IV: The Harder Part

Fetching water from the Tatina River.
Nestled amongst thick forest abutting the Alaska Range, Rohn felt like an oasis in a stretch of rough trail and cold fear. Snow had begun to fall softly, glimmering in the morning light and sprinkling the thick green forest floor with soft, white flakes. Giant squirrels scampered among the trees and chirping birds flitted about. It looked like a fairyland.

The magical scene was dispelled by pissed-off and shell shocked mushers wandering about, eyeing the sled carnage scattered between the trees and venting to those that would listen. I avoided the main checkpoint cabin; I could see scratched mushers going in and out of it. It seemed to have a dark gloom about it and I didn't want anything to do with it. 

As I took care of my dogs, I watched other mushers depart from the Rohn checkpoint, headed towards rough trail and certain hardship. Reports of broken sleds and limbs had filtered back to the Rohn Checkpoint, fueling fears amongst the gathered mushers. I had planned a fairly long rest in Rohn as per the “rest lots in the beginning” advice I had received from several veteran mushers before the race, so I went to go lay down in the sleeping tent, nice and warm from a drip oil stove. Elliott Anderson snored comfortably next to me on the carpeted green floor. I lay still for exactly five minutes before I sat straight up and decided it was time to go. It had nothing to do with Elliott's snoring. The uncertainty of what lay ahead had permeated the tent and I was too antsy to rest. I needed to get out of there and face the challenge in the daylight. By leaving now, I would be joining a caravan of mushers including Yvonne Dåbekk, John Dixon, Alex Beutow, Marcelle Fressineau and Monica Zappa. I gathered my gear and headed back out to ready my team. Six hours was plenty long enough anyway. We left Rohn around five p.m., giving us a couple hours of daylight. I left with the entire team, apart from the wheel and lead dogs, running on their necklines. They would run the next forty miles this way, powering over stumps, burned out forest and river rocks. 

There was no snow leaving Rohn. When I saw the first pieces of ripped off runner plastic right outside the checkpoint, I knew we were in for a rough ride. The trail leaving the checkpoint wound through a green, mossy forest, the trail crisscrossed with roots and looking, for all intents and purposes, like a dirt footpath. My drag mat broke for the first time just a few miles from the checkpoint. Before the race, we had attached my hefty drag mat to the sled with two faulty O-rings, counting on them to break (instead of my stanchions) if the drag caught on a stump or root, with two strong metal links on each side. Surprisingly, the O-rings stretched, but did not break, and three of the four metal links snapped at separate times, usually causing the sled to careen to one side as I rode the drag mat constantly in a vain attempt to slow the dogs on the rough trail. Each time a link broke, I stopped the dogs, wedged my snow hook in the dirt or a root, and made a new link out of 5/32 Amsteel rope I had packed in my fid kit. This process took just a minute or two. I was thankful to my mom for teaching me how to quick splice rope! 

Physically, this run was the toughest for me in the entire thousand mile race. The forested trail quickly gave way to a hilly rugged landscape scarred by forest fire. One needed to be strong to haul the sled up ledges and away from ravines. It took all my power to keep the sled from slipping into dangerous situations. The trail was unrelenting. The sled banged over roots and tussocks and careened down rutted hills. We dropped off a vertical bluff onto the Post River, the trail making an immediate sharp left. Debris from various sled crashes was scattered across the bare river ice. The trail disappeared in a field of rocks crowding the river bank, only to reappear heading up another vertical bluff at an angle that proved impossible for me to get my sled up without sliding over the edge. I climbed up the bank and grabbed the towline, heaving to maneuver the heavy, dangling sled in the right direction. I then called up the dogs, who easily pulled the sled up over the ledge. Soon after, scrambling up the glare ice of the Post River glacier, we encountered the sad sight of Lev Shvarts and his shattered sled. He had attempted to cobble it together, but it looked pretty hopeless, with no way of braking or holding his dogs back. He ended up scratching the next day. The sketchiest section came right after the Post River Glacier. After dropping down some incredibly steep, scary, rocky hills, we encountered a huge hole in the trail. Maybe a sinkhole. The trail edged along the left side of the hole, but tracks told that several mushers had already fallen in, their sleds hanging off the edge of the small cliff created by the hole. Alex Beutow, who was just ahead of me, had forged a new trail to the right, which my dogs luckily took. It had grown too dark for me to see the full extent of the cliff and the danger of the original trail. Right after the sinkhole, I caught up to some members of the Rohn caravan. Together we slowly edged down the trail as it twisted through the burn. It dropped down steep, dusty hills, narrowly dodging giant stumps and leaning trees. It was stop-and-go as we scouted the trail and waited for the person ahead of us to descend safely. After a particularly harrowing section, we passed the remains of Kelly Maixner’s sled trailer. Periodically, I could hear the exuberant barking of teams ahead of me. Only a couple hundred miles into the race, the dogs were crazy to go, regardless of whether their musher needed a break, whether to gather nerves or to fix a broken sled. This led to some scary situations for mushers who had difficulty handling powerful teams on marginal conditions. Luckily for us, here, as in the Gorge, our inadvertent "patience training" paid off. Although still feeling like a battered ping-pong ball as we bounced off tussocks and ground over rocks, when I needed to stop, the dogs waited patiently until they felt me step back on the runners. Then they leaned into their necklines, eager to haul the sled over the next obstacle. 

After Kelly’s trailer, the trail steadily climbed. The hills were steep. Occasionally, I could see the headlights of mushers some distance ahead still winding uphill. We passed Yvonne, who was having difficulty controlling her young, strong team, and Tommy, who held back to ensure she made it through safely. I grew more and more nervous the higher we got. What comes up must come down, right? It had been near impossible to slow the dogs on previous downhills with just rocks and dust under the drag mat. The topography was a mystery. It was dark, so we had no sense of the landscape; when the hills might end and the descent begin. My anxiety ebbed each time we encountered a relatively flat stretch of tussocks, only to flare up again when my headlight beam lit up another ribbon of dirt heading endlessly up towards the dark night sky.

Turns out, there is no downhill. The rough stretch culminated at the top of a hill where Alex Beutow and I were greeted by a wide stretch of overflow and an Iditarod Insider crew. A cameraman lay on the far side of the overflow, bright lights glaring. As I led my dogs across this relatively minor obstacle, after twenty-five grueling miles of unbelievably difficult trail, ravines, sinkholes, a glacier of ice, and ankle breaking downhills, I could not believe THIS was what they were filming. Try going five miles the other way! 

The appearance of the film crew on snowmachines was a sign of better trail to come. I don't know how many hours it had taken us to get to that point, but the run to Nikolai is estimated to be seventy-five miles long and we hadn’t quite come even a third of the way. Christian Turner was bedded down next to the overflow, a sure sign of some mishap. Christian had been following a very competitive schedule, one that ensured those of us with a more relaxed pace wouldn't be seeing much of him… but there he was. Turns out his gang line had broken and he had had to run for miles after his team, secure the loose dogs, and then go back and ferry his remaining dogs, supplies and sled the distance several times over. Exhausted, mentally and physically, he was taking a much needed break. Although it looked like a nice spot to stop, it was still a long way to Nikolai, so spurred on by that knowledge, and by Alex, who was adamant about continuing until more milage had been made, I kept on. A few miles later, we encountered Monica, who had elected to stop and camp at an open creek. A brief stop to commiserate and we were off again, headed towards Farewell Lake.

To be continued...... 

Coming up: Part V: Sweet Relief

Missed the first few installments of my Iditarod story?

Click here for: Part I: The Start
Part III: The Hard Part

Rohn Checkpoint.
The team resting in Rohn.
Monica Zappa & Tommy Jordbrudal.
Winding through the forest. 
Rugged terrain.
Grassy tussocks.
About to drop onto the Post River.
The Post River
As darkness begins to fall...

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