At the 2002 Iditarod Rookies’ Meeting in Anchorage, Jeff King, a 3-time Iditarod champion, offered his advice to all of us aspiring marathon mushers. “Don’t put any pressure on yourself but to just finish,” he explained. “Take your time and enjoy your dogs and the awesome scenery. Because after your first trip to Nome, you’ll never be satisfied. You’ll always want to do better. Racing will be in your blood.”
And I listened to him. My first Iditarod was nothing but a grand adventure with 16 of my best canine friends. Getting to the finish line with a team of healthy, tail-wagging dogs was my only goal and we accomplished this in just under 14 days in 49th place.
Like many idealistic rookies-turned-veterans, I declared upon the podium at my first Finishers’ Banquet, “I’ll be back next year.” As I said those words, I didn’t realize that Iditarod would never be the same for me again. My mushing “vacation” was over. Jeff King was right. Racing was now in my blood.
But Iditarod can be cruel. A friend of mine often says that dog mushing is like farming. A farmer works and sweats and puts everything he has into raising healthy crops or animals and when it all seems perfect, a drought or tornado or wind comes through and destroys everything. In 2003, after devoting an entire year to preparing for my second Iditarod, I was forced to pull my team from the race just 200 miles from the starting line. I was down to 6 dogs when I made the heartbreaking decision to scratch. Injuries and a nagging cough had hit my team like a ruthless twister.
After the 2003 disappointment, it took a few months of reflection before I made my decision. “I’ll be back next year,” I announced in May. It was easy for me to say the words but I knew this race would be my biggest challenge yet.
Right on Schedule
When I hit the infamous Dalzell Gorge, I was right on schedule. Over 270 miles into the 2004 Iditarod Sled Dog Race, everything was going just as we had planned.
This was the first year I had 3 race schedules put to paper, laminated, and tucked in my sled bag. After scratching from last year’s race, several friends came forward to help me pick through my training program with a fine tooth comb. Because of them, I had a new dog box, sled, gangline, and dog blankets. I also went into this race with a new feeding plan, 2000 miles of training on my dogs, and schedules created to fit their slow but steady gait. I would start on the “A” schedule and move to the “Slow” or “Fast” schedule depending on the pace of my team. Weather, tough trails, and injured dogs would all be factors effecting our performance and ultimately which schedule I referred to.
My scratch the year before haunted me all training season and threatened to effect the way I ran my 2004 Iditarod. As Jeff King had warned, now, as a veteran, I had no interest in merely finishing the race. I had already done that. But I was torn between wanting to “go for it” and hit the Top 30 and a need to drive my team conservatively and just “get them to Nome.” The schedule gave me comfort and kept me on track. “Drive your dogs this way,” it told me. And we mushed on.
A near-record 87 mushers competed in this year’s Iditarod and there was no ignoring the crowd on the dangerous sections of trail. Because of the consistent “traffic,” it was impossible to go down the terrifying drop-offs and twisting turns of the Dalzell Gorge alone. The narrow, wooded trail often ran back and forth over a frozen creek bed not allowing room for teams to pass each other. I prayed that I and the mushers in front of me and behind me wouldn’t crash. Somebody would be run over.
The drops of the Gorge are so drastic and long that it’s all a musher can do to keep from running over the wheel dogs with the sled. After fighting the horrifying descent off and on for 5 miles, I was thrilled when I reached what I remembered to be the last major free fall. The trail leveled off and I steered the sled wide just as my team wound like a snake around a tight U-curve. My leaders, Pig and Lolo, and the next two pairs of team dogs whipped around the horseshoe turn, carefully avoiding an 8-foot wide hole in the creek ice. The rest of the team wasn’t moving fast enough to round the bend in time. The gangline jerked taut and shot 6 of my dogs across the cavity, spilling them into the open water 3 feet below.
When I saw my dogs vanish, I slammed on my brakes and drove my snowhook into the packed trail. It set and snapped my sled to a stop, preventing my last four dogs and sled from tumbling in on top of them all. I ran to the hole and fell to my knees, tugging on the gangline in a feeble attempt to lift all 6 dogs from the water at once. Thankfully, the gangline held them in place making it impossible for the flowing water to suck them under the ice. The dogs were panicked though, scrambling to climb onto a lower ice shelf out of the freezing water.
The only way to get the dogs out of the hole was to jump in with them. So I did. I sank into water and slush up to my crouch. The neckline and tugline snaps were frozen so I couldn’t free them and lift them individually. I wrestled a pair of dogs at a time to the trail above. When I lifted Pepper’s front paws to the edge, my big boy not only pulled himself to the surface but his little sister, Cherry, too. Once on solid ground, Pepper went right to work, driving forward with all of his weight to aid me in lifting Harp and Fir to safety. Mohawk and Bandit were last. As I reached to pull Mohawk out of the water into my arms, she wagged her tail.
Once the team was back together on firm ground, I grabbed the gangline and pulled myself from the stream. Over and over again, the dogs shook water from their coats but it only took a minute for the wet hair to stiffen into ice. Several teams were now waiting for us to get out of the way. I later learned that I wasn’t the only musher to go for a swim.
When I arrived at Rohn, the next checkpoint, the race official told me that the temperature had fallen to -35 degrees. My boots and clothes were covered in a hard layer of ice. I looked at my watch. To my amazement, I was still on schedule. I spent the next 10 hours drying clothes, warming and feeding dogs, and resting. It was a relief to have the worst behind us.
More of the Worst
The next morning we left Rohn right on schedule. The treacherous climb up and over the Alaskan Range was now just a memory. I had dropped one dog earlier in the race due to a sore shoulder but I was excited to have 15 healthy dogs left in line. Fir was the only dog that still seemed cold after our polar plunge so I bundled him up in blankets and chemical heat packs and gave him another hot meal before leaving. He ate everything and then barked to go. I was optimistic that the next 80 miles to Nikolai would be a smooth run for us. Maybe I’ll even move up to my “fast” schedule, I thought.
The “Buffalo Tunnel” is one of the first obstacles a musher encounters when leaving Rohn. The trail turns into a tight tunnel, winding up and down through an endless thicket of dense alders. The path is barely the width of the sled and the musher must duck to prevent decapitation. There is rarely snow on the ground just dirt, rocks, and roots. Because the musher must avoid using the brake for fear of ripping it off on a rock, the ride often turns wild.
It was a bad place for my team and I to run into a moose. The only positive thing was that the moose was already dead. The victim of a very recent wolf attack, the moose lay sideways across the trail like a giant speed bump. My dogs didn’t hesitate. Two at a time, they ran up and over the moose’s stomach. I knew the kill was fresh because my runners sank into it’s warm flesh. For the next mile or so, the dogs’ ears pricked forward and they strained to look into the thick brush as if something was out there. I am sure the wolf wasn’t far away.
On a steep descent near the bottom of the Buffalo Tunnels, Fir tripped and fell. Even though I was terrified of losing my brake for good, I stood on it with all of my weight trying to stop the team. It was no use. We descended down the rocky shoot like a roller-coaster. At the bottom, I finally caught my snowhook on a rock, jerking us to an instant standstill.
Fir lay flat and lifeless. I thought he was dead. I ran to him and dropped to the ground, calling his name. I grabbed his muzzle and put my mouth over his nose. I blew quick hard breaths into his nostrils and rubbed his side. Finally, the frozen, lost look in his eyes turned bright with life again. He was breathing. I picked him up and carried him to my sled, tucking him into the bag to ride the next 60-some miles to Nikolai.
A few miles down the trail, my luck continued to deteriorate. Harp stopped pulling and wobbled along as if she were tired. I hated for the rest of the team to have to pull the weight of yet one more dog, but I decided it was best to let her rest. I loaded her into the bag with Fir.
Then the trail turned nasty again. Many people don’t realize that much of the Iditarod Trail can be snowless. For miles, my team scrambled over boulders, logs, and tussocks. As far as I could see, there was rock. It was a brown world. Not a white one.
Driving a dog sled over rocky terrain is a daunting task. When you have two heavy dogs in the bag, it is even more challenging to steer and keep the sled from tipping over. I would move along on the runners for several yards and then hit a rock and flip over, dragging from the handlebars until my dogs stopped. Then I would stand up, right the heavy sled, and continue on until I hit something else. It was exhausting.
That’s when I noticed the sled parts strewn across the rocky trail. First, I saw part of an aluminum brake, apparently torn from some poor musher’s sled when it caught on a jagged boulder. Minutes later, I came across an entire aluminum runner, footboard and all, sitting just past a fallen tree that we were expected to go over.
“God, I thought we were having a bad day,” I said to the dogs when I saw the mutilated sled parts. I couldn’t imagine going all of the way to Nikolai on just one runner. It didn’t seem possible.
I felt an instant rush of thankfulness. At least my sled was okay.
On Iditarod I am almost scared to have positive thoughts anymore. Just minutes after passing the skeletal remains of several dog sleds, I slammed into a series of knee-high boulders and split my runner in half just in front of my left foot.
I spent the next 55 miles standing on one runner, horsing the loaded-down sled to the right with all of my body weight just to keep it on the trail.
Somehow, even with all of the setbacks, we still made it to Nikolai on schedule. I had planned to take our required 24-hour layover at McGrath, 48 miles down the trail, but I decided to stop early and try to get my back-up sled delivered to the remote village.
The 24-hour break is supposed to be a time for dogs and mushers to catch up on much needed sleep. I spent most of those precious hours trying to arrange to have my other sled snowmobiled or flown to me. Finally, my sled caught a ride with the plane that was flying in Rick Swenson’s second sled. He broke both of his runners on the the run over from Rohn. When I knew my sled was on its way, I slipped into my sleeping bag on floor of the school lunchroom that served as the checkpoint. I was determined to catch a few hours of sleep before my time was up.
Snooze, You Lose
The team felt strong when we left our 24-hour break and hit the river for the quick run into McGrath. After days of rough trails, mushing on wide, easy river ice was relaxing. Too relaxing. This was one of the first good opportunities I had to sit down on my seat, a padded bar that pulls down from the back of the sled and is suspended by bungies.
I have no idea when I fell asleep.
The front yard spotlight and loud rap music woke me up. For minutes, the entire scene was confusing to me. My dogs were turned into the driveway of some strange home. Snowmobiles were parked haphazardly in the driveway along with a few 4-wheelers and a multitude of brightly colored plastic children’s toys. The front door of the house was wide open and I could hear people yelling over the music.
I had no idea where I was and just prayed that we were somewhere near McGrath. I tied the dogs to a light post and went to the door to ask for directions. I had to scream “hello” several times before anyone heard me.
Two young men in their 20’s came to the front porch with beers in hand. When they saw me they looked puzzled.
“Do you know where the Iditarod Trail is?” I asked them.
When they saw my dogs and sled, they laughed hysterically and yelled back inside, “You’re not going to believe this. Get out here, man. There’s a frickin’ Iditarod musher and it’s a girl and she’s lost.”
In normal life, I would have preferred not to ask a house of partiers for directions. But when you’re lost in Alaska, you take what you can get.
“Come on in and have a beer,” they encouraged me.
“Well, normally I would,” I tried to amuse them. “but I’m in the middle of a race. Where am I?”
“Good thing you stopped here or you would’ve passed McGrath. I’ll take you there,” one teenage boy offered. “Follow me.”
He jumped on a snowmobile, wearing only a t-shirt, jeans, and sneakers, and took off down a wooded trail. He stopped periodically to make sure we were still following and then roared away. A half an hour later, I drove my team into the McGrath checkpoint coming from the wrong direction. But I was still on schedule.
I wish I could declare that one misfortune threw me off schedule. But it was really just a combination of mundane events. The distances between a few checkpoints turned out to be longer than predicted by race officials. And like many teams, the further we went, the more my team slowed down. 500 miles into the race it was impossible for us to catch up with my “slow” schedule.
I have a team full of honest dogs though. Dogs that wanted to take me to Nome. When I realized that my race was no longer a competitive one, I became depressed. I wanted to do better.
Then on the 90 mile stretch from the village of Kaltag on the Yukon River to the Bering Sea coast and the town of Unalakleet, my trusty leader Pig fell into a deep hole on the trail. She bounced right back up but moved forward with a limp. It was her shoulder. I loaded her into the sled bag, knowing that she was my driving force. My 2-year old girl, Lolo, was doing great in lead on her first Iditarod but I knew I needed a tough-headed leader to take me up and over the steep mountains between here and Nome. I tried every dog in lead with Lolo but none of them showed Pig’s desire.
So I made the decision to stop. I could have gone into the next checkpoint and left Pig with the veterinarians and tried to get to Nome without her but I didn’t want to. It was no longer a race for us and I knew Pig wanted to finish. And I needed her. We camped along the trail at the primitive Old Woman cabin for 12 hours, giving me time to massage Pig’s shoulder with oils and try to loosen her stiff shoulder with heat packs and short walks.
All Pig needed was time. And it helped me too. The last 250 miles to Nome turned into a mushing vacation with my best canine friends. I finished with a team of healthy, tail-wagging dogs in 12 days and 6 hours, a new personal record.
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