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Iditarod 2004 - Tales from the Trail

Iditarod 2004


Rohn to Nikolai

The vets had a scare for me as they checked over the team. “Dog ‘A’ (indicating the lettered identification tag the dogs wear on the race) has a sore wrist”, they reported. As I’m sure Karen Yeargain and others on my NorthWapiti News mailing list can tell you, whenever I make up lists of dogs for any reason, and even when I state that the lists are in ‘no particular order’, Grover is found at the top. My team list in my Vet Book is no different and ‘Dog A’ refers to him. I hadn’t seen him limp or act like it was bothering him on the trail over, but, sure enough, it was swollen. I gave it a good long massage; wrist wrapped it and said my prayers.

Doug shared some water with me so I didn’t have to make the long hike down to the river before feeding my team and I got everyone fed and bedded down. While I was still puttering around my sled, I noticed Rick Swenson emerging from a nifty little ‘tent’ that he had attached to the side of his sled bag. Although, Jeff King is more readily recognized as the ‘Master Innovator’ of the Iditarod, Swenson seems to always be looking for new and better ways to do things too and a number of nifty little inventions can be credited to him. My interest in his little tent was quickly replaced by wonder at what exactly he was still doing in Rohn. So when he spotted me and said ‘Hi’ and asked how things were going, I tossed the question right back at him. He explained that his sled had broken and he was 24’ing in Rohn. He still seemed very keen on his team and honestly didn’t seem too stressed by his situation. He really is the ‘Master of the Iditarod’ and I believed that if anyone could recover from being thrown off his or her game plan so badly, it would be Rick. (I was on the money with that thought, as Rick still managed to pull off a 7th place finish, despite his troubles). I told him what Kelly (his long time girlfriend and kennel partner) was planning for her runs when I had spoken to her in Rainy Pass, he was very cheered by the fact that he would get to see her while on his break.

I could put off the inevitable no longer and made the trek down to the Kuskokwin River to get more water. I was still wearing my Trans Alaska boots and quickly discovered that they are not ideal for climbing down and up the face of a small cliff in, even if they have a rope there for us to help haul ourselves up by. As soon as I got back to the checkpoint I switched my footwear back to my Lobben boots with the Neos overshoes. That would be the footwear that I would wear for the rest of the Race. In fact, I even sent home my Cabela's boots a few checkpoints later. My feet have never been so comfortable and warm!

My original plan had me not stopping in Rohn, but the more I thought about it earlier in the Race, the more I thought that might not be wise. Besides, the run over had taken longer then I planned, so a small break was in order. I went over and conferred with Doug about departure times and went into the cabin for some food and down time.

In no time at all, I was back outside doing more dog chores. I took off Grover’s wrist wrap and was dismayed to find the wrist no better, but it wasn’t really sore – my gut was telling me this wasn’t a typical wrist problem. I walked him around a bit and could see he was now favoring it a little, so I took off his harness and secured a drop line to his collar, planning on walking him over to the vets to look at, figuring I was going to drop him. Any of you that follow our racing and training must realize what Grover means to our team and to me. The thought of dropping him this early on was a crushing blow – but I love and respect him far too much to ever allow him to continue if it would hurt him to do so. What happened next will continue to puzzle and amaze me for years to come – and it raised my adoration for this dog to a whole different level – somehow Grover seemed to know what I was thinking – although, I don’t understand how – he has never been dropped from an Iditarod before. In everyway he could communicate with me, he began to tell me that I was making a big mistake. My agreeable, levelheaded leader fought against the drop line I was leading him by the whole way over to the vets. As the vets were going over him, he was leaning as far away from them as he could and when I gaited him, they could see no lameness. They said they could see no reason he couldn’t stay in the team and when I turned around to head back to our parking spot, he dragged me back as quickly as he could.

Although he looked at me with what seemed to be disgust when I moved Kara up to lead and tucked him into swing, that was a concession he was going to have to live with.

I’m sure he had a good chuckle when I was forced to put him up front just a few miles later as Kara balked about going over the glare ice and rocks that awaited us outside of the checkpoint. I left her up front because I wanted her to figure these tricky conditions out, but by putting Grover next to her, I gave her more confidence and me more control.

Thankfully, he moved strongly without favoring his leg at all.

Once into the trees the trail became not too bad at all, definitely the best I’ve ever seen it, actually, but the wind had picked up now to a level that was scary! I passed two snowmachiners struggling to take down a tent. They were concerned with their tent and I had my parka pulled tight around my face, so I didn’t recognize Bob Jones and his traveling companion, Jim that I had camped with at the Tripod Flats cabin outside of Kaltag in 2000.

Just pass that spot there was a large, dark brown lump in the trail ahead of us. My leaders took a moment to sniff it and I figured out that it was a dead moose. There was no way around it, so the dogs just marched over top of it and the sled followed. I wondered what the story was that put it there and later found out that it had been killed by wolves around the time that the front of the pack went through (Ken Anderson told me it was so fresh, it ‘splashed’ when he went over it! YUCK). I wondered what the trail had in store for us next.

The answer to that question was WIND. Wind so strong that the trees whipped back and forth and I feared they would snap. Wind so strong it moved dogs and sleds all on it’s own. I don’t know that I’ve ever experienced wind this strong when traveling by dogteam. I kept hoping that each corner we rounded and mountain we passed would bring some relief, but it didn’t.

The series of lakes that the trail traverses, ending with the wide, always windblown Farewell Lake worried me. By now I had Kara up front with Olena. I toyed with putting Grover up front, as he has proven himself over and over again on these icy lakes, but I also wanted to see if Ollie and Kara were up to the challenge too. In the end I decided to give them a chance to prove themselves and they didn’t disappoint! They shouldered into the wind, through the snowdrifts and across the lakes like seasoned pros! I was so proud!

On a number of the lakes there were footprints of wolves and buffalo shaped into ‘raised relief’ sculptures as the wind swept away the snow around them. It was really interesting phenomenon and I wished I had the time and proper camera equipment to capture them! I, of course, didn’t – so I settled for committing the images to memory.

In 2000, I camped with some other rookie mushers on a wide spot in the trail. The next morning, I was annoyed to find the semi permanent ‘Buffalo Hunter’s camp just a few miles further down the trail. This year, that mistake wasn’t going to be made, as the Hunters had put up mileage signs to let us know how far away the Camp was. The signs made it very clear that the Camp was open to all travelers of the Trail, including Iditarod mushers!

When I arrived, many other teams were camped and a fire was blazing away in the stove. Doug and a few other mushers pulled in as I was starting to feed. It would have been a pretty cozy spot to take a long break, but it was still windy where the dogs were and my schedule only called for 4 hours here. Still, I took the opportunity to lie down on the straw covered sleeping platform in the tent. Between the talk and Bennie Stamm trying to burn the cabin down by lighting his glove on fire, there was no real rest to be had.

Darkness was starting to set in as we left the Camp, but there was still enough light that when I came to the part of the trail where it straightens and flattens out, I was still able to glance over my shoulder and see the Alaska Mountain Range spread out behind me. It is always an exhilarating moment to me to look over my shoulder and know that I just drove a dog team through there – and a moment to celebrate that part of the Iditarod Trail being behind me!

With Kara and Olena in still in lead we glided along well. The Northern Lights made an attempt to dance, but it was a short and fleeting display.

Doug, and later Bennie caught up with me and we traveled on and off together for a long time. Then on one large lake crossing, my leaders magically forgot how to ‘Haw’ and started drifting off to the right, away from the other teams, and away from the trail. No amount of verbal urging (or insulting) was changing their minds. Finally I was able to find a spot to catch my hook in to have words with them. They both looked very sheepish and embarrassed when I got up front and pointed them back towards the trail. After that they were back to their usual responsible, responsive selves. Strange little beasts!

I caught up with Doug again, as he stopped for a brief break with his dogs and we traveled the rest of the way into Nikolai together.

Place Checkpoint Time from Previous Checkpoint Rest Time
in Checkpoint
Dogs Layovers
  Nikolai 14:34 7:53 16 24 Hr  8 Hr

Karen's Diary - 2004 Edition

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