Iditarod 2008 Part 1
It always takes a long time to convince myself to start this, specially while the mushing conditions are still great outside. The german version of this I wrote a week ago at Bonnie and Jim Foster´s place in Eagle River, they were my hosts once again before the race. This time also during the race for my handler and after the race they also could not get rid of me. Not only has the nice down duvet something to do with that, but mainly the fact that they have a perfect setup for the dogs, all fenced in, so I can turn the gang loose to romp around. Many thanks Bonnie and Jim for your hospitality. This English Version comes from Homer, where I am enjoying some great springtime mushing. By noon it usually gets too hot to run, so I ran out of excuses to write.
The time before the Iditarod was once again fairly stressful, not only with preparations but mainly all the other things I put on my plate. I followed the Yukon Quest with an Italian film crew which was quite an adventure in itself, specially with the minus 45° temperatures we had to deal with during the first days. That filming ended in Whitehorse, so I was able to spend a few days there, repacking but also organizing dog- and skidoo tours. The dogs needed to go out on some last training runs, specially due to the fact that I was still not sure about the candidates I would take along. Some runs on the Dawson Trail and to 37 and 52 Mile Lake later, I was more sure about the team makeup. Boy was I glad when Roland and me finally sat in the truck on our way to Anchorage late Sunday afternoon.
With us were 18 dogs, two more than needed for Iditarod, I was going to do 2 more training runs in Paxson. Unfortunately quite a bit of work also needed to be done there, Roland and Andy were a big help with that, like cleaning out the house we were living in during the winter, repacking dogfood and a big dogyard cleanup. During my last run on the Denali Highway, in which I left under perfect blue Skies and no wind, I almost got caught once again in a storm along Mile 13. I would have not been prepared to camp out and was glad to make it back home in one piece. It looked more and more, that I would replace all my younger dogs with my oldies. Those oldies have been with me for 10 and in Tang´s case 11 years. Libby, Herring, Wondar, Franky and Tang replaced Susie, Emerie, Callie, Jasper and Elliot. The young ones, although they are 3 years old just did not look solid enough to me. Jasper and Elliot I borrowed from Richi Beattie, same as Kavik and Keeper who made the team and were a great additon:
After our cleanup in Paxson we were headed for Anchorage, Rudi had left a few days ahead of us. As usual my trucks gave me headaches. It does not seem to make a big difference if the trucks are new or old, the cold seems to play havoc with them. Oh yes, did find out a big difference this winter, the new ones cost a lot more to fix. For my big Dodge Diesel I could buy about 15 old beater trucks, an interesting concept to ponder. So instead of casually driving to the mushers meeting, I needed to hitch a ride with Rudi, needless to say his truck also just came out of the shop.
The musher meeting is a painful event. Not only do they tell us the same stuff there as the last years, they also tell us the same stuff they also send us in emails. I always get a kick out of the trail report: When you leave Nikolai, take your first left, than a right after the tree….., sure I am going to remember that in a week. I think it is simple as: Follow the markers, if you do not see any, turn around. Mind you this works for the Iditarod, which really is very well marked, but sure would not work for the Yukon Quest where markers are far and in between. For lunch we met our Idita Riders, but mine did not show up, obviously he was not in town yet, or got scared.
After the Mushers meeting there are a few hours off and than painful event number 2 is waiting: The Mushers Banquet. With 96 Mushers needing to draw their numbers, this was set up to be a very long undertaking. After numerous auctions and thanking of sponsors it was almost 10 p.m. by the time I got to draw my number. Number drawing is done in 3 groups. Group 1 all the people who signed up in person at headquarters drew for Number 1 to 49. Group 2 all the mushers who signed up on day one by mail or fax drew for numbers 50 to 61 and all mushers who signed up after the first day of signup drew for number 62 to 97. I was in that group and with getting number 68 it could have been a lot worse. Funny enough there was a bit of a mixup with number 89 and 68, but number 68 it was for me, same number as I had in my first Iditarod back in 2005. Drawing a high number is not really ideal in a race with so many participants. Specially in the sections from Finger Lake, to Rainy Pass to Rohn the trail gets pretty chewed up the more teams have been over it.
Friday is our day off before the race. I went for a last run on the Chugiak dog track, a nicely maintained trail system close to Eagle River. The afternoon was not quite a day off, as Bonnie and Jim once again organized their open house, where they invite race fans to meet us mushers. Although I am not a big fan of social events I have to admit that it was a great afternoon, many nice people came out and the food was great.
Saturday is the day of the ceremonial Start, an event I have come to like. It is a great atmosphere to see so many people out on the streets of Anchorage, all cheering us on. The excitement is contagious. Don Boegle, my Idita Rider showed up and his wife was actually riding with Rudi, a family affair so to speak. With my high starting number I had ample of time to check out other teams, before the loud speaker finally declared 3,2,1 and go. I had Andy riding in the sled, and Don standing on the runners on my sit down sled, behind the second handle bar. That lasted about 400 yards, until our first right hand corner, where the sled got suspiciously lighter. Don took the lesson number 1 to heart : Never let go, he made it on the runners all the way to the Campbell Airfield without any further incidents. The parking lot there was one big sheet of ice, and my dogs had different ideas than heading for the truck. After loading the gang back up we headed for Northern Air Cargo to ship my sit down sled to Mc Grath. I opted to take my normal long distance sled. Although I rather sit, I was worried about bad trail conditions though the Gorge and rather make it through there standing in one piece, than sitting and screwed up. Back at Bonnie´s and Jim´s I took a much needed nap before packing for the big day to come. Last year I packed last minute at the start, something I am not keen to repeat.
Finally Sunday morning arrived, time to head to Willow for the Restart. I am always amazed how well Iditarod organizes all their events and once again things were clicking into place once we arrived in Willow. Until the last minute I was debating the decision on which dog to take, Callie or Franky, Franky or Callie. It ended up being Franky. Callie is too fussy eating for my liking, and that drives me nuts, so I rather took a slower dog which eats good. With Franky I just could still see a slight irregular movement in his gait, but could not pinpoint it. Later he would be the first dog I drop in Galena.
For the start I picked all my own handlers, people I know who an handle the team. I did not want to repeat last years performance, of me loosing all my handlers on the way to the starting line. Exactly that was supposed to happen to Rudi, as I saw his team zoom by without any handlers while I was putting on booties. As much fun as it is for the handlers to be involved, I think it would be much safer to use a snowmachine as it is done in most other races.
With starting at 4.14 p.m. we were out of the heat of the day. Skunk and Finn were leading me to the starting line, with Skunk being the slowest leader which is good for the start. Slowest leader that is beside Tang, who according to Gerry Willomitzer needs a wheelchair. Right off the start I knew that this team was no rocket by no means, many teams passed me within the first miles. Although I mainly traveled the same speed as John Baker who was within sight for most of the way to Yentna. I had to ride my drag mat a lot, so Libby, Tang and Wondar would also pull their weight. It took me 3hrs 56 minutes to get to Yentna, no speed record, but no races have been won during the first day, but many have been lost.
In Yentna I just loaded up some straw, quick sign in and out and we were on our way again. My goal was to run for 6hrs before stopping, which we did on one of the many side trails which were on the river. Getting out the cooker, putting down the straw, taking off booties and massaging dogs would be my routine for the next 10 days to come. Last year Tang got a sore shoulder on me during our second run, so this year would spend a lot more time to do a thorough exam on each dog, as I could have not slept anyhow. My schedule called for a bit of rest cutting right from the beginning, hoping to get better trail conditions after Finger Lake, I pulled the hook after only 2.5hrs of rest.
The trail to Skwentna was soft, and there were many options on the river. It seemed to me that my gang had a perfect eye for finding the softest spots, My attempts to gee or haw them to different trails did not prove much more success, so we were zigzagging our way to Skwentna. Here it was busy as to be expected, about 40 teams resting and more arriving my the minute, looking back I could see a string of headlights following me. I packed my food drop so I could quickly load up bag number 1 and continue down the trail. No need to load straw or heet, as Finger Lake, my next planned stop, provides those 2 things.
As usual quite a few teams passed me, some I was certain I would see again, others I was not so sure. It took me 5hrs and 27 minutes to get to Finger, plus 1.5hrs to get to Skwentna, so a total of 7hrs runtime. The dogs ate great and were resting well. Much to my delight I could not detect any injuries, no sore muscles. In all past 3 races I always had to drop 2 dogs here in Finger Lake, so I was happy to leave with a full string of 16. We rested short of 6hrs, once again cutting a bit of rest, which showed in the first hours after leaving the Checkpoint. Also we were leaving at 1 p.m. not a good time of the day to travel, but there was little choice if we wanted to get onto a better schedule. The big advantage of traveling slow was that the Happy River Steps were uneventful, much for the dismay of the groups of camera people lining the trail. The dogs slowly picked up the pace and with 3hrs and 47 Minutes I was happy about our run to Rainy Pass. Here the team was screaming and lunging to go while I loaded up some provisions. I had a short rendezvous with Bonnie and Jim who flew out by plane to watch the teams go by. They ended up getting stuck here for 4 days in bad weather, which surprised me to hear, as the conditions down the trail were good. Mitch Seavey left right ahead of me, Jeff King and Ed Iten behind me, although Jeff passing me, neither team would gain much distance, a good sign. I still had to ride my drag to keep the dogs at an even trotting pace. We turned off the main valley into the Dalzell Gorge right before darkness, perfect timing. Up in the pass it was a little windy, a tailwind, which piled up the snow right down my parka. The run down the Gorge was easy compared to other years, at least in my books, but not for everybody. 2 Teams ahead of us seemed to have quite a few issues and it was a long stop and go until Mitch, Jeff and myself could finally pass those 2. My gang got super impatient while waiting and I used every single neckline in my possession. I opted to run an 18 dog gangline, with leaving both of the last positions with a single dog, with no neckline, so they have more freedom in tight corners, of which there are plenty on this stretch. Kavik one of Richi Beatties dogs is the most perfect wheel dog I have ever seen, never getting tangled and quickly changing sides. On the downside, he is quite the challenge at certain times to change his booties without him snacking on my hands.
We made it into Rohn at 9.42 p.m., comparable to my last years time, just 2 hrs later due to the difference in starting time. It was warm and windy in Rohn, we had a nice parking space off in the woods. This checkpoint has been organized by Rudi Indermühle for many years and is run very efficient. The dogs were tired but ate well and quickly settled into a good rest. My exam once again found no sore dogs, great news. With the checker cabin being very small and it being warm I rolled out my sleeping bag right next to the dogs. Last year I rested here much too long, a mistake I was not going to repeat. After 6hrs and 40 minutes we hit the trail again, not before giving the dogs a second meal before departure.
Leaving Rohn at night was interesting. The trail on the river was a big sheet of ice, interrupted by occasional gravel bars, neither one making a perfect sledding surface. There were reflectors in every possible direction and only a few scratch marks ahead of us on the ice. I was not quite sure if we were heading in the right direction, but somehow after a while we hit a bush trail which looked familiar to me. Good thing if the dogs know where they are going. The glacier had a nice trail around it off to the left side of it and we crossed it without a big tangle. Rick Swenson passed my like we were standing still, and also Ken Anderson came up from behind. Up ahead were a few passages without snow over some pretty wild ground, big drops, tussocks all over the place with stretches of glare ice. I ran the team without booties, which also helped crossing the Farewell Lakes which had no snow on them. Passing by Buffalo camp I was tempted to stop. Tang´s tugline was not tight anymore and she did not look good. After the last hill I loaded her into the sled, her protesting the whole way. The goal was Salmon River Camp, about 15 miles short of Nikolai, but it good warmer and warmer and I opted to go camping short of that goal. There was no wind, and we stayed in a nice open meadow which had some grass, which the dogs could dig down to, but I also carried some straw for them. William Kleedehn, Aily Zirkle and Ken Anderson stopped within sight, while many other teams were trudging by in the heat of the day. The different race strategies were beginning to unfold. I was also glad to have stopped, as the long run without booties were definitely hard on the dogs feed, which were in some need of attention.
I like to go camping, as I get much more sleep than in a checkpoint. I had a great snooze for about 3hrs before hitting the trail around 4:30 p.m. While passing by Salmon River Camp Martin Buser and his son Rohn were just booting up their dogs. I was not quite sure how to continue to run from here. Logically would have been to skip through Nikolai and than do my 24 hr rest in Mc Grath. Unfortunately I did not send enough supplies to Mc Grath to do my 24 hr there, matter of fact I have never stopped there in my past 3 Iditarods. Also this time the only place I send enough stuff to, was Takotna. I simply like it there plus they have the best food, which is a big draw for me. While running I was pondering the thought of where to stop next….., which you will read in the next race report.