us out of Anchorage, across frozen lakes, over the Alaskan Range, in and out of towns and checkpoints, and along the windblown Yukon River.
I was shocked, confused, and terrified when the familiar markers simply ended just outside of Unalakleet, abandoning my team and I in the middle of a glare ice river to guess our way to the next checkpoint.
Snowmobile trails veered off of the river in every direction and disappeared into the hundreds of openings through the pucker brush thickets.
I bounced on the sled brake with both feet, trying to stop my team so I could look for the trail. Even though I begged Pig to "whoa," she refused to stop, leaning with all of her power into the harness.
I scanned up and down the banks and searched for trail markers or any sign that a team had passed this way. Stray dog booties, a pile of dog poop, or a scrape in the ice from a sled brake would have been just as promising as a marker by this point, but I found nothing.
Then a half mile down the river to the left I saw a flash of bright orange on a rock. "Probably the trail," I thought.
I commanded Pig to turn left but she dropped her head, dragging Gnome, her fellow leader, and the entire team straight across the ice to an opening in the thicket. I screamed and cursed, red with rage that my trusty leader was ignoring me. She marched ahead, deaf to my pleas to turn left.
I yelled at Pig all the way to the bank, scared of the thought that my little leader could be taking me into a brush maze where I could lose the Iditarod Trail for good.
Pig climbed the bank, weaving the team through the dense brush, and then dropped us down onto the bay where the lights of Unalakleet and the checkpoint greeted us.
Pig was right. She knew exactly where she was going and I had doubted her.
"Always trust your leaders," several mushers preached to me. I was ashamed that I had let Pig down after she had brought us so far. I vowed to never second-guess her judgement again.
There were no markers to be found as we left Unalakleet.
"Find the way," I encouraged Pig, certain she would take us straight to the trail.
Pig guided the team off of the bay, up a steep embankment, and onto a plowed road. She took us on an hour-long tour of the tiny coastal village and dead-ended the team at the town dump.
"OK, we're even," I told Pig. "Now, PLEASE, take us to the trail."
An hour later, Pig and I found the trail together.
Tears of joy
Leaving Safety, the last checkpoint 22 miles from Nome and the finish line, driving winds and heavy wet snow slowed our progress. I was damp, chilled, and tired but I could not hold back the tears. I did not want Iditarod to end.
My dogs and I had become a true team. With every twitch of an ear or shift in gait, I knew how each of my dogs felt, what they needed. The dogs knew when I was happy, sad, excited, or scared. I am still overwhelmed by how much they wanted to please me.
"Let's go home!" I called to my dogs when I saw my aunt and mom wave from a truck on the Nome frontage road. "Let's go home!"
The team loped up the coast of the Bering Sea onto the main street of Nome toward Iditarod's burled arch finish line.
Terry had been waiting for 13 days for our arrival in Nome. I accomplished my goal to finish Iditarod with a team of healthy, tail-wagging dogs.
In 2003, our goal is to place in the top 30 of Iditarod and win the 350-mile Race to the Sky in Montana.
Next year, we will be ready to roll.
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