IX. An Incident with Fire

Traveling through burn outside of Cripple. Also, the last photo I took on Iditarod 2014.
It was mid afternoon when we left Cripple. It was hot & sunny - in retrospect, not the best time to leave. The dogs dragged leaving the checkpoint. My face had also started to bother me -- my nose and cheeks burning. I assumed it was an allergic reaction to my sunscreen (this is some foreshadowing for you). As the dogs warmed up, the miles fell away beneath their paws and I started really enjoying the landscape.

The trail out of Cripple was smooth and rolled over several ridge tops, mostly traveling through spruce -- green & burned. I took my last picture from the trail here -- I had left one camera battery, along with the charger, in Rohn and had taken to warming up the remaining battery in my glove before I popped it in my camera to take a picture before it got cold and died again.  Somewhere along the way, I did something with the dogs, took my glove off and dropped the battery, of course not realizing until the next time I wanted to take a picture (I was sad about this, especially after we reached the coast, which I thought was SO beautiful, particularly the Blueberry Hills & Shaktoolik area).

The trail narrowed as it moved off the ridgelines, dropping us into the bottom of a valley.  We came upon a big steel bridge - the Sulatna River Crossing. This was a the first sign of civilization after 100+ miles of unsettled wilderness. From here we would follow old mining roads to the Yukon River village of Ruby. But first, we would give the dogs a short break. The run to Ruby from Cripple was estimated to be anywhere from 60 to 80 miles.

The road to Ruby was wide with somewhat steep grades. We passed Marcelle, who in true Yukon fashion, had bedded her dogs down on spruce boughs. As we climbed, the wind increased. I figured it probably would have been smarter to take a break down in the more sheltered valley, but oh well. How was a rookie to know. 

I caught up with Alex, who had pulled over into the bend of the road. It was still windy, but not as windy as on the other side of the corner. This place would have to do. Night fell as we cared for our dogs. Monica pulled up and I helped her park her dogs. By this time, Alex had finished his chores, and like the good camper he is, had built a small fire beside the teams. 

For some reason, as the sun sank, so did our moods. It was a group of disillusioned rookies sitting in front the campfire halfway between Cripple and Ruby.  I was cooking a Hostess blueberry muffin on a stick, marveling at how good they tasted warm and not frozen (go figure, right?). I don't remember what we complained about, but one thing was that the dogs weren't eating as well as they had earlier.  Knowing now what I didn't know then, this was normal. The dogs were still getting into the routine, their bodies had not yet adapted metabolically and physically to the routine of running a long distance race. They would, but this metabolic process was not something any of us had ever seen before. At this point in the race, we were twice as far as any of us had ever taken a dog team before. 

The fire was warm & cozy, throwing hot sparks of spruce into the sky.  Monica and Alex decided they would sleep by the fire.  I decided I would be more comfortable in my sleeping bag in my sled. I made my bed, set my alarm for two hours and fell asleep. 

I woke up later, feeling remarkably well rested for a two hour nap. Then I looked at my clock. Two hours had somehow turned into six !!!!   Whaaa?? Why hadn’t Alex or Monica woken me up ?  I peeked out of my sled bag - it was still dark but I could make out the forms of their sleeping teams.  What ?? How could ALL THREE of us oversleep !?!? 

I crawled out of my sled and walked over to where Monica and Alex where lying around the burnt-out campfire. What the hell ??  Feathers were everywhere.  Monica’s bag had a huge hole with the guts of the sleeping bag pushing through. And Alex. Alex looked like he had just crawled out of a chicken coop. WHAT had happened ?? 

I woke them up & learned that they had somehow caught themselves on fire during the night. Their best guess was that the space blanket Monica had wrapped around herself had blown off her and onto the fire.  Monica had woken up to Alex rolling around yelling, pieces of burning space blanket raining down around them. I immediately started laughing, but Alex was actually quite traumitized. His big puffy down jacket had caught on fire - with him still in it. Parts of his beaver hat had been singed, and his sleeping bag and sleeping pad both had immesnse holes from the fire.  Later, in Nulato, Alex showed us his sleeping pad. The entire section from the right corner to where his head and shoulder had laid was burnt away. It’s taken two years but I *think* he can find the humor in it now. Or maybe you had to see it for yourself. I still laugh out loud when I think about Alex looking like a fox in a henhouse. 

The run into Ruby was fantastic. Of course, the dogs were fresh off an 8 hour rest !!  So we just cruised up and down the rolling hills that the mining road traversed.  There was never a flat spot; we were headed either up or down.  Many of the low points were heavily glaciated, but nothing too bad. It was cold — the dogs frosted up and ice fog hovered over the creeks we crossed.  The sun rose as we got closer to the checkpoint and I was surprised to realize I recognized the hills surrounding Ruby.  As long as I have been alive, a Jon van Zyle painting titled “Trail of out Ruby” has hung in my grandparent’s dining room. Over the years, the landscape soaked into my mind.  It was a strange feeling to recognize a place I had never been. Despite the déjá vu, what lay ahead was still a great unknown, and up next was the vast & intimidating Yukon River. 


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