Gakona (Start) > Chistochina: 33 miles
We took off from the Gakona start line just in time. The mercury was rumored to be around -20, and predicted to be much colder out on parts of the trail.
At the musher’s meeting we’d been told to expect an area of glaciation about a mile out of the start. Glaciation is when flowing water builds up a ramp of ice along the trail. In this case it flowed sideways down a steep hill. If you couldn’t keep your grip you’d slide sideways off the edge of a drop. The trail crew had worked hard to cut the glaciation with chain saws to flatten it out and build a “guard rail” of ice on the downhill side.
I wish I could have appreciated this better, but my vantage point of dragging on my face wasn’t the best angle to see their good work.
The team was traveling great when we popped up and over the corner where the glaciation was. Two “X”es made of trail markers had warned us there was danger ahead, and I made the mistake of slowing the team way down. Unfortunately this had the side effect of pulling my sled into the willows on the downhill side of the ice, around a corner. Physics did their thing and the sled tipped. I hung on mightily, dragging across the ice face down. The dogs were very excited to be able to run fast over the slippery ice!
As we bounced and slid along, my sled bag opened up, and many items crowded to escape, starting with my feeding ladle. Pop! There went the ladle. Goodbye ladle! Then my water bottle. Pop! Goodbye water bottle. Then a snowshoe. Pop! Goodbye snowshoe. I really needed the ladle and the snowshoe was part of my mandatory gear. Darn it!!! But there was no retrieving this stuff. I could only hope other mushers might be able to pick them up as they went. I looked sadly behind me at the “yard sale” of all my stuff as the dog continued to drag me bodily across the ice.
Finally we hit snow again, and I was able to convince the dogs to stop, so I could get back on my sled. The dogs certainly didn’t want to wait around! We took off again down the trail.
Despite lower-than-normal snow conditions, the trail here was great. Worlds better and safer than the Two Rivers trails. Here you could actually set a snow hook and trust it would stick! It was a huge relief.
I was able to navigate past some obstacles that were my downfall the last time I raced Copper.
I was worried about how the dogs would do being passed. As number 6, I was likely to get passed a lot in this first leg. Practicing with Ryne Olson back home the week before the race paid off- the dogs did really well. Team like Allen Moore, Matt Hall, and Brent Sass flew by us, as well as some teams I didn’t know. I tried to keep our pace to a good 8.5-9.5 mph. All of the passes went smoothly!
As one musher passed me (it was Robert Redington but I didn’t know it at the time), he asked if I’d dropped a ladle. YES I said. He passed me and then dug around in his sled. Once he was a ways ahead of me, he dropped it on the side of the trail so I could pick it up. I waved my thanks. Having a feeding ladle makes a BIG difference in the checkpoints. I had already been scheming about how I’d feed the dogs. I had settled on gripping one of the bowls with my leatherman as a makeshift scoop. It would be messy but hopefully functional. Now I wouldn’t have to! Now all I needed was my other snow shoe. I hoped someone might grab it, because otherwise I wouldn’t have my full roster of required gear, which might make me ineligible to continue.
Along the trail, my family and Shawn’s family, who came up to see the race, cheered us on. They drove from roadside to roadside viewing spots. I’d come around a corner and a whole crowd of people would be cheering and waving. It was a blast.
I had brought my old deactivated iPhone 5 along to be my picture-taker. It was all charged and loaded into a pocket full of heat packs. We were definitely hitting cold patches though, and had been in at least -20 since early that morning. When I pulled the ole iPhone out, it was dead as a doornail. Eventually I’d end up handing over the phone to my handlers. So, apologies- No pictures from the trail. Arthur had my actual phone (even though they are now allowed on races) to keep up with Twitter and other social media, and because, well heck I didn’t really need it. I had a good roster of music onto my old iPod Nano. I don’t listen to much while racing initially because I want to keep my ears open for obstacles or other mushers, and because I’m usually pretty wired for races. But the audio would be a boon during the long nights of mushing ahead when sleep deprivation snuck in. (Little did I know at that time that this would not actually pan out, but we’ll get to that part when we get to that part.)
There was a musher who passed me but who we were keeping good pace with. Later I’d learn this was Mark Selland. His team was a little faster than I was letting my crew go, so we didn’t try to re-pass him even when he had to stop to untangle his own dogs. The couple times he stopped, we waited for him, and once we all got going again, he’d end up pulling ahead of us anyway.
About two thirds of the way to Chisto, the dogs and I heard barking ahead. Someone was stopped and having some trouble. You could tell from the tenor of the barks. Excited and cacophonous. Just ahead of us was a clear sharp turn right into the woods. The barks were coming from that way. Whatever was there after that turn had someone holed up and probably not in a good spot. Not the kind of thing you want to rush your own dogs into. A tangled or otherwise stopped team is not aided by a second team running them over. I slowed the crew down and we waited til it sounded like the other dogs were on the move again— silence. Then we slowly took the right turn.
I was pretty lucky to have slowed us down, because the right turn jogged sharply down into a little overflowed and frozen creek. Had we been moving fast, we’d have ping-ponged off the trees on either side… Which I later heard was exactly what happened to other mushers. This zig zag over ice was punctuated with a switchback right onto the regular trail— Right around a tree. It was clear that a few people (including, probably, the team ahead of me) had tangled with this tree. I jumped of my sled as we turned and yanked it around the corner so that it wouldn’t have too intimate a connection with nature. Luckily we were able to pop up and around without incident. I might be one of the few teams that got away with this, based on later stories!
I had dressed the dogs in coats— Except Rey, who luckily has a nice thick fur coat, and whose synthetic coat broke seconds before we took off on the race! -20 is kind of right on the cusp of whether or not to dress a dog up. Since we’d been running in warmer weather, I opted for the dog parkas. Well, about five miles before we got to Chistochina, Max slowed down and stopped pulling. Not pulling is a sign that something is wrong. Did he step in a “moose hole”? Did he not feel well? I stopped to take a look at him but he didn’t seem to have any soreness. But he did DIVE into the snow and start rolling around. Max has a very thick coat. So thick in fact that when he first shed his winter coat he went from polar bear to greyhound, looks wise! Maybe having a synthetic dog parka on top was just too much. I took his coat off and he very happily dove into the snow and rolled around again. When we took off he was happy to pull again, but I kept a close eye on him.
The dogs were both excited and confused when we pulled into Chisto. There were dog teams, trucks, and most of all, a lot of people, all clapping and cheering as we came in. The dogs seemed to say… What IS this?
Just as Sarah and Arthur guided me to a great parking spot (I think Sarah picked out my camping spots and she did a categorically amazing job at this; every spot she picked was perfect), the race manager Jason came over holding something. “Is this your snowshoe?” he asked, clearly not very optimistic it would be. “YES!” I said. “That is mine! I lost it on the glacier.” He said another musher had brought it in and I took it and tucked it into my sled. YES. Ladle back, snow shoe back. Mushers rock. Take that, Yard Sale.
We pulled into our camping spot, and the dogs got the picture of what was up. Our practice camps over the winter had served us well. I unbootied, snacked the dogs, and doled out thick flakes of fluffy straw. I made a big hearty meal of meat and kibble, soaked in warm water. The dogs ate well. They were hungry! That was good to see, because they hadn’t been eating great since we headed to Glennallen. They had been unsure and nervous. Now that we were running, they got the picture and also were HUNGRY!
After they ate, they settled down and curled into napping donuts. Max’s coat was already off. I took everyone else’s off too, because these youngins aren’t really used to coats and I wanted to make sure they’d sleep. They curled up happily without them, but I did re-dress Annie, Egret, and Rogue because they are thinner (in Egret and Annie’s cases) and have thin coats (in Rogue and Annie’s cases). Everyone did a great job napping even with other teams arriving and leaving all around. Sundance occasionally needed to stand and bark at the other teams, but when I told her to “Go to bed” she grumbled and then curled up into her bed of straw until the next opportunity.
I asked a vet to come look over Max just in case I was missing something. I was 90% sure that he had just been hot, but I wanted to make sure professional eyes took a thorough look. The Copper Basin has a stellar vet team, and I wasn’t going to waste their knowledge. The vet declared Max looked good, and I agreed. After dinner he was peppy and totally himself. The next leg of the race would be one of the hardest but after the vet check and after watching him for about an hour, I determined he should be good to carry on with us.
As I finished my chores, I chatted to other mushers around me. One musher was Rob Cooke, a friend and musher who I have traveled with through some races. He asked me off hand if I’d lost a water bottle. My water bottle!!! Yes, I told him enthusiastically. Now I had everything back! That’s amazing. I wondered how everyone had picked up the items from the “glacier.” It would be hard to stop a team there. Later I learned that many of the items must have been drug down the trail to actual snow, where later mushers picked them up. Well, I was certainly grateful to have my stuff back!
The dogs were settling in nicely. I left one of my A+ handlers out watching the crew, and went into the small warming cabin to defrost a little and eat some food. I had warmed up a bag of spaghetti in the cook water for the dogs, and now I located a bowl and a spoon and dug in. The food was lukewarm but I was starving. Nothing was open at 5 am when we’d woken up to feed the dogs, so all I’d eaten for breakfast was a cup of disappointing coffee and one of those hostess powdered donuts. With all the adrenaline and activity, I was ready for some calories.
In the warming cabin, I chatted with other mushers. Almost everyone had a story about the icy switchbacks. I was glad to have had such a mild experience with them. People talked about the next section of trail. In my mind, I had conflated the upcoming section with the one after that— Thinking we’d have four major obstacles to overcome. A water way called Excelsior Creek, a mountain climb called “The Hump,” another water way called the Upper Gakona, and in my mind, a downhill section full of twists and turns. However, the twisty-turny section was actually run #3, as some mushers in the cabin reminded me. I was pretty anxious about that section. I thought I’d have all of that to face in this next long run. But it seemed I’d have a big rest before tackling that.
I wasn’t racing and was staying a lot of extra time at each checkpoint. My race plan called for a 4 hour rest here at Chisto, but when 4 hours came I was reluctant to get going again. I finished up chatting with some friends and other mushers, and finally made my way back to the team. We had a huge run ahead of us. The team had done a 77 miler this winter, but only one, and some of the dogs had come up sore after that run. I was worried that I didn’t have enough long runs on the team. I had debated doing the next run split into two, by camping in the middle, but I decided ultimately I wanted the team to have the race experience of a really long run. We had the supplies to camp if needed, but as I bootied the dogs, my plan was to do the whole thing in one go. We’d have a big mountain to climb and a couple potential water obstacles (no one knew for sure if the river crossings were wet or dry), and then a long boring stretch of trail beneath the Alaska Pipeline. All of this, overnight.
I hadn’t slept really at all in the past week, because I was battling a fierce cold that had morphed into bronchitis. I was decent unless I was breathing— Then I couldn’t stop hacking. So I sounded pretty crappy. Luckily a sled has handlebars to cling to while you cough your way down the trail.
Night had fallen and we were one of the last few teams to leave Chisto when the dogs were bootied and it was time to pull the hook. I was nervous to find out how the team would do, but prepared to overcome this long and tough section.
“Ready guys?” I called. The dogs screamed and yowled to go. “All right!”
I pulled the hook and we dove into the night trail.
Only one way to go.