Tom Thurston is a four time Iditarod runner. When he races, his dogs are his top priority.
Memoirs from Tom’s dog sled racing days in 2009
For several years Tom paid his dues, working with dogs, establishing a kennel and breeding dogs to create an ideal dog sled team. The ultimate focus of all this work was the Iditarod. Throughout the years there were moments of bliss and moments of what seemed to be countless challenges, but in the end he persevered. Tom was finally ready to face the Last Great Race on Earth. The moment of truth was at hand and the final training season before the race was upon him.
The season began with four-wheeler training that included 18 yearlings and 14 adult dogs. This was Tom’s first season training mostly yearlings so he started the first Saturday in August. For the first month, the yearlings ran with a few older seasoned lead dogs who were willing to tolerate total pandemonium. Imagine hooking up dogs who do not quite understand what they are supposed to do but they do understand that they are powerful, energetic athletic specimens who are just entering adulthood and have all sorts of raging hormones. At first they aren’t sure whether they should fight the dog next to them, hump them or just see how tangled they can get in their necklines and gang lines. It is amazing to watch. What is even more amazing is that after just a few hook-ups and runs they figure out what they are supposed to do and completely focus on the task at hand. This is when pulling becomes their passion. The natural instincts that have been breed into these dogs for centuries takes over and before long the only struggle becomes trying to control their power.
The following are Tom’s account of his race preparation.
A couple of times a year the dogs decide to take off down the side of a steep hill or into a ditch resulting in the four wheeler flipping sideways and me hanging on. I have had to bend my handlebars back into place on my four-wheeler many times and this early season was no exception. I carry two water cans and dishes with me so I can make sure the dogs are hydrated during the run. The weather usually stays pretty warm in early fall so keeping them hydrated is critical for their well being. Even though I know the young pups need to stop and drink along the way, they are often not convinced that stopping is ever a good idea. Anytime we do stop they bark and bang in their harnesses wanting to go. Today was probably the 15th or 20th time I had hooked them up and I got a little careless, parking the four-wheeler close to the edge of the trail. As I was filling up dishes with water the dogs started dragging the four -wheeler away. Because I had both brakes locked, it started to skid sideways. I jumped on, trying to release the brakes but I wasn’t fast enough. The four-wheeler and I rolled down a fifteen foot high hill to come to our final resting place on my rib cage. I was completely shaken, but not the dogs who thought this was great fun and started to drag the four wheeler upside down through the ditch. I jumped up and chased them down, having to run – that is how powerful they are. They were going 10+ mph dragging a four-wheeler upside down through thick vegetation. Once I regained control I had to figure out how to get back up the hill. From rolling three times, the engine was flooded and I could not get it to start. Each time the dogs would turn up the hill they would pull me so that I was side-hilling and I would roll back down. After about five times we finally made it. I had lost the water and the dishes but we kept going. Fortunately I was able to collect all of my things on the way back home. The dogs were unaffected by the whole adventure but I can’t say the same for four-wheeler, not to mention the pain I felt for a few weeks. Eventually, though, the dogs figure out that water breaks are a good thing and they are happy to stop. By the end of September we were training all of the dogs and runs were becoming more predictable.
October is when we begin to step up our training. The dogs are both experienced and ready for longer runs. During this time in our training we increase the frequency of our runs to see which dogs have what it takes to be race dogs. Over the past two months we have evolved from absolute chaos to legitimacy. Every dog knows, understands and is willing to do what is expected of them. This year we decided to break up training a little and travel to Montana for two weeks. We headed up to Lincoln where we stayed at a remote campground that backs up to the same trails we have raced in the past. The terrain is great, there is a lot of shade and water and very few people. By leaving home we break up the monotony of the same old trail and have a chance to teach the young dogs how to travel and how life works outside the trailer.
I was amazed to see that all the dogs ate as usual from day one. This is usually one of the biggest challenges in getting dogs used to traveling. The next hurdle is keeping them from using their box as a toilet. This requires frequent drops where they get out of the trailer to go potty. The more consistent I am, the quicker they learn to hold it knowing that before long I will give them the chance. This makes my life easier as I am the one who has to clean all of the nasty straw out when they do not wait. One of my goals for this trip was to teach the dogs to free drop. This is when you let them outside of the trailer loose so they can go potty. When they are finished, conceivably, they will load themselves back into the trailer. This saves tons of time and back work for me. Until then I unhook each dog, walk them out to the staked out lines, then walk back to get another dog. When they are finished I repeat the process in reverse. Since I travel with 39 dogs, I lose about an hour each time I need to let them out for twenty minutes. If I can get them trained, I’ll save about 100 hours between now and the time I return from the Iditarod.
How we train for this is we clip a reliable stick around an older dog and attach him to a younger dog. When they go to run off, I call the older dog and they in turn teach the young dog to come. This is great in theory. What I found was it worked too well. I would let a dog out one door and when I would try to let another dog out, the first dog would run around and come back in the other door and try to jump back in their box. The only problem with that is they would not have stayed out long enough to go potty. I figured I would outsmart them by only having one door open at a time. That resulted in a traffic jam of dogs jumping right back in with dogs I was trying to let out. In the end about half of them figured it out and the other half I just transported back and forth.
The training, however, went well. The dogs were loving the new trails and I was loving all of the intersections where we could practice turning on command with my young leaders. The trails we normally train on have only one or two intersections depending on which way we go. These trails have five to ten depending on which way you go.
After the first week we left Lincoln and headed up to Olney Mt. to visit some friends, Katie, Brook and Sean.
Katie and I have been friends for a while and she is a musher who finished the Iditarod using Doug Swingley’s yearling dogs. She finished with fifteen dogs, which is quite a feat as dogs often get injured or catch colds along the way and have to be sent back to Anchorage for care until the race is over. I was able to train right out of their years and had all the amenities of home. The best part for me was Sean helped every evening with my chores. After caring for thirty dogs out of a trailer by myself for a week I was more than happy to have some help and human companionship. With a couple of beers in us conversation always reverted to our passion and affliction with sled dogs.
The trails from their house were great. Lots of little hills, big puddles for the dogs to cool off in and drink out of and even a few creek crossings. This was great training for the dogs. At home there is not a lot of water on our trails but in Alaska there was a good chance we would see a lot of open water. After a week of training up there it was time to head back home. All in all our two week trip was a huge success and a lot of fun. The young dogs were maturing rapidly and things for the race were really shaping up.
Stomach bugs and vaccinations
Keeping the dogs healthy is obviously a priority for me. Each dog is vaccinated for rabies every 3 years. Every year they are treated for Distemper, Corona, Parvo and Liptus and every other year they are vaccinated for kennel cough. Despite the precautions I take there is always something that is bound to come up. After returning home from Montana I noticed the dog’s stool was loose and runny. Once I started to think about it, my stomach had been hurting quite a bit as well. This went on for about a week and it only seemed to get worse. I was in a great deal of pain from two weeks of traveling as well as whatever was going on in my gut. I brought a few of the dog’s stool samples to the vet. Turns out they and I had Giardia. All those puddles and creeks we loved in Montana were haunting us now. We had to put all the dogs on a 10-day protocol of medicine. Within 24 hours they showed signs of improvement. After that I figured I better take care of myself. I went to my doctor who put me on a 7-day protocol as well. I also started to feel better right away. Then after a few days my head started to pound and my stomach cramps were getting worse not better. I finally decided to read the pamphlet they gave me with the prescription. After reading about the drug and the side effects, it was obvious I was experiencing normal side effects. I wasn’t sure which was worse, the Giardia or the side effects from the medicine. I hoped things would be better soon. Because I was taking the same medicine as the dogs, I had great empathy for what they were going through.
Finally everything was back to normal and the Giardia was behind us, or so I thought. Then it started. First there was a little clearing of the throat that evolved into a cough, which made its way through the kennel. All in all the kennel cough outbreak lasted for 6 weeks. This was super frustrating and nerve wracking. You cannot push your dogs or expect them to make gains in training when they are fighting a cold. I was forced to lay the dogs off until they recovered, about two weeks per dog. During that time I kept training to a minimum for the other dogs knowing they wold most likely be sick soon. Just like with the flu vaccine for humans, the kennel cough vaccine in dogs does not cover every strain of the virus. This illness kept the dogs and me preoccupied through the month of November. By the time the cough cleared the kennel it was time to make the transition from gravel and four-wheel training to snow training. However the weather this year was dry and we had little to no snow so we spent a few more weeks doing four-wheeler training. This helped get the dogs caught back up but at this point in the training I was hoping to be focused on endurance and not power. Four-wheeler training is like lifting weights and we needed some more distance running.
When it comes it doesn’t stop
When I finally made it to snow the dogs were over-muscled and super powerful. Because my 4 wheeler training ran a few weeks over schedule it was important that I stretch the dogs out and get them used to running on powdery snow at a faster speed and for a longer distance. It has always been my belief that what matters most to the dogs is how long they have been away from their houses and not how far we were traveling. So when I transition from doing 2 1/2 hour training runs to going 35 miles on snow in the same amount of time the dogs do not seem to be affected. What affects them the most is the change from the hard surface of gravel roads to the soft early season snow in December. I do not know any mushers that look forward to December. The conditions are variable at best. Lots of trail breaking and busting through snow drifts and undefined trails that snow machines and groomers have not yet ventured onto. The good news for mushers is we switch from the seat of a 4 wheeler to the runners of a dog sled.
My plan was to get the young dogs ready to run their first race in early January. The early part of December seemed as though it was never going to snow. Then the skies opened up and it did not stop. I was trying to get the dogs out as much as possible just to keep the trail somewhat open. I did not succeed in that. I think I asked my leaders to break trail more last December than any other year previously. But things were starting to shape up towards the end of the month. In Wyoming they began grooming just after Christmas and I finally had some slightly packed trails. Snow machine activity was picking up and things were looking good.
It was late December and my friend Kris and I were planning our first long run. We were going to run the dogs 46 miles on a very familiar trail. I have trained on this trail no less than 50 times. The first 15 miles went great. I had the dogs traveling at an easy 9mph pace and everyone looked great. We started up a five mile section of switchbacks and steep climbs and the yearlings seemed to have as much power as my adults did last season. We topped out and headed down the other side where there is a trail intersection. Here we start to head back to the truck. It had been dark for about an hour and my headlamp was leading the way. We began a short climb that took us into a tight forest where the dogs have historically picked up the pace because they love the area. All of a sudden I see some reflectors and I am trying to figure out what it is I am looking at. As we got closer I noticed more reflectors and quickly discovered that we were in the middle of a logging camp.
The trail instantly changed from snowpack to frozen gravel. I could not stop the team and had no control. Kris was far enough behind me that I could not warn him so he was on his own. The dogs went into a full-out sprint. My brakes were useless on the frozen gravel. I was standing on the brake with both feet and sparks of metal were flying off the ground. I knew that we had an intersection about 2 miles ahead and I was hoping the dogs would take my command to turn and that the loggers had not plowed the next trail. Well, my dogs listened but the trail was plowed and that meant at least five more miles of gravel until the next intersection. By this time I was getting concerned. We were traveling at least 15 miles per hour and the runners on the plastic sled were getting thin, plus there was not a whole lot left for me to brake with. We got to the next intersection and no relief. but I knew that in two more miles the trail would split and we could take a narrow trail up a hill. There was no way anyone was plowing that trail. I was right, they had not plowed the next trail but instead had piled up the snow four feet high and I had to convince my dogs to leave the hard packed frozen gravel road that had been so easy to run on and jump up over a four foot snow bank to go up a trail that was bottomless because virtually no one had been on it this year. I yelled Gee and out of sheer brilliance and loyalty, my dogs dove up and over the bank. As soon as my sled and I cleared the bank I stopped to survey the damage. My runners were down to the aluminum and my brake was broken but the dogs were unaffected and screaming to get going. I tied them off to a tree and walked back to the intersection to pack it out a little so Kris might have less of a challenge. After about 10 minutes it was time to go. The dogs busted trail for the next four miles until we regained the outbound trail and headed back to the truck.
The next morning I contacted the Forest Service to inquire about the plowing and the lack of signage warning the uninformed backcountry traveler. I was informed those trails would be plowed all winter and even more were likely. Basically all my favorite training grounds were useless for the rest of the season.
I don’t care who you are or where you live or what kinds of dogs you have. If you are a distance dog musher you are an expert in overcoming adversity because this sport is merciless and plays no favorites. So we adapted to the situation and began training on different trails. The groomer was still a few weeks away from beginning any trail maintenance. This was fine because we were heading to Seeley Lake in two weeks for a 300-mile race and by the time we returned the trails would be in.
Seeley Lake Slush
I slogged through the trails and made it up to Seeley Lake to run our first race of the season and what was to be the first race for most of the dogs in the team. I made it up there a week early and had planned a camping trip with a few other mushers. We left early Tuesday morning after a night of heavy snow and blizzarding conditions. Our plan was to run 50 miles to Dry Creek and camp for the night then continue on another 50 miles to Lincoln. This was the first 100 miles of the race we were to run the coming weekend. We planned to run 5 hours, rest eight and run five more. Within fie miles of leaving the truck we knew it was going to be a long day. We left the freshly groomed trail which was very soft and began to break trail through literally 4 feet of untraveled trail. It was slow, real slow! After eight hours we finally reached Dry Creek. This is where we planned to camp but on the way over we though it would be better to make the seven mile climb up Huckleberry Pass before stopping. It was snowing heavily, like two inches an hour heavy. When we got to Dry Creek it was obvious that we were not going up Huckleberry Pass. There was four plus feet of unbroken snow and the climb is steep. We decided to call some friends to bring our dog trucks to the White Tail Ranch and pick us up. We fed the dogs and put down some bedding. by the time we got them loaded in the truck four hours had gone by and there was ten inches of new snow on our dog sleds. They were buried and we had made the right decision.
The snow kept coming for the next 24 hours and then it began to rain. It rained for the next two days and the race officials had no choice but to cancel the race. We loaded back up and headed home. Basically I just lost a week of training and more importantly, missed our opportunity to teach the young dogs about racing. Fortunately it was only early January and the Iditarod would not be starting for another two months.
After returning home our training took a turn for the better. The trails I liked best were being traveled more frequently and the run from Columbine to Encampment was better than I have seen it in eight years. Kris let me use his Snow Cat to make a thirty mile trail starting out of his tour kennel. I put loops in the trails so I could get a 45-mile run in without leaving town. The dogs looked way better and much happier than they looked in December and it was all starting to come together.
A Five Day Detour
I left Columbine around 6 p.m. to run the dogs up to Encampment, WY on a beautiful, clear night with the temperature sitting just right. This is a 40-mile run and it usually takes the dogs just over four hours. We had a spectacular run. The trail was in excellent condition and the dogs were having fun. I stood on the brake the entire way over to keep the dogs from pushing themselves too hard. During the Iditarod we would be traveling around 8 mph. I saw no benefit to traveling much more than 9 mph during training. The dogs and I got to camp just after 10 pm and everything went like clockwork. The young dogs were starting to resemble professional athletes. Every dog ate on cue and they all settled down when I put straw down for bedding. Within 45 minutes of getting to camp I was ready to climb into my sleeping bag. My plan was to rest for eight hours and then head back to the truck at 6 a.m. After about an hour I woke up and as usual when I wake up I shine my headlamp on the team to check everyone out. Well, while scanning the team I only counted 15 dogs. So I checked again. I was missing a swing dog. Oh no! Darla was gone. I jumped out of my bag and ran up to see if I for some reason I just wasn’t seeing her. She was gone. There wasn’t a single track. The cold night on a hard packed trail gave me nothing to work with. All I could figure was she ran back to the truck. I turned on my cell phone knowing that it was a waste of time because it never works up here but it did. I called my wife, Tami, who was at our house 1:45 minutes away from the trailhead where I was parked and told her Darla was missing. She loaded up the kids and headed for the truck. I told her it would take me four hours to get there but hopefully she could get there before Darla.
I scrambled to get our things together and stuffed everything into the sled. I took off after only having let the dogs rest for 2 1/2 hours. I wasn’t sure how the dogs were going to look. They did just fine and we made record time back to the truck: 3 hours and 15 minutes. But no Darla. Now what? My family and I stayed at the trailhead all night hoping that Darla would show up in the morning. When the sun came up we had six inches of fresh snow and no Darla. I called Kris and he brought up two snow machines. We headed out looking for her tracks. After 150 miles of snowmobiling we found nothing. Tami was at home making phone calls. She notified the local snow mobile clubs in both Colorado and Wyoming. She also called the all of the surrounding houses, the sheriff, the radio stations and the local hangout and mercantile in Encampment, The Trading Post. I stayed another night at the trailhead. That night I received a call from Corey Nunn with the Encampment Search and Rescue. He saw a bulletin at the Trading Post in Encampment and informed me that he and a few men would go out and look for her in the morning. The next day came and no new news but there was two feet of fresh powder to contend with.
A Five Day Detour (Continued)
Kris returned with two friends, Chris Haight and Bob Alberteeni. The four of us headed out again on snow machines. We turned back to Encampment where we searched in every direction from where we originally camped. I called Corey from the trailhead where we turned around that night but they had also come up empty. The four of us decided to head back to the truck. By the time we got there it was well after dark. I had to get some sleep so I loaded up and headed for home. About five miles away I got cell phone reception and a new message popped up on my phone. It was Corey. He had called back five minutes after I talked to him earlier. Darla was sighted about six miles from where we were earlier on snowmobiles. I could not believe it. When I called Tami, she was already on her way to meet Corey. By truck, Encampment is 3.5 hours away. At this point I had had slept less than four hours in three days. I drove through a blizzard over a pass and through North Park. I was determined to get there to set my mind at ease that Tami had Darla back. Through a few broken cell phone conversations I was told that the Search and Rescue guys were following Darla down the highway headed towards Tami. I was optimistic. When I finally made it to Encampment there was no Darla. No one had seen her for 45 minutes. Being followed, she had run off scared into the endless fields of snow-drifted sage and grass. This was just before midnight and my hopes of getting some sleep were fading. We spent the entire night driving up and down the highway where she was last spotted. We searched the entire next day and well into the night. We all needed some sleep so I hopped into the back of Tami’s car with Tami and my girls where we all curled up. Just before I started to nod off, Tami said Happy Anniversary. This was our 15th wedding anniversary. Not exactly a romantic night out.
The next morning we searched again but there was no sign of her. My hopes of finding her were fading quickly. With a heavy heart I made the decision to head back home. I had not been home for four days. When I got there I called every rancher within 50 miles of where she was last seen as well as the Humane Society and the Sheriff’s office in three different counties. I called a local helicopter pilot and a pilot out of Saratoga, WY who had a small plane and contracts out to find cattle. Both pilots were on hold until the weather broke. There had been almost four feet of fresh snow since Darla disappeared and I was worried sick.
Darla is no ordinary dog. She is my main leader and the only dog in my team that has completed the Iditarod. She finished three times with Doug Swingley, finishing in second place in 2006. Besides that, she is a super dog and I was counting on her showing me and the rest of the team the way to Nome during the Iditarod.
That night before supper I got a call from Nick Jameson, a rancher outside of Encampment. One of his men said they had seen Darla earlier that day holed up in a barn on a ranch that was only used during the summer. He was out feeding cattle and his dog rousted her. I got back in my car and twelve hours later I found her still hiding out in the barn. Surprisingly she looked great. She was a little dehydrated and happy to see me but had no injuries. Thanks to the overwhelming support of our fiends and community, Darla was back home!
Drop Bag Dilemmas
By the end of January I had to have all of my supplies for the Iditarod in Helena, MT. That was less than three weeks away. My original plan had been to have everything ready prior to December 1st. January 23rd arrived and I hadn’t even begun to get organized. The good news was I had made a complete and thorough list of everything I wanted to ship out. Now I just had to put it all together. There was no way to do this alone. The amount of supplies needed for a race of this length is overwhelming. Kris and his crew out at Grizzle-T cut and packaged all of my dog food. Tami sewed up face masks, made countless lat minute supply runs and the girls bundled and packaged the booties that the kids fromSouth Routt Elementary School had signed for me into ziplock bats with 16 pairs per bag. I vacuum-sealed all of my food, socks, change of clothes and extra bootliners. By the time we were ready to start putting supplies into the checkpoint bags we had a mountain of supplies occupying our kitchen, living room and dining room. Between putting all the supplies together, keeping the dogs trained, working and trying to be a father and husband I was done. Tami and the girls were done. We had nothing left and our attitudes were bad. We sealed up all of the drop bags reluctantly knowing that once everything was sent out there was no way to add or change anything. After two weeks of hard work everything was complete.
This was my first attempt at the Iditarod and preparations were nerve wracking. I loaded up the trailer and hauled all of my supplies up to Helena, where everything was loaded into a freezer truck. I wouldn’t see my supplies again until I was on the trail. Trying to juggle so many things was hard. My energy was low and I was questioning the whole deal. Why was I doing this to myself, my family and friends? Trying for the Iditarod was too much to handle. I couldn’t see the light at the end of the tunnel. The end goal was too far away and I was losing the drive to get there. The dog sled I promised myself I would build in July was still not built. I had three more weeks of training and I had to drive 3,700 up to Anchorage. How was I going to pull all of this off? Oh yeah, I also failed to mention that once I got to Anchorage, I had to drive a dog sled team 1,100 miles across Alaska in the middle of winter.
AK or Bust
We took one task at a time and by February 20th I was packed up and ready to go. Some friends had planned a going away party for me that night. The following morning John and I were leaving The party was a blast. I could not believe the turnout. I was quite emotional knowing that so many people were supporting me on my journey to Nome. There were people there I had known for a long time, new friends, sponsors and folks I had never met at all. They all expressed admiration, support and enthusiasm. It was a perfect departure. John and I stopped in Lincoln for a day to do a training run and to get any last minute advice from Doug. He had already seen my schedule and list for my drop bags, which he felt were quite reasonable. When he saw the clothes I was bringing, however, he did not approve. The conditions in Colorado are quite different from what I would see during the Iditarod. After rummaging through his closet, he came up with four pieces of clothing. He said a pair of underwear and these would do. It was gear that I was familiar with but was not a big fan of because I found that clothing to be too warm for my normal training conditions. I shut my mouth because I was not about to give my inexperienced opinion to a four time Iditarod champion. So I took his gear and ended up wearing it throughout the race. I was thankful I had it!
After hanging out with the Swingleys and completing a training run we headed North to Canada. I had brought two dogs with me that I was selling to a friend, Rick Wannamaker outside of Calgary, Canada. We met with him just off the highway, which was convenient for both of us. He lives only ten miles from where I pulled off. He took the dogs and gave me some spending money. I actually ended up selling six dogs just before the Iditarod to help fund the race.
Finally we were officially on our way. No more rendezvous, no more visits, just me, John, twenty dogs and the road.
The festivities begin in downtown Anchorage. The Ceremonial Start takes racers through the heart of the city. Spectators line both sides of the street for ten miles. Some friends of mine from back home had come to help me and see all the work and preparation come together. The day after the Ceremonial Start we headed up to Willow for the official start. This is when the race really begins. Here spectators line up on both sides of the trail. I was amazed by how many folks were out there cheering on the mushers. There were fans set up with fire pits, barbecues and tents for the first 35 miles until we reached Yentna Station. The challenges of preparing for this awesome event were over and the race was finally on The trail was soft, the temperatures were a little warm as we weaved through lakes and rivers until we finally made our way to the first checkpoint. After bedding down the dogs and feeding them their first meal of the Iditarod I went through my routine dog inspection. I check all the major muscle groups, feel their feet and check the color of their gums for signs of dehydration. I was not not expecting to find much of this so soon into the race but I like to stick to my routine. I was surprised to find that Owl, a two-year-old male and one of my favorite power dogs, had a sore right shoulder. I was fully expecting this dog to make it to Nome. I mean he had been a real super star all season long. I took him for a walk a half hour before we were planning to leave and he was still favoring his shoulder. 35 miles into a 1,100 mile race and I was already dropping a dog. This was a huge mental blow for me. I decided that leaving him behind was in his best interest because I did not want him to have a permanent injury. He would have many more years to prove himself. So after being the first person in the race to drop a dog, I moved on to the next checkpoint. Owl was flown back to Anchorage and Tami had him less than 12 hours after I dropped him. I found out later that he was barking, running around and showing no signs of injury in a very short time. I should have probably given him a ride to the next checkpoint and assessed him there. He may have finished.
The Race Continues
Skwentna was another 35 miles up the river. This is where racers get off the river and begin to climb up and over the Alaska Range. I was feeling a little beat up and tired already. I felt as though I was not on top of my game like I usually am during a race. I tried to get some sleep inside the hospitality cabin but I couldn’t fall asleep. I struggled my way through chores and set out on the trail to Finger Lake. When I took off I asked the checker what the distance of the next section of the run was. I was told it was really similar to the run we just made. After about four hours of run time I expected to be close to the checkpoint. The trail was deteriorating rapidly as we made our way into the Alaska Range. After five and a half hours I was wondering if I had missed a turn, or worse, was on the wrong trail. As we anxiously moved forward I caught a glimpse of a dog team in front of me. That was a good sign. I followed that team at a distance for another 45 minutes until we reached the checkpoint. Upon arriving, I asked how far I had just come and was pleased to hear over 55 miles. The checker at the last checkpoint was way off.
During the last 45 minutes of the run to Finger Lake I had made a decision. I decided now was the time to rely on the skills that had gotten me this far in my mushing career. I had to follow my checkpoint routine to a T. No more wasting time going back and forth to gather supplies. I needed to utilize the efficiency that I had relied on for the past four years. I whipped through my chores and the dogs looked good. I had one young female, Stella, who had a sore shoulder but she seemed a lot better after a good massage. I made my way to the tents the Iditarod had set up for us to sleep in and I was out for two and a half hours. When I woke I felt like a million dollars. I drank half a gallon of water as I made my way through the chores and we were off to Rainy Pass.
This is a notorious section of trail. The Happy River Steppes lurk out there waiting to destroy you and your sled. The Steppes consist of four sheer vertical drops that have tight trees and a relentlessly winding trail. The dogs absolutely love these conditions. They look at it like an amusement park for sled dogs. I had been training all winter to keep my dogs steady and under control precisely for this section of trails. All of a sudden my team was gone. It was the first step. So steep that you completely lose sight of your dog team. Jump from the right to the left, stand on the brake, the right, oh no, my feet slipped on the runners so I started running. Jump back on and finally I reached the bottom of the first drop. After three more successful navigations we were were on the Happy River…but only for a mile and then all the elevation we had just lost was ours to gain again. In front of me was a hill of sheer ice. The dogs charged right up it while I just held on. This brought us to the tightest trees I had ever traveled through with a dog team. The climb was long but the dogs had power. They ran right up and through the trees and we arrived in Rainy Pass without any incident. I did notice that Stella was not herself. She didn’t want to eat and her shoulder was still sensitive. I decided to leave her behind. This was my second mistake. I later found out she was just a little tired and a ride in the sled bag to the next checkpoint might have allowed her to see Nome. I shook it off because my routine was still solid and my confidence was starting to build.
The next section of the trail is considered to be the most technically challenging part of the whole race. The trail drops 2,000 vertical feet in three miles. Mushers know this as the Dalzel Gorge. Filled in with vertical drops onto frozen rivers you zig zag across ice bridges down stream trying to avoid open water, tree roots and large granite boulders. Somehow we survived and arrived at the Rohn checkpoint safely.
Onward: From Rohn to Nikolai
While doing chores I noticed Tony was looking a little weak. Tony is one of my main lead dogs. I had not even used him in lead yet. I was saving him for much later in the race. I began to feel panic as I examined him. He had a moist cough and was starting to show signs of dehydration. I took his temperature and he had a slight fever. I notified the veterinarians. Four of them came over to check on Tony. They felt he had early signs of Pneumonia. We collectively decided to put him on antibiotics and check on him in four hours. He showed no improvement so my decision was obvious. I had to leave Tony behind. This was a very difficult decision. I was now down to 13 dogs and was leaving one of my best leaders behind. Chin up as they say. The next section of the run was 100 miles so I planned on camping half way. I loaded up our things and said good-bye to Tony as we headed out onto a frozen gravel trail that led us to the first glare ice of the race. Glare ice is like glass. No snow just ice. Much like a hockey rink. When you are crossing sections of glare ice you look for the scratch marks other mushers have made with their brakes. This is confirmation that you are headed in the right direction. The first 30 miles out of Rohn we encountered a lot of tight trees and glare ice. We had to portage overland and then drop back down onto another river and cross a big lake. Eventually we made our way into the swamps and the interior of Alaska. We camped for 9 hours of which I was able to get four solid hours of sleep. Then we carried onto to Nikolai.
Nikolai to McGrath
Nikolai is a small fishing village. The native folks were generous and very accommodating. From Nikolai the dogs and I traveled another 50 miles to McGrath. This is where we took our mandatory 24 hour rest. I consumed seven meals personally. The dogs at at least five times and we all got plenty of rest. By now the early race jitters were gone and my team and I were operating like a well oiled machine. When we pulled the snow hook and continued on to Takotna, a short 18 mile run, the dogs were full of steam. I think they had more power at that point than they did at the start. The team was getting stronger. You see, up until McGrath these young dogs were not sure what to make of the race. They were starting to feel sorry for themselves and seemed to look at me asking, “Are we going to run forever?” But after a nice 24+ hour break they were ready to go again.
Takotna to Iditarod
We ran through Takotna and made our way to Ophir. This was a 25-mile run mostly uphill. The dogs looked awesome. I expected this section of the run to take 3+ hours. After 2 hours I stopped to give the dogs a little snack. When they were done I pulled the hook and went around the corner and there was the checkpoint. I had stopped 1/2 mile short. We were flying. We stopped in Ophir for six hours before we began our trip to Iditatrod. This was the longest run in the race without a checkpoint – 100 miles. I broke it up into two 50-mile runs. The journey was absolutely beautiful. The night was clear with a big moon. Temperatures dropped to minus 38. The dogs all ate well and settled in. Sable was favoring her front right leg. I clipped her to a leash and took her for a short walk. She was walking on three legs. I started to notice a pattern. Every time something went wrong with a dog I panicked. This time I decided to stay calm, give her a good massage and get some rest. I drank two liters of water, dug a trench and went to sleep. I woke up 2 1/2 hours later. I had slept like a rock. I was warm and well rested. As soon as I got out of my sleeping bag I began to shiver. It was chilly for sure. After running around doing chores I adjusted to the cold and was comfortable in less than 10 minutes. I lightly massaged Sable and stretched her shoulder out then took her for a walk. She was a little stiff but much better. I was optimistic but the first two dogs I had dropped earlier in the race had looked really similar. I knew the next 50 miles was fairly flat so if I needed to put her in the sled bag that wouldn’t be a problem. You cannot drop (leave behind) a dog when you are camped on the trail. That was not an option. We headed for Iditarod around 6:30 a.m. Beautiful trail and beautiful night. I kept a close watch on Sable and kept the team at a slow trot for the first 30 minutes. Sable was looking better and better. once she appeared to be fine I let off the break and let them run. She did not miss a beat. I could not help but think what would have happened if I had done this with Owl or Stella. I had just learned a valuable lesson in dog management on the Iditarod trail. We arrived in Iditarod in good style and good time. When I settled in the staff told me it was a little chillier than I had thought. The temperature had dropped to minus 45 degrees.
Iditarod to Shageluk
Leaving Iditarod we headed to Shageluk. This run was like a roller coaster. We climbed a hill. We went down a hill. Then we climbed another hill and on and on. These hills were not gentle, they were steep with tight trees and usually a frozen creek to cross at the bottom just before climbing back up. We made it to Shageluk just fine, stayed six hours and moved onto Grayling via Anvik. I expected this run to take 5 1/2 hours. 3 hours over to Anvik and another 2 1/2 to Grayling. We flew over to Anvik. We stopped briefly and moved on. Once we left Anvik we dropped onto the Yukon. As soon as we made the drop the wind was instantaneous. I could not believe the effect it had on our speed. This was the first time in the race that I felt as thought we were crawling. I would search for a landmark ahead such as a rock outcropping and then time how long it took to get there. I took a quick glace at my watch. 2 hours had already passed since we were in Anvik. I thought we should be getting close but I could see for at least a mile ahead and I saw nothing but a huge river lined on both sides by a big bank and trees. Another 1/2 hour passed and still no sign of civilization. Then I saw what appeared to be two dog teams. As we moved on, I seemed to be gaining on them, though quite slowly. I thought this was good news because the teams that were in front of me had over a half hour lead when I left Anvik. This could also be bad news if these were teams that had left Grayling, where I was headed. That would mean I had missed the checkpoint. We came around a big bend in the river and I lost sight of the two teams. After about ten minutes I got to where I saw them last. We had been on the trail for 6 1/2 hours now and I was unsure of where I was. We traveled around another bend and there was a village. It was Grayling.
The dogs and I climbed up off the river where we finally had relief from the strong winds that had been blowing directly into our faces. After finally arriving at the checkpoint I started my chores quickly and fed the dogs. Once done with chores I spoke with the mushers who came in just before me. They said they had a great run over. I asked if they thought they were moving slow. They felt they were moving just fine and commented as to how I gained time on them. I explained that was fine but I expected that run to take 5 1/2 hours not 6 1/2. They said they were sure it only took them 5 hours and 45 minutes. I was confused. I pulled out my watch and asked what time they left Shageluk. They both said 8:15 a.m. which was about 45 minutes earlier than when I left. I said it was 4:30 p.m. now and I had been in for about an hour. So that made 6 1/2 hours. Then the truth unraveled. Somehow from the time I had left Anvik to the time I checked my watch I had advanced my clock one hour. All of a sudden I realized I had made the run in just under 5 1/2 hours and my attitude changed completely. This was a classic case of sleep deprivation. I immediately drank a lot of water and lay down to get some sleep. I woke up about 3 hours later. The plan was feed and bootie the dogs then leave by 8:30 p.m. When I went back outside I noticed the wind had picked up and the temperature was dropping rapidly. While I was sleeping another team had turned around and retreated back to Grayling. The musher described a miserable experience.
Several other mushers and I were debating whether we should go out into the storm that night or wait until sunrise. Just then we saw three snow machines coming down the river heading towards Grayling. Three natives arrived shortly after. They said it was at least minus 50 and the wind gusts were 60+ mph. One of the natives said, “You would have to be crazy to head upriver tonight into the wind. It is deadly.” At that time it was decided that no teams would leave until sun up. We all went back to sleep for several hours and ate all the food we had or could find. We finally got going around 10:30 a.m. the next day. After we woke we found it it was minus 40 outside and the wind was blowing harder than it was the night before. None of us rushed to leave. The truth is at that moment I was filled with fear. The weather conditions were severe and a wrong decision could mean permanent and unrecoverable damage for one of the dogs or myself.
Shageluk to Eagle Island
I was the fourth team out of six to leave the checkpoint. We tried to space ourselves out so we would not be right on top of each other. As I dropped down onto the river my stomach went hollow. The wind was unbelievably loud and violent. I was obviously not the only one intimidated by these conditions. The three teams that left in front of me were moving about the speed of molasses. And we were all lined up one after another moving very slowly. My dogs, however, were barking and wanting me to take my foot off the brake. I had to stop repeatedly to keep my distance from the teams in front of me. After about an hour of this we had only traveled a couple of miles. I decided I needed to be the lead team and keep moving. I discussed with with Tim Osmar who was guiding Rachael Sedoris. Tim was the most senior musher. As a matter of fact, he has run 23 Iditarods in a row. His opinion was that my team looked quite impressive and he felt I should go in front and not stop until I got to Eagle Island. He assured me that he was not going back and if I ran into trouble they wold eventually catch me. I was nervous to head out on my own into a storm that was no less than 100 times worse than anything I had ever experienced. However, my dogs did look exceptionally good so we took off. I was instantly traveling at least 2 mph faster than we had been going. Within 25 minutes of running I lost sight of the other teams. That was the last time I saw them for over 24 hours.
I had every piece of clothing with me on. I was all covered up by a wind suit. I had goggles on with a neck gator and my hood cinched down tight. As a standard piece of equipment we all have fur ruffs around our hoods. When you cinch your hood down it tightens the fur around your face. You end up with a 6″ circle of exposed flesh. It gives new meaning to tunnel vision. The wind created an endless supply of 3 to 4 foot snow drifts. They were soft enough to break through but every time the sled traveled through it our momentum slowed. Then the team would ramp back up and another drift would slow us down. The further we went the more frequent the drifts became until they were as close as five feet between drifts and no more than 20 feet apart. There were no distinguishing characteristics on the trail. The whole river looked the same. There was the occasional trail marker that gave me confidence we were headed in the right direction. The river is anywhere from a 1/2 mile wide to two miles wide. Every now and then we came to an intersection where one river feeds into another. In the winter it looks like just another highway of snow. Staying on the Yukon meant staying alive. We traveled for about 2 hours after leaving the group. I stopped the team and fed a quick meal. I had a cooler full of food that I was carrying with me. If you feed quickly the food will not freeze. When I dished it out the food was already a little frozen. By the time I walked to the next dog the food really began to freeze. If the dog did not eat instantly the food froze in less than one minute. I stopped for about a 1/2 hour total. I was kind of dragging my feet because I could see a long way from where I stopped and the winds were blowing 20 to 30 mph. I was hoping to glimpse another dog team coming towards me before moving on. After 30 minutes and no sign I decided it would be best to move on. I could not help but think that if they had not turned around I would surely have seen them after waiting a 1/2 hour. I felt I was alone at that point running up the middle of the Yukon in one of the worst storms in Iditarod history. Time for me to focus and play the tough guy card.
We kept moving. The only piece of information that I had on the trail was that we would be passing by an old barn and few buildings on the left. It was an old camp called a Blackburn. This would be about halfway to Eagle Island. After about 6 hours of being on the trail we passed what I figured was Blackburn. We were about 1/2 of a mile across the river from the buildings. Part of me was excited to see this and know that we must be half way. However, the fact was that we had been running for 6 hours and we were only halfway. I stopped shortly after that in a bend in the river. We were close to shore and the bend was as out of the wind as we were going to get. I fed the dogs again, changed some booties and checked their coats over to make sure they were protected. Dogs can get frostbite in cold conditions. Their genitals are most susceptible so I use fleece blankets that drape across their bellies to protect the. These Belly Bands, as they are called, are replaceable and once they get wet I change them. I wasted no time and once I finished inspecting the welfare of the team we moved on. The dogs looked exceptional considering the environment that surrounded us. They charged forward as if to tell me not to worry, everything was going to be just fine. At that time I promised them we would take a 12 hour rest in Eagle Island and I would make sure everyone ate at least three meals. This young team had already learned to trust me. They knew if and when we made it to Eagle Island I would take good care of them and give them a warm bed of straw to sleep on.
The sun was setting and the light was fading. This is when I realized that the missing trail markers that made it hard to navigate during the day were going to make it next to impossible at night. I didn’t know where we could stop. There would be no benefit to stopping and camping in the wind. We would need to find shelter. No, I was not going to break a promise. Was it me or the dogs that could not make it? As I studied my team it was obvious that I was the weak link at the time and although I had plenty of dog food to spend the night out I did not have any straw for bedding. Why should they sleep without straw? I needed to step up like they have been for me and do what it takes to find the trail and get my team to the checkpoint. I struggled for hours and hours. I would stop and walk up front, shining my headlamp ahead to try and find another trail marker. The tricky part was I would occasionally pick up the reflective tape from a broken marker that had blown across the river. This made for a lot of zig zag patterns. No matter what direction I shone my light all I saw was black. There was nothing to see. Just a wide open river. This went on for about five hours. My dogs were starting to slow down and I was wearing thin. It was not so much that we had been on the trail for 12 hours as it was what we had been doing in that time. I mean a 12 hour run is a really long run but these conditions made it feel more like days.
For the first time since dark I saw some trees. They were about 100 yards to our left. I caught a glimpse of an upright trail marker which was reassuring. I finally started seeing a trail marker every 15 or 20 minutes. Since it had become dark I hadn’t been able to judge my speed. Not having run the race before I had no sense of how far we had remaining to Eagle Island. It was sensory deprivation. I was exhausted. The dogs were starting to want to shut down and I needed to find a place out of the wind to stop. This was no longer about promises and being tough. It was time to stop. As we got closer to the trees I shone my light to look for a spot where we could get up the 10 foot bank onto land. We were only about 40 feet from shore. My dogs were trying to run up the bank. They were ready but there was no way. We needed somewhat of a natural ramp. I searched hard. I stopped several times to walk ahead and find access but I could not find anything. we began going around a bend in the river and all of a sudden I saw about 50 trail markers. What was going on? Was I hallucinating? did some snowmachiner pick up a bunch of trail markers and make a pile? What was this? We traveled directly towards them. This meant the dogs saw them as well. That was a good sign. I was not hallucinating. Once we were about 50 yards away I saw something behind the markers. I t looked like a small tent. It was a sign of life but it certainly did not look like a checkpoint. Someone would have seen my light by now and shone theirs at me.
As we got closer I saw a stack of straw. It was the checkpoint. We had made it. I could not believe the relief I was experiencing, but where was everyone? Why were there no checkers out? I followed the trail or markers into a slew where they had set up a little tent village above us on a hill which separated us from the main river. There were 4 tents but no dog teams and no people. I yelled “Hello.” No answer. Once again I yelled “Dog Team.” Again no answer. I walked up the team and took off their booties. I threw a snack of frozen meat down and yelled again. There must be someone here. Not that it mattered. At that time I had a full box of heet to melt show, a bail of straw to bed the dogs on and my supply bags could not be too far away. I yelled one more time really loud that a dog team had arrived. Finally I heard something and shortly after I saw a light come on inside the tent. I yelled “Is anyone alive up there?” and I heard someone say “I will be right down.” After being in the checkpoint now for at least 20 minutes a checker walked down to greet me. He told me they were not expecting me. They figured I had stopped and camped for the night. I answered with a question ‘Where out there might I do that?” He just looked at me. I explained that we had a tough run over and I wanted to park my team and give them the meal and bedding they deserved. I was a little upset that it took me 20 minutes to get somebody’s attention but I also knew that taking care of my dogs was far more important When he helped me to my parking spot I instantly put straw down. My dogs began to howl and tear into the straw. They were wagging their tales and the checker said to me “Those dogs look awfully good for just running 13 hours in that storm.” I agreed but the true test was was to see how they ate. If you overwork a dog they tend to loose their appetite. This becomes a slippery slope. A dog that does not eat cannot continue to pull. I prepared a warm meal as fast as I could and I was pleased to see them eat like ravenous wolves. By this time the Veterinarians had made their way over from the tent to inspect my team. After a complete inspection they were happy to see empty dog dishes and a healthy looking team. I prepared another meal after seeing them lick their dishes clean and they all ate again. I was relieved and so happy to see these guys finally get some rest with very full bellies. It was no warmer than minus 50 degrees Fahrenheit. I covered each dog with a pile of straw and made my way to get some sleep for myself. After feeding them two meals and giving each dog a good massage there was no reason to bother them until after the sun came up.
Stranded at Eagle Island
I had been in the checkpoint for about two hours and there was no sign of the others. I slept like a rock for six hours. That was the best sleep I had gotten since weeks before the start of the race. It took me about a half hour to wake up and get my eyes open. I felt as though I had slept for days. The sun was up and the place was buzzing with people. There was no less than ten people. I could not help but think that maybe they should run shifts for teams coming in. Oh well. I went out and checked on the dogs. They were all sound asleep and looking good. I prepared one more meal as they woke up and began to stretch out. Not a crumb remaining. At this point we had been in the checkpoint for nine hours and they had eaten three full meals. They were all well hydrated and I could not ask for more. I suddenly realized that the other teams had still not arrived. I asked the checkers if they had heard anything. Turns out one of the teams had turned back to Grayling and the other four were somewhere out on the trail. The wind had calmed a little but not much. They were going to have a plane fly over to see if they could see the other teams. There was one other team in the checkpoint. I had not seen them when I came in and the dogs did not make a sound. I guess they were pretty tired. I was talking with the musher and I explained that I had promised a 12 hour break for the dogs and I planned to deliver. That would put me out of the checkpoint mid afternoon and give me enough daylight to make it most of the way to Kaltag, the next checkpoint. The checkers caught wind of my plan and informed me that no teams would leave until all the teams on the river were into the checkpoint. This had been passed down from the race marshal. So I took each dog for a walk to inspect them and give them a chance to go to the bathroom. They all looked great so I headed back to a tent to get some sleep. I lay down but I wasn’t tired. I was ready to move on. Several hours passed and three of the other teams made it in. I had been there at the checkpoint for 13 1/2 hours. The musher explained his team had camped near Blackburn. Once it had gotten dark out they were having trouble finding the trail and his dogs were shutting down. They had no choice but to camp. If they camped near Blackburn then that meant I had gained at least 1 1/2 hours on them because I had passed Blackburn at least that much time before it had become dark. One of the teams traveling with them could not get his dogs to continue forward so he made a snow shelter and stayed behind where they had camped. He had to be rescued. It was nice to see that he and his dogs were in good shape. A little frost bite but nothing bad. Time was ticking past and I was itching to go but the checkers were still holding us.
Kaltag to Koyuk
We rested for six hours before we headed to Shaktoolik and Norton Sound. The run over was awesome. My dogs looked as good as they did at the beginning of the race, charged up and having fun. We traveled overland to Shaktoolik. About eight miles outside of the checkpoint we exited the trees where the beautiful calm clear night became a strong frigid sidewind. I was not prepared for the wind. I tried to get my wind suit on but the wind was ripping it out of my hands. By the time I reached the checkpoint I was frozen solid. They parked us behind a building out of the wind and I bedded the dogs down. Before I could do anything else the checkers brought me inside and gave me several cups of hot Tang. It was exactly what I needed. Much relieved I went back out to finish chores. I took a six hour rest and moved on to Koyuk. This was where we cross the infamous Norton Sound. A 55-mile run across the ocean. The wind shapes the snow covered sea ice into something that looks like the surface of the moon. The runners of the sled made a squeaking noise that sounded like Styrofoam rubbing against itself.
Way off in the distance I saw land on the horizon. The land, however, never seemed to get any closer. Judging speed was almost impossible. The wind was driving into us from the side, which made keeping the sled straight a challenge. However this was nothing compared to the run from Grayling to Eagle Island. I looked ahead to find a unique snow formation and time how long it took to get there. It seemed as though we were moving around four mph. At that rate it could take us 10 plus hours to get to our next checkpoint. This was a lonely stretch of trail for me. I felt like there was nothing in front of us and nothing behind. There were no trail markers and only my best guess as to where on the horizon the village could be. The last time a dog team had been on this section of trail was two days prior.
My dogs were what I call putting down the scent but had no scent to follow. It is amazing the difference when you have a fresh scent to follow. Eventually I saw a rectangle shape ahead. It was barely recognizable but it looked man-made. We had been running for about four hours and I had no idea how far away shore was. The rectangle slowly got bigger and I could see it was red. It must be a big barn and that meant I was coming into the village of Koyuk. This confirmed that I was heading in the right direction. As we got closer to Koyuk the wind settled and we started to see trail markers again. This was the first time my dogs or I had ever traveled across sea ice. They just stayed after it with their heads down. Within two hours I could see the ramp up onto the shore. We had made it in to the checkpoint in just over six hours.
After Norton Sound
Not bad the checkers told me. Most teams were taking 6 ½ to 7 hours. We settled in and all the checkers and locals were happy to see a dog team again. They all helped me by carrying over my things and making sure I did not need anything else. When I finished up I headed into the community center. I was pleased to find that they had cooked a salmon dinner with veggies and a salad. Even better they had a plate for me. It was delicious.
My plan was to stay 6 hours and move on. However, since I had gotten off the Yukon I was on a goofy schedule that had me running through the night. I decided to stay an extra few hours and get back into a normal schedule. I got a good night’s sleep and we moved on to Elim at 5:30 a.m. The run over was nice. After about three miles of sea ice we went over land to a different bay. Then we dropped back down onto the ice and crossed over to Elim. We stayed in Elim for six hours and moved on to White Mountain. This run introduced the first real climb since before the Yukon. We went up and over one mountain and then another and so on for several hours. I was pleased to see that my dogs had plenty of power and we were moving quite well. We then headed out of the mountains and back down to the sea ice.
We reached the town of Golovin and then we needed to cross Golovin Bay. This was real similar to the run over to Koyuk, wide open with land on the horizon. I looked across and thought ‘wow, this won’t be too bad.’ I now had experience crossing long stretches of ice and was mentally prepared. Apparently the dogs felt the same. Instead of struggling to calculate speed I just sat down and the dogs flew across. We were traveling somewhere around 9mph. I was excited. We pulled into White Mountain looking good. This was the last major checkpoint. We were 77 miles from the finish line and this is where we would take our last eight hour mandatory rest.
Last Great Obstacle
I was quite restless and did not sleep much. Our last great obstacle was ahead as well – the notorious Blow Hole. The Blow Hole is a geographical formation that causes a side wind to rage out of a canyon along the coast. It stretches three miles wide and a calm easy day means it is only blowing 40 mph. The Blow Hole can change from 40 to 130 mph easily in just a short amount of time. Before we got to the Blow Hole we had to go up and over Little McKinley. This is a real mountain with several thousand feet of elevation gain. I lightened my sled by going down to the bare minimum. I was ready to run up the hills and make it to the finish line.
We left White Mountain and within 1/2 hour the climbs began. For the first time in the race I felt as though we were going faster than what we should be. I was confused. Based on my judging we were traveling eight plus mph up the steep climbs. I was barely helping at all. When we started the long decent back down to the coast I had both feet on the brake trying to control our speed. We were traveling faster now than we had the entire race and we were over 1,000 miles into it.
We reached the coast and I could see the Blow Hole ahead. A horizontal cloud of blowing snow was approaching. It looked like a wall and was very well defined and intimidating. When we reached the beach the dogs picked up speed. We were now going 10+ mph. The entire team was loping. Earlier in the race I would never let them run like this but at this point it didn’t matter. We were within 30 miles of the finish line. As soon as we entered into the Blow Hole I crouched down behind the sled and turned my back to the wind. I watched the dogs in amazement. They virtually ignored it. They continued to lope right through as if the Blow Hole didn’t even exist.
We made it across in fine fashion and reached the road that brings us to Safety. As we got closer to Safety it was as if the Blow Hole was following us. In reality a ground blizzard was coming in off the ocean and heading right towards us. I didn’t know what to think watching this wall of blowing snow move rapidly towards us. By the time we reached Safety it was on top of us. The checkers said a half hour ago the skies were beautiful and sunny, not a bit of wind. Not now, I replied. We had to almost yell at each other to hear each other.
We were 22 miles from the finish line and a goal we set over 5 years earlier. As we made our way through the ground blizzard the conditions continued to deteriorate. These were the strongest winds yet. I could not find any trail markers and felt as though I was off course. I stopped the team and tried to look around. At this point the wind was so strong I was having difficulty staying upright. We were heading for what looked like the end of the road and a large rock formation adjacent to the frozen sea. I decided that moving forward was not the way to go and turned the team around until I saw a trail marker. About a mile back there was a broken marker and what appeared to be a trail heading off to the left.
We turned and ended up in this cove that more resembled a meadow. No markers. No trail. I was forced to lead my dogs up a side hill where I could occasionally see snow machine marks. I was hoping this was the trail. At times I had to get on all fours just to keep from blowing over. Because I was in front of the team holding onto the gangline, my sled was doing barrel rolls behind us. As we crested the ridge I saw a giant tripod marker made of logs. Once we were on top I could see tripod markers well off into the distance. We made our way down the other side where the wind was hardly blowing at all. We ran up a lagoon and made our way back to the sea ice that brought us up Front Street and to the finish line.
We had lost over an hour getting lost and trying to stay on the trail. But the dogs and I refused to let our last and maybe greatest obstacle get us down. We persevered right until the end and that made our accomplishment that much greater. The family was there to greet us with a warm welcome. I was the 638th musher to finish the Iditarod. Mission Accomplished!!