McGRATH, Alaska — Rookie Travis Beals stood on the plastic-wrapped steps at this riverside checkpoint Wednesday night, telling his mother the story of his Iditarod initiation.
It all started, he said, when he left Rainy Pass and fell asleep while listening to Kid Rock.
Beals, 21 doesn't know exactly when he dozed off, he said in an interview. He woke to blackness.
"I had no headlight on," Beals said, referring to the lamp that mushers wear around their forehead to light the trail. It had somehow disappeared. His sled had tipped over too, yet the dogs kept running, bouncing the musher down steep trail that felt like he was spilling down the side of a mountain.
"I was dragging. Boosh! Boosh! Boosh! I couldn't see anything," Beals said.
It would be a few moments before he realized where he was: Careening down the infamous Dalzell Gorge.
Although this is his first trip across the 1,000-mile trail, Beals has imagined himself racing the Iditarod since he was 3 years old.
After a flood forced him to evacuate his Seward kennel in the fall, competing in the race is stretching his young family's savings, he said at the ceremonial start.
Building a career as an Iditarod finisher can boost off-season tour businesses for mushers. For Beals, it would punctuate a lifetime of daydreams.
"Obviously rookie of the year would be awesome," he said at the ceremonial start. "But the goal is Nome."
The early stages of the race went smoothly, he said. The feared Happy River Steps, a series of switchbacks that lead into Rainy Pass, were a cinch. "I got to the last one and I thought it was the first one," he said.
By the time he reached the Gorge, Beals hadn't slept for at least 30 hours.
"I just passed out and started going down. (The trail) had flattened out for awhile. I was like, 'Oh, I can take a little catnap here,' " he said.
When his eyes snapped open, it was pitch black. "I was pinned between my tail dragger and my sled," Beals said. He saw the canyon wall surrounding him and understood where he was.
"Holy crap," he thought. "This is not good."
Beals began thumbing songs on his iPod, the soft white light of the screen revealing his sled enough for him to find a back-up headlamp.
"Kid Rock saved me," he said.
"(I) grab my headlamp out, get that put on, get my sled flipped back up. And then continued down the mountain," Beals said.
"It was pretty fun."
Holding an unlit Marlboro in the McGrath musher hall, 67-year-old Wasilla racer Rudy Demoski Sr. said he started the race with a rookie mistake.
A veteran of four Iditarods, including the second-ever race in 1974, Demoski said he made a long run to Skwentna without rest, overheating his dog team.
Experience is paying off in other ways, however, as the Anvik-raised musher looks to correct his pace. Unlike many mushers, Demoski said he's not relying on a GPS in his sled to gauge his mile-by-mile speed along the trail.
"It's all in the vault," he said, pointing to his ball cap.
Back of the pack feels the heat
Richie Diehl of Aniak is having trouble getting his dogs to eat their turkey skins and beef fat. Another Iditarod rookie, Mike Ellis of Two Rivers, rested his furry Siberian huskies for 10 minutes out of every hour on Tuesday, allowing the big dogs to roll and twist in the cooling snow.
Relatively low temperatures have slowed several in the back of the pack, with mushers reporting longer rests and shorter runs to beat the heat.
"They're a little bit picky and finicky," Diehl said early Wednesday morning as he coaxed a husky to try some salmon. The dog turned his nose.