III. The Hard Part

The trail to Rohn.

We knew that parts of the trail heading over the Alaska Range would be bad. Judging from local trail conditions, I guessed they would be really bad. I did my best to prepare. In retrospect, I think the smartest decision I made was to take 14 dogs instead of the maximum number allowed: 16. I just didn’t feel comfortable taking a full 16. 14 dogs is still an incredible amount of power (Yukon Quest allows a maximum of 14, with sleds loaded nearly double what we take on Iditarod). The safety of the dogs is paramount, and the idea of my team getting injured because I couldn't keep them slowed down was unconscionable. So in addition to deciding on a smaller team, I asked the veritable Bernie Willis (local musher-sled builder-horse trainer-pilot extraordinaire)  to help me build a drag mat. In place of a ridged piece of plastic the size of two pieces of toast (as is common on race sleds), I had a wicked two foot long snowmachine track with seventeen 1” spikes bolted into it. Bernie fashioned a UMHW lip for the mat to keep it from catching on stumps. I didn't care that it was heavy and bulky. It was practical and I loved it.

We left Finger Lake in the heat of the day. Somewhere ahead of us were the infamous and intimidating Happy River Steps. While the snowless conditions of the Gorge and Burn garnered a lot of attention this year, the section that truly beat me up the most was the hills on the way to Rainy Pass. The Steps turned out to be uneventful, but the sidehills and icy chutes cut into the sides of the mountains caused my sled to slip and tip countless times. The trail was icy and rutted from the brakes of previous mushers. Some of the lips were lined with downed logs to prevent our sleds from rolling off the edge of the trail. I could see Netwon Marshall just ahead of me had had a tough time of it. I could see from his tracks where his sled had rolled down the steep slopes, pieces of broken Jamiacan flags scattered in his wake. I managed not to tip my sled off the trail, but I got bruised and dragged in the process. 

We arrived in Rainy Pass in the dark of night, to a checkpoint filled with apprehension and fear. Reports from the first mushers to reach Rohn had filtered back and the news was not good. Broken sleds and trail conditions that had even venerable veterans scratching. Andy Anderson, the race judge, advised those that were there to wait until morning to attempt the run, and then, in the daylight, to take the tugs off all the dogs and go for it. I was scared. I considered dropping a few dogs in exchange for more control but eventually decided against it. Ultimately, and unbeknownst to us, what prepared the team most for the Gorge was the horrible weather we had endured in January and February. While many mushers had been able to pack up their dogs and run big teams in the snow on the Denali Highway or in Eureka, I was working and unable to do so. While I wasn't able to get even half as many miles on the dogs as many of my competitors, running on ice and many inadvertent camping breaks while I labored to chop down a downed tree blocking the trail taught my team patience.  Did you watch the Jeff King video of the Gorge?  WHOA WHOA WHOA WHOOAA WHOOOOAAAAAAAA !!  His dogs completely ignored him. He gave an interesting Insider interview in which he says he inadvertently trained them to speed up when he said “whoa,” because when things got really interesting, he couldn't control them, and they sped up when he wanted them to slow down.  My team may not be as high octane as his, but when I said “whoa,” my dogs stopped. They were used to ice, used to waiting until I was ready to go. When the sled slipped sideways onto a broken tree brach extending into the trail, I was able to stop the dogs, pull my sled off the tree, and keep going. If they had refused to stop and wait, that tree would not have been the first thing to break…. 

Months of slow training in terrible conditions paid off, but it didn't make it any less scary. I mushed over trail I didn't know it was possible to mush over. Roots, sidehills, giant rocks. I wouldn't want to drive an ATV over what we ran over, much less a dog sled. The trail wound between trees, switching sides often. The creek crossings were never straightforward. They were glare ice and rocks, taking you always up a sidehill on the opposite bank. There was literally no snow. During our warm spell last winter, the tops of some of the ridges melted, leaving bare forest ground instead of hard packed trail. One loop had maybe 25 feet of bare ground. When I encountered this ridge last January, I hooked my 7 dog team down and walked half the dogs over before taking the other half and the sled over. How funny! I thought running seven dogs over 25 feet of bare trail was intimidating before I mushed fourteen over 15 miles of dirt! It was doable, but it was tough and outright dangerous. No one would ever willingly mush a dog team over that trail. There are two very steep, almost vertical drops that take you down to the creek bed. Karen Ramstead damaged her hand here, crashing into a tree. I have never been so scared in my entire life than when I saw the last traces of snow pass by and then see the fourteen dogs in front of me drop away into oblivion. We flew down the two icy chutes so fast all I could do was grip my handlebar with both feet on the drag mat (what is 150lbs against a 14 dog team and gravity??), my heart in my mouth. We survived without incident, but if I had a choice, I would never, ever do something like that again. 

Despite the lack of snow, I was impressed with the amount of care that had been taken with the trail. The trail crew had shored up the edges of the trail with logs to prevent teams from sliding into the creek, flagged danger spots, and did a good job marking. Still, most of the run was taken in a state of disbelief that there actually was not any snow. It was novel, terrifying, an adrenaline rush.

We pulled into Rohn, very much relieved to be there. I smiled to see familiar faces; Jasper the checker and Kevin Saiki, the race judge. They were surprised to see me smile; it was not the expected reaction. But it wasn’t their fault there was no snow, and as far as I was concerned, it was not ITC’s responsibility to provide the mushers with a “safe” trail. Their only responsibility was to provide us with a marked trail, which they did. The safety of my dogs is my responsibility, no one else’s, despite what broken and frustrated mushers may claim in the heat of rage and/or disappointment.

My relief to have made it to the checkpoint quickly turned to worry. It was so rough; I hoped the mushers behind me would make it ok. Some did, some did not.

To be continued...... 

Coming up: Part IV: The Harder Part.

Missed the first few installments of my Iditarod story?

This is the place I came closest to breaking my sled all race: a deep chute just outside of Finger Lake checkpoint. The narrow ledge the dogs chose was of course not wide enough for the sled, so just past the point where the lead dogs are pictured the sled dropped over the cliff sideways and wedged itself into the chute. I heard an ominous creak, but luckily nothing broke. Pried the sled out (the chute was just wide enough for a sled to lay sideways) and we were off. Except it was such a nice evening, we stopped at the bottom of the hill for pictures:
Pete & Nils in lead. Straight back to the right you can see the drop off with the chute.
Fezzik & Vinnie.
Frigg & Doc.
Goofy & Jackie.
Major & Victor.
Robber & Sneezy.
Nils and Pete at the bottom of the notorious Happy River Steps.
The Happy River at dusk.
The trail sweeps posing on a sketchy bridge over the Happy River.  Photo by Pete Radano.
My shaky shot of the same bridge.
Into the heart of the Alaska Range.
Ruby and Nils; approaching the top of Rainy Pass at daybreak.

The top of the pass.
About to drop down alongside Dalzell Creek.
Upper section of the Gorge.
Traffic jam in the Gorge; waiting for Karen Ramstead and Tommy Jordbrudal to regroup. I had been about to take a false trail that led into the top of the rocky creek when Tommy saved me by bursting through the brush waving his arms. The trail took a sharp right, but was hard to see. The markers were down. Both he and Karen had gone straight into the creek. We set the markers back up, but heard that mushers behind us had the same trouble. I also heard that the trail used to go straight ahead, which would account for some teams forging straight ahead regardless of marking.

Nils & Ruby. Numerous willow stubs sticking out a trail
were a concern we had been warned about at the
pre-race musher meeting. 
Through the stubs and down the Gorge.

Dalzell Creek.
Tatina River, just outside of Rohn. 
Running along the Rohn Airstrip.


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