Koyuk to Elim
In 2001 I described Koyuk as one of my favourite places on the trail. In '04 it remained that way. It is a neat little village with a terrific spirit to it, tucked into a pretty location - and much less windy then Unk or Shaktoolik! Or maybe it is just that Unk and Shaktoolik seem to be 'trouble spots' for me on the trail and I'm happy to have put them behind me! Whatever - I was happy to be there.
First thing in Koyuk I was in for some bad news for me though. The vets in Shaktoolik had commented that Olena's pulse took a bit longer then the rest of her teammates to come back to normal and her gum color was a little pale. As her appetite and attitude was still top notch, it was probably nothing but they told me to keep a closer eye on her. The vets in Koyuk had exactly the same comments and Ollie was dropped on the spot. They thought it might be early signs of an ulcer and after losing Kobuk just weeks earlier, I was still freaked by the thought of ulcers and taking no chances.
When I got inside I borrowed a phone and tracked down Mark. I wanted to make sure he was watching for Ollie in Nome and that he was aware that there were some problems with my sled and that there was a chance I might need a new one in White Mountain. The sled had driven decently on the way over, but I was worried about how it was going to handle over Little McKinley. I asked permission to have my 2nd sled, at my expense, shipped from McGrath to White Mt, just in case - but the Race Judge wouldn't allow it. He claimed my sled was still 'drivable' and therefore I wasn't allowed to move my other one up the trail. The ruling then, and even now, sounded bogus to me - but I had no choice, I was just going to have to hope the repair held. Mark assured me he would line up a sled and snowmachiner, so if I needed a replacement one shipped to White Mountain, he could hopefully get it to me before my 8 hour mandatory rest was up.
The checkpoint had a wonderful area sectioned off for mushers to sleep, with mats on the floor and blankets hung so it was quiet and not too bright. Fabulous. Problem was, after my nap in Shaktoolik, I wasn't very tired. Kelly Williams came in and we ended up chattering and giggling our way through our rest time. I really enjoy Kelly's company.
Dark settled in and it was time to go.
Doug left a bit after me and when he caught up we stopped and chatted for a moment. Those middle of the night runs are brutal. Many of the top mushers avoid running between midnight and 5 or 6 am and the more I race, the more I'm seeing the wisdom in that. However, as my trail speed doesn't quite match theirs, I don't have the flexibility they have and have to do the odd 'Midnight Run'. A diversion, like someone to talk to, is always appreciated during those times. For many hours during the night I would catch glimpses of Doug's headlamp when he looked over his shoulder, but he was miles ahead of me. Most of this trail is along sea ice and/or the coastline and light carries for miles and miles. It was still nice to 'have company'. Later that night though, something occurred where I wish I had had much closer company.
We were traveling along at a nice little clip when all of a sudden all the dogs bunched up and started barking off to the left. They were acting like they were scared of something - my headlamp picked up nothing. I've seen my dogs go through a lot of emotions on the trail, but I've never seen them do their 'beware bark' at anything. The hair on the back of my neck immediately stood up - I'm not nearly as brave as they are - and whatever it was was scaring them. Now, I am not by any stretch of the imagination saying it was a polar bear, but there is only one animal that I've ever heard mushers say their dogs reacted to with fear - and that is it. Although the Iditarod organization denies that there are polar bears along the trail, mushers that I respect have told me stories of seeing them, folks in Nome tell me 1 or 2 a year are killed in that area, and in '98 when I was in Unk there were polar bear warning signs posted in town.
I'd say I 'commanded' the dog to go - but really it was more like begging. I had tucked my gun up in the front of my sled a few checkpoints back, thinking I'd have no further use for it. I debated digging around for it, but decided there was nothing that was going to convince me to step off my sled at this time. After what seemed like hours, but was probably only a minute or two, the dogs lined out and with a final few 'woofs' over their shoulder started off down the trail. I nervously glanced over my shoulder until pretty much until dawn.
Eventually we climbed over a small mountain and slipped into the picturesque village of Elim.