(The is the second of two columns about the author’s decision to take on the Iditarod with a couple of hours’ notice after the musher who was supposed to drive the team, wife Zoya DeNure, had a medical emergency the day the race began. Read the first installment here.)
The team left Takotna minus one of my leaders. Nana stayed behind. She was a good leader, one of the best, but she wasn’t a good eater. Sled dogs need to take in 8,000 to 10,000 calories every 24 hours and she wouldn’t do that, and thus was behind the curve on her weight. My 13 dogs left Takotna on the run.
Takotna is a pleasant checkpoint, known to mushers as one of the best hospitality stops on the trail. There is food for mushers and most important, an endless supply of hot water for the dogs.
However, accurate trail information was hard to come by. Iditarod checkpoints are staffed by volunteers. Most of them are from out-of-state, or at least not local. I asked about a shelter cabin located somewhere along the 100-mile run between Takotna and Cripple and received varying answers.
No one told me about the long climb out of Takotna to the next checkpoint at Ophir. My leg kept me from helping the dogs as much as I normally would, but the team made good time in spite of me and was at Ophir in two-and-a-half hours. Ophir checkers told me the shelter cabin was 18 or 23 miles out. It turned out to be 31 miles away.
The country between Ophir and Cripple is as barren as Alaska gets. One set of wolverine tracks and a half-dozen old marten crossings was the extent of life. I wondered what they ate. A six-hour break in Cripple and it was back on the road again en route to Ruby.
There was a fair amount of fat-tire bikers in this section, plus a couple of walkers pulling pulks — all headed to Nome. What possesses someone to walk a thousand miles on a snowmobile trail?
The snow began while I camped halfway to Ruby, making it a slow run. At least I wasn’t pushing a bike. The below-zero temperatures were long gone. I arrived in Ruby wet with soggy snow. My borrowed snow bibs turned out to be waterproof, but the undercoat I had from Zoya’s gear was not. I stayed in Ruby as long as I dared, but the risk of a disappearing trail to Galena had me on the move again.
The team left Ruby strong, buttressed by two of my main leaders, Charlotte and Thunder. They had little trouble finding the trail. A long, slow run put me in Galena. There is an eight-hour mandatory rest stop required of all teams at a checkpoint along the Yukon. The choice of where is up to the musher. Galena, a couple hundred miles beyond Takotna, made sense to me. The dogs were eating and running well in spite of the wet weather. My head was finally getting wrapped around the idea of a 1,000-mile training run. Tugging at the back of my head was Royal’s nagging cough.
The Iditarod says that Nulato is just 36 miles from Galena; in reality it is 10 miles farther than that. Royal left Galena barking. The snow had tapered off and the day looked good. The trail continued soft and punchy, the dogs slowed more that I had expected, but I wasn’t concerned. They ate well on the trail. We had been told that Nulato did not want us in the village because of the coronavirus, but the checkpoint was excellent. There was warm water and a cabin to sleep in. What more could a driver ask?
The dogs didn’t eat on their arrival. They ate the fish I gave them immediately on parking, but most skipped the meal given a bit later. I rested longer than planned and offered more food. The dogs picked at it. Fireball and Chuckie were coughing a bit. Many racing sled dogs will have a cough while resting at checkpoints, something caused by deeply breathing in cold air. This cough didn’t sound like that. I had a vet listen to their lungs. “Clean,” I was told.
The Kaltag checkpoint was a short 35 miles away and we went there quickly on a punchy trail. The dogs all ate on the run, alleviating some of my concerns. Soon after arriving in Kaltag, it was apparent that I had a serious problem. Half of the team ate well, the others did not. I watched teams come and go while I sat for 12 hours. Finally I pulled the hook for Unalakleet and the Bering Sea coast.
The northern lights were bright and wolves howled, but concern for my animals overrode what should have been a magical run. Two my strongest dogs, Chuckie and Betty, pulled me in to Old Woman Cabin, half the distance to the coast. The wet snow began in earnest.
I struggled to get the team into Unalakleet by following musher Damon Ramaker, who very courteously waited for me. The snow turned to rain at the checkpoint, which is about 260 miles from the finish line in Nome. I cared for the dogs the best I was able given the weather. Fourteen hours of resting gave me more coughing dogs. Few of them would eat. It was time.
I had no attachment to finishing the Iditarod. My only concern was the health of the team. The next afternoon, 13 sled dogs were loaded on a cargo plane headed back to Anchorage.
Dogs have no concept of the finish line in a sled dog race. Racing dogs are born to run and will whine to get on the move under almost any circumstance. But the burled arch in Nome means nothing to them. They look forward to moving, and maybe to a pile of straw at the end of a run. In our rush to the Iditarod finish line, we must always keep that in mind.
John Schandelmeier is a lifelong Alaskan who lives near Paxson with his family. He is a Bristol Bay commercial fisherman and a two-time winner of the Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race.