Help us make it to the finish line
There is so much to say about this year’s Iditarod, not only with it being my first, but also one of the scariest in recent years. The lack of snow was definitely the main concern for the mushers, which added a new twist for us rookies. Having never been over the trail before, we had to be ready for anything. I had never been musing on anything like it, and apparently I was not alone because veteran mushers who have been running the race for decades said this year was by far the most difficult, dangerous, and even death defying.
I certainly felt a lot of luck and maybe even angels looking out for me through the notoriously treacherous sections of the Dalzel Gorge and the Farwell Burn. This part of the race was truly an experience; riding down a mountain pass that seemed to go on forever with 16 dogs, a sled, and only a skiff of ice covering bare dirt. When I arrived at the Rohn checkpoint (between the Gorge and Burn), it resembled more of a war zone than a sled dog race. Bones were broken, sleds were crushed and dreams were shattered. Over a dozen teams had called it quits before reaching Nikolai, only about ¼ of the way into the race. Other teams chose to tough it out with patched sleds and heavy limps. I was extremely fortunate and happy when I made it to Nikolai without any major injuries to myself, my sled, or my team of 16 dogs. I had crashed many times but escaped with only bumps and bruises. I felt that I was prepared as I possibly could be for having never seen these conditions before. Fortunately, I was wearing a helmet, because I did hit my head on my handle bar when I fell into a 7ft deep hole.
I had a sturdy toboggan style sled with UHMW plastic runners and a hefty brake and drag mat. We spent the week before the race preparing Tim’s old toboggan for me. I was the only musher with this style of sled (most had light racing sleds), every time we slammed into a rock or tree I counted my blessings that the sled was still in one piece. The only damage to my sled was a broken crossbar, which I didn’t even notice until someone pointed it out at the checkpoint, overall not bad! The last thing that I did that seemed to make a big difference for the dogs going through the rough sections was the incorporation of bungee in their tug and neck lines. This allowed for shock to be absorbed when we hit something and came to an abrupt stop. Also, if a dog went the wrong way around a tree or stump, the bungee would break instantly allowing the dog to be free rather than slamming into the object. I think this set up helped my team make it though the 40+ miles of snowless trail with roots, rocks, tussocks and other obstacles without injury. Snow conditions improved somewhat (there was about 1 foot of base) for the middle part of the race and it was basically smooth going, aside from the normal challenges of mushing a dog team through Alaska wilderness.
When we hit the coast and things got exciting again when snow and windstorms seemed to pop up out of nowhere. It wasn’t as bad for us back of the pack of the packers as it was for the front runners, like Jeff King, who scratched 22 miles from the finish when he got caught in 60 mph winds on glare ice that blew him off the trail and tangled in drift wood. Somehow, I managed to avoid the windstorm. However, we did get to do more trail breaking through fresh, heavy snow than any of the other teams. This created challenges and slowed us down considerably. There were times of heavy snow, low visibility, deep drifts, strong winds and glare ice, throughout the last 300 miles of the race. The race really seemed to crawl on forever when it took us 15hours to get from White Mountain to Safety (55 miles), this included a 3hour camp on the trail because the dogs needed rest after 10hours of trail breaking over some pretty steep mountains. The dogs did great and generally had great energy through it all.
The coast challenged my young team the most. The two veteran leaders (Raven-10.5 yrs, Polly-8.5yrs) had done a great job so far, but tiring of breaking trail so we relied on the energy of the young team, including Gabbana and Squall, two young females who led much of the way. We made it to Nome after a great run from Safety, over all taking 13days 4hours 8min and 15sec. We were one of the biggest teams with 14 dogs to make it. They were: Raven-10.5, Polly-8.5, Squall-2, Gabbana-3, Blue Steel-2, Moto-3, Winston-2, Ziggy-1.5, Libra-1.5, Picante-1.5, Baloo-3, Mowgli-3, Bagheera-3, and Cash-3. Along the way I dropped Smokey-3 and Pepsi-8 with minor soreness that made it uncomfortable for them to run. Overall, the team was strong, kept a great weight (in fact some gained weight along the way), had a good attitude and was very healthy. I had sent out a few Petchup packets to each checkpoint, which I fed with most of my meals. I think the flavors helped mix up the taste of the food for the dogs and keep them eating the whole way. I think the good diet I fed the dogs, which included Petchup, and keeping my team well rested, were the main reasons that I was able to finish with a large team. This allowed 12 of my young dogs to make it to Nome and thus become new veterans of the Iditarod.
Overall, they had a lot of fun on the trail. They loved running through the rough sections that beat up mushers, they seemed to adapt well to the various other trail conditions like ice and deep snow, although they were new to some of the young dogs. I was amazed by the energy the young dogs had as well as how well the older dogs (even at 10.5 years) kept up with them. For most of the race, until we hit the snow on the coast, our run times between checkpoints were right up there with the top teams. I planed to run a puppy schedule, giving them plenty of rest and make sure it was a fun trip for the dogs. It certainly was a luxury for me to get the few hours of extra sleep. I made sure to give the dogs a through look over at checkpoints. I massaged and used heat packs, wraps and liniment on sore muscles and joints. I believe the extra rest time, therapeutic care, and the use of Petchup, my team was able to make a full recovery after 8 hours of rest.
Everyone has been asking if I am going to do the race next year. I think they were probably asking me even before it was over. I have been somewhat noncommittal in answering. I certainly would like to mush my team down the Iditarod trail again. I keep hearing people say “you have completed the toughest Iditarod, after this it will be a piece of cake!” I would agree with them that it was tough, but it only made me realize there can be many unknown challenges lying around the next corner and never let your guard down. I would like to try to mush a mostly veteran team, which I have now, and see how we can improve our standing. The dream of winning the Iditarod is shared by many on the trail. Of course, everything will depend on finances and sponsorships. It takes an incredible amount of time, energy and funds just to get to the starting line, and to be competitive it takes so much more.