X. The Unexpectedly Nice Yukon River

Ruby is a beautiful village, perched high above the banks of the Yukon river and surrounded by folds of rolling hills studded with taiga forest. We had a great rest at the checkpoint. The dogs were finally starting to get into the groove of things. It was clear their bodies were adapting metabolically to the rigors of the trail. They started eating like monsters in Ruby, starting by stealing the fish from the Monica’s dogs, who were parked next to us, and ended up eating that way all the way to Nome. The Ruby checkpoint also had separate outhouses for men & women, which is ALWAYS great.  I got to see my friend Jamie & fellow “droplet” (droplet = the volunteers who make up the main dog drop crew on the Iditarod trail).  I first started volunteering for Iditarod as a teenager with an interest in pre-vet studies. (Sometimes I wish I had paid better attention to what the mushers had done in the checkpoints, but at the time I only had eyes for the dogs. And now, I only have eyes for my dogs :) )  

We completed our mandatory 8 hour rest in Ruby.  The next section of trail would be solely river running. ~140 miles down the frozen expanse of the Yukon. This next leg was intimidating.  I've read for years how boring the river can be, how bad the trail can be, how its flatness is mentally draining for both musher and dogs.... blah blah blah.  Turns out, I dig the river. 

I love the Interior landscape. I love new trail. The trail was interesting, not a lot of snow in some spots, so I had to watch for crevasses in the ice. We crossed several sand bars that scraped up my runner plastic something awful. I had my eyes peeled for wolves — in 1984 my mom encountered a wolf pack on the river. It was at night, and at first she thought the long string of glowing eyes was another dog team…

I wanted to see wolves too!  Night fell as we cruised down the river. At one point I thought I heard wolves howling in the distance. I stopped my team to listen, sure it must be a wolf pack. Then I recognized the howling, and knew that it was just Monica’s dogs in the distance.  Oh, well.

We had a good rest in Galena that night and set off again mid-morning. The Yukon River was unexpectedly nice and this section of trail, between Galena and Nulato, was particularly gorgeous. The low winter sun threw sparkles on the expanses of windblown snow surrounding the trail. A pretty fierce tailwind gusted and swirled snow around the dogs, snow crystals glinting in the sun, but luckily not forming into any seriously tall drifts. 

We arrived at Nulato mid-afternoon. Nulato is a warm, hospitable community. The school gym right by the riverbank serves as the checkpoint. They had cots set up in a warm boiler room and a spread of food brought in by members of the community. There were some beat up and bandaged Iditasport people taking a rest too. They left hours before Monica and I did, but it seems like we caught them almost immediately. It was dark when we left the checkpoint and snow had begun to fall, increasing in intensity as we traveled further downriver. The snow muffled the sounds of the dog teams so we ran up and almost over the walkers — I’m not sure if they even had their headlights turned on. We passed them and left them in the proverbial dust, feeling a little sorry for those poor souls who had decided to walk to Nome. Dog team seemed to be the way to go!  Maybe this is what the snowmachiners think when they pass us. :)  Monica and I stuck tight together through the snow storm on the river. We mushed through the night, through thick snow flurries all the way to Kaltag, arriving at about two in the morning.

Next installment...  XI. Kaltag Portgage


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