Friday, April 6, 2012

Iditarod 2012

My favorite Iditarod fan,  Jaydyn Mason
     For those of you who have not or might not ever get a chance to experience a good ground storm on Norton Sound, I'll do my best to describe what it's like.   
     Cantwell, where we live, is almost famous for wind, and wind is nothing that my dogs and I are unfamiliar with.  However, the wind of the coast is an entirely different animal.  Perhaps it's because of the lack of vegetation, or the lack of mountains, or maybe it's because in these special parts of the world where earth and ocean are in a constant battle for supremacy that each bring to "the front lines" their elements' "special forces."  

     A few things about the wind, are one how dramatically it lowers temperature, (wind chill factor, I think is a familiar concept, believe it or not a rather small aspect of traveling in these conditions.)  Let's think for a second about the sound.  Imagine the world's greatest rock n roll drummer having the night of his or her life.  Now imagine that he or she is invisible and replace yourself with his or her drum kit.  Rat a tat tat thump whack thump rat rat a tat thump whack thump, deafening.  

     Then there is the force, as undeniable as gravity, enough to stop you dead in your tracks, or pick you up and move you laterally, or, if so, desired simply upend you at will.  This force is compounded by an uncanny dexterity able to perform the most intricate tasks.  For a species such as ours which prides itself on our manual abilities, I want to assure you that what we can do the wind can undo quite quickly and efficiently.  Mitten lanyards, or idiot strings as they are more commonly called, are worn by many mushers and have been worn by polar explorers and the native peoples of the arctic as a way to keep all too important over mitts from getting lost and to keep them handy when not in use.  The ability to twist ones mitts behind ones back is as routine to the well seasoned traveler as breathing.  However, the wind, with the finesse of a pianist, can curl her fingers around your waist, unravel your mitts, take one and toss it testing the limit of it's lanyard.  "No, no don't,,, I know the ability to count to ten is important, but don't, don't reach out to,,, look out here it comes,,, duck and cover."  Yep, just when you begin to think the force of the wind against that mitt which is tethered around your neck is going to yank your head off, she will switch directions ever so slightly sending that mitt straight for your forehead.  
Rachel Cockman, watch for her in 2021.
     The biggest challenge for us two legged critters in a good ground storm is our dependence on eyesight.  A whiter shade of pale or a million shades of gray, I'm just not sure which, but flat light compounded by swirling snow equals visual insanity.  No up.  No down.  No past, as in where I've been.  No future, as in where I'm going.  Nothing.  Except, 2" x 6" x 1/4" orange topped trail markers, many of which have been blown clear down the coast back to Unalakleet, some I'm confident wind up in Bora Bora.  Finding a trail marker is rather easy, it's a matter of finding the next one which will make you cross eyed.  Now having made the Norton Sound crossing in a stiff breeze, I now know the secret to finding Koyuk.  The directions, keep the wind breaking across the bridge of your nose freezing each nostril equally.  If one nostril is freezing faster than the other, then you are off course, quite possibly heading out towards the open ocean.

     Until the next time I hope you are all having as much fun with your dog or dogs as I am with mine, 

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Iditarod 2012

My immediate Iditarod family
     I've mentioned that I had a lot of help with putting together a run / rest schedule which made sense, and for the most part I stuck to it.  It wasn't always easy to adhere to the schedule, but with some good advice along the way I was able to sit on my hands when I needed to.  Over the years I've compiled a list of memorable Iditarod quotes, and this one is going right to the top of that list simply because it had a direct impact on the outcome of my race.  I had been sitting in Finger Lake for about four hours, I'd previously spent six hours outside of Yentna and now the yellow, "write in the rain," pad which was sort of like my bible, told me that I needed to stay in Finger for a total of six hours.  Ugh.  It's painful to watch team after team leave, and I felt like my schedule had set me up to be in last place right out of the gate.  Along came Iditarod Champ Joe Runyan.  He asked how it was going and I told him that I was a little frustrated with hanging out for so long.  He said, "Mike, no one ever made a mistake while resting."  Simple enough.  As we proceeded through the next few checkpoints, I started to realize that my run times were quite a bit faster than most, and due to the amount of rest I was giving the dogs, they were covering the distances with very little effort.  I began to have a lot more faith in my little yellow bible.

The one that got away was this big

     Much of my run to the coast was typical Iditarod dog mushing, run six hours rest six hours.  So for interest's sake let's jump forward to the good part.  Just outside of Unalakleet the trail climbs up and over a short series of hills known as the Blueberry Hills.  This was my second time traveling this section of trail, I had done this stretch back in 2008 on a sno-go.  Then as now, the weather was remarkable, pleasantly warm, with skies so clear I too thought I could see Russia.  On the 08 trip, when I got out of the hills and back down to sea level, it was as if I had somehow went through some sort of time / space portal and had arrived on another planet.  Winds gusting thirty plus mph, drifts alternating between rock hard and spindrift soft, visibility practically zero.  It would be no different today.  A dog sled in a cross wind is a rather pathetic piece of equipment, and steering a sled which is at the mercy of the wind is most frustrating.  The dogs, at least mine, seem to think that anything that is remotely different than what we've just experienced, is fun.  A new game.  Something to get excited about.  They love to negotiate obstacles, in this scenario, the obstacles being drifts crossing and/or blocking the trail.  What really seems to turn them on is when I don't have any preference as to which way we go around an obstacle and I just let them collectively decide.  "Hey, what do you all say we go left around this one? Yeah, yeah, yeah, leftWhat do you think fellas, straight through this one? Straight through it is."  I swear they exude a self satisfied smugness simply because they guessed correctly not knowing that there was no wrong answer.  The game of drift dodging / drift diving thankfully got us to Shaktoolik rather quickly.  Too quickly perhaps.

     With the help of the local Shaktoolikians, "the most remarkable people on the planet by the way," I got my team parked behind the armory which serves as the checkpoint.  I quickly went into checkpoint mode, which this far into the race is an unconscious ritual of bedding down the dogs, removing their boots, and firing up the cooker.  Somewhere in the middle of this process a rather familiar, and to Iditarod fans a famous, Swiss accent cut through the sound of the wind, "You're having the run of your life, huh."   What the h***.  I look up and low and behold I'm parked next to Martin Buser.  On the other side of him is Rick Swenson, and coming out of the armory is none other than Lance Mackey.  Now, despite the fact that I could've sworn that days ago, somewhere back along the trail, I heard that Aily Zirkle had already won this darn thing, I was sort of expecting her to come strolling out of the armory at any moment.  "One aspect of the Iditarod that astounds me is how confusing it is to know where in the grand scheme of things you are.  I swear I kept passing teams that were days behind me, and that I kept catching teams that were days ahead of me.  The worst part of the whole thing is that everyone involved, checkers and race officials all seem to have a better grasp of how it's all playing out than you do.  Soon you start to look at these folks like they've got some sort of revolutionary secret to share with you but they don't."      
Iditarod's biggest fan, Willie.
Only because he gets the recliner all to himself 
for two weeks. 
     As the sun began to set on Shaktoolik the temperature started to plummet, and the wind only intensified making for fairly dangerous conditions which forced a large portion of the race field to wait out the weather. 
Great!  There I was just having the time of my life playing with my puppies along the Iditarod trail, and all of a sudden I'm stuck smack dab in the middle of a race.  Yikes!  What to do?

       Keep coming back and I'll keep writing.  


     Until the next time, I hope you're having as much fun with your dog or dogs as I am with mine.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Iditarod 2012

     Iditarod to me is a rich tapestry woven with the tales of each and every person involved.  Not only the mushers and dogs, their families, friends and handlers, but also all of the volunteers, the villagers, veterinarians, pilots, and even the fans.  Imagine that story if it could only be told.  The lure of the Northland, once dominated by mountain men and gold seekers, has been kept alive by this truly Alaskan event.  It's spell is apparently all to easy to catch, and almost impossible to cure.  In the land of the midnight sun there still lives the very basic American ideal that the toil itself is its own reward.

     Since I've returned home I've received a ton of emails, instant messages, and phone calls  congratulating me on completing the 2012 Iditarod.  Much appreciated, but I can assure you that I had a really small role in the eventual outcome of our race.  Yup, I was the lucky guy on the runners behind an incredible group of dogs, and yeah, I had to make decisions along the way that needed to be made, but I never could have done it with out a ton of help.  Much thanks needs to go to my crew for the hard work they've done all season in preparing the dogs for the race, and to the folks who have worked for me over the last several years.  Also I would like to thank my good friend Clint Warnke who was instrumental in setting me up with an awesome run / rest schedule which suited my team's strengths.  My Knik mom, Maureen Reagan, who for the past two years has cooked and packaged all of my meals.  And my neighbor Susan Carlson who washed and dried all of my socks so I could have a fresh pair at all of the checkpoints, talk about an unsung hero.

     To all of those who have supported us financially over the years a big thank you for saying yes when it would've been easier to say no.  Scott Lee at the Inlet Towers, Rick McMahan of Denali Fly Fishing Guides, Jim and Joy Wheeler of Wheeler EMS K9 Unit, Claude Bondy at Alpine Creek Lodge, Chuck Sterni, aka, Mr Bootie,  Jeni Mason of Denali PEAK program, Ahtna Inc. and the Native Village of Cantwell, Jayne Heampstead at Cantwell Veterinary Clinic, and all of the wonderful ladies of Paw Partners.
Showing off my Shaktoolik suntan
     I know you all want to know what it was like out there on the trail, but please be patient, I'm working on it I promise.

     Until the next time I hope you are all having as much fun with you dog or dogs as I am with mine.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Tales from the 2012 Iditarod

"The Arctic trails have their secret tales"
                                              Robert Service

     In today's world there are very few secrets, Thanks Iditarod GPS Tracker.  However there are certain things which have to be experienced in order to be fully appreciated.  For example, I can now honestly say that I've, felt, a sunrise.  It was bitterly cold on the kaltag portage, as we made our way over to Unalakleet from Old Woman Cabin in the dark.  The sun crept up over the hills behind my left shoulder, and in my sleep deprived state, I hardly noticed.  Soon though the warmth of the sun couldn't be denied.  I swear that I could smell it before I actually felt it, or perhaps at least, the reflection of the sun off of the snow thawed the ice in my nostrils enough that I now could at least smell again.  I turned standing backwards on the runners staring up into the sun.  For almost two hours, we proceeded in this manner, occasionally righting myself on the sled to check on our progress.  However I, much like a lizard perhaps, was unable to resist the urge to turn again and face the warmth of the sun.

     Until the next time I hope you are having as much fun with your dog or dogs as I am with mine.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Under the Arch

We have all made it to Nome.  I flew up in Wednesday to await Mike's arrival.  The internet connection here has been limited so I apologize for the lack of updates.  Mike and the dogs arrived at 5:20 am on Friday.  I had the opportunity to watch them run in for the last couple of miles.  There is a road that parallels the trail along the beach.  Mike and Melissa Owens took me out to spot the team.   The dogs were moving like a well oiled machine.  It was a really special experience to get to see Mike running the team.  I could even hear him talking top the dogs. 

I was really glad to see Mike and the dogs.  They all looked great and had an amazing trip.  Hook and Gibson were barking at the finish line. One of the first things Mike said was, "I have the best dogs."  As we drove them to the Nome dog lot, Mike left an impressive brake mark in the snow. 

Mike has received many compliments on his dogs and performance.  Bringing 15 happy, healthy dogs to Nome is a great accomplishment.  Mike said that as he was preparing to leave White Mountain, the second to last checkpoint, the race checker said to him, "There haven't been all that many people who have had the opportunity to leave here with 15 dogs."  Throughout the race Mike posted impressive run times.  However, he told me that the runs that did not go as smoothly were the more memorable parts of the race.  I know that he has many stories from the trail, but I will leave that to him.  

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Heading into the Light

It has been a long day for the GPS tracker.  Mike got into Shaktoolik last night and I expected that when I got up this morning he would be on his way towards Koyuk.  I was surprised to see that not only had he not left, nor had anyone else, some of whom had come in to Shaktoolik many hours before him.  Mike had completed the run up the coast in great time, so I was not really worried that there was a problem with the team.  The fact that so many teams were still there made me think of the weather.  As I mentioned Shaktoolik is known to be quite windy.  Joe Runyan stated that the teams were "Stacked in Shak."  He said, "Blowing snow, stiff winds, temperatures temper musher exits.  Our records show that no mushers in Shak have left since 4:00 p.m. yesterday.   Our sources in Shak assert that visibility is ABOUT a quarter mile and no one is sure of the severity of the ground storm on the ice to Koyuk. " 

I kept checking in on Mike over the morning with no change.  Finally, at lunch time I saw some teams start to head out of Shaktoolik.  However, Mike was staying put.  I was concerned until I realized that as a long time Rick Swenson fan, perhaps he was just waiting to make the run with him.  Mike and Rick left Shaktoolik together and made steady progress towards Koyuk.  It was clear that the run was really hard.  The teams would start and stop and travel at much slower speeds than usual.  Don Bowers Jr. explained, "The trail can range from a groomed speedway to rough ice to drifted snow to glare ice. The wind is usually blowing, and almost always right in your face. Days with less than 20 or 30 mph breezes are uncommon. The wind can blow at hurricane velocity out here and ground blizzards can reduce visibility to zero in minutes." 

Things seemed to be going well and I was looking forward to Mike making it into Koyuk when he started moving away from the other teams and the trail.  Following on the GPS tracker I could see him realize something wasn't right and start to look for the trail.  This is the point when my power went out and my internet connection went dead.  The GPS trackers are a blessing and a curse.  They give information, but sometimes too much information.  And like an addict, I did not want to go cold turkey right during a crisis.  The power eventually went back on, but showed that Mike was sitting still on the ice.  He stayed there an agonizingly long time, until all of a sudden he began to make steady and straight progress right towards Koyuk.  I believe that he waited until he could see the lights if Koyuk and is now driving his dogs right towards them.  He is about 2 miles out, and let's be honest, I won't go to bed until I see him make it there.

Earlier today, when they were fighting their way through the wind, I was thinking about how this challenging run would actually seperate me from Mike.  I will never be able to be part of that experience he and the dogs have had of working so hard together to make it through something truly challenging.  They will have a bond that I will not share.  I am sure that this is true of their experience during the entire race, but I felt it today. This extra challenge of being lost on the sea ice compounds this fact. 

I hope that tomorrow brings a smooth run to Elim.  May the road rise up to meet you.  May the wind be always at your back.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Storming up the Coast

Mike has made it too Shatoolik.  It was a pleasure to watch him move up the coast tonight.  He made the 40 mile run in 5 hours and 9 minutes.  Pretty incredible for a team who has come 713 miles in the last 8 days. 

The coast has been known to challenge teams.  It can be brutally windy, cold, and barren.  There are no trees to break up the landscape and the runs can seem monotonous.  Distances are hard to judge and at times the mushers are running on the frozen sea ice.  Luckily, I think the weather is pretty good and I am glad that so far the team seems unfazed by the landscape. 

When Mike went through Shaktoolik on the way to the All Alaska Sweepstakes, he reported that the town, in addition to being one of the windiest places he had ever been, was home to a large number of very small, short coated dogs.  I do not know why people in Shaktoolik would choose this type of dog as a pet, or even how the dogs were comfortable enough to be running around outside, but it made a striking impression. 

As Mike continues up the coast, he may rely on some of our more bullheaded dogs as leaders.  Of the 16 dogs he started with, almost all are leaders.  However there are many different kinds of leaders.  Some are really good at listening to commands, some are competitive and like to chase down other teams, some can find the trail in deep snow, and some are determined to go forward no matter how much wind, water or snow they face.  Nestor is one of the most bullheaded dogs we own.  As I try to picture the team running across the ice, I wonder if Mike will use Nestor's determination to speed the team along. 

Caitlin and Nestor