XV. Three Americanos to Go, Please

Coming down from Cape Nome. Ruby, Vinnie, Vader, Pete, Fezzik, Major, Goofy & Frigg.
Photo by Jeff Shultz. Iditarodphotos.com 

We had an uneventful run to Golovin. Fortunately, because the trail was glare ice with only a skiff of snow blowing over the top, which would have made it hard to hook down. I was craving a hot cup of coffee soooo badly. This completely unrealistic hope formed in my mind and I knew it was 99.9% out of the question but I couldnt help but hope that maybe, just maybe, Golovin would have a drive-through coffee stand ???   Anyone familiar with Alaska knows we have drive through espresso stands literally everywhere, so it wouldn't be too much of a stretch to image that Golovin could have one too, right !?   Wrong. So, so wrong.  

Golovin was a ghost town that early in the morning and of course, there was no coffee stand. I knew there wouldn’t be, but I was still disappointed.  The trail runs down the middle of Golovin, which is only a few blocks long, before it takes a hard left and spits you off the rocky peninsula back onto the sea ice.  I snacked the dogs and then we trudged across the bay, onto the Fish River, and into White Mountain, the last village before Nome. 

We had a good rest in White Mountain. The dogs ate like monsters.  I ate like a monster too.  After nearly two weeks on the trail, my metabolism was in high gear.  At the start of the race, I could barely eat half of one of my meals.  Now I could eat two and still be starving.  I had sent out Norwegian meatballs that I had begged my friend Markus to cook for me and they were SO good. Like any proper Norwegian dinner, a boiled carrot, a boiled potato, and some cranberry sauce were also included. Yum yum. 

By White Mountain I finally felt like I had gotten a few things figured out. When they did my bag check, I knew where everything was — it was all impressively organized (only took three years and seven or so thousand miles on the runners to figure it out ;) )  But oh man, were Monica and I rookies.  Last time firing up the cooker !  Last run!  Almost to Nome !  Easy peasy from here on out!  Go figure .. it was NOT an easy run to Nome. It was a long, hard slog. 

The coastal storms that had been blowing through had dropped a ton of snow on the Topkok Hills. It was blowing as we left White Mountain at 9:30 pm, and there were several inches of snow on the trail.  As we reached the hills, the snow on the trail grew deeper.  Even though Monica wasn’t very far ahead of me, and I wasn’t very far ahead of Marcelle, every single one of us was trail breaking through six to eight inches of fresh windblown snow. I watched our tracks blow away behind us.  We trudged. The dogs walked up the hills and so did I. Some of the slopes were near vertical, and ridges of snow had drifted over the trail, making it even harder for the dogs. Topkok “Hills,” more like "climbing wall." It was slow going, but steady. It was dark — more so because we were stuck inside a windstorm and clouds above hid the moon and stars, but I remember how ethereally beautiful it was when we reached the top of one of the ridges. The clouds cleared off a bit and a fat white moon shone through the gusts of snow whipping around the top of the ridge. The moon had grown with us as we had traversed the Iditarod trail— starting as a crescent spotted above Finn Bear Lake before diving back into the dark, mountainous forest trail on the way to Rainy Pass, and now it hung over us, lighting up the rolling white hills and terrain of the Topkok Hills. It is a magical feeling to travel by moonlight with a dog team. Almost like flying. But we were not flying. When I checked my watch I was stunned. Ten hours had gone by. All the other teams had only taken six to eight hours to get to Safety. We hadn’t even dropped out of the hills yet, meaning we were just over halfway, with another twenty-five miles or so to go. We kept going. We dropped out of the hills and onto the beach. The wind was blowing hard, but it was manageable. We had had to trudge through half a foot of fresh snow the whole way through the mountains, but we would luckily avoid the dangerous winds of the infamous Salomon Blowhole. We were running on gravel, rocks and ice. After a while we caught up with Monica. She had hunkered down to wait for me. She was low on dog food. So was I. 

Being dumb rookies, we had not properly accounted for the possibility of atrocious weather. We had packed our bags judging on the run times of the teams ahead of us, but the teams ahead of us had not had eight inches of fresh snow to trudge through. Not realizing how slow of progress we were making, we had both stopped regularly to snack the dogs, and as our bags emptied out, realized we had simply not packed enough. In our excitement to get to Nome, we had packed for the best case scenario & had not contemplated an extra camp on the way there. But 77 miles is a looooong way…. and the coast is nothing if not unpredictable. So, despite all the wisdom and warnings of our predecessors, we had to learn it the hard way. 

Marcelle caught up with us as Monica was hooking her dogs back up. We decided to stick close together. I took the lead. Ruby led the way through windblown drifts and ice.  Sometimes the snowpacked ridges of the snowmachine trail would peek through, but mostly we couldn’t see the trail. We scouted for markers and followed those. It was slow going. I worried about our food supply. It was a terrible feeling, to be so irresponsible to have intentionally skimped on dog food because I thought it was just a quick run to the next resupply at Safety. I knew that I didn’t even have that much food at Safety because I thought I would just blow through on my way to Nome anyway.  I let myself get carried away in my excitement — White Mountain is not “almost” to Nome. In adverse conditions, it is actually very far away indeed. 

Dawn broke and it was still a slow trudge, although now we could see ahead of us. We were traveling along a road dotted with fishing shacks. There were mile markers along the road, but they made no sense, so we had no idea how far we were from Safety. By this time, we had been on the trail for twelve hours. Monica and I were traveling close together, Marcelle had dropped back a ways. Our dogs were starting to get tired — they were probably a little hungry too. Some dogs on both teams had started to look back, obviously questioning our decision to keep going. We decided to give the dogs a break before they decided for themselves. Monica and I fed out the last of our dog snacks and then settled back into the snow with camping pads and chocolate. We were feeling bummed. Marcelle caught up and decided to camp there for a while. We would have done the same, if we had had enough food to for a proper meal. But we had to keep going and get to Safety so we could feed the dogs. 

As it turns out, we had stopped literally two miles from Safety. It was actually visible from our camp spot. But, being rookies, we had no idea. It was more frustrating for people watching the trackers to wonder why would stop when we were SO close. But we didn’t know. Rather than frustrating, it was actually quite a nice surprise to finally reach Safety!  Monica and I fed the dogs a nice big meal, and let them have a solid rest before pushing to the finish line. The Roadhouse at Safety was staffed by a nice crew of volunteers and one cantankerous old man who was affiliated with the Roadhouse and made it quite clear he wanted us the hell out of there so he could go home. The volunteers rolled their eyes at him and told us to pay him no mind, but it didn’t matter anyway. The dogs were our first priority and they deserved a nap. 

Monica and I figured we would rest the dogs until we saw Marcelle coming. I didn't want the red lantern. Although the red lantern is of course an honor, marking a huge accomplishment, it still means you came in last — and because I was running Siberians, people expected me to be last. All the folks who told me after the race that they were disappointed because they had picked me for their red lantern in their office Iditarod gambling pool — too bad. That was a bad bet. I was happy to disappoint you. I’ve never gotten last in any race yet, and while that day is sure to come, it won’t be because I’m running Siberians. 

We hooked up our dogs when we saw Marcelle cross the road and pull up to the Roadhouse. It was an easy 22 miles to Nome. The wind had dropped as the afternoon advanced and the weather was clear and sunny. We crested Cape Nome, saw the community of Nome laid out before us and thoroughly enjoyed our run into town. There would be no race between Monica and I. Her dogs were faster and we both knew it. The whole race I had been consistently a half hour behind her, no matter the distance or time spent on the trail.  And sure enough, Monica finished the 2014 Iditarod Sled Dog Race Saturday, March 15 at 7:08 p.m. and I came in at 7:41 pm, 33 minutes behind her. 

It’s hard to describe the feeling of finishing Iditarod. I think I felt somewhat numb, but I melted when I dropped my snowhook and walked the line petting & thanking my dogs for getting us there. I was so incredibly proud of them, especially my little go to girl Ruby. She really is a superstar. Some leaders are made, but the good ones are just born awesome. Ruby took two teams to Nome that year, mine and Monica’s.  Monica had struggled with leader problems most of the way, but we had worked together to get down the trail, both of us relying on Ruby’s desire to get up and go no matter the conditions. Ruby is remarkable, but she isn’t a powerhouse, and didn’t pull me all that way by herself. Pete, Vader, Major, Fezzik, Goofy, Frigg, Vinnie & Nils formed the solid core of a team that took me from Willow, across a thousand miles of varied terrain, to Nome. The scale of our accomplishment did not fully hit me until I was biking past the community center last summer. Hey, I thought, we went to Nome and we started from THERE.  

The dogs that finished the 2014 Iditarod race with me were: PETE, VADER, MAJOR, FEZZIK, GOOFY, FRIGG, VINNIE & RUBY.   NILS was dropped in Safety, 22 miles from the finish line for a sore muscle most likely caused by the deep snow conditions. DOC was dropped in Koyuk because he was tired. ROBBER and VICTOR were dropped in Takotna and Ophir, respectively, for sore wrists. JACKIE and SNEEZY got dinged up on the snowless trail to Rohn and were sent home from there. I’m proud of all of them, and myself. We managed to put on enough miles during a tough, snowless winter — when I was bound to home trails because I had a job, when it was safe only to take out 7-dog teams, when I had no idea what I was doing — enough miles to enable us to finish the longest, most renowned long distance sled dog race in the world. Turns out, with good dogs, you only need about a thousand

The journey to Nome started long before we hit the trail in Willow, March 1, 2014 and I have been supported & encouraged the entire way. For that I am so grateful. I am foremost thankful for my parents, who have encouraged me every step (and misstep) of the way. We share a common desire to see the Siberian Husky excel in all aspects of sled dog sports. To this end, our kennel is a partnership, but I am definitely still a junior partner and have a lot to learn about the history and capabilities of our breed. Thanks for your patience and trust in this process :) 

To all the friends, Siberian Husky fans, and individuals & groups who supported my Rookie Run — thank you.  I could not have done without you. I am so very appreciate & grateful in those that have chosen to support our adventures and help us showcase the wonderful Siberian Husky breed in the Last Great Race on Earth — Iditarod !! 

Running along the Nome beach. Photo by Jeff Shultz. Iditarodphotos.com

Mom & I at the finish line with Super Ruby in the foreground. Photo by Mike Ellis.

Trail buddies from Rohn to Nome. Monica & Lisbet at the finish line. 

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