Iditarod rookie's first 'Steps' a doozy

Kevin Klott
Nancy Yoshida tends to her team at the Rainy Pass checkpoint of the Iditarod Trail on Wednesday morning after scratching from the race.
MARC LESTER / Anchorage Daily News
Nancy Yoshida's team rests March 11, 2009, in the otherwise empty dog lot at the Rainy Pass Iditarod checkpoint on Puntilla Lake.
MARC LESTER / Anchorage Daily News
Yoshida tends to one of her dogs; one dog was still missing March 11, 2009
MARC LESTER / Anchorage Daily News

RAINY PASS -- Life looked so good to 58-year-old Nancy Yoshida when she led her dog team away from Finger Lake a couple days and about 200 miles into the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race.

Ahead to the north, the mountains of the Alaska Range loomed in picture-book beauty. She'd just finished a yummy bowl of homemade ice cream from the Winterlake Lodge, where the kitchen is overseen by a chef trained at Le Cordon Bleu. And her dog team appeared strong, happy and enthusiastic.

Everything was perfect. Eleven years she'd toiled in pursuit of her Iditarod dream, and now it was coming wonderfully true.

Little did Yoshida know how quickly things can change along the Iditarod Trail.

Little could she guess that only miles down the trail at a notorious dip misnamed the Happy River gorge, her dream would turn into a nightmare.

"I had a step disaster," she said when she finally made it to this checkpoint more than 24 hours later to quit the race. The 30-mile run that took her so long had taken everyone else less than four hours.

But then again, none of them had come to the sort of crashing stop that crushed Yoshida's dreams near the top of the three switchbacks that step down a series of cliffs to the frozen Happy River. Yoshida's crash destroyed her dogsled, and in the confusion that followed Nigel got loose from her team and ran away. A hunt for the big, white husky was continuing along the trail Wednesday.

The last time Yoshida saw him was Tuesday morning when he came running down the steps in front of Colorado musher Kurt Reich's lead dogs. Yoshida grabbed a handful of dog food and called for Nigel, but he didn't come.

"He was pretty shook by the whole thing," Yoshida said. "I tried everything (to catch him). I'm sure he'll show up. He'll smell us on the trail, hopefully, and follow us."

Nigel wasn't the only one shaken by what happened along the stretch of trails mushers refer to simply as "The Steps." Yoshida, an occupational therapist who runs the Reach for the Sky kennel in Thompson, N.D., was pretty well rattled too.

She recounted how her problems began about 20 miles out of Finger Lake when her sled slammed into a deep trench with such force the right runner broke off.

She stopped, she said, and thought about turning back, but decided that her broken sled would make it difficult to pass the teams coming behind her on the single-lane trail.

She remembered thinking, "I can't steer. We'll just keep going."

She knew that in 2007 on the way to becoming the first musher ever to win the Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race and the Iditarod in the same year, Fairbanks' Lance Mackey not only made it down the steps on a sled with one runner; he made it all the way to McGrath, another 150 miles on.

"If Lance Mackey can do it, I (can go) to Rainy Pass," Yoshida said. "If only I was Mackey's age and his ability."

She isn't. Her team only made it as far as the first, sharp, left hand turn at the Happy where Yoshida's sled lurched off the trail, over a cliff and into a tree.

"I was gone," she said. "The sled was jammed. We weren't moving."

In shock, Yoshida wallowed frantically through waist-deep snow to crawl back up to the trail. She unhooked dogs from the sled's gangline and tied them to trees along the trail. She knew a half dozen teams were close behind, and she didn't want them to run into her wreck blocking the way.

By the time Lou Packer from Wasilla and Alan Peck of Eagle River arrived with their teams, Yoshida had the situation somewhat under control, but working in the snow had left her wet and cold, and she was depressed. Packer and Peck pitched in to help. The cut down some trees and got a roaring fire going.

"This axe of yours is no good," Packer told her.

Yoshida explained it wasn't her ax. It belonged to her mentor, Iditarod veteran Vern Halter, who said before the race, "It's lighter, you should take this one."

As Yoshida warmed herself, Packer went over the embankment next to the trail, kicked her sled out of a tree, and wrestled what was left of it back up the hill. Together, he and Peck helped hook up Yoshida's dogs -- eight of hers, seven of Halters and one from Nenana musher Aaron Burmeister -- so they could jockey down the trail.

In fear of crashing again, however, Yoshida decided she'd only hook up 13 dogs. She left three tethered to trees, including Nigel, her powerful and sometimes wayward male.

"I would never get down the hill with (Nigel)," Yoshida said. "I'd been upside down 16 times."

Sans Nigel, Yoshida, Packer and Peck managed to move everything and everyone down onto the lowest tier of the steps. Yoshida went back for the other three dogs. She set them free and expected them to follow her back to the sled. But Nigel didn't follow.

Packer walked up the steps to find Nigel. He found the dog, but Nigel bolted farther up the hill, Yoshida said. She decided to camp and wait for Nigel until dawn. It was lonely and a little scary.

After wolfing down some beef stroganoff and chugging back some melted snow that had spruce needles floating in it, Yoshida realized she had only two bottles of alcohol left, which wouldn't be enough to fire her dog cooker to melt snow for her and the team for another night.

"(But) it's not like you can just call up 911 and say, 'Hey, drop me somebody here.'" she said. "There are other people much more important than me.

"So you just have to depend on yourself, dig deep and find whatever it is that allows you to go on."

Yoshida thought about her 19-year-old son, Michael, a receiver on Wesleyan College football team in Connecticut who always told her not to quit.

"I could hear him saying, 'Mom, get up and get going,'" Yoshida said as tears rolled down her wind-battered cheeks. "So that's what I did.''

She said she was thinking "if I land in a tree again so be it. I'll have to set the woods on fire and they'll come and put it out and find me."

Luckily that wasn't necessary. She went only a few miles before she saw snowmachine lights coming at her. It was a rescue team, the second, sent out from Perrin's Rainy Pass Lodge. The first had gotten stuck in deep snow and then needed to be rescued after a woman got her foot caught in the suspension of a snowmachine trying to get out of that snow.

Snowmachiners Jenna Pereira and Chase Perrins, however, made it through. Pereira cheered up Yoshida with a bottle of vitamin water, while Perrins gave Yoshida a pep talk.

"We have to rescue people at the steps all the time," he told Yoshida.

By 10 p.m. Tuesday they had her at the lodge in the time for leftovers of ham, corn and potatoes.

"I am happy to be here," Yoshida said. "I can't tell you how happy.

"Doing (the Iditarod) isn't all about winning. It's about dealing with what you get.

"I'm happy to experience this," she said. "(But) I don't know if I'll ever get to try it again. I volunteered (on the trail) a couple of times.

"Maybe that's the way to experience it all."

She confessed the nightmare might finally have killed that dream so many have of running the Iditarod. She said she was mainly sorry for her dog team, which she thought had earned the right to go on a jaunt to Nome. And she was worried about Nigel, knowing about the only thing that could make the nightmare worse would be losing a friend along the trail.

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

Audio slide show: Yoshida discusses the wreck
Live standings: Musher leaderboard
Mushers' current standings
By KEVIN KLOTT
kklott@adn.com