Episode 3: Finger Lake

Will shares some stories of the journey from his first run to Finger Lake, and then records audio in the checkpoint itself. Runaway dogs, exciting trail snacks, and inexplicable gatorade-flavored meals.

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Check out the emails that Buddies received as Will was headed into Finger Lake!


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Onward and Other Directions

Episode 3: Finger Lake

Hi, it’s Will again. Last time we were here, I had just taken off on the very first leg of my very first Iditarod, one of the longest sled dog races in the world. Me and my team of 14 dogs, AKA my best friends recorded some audio about halfway into that very first run. I rambled about a lot of things. My poor spouse, Shawn, who is very logical, is at wit’s end trying to keep track of all these conversations, and I got passed by several teams.

For that first run, I stuck to my game plan pretty tightly. Shortly after the recording I made, my team and I pass through Yentna station, the first sort of checkpoint of the race. It’s a “sort-of” checkpoint because there are no drop bags there. Drop bags are the bags that are flown ahead of teams down the trail. There is no way a sled could carry the amount of food that sled dogs eat during a race like this.

We packed and mailed about 1200 pounds for this race, and we were very much on the light side of what folks normally pack. Most of that weight is kibble and meat. The dogs eat around 10,000 calories a day while they race. Other supplies that are sent in drop bags or things like blankets to make the dogs cozy at the checkpoints while they rest, human meals and snacks, batteries, gloves, vet supplies, and much more.

While Yentna Station did not have bags, it did provide straw and heet — HEET — better known as antifreeze. We burn that in specially made cookers to melt snow and boil water for the dog’s food. It’s an essential component of long-distance mushing. The Iditarod provides heat along the whole trail, including Yentna. As my race plan dictated, I grabbed both straw and heet in Yentna.

I was a little surprised to see how close to the start Yentna it was. It registered on my GPS is only 40 miles or so from the start line. According to what the race had told us, it ought to have been about 50 miles. I wondered if Skwentna, the first official actual checkpoint, would really be 72 miles as it was predicted to be.

Regardless, my race plan called for me to camp around or just after 50 miles. I debated continuing all the way to Skwentna.

I talked in the first recording about how warm the first day was. But by the time I hit Yentna, the sun was starting to set, and the temperature was dropping. The dogs were much happier to have some cooler weather and were starting to move well. Its 72-mile run wouldn’t be entirely out of their wheelhouse. But the whole reason for my plan to camp before Skwentna was to avoid the notorious hullabaloo that happens with the whole field of mushers camped at the first checkpoint. I wanted the dogs to get a nice rest. Plus, with COVID restrictions in place, it sounded like I’d be sleeping next to my sled either way. I’d much rather do that in a camping setting alone on the side of the trail versus a checkpoint where teams would be coming and going with a lot of commotion.

One of the key elements of strategy of a race like the Iditarod is determining when and where to rest, and for how long. I had laid out my race plan. It was a slightly ballsy strategy, I was aiming to do a lot of long runs. The reason I was aiming for this was the performance of the team this season, and what they seemed to be excelling at. It was the long runs where they were shining, so I decided to take the best advantage of that that I could. My speed would be consistent if I was lucky.

I aimed for eight to nine miles per hour the whole race. On our first run, it was a little less than that because of the sunny slog through the middle of the day. The only other major factor was seeing how long to rest. My plan aimed for four and six hour rests. The first dress we’d take would be a four hour rest at our 50 mile camp. It had gotten dark by the time we found a place to camp just around 50 miles. We were able to snag a nice pull off made by a snow machine that veered off the trail. I started my clock for the countdown of when we’d leave.

During a break, the dogs rest and eat, but the musher works. This is the time that the musher becomes actually useful to the team. I did my best to maintain efficiency as I pulled off dog booties, laid out straw for the dogs to bed down on, put coats on everyone so they’d stay warm and snuggly, and prepared and fed dinner to the dogs. I put one of my own vacuum sealed meals — I think it was a calzone — into the water as it heated up and scarfed down my own dinner between chores.

I checked everyone’s feet, meticulously noting previously known sores or concerns. Generally everyone looked good. Belle and Cassidy had sore feet, so I treated them with special ointments. Taking care of the dog’s feet is one of the number one most important parts of a long race like this.

I was able to get my work done with enough time to get an hour of sleep myself. It was somewhere around 11pm or midnight by the time I laid down and I set my phone alarm for one hour with my watch as a backup. I pulled off my boots and crawled into my negative 40 sleeping bag.

My thermometer said it was about negative 11. I fell asleep almost immediately. I woke up on time and started my pre-exit chores. Part of what I had to do was shorten the gang line. I had set up the gang line, which connects all the dogs together, with two open spots. But sometimes the team didn’t seem to run as well with the extra space. So I decided to take a section out. The best way to do that was from the front. I removed the leader section and shuffled dogs around, I decided that sisters Belle and Aurora would be a good choice to lead the next leg. I switched them to be next to each other and connected them to a part of the line further back as I removed one section of the gang line to make the setup have no extra spaces anymore.

As I made the final touch to the new configuration, Aurora and Bell decided that this was the signal to go and headed down the trail. Somehow I connected them to each other but not to anything else. Sometimes this happens with sled dogs, and every time I’ve seen it, the dogs go running off side by side like they are in the team, but the team is just them. That’s what the two sisters did.

Part of the training that we do in the summer is called free play, where we let the dogs run loose and play with each other. This is a very important component of training for a lot of reasons. But this particular situation is a good example. I wasn’t worried that the dogs would disappear. I was confident they’d be back once they realized the rest of the pack hadn’t gone with them down the trail. I had to affix the line back down in front so that the rest of the team wouldn’t get tangled.

I kept looking down the dark trail to see if Aurora and Belle were on the way back yet, but I didn’t see them. I was calling for them every now and then whistling happily to let them know where I was, but not chasing them. I started to feel nervous that they’d gotten it in their heads to get to the next checkpoint, or that something else was happening around the bend in the trail. Just as I was about to give up, the two goofy sisters came careening back down the trail as if to say, “Where the heck are you? Let’s go!” They didn’t come towards the camping team but took the main trail running by us, towards the start line, almost showing off.

Suddenly, behind my sled, I saw a light. A musher was coming and now Aurora and Belle were running right at the oncoming team. I dove off our snow machine track where we were camping and into the deep snow between there and the trail. With three huge steps, I made it to the trail and — calling both happily and frantically — managed to convince Aurora and Belle to come say hi. I snatched them off the trail just as the other team shuttled by. Whoops!

I got Aurora and Belle, who were both very proud of themselves back into the team. I think I put them back in lead. Heck, they had already scouted out a lot of the trail.

I bootied the dogs, which is another of the most important jobs of a musher. We hit the trail in the dark and only 12 miles later we were in Skwentna. We were only at mile 61. The leap from 61 miles to 72 miles is a bit bigger than you might think. Especially since I didn’t want to stop in Skwentna. Had I known the checkpoint was only a mile 60 I would have planned to camp just after sweat not it would have meant I could have carried less than my sled on the way to our first camp because I would have been able to just grab supplies from my drop bags from Skwentna itself. My plan called for me to grab supplies there and straw and to camp a few miles outside of Finger Lake. Since Skwentna was earlier than expected, if Finger Lake was at the projected mile marker, it would mean carrying straw at least 10 miles further than I expected. I was also already learning that without a tail dragger — in other words, a section of the sled behind where I stand on the runners, which a lot of mushers used as a seat — carrying straw was difficult at best. I knew from past races that the climb up to Finger Lake was more technical than river trails. All of this information flashed through my brain as I pulled into the checkpoint of Skwentna.

The checkers were happy to see me and announced that I was the last musher in that stung my pride a little bit, and I had to remind myself that I was sticking to my plan. And that of course I was the last musher in, having been passed quite a bit and having camped before the checkpoint. I think they thought I was staying but I let them know that I was passing through. I was happy to see that there were other mushers in the checkpoint, which meant, once I passed, I wouldn’t be holding up the rear.

The checkers directed me to the drop bags. I loaded up the stuff I’d need for the next two runs. Finger Lake was like Yentna; there would be no drop bags there. That meant I had to carry enough food for two stops, plus the runs in between, at least according to my race plan. I evaluated quickly as I loaded up my sled with dog food. It was feeling rapidly clear that carrying straw to camp before Finger Lake seemed like it was going to be a pain. I confirmed with the checkers. Even though there wouldn’t be drop bags at Finger Lake, they’d have straw and heat, right? The checkers confirmed it, and I adjusted my plan. I’d go all the way to Finger Lake and make my campsite there. That way I wouldn’t be carrying straw through the technical sections. Then I continued to Rainy Pass, which was part of my plan already. The big change would be stopping in Finger Lake.

With my sled loaded up with supplies, utilizing the straw right where it was at was going to be the best move for me now. I closed my sled and thank the volunteers at Skwentna and headed off down the trail.

The mush from Skwentna to Finger Lake was quicker than I expected. I had run it a few times during the Northern Lights 300 and in that race, this leg had felt like a real climb. The route may have been slightly different than what I’d done before, or the dogs may have just been so conditioned to climbing from the season that they didn’t slow at all. But this time I barely noticed a climb. Once we got to where I was looking for Finger Lake itself, I kept expecting the checkpoint around every corner. The checkpoint sits on the other end of a lake that you emerge onto out of a narrow band of trees. Every band of trees we passed, I was sure I would see Finger Lake Winter Lodge, but to no avail. It was only when I had more or less given up expecting to see the checkpoint at all that we crossed onto the lake and saw the checkpoint ahead of us.

I was surprised to see a lot of teams in tents. Since there were not going to be drop bags, I expected that the checkpoint itself would be very sparse. Instead, there was a full contingent of vets and a lot of mushers still resting. The dog started barking excitedly knowing that the teams and tents meant breakfast and a nap. We checked in and were parked next to two other rookies. I planned to be there for just a short four hour rest.

There were a few dogs who were ready for some TLC. Cassidy was feeling a little sore, and I wanted to go over everyone’s feet even more closely. With full daylight I figured I wouldn’t sleep and instead spent my time repacking my sled and checking to make sure my various technical things were working. I spoke with an Anchorage Daily News reporter Zachariah Hughes, who started the Iditapod podcast. I also talked with my neighboring rookies. When Chad Stoddard, a rookie who was running a team of Lance Mackey’s dogs, was ready to take off, he asked me to stand on his brakes so that the team wouldn’t leave without him. This recording starts as I am standing on his brake.

We’re at Finger Lake, and I’m standing on the brake of Chad Stoddard, who is running Lance Mackey’s team, and he’s bootying. His dogs are a strong team, so he asked if I could stand on it. So this is the sound of a checkpoint. One noisy dog. That musher is picking up their stuff to pass through so that’s why that dog is ready to go; they probably just camped not far away.

Pretty soon Chad’s team’s gonna start getting noisy cause they’ll know it’s time to go.

I’m making notes about the condition of dogs. And then it’s going to be time to get going because I’m hoping to leave at noon and it’s 10:41 right now. I’m basically going to pick up my stuff, pack my sled, and hopefully hit the road. It’s gonna probably take me a minute though.

I didn’t record on my last run. It was cold, and I was really tired. I definitely fell asleep a lot. The sunlight will help.

[Dogs whining] [To a dog] Yeah?

[A second voice, far away, says “Howdy.”] [Will, to the second voice] How’s it going? [The other speaker responds inaudibly.] Yeah, it was, true. Couldn’t be prettier, right?

[To Chad] Hey, Chad. I didn’t understand — when they were saying about the bags on the way back through — are we allowed to access our other bags on the way back through?

[Chad] Um, no, I’m not sure.

[Will again] Like, I couldn’t understand what they were saying about that. [Chad and Will converse, and some of Chad’s responses are hard to understand.] [Will speaking] Who — We were telling a story. How’s it going so far?

[Chad speaking] Good, man, how are you?

[Will speaking] Good, yeah.

[Chad speaking] It’s a beautiful day.

[Will speaking, Chad sometimes responds inaudibly] It’s such a beautiful day. I hope I hope we get enough shade. Yeah, I’m not gonna register that it’s the Iditarod until like maybe when we’re done. Yeah. Yep. [Chad says something.] Yeah, they’re so built. [Dogs whining and barking.]

The next run we’ve got to do is the Happy River Steps, which is one of the big obstacles of the race, so. We’ll see what it’s like. Hopefully not too crazy.

[Dogs barking with increasing excitement. At 18:16, Will begins speaking to someone, probably Chad, but it’s hard to understand what’s said over the extremely excited dogs. At 18:40, Will tells them:] Have a good run! [The dogs quiet almost immediately, and there’s a sound of a sled moving on snow.] [Snow crunching underfoot, then something unwrapping] Guess what I bought. [Someone responds] What? [Will] Ice cream. [The other speaker] Oh, nice! [Will] I’m so excited. I got like some really fancy stuff from Cold Stone. You want one? I have some extras. Alright, well, if you see me down the trail, I mean, I packed a ton. Kinda like grade school when you’re like trading — I got peanut butter and jelly, what do you have? [The other speaker responds inaudibly.] That’s why it’s been holding up. I don’t want to increase that. But I have a terrible time eating, so. [The other speaker] I just had to force myself to eat right when I did. [Will] Yeah. I did just have a calzone that Shawn, my spouse, made. It was really good. A little Gatorade flavored.

Alright. Time to get the show on the road.

One of the few things I forgot was a, was my water bottle. [Someone responds with a question, and Will answers] Yeah, I mean I have like bottled water that I sent ahead, but. Yeah. [The other speaker responds inaudibly.] [Will] I mean, I’ve got Gator… I’ve got bottled water and Gatorade. It’s like not the end of the world. I don’t drink — [A brief exchange with the other person, hard to hear clearly.] Say that one more time? Mm. Mhm. Oh yeah.

[Will, to one of the dogs] Try one of these? It’s fish and pumpkin! Delicious! Delicious! Delicious! Delicious! Mm.

Who’s so cute? Is it you? Are you also so cute? How about you? Are you cute? Who do you wanna lead with, Buddy? Good job! Try another one? Did you like that? Here you go. Here, you can have two. Gross.

[Will, to someone else] I’m throwing some of this stuff away. You want any of it? M&Ms, Chips Ahoy, energy thing? Coffee. [Someone responds] Yeah, I think I’m good. Thank you, though. [Will] No worries. I knew I was gonna start jettisoning stuff, but such is life.

[Dogs barking distantly, certainly another musher preparing to leave the checkpoint] I completely forgot I’m recording. Well, maybe I’ll cut some pieces from this and make it interesting. We’ll see.

Come back next week to hear a recording from the trail between Finger Lake and Rainy Pass, one of the more notoriously technical sections of trail. This is where the Happy River Steps are, and also my favorite section of the race this year. Subscribe to Onward and Other Directions on Apple Podcasts or wherever you get your pods. You can find me on Twitter at A T A O Kennel or check out our website at A T A O Kennel dot com. See you next time. Onward.


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