Rookie Iditarod: Yukon River - Kaltag
We made camp before mid day, for our second break on the Yukon River. We did two 40 mile runs to get there, in soft slow and fresh trail, and we still had one last 40 mile stretch before we would be off the river and on the portage to the Bering Sea. Anja Radano and her dog team were right behind us the entire last run, and they pitched their tent right about where we did. The weather was actually nice while we were stopped, the sky wasn’t exactly clear but it wasn’t snowing on us for a change, and I removed part of my drag mat while we were stopped. By ‘part’ I mean most, and I was left with really just a small strip of snow machine tread to regulate the team’s speed. The dogs were in efficiency mode at this point, we still had our speed and power, but they weren’t exactly going ballistic. We were in it for the long haul, and they understood just as much as I did. We were still 400 miles away from Nome, and the coast lay ahead. Settle in boys (and Louisa).
Anja and I rendezvoused, and decided we had similar plans and would more or less run this next stretch together. We both sat by as three dog teams passed by our camp, all of which we would see in a few hours pulled over due to weather and other circumstances. In typical Iditarod fashion, the flakes began to fall right as we started putting booties on the dogs, and the wind began to blow. It was still daylight when we pulled our hooks to set off, a few inches of snow on the trail in front of us, and even though those three teams were in front of us packing it down, it did not seem to help very much. We weren’t breaking any speed records this week, but we were moving strong, and happy to be alive out here in the Alaskan wilderness. I mean we were really out there, somewhere on the Yukon River, navigating the bends and forks, and we came to a section of the trail that appeared to be sending us across to the other side of the river. The wind was polishing the trail and filling in the gaps left behind by the previous teams, so there was no sign whatsoever that we were headed the right direction, other than the trail markers. Just as we started turning right, away from the coastline and towards the far side of the river, the trail markers disappeared. We were moving in a straight line though, in the general direction that I thought we should be going, and then all of the sudden my leaders fell into some deep snow, we lost the trail. We were due for a pause anyway, so I walked up and pet all of the dogs. When I turned around to look back behind us, I could no longer see the trail markers behind us and our tracks were being filled in by the wind. Literally in the middle of the Yukon River, snowing and blowing and the sun was just about set, and we were just about lost…
This is when your attitude makes a difference. It’s easy to be happy and positive when everything is going your way, it’s a game changer when things are not your way. I remember having a bit of an internal “Oh shit” moment, but I certainly wasn’t going to show that to the dogs. They were all rolling around and wagging their tails, they didn’t know we were lost, more importantly they didn’t care. So we stayed happy, and confident, outwardly at least. Fake it till you make it, right?! RIGHT?!?! Right. I walked back to my sled and said, “Alright guys!”, and we started moving. Breaking through deep snow, Wyatt and Louisa still in lead. I say “Gee”, and we steer to the right. Still no hard packed trail. “Haw”, and we steer left. Still no trail. It’s not totally dark yet, but I have my head lamp on full power hoping that it will pick up a trail marker reflector in the distance. After about 10 minutes of zig zagging across the Yukon River, I stop the team and just start to walk out in front of them where I think the trail is supposed to go. I still can’t find a marker in any direction, and Anja hasn’t appeared behind us yet either. I walked a little bit further and finally picked up the faintest reflection deep in the distance. I hurried back to my sled and drove the team up to the trail marker. When we got there, I was excited to see that the next trail marker was’t far ahead, and that it appeared we had found the trail. We hung out right there and waited for Anja’s team. I knew that my trail was either already gone behind us, or that all of my zig zagging around would surely mess her up, and it wasn’t exactly the location that you want to be lost! She caught up, we made our way to the other side and starting moving up the shoreline, and shortly there after we passed by two parked teams that decided to wait out the storm. As the beam of my headlamp pierced the heavy snowfall, it gave the illusion of hyper speed. Each snowflake whizzing passed, I was squinting and trying to pick out the next trial markers through all of the tiny snow bullets. Everything looks the same. Up until this point in the race, there were trail markers everywhere, very well marked. Now is the time that we need them the most, with no sign of dog teams or beaten paths, I would pass by a marker and it would be about 15 seconds before the next one would start to show the faintest appearance.
We were moving marker to marker, 15 miles from Kaltag now, and the shoreline was our savior. As long as we kept that shoreline on our right and within sight, we were moving in the right direction. This went on all the way into Kaltag, and within 5 miles of the checkpoint I started to pick up a very dim red light in the distance. I knew it was he checkpoint, and we were about to put the Yukon River in our rear view mirror. It was a big deal moving to Alaska five years ago, it was a big deal to start racing sled dogs, it was a big deal making it to the starting line of Iditarod, making it to Rainy Pass and the gorge and the burn. It was a huge deal to make it into Kaltag. Ahead lies the portage to Unalakleet and the Bering Sea coast, but first we took a nice long rest in the comfort of the Kaltag community building. They had coffee, water, an oil stove cranked on high, signs made by children welcoming us all in, cots to sleep on, it was easy to oversleep.