The sun was rising as we came down the hill towards Takotna. The town sits on the north bank of the river that it’s named after, or maybe the river is named after the town, but it sort of instantly reminded me of another little town named Rampart. When we popped off the river, we ran between two houses and made a ‘HAW’ (that means left) onto the main road, parallel the river. Checkpoint HQ is right on main street, facing the river and the hills that it has carved out and that we find ourselves in. Getting out into this country and traveling in the way that we did, allows you to look out each day, way out in the distance from your valley vantage point, and see hills on the horizon, and you eventually travel to those hills and negotiate their passages. In a weird time lapse kind of way, I could see the earth rotating below us. We moved across the land, and Takotna just felt like a community tucked in to the surroundings, supported and held by the hills. It was a an easy choice for our 24 hour break.
We stopped at the perfect time of day, just before noon, but this inevitably meant that when we would get up to go after our 24 hours are up, we would run through the mid day heat. This threw off my nice cool schedule that allowed us to avoid running when it was warmest, and I found it hard to get back into a preferable resting pattern after that. That thought didn’t last very long at all, and I rallied through my dog chores. With dogs bedded and fed, I was greeted in the community center by a nice lady in the kitchen who told me I could have whatever I wanted. I don’t even remember what I ate first in Takotna. I ate so many times that it all blurs together, but i DO remember the banana cream chocolate pie. Never forget. I’ll also never forget how polite and welcoming everyone was, and the community center was filled with…the community. There were kids and adults, locals, and of course race volunteers, vets, judges, mushers.
The church was where I was allowed to lay down and dry my things, and it had a sign on the door that read ‘Mushers only, no press’. So, I gathered my belongings and claimed an open church pew aisle as my home for the day. It really was a nice place to stay for our break, but it went by very quickly. Time flies when you’re having fun, and when you’re sleeping. The dogs and I had the exact same strategy: Eat, Sleep, Repeat. Hot water for dogs was always available in a fifty five gallon drum over a fire pit down on main street. I walked down to get some water, and Jason Stewart was just blowing through this checkpoint. Fresh off his 24 in McGrath, he was in high spirits, and fully recovered from the bug that hit him about a day prior. The plague was making it's way through the ranks. I was happy to see that he was going to be running over all of this fresh snow for us.
It was still fresh for us as we departed Takotna. We exited the town on the same road that we entered, and climbed up into the hills on our way to Ophir. The trail/road reminded me a lot of Eureka, and would eventually lead us all the way to the next checkpoint. There were a few cabins and structures along the way, but it was just beautifully wooded soft rolling hills. We passed some mining equipment off the trail, and picked up the smell of wood smoke. I actually started to become a dog, and could smell the checkpoint from miles away. Given the remoteness of these communities, smelling smoke or coffee, or seeing lights in the distance meant we were getting closer to our next destination.
I noticed, pulling in to Ophir, that a trend was starting to develop. We would approach a checkpoint, and people would rush outside from their shelters as if they weren’t expecting us. The majority of the team had already been through there, and even though it was the beginning of MY Ophir experience, it was the end of theirs. They were tired, winding down and wrapping up, but still treated us very well and with kindness. We only stayed in Ophir long enough to water the dogs, change booties, wash the ladel and bucket and bowls, and go through my drop bags. If you don’t go through the drop bags, everything gets given away, and I just can’t afford to be throwing away gloves and hand warmers and socks and all that other stuff!
The weather cleared up at some point, but about thirty minutes after leaving Ophir it was snowing again. The trail kept us up in the hills, at a gradual climb that would eventually take us above the tree line. We ran the ridge lines like a spine, would sometimes descend a bit, but always making progress up, for the next 24 hours…! The snowy desert that awaited us at the top, had few trees to protect it from wind, and the trail was snow blown and punchy. There was no solid evidence that anyone had moved through there recently, even though I KNOW they did, the wind would cover their tracks. This was a crucial time for remaining positive and energetic as the coach of this dog team. It was tough running and we worked our little butts off, but work hard play hard! Every time I stopped for a breather, the dogs were happy and ready to go. This was the furthest I had ever traveled by dog team, 400 miles in, and the furthest most of my dogs had ever traveled. From that point on was uncharted territory for us, and the completion of every single run was a victory of it’s own.
It really became amazing to watch how well the dogs were able to perform, how spirited they remained, and how passionate they were about the trail in front of us. There was a moment out there on the exposed hill tops when I realized that the dogs and I share in a mutual motivation and inspiration. We were all appreciative of the adventure at hand, stoked about peaking hills and rounding bends, and completely intrinsically comfortable with our existence as a perpetually traveling dog team. We were looking for a nice camp spot. I had heard that there was a shelter cabin out there somewhere, but I hadn’t seen it and at the time I thought I had already passed it. We entered a small island of trees that were placed in a small valley between two hills, and I noticed sticks and twigs in the trail, and footprints in the snow. By the time I realized that someone was collecting firewood, I rounded a corner and came right upon the BLM cabin that sits directly on the trail. There were also about 10 dog teams parked sporadically in all of the little snow machines arteries placed on either side of the main trail. My dogs thought, “checkpoint?!”, but I made an impulsive decision to keep moving. Just out of sight a mile or so, and away from all things that may prevent the kind of quality rest that I wanted for the team. I knew those teams would be up soon and on the move, and waking us up, so we built camp in a little draw near a fairly healthy crop of firewood.
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