NL300: Finger Lake & Back Again

We pulled into the Finger Lake checkpoint about 10:30am Saturday morning. A checkpoint volunteer helped the team park in a sunny spot on the lake, right below the magnificent log building that is Winterlake Lodge. The top ten had already left for Yentna, but the rest of the field was still camped, feeding dogs and making preparations for the next leg. My dogs looked good, but they were certainly tired and were quick to snuggle up in their straw and nap in the sun while I cooked their meal. Everyone ate, some more voracious than others. I was tired and emotional. After I took care of the dogs, I gathered my thermos and a change of clothes and headed up to the lodge to find something to eat. The lodge is owned and operated by the Dixon family. Carl Dixon and one of his daughters (I'm afraid I can't remember her name) were holding court in the kitchen. They had hot water and a basin for washing hands, coffee, tea and cocoa available for the mushers, and fresh cooked burritos to offer for eats. I sat down with a cup of cocoa and Daughter Dixon offered to cook me a burrito. Yes please! I nursed my cocoa and tried NOT to think of how proud I was of my team --otherwise I was going to start crying right there in the kitchen--  A fresh hot plate of beans, rice and burrito fixings was set in front of me and I ate, listening to Carl Dixon and a friend of his visiting from Anchorage trade stories.

I sent out so much food on this race. A full bag of snacks to every checkpoint. And do you know how much of that I ate? A mini-bag of cheetos, a bag of honey bears, a poptart and some salami. That's it. Fresh hot food was available at both Yentna and Finger Lake and was so much more appealing than whatever I packed along. The food at Finger Lake was provided to us for free, and I was happy to pay the Gabryszaks for the meals I ate at Yentna Station. It was the least I could do for the wonderful hospitality they provided for the race.

After I ate, I retired to the musher cabin and changed into fresh long underwear and socks. I set my alarm for three hours, but woke up after about two. I lay in bed, going over my game plan, and got up after about 2 and a half hours of rest. I put all my musher clothes back on, nice and dry after hanging up by the woodstove in the cabin for a few hours, and went down to the dogs. I took pictures of the dogs snoozing, cleaned up my campsite and prepared myself for the next leg. Before my nap, I talked to Vern Halter, and with his input, decided to stay for just the mandatory amount of rest: 6hrs. I can see now that resting in Finger Lake for 8hrs would have been overkill, but it was a long way home,  and for a tired and inexperienced musher concerned about their team, a distinct option. But, given that we had rested in Skwentna on the way up, and planned to stop there again, 6hrs was plenty long enough for the dogs to rest in Finger Lake. I'm glad Vern was there to talk to; I trust his judgement whole-heartedly.

We pulled out of Finger Lake in the late afternoon, shortly after the sun disappeared behind the mountains. Let's see here.. the leader board says I left at 16.40 but I know for a fact I left at 16.36, exactly six hours after my arrival time:) At this point, there was only a few teams left at the checkpoint, and the checking was pretty casual. The checker was across the lake loading dropped dogs on the plane, so I shouted "Am I good to go?!" and he said "Yep! Have a good run!" I checked my watch and that was that. They had a nice, dedicated group of volunteers out there. The same can be said for both checkpoints, really. I wish I had retained their names. I know Patrick Mackey, Jason Mackey's son, was out there doing a good job, so I can at least thank him publicly.

The dogs left the checkpoint moving nicely, and we had a steady run to Skwentna that mentally, seemed to go so much quicker than the run to Finger Lake. I think the actual run times were about the same. We trotted along in the pink and blue twilight that characterizes this time of year and enjoyed the blue hour, a special wintertime occurrence, when the world is blue, snow and sky. This bluetime lingers for hours in the winter above the Arctic Circle, when the sun stays below the horizon for months at a time. I watched another full moon rise, and switched my headlight on when it was time. I could feel the temperature dropping as we mushed along. I stopped to snack and check feet. I should have realized it was cold when I saw some of the dogs were getting little ice balls along their toes. I cleaned off their feet and booted them, wishing I had gone ahead and taken the time to do so in the checkpoint, but I had a few sore wrists and wanted to give their joints as much circulation they could get. Phillip passed me at this point, and Alex shortly after.

We dropped into the hills just above Shell Lake, a rough, twisty section. This is where Marilyn had lost her team earlier in the day, but I didn't know that, and I was more concerned about the wood shed lying just ahead. I guess the wood shed didn't hold the same attraction it did earlier, as we passed by without incident. As we passed the main cabin and dropped off the bank onto the lake, the checker ran out and shouted.. "Who's that ahead of you?" I looked and saw a headlight waaaay across the lake. "Phillip or Alex," I said. "Probably Phillip"    "OK, We'll go get him, go right, go right" I had no idea what was going on, but ok, I went right, where most of the trail markers pointed. There was also a trail that went straight ahead... to the wrong side of the lake, apparently. I mushed along the lake, and watched the headlight of the other musher going.... where?   Parallel to me, it seemed, and then they stopped. I saw a snowmachine from the cabin roar out towards the team and I realized that whoever it was was clearly on the wrong trail. Poor Phillip. I guess there was quite a bit of overflow on that side of the lake and so it turned into a bit of an ordeal. I attached a picture from his Spot tracker. In his defense, there was clearly a trail going straight ahead, with a marker alongside it. If I had been without direction, I think I probably still would have gone right, where the majority of the markers were clustered, but of course I can't say that 100%. So that's where I passed Philip, and he didn't manage to pass me again for the rest of the race.

I climbed off the lake and wound my way through the Shell Hills. We dropped into the big Skwentna swamp and glided our way through the swamp spruce and open bog all the way to Skwentna. I really liked that part of the trail. That big open swamp under a big white moon was by far my favorite stretch. The trail going through Skwentna was a little confusing. I guess it must be hard to get lost in a place with a population of 37, but I managed. And I wasn't the only one. The trail wasn't marked very well for the return, but there were dog tracks to follow at intersections. Some dog tracks led me straight to the Skwentna Roadhouse. I turned around and found the markers X-ing off their driveway had been run over, so I set them up for Phillip and continued on to my camp spot. Phillip went to Skwentna roadhouse anyway, not once, but twice. They had two driveways. Ha!  Phillip, if you're reading this, I hope you are able to get a good laugh in at this now:)  Alex was parked and melting water when I arrived. I passed him and went a little ways down the road to my first camp spot, or Phillip's first camp spot. Where one of us had camped, anyway. There was leftover straw for the dogs I could add to. Good thing, because the temperature had dropped and it was cold. My toes started to get a little cold as I walked around doing my chores. I thought to myself, it must be at least -20... So as my water for the dogs heated, I changed my two layers of socks and added toe warmers and a third pair of socks to boot. I thawed out two drinks in my cooker and made up a meal for the dogs with the warm water. They ate well and I curled up on my sleeping pad beside my sled and fell asleep. My toes were toasty and I was comfy curled up inside my big parka Mom made me. I woke up at the time I had planned to leave, and something was wrong. I got up and my heels were NUMB. My toes were warm, but toe warmers only go so far... my heels had frozen. I knew I had to get moving, so I packed up the sled, roused the dogs, and we took off. It took a bit of kicking and poling before my feet warmed up, but they did and I was comfortably warm. But I knew it was cold. If I exposed my face, I could feel my nose ring become instantly cold, something that's never happened before. I lived in Fairbanks for five years and never had a problem with cold and my nose ring. So I kept my face covered and tried to stay awake. It was impossible. I have never, ever, been so sleepy. The team was trotting steadily along the Yentna River, and my eyes would not focus, would not stay open. It was like torture. I stopped once, to walk around, inspect the dogs and give them pats. That helped wake me up for a bit, but soon my eyes were closing again. So I leaned my upper body over the handlebar, head practically in the sled bag, and closed my eyes. I could feel the team through the handlebar, and could close my eyes without worrying about falling asleep upright and falling off the sled. There was no way I could have done this in the woods (too many hazards, I would have had to stop and nap), but the river was flat and the trail was clear. Being able to close my eyes for just a few minutes helped so much. I didn't actually fall asleep, not longer than a few minutes anyway, but after an hour or so of trying to catch a catnap, I felt a little less sleepy, a little better able to focus on the trail ahead. I pulled into Yentna at 6 in the morning, still dark. I asked the checker what the temperature was. He said "Forty." I said, "What?" He repeated, "Forty." And I, in my tired stupor, said "Forty what?" And he said, "Forty degrees below zero!" I didn't believe him. Could it really be so cold?!  My tired brain thought about it, and it started to make sense. It was cold out! And once I accepted it, I started to be really pleased...because I had survived... and I wasn't cold!! Not even a little bit. So my gear system worked. I hadn't even thought about the possibility of -40F temperatures. I found out later it was -50F in Skwentna. No wonder my heels froze up.

I bedded down the dogs and cooked them up a warm, watery meal. I headed up to the roadhouse for something to drink and a nap. I had to sit down on the porch outside and chop my way out of my overboots. I had stepped off the trail on the river into some overflow, and the buckles on my boots had frozen solid. Luckily, I didn't break the snaps hacking at them with my knife in the cold, but I got them off and got inside. I got almost three hours of sleep in Yentna, along with a plate of scrambled eggs and hash browns after I got up. While I slept, the sun rose and the day started to warm up. After six hours of rest, we set off  from Yentna at noon in the "heat of the day," a nice -10F. The dogs were not super eager to leave, but they were all willing to go, with the exception of Papas, the big cheerleader of the bunch, who was screaming to go. We set off down the trail slowly, a somewhat ragged start. The dogs were a bit stiff after their rest, lead dog Ruby especially, who had two sore wrists I had been nursing. It took about an hour for everyone, including Ruby, to warm up out of it and then we were having a fine time of it, cruising down the river in the sun. The dogs looked pretty good! 200 miles into our first big adventure and we were chugging along. Kozy, my old man, was the only dog without a super taut tug line, but he was still trotting along and working on the uphills. We traveled down the river, enjoying the sun in our faces, then swung right onto the Big Su, into the wind and back towards the mountains. After a few miles on the Big Sue, the trail turned south, up the riverbank, through a cottonwood forest, and spilled out onto a giant bog in the shadow of Sleeping Lady. The bog fed onto Flathorn Lake. From Flathorn, the trail turned onto some narrow hilly section lines that eventually fed into the Big Lake Swamp. Miles and miles of swamp trail, traveled in alpenglow. The trail rose out of the swamp, back into the woods, and a few miles from Martin's we hit the big section lines that form the main arteries of the Big Lake snowmachine trails and head straight toward Happy Trail Kennel. 7 hrs after we left Yentna Station, we loped up the ramp to the finish at Happy Trails Kennel in Big Lake.

I came in strong with all 10 dogs I started with. I am so proud of the dogs & myself and want to thank all my friends and family who cheered me on during my first big race adventure with the dogs. A special thanks to my mom, Kari, who acted as my chauffeur and handler on race day and Kristin Bacon of Bacon's Acres Kennel, who loaned me her SPOT tracker during the race. I really liked having a connection with home while I was out on the trail--it was a comfort to know friends & family-- especially Dad-- knew where I was and that I was OK.

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