Iditarod 2014 Ceremonial start to Nikolai (1/4)
We started the drive from Fairbanks to the Iditarod start in Anchorage on Wednesday, feb 26th with 18 dogs, two dogsleds and a huge pile of equipment filling our car. In Anchorage we were fortunate to have a great place to stay at the Lake Hood Inn, right behind the race headquarter at the Millennium Hotel and with a beachline at Lake Hood. If you ever need a place to stay in Anchorage – look no further!
Thursday went by with the mandatory mushers meeting and mushers Banquet in the evening. We drew BIB number 8 for our first Iditarod! Anki and Elin surprised Kenneth by bringing him Makrell i Tomat (Norwegian food) which put a huge smile on his face 🙂
On Friday we met up with Pam and her family who volunteered to take care of our dropped dogs. I visited Pam’s daughters school, a school in which half of the day is spent speaking German. It was fantastic to meet the kids and show them some mushing equipment and talk to them. Afterwards we went to Tozier Track to let the dogs stretch their legs before we had Pizza and beer.
Saturday was the day of the ceremonial start. All teams start on 4th avenue with an Iditarider sitting in their sled and the handler riding a tug-sled. From 4th avenue the teams make their way through downtown Anchorage and eventually end up at Campbell airstrip. The entire track in lined by thousands and thousands of people who make the whole run a party, provide you with hot dogs and cookies and simply have a great time. The rest of Saturday we spent relaxing and packing.
Sunday was the big day – the day of the re-start in Willow. We were fortunate to have a whole group of volunteers to help us get 16 excited dogs to the starting line, and off we went! The first 10-15 miles where crowded with people like nothing we had ever seen before, but soon the crowds disappeared and we finally felt that we had started our adventure. The first lag was sunny and warm, we stopped many times to role in the snow on our way to Yetna.
We took a short break in Yetna according to our plan to give the dogs a break and some food before we continued on our way to Skwetna, and reached Skwetna in the middle of the night. After a rest we continued on our way to Finger Lake, still with 16 dogs. As it got light we could see the Alaska Range and were on beautiful scenic trails. Kongo had gotten a little stiff and I decided to drop him in Finger Lake before trails were getting rough. I turned him over to the vets right before I left the checkpoint, and could see his plane take off about at the same time as I pulled the hook. He was reunited with Kenneth some 40 minutes later in Anchorage after a scenic flight over the Alaska range. I continued with 15 happy dogs in the sunset towards some of the difficult parts on the trail. After about 10 miles we reached the famous Happy River Steps which proved to be quite friendly. However,going on from the steps the trail got a little more technical with deep trenches and much of the safety guards had been wiped out by previous teams. We made it without any problems into Rainy pass.
In Rainy pass I asked about the trail ahead of us, through the famous Dalzell Gorge. All I was told was that it was a little technical, and so we continued after our rest. A little technical might not have been quite the term I would use for the stretch to come. The beginning went fine, we reached the pass and went on from there. Snow started to disappear and soon we found ourselves on nothing but glare ice in a narrow gorge with nothing to stop you from sliding sideways. As the trail went on it got worse and worse, and I decided to take of the tug lines to take some of the power out of my eager team of 15.
At some point I met Lev Shvarts and stayed behind him for quite a while. Around one of the corners I found him with his sled jammed in a tree and his dogteam gone. Attempting to go on I slid on the icy slope (on which there was no way you could stand up) to find my sled jammed into his runner. After evaluating our possibilities we decided to improvise a gangline from my safety rope for 6 dogs so that Lev could take 6 of my dogs in front of his sled and thereby get his sled with him to Rohn where he would hopefully find his team. After what seemed to take forever we went on, with a team of 6 and a team of 9. It didn’t take very long until we found Lev’s team – quite entangled in a bunch of trees and rocks. Amazingly, all dogs were fine and we started the process of untangling them. I took my 6 dogs back into my team and after in total about 2 hours we continued both with our teams the last miles towards Rohn. I remember I was totally exhausted mentally and physically coming into Rohn. At least for my part, most of the fear going through this trail section wasn’t associated as much with my own safety and well-being as that of the dogs. I can always let go of the sled and will be fine. But my team? They trust me to keep them safe. If I’d let go they are in danger of hurting themselves. For me, assuring their safety was number one priority at all times, and the reason I rather ended up bruised than loose control of my team. My worse fear was not being able to keep them safe on the trail they had sent us out on. I did not understand how this trail could be considered safe and sleddable. I though I must be the worse sled driver in the world as I though no one else had trouble and started wondering if I was just not good enough to do this race.
Coming into Rohn I realized I wasn’t alone. Many mushers were injured, some even had broken bones, and quite many had already scratched. I was only bruised. There were destroyed sleds everywhere. Mine had a bent break bar and my seat had come off, but the Sheriff of Rohn was kind enough to help me fix it. I went to sleep a little, and wasn’t sure about the trail onwards. The Farewell burn was yet another challenging part of the trail. While resting the first SOS messages from Spot trackers on the trail ahead of us came in. I asked DeeDee about the trail ahead of us, but she said she’d rather not talk to me knowing that it might influence my decision to go on. Trude, Ralph’s press contact, flew in from Nikolai to see what had happened since Ralph was taking a longer break than planned. She passed on well-needed greetings from Kenneth who was waiting for me in Nikolai, the next checkpoint (around 120km further down the trail). He knew me well and did not join her, but told her that I should not take any decisions before getting some rest.
I waited for Tommy and went on the next lag in a group with Tommy, Monica and Marcelle. When I was about to leave Jesper limped a little. The vet could not find anything but we felt it was safer to drop him considering the next lag would be challenging. The Farewell Burn proved to be by far worse than the Dalzell Gorge we just had been in. If it had been bare ground it would probably have been fine, but it was icy, frozen ground with rocks and stumps as well as tussocks sticking up, and steep hills to climb and descend. I had a hard time to be able to control 15 dogs on necklines, and eventually needed a break. Marcelle and I decided to camp along the trail. I was exhausted and needed a break, yet we had only covered some 30-40km. Laying in the sled I could see on my GPS that we were not far from where the trail should get better, and after 5 hours of rest we continued. Just as we were about to continue, Ralph passed us coming from his 24 hour layover and we went with him. Shortly after my break bar broke. But at that time I had come into “just bring it on – I’ll survive it anyways”-warrior mode and remember just looking at the break thinking “whatever” and going on. Shortly after I put Snehvit in the sled, she had a sore triceps and was tired. It was rather interesting to handle the sled with a dog in it and without a break through icy terrain but we managed just fine. In Rohn I had decided to ask that my backup sled was transported from McGrath to Nikolai considering that my brake was already bent and we still had difficult trail ahead. It proved to be a wise decision and my backup sled was waiting for me at the checkpoint. Conditions improved for each and every mile towards Nikolai, and I hoped to still reach Kenneth there before he had to fly back to Anchorage.
Coming into Nikolai was like coming home. In 2011, Kenneth and I spent a week at the checkpoint during the Iditarod and helped as volunteers. We got to know the little town and made friends, in particular John and Marty Runkle and their family. Coming in as a musher by dogteam only 3 years later was very special, with Marty checking me in and John helping to park my team. Kenneth had been in Nikolai to visit John and Marty and see me in the checkpoint. As I was running late he had canceled his flight in order to stay longer. Also, Trude, Elin and Lene where at the checkpoint as well, it was so good to see them all!
There was snow, the trails coming in to Nikolai had been great for some miles and the sun was shining. Life was great. I hadn’t planned on taking my 24 hour layover as soon as Nikolai but felt that both the dogs and I needed a break. I needed time to have a close look at all of them before we would go on. Ralph was kind enough to let me use the checkpoint supplies that he didn’t need so we could comfortably stay 24 hours. Honda had an injured toe and had to be dropped, and Snehvit was dropped due to a sore triceps. The others continued towards McGrath. We pulled the hook at the same time as Kenneth’s plane towards Anchorage took off from Nikolai, and they waved at us from the air.
Videos on Youtube: Ceremonial Start on 4th Avenue