The run from Kaltag to Unalakaleet was about 80 miles, naturally broken up into two equal halves with a nice break at Old Woman Cabin. We left Kaltag in the late morning, which inevitably put us on the trail during the heat of the day. It was nice to be off the river, to be in the company of trees again, and to have hills to climb and just to look at. Like many of the trails on the Iditarod, this section is historical, and has been a well used portage from ocean to River for hundreds of years. I felt it more significantly on that run than any of the others. I was connected to the dog teams of past and to the mushers that ran dogs not for sport or recreation, but for a living. Then again, this is my life as well. Our sleds and our gear and even our dogs may look different these days, but we share in common struggles and in common triumphs.
I am sure that hundreds of years ago, mushers would gear up in Kaltag with the intention of taking a break around the site of the present day BLM cabin known as Old Woman. I was told by a veteran musher that the cabin is just off of the trail to the right, and he assured me that my dogs would know where to go. Without giving the command, and mostly because I happened to be day dreaming at the time, Louisa took a ‘gee’ and led us right to the cabin. There were straw piles everywhere, it was a parking lot for dog teams but we were the only ones there. Inside the cabin was a wood stove with just enough fire wood left over to get it warmed up, and a guest entry book signed by people who had passed through.
I settled the team, and put a pot of water on the wood stove to heat up for my meals. It took a while, and I napped on the ply wood bunks as it heated. When I woke up, my food was thawed and there were a few fat bikers arriving at the cabin. One of them was a veteran of the trail and he was able to give me a solid trail report on the final leg to Unalakleet. Mostly descending down to sea level, and very exposed. The bikers were only around for an hour or so, and by the time they were leaving it was starting to snow again. I still had a few hours left of rest to give the dogs, but by then there would be five inches of snow to plow through so I decided to pull the hook early. We left Old Woman as the sun was just going down.
It was a damn blizzard out there! Snowin and blowin, and hardly enough visibility to see the entire team, let alone find the trail. I was kneeling on my runners to avoid acting as a sail, and holding my beaver mitts up by my face to hide from the wind. We passed all of the fat bikers from the cabin on that run, they each had ditched the idea of riding their bikes and were instead walking to find the trail. We had had the advantage of following their tracks and learning from their mistakes as they stepped off the hard pack, and now it was our turn to break trail for them. We eventually dropped down onto the Unalakleet river, which we followed for a few miles. Avoiding holes in the ice that were marked by trail markers, considering that they are trail markers, we accidentally steered right for a few of them…
The trail exited the river up the right bank, and the lights of Unalakleet appeared in the distance across a frozen lagoon of sorts. It was a comfortable checkpoint to be stopped at. Plenty of food, an actual dryer to warm hats and neck fleeces, and even a private bedroom with a bed! We pulled in just at the same time that a few teams were taking off. This was the first I had seen of these teams since Grayling, could we be catching up?! Our plan from here no out was fairly simple. Run checkpoint to checkpoint all the way to Nome. Of course simple is not synonymous with easy. We still have the Blueberry Hills, Golovin Bay, Little McKinley, the Blow Hole… There is plenty of trail left, and thank goodness for that.
For the first time in the race, I admittedly began to think about the finish line. It didn’t seem all that far away, theoretically only five more runs, and I didn’t want it to end yet. I had to suppress these thoughts, take it one run at a time. Up next we had the Blueberry Hills on our way to Shaktoolik. 700 miles in to the race, and we were about to do some major mountain climbing!
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