Schnuelle finds a lonely cabin for a rare snooze

March 16, 2009 

TRIPOD FLATS CABIN -- Musher Sebastian Schnuelle hadn't slept in a long time. His bloodshot eyes drooped. His frizzy mop of hair needed a comb. A dirty foam sleeping pad inside this Bureau of Land Management log cabin called to him.

Outside, it was minus 15. Inside, the cabin felt like a sauna. Someone had left a fire in the wood-burning stove.

Schnuelle stomped inside, pulled off his clothes and hung them around the cabin to dry. He added a few logs to the fire and heated up a frozen bag of pasta as he sat on a picnic bench next to the stove.

Outside, the winter air thundered as a Cessna 185 airplane landed on the snow-covered tundra and taxied to a stop. A raven cawed in a nearby spruce tree

Then all went peaceful and silent along the Iditarod Trail.

"I need to take a nap," said the 38-year-old German from Whitehorse, Yukon. "I haven't slept in two days."

The winner of the 1,000-mile Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race at the end of February, Schnuelle was about two-thirds of his way through the equally demanding Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race on this Sunday. Like many others, he had hoped to win the Iditarod, but he knew already that wasn't going to happen.

The race was clearly in the hands of Lance Mackey, the two-time defending champion from Fairbanks. Schnuelle was racing for position now, trying improve on last year's 10th place, his best Iditarod ever.

If he calculated correctly on the split between run and rest for 155 miles from Grayling to Tripod and the 125 miles from Tripod to Koyuk, he figured his team should have just enough speed and endurance to get him to Nome in second place. That would mean a good payday -- $61,000, significantly more than he earned for winning the Quest.

If.

There were still about 300 miles to go in the Iditarod, and Schnuelle had a half-dozen top teams close on his heels. As they chased Saturday on the Yukon River, he ran 95 miles straight from Eagle Island through Kaltag to this public-use cabin 35 miles to the west. The run was brutal, he said, and seemed to worsen mile after mile.

A headwind pounded his face and filled the trail with snowdrifts on the river. The thermometer on his sled dived to minus 30.

At Kaltag, where the trail left the river, it only got worse. The bottom started dropping out of the thermometer. Schnuelle noticed it had gone to minus 45, and he was cold.

To stay warm, he jogged or pedaled with one leg behind his sled. The exercise made him sweat. He grew tired, but he kept going, knowing he had to keep moving to stay warm. He ran most of the way from Kaltag to the cabin, he said.

It was the first time he'd stopped at Tripod in five Iditarods. He did it, he said, to avoid the noise and bustle of Kaltag, the last Interior village on the Iditarod route.

"It's like trying to sleep in an airfield," he said. "Planes come and go. They never stop."

Tripod is usually quiet. There is no airstrip, phone lines or electricity. Planes and helicopters land at their own risk.

Built with local logs in the early 1990s, the cabin is a comfy winter haven compared to some other BLM shelters on the Iditarod Trail, said Iditarod Historic Trail administrator Kevin Keeler. He was headed north along the trail by snowmachine. He'd found Don's Cabin, halfway through 90-mile trail trek from Ophir to the ghost town of Iditarod, something of a wreck.

"No doors or windows," Keeler said. "It's a pretty flow-through cabin."

By comparison, this place was luxurious. There was a bunk bed, picnic table, wood-burning stove and enough firewood nearby to last an entire winter. Usually there's a lot of privacy to go with it.

RARE VISITORS

Not this year. On Sunday afternoon, a K2 Aviation pilot was able to put down tracks on the snow-covered tundra. There was about a foot of powder sitting atop a hard base, which provided a cushy landing for a ski plane.

Schnuelle just wanted to hide when he heard aircraft .

"Just when you thought you got away from everybody," he said scratching his seemingly electrified head of hair as a visitor peeked inside the cabin door.

Schnuelle asked for a weather report. He wasn't happy to hear the forecast for the Bering Sea coast called for wind and cold that could push the wind chill to minus 55.

"I hate the cold," Schnuelle said. "I've always hated the cold."

A musher who hates the cold?

"It's a side effect, I guess," he said, adding that as far as he was concerned, about the only thing he liked was "big poops and slurping."

Slurping means the dogs are eating heartily. The more fat and protein they consume, the bigger the poops. When you see the two together, Schnuelle said, it's a sign you have a healthy, well-oiled mushing machine.

Schnuelle was doing his best to keep things that way. His dogs ate heartily and curled up to sleep in the heat of the noon-day sun outside the cabin. They wore yellow wind breakers and rested comfortably on straw beds. Schnuelle has hauled a bale of straw on his sled 35 miles from Kaltag to help make them as comfy as possible.

As they slept, Schnuelle finally said "good night" to his visitors and quickly fell asleep. A photographer quietly walked in and took some photographs of the German giant snoozing on the bottom bunk. The floor creaked under foot, but Schnuelle did not stir.

OTHERS PASS BY

While he was napping, the dogs teams of mushers Jeff King from Denali Park, Mitch Seavey from Sterling and Hugh Neff from Skagway slipped by one after the other. Neff, who spends a lot of time running dogs just across the border from Skagway in the Yukon, cruised by without even noticing his Canadian buddy's sled tucked back in the trees next to the cabin.

"He traveled a long way without a break," Neff later observed.

By the time, Schnuelle woke up after his hour and a half nap, Neff was well down the trail past King, who had stopped to feed his team at Old Woman Cabin, another BLM structure 10 miles west. Schnuelle started getting ready to give chase.

By 3 p.m., he was back outside again in the bitter cold, feeding his dogs before hitting the trail. Keeler pulled his snowmachine into the U-turn snowmachine driveway. And Schnuelle's visitors got ready to leave the seldom-visited, spruce-log building a long way from anywhere that becomes something of an Iditarod paradise for two weeks each year.


Find Daily News sports reporter Kevin Klott at adn.com/sports/kklott or 257-4335.

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