|The team outside of Elim. Photo taken by my friend Pete Radano, one of the Iditarod trail sweeps. You'd think they'd be used to snowmachines by then, but you can see that several think it's super weird Pete is there.|
I remember most of the trail to Elim as a white expanse. Hard to tell the sea from the land. I was tired and it was windy. I remember busting through windblown drifts and running along the top of the beach — not much snow, just beach coated with ice and driftwood. I had to keep geeing the dogs over so that the sled would not slip down the slope of the beach into the driftwood line. it was sunny and windy. I kept my face tucked into my ruff and didn't take too much time looking at the scenery. Maybe I napped. Flat light everywhere — I had no idea what direction I was traveling in, we just followed the trail markers.
10 miles from Elim, the trail jumped onto the road that leads from old Elim and fish camps to town. It was a pretty steady climb. We crested the hill, the dogs spotted Elim below and I rode the brake all the way down the hill into town. There was hardly any snow on the road.
The checkpoint is at the fire station. Monica and I tucked our dogs into sleeping spots along the containers arranged around the station, fed them, ourselves, and headed inside for a nap. What I remember most vividly about Elim is that it has the most comfortable plywood floor in the world. No question. It has never been harder to wake up from any nap in my whole entire life than it was in Elim. I was soooooo comfortable. Finally, Stacey, one of the checkpoint volunteers, was able to coax me awake. She has quite a talent in waking up dead tired mushers! She has the softest voice… “Time to wake up, girls…. would you like some coffee?” Yes, please, Monica and I said before we both fell back asleep. “Girls… your coffee is ready” filtered through our sleep fogged brains ….And then we felt bad she had made the coffee, and dragged ourselves off our respective sleeping pads.
Monica and I were pretty excited to leave Elim. We were headed for White Mountain, our last (!) scheduled stop on the race and where we would have an 8 hour break. That year the trail was rerouted from the sea ice and went straight up into the hills behind town. The climbs were steep, topping out on “little McKinley,” before beginning a steep descent down to Golovin Bay.
The winds increased as we began our descent. Soon, it was howling, and visibility was limited. Monica’s team had passed us before the summit, but we spotted the lights of her team down below us, off the trail. The wind had gotten so fierce, I figured it would be better if we were together, so I directed my dogs off the trail and after Monica’s. This was a command they took easily, as the trail headed up the side of a ridge with the wind blowing directly in their faces. When we caught up to Monica we learned that her team had been blown off the trail and were being stubborn about heading back into the wind. We thought that we would go straight ahead, surely that weird trail above would come this direction? Um, no. The trail was staked where it was for a reason. We encountered only ravines and willow bushes. The wind was howling, blowing snow into our faces and covering our tracks immediately. Monica hunkered down with the teams and I trudged back up the mountain to scout out some trail markers. Once I located some markers, we worked together to bring our teams back up to the trail. First we brought Monica's team up to the ledge where the trail began again. We anchored her team and went back down the mountainside to get my dogs. As we started down, the wind shifted. This was immediately disorienting-- it was dark, the wind was blowing, and there was zero visibility beyond the immediate scope of our headlights. Our tracks in the snow were blown away almost as quick as they were made, so we had been using the wind as a directional guide. When the wind changed, for a small scary moment, I had no idea where my dog team was. My stomach dropped. But we knew that they were not very far away and slowly began walking toward where we thought the dogs were. After several excruciating moments, I spotted several bright white strips glinting through the bushes. As we drew closer, the strips of 3M reflective material sewn onto my sled bag lit up like a Christmas tree in the beam of my headlight. The team had been found. My relief was palpable and immediate, but tinged with a scary feeling, as they had not been where we had thought they would be. Thank goodness for reflective material !! And a good reminder why you should NEVER leave your dog team in a snow storm... it's too risky. Another stupid rookie learning experience.
Monica led my dogs back up to the trail and I helped push the sled up the slope. As we sorted out our dogs, getting ready to get moving again, Marcelle caught up with us. We saw her dogs wanting to dive down the mountain as our dogs had and blinked our headlights at her until we were sure she saw us. Then we were on our way again. The sky began to lighten as our teams made their way off the mountain. We had spent a long time off the trail. Golovin was only about five miles away, and White Mountain another eighteen after that, but the dogs were moving slow and it would take us until early afternoon to reach our final mandatory layover.