“May your trails be crooked, winding, lonesome, dangerous, leading to the most amazing view.” An excerpt from an Edward Abbey Quote (see the full quote here) is etched in my brain as describing my Iditarod. I had this feeling before I even had the quote to describe it, so when I saw it displayed on the fridge where I stay when I am in Nome* it really resonated. Hopefully as I share with you some of my rambling memories and thoughts on this years race it will all make sense ~ and if not (also possible) then at the very least you must believe me and imagine the the run for White Mountain to Nome. It has moments when you are up in the hills surrounded, engulfed really, with such amazing beauty there is no way words can express it, and at that point you have been through so much. Just one of the many times the feeling that this amazing view, so few will ever get to see, makes the journey no matter how challenging worth it! And when I read the Abbey quote says it summed it up so well.
*Oh and Mush Thanks to Kristine, Ian, and Raina for being amazing friends who always take such good care of me & the dogs when the race is over!
One of the things I like about the Abbey quote is that to a certain type of person it will come across as though there is no way all these extreme, some might call negative, descriptions are worth “…something strange and more beautiful and more full of wonder than your deepest dreams waits for you” That type of uncertainty and vastness leaves some with a level of discomfort they choose not to tolerate. The quote makes it sound like the journey may be a challenge (and it is) with unknowns (there are) that takes a great deal of time (it sure does); and to some people that is not necessarily a good thing. But to others, to the wonderful women and men who join me in the annual insanity of running Iditarod, the journey is a great thing, it’s an event that leaves you changed every time you run it.
And a big part of the change is the things you learn: from fellow mushers, race vets & officials, and of course your dogs. I want to thank them all. This year I felt like I learned even more about the type of competitor I want to be. And with that an even greater awareness of how much work there is yet to be done. Like many things in life, with mushing it seems the more I learn, more I realize I still need to learn. And so already I find myself thinking about things I can do differently next year to help better prepare myself and the team for another trip down the trail. Yes mushing is an insidious addiction, no sooner are you rested from one event and your mind begins to focus on the next. I find myself thinking how frustrating it is as a distance musher. Our main events happen annually. So I will have to wait an entire year! One agonizingly long year before I will have the chance to try again. AND even when I do it will not be the same race because conditions, trail, dogs, even I will all be different by then. On the bright side it does give me lots of time to work on making improvements.
I am already ahead of myself, thinking about what I want to accomplish next year, and I haven’t even told you about this year. BUT before I go any further I have to stop and take a minute to thank the so many wonderful companies and people who made all this possible!!! Seriously, NONE of this could happen without their support and encouragement. Usibelli Coal Mine Inc., TJ’s Land Clearing, and Halliburton are long time supporters of Dew Claw both of whom fully support our “dogs first” philosophy of racing. ManMat Mushing Gear, for making the quality gear we depend on. Dr. Carson’s All Natural Pet Supplements, and Bailey Farms, ensuring our dogs top quality nutrition. Locally owned and operated Apocalypse Design, as well as NEOS Overshoe, and Intuition Liners, with gear like this it is easy to see why I stayed comfortable, and the cold temps we experienced in this years race were not an issue for me. Also the excellent veterinarians who work with us year round to ensure our dogs get the best care possible: Dr Tamara Rose DVM at T Rose Veterinary Service, Dr Kate Van Duine DVM at VCA Alaska Pet Care Animal Hospital, and Dr Renee Rember DVM at Chena Ridge Veterinary Clinic.
In addition we had an amazing group of Checkpoint Sponsors helping our team. One in particular held special meaning, it was the checkpoint of Koyukuk which was sponsored by Huntington-Kriska Associates & Perdues Jewelry in honor of Ralph and Dorothy Perdue. Ralph Perdue was from Koyukuk, and he, Dorothy and their family are part of a long rich tradition of dog mushing in Interior Alaska. If I am being perfectly honest I have to tell you this sponsorship touched me, made me feel a real need to travel the rivers of Interior Alaska with the respect they were due. Traveling to places like Tanana, Koyukuk and Huslia for the first time on Iditarod was a unique experience, and I was blow away by the reception we received. Of special note in the village of Huslia they had brought the late George Attla’s cook pot and ladle from his house to the community center checkpoint. It was kept full of water with a fire going under it, so at any time a musher needed it there was hot water on demand for your dogs. And the people working their explained to me that now, George was helping to feed all the Iditarod teams.
And there were many more friends and supporters who all chipped in to make this year possible, from my awesome race handler crew, (seriously y’all make me look good!) to friends like Walt & Janet Tremer who have been able to move mountains and get things done when we needed them most. No matter who lonesome the trail may feel I travel safe in the knowledge that I am not really alone.
So again MUSH THANKS to everyone who helped for the encouragement and support.
Ah yes, now after days spent in bed recovering from a post race flu that was far worse then anything I faced in Iditarod (really!!!!) it is time to share with you my thoughts from this years race, in the fuzzy almost kinda chronological way my sleep deprived brain remembers it.
The Fairbanks start went off amazingly well. I had a gnawing fear that I might have trouble with a right angle turn on the road before we dropped down onto the Chena River, but my fears were worse than reality and we swept around it while remaining upright and without taking out any spectators. Once on the Chena River we were met with tons of fans who had come out to see the teams charge by. A special treat, and one that had me smiling like a big huge fool for miles after I saw it, was the Jodi Bailey sign made by my friend Carey Erhart-Roberts. Made me feel extremely special, usually you see signs for crowd favorites like Aliy, DeeDee, and Lance. But I had the home town advantage and friends who live near the river, so this year there was a Jodi sign as well.
The first section of trail is one I had run before and was looking forward to, the river is nice traveling and it is a good place to let the dogs loosen up. Personally I was working on not letting my team go too fast, which is easy for them to do when they are all amped up and roaring to go. I had a little help thank to my friends Alvina Holleyman & Holleyman Cattle Company who sponsored a checkpoint and got the kennel a GPS unit to work with this year. Adding a GPS to training meant I was more specific in my actually traveling times, and could better track things like how much of each run I spent moving, and how much was break time. And on the run to Nenana it helped me make sure I was making my target speed, and not overdoing it.
The Nenana Checkoint was run a little different then the rest. Instead of having drop bags sent out, your handler could meet you there and bring you whatever you needed – food, gear, straw. Also because it was tight parking and as the first checkpoint got to see all the teams come in pretty close together your handler could help park your team. This was a time when having someone with Dan’s experience really paid off, as he was able to find a great spot to park our team. One that might not have looked like an obvious place, but being out of the wind, close to the checkpoint building and off from the main area of crowds, it was ideal.
The dogs rested well there and we were booting up to get back on the trail after a few hours. A word about booties and foot care. It seems like every year we face different conditions, and the type of snow we are dealing with can have a big impact on the dogs feet. This year for the first part of the trail it felt like we were dealing with heavy wet snow, the kind that easily packs up into snowballs that can cause problems for dogs feet. Keeping booties on every foot of every dog became extra important in these conditions, and I found myself taking extra time on the trail to check and replace the booties as we went, which in the end payed off with dogs feet staying in good shape.
I chose to split the run to Manley in half, which meant camping part way out. It was a calm cold night, and although it took me a bit to find a nice place to pull the dogs off the trail and camp it all worked out well. Now funny story, at the Nenana checkpoint earlier that day I had been speaking with musher Bill Cotter who mentioned that there was a section of trail slightly past an old roadhouse that was “a little dicey” and I might want to camp after that to avoid having to run over it with a strong team. I filed it under consideration, but as the run unfolded I opted to camp before the dicey bit and take my chances. Now I am not saying this was a mistake, and I would make the same choice again. But for the record, the “dicey bit” did cause me to crash and get drug for a time, and gave me a bruise on my right hip that was still as large as my hand and totally purple even days after I arrived in Nome. So I guess you could say Bill was right to warn me. And in my defense I was on the lookout and had the team slowed down and traveling smoothly because of Bills warning. But it still took me down.
I camped on the hills outside of Manley instead of in the checkpoint. It was a warm sunny day* beautiful for camping out with you team. This was another trail Dan and I had run before, but not for years. So I had a vague notion of what it was like but was not 100% sure of the details. Mostly I was looking forward to seeing it again, and getting to travel to Tanana where I was looking forward to seeing one of my favorite people Shannon Erhart. We had worked together years ago in town and she was now living and working in Tanana. In retrospect, yes it was Great to see her, but in the middle of the Iditarod is really not the best time for old friends to sit down and catch up. We talked a little, but really my mind was more on the race than anything else. Luckily Shannon understood.
*OK it was probably actually pretty darn cold, -10 to -20ish, but compared to the -30 -40 nights were were having & in the full sun it felt spectacular! And that was the thing about the super cold spell on the Interior Rivers. The difference between the sunny daytime temps and the colder cold dark nights was extreme. I was told on the night I ran to Huslia it was -45, and I certainly came in with frosted clothes and frozen eyelashes. But the next day I was comfortably massaging the dogs feet without gloves on. And while we are talking about the cold, I have to say I felt very lucky to have not been bothered by it. I know many of my competitors had frost related injury to their hands, feet, and faces; so I do not want to make light of it. But I would pull into checkpoints and people would tell me the temperature and I swear I never felt THAT cold. In one interview I even joked, “Hey I am from Fairbanks, we do cold”. I even had a back up parka in my sled in case I needed it that I never once pulled out to use. And if I had to pick between the bitter cold of the first half and the ripping winds of the second half I would have to go with winds. I am just more familiar with the cold and so I am more comfortable dealing with it.
Running to Ruby was a long run I broke up into 3 parts with short camps for the dogs. It was dark as I was getting closer to Ruby and I was treated to two shows of nature. One – the aurora, beautiful and vivid in the sky above. This was not the first time the aurora has been in full force as I drive dogs into Ruby, when I ran the traditional Northern route the light show was so exceptional even the dogs craned their necks to watch. And the Second – winds, blistery, snow blowing, drift making, where did my trail go? winds. It seems this second treat of Mother Nature was just a precursor for things to come. I may have even joked about it in the Ruby Checkpoint… OK I did, something about “well that was a good warm up for the coast”
The next run that really stands out in my mind was the run to Huslia. I went out in deep cold, and knew that other that DeeDee ahead of me there was really no one else on the trail. It was evening, so it was going to be a night run. I was told of a shelter cabin, but all bundled up with my ruff wrapped around my face and my sled slight piercing a ray of brightness in front of the team you develop a kind of ‘tunnel vision’, and so I mushed right past it in the night without every seeing it. As the run progressed I had a sense of worry as I started to second guess myself, how far have I gone? I feel like the team is moving good, but are we really? Why haven’t I seen the shelter cabin? Oh did I mention it was far to cold for the screen of the GPS to be of any use, and so I was going old school – using my watch and known landmarks, one of which, the shelter cabin, I had already passed but missed seeing. Plus it is easy when you are already tired and on these super long runs to start to second guess yourself. There is an emotional roller-coaster effect to long distance mushing that can not be avoided. It can be accepted, handled, worked with, given in to, and many other things to try and help deal with it; but you can’t avoid it. It would not be till the next morning, when I passed another known landmark that I knew I had missed the cabin but was still moving good and where I needed to be. That morning the sun was brighter then I think it has ever been. And the tree lined trails you take on your way into Huslia were as picture perfect as any I have ever seen. The community welcome in Huslia was exceptional, beginning with the signs school kids made that lined your way into the checkpoint, and including all the work the community had done in order to make the checkpoint welcoming for mushers. It was a fantastic place to take a 24, which we did and enjoyed thoroughly.
Huslia seemed to be the hub of extreme cold, on the next run I camped at a shelter cabin about 66 miles past Huslia, and I am choosing to believe that the thermometer on the cabin was broken, because that was a nicer thought then it being -55. Which is what the thermometer actually read when I was getting ready to leave. The cabin itself was a simple trappers style cabin owned by a local who was kind enough to make it available to mushers. But on a cold dark night it was about the nicest place I have even slept, the cabin itself was cozy with the woodstove going and I even scored a mattress to sleep on. It was so comfortable I actually overslept and spent an extra 2 hours there *oops*.
After the cold cams the winds, and they pretty much stuck with me till the end. Picking up seriously as I headed out to Tripod cabin some 27 miles past Kaltag. Winds mean trails can get blown in, drifted over, and in effect erased from the landscape. The Iditarod Trail Committee does an excellent job of marking the trail. Lathe with reflective tape is used and placed all along the entire trail. And when the wind is busy erasing the trail away sometimes these markers are all you have. On the trail to Tripod is was like that, blowing snow causing limited visibility as you go marker to marker finding your way.
After a good rest at the Tripod Cabin we headed out to Unalakleet, not sure what the wind had done to the trail ahead of us. Other teams had come through while I rested and the winds had died down so going was not so bad. In fact some places it was as though no wind had even happened and the trail was great. In particular the area after Old Woman cabin before you get to Unalakleet, rolling hills and wide open spaces, nice packed trail on calm day. I was feeling like this might be the best run yet. Ran into a trapper on how way out to check traps who commented, “beautiful up here hun? but it is blowing miserable down there” (down there means Unalakleet, where I was headed) Oh well, enjoy it while it is wonderful is what I thought to myself.
And to be fair I have seen worse winds then what was blowing in Unalakleet when I rolled in. Got the team bedded down for a rest and headed to the community checkpoint where rumor had it, home made salmon cakes were being made (that rumor was true!) and experience had shown me mushers could get beds (also true again this year).
Took off for Shaktoolik at night, and this run was full of ups and down – both literal and figurative. First many of the markers had been blow away, so it was more challenging to find trail in some places. There were hardly any markers left right as you started out from Unalakleet and the glare ice conditions made it difficult to set new ones. At one point later int he run I even got off trail and headed the wrong way. But luckily my trail sense told me something wasn’t right. Looking around without my headlamp on I could see the light of fellow musher Paige Dronby in the opposite direction, and then I knew I was off course. I was able to get turned around and back on track without any major issues. The Blueberry Hills follow, and they do present some fun climbs late in the race, but they also give some of the best views. And I reached them in daylight, which made it a bit hotter for the dogs, but a bit more beautiful for me. One of the most memorable views is looking out over toward Shaktoolik right before you start the fun whoop-de-do- decline all the way from the top of the hills to the flat endless expanse that takes you to Shaktoolik. Now that is a fun section of trail to be sure, rolling downward with just the right amount of slope to be fun without treacherous, weaving through trees with turns that are enough to be exciting without feeling like your being whipped out of control. Seriously this is a super fun section of trail. And enjoy it while you can. Cause once you get to the bottom, the winds tend to pick up as you travel along the longest, flattest, most never ending section of trail ever – the strip if land that runs out to Shaktoolik. It always seems to take longer then you think it should, and because of the expanse of white that surrounds you it seems like you keep moving but never get any closer to your target. I for one, am always super super happy to make it to the checkpoint on that run!
Weather reports were already making it obvious that it was not going to be an easy run to Koyuk this year. I knew my team would be better prepared if they were better rested so, just like we had in Unalakleet, we took a nice break to rest and refuel. When we headed out it was rough going from the start, and it really didn’t let up the entire run. At one point DeeDee came up and passed us, so we had some fun chasing her for awhile. But eventually she pulled away. She was gone from view in no time due to the limited visibility, and with the winds whipping it was no time at all before you could not even tell there had been another team on the trail ahead of us ever, her marks were wiped clean away and we were left on the sea ice alone making our way forward to Koyuk. As it got darker I could use my headlamp to “flash markers” for my team. A handy trick at times when poor trail conditions or visibility means you are finding your way marker my marker down the trial, you use you light to make the reflective strips on the lath markers light up, giving your dogs an easy target to see and run towards.
After an exceptionally long trip across the sea ice I was super super happy to get the team safely to Koyuk. Where in addition to being happy for a good camping spot for the dogs, the kind words vets had to say about how our team looked, and the water checkers delivered to your sled so it was easier to feed you dogs, I was very happy to see the familiar faces of Iditarod volunteers. In a strange way this race sometimes feels like a reunion. People we may not see often, but have come to depend on when we do. I am the first to admit I am HORRIBLE with names, but do much better with faces. And in Koyuk there were a number of smiles that I remember well there to greet me. As you can see in the photo above, I was sporting the very fashionable Iditarod ‘wind-blow and worn’ look.
By now in the race the field had spread out quite a bit. Those of us in Koyuk were hearing that teams were staying in Unalakleet and Shaktoolik due to weather. And having been through what we had been through the last couple of runs I can not say I blame them. The coast can be unkind, and I feel fortunate to have made it as well as we did. Yes I took A lot more rest then my ideally planned schedule, but I really feel that is what my team needed to keep them going in those stressful conditions. And with the extreme weather keeping teams put at checkpoints behind us there was less pressure for me to take off right away and keep going.
Now a word about leadership in crappy conditions. Leadership is always a responsibility, and for a dog to lead in even more challenging conditions even more so. I have to say that once again my little leader Orchid showed she was up for it. And on some of our most challenging runs I found that things moved better if I put her in single lead and let her run the show. You can see in the photo as I came into Elim she was rocking single lead, and that was not the first time. She was also in charge a we made our way across the sea ice to Koyuk, and she was in single lead for the notorious ‘blow hole’ section of trail on the way to Safety.
Leaving Elim this year we took a land route, which added some extra hills to the already hilly section. It started in a area with tree cover, so the trail was narrow and punchy snow made for hard going. But once you got above tree line the winds kicked in again, and you were dealing with hardly any visibility, side hills, and finding your way. So there I am traveling the mountains, dealing with high winds, and I get to a point where I can see the lights of Golovin, that was a welcomed sight. When I got to White Mountain one of the race judges asked me how the climb up Little McKinley (to where you can see the lights of Golovin) went. I told him the whole run had been tough enough I didn’t even notice it, and that’s the truth.
Like so many runs leaving White Mountain there were huge stretches of trail that were perfect, lulling you into thinking this might be the run where it all goes good. But like so many runs, eventually you would hit the windy part, and retreat back into your parka ruff to avoid the worst of the winds beating. And as I said in the hills outside if Nome it relented and allowed me to take deep breaths is clear mountain air while taking in a 360 view that can not be described. OK yeah it came back with a vengeance on the road to Safety, trying at times to blow me and my sled right into the now unused telephone poles that line the way. And then after Safety and the climb over Cape Nome you see lights in the distance. Actually it almost looks like a scene from a sci-fi movie where you climb over a hill in a remote wilderness area and below you appears a top secrete installation in the middle of nowhere. Buildings all lit up in rows appear like tiny dots of light in the distance, spread out in a grid. You still have a ways to go once you see it, but there is something comforting about knowing Nome is in your sights.
OK comforting and not, as it also signals the end is near. And every year I have mixed feeling about this part. Oh yeah I am soooooooooooo ready for a shower and to sleep in a bed for more then 3-4 hours. But I know that it means something special is going to end, this time on the trail with my dogs. There is nothing else like it in the world, a time when I can completely focus on what is right in front of me. You are present in the world in a way people tend not to be on a day to day basis. You are exposed to the world in ways we usually shy away from. And in spite of the fact that basically we all know what is going to happen out there, we are going to run dogs from Fairbanks to Nome, you never really know what each day will hold. And you are constantly surprised by what you find…
The shooting start on the trail to Koyukuk that blazed a trail across the sky. The way the light played on the clouds as the sun set while I camped with the team on the way to Ruby. How a kind word at the right time can lift your entire attitude. Or how the frost on the side of your beaver hat can play tricks and look like moving glitter in the sun. I find in re-reading this that so many of the mental images from my mind didn’t actually make it into print. And I fear mostly for lack of having any meaningful way to do it. You see one of the the things I learned on the Iditarod trail, is that some things are far to grand and at the same time personal to be given away, the simply must be experienced.
But in spite of my inability to share the entire roller coaster ride that is the Iditarod trail, I hope the rambling of my memory can do some justice to the adventure we just had the pleasure of taking part in. And YES in spite of my constant comments about the wind I would still call my time on the trail a pleasure. One I am already looking forward to doing again. Hope y’all are ready for another year of this mushing madness ~