Tanana to Ruby
I knew coming into Tanana that Kaylinn was going to have to be dropped and told the checkers and vets so, but instructed them that I would keep her with the team so she could eat and rest with us until I was ready to go. No point in her spending any more time away from folks she knows then necessary.
The dogs ate well and settled quickly down to rest. We had solved most of the wrist injuries, but now had some foot problems. With the trail having so much glare ice and overflow, it had not been possible to keep my problem dogs bootied all the time, so this wasn’t a surprise to me. I got ointment onto the ones that needed it while they snoozed.
The folks in Tanana were wonderfully friendly. A few came over and introduced themselves, shaking our hands and welcoming us to their village. I thought that was very special. The checkpoint building was toasty warm, with lots of spots for drying clothes, yummy food, and a blocked off area for mushers to sleep. I got my sleeping bag and for the first time in the Race, closed my eyes for some real rest – okay well, 2 – 2 ½ hours may not seem like real sleep to some of you – but it was decadent for me.
As daylight washed out the northern lights, I went out and offered the team another meal. This second meal usually doesn’t go over as well with my dogs as their first one, but if even one dog eats, it was worth the time and energy it took to prepare it.
After that I fussed around repacking the sled and sorting out gear from my drop bags for the long trail ahead. Rumors had the length of the next leg at somewhere between 120 – 135 miles – whatever it was, it was the longest leg ever on an Iditarod.
Sled packed, it was now time to say goodbye to Kaylinn. I gave her hugs and wished her a good flight home. I promised her that Mark would spoil her once she got back to Anchorage and called the vet over to take her to the dropped dog line. * sniff *
As we had been parked wedged in behind another team that was taking a longer break, it took a bunch of checkers, vets, and other volunteers to extract my team from their bed and get us onto the trail. Grover and Orion in lead, we headed out to face the first of the 600 + miles of the Yukon River that lay ahead.
It was the worst time of the day to be traveling and the wide-open river offered no escape from the beating rays of sunshine. I hadn’t wanted to wait another 4 hours to leave Tanana, so I was just going to have to be happy with the pace the team set through the heat of the day. It wasn’t the fastest pace, but it was steady and we clicked off mile after mile of river.
About 40 miles out there was, apparently, a cabin that many teams were going to stop at, but I wanted to get the dogs 60 – 65 miles out to nicely break up this long leg. Sure enough, about 6 teams, including Jim Gallea, Tyrell Seavey, Melanie Gould, and Mike Williams were camped there basking in the sun when I passed by. It looked like a really inviting place to stop, but I forced myself to keep going.
When I was 5 or so miles past the cabin, Mike Williams caught up with me – he had been making preparations to leave when I had passed him. He mentioned he was going to stop somewhere ahead to put booties on his dogs – nice of him to let me know. My team picked up being with another team and followed him for a bit. At one spot the marked trail took a sharp turn and crossed open running water. Mike’s team hadn’t made that turn and I stopped to debate what I wanted to do. Grover looked over his shoulder at me and then slammed into his harness to get going. I made a half hearted ‘Gee’ command to see if he wanted to follow the marked trail. His “Are you INSANE??” comment was clear and I took my foot off the brake and called him up to allow him to follow Mike. Sure enough, the trail Mike had followed neatly skirted the open water. I heard many mushers tell stories later in the Race about that water crossing and was grateful that Mike and Grover led me around it.
Several hours later, I passed Palmer camped along the trail. I stopped and chatted for a moment before continuing on to find my own camping spot. Just ahead Clint Warnke was stopped and I directed the team into an abandon bed of straw just up from him.
I got the dogs settled in and snacked. While water was heating in my cooker, I walked back to talk to Clint and to see if he had any extra Algavyl. He did and was happy to give it to me, as he remembered that he had borrowed some from me in ’01! J I asked him how far out he thought we were and he said a snow machiner had told him we were 56 miles out. DRAT, that wasn’t as far as I wanted, but we were just going to have to make the best of it now.
I went back to the dogs and fed them, wrapped wrists, put foot ointment on, gave massages and covered them with their big ‘checkpoint’ blankets – well except for Orion and Grover, who get offended if I even head towards them with a blanket in my hand. The rest of the dogs love these big, windproof blankets that Louise at Dogbooties.com made up for me. They can shut out the world and stay warm during their naps. One of the best things I pack in my sled!
By now Clint had pulled out and darkness had set in. I decided it would be a good time to get some sleep, so I crawled into my sled bag, I think I slept for about 15 minutes and then was wide awake. This has always been an issue for me – I get camped on the trail and if I can’t sleep, I fuss and fidget until I can’t stand it anymore and then end up cutting the dogs rest short and hitting the trail. Plus the dogs don’t rest well if I’m up and down and unsettled. So this year I am trying a new trick to deal with this – I brought a book with me on the trail. I can’t remember the name of it (and I left it in the airport in Unalakleet after I finished it) but it was by one of my favorite authors, Jonathon Kellerman. I flicked on my headlamp and lay in my sled reading. Eventually, I did nap for a bit longer, but by then the temperature on the river had really dropped so I got up and put on some warmer clothes and started preparations to leave.
The dogs moved pretty steadily for the first few hours and beneath layers and layers of warm clothes I was able to enjoy the crisp night. Twice during the night I had the sensation of some thing (or someone???) brushing against the back of my legs. It was a real enough feeling that I jumped around to see if another musher’s leaders were right behind me. There was nothing but darkness back there. Maybe it was a weird hallucination…or maybe it was a visit from Edgar Kalland, who carried the serum over this trail in 1925. It was fun to speculate and I spent some time thinking about the mushers that made that lifesaving run (as every Iditarod musher should).
The night really started to drag on. I passed a few mushers camped along the trail and wondered if I had made a similar mistake as on the leg into Manley and really should of broken this trip into three segments instead of two. In hindsight, I believe that is what I should have done.
Dawn finally started to break and the dogs picked up chasing wildlife that only they saw along the riverbanks. Gerry Sousa caught up and, after a few attempts (his dogs were acting up), passed. I said ‘Good Morning’ or something to Gerry and he basically growled back at me. Guess his run wasn’t going very well! (My respect for Gerry was really raised when he came over to find me in Ruby and apologized for his behavior. That was a very nice thing to do! Lots of mushers get tired and grumpy on the trail, but I’ve never had anyone take the time and trouble to make amends for it.)
I began to wonder where the heck Ruby was….it must be around the next bend….nope….then it must be the next one…..
Finally we hit a spot where the trail crossed over a wide-open spance of the Yukon, instead of hugging the riverbank. The wind picked up to the point that I just focused on the next trail marker, rather then worrying about Ruby. Eventually, above the ground storm I saw the welcome, distinctive cliffs that border the village. A camera crew was waiting to take some footage and told me it wasn’t far. Three or four miles later the team, excited about hitting another checkpoint, pulled strongly up the steep hill into Ruby.
We were done with the ‘unknown’ and back onto familiar ground!