We traveled on the river for only a few hundred yards before we jumped up into a wooded trail. This section of the race would take us through a series of lakes to Point Lodge, a new checkpoint this year. The trail on this section was put in an maintained by a friend of mine, Jim Davis. He and his wife Nancy Marty live out on Lake Louise (where Point Lodge is) for the winter with their kennel of retired sled dogs. They are awesome folks.
The lake-trails would be easy (and I could let myself nap there!) but they would be interspersed with sections of hilly trails through the trees. Just like in the last leg of the race, I opted to keep my bibs off so I could run more easily. As soon as we got off the river, we started climbing again. The dogs really impressed me on the hills. They didn’t pause or try to stop– They dug in and kept going up every climb. My heart was full of pride for them. Going up hills, they looked like a real pro group.
The hills sort of kept me awake, and I drifted off on the lakes. Lake trails, as you might imagine, are not too remarkable. Usually just a simple path over a blank white canvas. The dogs like to follow a trail, so there’s no worry about them wandering off course. They also learn to recognize trail markers on a race! By this leg, Ophelia and Annie knew what was up with the shiny reflective things that marked our way.
Much of this run was marked, for me, by hallucination. It was my second full night run (though I suppose it might have been early morning), and my brain had decided to see all sorts of stuff. I tried to keep myself awake as possible through the wooded trails, with my tree run-in in mind, but that didn’t stop me seeing weird stuff. As we crested one hill, I jumped in terror to see the nose and of a military aircraft lurched upright ahead of us at a frightening angle. It was just some trees. Once I dipped down into a little creek. I knew I was hallucinating but no matter how I shook my head, I couldn’t get rid of the sight of a beautiful sign carved into a giant rock. It sat near a tiny cottage, with a dozen other rock carvings all around. It was a rock-carving shop, quaint and fairy-tale like! With a tiny bridge over the creak! It was so lovely and bizarre to find in the middle of Alaska! And it was also just a bunch of trees. Later I saw a tiny tree decorated for a holiday with just the word “HAPPY” emblazoned across it. Happy? Happy what? I did not find out because, of course, it was just a tiny tree.
Later I talked to another musher about hallucination, and we mused over why we tend to see man-made things. I thought about it myself on this run. Was my brain just so conditioned to expect man-made items that that’s what I interpreted the acres of nature around me to be? It seemed odd to me that my neurons wanted to translate the most basic thing– nature– into synthesized junk. Maybe it has to do with the idea that memory (and therefore comprehension?) is very language-based? Deep philosophical ideas are very useful for passing many hours on the runners.
It was also good to have something to think about because it turns out that my iPod Nano was not as jam-packed with music as I had originally thought. In fact, it only had about 300 songs on it, which were all very similar… Moody, pop-folk stuff. Which I love! But for hours on end, 300 songs is not much, and when it’s that similar, you start to hate it all. I was grumpy with myself for not checking to see what I had on the iPod before hand. I DID have some audiobooks on there, but I couldn’t access them without digging deep into my layers to retrieve the iPod, and that wasn’t going to happen on this run. All I could do was use my headphone remote to start and stop the music, or fast forward to the next song if I could hit the buttons right. I keep the remote in my neck gator, right next to my mouth, and eventually this becomes problematic… The condensation from my breath finally gunked up the remote and it basically gave up and wouldn’t play at all. So then I had no music. Well screw it, I was pretty tired of those songs anyway!
The dogs looked amazing for this run. I was so glad to have done the six hours rest at Sourdough (by accident). They padded along like they were total pros now. They chomped down their snacks and had a steady momentum and rhythm. They were a happy group!
Up ahead, during one of the wooded sections, we saw a team far ahead. The dogs got pretty excited and started barking and screaming. The headlamp of the musher turned and looked back at us and then mushed on. The ATAO athletes barked and cheered and sped up. It took about 15 minutes to catch up with this team, but the girls were on it!
I don’t know if this musher has a lot of experience passing (I don’t think he did), but unfortunately he picked a not great place to stop to let us pass. It was around a corner and on a tight section of trail. We tried to go by but his leaders turned and wanted to meet the dogs, and we ended up with a bit of a tangle. I ran up and pulled my dogs around. Once I got past him, I had to untangle some of my dogs. This didn’t halt our momentum too much, luckily, and we carried on, pulling away from the other musher easily.
The night was open and starry. Sometimes on the lakes, I turned off my headlamp and just looked at the big darkness around us. I couldn’t do this for long though because the dogs needed the light to see the trail. They love running in the dark but on open lakes like this, and with no moon out yet to guide us, they use the headlamp as much as I do. A lot of sled dog teams learn to follow the spot of the headlamp. I read a story once about a musher whose team kept running off the side of the trail. He couldn’t figure out why. Then he realized it was because he kept falling asleep and his headlamp would drift over to the side and the dogs would follow the light off the trail into the deep snow and stop. Ha!!
In once instance when I turned off my headlamp, I could see the glow of lights that must be coming from a nearby lake, rising into the dark. The checkpoint? I thought perhaps! We mushed on through the lakes, going from trail marker to trail marker. We passed one small slough that connected this lake to another, and as we came around a bend, we saw the source of light– Definitely the checkpoint! It was far away but you could see headlamps moving and several huge flood lights from a building. The dogs saw it too and started barking and screaming as usual! They sped up. But they ended up slowing back into their pace, because we still had a mile or two to go! We were on Lake Louise which is quite a stretch across. Even though the team slowed back to their pace, they didn’t stop barking the whole way in. Another musher who we could see was leaving flashed their headlamp our way. I’d find out later that was Kalyn, and they knew who we were because of all the crazy barking!! Classic ATAO.
Finally we pulled into the checkpoint. Sarah and Arthur got us parked, and someone came up and gave me a hug. It was Nancy Marty! It was so great to see her here. She always brings a huge smile to my face. We chatted about the trail and the dogs. She exclaimed to see my unusual cooker: “I thought only Jim had that anymore!” Apparently it’s an old style.
I had brought water made from melted snow from Sourdough, so again I could cook right away. This setup worked really well for me. There was water available at this checkpoint but it was up a big hill and I’m glad I didn’t have to climb up and down it a few times to get food going for the dogs. Instead I stared cooking right away.
My original plan called for me to be at this checkpoint 8 hours before our final big stretch– over 70 miles– to the finish. I wanted to give the dogs a good rest, but I was also calculating and thinking over how much rest they’d had already, including the extra in Sourdough. And, I was factoring in what a great run they’d just had. They were finally getting into the flow of a race. I thought I could get away with 6 hours of rest.
I fed the team, wrapped Ophelia and Cassidy’s wrists, checked everyone over, covered the crew in blankets, and then headed into the Lodge.
Point Lodge looks out over Lake Louise from a tall, multi-story building with huge windows. It’s got an incredible view– And the view was matched by the hospitality of the hosts. They had drinks, food, and a separated place for mushers to sleep. I got a breakfast burrito and coffee, and chatted with one of the race vets for a while. I checked my place on the roster and hung stuff out to dry. Then I found a corner to lay in in the musher’s room. I kept forgetting to bring my sleeping bag into the checkpoints, but I also didn’t care much. I lay down with my down jacket over me and fell asleep.
I slept for about an hour, and then woke up and went back out into the main room. I can’t remember why I woke myself up this early, or if I just couldn’t sleep. Maybe I planned to eat again? Or maybe my cold was just kicking my butt and I couldn’t stay asleep. Or maybe I decided to check on the dogs again? If I did, I didn’t do much for them– They were all taking advantage of our rest time and sleeping hard. Whatever my reason was for getting up, I did, and ran into Shawn and their family in the main room. Shawn got me a bowl of soup and I ate it and chatted to the Goggins clan. My own family had left for home on Sunday (it was Monday now), since they had to work. It was really nice to sit with Shawn’s parents and brother and chat about their adventures and the race.
I decided I would take off at the six hour mark, based on where I was rank-wise, and on how long some other teams were resting. There was a safety stop partway through this next long leg, that would have straw available. That would be a chance to camp if a team wanted. I was really debating about taking a camp midway through. However, I worried that if we stopped, we’d have to take a really long break, or we’d lose momentum. I decided that unless the team seemed to need it, I’d do the whole run in one. It would be a tough run, mentally, because 40 miles from the finish line, you get super close to Glennallen, and then the trail ends up circling around Glennallen til you are done. It’s really hard to see the highway sign that says “Glennallen 10 miles” when you know you have a lot of long hours ahead. There’s also a really tough climb on that run, which Rob Cooke reminded me of.
We bootied up. Since this was the very last run, I offloaded anything unnecessary. I decided to offload my dog coats; it was warm and we hadn’t used them since the start. I also made the choice to leave behind my bibs. I’d need to be moving and running again. I left all of my feeding bowls. Even if we camped again, I could feed the dogs on the snow. I left extra gloves, snacks, and anything that wasn’t mandatory gear, or food for the dogs. The goal was to travel light.
I hooked the tug lines up and the dogs started screaming and barking. They were in their element! Time to go.
I said goodbye to Sarah, Arthur, and the Goggins clan, and we hit the trail.