North Wapiti Siberian
April 29, 2001
Finger Lake to Rainy Pass
Finger Lake is a really pretty checkpoint on Iditarod - and very hospitable!!! There was lots of activity there too - dog teams, spectators, media… There was an incredible amount of snow in Finger Lake this year! Race folks had packed down parking spots for the team, but one step off the beaten path would you crashing though the snow up to the top of your thigh. I slopped dog food all over myself numerous times walking around the team with full dishes. Most of the dogs ate really well, but 1 or 2 seemed distracted and not quite into their trail routine. Nor was I into mine - despite GREAT food up at the checkpoint and a warm, quiet cabin to sleep in, I didn't feel like either. I picked at a meal of chicken, rice, and black bean salsa and then dozed in front of a warm stove in the cabin's living room. I had looked longingly at the coffee stand set up out on the Lake. I craved a Latte, but I'd been avoiding caffeine since the beginning of December and that shot of Espresso now would have sent me into space, I'm sure! The trip to the outhouse was pretty interesting - there was so much snow, it was over the top of the outhouse. There was a tunnel with 4 steep steps to get to the door!
While I was puttering around the team Mike Nosko came by looking for extra drop lines. Sadly, he had had an accident with a snowmachine just hours after the Race started. Although no dogs were badly injured, there were enough bumps, bruises, and soreness that he was going to have to scratch here at Finger Lake. How disappointing that must have been for him.
I did the math and figured out that if I cut my rest a little shorter then planned here I could work things so I got to go through both the dreaded Happy River steps and the Dalzel Gorge in the daylight! Seeing that I had over-rested here last year and left with a team so fresh I had lost them within ¼ mile of the checkpoint, leaving here with them feeling not so spunky really seemed like a wise plan. So at around 5pm, I pulled the hook.
The team had some 'zip' in their step as we left, but quickly settled into a disjointed effort, I kept reminding myself that it was early in the race and they would eventually gel together as a team. The trail actually seemed better then last year. It wasn't until right before the Steps that I even got the chance to dip my face into a snowbank. I had Sissy and her sister, Oreo up front. Sissy is both a name and a description of this little black and white gal. I would never put her up front for a crowded situation like a race start, but out on the trail she is a solid and dependable leader. Oreo proved herself in the Grand Portage Race earlier this season and I felt very confident that these two girls would take me safely down this trail. Shortly before the Steps, we passed some people camped out, they wished us luck for the trail ahead. I stopped and undid 10 tuglines to cut down on the dog power.
The Steps are 3 notorious tight turns combined with steep drop-offs that get you down the bank and onto the Happy River. I thought they were a little trickier to negotiate then last year, because they seemed a little more 'bottom-less' and I couldn't get much purchase with my foot brake, but we did stay upright for Steps 1 and 2. Coming down the last Step Sissy ran into the thing she fears most - people. There was a camera crew set up to get 'disaster-Cam' footage. Sissy balked and the lack of forward momentum tipped the sled over onto it's side. In a fairly non-spectacular crash we slid to the bottom of the drop off, problem was my Bunny Boot slipped through the bar brake on my sled and got wedged in. I struggled for a moment to free my foot before a cameraman took mercy on me and came over to assist.
My sigh of relief at getting through the worst of this trail was early! After my little tip over, the sled was pulling to the right. Just my luck, the majority of the rest of the trail into Rainy Pass curves left around a mountain making for lots of side hills that my sled was going to want to slide down! Sure enough, in no time I found myself wedged against a tree in a deep well made by the abundance of snow. The front of my sled was pointing upward at a 90 degree angle. Not good. A survey of damage showed that things were bend, not broken - phew. I was NOT going to repeat last year's broken sled incident in Rainy Pass. I went up and kicked the tree a few times for good measure, at which point I recognized it as a tree I intimately visited last year. If I ever get a summer vacation in Alaska, I'm bringing a chainsaw!
On a nice flat lake crossing I stopped to play up the dogs and check on things. I jumped up and down on the brush bow a few times to try to get it bend back so it looked a little more like a sled - no luck. It was now pulling to the right much worse then before. The next few hours felt like a pinball game as I bounced off trees and struggled to keep the sled up on the trail on sidehills. Finally I got the sled so jammed against a tree I had to unhook the dogs from it. I tied my snub line to a big tree to anchor the team while I worked on extraditing the sled. The well was so deep that I couldn't stand up to push the sled out. I ended up tying a snow hook line around the handlebar and muscling the darn thing out that way - the whole time berating myself for packing so much gear and making it so heavy. I was so pleased when I got free - I figured after dealing with that, I could handle just about anything - so the trail threw something at me I couldn't handle - just to keep me humble, I think! I came around a corner to find a nasty sidehill with an open creek at the bottom. There was a spot in the middle where the trail had a 'hole' that looked like it had sucked in many other teams before me. Thank goodness, as I was trying to work my sleep deprived head around a method for getting an improperly steering sled through this mess musher Ben Grey came along and agreed to help. I took the dogs and he took the sled and we safely got across!
One more little smack into a tree and be darned if the sled didn't start to track better. In fact, it was almost tracking true again, still Rainy Pass looked like a haven when I got there!
A quick feeding after arriving at the truck and we were loaded and headed home for my last night on a comfy bed and the dogs last night in their cozy straw filled houses.