Rookie Iditarod: Start - Finger Lake
Success was written into our equation from the very beginning. Drawing bib #42 at the start banquet in Anchorage, we all know from The Hitch Hikers Guide to the Galaxy that 42 is the value of an essential scientific constant which can be used to find the age of the universe itself. A fitting coincidence, a spell of serendipity, as I pack my sled for our 1000 mile expedition across the great state of Alaska, remembering to not forget my dog cooler wrapped in it's cosmic duct tape. I’ve been obsessed with astrophysics, time and space, and all that fun sciencey stuff all season, and I very well could have been listening to one of Stephen Hawking’s books at the moment he passed away during this years Iditarod. The starting chute sort of resembled light speed, with the dogs all freshly fired up and a quarter mile long stretch of fans and spectators, all with their arms reaching out for high fives. Willow Lake wasn’t the end of the fandemonium, as we mushed passed groups of people for the first 20 miles of the race. BbQs, tent cities, snow machines everywhere, high fives and snacks to be grabbed, loose dogs and children, and I even passed a group of people that were flying around on parachutes with some sort of propeller fan attached to their backs.
The crowds dissipated as we progressed towards Yentna Station, river travel the whole way. A trail 50 feet wide at times, teams can pass each other without ever stopping. I got passed by a few teams on this stretch, stopping to snack or change booties, or just being passed by faster moving teams. Surprising to me, because I was standing on my break to keep our speed down around 9mph, but apparently some folks like to leave the gates going even faster than that. Some went on to have great races, some didn’t. By the time we were pulling in to Yentna, the crowds on the river were no more, but I had my own personal cheering section waiting for me at the checkpoint. My friends Dalton and Alex surprised me by being there to watch me sign in and out of my first Iditarod checkpoint EVER. Dalton and Alex were my managers on the glacier last summer, have become good friends of mine, and Alex actually donated his Bernie Willis sled to me in the fall on the condition that I drive it to Nome. Their presence was greatly appreciated, but I couldn’t stay and chat long. I grabbed straw and went to camp just outside of the checkpoint. We traded the 'all you can eat' spaghetti dinner at the checkpoint, for the peace and quiet of camping by ourselves. The trail was pretty soft so far, fairly punchy with sugar pits camouflaged everywhere. They were foot deep almost like sand pits of super soft sugary snow that you couldn’t really see until your dog team started going into them. It was in one of these pits just outside of Yentna that Louisa stepped wrong and she was holding up her leg on day one. Not even 24 hours into the race and my best dog is already hurt!!! She wasn’t too lame, and she never showed any signs of pain when massaged or stretched (thats a good thing), so I rubbed her like crazy and hoped for a miracle. I played it super conservative early on, and throughout the race really, but its easier to be aggressive early when your dogs are still going ballistic. However, I gave them 7 hours rest, and we were on our way to Skwentna. More river travel, more sugar pits, less people and less dog teams. Louisa ran well, like she always does, so my anxiety dropped a bit. A few miles out from the checkpoint, we passed a guy on a snow machine who yelled “Three more miles!” A surprise to me, that became commonplace, was that all of the checkpoints would actually arrive sooner than the posted and expected mileage. Believe me, this is a much better surprise than the opposite. So, we camped at Skwentna, our first checkpoint stop. Volunteers helped park the team, as I set my snow hook and brought my leader hook up to anchor the front of the team, a vet was there immediately to see if I had any concerns and to ask if they could start going through the team. It became routine, and it was EVERY checkpoint I stopped in, that as I removed booties and put dog coats on, the vets would go through every single dog in my team. The teams were parked down on a lake, and there was a roadhouse of some kind up on a hill with sleeping quarters and a hot meal for mushers. I ended up not taking advantage of these amenities at Skwentna, and just fell asleep in my sled for an hour. I got into the routine of giving the dogs a snack after the run, but waiting a few hours before offering them a meal. Of course, the front runners aren’t stopped long enough to be able to wait a few hours before offering up a meal, but I was stopping for at least 6 hours everywhere. I found during training that If I offered a meal immediately after exercise, most of the dogs would eat, but some would not. If I waited a few hours, every dog would eat ferociously. So that became by routine for the entire race. When I left Skwentna, I was already in second to last place. I really had no anxiety or stress over this fact, because I KNEW I would see some of those teams in a few days, I was merely surprised that more teams weren’t being more conservative early on. Oh well, let’s see how it all shakes out. We are now headed to Finger Lake, on more of that punchy snow, with endless amounts of those sugar pits. We traded the river travel for swamps, and sloughs and over land trail….oh and moguls. This was the first run where I didn’t see another dog team, but I did see a few snow machines. One of which basically swarmed us for the final 20 miles of the run. Driving right next to us at our speed, then zooming ahead to stop and take video, then tailing us, then driving along side, then zooming ahead to stop and take video, over and over and over. We entertained them, I just turned my iPod up and sang like no one was watching. It was a blue bird day, with much too comfortable conditions for us humans. Temps in the 30’s meant that I was fine, but the weather mixed with soft trail meant that the dogs just needed to stop quite often to roll around and eat snow and catch their breath. No big deal. This run was epically beautiful and worth stretching out the enjoyment. The closer we got to Finger, the bigger the mountains got, until they swallowed us up and we were surrounded. We were clearly heading into the Alaska range, and it was obvious that our terrain was about to change.
We camped at Finger Lake through the heat of the day, dogs sprawled out in the sun, and me able to catch a quick nap on top of my sled bag. The lodge was open for mushers, and offering free food and drink. I finished dog chores and proceeded up the hill to the lodge, where I drank a gallon of water, ate a half dozen baked goods, and had myself a tasty burrito. *stay tuned to see how that burrito comes back for a second appearance* Finger was the first checkpoint where I formed friendships with other mushers on the trail. Peter Fleck was parked next to me, and was running Mitch’s young team. It turned out we were on pretty similar schedules at that point and would end up seeing each other pretty regularly for the next few days. Peter was a super nice guy to chat with, and an obvious stellar dog person. Super sweet with his team of up n coming seaveys, and a Quest veteran that was good to have around. It was nice to have a reachable and approachable musher nearby who had done 1000 miles before, sometimes just having another person to bounce insecurities and anxieties off of is helpful. Sometimes just hearing that there are other people with similar thoughts is helpful. One of my absolute favorite aspects of running the Iditarod was getting to know and travel near these different mushers. As dog people in Alaska, we spend so much of our time and energy isolated within our own little winter bubbles. When the races come around, all of the sudden we have the opportunity to interact and converse with other individuals who can actually relate to us. Other people who are going through the same exact struggles and triumphs, and if nothing else, other people that can be totally content and entertained with talking about nothing but dogs and dog poop. It’s a beautiful thing.
Coming up next, we have the dreaded Happy River Steps, Rainy, Pass, the Dalzel Gorge, and the run to Nikolai!