Rookie Iditarod: Unk - Koyuk

The run from Unalakleet to Shaktoolik really put the finish line within reach. We did still have a couple hundred miles between us and the burled arch, and it was not about to be a flat coastal trip. The Blueberry hills ran on this stretch, it’s a name I’ve heard talked about for years leading up to the race. Mostly when veterans of the race would tell me that the coast is in fact NOT flat. It was a good run for us, and the dogs were mighty. Up and over the rolling hills, I counted 4-5 big climbs, maybe a few more moderate hills. It was exposed, sort of, but everything is up there. It felt like we were leaving one biome, and entering another. The landscape was transitioning under our paws from dense forest like a head full of hair, and now it was balding, patchy at best.

The last of our climbs was obvious, as we came over the top, there were no more hills in front of us. Looking down from the peak, I could see the coastline as it extended northwards and disappeared into the clouds. I remember looking down and thinking, “Where the heck is Shaktoolik?!” We descended to sea level, turned north, and followed the trail markers into the fog and past the ghost town of Old Shaktoolik. The new site of Shaktoolik was just up the coast, almost within site. Volunteers had us parked between a building and a snow bank, out of the wind, and they had dragged my drop bags over for me along with a bucket of hot water. I wasn’t feeding right away, so I had to politely turn down the hot water, but I believe I made up for it with my thankfulness for the great parking spot and help with drop bags. One of the many perks of more or less traveling by myself, is always having a fairly empty dog yard to park in!

We stayed in Shak for awhile. At that point, we were taking at least eight hours at every stop all the way up the coast. The checkpoint HQ wasn’t terribly big, basically a one room building that volunteers subdivided by hanging tarps from the ceilings to make ‘rooms’. I attempted to lay down to rest, but all of the chatter and multiple people coughing in the sleeping area, I just decided to get up and eat a snack, drink a cup of coffee and socialize. Our next run would have us crossing the sea ice on our way to Koyuk through the cover of night. It was later brought to my attention that crossing at night was actually better for the dogs, because we couldn’t actually see how boring the landscape was. Flat, and forever, in every direction.

It was, flat and forever, but not so boring. I hadn’t really been looking at run times at all up to this point, mostly because I didn’t care, but also because we were camping between checkpoints and the run times only measure time it takes to get from one of those checkpoints to the next. In Shaktoolik, I happened to gander at the leaderboard sheet, and noticed that we ran from Unalakleet an hour faster than all of the teams around us. Here I am thinking that we are having a lot of fun and making our way, but moving like snails. In reality, EVERYONE was moving like a bunch of snails, and we were actually cookin! The trail was just slow and snowy. It’s harder to pull and simply harder to move in deeper conditions. Like going for a jog on the beach.

The push across the sea ice was monotonous, but that is why I bring an iPod. Although by this point in the race, I heard every song on that little shuffle enough times to memorize the whole library. The sea ice wasn’t actually ice, it’s snow on top of ice except for when it smashes together and juts up sort of like how mountains are formed. Maybe I was sleepy, but the entire run was uphill!! Of course it wasn’t really, but it sure looked that way, and I kept expecting to run down some sort of bank that would signal the trail meeting the ocean, but it never came. What did come was a super faint little red light off in the distance in front of us. It was Koyuk, and we were close. Another illusion though. It turns out you can see light from very far away!

It was another three hours before we would reach the beach at Koyuk and run up into town. We were greeted by a gang of funny looking little village dogs. They basically owned the village, in their own minds. They didn’t get close to the teams, and the sled dogs didn’t seem to mind them at all, but they did locate the drop bags. When I cut my drop bags open and turned them upside down to shake the goodies out, there was no dog meat! “Did I forget to pack dog food for Koyuk!?!” Then I found a big old hole in the actual drop bag, and confirmed with another musher that the street dog gang had in fact plundered our stash…! PIRATES! There were 60 dog teams who had already passed through Koyuk, so I was allowed to plunder their leftovers..

I was able to get a good nap in, and head outside to feed the dogs. There was a group of kids out and about, raking up straw when teams would leave, and hanging out in the checkpoint HQ. They were curious about the dogs and about me and about the 'stuff' that I was stuffing in my sled. They weren’t as shy as I was when I was that age, its admirable. They just walk right up and more or less ask if you want to be friends. I gained a lot of friends on this race so far, and we only had three more runs left, I wished it was 103.

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