That last run, from Ophir to halfway to Iditarod, was not easy. There was a lot of climbing and a lot of climbing through wind drifted, deep snow. There just weren’t enough trees in place to block the wind from pushing the snow around. It was an extremely exposed place to be, and pretty calm the entire time I was passing through, but I could tell that it was a place I would’t want to be out in a storm of any kind. Although that would have been fun too! We found a really great place to camp, in the protected saddle of a small dip in the hills. There were trees scattered around not too far away, and we were far enough from the bright lights and big city of Don’s cabin to enjoy some peace and quiet. The dogs got bedded down off the trail in some really deep snow, it gets packed down by them and by me walking back and forth, that by the time straw gets put down, the dogs are laying at least a foot into the snow.
Cozy little beds, and I made a cozy fire out of the trees and shrubbery in the neighborhood. There are no secrets in the winter time. If you walk somewhere, you’ll leave tracks. I left tracks all around that camp site in different missions to gather fire wood, and I sat to enjoy my snacks and water, a peacefully resting dog team, friends and fellow dog teams passing by as the sun set, all by fireside. This was the part of the race where we began to fade into our alternate existence, that of a perpetually traveling dog team. After this nap, we would be on the run towards the Checkpoint of Iditarod, and the sort of ‘halfway’ point of our trip to Nome. It was a very dark and cloudy night for a run, and by the time I made it to Iditarod, I told the checker about how boring the run was! My headlamp was simply incapable of penetrating the darkness around us, and we were in such an exposed and open environment, that there really wasn’t anything out there for the headlight to catch!
The hills rolled and rolled and rolled for the entire 6 hour run and everything looked identical. A short and gradual decline down into a small draw with a few trees gathered together at the low point, then up a short gradual climb and down the identical other side. I could have sworn I passed the same tree a thousand times in a row. The trail was very well marked, and from a distance the pattern of markers ascending up a hill looked like constellations in the sky. Finally, one of the downhills led us onto the Iditarod River, and we passed the caved in remains of a few cabins and structures along the bank. The night made it feel like coming into a ghost town to camp. The dogs at this point were doing very well, our speed was really up given trail conditions, everyone was standing up to eat and drink, and they were coming in to checkpoints and camp spots with plenty of energy left in the tank.
The mushers cabin at Iditarod was super nice, and couldn’t be that old. A great big oil stove with plenty of ways to dry gear, and a pot of hot water to thaw out vacuum sealed meals. Plus it was very close to where the team was parked. We pulled out of Iditarod with the sun beating down on us, knowing the trail to Shageluk was ‘hilly’. It put’s you right into the hills out of Iditarod, and they were bigger and steeper than the night before. It was also hotter than the night before, but the dogs were stronger. We really cruised through those hills, and found ourselves in a good groove, proper iPod playlists help! A BLM shelter cabin appeared about 30 miles out, and I decided to pull over for a few hours while the sun went down. We had three dog teams and two snow machines in the parking lot.
Of course we talk about the trail, the trail behind and the trail ahead, and we start talking about Unalakleet. About how it’s going to feel when we get there, and Unalakleet is still over 200 miles away! The end of the Iditarod for us was still too far off into the distance to comprehend, and yet I couldn’t think back to a time before the race started. This was our new reality. We rest and replenish, then we get up and travel to the next town or village, where there are nice people waiting for us to check us in and bring our drop bags over and vets to come check all of the dogs, and they have hot water ready and a place to lay down, and repeat! We could go on like this forever.
And so, after some simple conversation and a brief power nap on a piece of plywood, I was up and out to put booties on and get the team ready to roll. Final push to Shageluk. The trail was finally flattening out and becoming more solid. The trail has been so soft and slow the past few days, but suddenly I’m riding the drag mat again to keep them from going too fast. It was amazing to see that we still had it, our speed remains preserved!
The experience of arriving in a village like Shageluk, off the Iditarod trail, became routine by the end of the race, but it always made me feel connected to a lot of history. I could relate to all of the dog teams that ever climbed up the river bank and spilled onto the streets. We share the same emotions about safe passage and reaching oasis. The trails that we take between checkpoints are the highway systems that people use around here to travel between villages, and they have been for a very long time. So, as we run up the riverbank and into the streets of Shageluk, it feels like we could have just gone back in time 100 years. Flying down the well packed roads, past homes and barking pet dogs, and a sharp turn lands us into the caring hands of Iditarod volunteers and veterinarians.
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