Pulling in to Nikolai was like making it into the gas station with your tank on empty, the gas light came on miles ago and you weren’t sure if you were going to make it or not. Of course the dogs were great, they came in barking and banging in their harness, plenty of fuel in the tank. It was me who was running on empty. I’ve been stranded in the middle of Alaska without gas before. Stuck on the Elliot Highway with a truck that has a broken gas gauge, but with confidence in the spirit of Alaska, and the spirit of Alaskans. One of the reasons I initially fell in love with Alaska, is how capable the people up here are, and how willing they are to help out strangers. When ever I have had car problems, everybody that passes by will stop and offer assistance. I’ve even had semi trucks pull over to offer help. This friendliness and Alaskana camaraderie was present when I pulled up the riverbank into the village of Nikolai. Friendly faces and happy people, hot water being made, locals offering a hand shake and telling me about the school up the road that I can grab a bite to eat and warm place to rest my head.
It was a true oasis and it felt good to have made it to the interior. In a sense, it was the first time that I was able to exhale, look around, and realize that we were running the Iditarod! The first few days were all hype and nerves, and it was time to settle into our new existence, that of a dog team and musher traveling for hundreds of miles through the Alaskan wilderness. With my dog chores completed in efficient fashion, Jeff Deeter was there on his 24, and he was kind enough to offer up some pro tips about the checkpoint. He told me about the warmest place to hang my stuff to dry, and showed me how to use the dryer that was in the school. I was still feeling a bit sick, mostly dehydrated so I chugged water and sat down in the school gymnasium with a few other mushers and a plate of spam/hashbrowns/and pancakes. It looked really good, and I wish I would have been able to eat it all, but my stomach was still telling me NO, and I was only able to nibble before it was time to lay down and rest.
I woke up feeling 100%! Well, I was groggy, but i was HUNGRY. I fed the dogs first, and they were hungry too. All up on their feet and slurpin down their grub, another musher came up to me and said, “I wish mine were eating that well. You’ll make it to Nome with a team that eats like that.” It was mid day when I fed, and it was HOT. I could feel the sun beating down on my back as I fed and changed my runner plastics. We waited for the sun to lower before heading out on the trail, and as we took off through the streets of Nikolai we saw a pair of moose just off the trail. We dropped back down onto the river and were on our way, 48 miles to McGrath.
It was a beautiful run, mostly river travel, with some swampy portages, and a view of Denali that I had never seen before.
Linwood had told me before the race that I should try to remember to turn around at this point and see Denali from a new perspective, from the other side. I hadn’t remembered, but I stopped to snack the dogs, and when I got to the front of the team and turned to face them, I saw a pink and purple mountain on the horizon and it was unmistakable. They ate the entire bag of snacks and we were off on our beautiful sunset run. However, the clouds moved in, and at about dusk we passed a team, and it began to snow again. It was here that I reevaluated my plan on the go. My original intentions were to run 40 miles, camp, then blow through McGrath and make our way to Takotna for our 24. It made more sense to me with all of the snow coming down, to get further ahead and put as much of the snow behind us as possible.
As we got closer to McGrath, the sun went down and the snow really picked up. I stopped at one point and ditched the straw that I had packed for our camp. Within five miles of McGrath I could see a headlamp through all of the tiny little snow bullets that we were passing through. We were catching another team, and when we popped up the riverbank to make our final approach into McGrath I was on the break to keep from overtaking the team in front of us. I checked in with a charged up group of dogs, barking and banging, and they led us around the main community center and to our parking spot for the night. We were greeted by our good friend Mr. Kale Casey, the Alaskan face of Non Stop Dogwear, and the live streaming guru of all things dog powered. This guys at all dog races, taking amazing live videos and sharing them with the entire world. My girlfriend and partner, Magda, was also there to greet us, as she was volunteering with the dog drop crew in McGrath, so that was an extra sweet little motivator for making it all the way for our rest! We were able to reconnect and hang out a bit while I took a good 6 hour rest at the popular checkpoint.
It was only another 18 miles to get to to Takotna, and our 24 hour rest. We left McGrath and spilled back onto the Kuskokwim river for a short time, before starting a steady climb on a well traveled and wide trail through the woods. The sun was just starting to rise and pour light onto the surroundings when we crested the hill we were climbing. At the top looking down, the town lights of Takotna were visible. We descended for a few miles, my foot on the drag to control our speed, and the temperature dropped with the elevation. It was the first time in the race that I felt cold, and the bottom of the hill puts you onto the Takotna River, where I reached for my beaver mitts. We were only a few minutes away from town, but I needed them. The trail was hard and fast and we flew down the river and up onto main street, where we entered Takotna with a frosty beard. They must not have been expecting us, there weren’t any volunteers outside, but there was a big sign that said NORWAY. Out of the community building poured a group of volunteers, a vet, a checker, and a bunch of young Norwegian helpers that made parking the team super simple and easy.
We had definitely been thinking about this moment for a long time. Takotna = Sleep, but mostly Takotna = PIE!!!!
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