Iditarod 2011 recapI am sitting back in Paxson, its been a week since I crossed the burled arch in Nome. A week where I got very little done, mostly spent sleeping and eating. In Nome I was staying with “ Pappa “, who is Mandy Burmeisters Granddad and I could not have had a better host, as we both liked it quite. At first glance I got scared to hell, as it said “ Beauty Salon “ in big white letters on his house. I managed to sneak out without a haircut, phew. After Nome I spent a few more relaxing days with Bonnie and Jim in Anchorage, more nonstop eating.
While I had lost close to 20 lbs of weight in the Yukon Quest, I gained 5 pounds of that back during the Iditarod. That alone gives an indication of the difficulty of each race. During the whole Iditarod 2011 we never saw a cloud, daytime highs were around the freezing mark with lows at about 10 below F. The trail was hard packed and fast for most of the way. Ideal conditions. Well ideal depending on who you ask….. , not ideal for the geriatric members of my gang.
My handler woes were not letting up. From a new guy who showed up who was absolutely useless to the point where he could not even load or unload a dog from the dogbox and who would not peel out of bed before 10 a.m, to even one of my good handlers being more interested in discussing what I am doing wrong, than actually focusing and what needed to be done. Than put a race client in that equation who was totally out of his league with his Iditarod dream and who I needed to send home. More discussions……. oh was I tired of discussing. Long story short, there I was right before Iditarod with nobody to help. Mentally I was to the point anyhow, that it is just less painful, if I take care of the dogs myself. I had hoped to have them run regularly the days leading up to the race, but that was impossible. The two small runs I managed to sneak in on the Toziar dog track were a thrilling ride with 19 dogs on a concrete hard trail. I am sure they had to run a groomer over the trail after I was done, as two deep brake groves went all the way around. Coming back from the second run, Lance, Newton and Cain were in the middle of hooking up 3 teams, when my team decided to visit each of their vehicles. Newton came to rescue me, TV cameras rolling. I can’t wait to see that footage……
The whole handler scenario was specially a bummer with my brother, dad and Dieter a good friend from Germany visiting. As I hardly see them throughout the year, I was hoping to spend more time with them, but they were understanding and saw that I was stretched to the max. I kept the dogs in the dog box on the truck and they went with me where ever I needed to go. From Iditarod Musher meetings, to the Pike Legal Group Reception ( one of my sponsors ) the Canadian Consulate to an open house, to staying with my folks in the fancy Sheraton Hotel downtown. This is something I had not done in the past. I prefer the dogs being outside. Needless to say I also did not have a dog handler who could pick up my dropped dogs during the Iditarod. My friends Bonnie and Jim stepped up to the plate and boy did they have their hands full this time. One of my dropped dogs came down with pneumonia, more to that story later.
Bonnie and Jim also organized the annual open house at their place. After waking up from a much needed nap I mingled with quite the crowed of people and we had a fun time. Claudia and Lee once again had a great Iditarod Cake made for me, that almost has tradition now. It was great to see so many friends and fans.
My Idita Rider was Tamara Balster Hess, a real die hard Iditarod fan, and it was great to meet her and her husband. I took my dad along as my handler. To play it save I had both of them seated in one of my glacier sleds which has 2 seats in them. That way I need no drag sled and my race sled can sit at home, readily packed. Both seemed to have a time of their lives, my dad who speaks no English, was waving frantically to all the spectators lining the trail. His pockets were filled with cookies and hot dogs. The grin on his face made this trip worth while alone. The weather was perfect and we had an uneventful ride to the Campbell Airfield. Many teams passed us, a sign of what was going to come for the next 9 days.
I had a hard time on deciding who to take and who to leave behind. All 19 dogs where healthy. During the ceremonial start it became apparent that Robert Nelson and Paul Johnson were both short on dogs. Between Jessie and I we ended up loaning them 5 dogs. King, Todd, Remmy, Quick and Gizzy. Considering that the dogs had no time to adjust to their new drivers it is amazing that King, Todd and Quick made it all the way to Nome. It left a bit of a sour taste with us, that neither musher offered us even the money to cover the cost of flying the dogs back from Nome. People never seize to amaze me, but I guess it is my own mistake to not ask for that before hand.
I took all 11 Quest Finishers to the starting line and added Finn, who’s toe was almost healed. Ruger, Spinner, Denali and Recees rounded out the 16. This shows exactly the makeup of my team. Either geriatrics like Denali, Austin, Diesel…… , or young 2 year olds like Reeces, Ruger, Moss, Spinner, Govenor. At the re-start without handlers multiple friends came to help, Rick, Aaron, Scott, Joel, Bonnie, Gudrun all made sure I made it to the line in one piece. Too vivid are my memories of racing to the starting line a few years back when all Iditarod supplied handlers had fallen off the gangline.
My trusty husky hat was lost somewhere in the truck. A last good bye wave and we were off. Ahhhhh 1000 Miles of just running dogs, no handlers, no bullshit, ahhhh nice. Each year when I come off the Quest it takes no time to fall back into the running routine. I had to slow the team down a lot to get them all to trott. Specially Toad and Muncho who loap at 8 mph. As usual I lost count of how many teams passed me. It was warm, very warm on the run to Yentna. During the miles to Skwentna it started to cool off. Skwentna was very well organized and I went about to feed the dogs and to bed them down. They all ate very well and Finn picked a fight with several dogs. That is not untypical for him. He is usually restless specially during the first stops, which he seems to think are unnecessary. I stayed a bit longer than I have in the past, closer to 3 hours, to accommodate all the 2 year olds. Of course I did not want to miss the chance of a good meal up in the Checkpoint.
Upon leaving Skwentna I could not find a checker to record my time. We are not required to sign out, but I like my folks at home to know, where I am at. About a quarter mile out, there was a lone volunteer standing in the dark, asking for my name and bib number. Dang, talk about being organized, they had a dedicated person in Skwentna making sure to get each Mushers out time. During the run Hugh Neff passed me and this was not going to be the last I would see of him. Also Bob Buntzen passed me. He had a very nice looking team trained by Jake Berkowitz. Several dogs in that team were with me in 2010, Coyote, Solomon and Solo. I would have loved to have them back this year. Bob was in race mode, yelling for trail. Despite this being not a good spot to pass he impatiently drove his team past mine and we ended up in a huge tangle. He than took off like running in the Fur Rondy. His impatience would later cost him the race. I had to ride my drag hard and we made it to Finger Lake in less than 5hrs,which I did not like. In the past I had loaded up straw here to camp at Finnbear Lake, but decided to leave without straw and run all the way to Rainy Pass. I had not rested in that checkpoint since running my first Iditarod in 2005 and was afraid it would be too noisy, specially considering the nice and perfect flying weather. The trail to Rainy was fast, meandering through the trees, some windblown lakes with a concrete hard surface and we were bouncing around like a Ping Pong ball. I indeed had a ball and enjoyed this run. Upon leaving Finger I was warned about the last step of the Happy River Steps being nasty. I joked: “ What do you want me to do? Turn around and scratch? “. We had some fun with that joke as there is mushers scratching in Rainy with nice looking 15 or 16 dogs teams.
The warning of the last step was appropriate. I still do not quite know what exactly happened, but next thing I found myself laying on my back, waking up looking at Toad, Muncho and Spinner milling around loose. My sled was further down the trail, lodged in some trees. My first thought was oh now, Spinner of all dogs, the shyest one there is, the one I had debated the most to leave behind, but also knew I could not give to anybody else. I tied up Toad and Muncho and Spinner got the idea and came right to the gangline. Phew, I dodged a few bullets here. Not only was I happy that no camera team had recorded this, it was still too dark, I was glad no other musher piled into this mess. The sled seemed intact. Spinner immediately started limping on his left shoulder and must have gotten hurt from the impact of the sled stopping dead. With him also being affected by the kennel cough, as many of my other dogs, I decided to drop him immediately in Rainy Pass. Upon examining my team Toad and Muncho also had a sore shoulder. Although I tried to go as slow as I could, the speed must have been to high for them, or they got hurt in the crash. There were also numerous dogs with sore wrists. Not a good start. It warmed up quickly and the dogs enjoyed basking in the sun.
Claudia and Lee Nowak, with whom I stayed last fall in Michigan were already in the Checkpoint. Wow considering it was not even 10 a.m. they must have flown out first thing in the morning. Talk about dedicated fans. We chatted a bit while I took care of the team and it was nice to have some friends around. Gene Smith, who ran Iditarod a few years back also flew his own plane in and I regretted not having the idea to hook up my dad with him, to have him flown out here to Rainy, to see this part of the race also. Time for a nap and I tried to sleep in the mushers cabin, but as I had feared it was way too noisy to sleep. It sounded like being on one of the busiest small airplane airports of the world.
With the race being faster than I had anticipated I ran into the dilemma of when to leave. I do not like to rest much more than 4hrs early in the race, to slow the team down a bit and take their edge off, but that would have meant to leave right at 1 p.m. in the heat to the day. I could not convince myself to do that and waited till almost 3 p.m, to take off. It was still very warm. With all those small nagging injuries within the team I had to stop several times to switch partners, put certain dogs on the other side. Funny enough most of the dogs needed to be on the right hand side and I was running out of matching partners. If a dog has a sore left wrist, I run the dog on the right side of the gangline, so there is less pressure on that wrist ( or shoulder ). We finally found our rhythm and went on to climb towards Rainy Pass. This was the most beautiful run I have had over this pass in all years. Clear blue skies, no wind and a visibility which allowed us to see valleys many miles away. I felt truly blessed of being able to experience this run. I would have wanted to be nowhere else. The Dalzell Gorge was easier than I have ever seen it, hardly no glare ice, no open water and lots of snow and soon we popped out onto the Kusko River and went on to Rohn.
Again this run was faster than I had thought, which meant I would pack up and go though this checkpoint. Hugh and Lance had done the same, several other teams like Hans and Martin were resting. Going though my food drop bags was like Christmas each time, as Jessie had packed them while I was on the Yukon Quest. Leaving Rohn in the daylight was nice. The prior year I got lost on the glare ice leaving the checkpoint. Now seeing it in the alpenglow of the approaching night it all looked so straight forward and easy. About an hour and half out we come to the Post River glacier, which is a long gradual uphill where water seeps out of the mountain. This year I did not have a clean run up. I had Inuk and Grisman in lead and we made it up about three quarters on the right hand side of the ice. There is a big rock face there and the ice was almost like being polished. The leaders lost their grip and I could tell were getting scared. I flipped the sled over and tried crawling up to them. Right there they decided to go an easier route, back down hill. Ugly. Sled on its side, I was careening downhill. Snowhook in hand sliding on my belly I managed to stop the show about half way down. Turning the team again ended up in a huge tangle, as we were still on the glare ice, on a pretty good slope. Agonizingly slow we crawled back up what took us seconds to come down. At the same spot Inuk and Grisman hesitated again, but this time I was a bit quicker to be up there with them. I had taken my front hook with me and clipped it to the gangline and set it in the ice. At least this way there was no repeat of going down the glacier, which would be really ugly with me being ahead of the team. There was not much to get any grip to, glace ice everywhere and I could understand why Inuk and Grisman did not like this. Pulling on the front hook we finally made it up the ice and onto firm ground again. I was drenched in sweat. Once again, luckily no other team had shown up at the same time. In Rohn we were told of a Walltent Camp on Submarine Lake which was set up as a hospitality stop for us mushers. Abouth 3 miles before that we cross a creek with open water, which makes cooking a meal for the dogs easier. I weighed my options and decided to stay at the creek, thinking less teams would stop there and it being a better place to rest for the dogs. It took me close to 3hrs getting there and with running from Rainy Pass that was an about 7 hr run, but quite a bit of that spend stopped on the glacier and also loading stuff in Rohn. The plan was to stay for 4hrs. I was just about to crawl in my sleeping bag, when Jessie showed up. Of course we gabbed a bit about our runs to this point. Quite a few teams were passing by. Short after me going to bed Aliy Zirkle pulls in to camp, so much for getting a quite nap. Needless to stay, I stayed almost 5hrs instead of 4. Still we were ahead of schedule and I left short before 3 a.m.
The burn had better snow in the past, which was more than welcome news, as with everything being burned down over the last 2 years ( again ) it would have been a rough ride without adequate snow cover. Diesel did not travel right. He had a sore left wrist, but that alone should not be enough to prevent him from running. At Bison Camp I passed Mitch Seavey who greeted me with “ Achtung ….. “ when I descended down the hill and Paul Gebhard who was just getting ready to leave again. Paul stayed within sight of me for a while, than his light disappeared behind me. I stopped to load up Diesel who obliged happily to ride in the sled bag. Every year I have carried a dog into Nikolai and this was going to be no exception. I did not see any other team all the way to Nikolai. Getting my Ipod out to listen to some music, I realized I had forgotten the charger. Not good. That will make for very long and boring runs later on in the race. Getting to Nikolai short after 9 a.m. was much too early for my liking. If I stop, that means I have to leave right in the heat of the day. If I continue, that means I get close to Takotna and my run into there will be very short. I had packed my food drop to allow me to only take my 24 in Takotna, which I now regretted. Cost savings at the time seemed stupid now.
My decision was made the minute I pulled into Nikolai when the checker told me that I needed to call Stu Nelson right away. With Stu being the head vet, that could not be a good thing. Only having dropped Spinner to this point, I did not have a good feeling. After taking care of the team, I made the dreadful call. Stu informed me that Spinner had come down with aspiration pneumonia and flown out to an emergency clinic in Anchorage, but was not likely to survive. I was speechless as I had not seen any dog vomit in the team. My initial response was to scratch, I would not want to finish a race where I had a dog die. After talking things over with Stu he told me that there was nothing I could do at this point and although he respected my decision, he would suggest I continue, as Spinner was still alive. After mulling this point over I decided to continue and we arranged to talk in Mc Grath again, as sure enough, I could do nothing myself out here on the trail.
Of course I could not fall to sleep and was restless with all kind of thoughts racing through my mind. I had planned to stay for 4hrs and pulled the hook at 1 p.m.. Talk about the heat of the day. It was HOT. I left without booties, to cool the dogs down. With Spinner on my mind and now slogging though the heat I was more than questioning what I was doing. I would stop each hour and bootie 3 or 4 dogs, as the snow conditions were very granular and not good for their feet. I bootied my “ worst cases “ first and left the dogs with iron feet to be bootied last. Of course with all this stopping my team never found a rhythm and the run took as about an hour more than most other teams. Toad and Muncho ran without booties all the way to Takotna and still had good feet upon arrival. These two “ old style “ furballs are really low maintenance…., too bad they do not have a bit more speed.
In Mc Grath I was told that Spinner was still hanging in there so I only stayed a few minutes and continued on to Takotna. Hoping to find a charger in the checkpoint during my 24, I listened to Audiobooks to keep my mind from racing ugly thoughts. I just let the dogs do their thing and did not help them up the hills. Racing was not really in my mind. In Takotna I got my usual parking sport behind the community building. Same spot for the past 4 years. Different team next to me each time, this time it was Martin Buser who had arrived first after a blistering fast run. The dogs ate real well. I was wiped…. Tired to the bone, not having slept much at all since the start of the race, no sleep in Skwentna, none in Rainy, very little at the campout, none in Nikolai. I laid down in my usual spot in the library and woke up 7hrs later. I had only doctored the dogs who had immediate issues like sore wrists and shoulders and felt bad for not massaging each one, something I did first thing this morning. They devoured their second meal and some of the dogs like Tetsa, Skunk, Austin were getting fat and I had to start giving them a more watery meal, much to their dislike. The kennel cough which had been plaguing the team since the start seemed in remission. Finn, Moss and Grisman were still hacking away, the others seemed much better. Twice a day I would give each dog a Tylan pill against the kennel cough. Twice a day they were getting Probiotics, something Jessie had turned me on to. Twice a day they were getting Femotatin to help with ulcers. On top of that a few of them were on antibiotics, Recces for a cut in his foot, same as Grisman and Ruger for an Infection on his tail. I felt like a pharmacists going around with all them pills and pasts. This was not the maintenance free team I had hoped to run. Takotna had its usual great hospitality, from great meals to always having hot water ready for the dogs. Students keep big garbage cans full of water heated by wood fires. They constantly snowmachine back and forth to get more water and more wood. A service more than appreciated by us mushers.
Having Martin Buser parked next to me ended up being an unpleasant experience. He would turn his whole team loose, which not only disturbed my team but his dogs would take turns to piss on my sled and gear. I tried telling him politely that I did not like that, but he seemed not to care. I had thoughts of peeing on his sled. To make matters worse, he kept on having his males take turns breeding one of his females, which further riled up my team. With about 40 teams resting in the checkpoint, if each musher would behave like Martin did, we would have quite the mess. Luckily I slept close to the team and could be out quickly as soon as I heard any noise. Before making a big scene I decided to just let things go and have him do his thing.
I was scheduled to leave at 11.20 p.m.. We were a tight pack of about 13 mushers within 2 hrs., led by Martin. His team looked very nice leaving. The race was on. I had only managed to stay within this pack, who all were traveling much faster than me, with cutting my rest even more drastically than everybody else did. While my oldies would adapt very well to that, I could tell that the 2 year olds were starting to question what they were doing. I hoped that the 24 hr layover had rejuvenated them and opted for not running all the way to Iditarod and instead camp before. On the upside the good news was, that Spinner had pulled thought the worst and it looked like he was going to make it. Phew, another bullet dodged. My huge thanks to the vets who caught on to his pneumonia and to the vets who treated him in Anchorage. Later I would get a $ 3000 vet bill, ouch….. but much better than Spinner not making it.
There were 2 new hospitality cabins built over the past summer, but both were pretty far away from the trail. I camped past the Bear Creek Cabin, hoping that creek meant open water, which was not the case. On this run we encountered quite a bit of overflow and at one point my sled got terribly lodged in some willows. The dogs tried to go around the over flow, but the turns were too tight for the sled to fit through. Once I got the sled out of there the dogs started to move immediately while I was still dragging on my side, trying to hang on for dear life until another tree got caught on the seat and stopped the whole show again. The seat took a beating and would later on in the race end up breaking completely. Me, who sits about 80% of the time…. was not happy about having to stand behind the runners now.
Melting snow for water is always a lengthy process and it took a while before I could finally feed the dogs and go to sleep. But resting in the Iditarod Checkpoint would not have been any different, as there is no water there neither. There was a constant buzz of planes overhead and several groups of snowmachiners came by. I sure was glad to rest away from the noisy checkpoint. Many teams passed me, some looking better than others, all pushing through the heat of the day. Much to my delight, many of the previous nagging sore wrists were not coming back, but I kept on massaging those dogs anyhow, better safe than sorry and nothing else to do while the water is heating up. I slept for 2 full hours, which was nice. I was outright hot in my black sleeping bag in the afternoon sun. We had been real lucky with the weather to this point.
It took me a little less than 2 hrs to reach Iditarod, where many teams were resting. I loaded up straw and some food. Passing by the resting teams Hans was calling over: “ Hey Sebastian, you are the first one out. “ Back in Takotna they had given us the trail report, that leaving Iditarod the trail was just put in the day prior and would consist of 3 feet of loose sugar snow. That sounded not very good. So nobody was too keen on braking trail, neither was I. I have to admit that I had some leader issues all race long, nobody other than Grisman was very enthusiastic about the task. Mentally I was getting ready for a very slow slog. But instead we found a trail, which had just set up enough to support the dogs and sled and we were moving right along. Niceeeeeeeeee. The trail brakers must have had a difficult time, as often there were a variation of choices and I am not sure if I took the right one each time.
Again I was faced with a decision of how to divide this run. If I ran all the way to Shageluk and take my 8 hr layover there, I would arrive at 2 a.m. which means leaving at 10 a.m. and run all day in the heat. Not good. Plus I would have carried all the straw and food for nothing. So I pulled over at the next shelter cabin at 10 p.m. after a short 6hr run and just stayed long enough to feed the dogs a meal. We left again short after midnight. Several teams had passed us and I traveled within sight of Sonny Lindner all the way to Shageluk. Quickly checking in and out I continued to Anvik. Getting in there at around 8 am would have set me up on a good schedule, but opening my food drop bag, I realized I did not have enough food for an 8 hr stay, but also there were no booties nor personal food in there. I had never stopped in Anvik, and this year the food drop was packed for me to go though as usual. That meant to pull the hook again and continue to Grayling. The dogs were a bit confused after the short stop and Denali was not pulling at all. After the Spinner incident I started being more than careful and loaded him in the sled. The trail was fast anyhow and we arrived in Grayling close to 11 a.m.. First team in. Timing was perfect, as it started to warm up quickly. Short after I arrived Hans Gatt showed up and we both ended up having the checkpoint to ourselves. Running on 2 hrs rest all the way from before Iditarod, the team was visibly tired, but worse off some of the sore wrists were back also. Recee´s left wrist was swollen huge and I had no idea how that had happened as he showed no sign while running. Grayling has one of the most well kept schools we see along the trail After a bit confusion where we could sleep, we were offered the science room. I was wondering how Spinner was doing, but had no way to find out. I figured that no news was good news. I set my alarm early to have enough time to make the dogs a second meal and spend plenty of time massaging. I had planned to drop Recees but his wrist was looking much better and I decided to keep him in the team. A bit of a gamble considering he is over 80lbs and the next run to Eagle Island usually being long. The decision proved right as Recees ended up finishing the race.
Leaving Grayling I had to stop a gazillion times to change running partners. There were many teams within sight ahead and behind us. Hans passed me after about 2hrs. We had talked about the fact that he was traveling so much faster than me while resting in Grayling. I was sure to finally not being able to hang with him anymore. About half way to Eagle Island I came upon a team which at first glance I thought was driverless. No Musher to be seen the dogs slogged along at about 4 miles an hour. I realized it was Martin and that he was hunched over sound asleep. I was yelling trying to wake him up but had no luck with that. So I called up the team trying to pass him while running. Once I was about half way up his team, his sled slid off the trail and tipped over. Needless to say Martin was dazzled about what had happened and not a happy camper. I apologized, trying to explain that I had tried to wake him up. We easily pulled away on him, which made me wonder as my team was still traveling their same old 7.5 mph and before he had been much faster than us. Maybe he dropped that female in heat and his dogs were lovesick. This stretch of trail on the Yukon River was slow. Just recently put in but also very chewed up by snowmachines. About 12 miles before Eagle Island there was a team camped on the river and Jessie was standing next to the trail, asking me if I needed the “ Fasttrack probiotics “ I had dropped in Iditarod. “ Where the hell did Jessie come from ? “ was my first thought, how did she get ahead of me? She must have done a short rest in Shakeluk and a monster run all the way up here. Upon arrival in Eagle Island I was pleasantly surprised that nobody had left. I had carried a wet snack all the way from Grayling, almost 8hrs and dished that out first thing. Than I made a second helping which the dogs also eagerly ate. With pulling into the checkpoint around 2.30 a.m. I knew I could not stay long, as once again the heat of the day would be an issue during the next run. I loaded up straw and food to camp out before Kaltag and left after 4 hrs. Sleep was hard to come by on that schedule. 8 to 10 hr runs on 4 hr rests, with lot´s of massaging to do, means I only get a few minutes here and there.
Eagle Island seemed to slim our front pack down, with some teams staying on a tight rest schedule, but others showing signs of fatigue and prolonging their rest. One of those teams was the rave favorite Lance Mackey, who was down to 9 dogs. John Baker was the first team to leave, about 2 hrs ahead of me. Right when I pulled the hook Ramey Smyth did the same and Hugh Neff joined the trail from the Upper doglot. While we were parked on the Yukon River, there was a second doglot further up the bank. We had no wind and were just fine on the River, things can turn nasty in a heatbeat in this country and being able to park off the river is important. Hugh and me traveled about the same speed and Ramey left us in the dust. Hans also caught up and stayed within sight ahead of us. For a brief stretch along the Yukon the wind picked up and I stopped to put Foxtails as wind protectors on all of the mails. Hans and Hugh passed me right there. Hans and me both had talked about camping before Kaltag. While Hans did do just that ,I decided to keep going all the way to Kaltag, as I thought the heat of the day was not a big issue with it being windy. In hindsight I should have camped with Hans, as not only did I have all the stuff with me, I think the remaining 2.5 hrs into Kaltag did take more out of the dogs than I thought. At least after this run, my speed dropped even further. Hugh and me traveled into Kaltag together talking back and forth from sled to sled. That made for pleasant traveling and time just flew by. A slew a snowmachines passed us short before the checkpoint. Thankfully that happened short before the checkpoint as the trail was completely chewed up and much slower after that.
I had not stopped in Kaltag during the past 3 races. This checkpoint can also be very noisy and busy, specially during the daytime. Things were not too bad and while going about the chores, I was talking to the many spectators. John Baker seemed to widen his lead, as he was packing up to go, right when I was going inside to get a short nap. Jessie had also arrived within 2 hrs. While I was happy for her to also have a good race and both of us being in the top 10, I was getting worried about her passing me, knowing how strong she always finishes along the cost. After studying the times, I knew I could not afford a long rest here and only napped for a few minutes before leaving after less than 4hrs. Knowing that Jessie still had to take her mandatory 8hr, this would put some distance between us too. This for sure was the tightest schedule I have ever run on. I still had the 14 dogs I had from Nikolai on, but they were not running on all cylinders. Injury free dogs like Austin and Denali did not pull much. I could not really blame them with being old as they are. Some of my hard workers would not perform 100% as they were nursing a wrist or shoulder.
The trail leaving Kaltag was plain aweful. One mogul after the other. This was hard on the dogs and the sit down sled was less than ideal as I could not help the dogs much. The moguls went on for at least 2 hrs. Both Ramey and Hans caught and passed me. I tried to call up the dogs to stay with them, but soon saw that this was a bad idea if I wanted to make it to Unalakleet without loading dogs. Each teams travels a natural speed for a reason. And my speed was slower than I had hoped. It made for a long almost 12 run. A beautiful run under moon light throughout the whole night arriving near 8.30 a.m.. Off and on I could see a headlamp behind me which ended up being Hugh again, who pulled into the checkpoint not much behind me. Unalakleet was buzzing with activity. John was once again getting ready to leave. The reporters were quizzing me if I was ready to make a move to stay with him. Politely I told them that moves were out of the questions and that it was just about hanging on to my position for me. I could tell they did not believe that story, as they saw my large 14 dog team. But I can not blame them, as they could not see how slow and inefficient they would move down the trail. I debated to drop Denali and Austin, but could not convince myself after seeing them eat well and due to the fact that they were completely healthy. Sure enough they would pull their share though the Blueberry Hills.
Unalakleet has not always been a very accommodating checkpoint. Last year Middy Johnson the major of Unalakleet ran the race himself. And it was very apparent that he had first hand witnessed how hard some of the villages try to make our lives pleasant during the race. Middy made sure that Unalakleet stepped things up a lot, from himself cooking meals in the kitchen to having hot water near the doglot available for us. That was very well received by the mushers and Unalakleet ended up winning the golden Clipboard for the most improved checkpoint. Hans and Ramey both had a much faster run than me and both left ahead. It looked like the front pack was dividing itself further into the Top 3 being John, Hans and Ramey. I stayed near 5hrs, earned the nickname “ baconator “ and even got some sleep. We left at 1 p.m., Hugh right on our tail. While Hugh was faster in the flats, I had more dog power in them hills. Once again we traveled together utilizing each teams strengths. While the heat of the day was a bit of an issue, here along the cost, there is no choice but to go, when the time is up as many talented teams are closing in from behind. I had carried a full cooler of soaked kibble over the hills and dished it out at the bottom of the sandspit, about 1.5hrs from Shaktoolik. If the dogs would eat, I would not stop in Shak. They all ate. Hugh was still there when I pulled in and we both loaded some food, grabbed some water. My whole procedure took much longer than his and by the time I left the checkpoint Hugh was just a small dot on the horizon. Recee´s and Ruger were not happy about leaving. While the other 2 year olds like Moss and Governor already knew from the Yukon Quest that things get a bit tougher at the end, those two rookies wanted to stop. They were both hitting their necklines hard and brought the whole team to a standstill numerous times. Not nice, specially on this run out in the open. To make matters worse there was ankle deep overflow and a 15 mile hour breeze on the nose. I could not blame them for wanting to stop, but stopping was not an option. After some rearranging in the team, demoting both to a position in the back of the team, we were underway again. By the time we made it to the “ rock “ about 2.5hrs out, we had caught up to Hugh. Past the rock the trail made a b-line towards Koyuk, with the lights dancing in the far distance, teasing us for many hours to come. Following the trail was easier said than done, as the wind now was a bit from the side and would push the sled right against the trail markers, which were set on the down wind side. It was quite the workout to pull the sled around each marker. But also the trail was windblown and slow, while the snow next to the trail had a hard crust on it, thick enough to support the dogs and sled. So I tried to get Grisman and Finn to run next to the trail on the left side, downwind. “ Haw haw, haw over “ . For the most part they caught on, but my voice was taking a beating with having to call commands for many hours. It was a very frustrating and slow run to Koyuk. Hugh and me both had our challenges and took turns leading the way before I pulled ahead a bit upon reaching Koyuk. I was sure glad once we made it across the ice in one piece after a long 13 hour run. John had left and Ramey was packing up to leave when I arrived. Hans was also out of reach. Upon this realization I decided to stay at least 5 hrs, which the team seemed to need. I did not like my assigned parking spot and pulled the team in the ditch, out of the wind. Getting in there was easy. Getting out of there 5 hrs later was quite the chore. The vets gave my team a clean bill of health but I decided to finally drop Muncho. His left shoulder was still bothering him. He would warm out of it after a while, but gut feeling told me to leave him behind and continue with 13 dogs. I was afraid I was going to have to load a dog. Inuk would also limp each time I leave a checkpoint and than warm out of it within minutes. Neither me, nor the vets could find anything wrong with him. Maybe he just had a cramped muscle. Resting for 5hrs seemed like a real luxury and I got a good meal into my belly, beside a much needed nap. Hugh and me left the checkpoint together again. He clearly had more speed in his team and pulled away the closer we got to Elim. At one point he had stopped to feed his dogs and a huge grin on his face: “ That was fun, wasn’t it ? “ It sure was nice to move at more than 6 miles an hour for a while. It was getting warm and climbing the hill into town I was having seconds about going straight though the checkpoint. The team was visibly tired and it was 2 p.m. right the worst part of the day. Hugh seemed to have similar thoughts as he had already bedded his team town upon my arrival. Jake Berkowitz who is working with me on the glacier was running the checkpoint. Jake was a bit down, as the beautiful team he had trained, which was driven by Bob Buntzen, had stalled out on the ice on the way to Koyuk. I could feel for Jake and was bummed out myself with knowing his dogs and their potential with a patient driver. In the early winter I had asked Bob about getting Solo, Solomon and Coyote back, knowing they would make a huge difference in my team. He denied with the response that he needs the best dogs himself. One thing is having the best dogs, another thing is knowing how to drive them. In Elim I was whining to Jake about my team and he gave me shit for that. Than he saw old Austin and Denali in the team and simply said: “ You are allowed to whine if you have to drive Denali “. But hell I do not want to talk bad about my oldies. They are some of the best dogs around. There are few dogs, who have finished more races than them. It was not their fault that Iditarod 39 was running on record pace. I am proud that they even made to the finishing line in this race. I had promised them retirement many years ago, just to recruit them over and over again.
Jake woke me up after a short 30 minute nap. Hugh had already put booties on his dogs and while I did the same on my team, he left the checkpoint ahead of me. His team looked very solid upon takeoff. In contrary, my team was not a pretty sight leaving. I have always prided myself of having teams leaving a checkpoint strong and focused. This sure was not the case in Elim. Painfully slow we worked our way up the hill towards the airport. Each time a dog had to relieve itself, we came to a stop. With 13 dogs that is a lot of stopping. Finally we made it into the trees and started the steady climb out of town. We caught up to Hugh again and passed him, as I still had more dog power than him uphill. It was quite windy up top and I started to have flash backs of the Quest. I am sure Hugh did the same. This time the wind came from our backs. The sunset over Little McKinely was breathtaking. We got to see it twice, once going uphill, once going downhill. Hugh and I ended up waiting for each other all the way to Golovin, each snacking our teams at the same times. Hugh was commenting on how much food I gave mine. Maybe I snack too much and that is the reason why my dogs always get a bit sluggish after I snack them. The last miles into Golovin were challenging and a complete whiteout. Some of the snowdrifts were close to a foot high. It was blowing hard and the sled would come to a near stand still each time we hit a snowdrift. Earlier in the run my seat I had damaged on the run to Iditarod had finally completely broken and I could not use it much anymore. My fancy and expensive Lupine headlight once again quit. My cooker pot had also broken in Elim so I could only fill it half way. Now digging for my Beaver mitts, I could not find them. This seemed like a “ bad day in the office “, with everything breaking or going wrong. Despite putting hand warmers and 3 pairs of liner gloves on, I frost nipped my already sore fingers again during this run. Not good. Approaching Goloving, I was wondering if Recees and Ruger would try to stop again and warned Hugh that this might happen, as he traveled behind me, and I did not want to screw up his run. Luckily we both passed town incident free. As quickly as the wind came, it disappeared. So did Hugh, who once again had much more speed in the flats. Off and on I could see his headlight in the distance. I was thankful to travel with Hugh, he was fun to travel with. And with not having any music I would have had a hell of a time to stay awake. Once there is a team around, time goes by much more quickly. We still arrived in White Mountain within 5 minutes of each other.
John Baker had left, which meant he had widened his lead from Unalakleet to White Mountain from 3 to over 8 hours. I knew I was traveling slow, but that realization was sobering. Ramey was in solid 2nd place and he seemed not to be able to gain on John. But having Ramey only an hour behind him must have been an uncomfortable feeling for John, as Ramey is known for all out athletic feats at the end of a race. Hans was in 3rd. Dallas Seavey had gone though Elim while we rested and was in 4th place about an hour ahead. With it taking more than 1.5hrs for the next team to arrive, that would mean that Hugh and me would compete for 5th and 6th place. I knew I had no team to race hard and mentally settled for 6th place. Hugh’s team looked too nice and was way too speedy for mine to hang with him. Arriving in White Mountain it took a while before I could thaw out my fingers and take care of the team. Simple tasks like striking a match on the box were next to impossible. I used Rugers hairless belly to thaw out. Not sure what he thought about that, but he did not wiggle much. Despite wanting to go to sleep real bad I managed to keep it together and get all my chores done, sled packed, doggies covered in fleece blankets, return bag packed and even runner plastic changed. I had not changed that since…. Um, I could not remember. Mitch Seavey who had scratched in Ophir after cutting his hand real bad, had been in most checkpoints along the coast. Although it was strange to not see him competing, I enjoyed taking dogs with him and getting his “outside “ opinion.
After thawing my food in the microwave, drinking half a gallon , peeing in a cup ( what a useless undertaking that is ) and also studying some of the runtimes, I finally found a quite spot in the “ kiln room “ and slept for full 4 hrs nonstop. That was the first real sleep since Takotna, many moons ago. Waking up I felt like raodkill. But the thought of one last run quickly had me motivated to get going. Hugh and I both left on time, his team once again leaving very solid. Jessie had caught up and we chatted a bit before her going inside. Hugh had left with 8 dogs and me with 12 dogs after dropping Inuk. His front feet had swollen up and he sure would not have been a happy camper to continue. As to be expected with those dog numbers, I caught Hugh in the hills. We chatted a bit before continuing. Leaving the hills after about 4 hrs I stopped at the shelter cabin to snack my dogs. Hugh passed and that was the last I would see of him till Nome other than sometimes a small dot on the horizon. The blowhole was friendly and only blew moderate. After being able to charge my Ipod in WhiteMountain I was listening to an audio book… a chronicles of Narnia story. In Safety I checked in and out, which was easier said than done. I had put 2 year old Ruger in lead. He is Aarons dogs and I had hoped to finish in Nome with him, knowing Aaron would greet me at the finish line. But there was no way Ruger would go though the checkpoint . He was more interested in greeting each visitor. So Skunk went up in lead with Grisman for the rest of the way. Skunky Monkey in her flashy pink dog coat, ears flapping in the wind, happily traveling towards Nome.
In Nome we had a nice reception. Finishing in the early evening is nice, with many people being at the finishing line to greet us. I had stopped up on Cape Nome and said my Thank Yous to each dog up there, as there in not much time for that once we make it under the Burled Arch. As usual I ignored the media completely and first took care of the dogs, snacking them all with some lamb meat. Aaron und his young friend Bubba helped to bed the dogs down in the doglot. I was glad to have help. Later that evening Jessie would arrive into Nome in 10th place. She got beat by Ken Anderson by 1 second and it was quite the scene both teams running parallel to each other down the finish chute. Although I had hoped to finish better than 6th, I am over all happy with the outcome. I had never driven my team harder and still feel that this is the best I could have done with them with the conditions we had. Good old Austin. He again finished. This was his 13th Thousand Miler, he finished all of them. Between Jessie and I we have two Top Ten Finishes. Jessie is the top finishing female musher in the Iditarod 4th year in a row, but strangely she receives much less media attention than a few of the other women.
As each year, finishing is a bitter sweet feeling. A mixture of accomplishment but also sadness that the trip is over. For me this year there was even more to that, not only a trip which is over, my racing career is over. I had announced my retirement from racing last year.I now have gotten a few emails asking me about that subject again, so here I go in a bit more detail:
All summer that had bugged me and I ended up signing up again. I for sure heard quite a few jokes about that. Little did I know, when I signed up, how miserable that winter would be. There were many times over the course of the winter that I regretted that I had not stuck to my original word and stayed away from racing. For one I am tired of dealing with dog handlers. I ended up with some of the worst handlers I ever had. It is getting harder and harder to find people who actually want to work and are brought up with common sense and good old fashioned knowledge. I live without running water and power, wood heat. This is too far removed from today’s society of computers, facebook and modern amenities. Now I can not blame the handlers alone, I sure have a lot to do with my handler problems. Here I am trying to race at a top level, while at the same time being support by people who know next to nothing about mushing. I am done with teaching mushing at kindergarden level, but more so I am done with opening my home to strangers who than abuse my hospitality. So my patience with handlers this winter was next to non existent. Looking around me, many of my mushing friends were having a hard time with dog handlers also. Racing you need a large support crew, best a family. With my family being in Germany, which is not about to change, my situation will not change. So if I would continue, the handler drama would continue.
Why I stuck with it this winter? Well I had thoughts to withdraw from Iditarod many times. But withdrawing would have meant scratching. Scratching is giving up and for me just not an option. So I stuck with it, all winter, despite having a very miserable time most of the time. I ended up doing more races than I had in a long time, true to the motto the best defense is an offence. With racing I at least got away from the handlers and out on the trail with my dogs. I ran the Sheep Mountain 150, Gin Gin 200, CB 300, Kusko 300. Quest and Iditarod. As Mike Santos once wrote me, I have a strange way to enjoy my retirement. I motivated myself with the thought, that because I did not enjoy myself, that that was no reason to give up. Same as in daily life and most jobs, not everything is joy.
BUT next to handlers problems there are quite a few other factors which have me decide to move on. This game is much too hard work and way too long hours to be miserable. Now combine that with not making money, actually loosing money, than the whole undertaking makes less and less sense. After placing 2nd in the Quest, 6th in the Iditarod, taking on race guests and even doing some normal tours, I still managed to loose close to $ 25K this winter. The winter before was not much different. I am living in a small one bedroom cabin, drive an old 93 pickup truck, actually most of the time sleep somewhere on the floor during a race, have driven my same sled for many years. Still I can not break even, never mind saving any money for a pension and retirement. Do not get me wrong I am not whining here, just stating facts.
Another factor is, that my team has really reached the end of their lifespan, many would say they are long beyond their life span in racing. There is a mere 16 dogs left in the yard and quite a few of those will be adopted out for permanent retirement. I also have alienated myself from “ normal life “ for many years. Although that might not be a bad thing, I start to miss some things, like vacations, going sailing, or simply having dinner with family or friends, as usually I do not even have time for that.
But than there is more to my decision yet. I have had a relatively clean career. I have finished every race I started since 2004. Never had any real bad accidents. But this winter it came close. Several times. Too close for my liking. American Summit and standing in the water in Birch Creek during the Quest scared the hell out of me. That could have easily turned bad. I will carry the memories with me for the rest of my life and my frostbitten fingers as a reminder. I nearly had Spinner die in Iditarod. How much further do I want to push my luck? I am fine with leaving this where it is at and push my luck no further.
So this time, I feel much better to say: “ Folks I had a great time, no regrets, but I am ready to take a break and to move on . “ There is other things I have dreamt about. Getting a pilots license has been a goal of mine and dang I would love to paddle down the whole Yukon River. I will not get out of dogs, I love dogs too much for that. I will return into doing tours. Tours is what had brought me down this path in the first place. Over all I had some of the greatest years of my life while racing. I challenged myself to the max. I am thankful for all the great people I met along the way and the many friendships it brought. I am happy that I was able to live my dream for quite a few years, but now, before the dreams turns to a nightmare I better move on. And who knows when I have arranged my life a bit better somebody might need a puppy team driver in a few years down the road.
So dear race fans, I hope you enjoyed this recap. Its the last one. Thank you for following. Thank you for your kind words. Thank you for your support. I hope to stay in contact, even with “ just doing tours “.
The few dogs who are not too old for racing, Aaron Burmeister will take to Nome next winter. For Gas and Diesel I am still looking for a place, ideally a place they can go together.
Time to do some spring tours on the Denali Highway and back in Whitehorse. Take care and enjoy the path you have chosen.