Iditarod 2015 Recap: Galena to Koyukuk

Lots of traversing narrow portages from slough 
to slough before entering more open country.
Out of Galena on Day Five of the 2015 Iditarod!
Traversing one of many wide open swamps on the 80+ mile run to Huslia.
Snack break. Ripp rocking it in single lead. Ruby busy taking off her booties and doing something, I don't know what, behind Vader.
This is a picture of one of the dumbest things I did on Iditarod 2015. Although we were told there was a shelter cabin 30 something miles out of Huslia, I was hell-bent on going at least half-way (40-45 miles) before stopping and giving the dogs a break. I saw the cabin, saw the headlights of other mushers milling around outside it, and kept going. I debated stopping, but it looked like a crowd there and we had six more miles to go before reaching approximately half-way. That will be the LAST time I bypass a warm shelter cabin in lieu of a cold camp six miles up the trail!  It was cold,  -50F when you dropped out of the hilly little portages we were traversing onto the lakes, according to the thermometers affixed to sleds.  At this point, I hadn't taken my 24 yet, so I was sooooo tired. I was almost nodding off just walking around. It occurred to me that, with this cold, this could actually be a pretty dangerous situation. It was too cold and we weren't going to be stopped long enough for me to go through all the effort of unpacking, shedding layers and crawling into my sleeping bag. Besides that, I didn't trust myself to wake up from a short nap, and especially didn't trust my alarm clock, which was useless in the cold and not loud enough to hear tucked inside a jacket. Besides that, I didn't want my feet to get cold like they did outside of Manley. So.... I stomped around, built a fire, walked around in circles, checked my watch, affirmed to the mushers who passed me by (who all thought I was crazy for bypassing a warm cabin in -40F) that I was ok, walked around in more circles, fed my fire, and checked my watch. "Poor sucker," I'm sure all the mushers fresh off their cabin stay thought. But the worst part of my cold camp came when Christian Turner stopped to make sure I was ok. "There were two skijorers at the cabin asking about you," he said. What!? Noooooooooo!!  It was Wendy & Laura, two friends who were skiing this section of the trail with their dogs. I had SO been looking forward to seeing them. And I had passed them right by. That's what made me feel dumbest of all. This is what this experience taught me (which, like most things learned the hard way, seems obvious after the fact) --when an opportunity to spend some time at a warm cabin in the cold in the middle of the Alaskan wilderness presents itself within 10 miles of a planned stop .....  STOP. 

The dogs in the early dawn of a difficult (for the musher) night. After we left our cold camp, I just could not stay awake. I kept nodding off, my knees would buckle, and I would jerk awake. The trail was monotonous: up and over gentle rises and down onto lakes/swamps, up and over gentle rises and down onto lakes/swamps. In most spots the trail was narrow -- about the width of a snow machine track and lined with black spruce. I fell asleep once and got hit in the shoulder by a tree branch. It knocked me off my sled, but I had my cooler attached to the back of the runners, so it just scooped me up as I fell over. I yelled at the dogs and they stopped. I was up quick and falling asleep again just as fast. It got colder as we got closer to Huslia. When we dropped onto the Koyukuk River, it got even colder. Some people say there is no difference between -40F, -50F and -60F. They are wrong. There was a slight breeze on the river too, so I have no idea how cold it was with added windchill, but it was confirmed when we got to Huslia that it had been -60F on the river.  I knew it was cold because the chill penetrated all my layers -- which have kept me warm at -50F. I wasn't actually cold though. Peddling kept my feet warm but I was a little worried about my hands. The insides of my lynx overmitts had become coated with frost that had been brought in each time I took my hands out to fiddle with something. I had put hand warmers inside and as they heated up, the frost melted and my liner gloves became soaked. The wet gloves froze when taken out from the overmitts and my hands began to get cold. Fortunately, I had a spare pair of fleece-lined wool mittens that I had made when I had taken my friend Laura's wool-mitten making class (same Laura I missed seeing on the trail). They were not wind-proof, but they sure were warm! I switched between keeping a hand in a pocket, behind me out of the wind, or swinging it around to keep the blood flowing and managed to keep my hands toasty all the way to Huslia, where I would be able to hang and dry my soaked fur mitts.  
Mist burning off in the sun in the swamps outside Huslia. The dogs wore boots and jackets atop their thick coats. They wolfed their snacks and seemed to be fine in the deep cold (of course, their ancestors did come from Siberia !!).
Cute, frosty dogs in -40F.
Vinnie & Pete.
Major & Goofy.
Ravni & Papas.
Blackie Lou & Vinnie.
Fezzik & Linnea.
Georgie & Frigg.
Beautiful Brooks Range in the distance. Running on Huslia sprint trails here. Training grounds of many famous Alaskan mushers ! 
Frosted up in Huslia !
The dogs on their 24 hour break in Huslia.

Fezzik. Fezzik started blowing his coat right before Iditarod, then it got cold and he figured he better hold onto it. July 31 and he still hasn't completely gotten rid of it !!! 
Sweet little Linnea.
Ruby stole a partial straw bale left by a departing team and made herself a bed. The dog's harnesses  (lying in front of the sled) come off during their 24 hour break, so they know we are not going anywhere anytime soon and can really settle down & get some quality rest.
The team in front of the log round house that served as the main checkpoint building. The people of Huslia were incredibly welcoming & hospitable. I loved the time I spent there. I was an hour late leaving my 24, which baffled folks watching the tracker, because, you know, I had had a WHOLE DAY to get ready. Warner Vent, a famous Huslia musher, and his wife were standing by watching as I made the final preparations to get ready to go. I admired his beautiful black wolf ruff, which had been made by his wife. She mentioned that she had had a few ruffs for sale at the little market held at the checkpoint earlier, and that she had managed to sell all but one. "Oh? What kind?" I asked. I needed another ruff. My face was always in danger of freezing because my big ruff was sewed onto my big parka, which is too cumbersome and warm for me when I am kicking and ski-poling in not -40F weather, which is most of the time. "White wolf and wolverine," she said. It was beautiful. And because I had abided by the advice of the Collins Twins in Dog Driver: A Guide for the Serious Musher, I had brought "cash (lots)" with me. So I bought it! She offered to sew it onto my down parka for me, and although my 24 hr mandatory rest was just about up, I thought that was worth waiting for. Even in spite of the ribbing I got later for being probably the first musher to be late to leave their 24 because I was "shopping," it was worth it. My Huslia ruff no doubt saved my face from the same frostbit fate as last year (which was painful and pussy and permanently damaging). 
My new ruff. 
Cruising on the Koyukuk River outside of Huslia. Dropping onto the river was one of the most terrifying things I have ever done in my life. In the 2014 Iditarod, I had no idea what kind of conditions we would encounter, so I didn't know to be scared. In Huslia, a snowmachine led us from the checkpoint parking area through town to the riverbank. I watched the snowmachine drive slowly halfway off the bank, then tip 90 degrees and disappear down the bank. "Oh. my. god." I thought as I then watched each set of dogs disappear down the bank in front of me. As my sled tipped off the bank after the team,  I saw my leaders jumping from the vertical slope onto the river. I rode my brake all the way down and managed not to run over any dogs. Now I can say I've driven a dog team off a cliff. Not recommended. 
Beautiful, diverse scenery, including some burn. 
Dogs & musher feeling good after 24+ hrs rest ! 
Snack break ~30 miles out of Huslia.
Bluebird skies, pristine snowfields. Pretty gorgeous !! 
Blown in trail. Got pretty windy in the open swamps on the way to Koyukuk.
Ruff at work in the wind. 
Trail breaking. 
Caught up with Monica! We traveled together from here all the way to Nome :D
Beautiful day !! 
Evidence of a lazy dog musher. If Iditarod figures out who did it, they get penalized for leaving litter on the trail. 
Sunset camp about half-way to Koyukuk. Rohn Buser ahead. 
Coming off a big break, the dogs aren't very tired.  
Back on the Koyukuk, "almost" to Koyukuk.  
Yukon River rock.
Lost on the way to Koyukuk village. Again. Monica and I turned around three times before we found our way off the river and onto the correct road that went to the village. Turns out all the markers had been mowed down the night before by errant snowmachiners. 


Iditarod 2015 Recap: Fairbanks to Galena

This year's recap is in PICTURES.  I've included anecdotes from the trail in the captions. 

Due to low snow conditions in the Alaska Range, the race was rerouted to Fairbanks. ADN map. 
Packing my sled in the restart arena in Fairbanks. Yes, all that did go in my sled, except for the harnesses -- they went on the dogs ;)  Probably took longer than I needed to, because it was the crack of dawn and there was NO COFFEE. We thought for sure there would have been a coffee stand or something nearby, but no. So no coffee for me. When I pulled into Nenana, 60 miles later, there was Mom, standing there with a nice, warm..... hot chocolate.  Much appreciated, Mom, but not coffee. Thirty or so miles out of Nenana, on a really fun, narrow, twisty trail, the team popped out of the woods and into a clearing where three young people were gathered around a fire -- Old Minto. It was the very middle of the night, but these guys were up offering hot dogs and warm drinks to passing mushers. At first, I wasn't going to stop because we were cruising and only fifteen miles from making camp (honestly, if you stop for every nice person on the trail, you'll never get to Nome), but then I saw one of the guys holding a steaming thermos mugful of COFFEE in his hand. I slammed on the brake. Wow, it really hit the spot. Warmed me up from the inside out.  Who would have thought I would have got my coffee fix in OLD MINTO of all places !?  Thanks to those of you from Minto who stayed up to cheer us on and fuel us up! 
Sled packed, conferring about something with my super awesome handler girls, Sarah & Franzi. Probably complaining about no coffee. I think I was a little bit of a diva on restart day. 
In the start chute with Mom.
Leaving town on the frozen Chena River. This was the first time in my life I had ever driven 16 dogs!! 
 I loved traveling on the river. When I went to school in Fairbanks, I would skijor on the Tanana (the Chena feeds into the Tanana) with Tuffy (Tuffy went on to help me qualify for Iditarod in the 2012-2013 race season). It was a really exciting feeling to go past the last known point Tuffy and I had been, and continue down the river towards Nenana, Nome et al. 
Throwing supplies in my sled in Nenana. Christian Turner and I were the only teams to camp out on the river before Nenana. I felt pretty satisfied with my decsion, especially after seeing the absolute madhouse that Nenana was. Franzi ran in front of the team to guide them out of the checkpoint and I can't believe the maze she had to take us through to dump us back down on the river! We dropped back on the river right before the Parks Highway bridge. The last couple times I've driven to Fairbanks, instead of looking up at the bridge as I usually do, I've looked down at the river and thrilled at the thought of how we ran our dog teams under the bridge and into the Interior, roughly following the original Serum run route. 
Our second camp on the trail. At least -40 F, as verified by Isabelle Travadon's thermometer just up the trail. Here we stayed an extra couple of hours than planned for two reasons: 1) I overslept because it was so cold both my watch and my alarm clock stopped and 2) when I woke up, my feet were frozen. I had to spend a long time stomping around and walking to get the blood flowing in them again. It was a little scary but after 45 minutes or so of walking I could feel circulation returning (it hurts, but also feels good to know you still get to keep your toes). I had to get them properly warm because the team was so fresh, and the trail so fast, I knew I would spend most my time going down the trail on the drag mat. It's really hard to stand on the drag mat and pedal at the same time, but I ended up having to anyway to keep the blood flowing ....  Luckily, I didn't frostbite any toes. If I had ignored the fact that I couldn't feel them, and readied the team in a hurry to leave, then I surely would have.
One of the few wide open spots on the fun, twisty trail from Nenana to Manley. 
Sunny but not warm.
NICE trail. 
We would invariably pop out of the wall of 
trees into a scene like this: beautiful trail 
through the birch trees, not that far 
outside of Manley.

It was fun to run the dogs into a literal
 wall of trees & trust there was 
actually a trail there.

Snack break on the way to Manley. Vader & Ruby in lead. Our run to Manley from the frozen campspot was nice & sunny.  The dogs were happy. We arrived mid afternoon. My friend Pete the trail sweep was there -- always good to see him. We left after a 7 hour rest with half a mind to take a break on the alleged 66 mile run to Tanana. However, I reckoned it was probably not quite 66 miles, plus the temperature plummeted as the night wore on. The dogs were looking good and I knew they would get better quality rest in the cold in a checkpoint with a full bale of straw and running water easily on hand for hydration. So we kept going. We traveled along sloughs and swamps. We mushed through some COLD spots -- I saw Tim Hunt camping in the coldest spot. I could feel the cold permeating through my parka -- which has kept me perfectly warm in -50 F before. "Poor sucker," I thought. Little did I know, other mushers would think exactly the same of ME, later on in the race!
Putting a jacket on Ruby in Tanana. Her brother Ripp in the foreground wearing wrist wraps. Over the course of the race, after much discussion with trail vets and first hand observation, I became disillusioned with wrist wraps and stopped using them. When a dog gets a sore wrist over the course of the trail, heat and increased circulation are the undisputed keys to healing. A wrist is warmest when it is curled up under the dog, but when they wear wrist wraps, they are prevented from doing so (see Ripp above). A wrist wrap also cuts circulation slightly, just by nature of wrapping. I continued to massage (stimulating circulation) sore wrists with Alygval (natural liniment that reduces inflammation) at checkpoints, but discontinued use of wrist wraps and actually did not have any overly sore wrists coming into Nome. Photo by Jeff Shultz. Do not use, copy, etc. without permission from Iditarodphotos.com. 
Traffic jam on the Yukon River leaving Tanana. From Tanana, it was 120 river miles to the next checkpoint: Ruby. For this stretch there were two main strategies employed by mushers: three forties, or two sixties. As there is no regular traffic on this stretch of trail (meaning no guaranteed trail base) and the Yukon is known for blown-in and punchy trail irregardless, I decided to be conservative and break my run into three forty-mile runs. I think this decision proved to be wise. The trail did get blown in and was somewhat slow, resulting in some verrrryy long sixty mile runs for those who chose to go that route.
Beautiful river landscape. I really dug the river. The run from Tanana to Ruby was one of my very favorite parts of the 2015 Iditarod. 
First afternoon on the Yukon River.
Snack break. Siblings Ripp & Ruby in lead, Vader & Pete in swing.
Probably the biggest section of "jumble ice" we encountered on the Yukon this year.
Following slowly curving river bends in the late afternoon sun.
Yeah Day Two on the Iditarod trail!
Nope! Lost count already! Day Three !! 
Guess who's holding the snack bag.
Sun setting on our first day on the Yukon. We would camp for 8 hours that evening (accidentally, overslept again) and then run through the night into a mild windstorm. 
Dawn on day two on the Yukon River. Ripp & Vader in lead. It was quite windy, with a minor ground storm going on. The trail was mostly blown in for the next sixty miles to Ruby, with some good spots peeking through on occasion. These types of trail conditions make for slow going, or worse, fast, then slow, going, and can be hard for some musher's morale, so you get to hear lots of complaining at the next checkpoint. Yawn. The trail, and the weather, are the two things on the race you have no control over, so why waste energy complaining about them ?? 
We were treated to a beautiful pastel sunrise on the Yukon River, signaling a beautiful sunny day ahead. 
The Yukon River world awakening to pink sunbeams ! It was a chilly morning and the dogs frosted up. 
Day Four on the Iditarod trail ! 
Morning sun lights up hoarfrost on the trees. 
Frosty Ripp.
Frosty Georgie.
Dogs snoozing in the sun on our second river
camp. We rested here for four hours.
Gorgeous day. Where the trail was not blown in,
 it was pretty nice ! 
Beautiful camp site on the Yukon River, ~40 miles upriver from Ruby. 
Bootie stop. The trail up to that point had been pretty hard packed, so I didn't boot before leaving the last camp. However, more snowdrifts and loose snow appeared the closer we got to Ruby, so I ended up stopping and putting booties on all the dogs about ten miles out from our camp. That was the last time I left a camp/checkpoint without booting. It is annoying to have to stop and boot mid-run! I'm slow, so the dogs think it's another camp-out and go to sleep, as pictured above. Nice spot to stop, though. I couldn't get over how gorgeous the snow blowing off the tops of the mountains was. 
Late afternoon sun lighting up the trail to Ruby. Rick Casillo ahead.
Ruby! How neat to come in from the opposite direction this year! 
The team in Ruby at sunset. We spent 29 hours on the 120 mile stretch from Tanana to Ruby. In Ruby, I talked to Sonny Linder, who was not running the race, but happened to be in town because his construction company had a project there. He gave me some good advice and reaffirmed my decision to 24 in Huslia, this year's halfway point. 460 miles would usually be a long way to go without 24ing, but it had mostly been "easy" miles, meaning we hadn't climbed any mountain ranges like in the regular race route. It was the opinion of some mushers that because of this, this year it wouldn't matter so much where one took his or her 24. I agreed, and figured that a solid rest later in the race would be more beneficial to my team & Sonny's sage words bolstered my confidence in my decision.
From Ruby, we ran through the night and arrived in Galena in the morning. This run could have been a challenge as it was pretty flat, dark, and I was starting to feel tired. But instead, I turned on my iPod shuffle (that I bought in Anchorage the day of the start, and loaded up the night before we took off in Fairbanks) and grooved my way through the darkest and sleepiest part of the night.  I usually don't listen to music or audiobooks when I am running dogs because I feel that plugging my ears up insulates me from what is going on with the team and the environment around us, but I was so pleased to have it for this run. I may have been somewhat insulated, but I wasn't asleep ! The picture above was taken in the early morning, about twenty miles outside of Galena. It was beautiful, but too cold for my camera to function. In another ten miles, we came across Isabelle Travadon, whose dogs had quit on her. I stopped and tried to help her get going again, but her dogs were feeling stubborn and would not budge. Her thermometer said -50F. Too cold to be stranded somewhere, but she said she wasn't cold and had everything she needed, so I kept going. A couple hours after their self-imposed rest, the dogs took Isabelle to Galena, where she gave them another solid rest and quite impressively, nursed them all the way to Nome! Many mushers would have thrown in the towel after their team had quit on them, but Isabelle stuck with it, gave them the rest they needed (demanded?) and made it all the way to Nome :)  
The team resting in -40F in Galena.