As the sun set on Finger Lake, 110 miles into the Iditarod, the temperature fell and my anxiety grew. I knew that the most difficult stretches of trail were in the next 150 miles, and most people told me that if I could make it to Nikolai in one piece, that I would have a pretty good chance at finishing the race. Basically, what we had in front of us was the Alaska range. We needed to climb to Rainy Pass, and then survive the descent down the other side through the Dalzel Gorge. Just before leaving Finger, we got word that there was a bit of a traffic jam less than a mile out of the checkpoint. Apparently a small pond had some built up overflow (basically standing water from either melt or pushed to the surface by the pressure of the ice), and one dog team how gotten all messed up trying to go through it. A snow machine crew had also gotten stuck in the overflow, and we were advised to hang tight until the wreckage was cleared. The race judge at Finger was able to give us a solid trail report about the overflow, and how to avoid to worst of it, but all of this build up only made us more nervous than we really should have been.
I pulled the hook as dusk settled, and we stormed out of the checkpoint to meet our fate. Exit the lake up a small hill past the lodge, and then descend towards the pond. At this point we were already the 60th team to be going over the trail, so all of the down hills were completely hallowed out from 60 drag mats being pressed down. Trenches a foot deep and just as wide as the sled runners on all down hills, meant that I would barrel down with one foot on the drag, and one foot up on the bank of the trench as a stabilizer to keep from tipping over. The trenches really weren’t wide enough for two dogs to fit, so I ran without necklines, allowing one dog to run in the trench while its partner had the freedom of movement to run up on top of the bank. Not even a mile outside of Finger, cruising down the hill through the woods, we popped out onto the pond and my dogs naturally took the correct path to navigate us across in good fashion. The overflow ended up really not even being worth noting, I probably wouldn’t have even noticed if not warned. The next ten miles was mostly wooded small hills, nothing to steep or big, just constant small rolling windey trail, kind of like a roller coaster. The trenches were pretty consistent and we got pretty good and maneuvering in them. About ten miles out of Finger I knew that the infamous Happy River Steps were coming up soon. We dropped down a fairly steep decline, and I remember thinking, “I wonder if that was one of the steps”, and before I knew it my leaders were initiating a nearly 180 degree turn down a switchback and I knew we were there! When my sled rounded the corner, we were funneled into the next step with a literal waist high trench. There was no possible way to tip over, it was like bumper bowling. It was over soon enough, and we popped out onto the Happy River and stopped to assess the damage.
There were signs of stopped dog teams all over the place, as I assume this was a popular place to stop for the exact reason I was doing so. Give the dogs a breather, check for tangles, rub bellies, and make sure everything is in order to continue. We were on the river for no more than a mile, before exiting to the right and immediately up the steepest climb of the race. Im off of my sled running and basically shoulder pressing my sled up the hill while encouraging the team to keep doing a good job. There were a few more hills like that on the way to Rainy Pass checkpoint, one more memorable than the rest for its height and steepness, and as we mushed into the checkpoint on Puntilla Lake, I remember thinking the temperature had dropped. It hadn’t, but it gets cold when your sweating your way up all of those hills, and then barreling down the other side. My checkpoint routine was pretty dialed in by this point so my dog chores were done rather quickly, and I went to find the musher cabin to take a nap.
It’s a noisy door to open, making it impossible to sneak in or out, but judging by the continued snoring I don’t think i woke anyone that wasn’t already awake. Headlamp required to see through the darkness, and a small oil stove surrounded by draped bibs and parkas, chairs pulled close with gloves and boots with the liners removed for quick drying. There was bunk style bedding of plywood and 2x4s, and a thermarest is something I did not bring on the race, so I took a lot of my naps on a hard flat surface. I didn’t even take my bibs off for this nap, and just rolled onto the piece of wood that spoke to my heart and tried to rest. It’s not easy when everyone is on their own schedule, alarms are shooting off at all different times, and people are coming in and out. One of the checkpoint volunteers barged in at one point looking for a specific musher because his dogs had gotten loose and were running around the dog lot. She said there were dogs loose everywhere, so I ended my nap before it began and had to go out to see if it was my team. My whole team was tucked away in their straw beds, had;t moved since I left them, but enough time had passed that I began preparing a meal for them.
It was snowing while I prepared the team to Leave the checkpoint, and from that point on we would see fresh snow on every run until Elim. I pulled the hook to leave just as the sun was starting to shed it’s early morning light, and our surrounding all the sudden became apparent. We were in the heart of the Alaska Range, making our way up towards Rainy Pass, which is our gateway through the mountains. Fresh snow and the wind that was blowing meant that the trail was ours to break. Even though I knew that a team was no more than 30 minutes in front of us, we still managed to lose the trail a few times. Plowing through deep drifts without a trail marker in sight, there was one moment when I was sure we were lost, stopped the team to go up front and look for markers, couldn’t see any, thought “what the heck” and trusted my leaders, and it turned out they were on the trail the whole time. Only to pop out the other side of the drift to find we hadn’t been lost. THEY hadn’t been lost. Trust your dogs. The run to the pass was fogged in and mostly cloudy so the mountain tops were hidden, but just the base of what was visible was proof of how big the country was.
We began our descent, and I remember having this mixture of feelings. On one hand I was nervous about the gorge that I knew was coming soon, on the other hand I was excited to know that it would all be over quickly. The beginning of the descent was gradual with very little vegetation other than some willows, and our speed was kept in check by all of the fresh snow. At times the valley would squeeze together and wed be traveling down a tributary from the head waters, with open water flowing only a few feet to the side of the trail, crossing over snow bridges and trying to stay out of the drink. The further down you go, the bigger the trees become, and we had a few open water crossings. The first was basically a trickle over rock bed, but the second looked like a man made bridge out of trees and logs that had been completely dismantled by the 60 teams before us. Making it actually way more treacherous than just having no bridge at all. Gaps in the logs meant mis stepped dog feet, and luckily no one got injured. Soon enough we were within timber, and this I was told was the gorge.
For the great most part it was nothing too crazy, but there were two drops, steep as hell and 50 feet long, totally trenched out with no way to slow down. Each worthy of a pause and inventory after surviving. Now, once at the bottom, we popped out onto a creek that I recognized from every Iditarod documentary Ive ever seen. It’s a whole lot of glare ice shelved up with man sized holes without bottom. Truly at the mercy of your dog team following the scent and tracks of pervious teams. You can not stop on ice like that. Every once and while the trail would steer off the creek into the woods just on the bank. Not a whole lot of snow, so tree roots are exposed, the trail narrows with large trees on either side, all of which are marked up like bears have been around, but it’s really the mark of sleds crashing and scraping the trees. There was one memorable, 120 degree ice turn where you are to stay up on a ice ledge, big hole on your left on the inside of the turn. I was off the break and leaning out to avoid being swallowed. When the trail straightened, my sled tipped over to the right, and I was sliding straight for another hole in the ice. Somehow, with my sled on its side and me being dragged behind it, I was able to summon super human strength and right the sled to narrowly avoid that hole. I still have no idea how I pulled that one off…Soon there after, we popped out of the trees and onto a river, or was it a lake? We had made it! The dogs looked great, I was fine, and we were able to see the Alaska Range in our rear view mirror.
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