Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Iditarod Recap - Part 4: Kaltag to Nome, the finish

The arrival into Kaltag brings a huge sense of accomplishment to every musher who has ever run the Iditarod and mushed the Yukon River. It is a major step in the race, and the finish line suddenly feels within reach. As I cared for my team in Kaltag and prepared for our next leg of the race, I discussed this with my fellow racers (there were about a dozen of us parked together at the checkpoint). A few people in particular were getting excited about how close we were to Nome. There was a pause in conversation, followed by a contemplative silence as everyone calculated how far the finish really was. A somber mood fell with the snow, as I pointed out that we still had over 300 miles left in the race. This was actually the first time that I thought about the finish of the race, and looked at the big picture.

It is very important when running such a long distance, with so many runs and rests, to focus on one leg at a time. “How is the team looking, and what is my plan for the next run (or two or three at most)?” It tends to be quite discouraging to look 300 miles down the trail and try and think about scenarios that are days away, and out of your immediate control. Our conversation in Kaltag did not help any of our spirits, and made the remaining part of the race seem quite daunting. With a team of eight dogs, I had to really fight the feeling of being overwhelmed. For a brief moment, I started to compare the remaining part of this race to the Copper Basin (a 300 mile race that is one of the toughest in the world, and one I have run a few times). I had to quickly change my outlook, and go back to focusing on the immediate: “How are we going to most successfully run the next 80 miles to Unalakleet?”

The goal of “racing” had long since been set aside, and the focus was now on making it to Nome with the remaining eight dogs. Peter Fleck and I had made a plan to run the remaining race together. We had a well matched group of dogs, and each team had different strengths. My dogs were always eager to jump off the straw, and Pete’s group (still having 12 members) had a little more power to break trail. With the trail conditions, the plan for the remaining part of the race was to stop at every available opportunity. Old Woman cabin (located at mile 40 on the way to the Bering Sea coast) conveniently broke this upcoming run in half. We would stop here for a couple hours and give the dogs a meal and a rest. I knew the trail conditions would be slow, and I was not disappointed.

Having a GPS is not always helpful when running dogs, and it was quite discouraging to look down and read that we were moving at just over six miles per hour. This was especially annoying because for the first time in a few hundred miles, we were actually following fresh snowmachine tracks. But, the quality of the snow had recently changed, and this new texture was quite abrasive and grippy (a coastal snow, which is known for having the texture of sand). All in all, the run to Old Woman was uneventful and smooth, but just felt to be passing in slow motion.

In the light of early morning, we arrived at our camp. The dogs ate, and then curled on their straw. We were getting a reprieve from the snow, and I took the opportunity to stretch out and sleep with my team. It was a quality nap, and I awoke feeling rested and ready for the coast, which was now one run away. A few miles out of Old Woman, I came across a team stretched out in the middle of the trail. They were in full on camp mode, and I recognized the musher immediately.

Brad Farquhar had been a beginning musher the year before, and had lived and worked for Ken Anderson, one of our neighbors who has run the Iditarod for the last two decades. Brad had learned to mush and run his Iditarod qualifiers in one year, and was now attempting to finish Iditarod before moving on to his next “bucket list” item. This phenomenon is somewhat popular with Iditarod, and the musher is known as a “rent a teamer” (because they lease a dog team to race with). A lot of mushers who own their own kennels and have put in the time and labor of raising and training their own group of dogs, are a bit prejudice towards “rent a teamers.” The resentment typically stems from the feeling that these people are simply buying their way into an experience that most people have worked and sacrificed for years to achieve. Regardless, there is no doubt that someone who is running a new team, with little experience in mushing, tends to be more at risk for having difficulty while travelling such a long distance.

Brad had left Old Woman an hour or so in front of me. After a couple miles, he had trouble convincing his dogs to keep moving down the trail and had no leaders to take the team forward. As I came upon him spread across the trail, I had to call my dogs around his crashed out team and convince them to pass his piles of food. I had to jump off the sled and guide the team by, acting as the lead dog. This was the only time in the entire race I had to do this. As I returned to my sled, my anger and frustration (about far more than this team being in the trail) was directed at Brad. I unloaded on him, and pointed out that he needed to move his outfit off the trail for other teams that were going to need to pass. I explained this in short order, with a few expletives thrown in for good measure, and then called to my team to leave this show behind. I was mean, and as soon as we got back to moving, I felt bad.

A few miles down the trail, I looked back to see a team quickly approaching. Expecting to see Pete, I was surprised to see Brad (easily recognizable with his bright, orange hat). I put on the brakes as he caught up, and hollered back to apologize for yelling at him. Brad is a very nice guy, and took it in stride with no hard feelings. He responded by saying that “you wouldn’t believe it, but as you went by, my dogs jumped right up to follow you.” I shook my head, knowing how dogs love to chase, and we continued towards Unalakleet, his team following mine for motivation.

The trail from Kaltag to Unalakleet. An overland trade route that has existed for millenia, connecting the Bering Sea to the Interior and the Yukon River.
Pete, Brad and I travelled together around the Bering Sea coast towards Nome. With the continual wind and snow, we each brought our own, unique energy to the group. Our teams were all well matched, although with different strengths. I ended up leaving each checkpoint first, as I was running the smallest group of dogs (less time to get them ready to run). My dog’s attitudes were also exceptional, and they were the most eager of the three teams to get off the straw (as we prepped to leave Unalakleet, my eight dogs were actually jumping and screaming with excitement). Pete’s team was the most powerful, and he would end up passing me to break trail. Brad had an amazing attitude, and was loving every moment of traveling down the trail. He was a very uplifting person to travel with, and his dogs (actually Ken Anderson’s) were strong enough, but just needed a team to follow (he would usually stay on Pete’s heels and pass me as Pete did). Brad also had an amazing supply of goodies in his sled, and loaned me a pair of boots and book of matches in Unalakleet. I was very grateful for both, especially the boots which allowed me to run and pedal up every hill to the finish.
Mushers often forget the amount of hills that surround Norton Sound. They are not to be overlooked! With the exception of the second coastal run from Shaktoolik to Koyuk, which is all on frozen sea ice, the other four runs have monster rolling hills. These add thousands of feet of climbing in the last 250 miles of the race. Although these hills are an incredible workout, for dogs and musher alike, they give way to amazing views at the top, making the reward worth the work.

The weather had started to break as we mushed from Koyuk to Elim, and by the time we left Elim in late afternoon, the skies were clear. The 45 miles from Elim to White Mountain were a culmination of a season’s worth of hard work, and embodied everything that the Iditarod represents to me as a musher.

Resting in Elim. Well, everyone but Knox.

At this point in the race, I knew that one way or another we would reach the finish line. With that realization, I was able to set aside any stress, and with clear skies and only minimal wind, enjoy every moment of this run. We started with a seven mile climb up “Little McKinley,” bringing us about 2000 above the coast. We then followed one ridgeline to the next, chasing the setting sun. The views were incredible in all directions, and the color in the sky was just amazing to watch (especially after over a week of nothing but snow). In the distance, I could watch Pete and Brad slowly gain ground on us. It was fun to feel that comradery of traveling with other mushers, knowing they too were enjoying this amazing piece of trail.

The view as we mush towards White Mountain

At last, the two larger teams caught up to us, and together we ran over the remaining 10 miles of hills into Golovin (a small community about 16 miles from White Mountain). Just as we approached town, the northern lights came out, and we pointed a portion of our attention to the sky. At this point, Pete and Brad had passed me. On the other side of Golovin, I stopped to put on dog jackets and give my team a snack. The wind had picked up, and the temperature had fallen to -15. I was so startled and confused, when suddenly a team came up behind me and went whizzing by! After initial surprise, I started laughing as I realized it was Brad. Apparently, he had devoted a little too much attention to the sky, and missed the trail out of Golovin.

Leaving the town, we run across Golovin Bay. With a nice tail wind, I was able to sit on my sled, shut off my light, and watch the sky. Even though I have grown up in Alaska, and see the lights frequently throughout the winter, the aurora never loses its beauty and intrigue, and I spent the better part of two hours watching it dance, the lights of Golovin slowly fading behind us. The emotional realization that this was our last night on the trail, and that we were going to finish, suddenly hit me. With tears in my eyes I watched the form of my team move in the subtle light from the sky. I thought back across the last 11 days, and the ups and downs of the race. I thanked my team. I thanked them for their loyalty and their strength. I thanked them for their intelligence and their drive. I thanked them for being there as my family. I knew that this had not been an easy race for them, but these eight dogs had tackled the challenges head on, and had never shown a moment of hesitation. In that moment, I felt that I could travel with them, like this, forever.

As we prepped to leave White Mountain, after serving our mandatory eight hours, I almost regretted having to call this our last run. Reality took hold, however, and I thought about the remaining 60 miles. Many a team has had their race come to an end in this stretch, and that thought helped to get me back on track. A breeze had picked up on the river where we were parked, beneath White Mountain, and I knew that this was an ominous sign of the miles to come. If it is windy here, the exposed Topkok Hills would be storm. And past that, the coast of Norton Sound, and the infamous “blowhole,” would be wild!

In 2014, this section of trail completely changed the outcome of the Iditarod front pack. Jeff King had his entire team blown off course in the “blowhole,” and the dogs got tangled in driftwood lining the coast. In the time it took him to get them untangled, they laid down and decided it was time to camp. Aliy Zirkle then passed him, unknowingly, and when she reached the final checkpoint of Safety, stopped to reassess her team. As she was stopped, Dallas Seavey mushed through. He signed in and out of the checkpoint, and went on to win the race, all the while thinking that he was still in third position.

Three miles out of White Mountain, we climbed off Fish River and were confronted with a strong breeze. Looking across the five mile swamp we were currently running, the Topkok hills were locked in cloud cover. Except, it was a blue sky day, and there were no other clouds around. What I was seeing, in fact, was blowing snow, crowning off the hills and forming “snow clouds.” I decided I was now ready for the race to be over. I did not want to face anymore wind.

In a protected spot just before the hills, I stopped and put jackets back on the dogs. I had removed them before leaving the checkpoint, thinking the temperature was going to rise. It was currently five degrees, however, and it looked like we were going to be facing dangerous winds as we got into the hills. As I pulled the hook and climbed the first small rise into the hills, the strong breeze turned into a 40 mile per hour cross wind. Despite the fact that Pete was only minutes in front of us, Qarth and Knox were breaking through belly deep drifts with no sign of any other team. We would see obvious sled tracks and an icy, rock hard trail one moment, and then bottomless drifts and soft powder the next. While I fought to keep the sled behind the dogs, cutting one side slope after another, the dogs fought to keep their footing and a steady pace with the extreme variation in snow conditions. We were about 12 miles into a 60 mile run… By the time two and a half hours had passed, my shoulders and arms were more fatigued then they had been the entire race. The side hills, coupled with the strong winds made for some of the most demanding sled driving of the whole race. And, I knew we had not hit the worst of it.

After about 25 miles, the trail through the Topkok Hills spits you out onto the coast of Norton Sound for the remaining 35 miles to Nome. But, you must immediately pass through an eight mile section known as the “blowhole.” Regardless of the weather, this piece of the coastline is pummeled by a constant wind that funnels out of the mountains and straight out to sea. This constant wind only increases when there is a storm, of course. During the last couple miles of the Topkoks, I could look out to sea and watch the wind rip across patches of open water. The view was amazing! Watching the turbulent salt water while mushing at five degrees in a winter storm, was a very cool experience. Rounding the final hill, I could keep one eye on the open water and then look over the coast to a grey/white expanse. What is usually definable coastline, was nothing but a cloud. One look told me that was the “blowhole,” and I could follow the distant trail markers straight into the middle of a whiteout.

As we dropped out of the hills and approached the edge of what now looked like a living beast, I was met with a single second of hesitation. Just before we hit the coastline, there is a tiny safety cabin. Parked against that cabin, was a team that had left White Mountain four hours in front of us. Knox saw them, and before I could give it thought, I was calling him and Qarth out towards the coastline. The power of the wind that hit us twenty steps later, is hard to describe. I had one more second of mental pause, and then watched the way my two leaders leaned into the wind and hit the storm with more drive than I could have ever asked for. I knew at that moment that there was nothing else in the world except the here and now. It was time to mush!

The wind went from strong to absurd! I had never mushed in anything close to these conditions before. I went from an aggressive crouch, to sitting on my right heel and holding onto the base of the upright stanchions, my hands positioned only about six inches off the runners. I was trying to get as low as possible and hold the sled down to the trail. Any moment that I relaxed, the sled would spin perpendicular to the dog team, pointing into the wind. In order to keep the sled tracking behind the dogs, I pulled out my knife and drug its blade through the ice on the uphill side of the sled, using it as a rudder. This was a first!

Fifteen minutes into the harshest of the wind, I needed to reposition my legs. After sheathing my knife, I straightened my back. As I did so, the wind caught my body and immediately blew us over. This would be the one and only point in the entire race where I tipped my sled and drug behind the dogs. The ground was completely flat.

I estimate the wind was blowing a steady 70 miles per hour for this eight miles of trail. I stopped twice in this section. Once with my tipping and dragging activity, and then again as Mereen got blown into her brother and tangled in his line. Each time I walked to the front of the team, the dogs would have a layer of snow and ice caked to one side of their tail and face (the majority of their bodies being protected by the jackets). I would brush them off, give them a quick pat, and then get back to my sled which was ready to go airborne if not for the snowhook rope keeping it anchored down. Every time they felt me pull the hook, they hit their tugs and were eager to get going. I guess they trusted that I would get them out of this weather eventually.

At last, the wind calmed to a pleasant 30 miles per hour, and I deemed it safe to stop and make a snack break. In the last mile, I had noticed Qarth make a change to his gait, and now as he stood in lead, I could see that he had pulled something in his back. It was time to give my heaviest dog a ride in the sled. He did not protest, and seemed happy to find reprieve from the storm. With Braavos joining Knox in lead, we continued our progress towards the finish line, albeit at a markedly slower pace with now only seven dogs in harness. I pulled out the ski pole and began my familiar motion of pedaling and ski poling with the team. The wind was now calm enough I could stand upright on the runners, and only needed to have a mild lean into the wind.

The final challenge before reaching the burled arch of the finish, is a climb over “Cape Nome.” Just for fun, the race trail goes up and over a thousand foot hill 12 miles from Nome. Although there is a trail around the “mountain,” the markers take teams straight up the long climb. The view of the western Seward Peninsula is admittedly beautiful, but I am not sure it is worth the tradeoff. This hill was a workout for the seven dogs hauling Qarth, but they tackled it honestly, and reached the top with wagging tails and alert eyes. This would be our final stop on the Iditarod Trail, and I took a moment to give every dog another snack, a fresh change of booties, and a quick rub. In this time, Brad gained on us and attempted a pass. Although his team had somehow been able to power through the “blowhole” on their own, the team was not motivated to stay in front of my dogs. After a few attempts, he took my suggestion and stayed a little ways behind me for the remaining miles to Nome.

It is a bizarre experience to go from the complete remoteness of the Topkok Hills (and the majority of the Iditarod Trail, for that matter), to the relative urban development of Nome. As we trotted down the beach towards the city, cars drove up and down the road next to us, snowmachines buzzed by, a jet took flight in the distance. We were still mushing, still leaning into a steady cross wind, but something had changed. I embraced the change. I congratulated the dogs. As we approached Front Street, I made a quick stop. I pulled Qarth out of the sled and put him in team next to his sister. This dog had led through each of the most difficult sections of trail on this race, and I thought he deserved to be a legitimate finisher, in harness. I guess, it was what I wanted to see from him, more than anything. 

The eight dogs that had run with me for the last 450 miles moved as they had for days, light and easy, making their steps seem effortless. As we ran down the paved street to the finish line, and KattiJo and my Mom who were eagerly awaiting, I could see more finishes in their future.

Thank you to my amazing group of dogs!


Knox – Led for over half the race, and has attitude and endurance that is unmatched
Qarth – The most incredible dog I have ever owned!
Mereen – Smooth and fierce, her future is bright
Braavos – The most eager dog in this year’s race, he loved tailing Spears (who was in heat, haha)
Tundra – At 10, this was his final Iditarod. The couch is in his future
Spears – The easiest dog on the team, her four foot leap to run is pretty inspiring
Moe – A surprise finisher! Let’s see if he is ready for next year.
Whiskey – Our youngest team member, at 20 months. Super appetite, light step. Good boy!

Polar – (Anvik) I had the hardest time dropping this guy. He has grown immensely this year, and should make next year’s team
Ambler – (Shageluk) Super strong, but suffering from chronic shoulder issues, Ambler’s racing career is uncertain
Frito – (Iditarod) This guy loved every minute of the race. A swollen wrist knocked him out this year, but he will be back next year
Forty – (Ophir) Outgoing as ever, he should be ready for next year
India – (McGrath) As with her son, Ambler, her shoulders have proven to be a problem on tough trails. Her attitude on new trails, however, is great!
Pogo – (McGrath) The smartest Gee/Haw leader we have! I sure hope I can get this guy through next year’s race (his physical durability is the issue)
Elton – (McGrath) This little nut is living on the couch! He was adopted after the race by a local Fairbanks resident
Yunkai – (Nikolai) A beast! No dog has his appetite, or his semi-psychotic attitude… His racing career comes down to whether or not he wants it. It is all mental with Yunkai

Saturday, April 7, 2018

Iditarod 2018 - Part 3: Don's Cabin to Kaltag

Don’s “cabin,” a ten by twelve rundown shack, was a warm a comfortable place to stretch out the sleeping bag, and stay out of the blizzard that had hammered on us during the run from Ophir. It was also small enough that there was no risk of oversleeping as other mushers awoke and prepped to leave. After an hour of sleep, mushers around me started to rise and don their layers (looking and moving a little like zombies). A combination of rest and daylight seemed to calm people’s nerves about the trail conditions, and most seemed eager to get back to running.

The world outside of the cabin was still that of a snow globe, and all the dogs and gear were covered in a fresh layer of powder. My team perked their heads as I walked up to the sled, and they were all eager to have a frozen slice of beef. I started my cooker (melting snow to water), as the first teams in our group pulled the hook and departed the camp. In the hour it took for me to feed and repack the sled, six more teams left Don’s, and three other teams arrived: having made the trek from Ophir and all reporting the same conditions we had experienced.

Qarth is wondering why I woke him up. Don's Cabin in the background

I was ready for more snow and slow travelling, and I kept Qarth in lead, knowing the trail would be difficult. As soon as I pulled the hook and we left the protected area around the cabin, the wind was back and the trail was completely gone (even though, again, that next team was only 15 minutes in front of us). Conditions, however, did improve as we progressed down the trail, and there were only small sections that were completely obscured. This gave me the opportunity to do some sight-seeing as I ski poled along with the dogs (an action that helps to remove my weight from the runners and propel the sled down the trail).

It is hard to say what segment of this race was the prettiest, but this run from Don’s Cabin to Iditarod was certainly one of them. Rolling hills, with sparse tree coverage, gave great vantage points to look out across small alpine lakes. The calming snow and lifting clouds gave a few miles of visibility, and I was able to enjoy the beauty of the large valley we were travelling through. The winds were still steady, so intermittent drifts and windblown hills kept the mushing interesting.

A brief bit of creek running between the hills 

In total, this run took us just under seven hours for 40 miles. It was slow going, and the hills seemed endless. The dogs were in good spirits, but the last few climbs, into what was now a strong head wind, started to take its toll on their energy level. In addition, Frito developed a swollen wrist on the later part of the run, and needed to be loaded for the last hour. All in all, as we parked in Iditarod, I knew the dogs needed a longer rest and a few heavy meals. We ended up spending just over ten hours.

Catching some serious shut eye in the ghost town of Iditarod

This next leg of our race was probably one of the most enjoyable of the whole trip. The 65 miles to Shageluk is mostly hills, and the first half was supposed to be some of the hilliest of the whole race. Although the wind was still ripping over the hills, I had guessed there would be a more discernable trail, and decided to give Qarth a break from leading. Ambler and Tundra would make their debut, and I expected to keep a slower speed with those two up front (Tundra is our oldest racing dog at 10, and Ambler tends to be a bit of a monkey in lead).

In the first half mile out of Iditarod, we passed two teams (I had been the last team in our group to leave the checkpoint, and five of us were separated by only a few minutes). Allen Moore, running a young team of dogs, had been having some leader trouble, and was only a few hundred yards down the trail before he needed to stop and adjust a few dogs. As I went by, he was able to get his dogs rolling, and draft behind my team for the majority of the run. Together, we passed our second team only a quarter mile later.

Dogs tend to need time to warm up as they get off their straw and get back to running. Every group of dogs takes a different amount of time to stretch out and shake off, depending on how fast they have been running, what (and how much) they have had to eat on their rest, and what (if any) minor soreness and muscle injury they are needing to work out before they really settle in to pulling at 100 percent.

My team had been really quick to warm up all race, and this run was no exception. They were all in a smooth rythum by mile two, and Ambler was driving like a crazy man (probably going a little too hard, in hind sight). We hit our first hill at about mile three, and it was a good one: I looked up, and among the stars, was the light of Monica Zappa’s headlamp. With some quick pedaling, and my trusty ski pole in my right hand, we started the ascent. I could tell by the trail conditions, that Monica was breaking through small drifts and windblown patches, and footing was not very good. As we reached the summit of this first climb, I could see the outline of her team and watched her start a second hill. Ambler and Tundra were pumped to see Monica so close, and they drove hard to catch her midway up this ascent. We had a minor tangle on this pass, and we were both off the sleds to separate our dogs. Stepping off the trail, I was immediately waist deep in snow. We both had a good laugh about the ridiculous weather, and then got back to the trail.

By the time we peaked this second hill, the wind was a steady 30 miles per hour, and the gusts felt like they may halt us in our tracks. I was feeling great about the dog’s performance, however, and Ambler and Tundra were clearly having a blast running into the wind. In between strides of pedaling and ski poling, I would spin around and watch the line of headlamps behind us. Another team had joined our group from Iditarod, and there were four lights in a line moving through the blowing snow. It was a very cool image to be a part of.

Originally, sitting at home with a warm cup of coffee and an idealist mindset, I had planned to run straight through from Iditarod to Shageluk, 65 miles. Now, running a group of ten dogs at mile 500, and dealing with constant wind, I knew that a stop at halfway would be smart. Back at Iditarod, we were informed about a nice shelter cabin at mile 30. This would be our place to rest.

Just as the light was returning to the sky, we rounded a sharp bend and dropped onto the front step of the Big Yentna shelter cabin. A few other teams were parked and resting, and I got my team pulled off the trail and onto a large pile of used straw (it was clear that many teams in the race had also stopped here). I got the dogs settled and sleeping in short order (there are some advantages to a smaller team), and made my way into the cabin to catch some shut eye. The Iditarod Insider had a film crew at the cabin, and got me aside for a short interview. It felt a bit comical to be speaking into a camera in such a remote area.

After a few hours of rest, we were back on the trail and now mushing under a bright sun. The wind had abated, and it now felt downright warm. The dogs also felt the sun, and our speed was a bit diminished on our run to Shageluk. About two hours from the checkpoint, Ambler slipped in a hole and pulled his right shoulder. Now, having a 65 pound dog riding in the sled, our speed slowed a little more. One of our best runs of the race, was now followed by one of our worst. And that is the nature of Iditarod and long distance racing: highs and lows, one after another.

Approaching Shageluk

The arrival into Shageluk is pretty neat. As we crested our last hill of the run, we overlooked the Yukon River valley, and saw the mighty river for the first time. It is still quite far in the distance (Shageluk doesn’t actually sit on the river), but the valley makes quite an impression, and signals a significant step on the thousand mile journey to Nome.

The dogs did not eat particularly well in Shageluk, and I was feeling pretty demoralized having to drop Ambler. My spirits were boosted, however, having a good conversation with race judge Justin Savidis. He is a musher who I had not met, but heard really good things about. Having finished the seven previous Iditarods, he was able to give me some good insight into managing a small team for the next 450 miles (and also how to deal with the mental struggle of taking care of a sick dog team). The dogs, although improving since Rohn, had still been a little under the weather, with loose stools and a diminished appetite.

I left Shageluk feeling ready to tackle the next 200 miles. It would be exclusively river running, and we were very likely to be heading into a strong head wind as we worked up the river. Everyone looked good as we started this run, and the plan was to make the quick, 27 mile run to Anvik, and blow through to Grayling (18 more miles) and rest. This planned was quickly scraped, however.

As we snaked through a portage about two hours into our run, a moose jumped into the trail in front of the dogs, and encouraged everyone to hit the harness at 110 percent. Typically, this is not a risk for the dogs on a physical level, but being so far into a race, their bodies are not always ready for a quick change in speed and exertion. Polar, having been both physically and mentally one of the strongest on the team, gave all his energy to try and catch the moose. As soon as the animal was spooked off the trail, and the dogs settled down, Polar had a significant head bob. A clear sign that he had strained his shoulder, he now needed a ride in the sled.

So, Anvik was our next place to rest. Funny enough, this was the one place on the entire trail where I was sure I would not stop. As we were preparing food drops, I had reluctantly sent out enough food to stop for a couple hours, but had skimped on every other provision. Luckily, nine dogs do not need a lot, and temperatures were still pretty warm for me (so, extra gloves and socks were not essential).

As I rested the dogs, I took a serious look at the team and the rest of the race. Without Polar, I would be leaving Anvik with eight dogs, and be looking at the races longest stretch of unsupported trail. Eagle Island checkpoint was experiencing bad weather, and mushers would need to carry everything they needed for the 120 mile leg from Grayling to Kaltag. This would not have been a daunting task with a larger team, or with a smaller group of dogs that were not 550 miles into a challenging race. At this point, however, I felt some hesitation about continuing.

There were a few factors that kept me going, and got us out of Anvik. As I pulled into the checkpoint, I met up with Peter Fleck, a musher who was running a puppy team for Mitch Seavey, and a guy with a very positive outlook on life. He was a good reminder to keep having fun, and always focus on the team members that are strong and doing well (don’t get bummed by the negative). He also helped me analyze the Yukon River run, and determine how to get to Kaltag in the best manner (having made this unplanned stop in Anvik).

I also had a chance to chat with Katti via messenger. Although she was not travelling the trail, she was able to remind me that we had trained the majority of the winter with small teams, and eight dogs can easily cover hundreds of miles. This was a very good boost, and lifted my spirits a bit. I was also motivated by the fact that I did have eight healthy dogs who were eager to keep going. I owed it to those dogs, if no one else, to keep traveling and help them have a good and successful race. As long as I could set them up for success, we could still make it to Nome and have a good time getting there.

After six hours, we pulled the hook and left Anvik. I would resupply in Grayling, and make two breaks (three runs) over the next 140 miles to Kaltag. As long as the weather wasn’t too brutal, I figured our chances of making it were good. As it turned out, the run up the Yukon River was great! The dogs performed well, ate well, and seemed to be kicking their stomach bug with the help of some high powered antibiotics.

A few miles from Grayling

Our first rest on the Yukon

The end of our first leg on the river, had us resting about 25 miles north of Grayling. I found a protected spot out of the wind (rare on this river), and in the sun. The dogs enjoyed a perfect rest during the warmest part of the day. The second leg of our run was easy going with only minimal wind. The only point of interest on this run, was a brief bit of hill climbing around midnight…
Without warning, trail markers appeared hundreds of feet above us, and the trail started up this long climb. The dogs slowed with the ascent, and I started ski poling and pedaling with vigor. After a couple minutes, we reached no clear summit, and suddenly started dropping in elevation. The dogs picked up, and I threw the ski pole on the sled, riding the drag to slow us down. The dogs gave me a serious look back, and I let off the drag a bit. I shut my eyes for a long blink, as we continued our descent. As I re-opened them, I realized we were still traveling the mile wide Yukon River. It has no hills. I was hallucinating.

Our second stop on the Yukon, was about 15 miles north of Eagle Island. I felt very fortunate to find another calm and protected spot on the river, and made a comfortable camp for me and the team. After a quick meal, and a bed of straw for the dogs, I was zipped up in my sleeping bag and sound asleep. I then proceeded to sleep through my two alarms, and the half a dozen teams that passed.
I awoke at exactly the time I had wanted to leave. Snow was falling steady, and a breeze had picked up. I jumped out of my bag, feeling very much in a panic, and got the cooker going (the dogs still needed a soup and snack before hitting the trail). Being hit with a wind in our camping spot, I knew the middle of the river would be in a full-fledged storm as we got moving.

After a total of seven and a half hours, we were off our straw and rolling down the trail. Mereen and Knox were in lead together at this point, but that changed as we hit the first exposed section with no trail. After a couple adjustments, Qarth found his way back to single lead, and took us plodding into blowing snow and drifting/disappearing trail. Although it was getting close to white-out at this point, sun glasses were still essential as the blowing snow had the texture of sand. This also affected the glide of the sled runners, and the progress up river was slow and taxing for the dogs. By the time we reached Kaltag, we had been running for almost nine hours to cover 50 miles, and the dogs were fighting belly deep drifts for much of the last 20 miles. Despite the slow going, however, their attitudes remained perky, and they pulled off the Yukon looking healthy and ready for more trail (as long as it did not involve more river).