Rookie Iditarod: Shageluk - Yukon River

We pulled out of Shageluk in the early morning hours, and spilled onto a river where we found hard fast trail for the first time in what felt like forever. The mighty Yukon River was just up ahead and there was a slow but steady head wind that caused me to stop and put my parka on. Running the Iditarod and I had gone hundreds of miles without wearing my parka! Well, it was on now, and as we wound and twisted our way through drainages, I could sense that we were about to meet the Yukon. The flora that grows up around rivers and creeks is consistent, and if you know what to look for it will reveal what is coming up next. The curves of the trail built our momentum as we got closer and closer, until we dropped down a short and steep bank and it was obvious where we were.

The Yukon River was unmistakeable. Huge. Even though it wasn’t snowing on us at that time, the sky was grey and full of clouds, but it was beautiful. The spirit of our accomplishment, just getting here marked a major milestone for our race, and we had only 12 miles until Anvik. The dogs were pepped up when we pulled into the checkpoint with all intentions to blow through, but first I had to sort through my drop bags. The checker and volunteers were very friendly at Anvik and complimented us on how good the team looked. Yes, we are at the back of the pack, but I am still aiming for efficiency. I cut the zip ties off of my bags and flip them upside down to empty what’s inside. The usual. Dog food, booties, but this time, the home made cookies that I have been thinking about since the beginning! My friend Cheryl baked cookies for me, and I was able to put a package in each checkpoint from Anvik on. We charged out of Anvik, only a few more miles to Grayling, and I immediately opened the cookies to indulge on the run. They were still soft! The dogs heard the crinkling of the zip lock bag and turned their heads around to guilt me for not sharing. Grayling was a nice looking river community, with a state of the art community building and a school that was nicer than the one I attended growing up. It even had its own basketball gym, where mushers could sleep, and where they hung the banners of the nearby schools in their athletic conference. There were only four banners on the wall. Some children were out and about in the dog yard as we parked and got settled. They wanted to know the names of the dogs, how old they were, if they bite or not, if they were allowed to pet them, and of course to tell me about their own dogs.

We stayed for a while in Grayling, and loaded our sled for the 120 mile stretch to Kaltag. Usually this run is broken in half by the Eagle Island checkpoint, but this year’s stormy weather prevented the race from being able to fly the necessary supplies. There were notices posted on doors and walls for the last few stops, so it wasn’t a surprise, it just meant we were going to be running fairly heavy. We planned to run the stretch in three 40 mile runs, camping twice on the river. Still no snowfall as we left Grayling down the steep river bank, but the clouds lingered. I remember feeling very ‘up’, we were living the dream, heading out to camp on the Yukon River. We passed a fish wheel in the snow, a few moose hiding out on a willow island, and some guy that was walking the Iditarod trail….I’m sure we both looked at each other and wondered what the other was thinking!

It was now dark when we approached the mileage that marked our first camp on the river, and we passed a few resting teams with the same strategy. I passed out on the snow next to my sled, and woke up with a layer of fresh snow covering everything. It was falling fast and flakey. So much for a hard fast trail! One team passed by right around the time I was waking up to get ready, and their tracks were gone by the time we pulled the hook. It was still dark, and nearing day break, but snowing so heavily that seeing the trail ahead was nearly impossible. The occasional trail marker provided confidence in our direction, but I honestly just gave my trust to Louisa and Wyatt to sniff out the trail. Eagle Island was a few hours into the run, and still a checkpoint that we had to sign in and out of, and that’s all we did. Passed one team as we blew through, and another just down the trail a few minutes. It was a great feeling to be passing by teams, and to know that my dogs still had the speed and the power in the snowfall! The sun was now up, but the light was flat as a pancake. There were no shadows to help spot contour and context on the trail, and my leaders were starting to make the necessary adjustments. Louisa can be kind of a trail hog. The trail was nearly indistinguishable from the rest of the entire river, but it was obvious when one of them would step off of the hard pack. Louisa was demanding that she run in the very middle of the established trail, which pushed Wyatt off the edge and into the deep stuff. I simply moved Wyatt back one spot, and had Louisa guide us in single lead. This was her first time ever running up front by herself, and she was clearly a little confused at first. Stop, walk up and encourage her, assure her that she is supposed to be up there alone, and off we go. She learns on the fly, and leans into her harness. We stopped by two more of these Iditarod trail walking people, but this time I stopped to snag a photo and pick their brains a little bit. We would camp just up ahead, our second and final camp on the Yukon River, and one of these walkers would end up passing us while camped. So far, our Yukon River experience had been pretty straight forward. Snowy, but simple. It was about to get complicated...

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