Iditarod 2016: Willow to Takotna

Cruising on the Susitna River.
At my first camp on the river, I found a surprise in my straw bag! Thanks Mom ! 
Over bog and meadow to Finger Lake. I wanted to get the dogs into a regular run/rest schedule right away, so I split my runs into roughly 40 mile segments and blew through the first four checkpoints (Yenta, Skwentna, Finger Lake & Rainy Pass) in favor of camping on the trail.
In the midst of the Alaska Range, heading toward the infamous Happy River Steps.  
Raspy & Goofy camping on the Happy River at the bottom of the Steps.
It was fun to chill here and watch teams attack the steep ascent up the bank off the river. If you look to the right of the front of the team, you can see a smear of dirt on the river bank. This is the trail. It heads straight up and then switchbacks up to a steep gulch that takes you back into the hills. It was interesting to see the different levels of power and training between teams.  
Snoozing dogs, amazing scenery. 
Twisty, humpy trail in the mountains.  The section to Rainy Pass was the section I was most worried about pre-race. In 2014, this was the only section of trail that beat me black and blue. It was full of stumps and icy sidehills. Fortunately, this year there was lots of snow to cushion the trail and lots of teams still behind me, so the trail wasn't as rutted out as it could have been.  
Leaving Rohn. We traveled from Rainy Pass to Rohn in the dark this year. There were quite a few challenges in this short 35 mile section. First was an open creek that created a messy backlog of teams. The snow was churned up and hooks would not hold in the soft snow. Mushers took turns leading each other's teams over the knee-deep creek. I was very happy to have invested in the tall Neos overboots with built in gators. I didn't get wet at all. Unfortunately, not everyone fared as well as I did. I know of at least one musher who had to run in soaked mukluks for another couple hundred miles before they found a new pair of boots in their drop bags. If the weather had turned cold, this could have been very dangerous. This just as easily could have been me, so I always carry an extra pair of boots and/or liners just in case. The dogs didn't get wet; they have such thick coats they were able to roll around in the snow & shake off any extra water. The water didn't penetrate  their undercoats. Anyone who has tried to give a Siberian Husky a bath can understand this. Further down the trail, there were some sketchy snow bridges but we luckily managed to navigate them without issue.  Sure made my heart race, though.
Still on the Tatina River out of Rohn. The Gorge was nowhere near as bad as in 2014, but short sections were still really awful. I was really apprehensive about the steep drop-off down to Dalzell Creek. Two years ago, this is where all traces of snow disappeared, Karen Ramstead hurt her hand & several mushers had brake bars ripped off. This year, the decent was no problem. Amazing what a little snow can do. The creek was another matter. Earlier in the winter, creek levels had dropped and subsequently so had the ice, leaving ten foot plus drop-offs. The trail breakers had done a lot of work constructing walls of brush meant to keep teams from sliding around corners, off edges and into the creek, so it felt pretty safe. The dogs were moving well and we were cruising through the canyon. I even went so far to think, "hey, this is actually kind of fun."  No sooner had I thought that, my headlamp illuminated a huge hole in front of the team and I watched my lead dog Ripp leap to the side to avoid it and in the same movement get flung back into the swing dogs. I jammed my ice hook into the glare ice of the creek and ran up to see if he was ok -- what the heck had happened? The best I can guess is that the line got slack as he hesitated and then caught on the jagged edge of the ice, flinging him back into the team as he tried to vault forward.  There were no brush guards on this edge, it had obviously dropped off into the creek after the trail crew had come through. After that, I bumped my headlight up to its next highest setting and held on extra extra tight. I couldn't wait to get out of there and was relieved to drop onto the ice of the Tatina River.  
Not much snow out of Rohn. I overslept at the checkpoint, so the dogs got a total of 7 hours rest. We ripped out of the checkpoint & I had a really hard time keeping the dogs under 10 miles per hour. Wow, I thought, 7 hours really did them good !!  Turns out, we were chasing a buffalo.
We didn't see the buffalo, but later I heard reports that several teams in front and behind of us had chased one down the trail in the same area. Kristin Knight Pace even ran into one! Literally !
Mini Lu in single lead. 
...Dusty !
Glacier Re-route. BLM & Iditarod blazed a new trail last summer. This fairly straightforward down-and-up took us right to the top of the Post River glacier [The traditional approach starts at the very bottom of the glacier (a long and steep section of overflow that appears in this area every year) & as I recall, before one got to that point, there were several steep drop offs and twisty downhill turns which I assume are now bypassed with this reroute].

Mini Lu posing on the tundra at the base of the Post River Glacier. Looked like a good berry year last fall.
The "big rock" at the top of the Post River Glacier & where we rejoined the traditional route.
Scrabbling over overflow at the top of the glacier.
The snow disappeared for a few miles after the glacier.
Pyramid Mountain. In 2014 I traveled this section at night, so the expansive views were all new & exciting. Not to mention the snowless trail; that was exciting too, but not in the same way. 

Selfie of an overheating musher. Running up all these dirt hills in the sun made me disorientated -- I felt like it was summer time & I was trail running. 


Dogs had a break to eat some snow & a snack. 
Farewell Lakes. Year before last there was a similar skiff of snow on the lakes, but it was fresh & made for extra slippery conditions. By the time we came by, the snow had somewhat bonded to the ice & made for fairly smooth traveling. When I hit the lakes, I remembered the relief I felt in 2014 to finally make it to flat trail that wasn't trying to kill me. I felt similarly this year. 
No dirt humps to dump me off my sled ! 

Goofy taking a snooze break in the basket. Goofy was the first dog to display symptoms of a virus that traveled through the entire team during the race. 
Setting up a camp spot a few miles past Tin Creek. 
Runner plastic ripped up from 40 miles of dirt & rocks. 
**Fangirl alert** Camping "with" LARS MONSEN. Super celebrity in Norway; virtually unknown in the States. But I know who he is !! I didn't bother him; he was preparing to leave as I was settling down. But, at the risk of sounding like a creeper, I got a real thrill knowing it looked like we camped together on the tracker :D :D  It's similar to saying you went camping with Bear Gyrlls, except that Lars is way more hardcore. PS -- I didn't stop here because I'm a stalker; it just happened to be a nice open clearing halfway between Rohn & Nikolai.
Mini Lu and I watching Lars Monsen. Eating my yummy boller (Norwegian cardamom bun) with brown cheese and butter that I heated up in my cooker. 
Sunset on the way to Nikolai. 
Blue dawn somewhere outside of Nikolai. 
Sunrise. Lots of lakes, swamps and river travel on the run to McGrath.
Mini Lu was tired and showing symptoms of sickness so she got some extra rest in the basket. 
River pictures look boring in retrospect, but I really love mushing along these natural travel corridors ! 
We saw more and more snow the closer we got to McGrath. 
The team resting in McGrath. When we got to McGrath, I was very concerned about Ravni. She seemed much more lethargic than what I would consider normal. The checkpoint vets didn't seem overly concerned, but I felt like something was off and was very worried. Stu, Iditarod's head vet, walked by & I called him over. Thank you Stu, for taking my concerns seriously and immediately taking action. It's possible that Ravni could have just been tired and a little dehydrated. It's also possible that she could have been exhibiting early symptoms of sled dog myopathy. We dont know, but it's better to be safe than sorry. Stu got the vets moving. Ravni got whisked away by dog drop volunteers, my friends Anja & Corrine, who, with the dropped dog vet, immediately gave Ravni fluids & lots of love. She responded well to treatment and was flown home right away where she recovered immediately. I am very grateful to Anja, Corrine & the other dog drop volunteers for taking such good care of Ravni & to Stu for taking my concerns seriously. 
Bitey resting after supper.
Princess, Mini Lu, & Jasmine. Princess lost her appetite at about this point in the race. I thought it was due to the bug running through the team, but after a couple of days she still wasn't eating well. I worried about her getting thin & ended up dropping her in Unalakleet for that reason. Mini Lu, refreshed from her ride, ate all her supper & quickly recovered from the virus.  It seemed to be a 24 bug. We monitor the dog's eating very closely -- it is a major indicator for how they are feeling!
Heading toward Takotna. 
We blew through Takotna. We were headed to Ophir to take our 24 !