VII. Sunrise on the Road to Ophir

Finally,  many moons after the fact, I am publishing the last few installments of my Rookie Iditarod story!  Sorry for the delay -- it takes me a long time to write and it has been a long time since I had the time to sit down and do so! The rest of the tale (from McGrath to Nome) will be laid out over the course of the next week or two.  If you would like to start the trip over from the beginning, the other installments are available by clicking on the links below:

Innoko River country.

VII. Sunrise on the Road to Ophir

We left McGrath in early morning darkness. I remember feeling like my energy levels had been restored, but not quite back to 100%. It was a daunting feeling to leave my “big” rest still tired with over 700 miles left to go. 

It was a fun, fast, and unexpectedly hilly run to Takotna. The dogs were fresh off their big rest and chugged over the hills in good time. It felt like a blink of an eye from the time we pulled the hook in McGrath until we were pulling through town. I’m sure the eighteen mile run feels much longer to the mushers who 24 in Takotna, as the hills usually cap off a fifty long river and swamp miles from Nikolai. Heehee, too bad for them. 

I stopped in Takotna long enough to drop Robber. I didn’t like the look of his gait. The long break had not done anything to improve his sore wrist, so while I was sorry to send my sweet Robber home, it was for the best. Even stopping in Takotna for just ten minutes was still long enough to get a feel for the community’s legendary hospitality.  The checkpoint volunteers gave me a sack lunch & a soda for the road, which was very well received on my part! I love soda :)

We left Takotna around 6 in the morning. The trail to Ophir follows a road that curves up and around the hills surrounding Takotna. It was still dark, but as we chugged up the long, gradual climbs, we could see hints of dawn to the east. 

Coming around a corner, the Alaska Range revealed itself, black mountains standing in contrast to a brilliant sunrise glowing in the East, a thick, blood-red line that somehow, against all color wheels, managed to fade perfectly into the india ink of the dawn sky, still heavily speckled with burning white stars. The black outline of the Alaska Range rose up along the horizon, the mountains thrown into contrast by the brilliant blood red of the sunrise.  It was beautiful and strange. Strange to see the mountains I grew up with, my constant frame of reference since I was a small child, behind me. But it was also exciting, exciting to move forward toward new horizons.

The sky lightened as we dropped over the hills surrounding Takotna into the Innoko River valley. The temperature plummeted. The dog’s coats became coated in hoarfrost and the particles from their breath frosted the ruff around my face. But as the sun rose, so did the temperature. The sky lightened, and to my surprise, I recognized the landscape. A very good friend of mine had spent time trapping and hunting in this region a few years ago, and had described the landscape to me. One of the prominent landmarks of the region is two side by side symmetrical hills, shaped like mounds. Okay, shaped like breasts. Very obviously breast-shaped. I laughed. It was clear to me that this was the landmark Eline had mentioned, and knowing that my friend had experienced that same landscape both oriented and comforted me somehow. 

We rolled into Ophir a little before 9 a.m.  What a charming checkpoint. Quiet, remote, comfortable. The dogs lazed in the sun and I got a comfy nap in a nice warm wall tent furnished with an oil drip stove.  Before I left Ophir, I dropped Victor, whose sore wrist and shoulder I had been nursing since Nikolai. It was seventy to ninety (actual mileage unknown) to Cripple, the next dog drop, so I didn't want to risk having to carry him. This left me with the ten dogs that I would ultimately take the rest of the way. 

It would be a long haul from Ophir to Cripple. We planned on breaking the run in two. Alex told he planned to pull over at a BLM cabin by the Innoko River. That sounded like a good plan to us too. But first, we had to leave Ophir.  The dogs were reluctant. 

If dogs are new to distance racing, running and resting on a race schedule is something they need to be taught. Dogs crave consistency. Once they understand the pattern:  “run, eat, rest, repeat,” it’s much easier to get them out of the checkpoints. Although running in itself is the ultimate reward (not distant straw & kibble), an innate capacity for self preservation will cause a dog to be hesitant to run into the distant sunset if they are unsure there is actually an end to the trail.  

I put Ruby (who has actually never not wanted to go) in single lead and coaxed the rest out of the checkpoint. After an hour or so, the dogs warmed up and got back in the groove of things, but I was shaken by the rough departure. They hadn’t eaten well in Ophir either. Although I had heard from other mushers that the first half of the race is a transition period for the dogs, hearing something is one thing, seeing for yourself is another. Ultimately, by the time we reached Ruby, the dogs had it all figured out. (In my case, I didn’t feel like I got hardly anything figured out until White Mountain, seventy miles from the finish line, but oh well ;))

The BLM cabin is about 30 miles out of Ophir.  The run from Ophir to the cabin was spectaculur.  It was a fairly flat, hard packed trail that followed the innoko river valley.  The sun was bright, and the afternoon seemed warm. I don’t know if if was actually “warm,” but the sun felt hot, & after -30F, almost any temp seems warm!  We reached the cabin as the daylight faded. We almost missed it, as the cabin was tucked just off the trail amidst the trees, but I caught sight of some neon sledbag or jacket and geed the dogs up the cabin’s “outgoing” trail.  

The cabin was new and super fancy, as far as cabins in the middle of nowhere go (Read an article about the building of the cabin HERE). It was a beautiful spot on the north fork of the Innoko River.  While I cared for the dogs, I watched a stunning red sunset give way to darkness. The stars twinkled above the spruce trees and the windows of the cabin glowed a cheery yellow.  There was a gang of us rookies there, all taking a short break before heading off into the wilderness of Innoko River country. The atmosphere was congenial and cozy. A few worried nervously about their positions in the back of the pack, but most everyone else, including myself, really didn't care.  We were having a good time, learning how to run a thousand mile race. I took a short nap on one of the cots inside the cabin and then Monica and I prepared out teams to head towards Cripple…. the halfway point of the race ! 

On the way to the BLM cabin. 

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