VIII. Halfway

Monica and I left the warm and cozy Innoko River cabin under a big starry sky.  The river valley was wide and expansive. The trail left the bottom of the river valley and began traversing gently rolling hills.   The moonlit landscape rolled by,  the same seemingly featureless hills for miles and miles.  At some point during the night, the aurora stretched so wide across the night sky, it couldn't be encompassed in a single glance.  Smooth thick glowing green ribbons of aurora slowly undated across the night sky in a panorama that encompassed my entire field of vision. 

The northern lights gave me something to latch on to, engaged me, and kept my attention level high.  When they faded away, I felt my awareness of my surroundings fading as well. It was the darkest time of night, when you feel tired no matter how much sleep you've gotten. My headlamp reveled the same rolling taiga hills, gently up, gently down, again and again.  It wasn't engaging and it certainly wasn't technical. The trail dragged on, more so because we didn't know where the checkpoint was.  After about forty miles, I kept expecting to see Cripple around every corner, and after every corner was disappointed.  This went on for another ten or twenty miles (i.e. forever), before finally, as a pale dawn crept over the eastern sky, we saw the lights of Cripple glinting in the distance.  As we cruised down a long slope to the large frozen swamp bordering the checkpoint, the sky lightened with the soft cotton candy pinks and blues so particular to northern Interior landscapes -- bring to mind Fairbanks, Kautokeino, Kiruna. 

We pulled into Cripple and before she even said a word, it was apparent that the checker was the most annoying person in the world. The poor girl didn't do anything except pleasantly check us in and do a bag check. But her very existence irritated me. And I couldn't figure out why…. until I ate something. I am the kind of person whose blood sugar is important to their mood even in the best of times... compound that with almost a week on the trail, and the result is extreme grumpiness and irrationality.  I felt human again after I scarfed down a meal I heated up in the water cooker.  Some levels in my body equalized and I realized I had not taken as good of care of myself on that last run as I should have.  I need to stay fed and hydrated to stay happy.  I didn't hate the checker anymore, in fact, I quite liked her.   The highs and lows of Iditarod.... things can change so quickly -- mood swings, weather, trail conditions…. at the drop of a hat.  Knowing how to handle yourself and your team in these situations is a skill that comes with experience, and is certainly one of the most important wilderness skills a musher needs to have in their arsenal. You need to be able to take care of yourself in order to take care of your dogs.  

Cripple is considered the halfway point on the northern route of the Iditarod. A checkpoint that is renowned for it's "middle-of-nowhere-ness," Cripple has, over the years, transformed into a luxury camp. There are several buildings, and several more were being constructed during our stay there.  There was a cook shack, a super cushy musher sleeping building heated by an oil drip stove, PLUS, maybe the nicest feature: his and her outhouses. We quite enjoyed our stay in Cripple -- I even got a cheeseburger, cooked by Iditarod judge Jim Gallea himself. Tyrell & Tekla Seavey were also there. Tekla, who is one of the nicest people in the world, was actually the checker, so you can see I was clearly out of my head when we arrived in Cripple. Tyrell is an expert at reading Iditarod stats, crunching numbers, and just general race analysis, so it's always interesting to hear his take on the race. We stayed in Cripple for 7 hours, a little longer than planned-- it was hard to drag myself out of the warm building with cheeseburgers and race insights !

Next up...... "An Incident with Fire." 

Need to catch up ? The rest of the story is available below: 

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