XIII. Ruby’s Route to Russia

The windblown trail leaving Shaktoolik was mostly frozen dirt, driftwood and ice. When the trail left land and hit the sea ice, it felt like the snow had turned to sand. There was noticeable resistance. Was it my runner plastic ? Had it gotten so scratched up from driftwood in the first ten miles to be slowing us down?  Monica noticed the drag too — it wasn't our runner plastic, but the salty coastal snow itself.  Nothing we could do about it.

We experienced a beautiful ocean sunset — winter pastels covering the expanse of frozen ocean with the western horizon fading into reds and orange. The trail was mostly straight out of Shaktoolik but as night fell, the trail began to zig-zag. Large pressure ridges forced the usually straight trail to Koyuk to detour around them. 

As soon as it got dark, I started having trouble keeping my eyes open. I could…not… stay…awake.  But I had to, to give Ruby commands.  The re-routed trail was not obvious to the dogs, and unlike some seasoned Iditarod dogs, mine had not yet learned to follow the reflective bits glaring off the trail markers ahead.  Ruby thought she would just take which ever way seemed easiest, regardless if it went to Koyuk or not !   I’m sure that if I fell asleep and let her have her way we would have been halfway to russia by the time I woke up again.  But we were headed to Nome, so I struggled to keep my eyes open and to keep the team on the trail… I hallucinated. I saw trees in my periphial vision, like we were traveling along a river bank… but I knew were were on the ocean, in the middle of a bay.  The pressure ridges we detoured around were tall, at times obscuring the lights of Koyuk. We wove amongst them for hours, as the wind steadily picked up. The storm was arriving.  The full force of it did not hit until we reached land. Then, the wind gusted, covering the trail. Snow accumulated on the trail quickly. The markers stayed upright, though, and we followed them into town.

Monica had been just ahead of me when we hit the shore. Her team had disappeared into the blizzard ahead, but I figured she had made it into the checkpoint fine until I was signing in and saw that her name was not on the sign-in sheet.  "Is Monica here?" I asked.  "I think so," the checker said. But her name is not on the sign in sheet.  "I think she’s here," said the checker, and shrugged.  OK, that’s weird.  I got my dogs parked and was preparing their meal when Monica came running down the street, calling for help.  Her dogs were down on the ice, tangled in overflow.  I helped her find some Iditarod volunteers and they went back down to get help get her team off the ice and safely into the checkpoint.  The area where the trail turned off the ice and up the beach into town was flooded with about six inches of overflow. It had not been obvious to us either where the trail was supposed to be, but a village boy had heard me hawing at my dogs and whistled us over to where the trail cut between blocks of ice and into town. Monica had missed the submerged turn-off but forty minutes after I arrived, finally checked safely into Koyuk.

My face that I thought was just slightly sunburnt, started really bothering me in Koyuk, especially when I stepped into the checkpoint building and started to thaw out. My friend Jim Gallea, one of the race judges in Koyuk, happens to be a doctor, so he took a look and informed me that I had blisters from windburn that had also gotten frostbit. When I had been hallucinating and trying to stay awake on the midnight ocean crossing, I had found the best thing to help me stay awake was to push back my ruff and get a faceful of fresh air.  Turns out that was a bad idea.

Carolyn, one of the trail sweeps, had some microfoam that irondoggers use to protect their faces. She cut some up and patched my face up for me. It immediately felt better. So I looked like a burn victim. Whatever. Iditarod has been, and never will be, a beauty contest :p  (The frostbite ended up permanently damaging my face — I have splotches that have never quite recovered and are super sensitive to both cold and sun. FYI — apparently frostbiting windburn will burn your freckles off too, so if you hate yours, there ya go ;) (not recommended))

After cutting the dog’s rest short in Shaktoolik, I wanted to give them a solid rest in Koyuk.  No problem, said Jim. “You guys are making great time.  You want to take 8 hours, take 8 hours. You want to take 10, take 10. You guys are good.” Aw thanks Jim! His lenient attitude was due to the fact we were so far ahead of the regular back of the pack pace and grouped so closely together that we didn't have to worry about getting shooed up the trail by the Iditarod officials. Slow moving mushers at the back of the pack will sometimes get some unwelcome prompting by officials to hurry it up, as the logistics of keeping checkpoints open along hundreds of miles of trail is immense. There are only so many volunteers and airplanes and as they move along the trail, so must the mushers.  Checkpoints cannot stay open for people on “camping trips.”  It is a race!

But we were not in slow poke territory.  Our pace was good and we were on our way to Nome!

Next up.... Part XIV: The Most Comfortable Floor in the World. 

No comments:

Post a Comment