Rookie Iditarod: Rohn - Nikolai
Out of the Dalzel Gorge in early morning, we followed our friend Jason Stewart for the last few miles into the Rohn checkpoint. The final approach to Rohn had us winding through tight treed trails, and the checkpoint itself is a small clearing in the woods. BLM log cabin to your left, and dog teams parked among the trees to the right, it was all very recognizable form the Iditarod documentaries. There wasn’t a whole lot of snow, so I tied the team off to a tree to keep them from going anywhere, removed booties and handed out snacks, put on coats and massaged dogs, then I went inside the cabin to socialize and warm up my own food. We stayed at Rohn for about 7 hours, and I recruited a few volunteers to help us get out safely. We really were parked among the trees, and the out shoot would have just been rather dodgy to try to negotiate with a fresh dog team. The trail winds through the woods for about a mile or less, before spitting you out onto the glare ice of the south fork of the Kuskokwim River. This was probably the most beautiful section of the entire race for us, as the trail beneath the team is pure blue ice with patches of drifted snow, and the afternoon light played off of the sharp mountains in every direction. It was an unforgettable farewell from the Alaska Range, we were 70 miles from the next checkpoint of Nikolai.
It wasn’t long before we found ourselves in the burn. Charred up forests are pretty common up here in Alaska, and although the spruce are all void of their year round greenery, there is a beauty all its own in the skeleton remains of blackened spruce trunks and spindly leftover branches that dot the rolling hills for as far as you can see. It’s certainly fantastic firewood, almost kiln dried and burns hotter than hot. I had heard so many stories on this section of trail, of rough snowless travel, rocks and stumps and all that stuff that creates nightmares in the mind of a musher, but it was tame when we passed through. Heavy snowfall in the late winter gave us pretty smooth sailing through the burn, other than a few steep drops that were rutted out by the 60 teams ahead of us, our only obstacle was drifted snow. Egypt Mountain is a big old pyramid shaped mound that we passed by maybe 15 miles out of Rohn, and I can remember thinking around that time that I was hearing dogs barking. I had to pull my hoods down, lift my hat, to realize that the wind was passing through the rolling hills of fruitless trees and making them sing. The burn was whistling at us, and the dogs could hear it too. Their ears would shift forward and their heads would raise up, and we’d go a little bit faster.
By the time we were about 30 miles from Rohn, the sun had set, we were out of the burn and into the green again, and the trail was a series of ups and downs. Nothing too tall or lengthy, but standing on the drag mat as we barreled down the hill, then kick and run and ski pole up the other side, then barrel down, then get a workout going up, and on and on. We’re going to camp here on the trail soon, so I’ve started to keep my eye open for a good spot. I’m looking for enough room so I can pull my team all the way off of the trail and out of the way, it is also ideal to find a spot in the woods with some wind barrier and ultimately accessible fire wood. Right before landing on a good spot to camp, it began to snow, and from that point on all the way until Elim, nearly 700 miles up the trail, it would snow on us on every single run. So, here we are, this looks like a GREAT place to camp. We are being very conservative, doing mostly 35 mile runs so far, so when I stop to pull the team over they simply aren’t tired yet and it was sort of a struggle just to pull them off the trail and get them parked. Our camping routine ensues, booties, snacks, coats, straw, massages, nap time.
I don’t really have a set preference for how I nap on the trail, sometimes I lay down a straw bed for myself, sometimes I empty my sled and sit in it, sometimes I just put my parka on and sleep on the snow. I didn’t have enough straw for myself, so I opted to clear my sled and plop myself into the basket using the back as a backrest, Within 10 minutes of sitting down, I felt quite nauseous. How could I be sick?! I never get sick! Well, my mouth started to salivate and I sprung up and….expelled the contents of my stomach. A dog team passed me while this was all happening, I was in no shape to even acknowledge their existence. So, that was over and I sat back in the sled. Ten minutes later, I feel sick again! I’m up, but this time there’s nothing left to expel, so I'm dry heaving. I took my water bottle and drank a bit, and just stayed upright and made a meal for the dogs. Another team, Jason Stewart again, passed by and stopped while I was cleaning up from feeding dogs. I told him I was sick, and he reported that another musher a few miles back was literally also puking right now. GREAT! An Iditarod plague has struck the back of the pack. I continued to dry heave for the rest of that camp stop, any water I tried putting down would just come right back up. Sitting in my sled was no longer a good option, so I just layed down in the snow in the fetal position. Another team passed me as I layed there, I could see the head light fix on me, no shame. Well, time to boot up and hit the trail for Nikolai. Only 35 miles away. Completely dehydrated and physically weak, but I no longer felt sick to my stomach, so that was good. What wasn’t good was that the next 5 hours would include, what I thought was the mogul run from the winter olympics. I was very thirsty, but had wasted all of my water trying to drink it when I was sick. It was really very difficult just to stand upright, and I did the entire run sort of hunched over my handlebars, or kneeling on my runners. I would squat down for as long as I could until my legs hurt, then I would hunch over the handlebars as the constant moguls would slam my sled against my body. I was pretty much useless, and my dogs carried me all the way to Nikolai. At one point I looked up form being hunched over, open water in the trail. More like a series of puddles, half a foot or more deep, as wide as the trail, for no more than a quarter mile. Really nothing too crazy, but the dogs would rather avoid the water and run on the puddle banks, which was not feasible for me and my sled. I couldn’t get away with being useless and weak, I had to run through the puddles to keep from tipping my sled. Thank goodness for brand new NEOS! This was the longest run of the race, not actually, but it was perceived to be. As we approached Nikolai, the first native village on the race, the dogs perked up and sprinted in, and I perked up and was actually able to stand upright. The relief of making it to safety and being surrounded by support, was a serious boost in my energy levels, and I went about dog chores as if nothing was wrong. My sickness wouldn’t show up for the rest of the race.