It’s a quarter to nine; the sun won’t be up for a while still. A couple hours? Maybe just one? Mushing sometimes means losing all sense of time– Especially up here, at this time of year, where the light is just a flutter and if you’re busy you miss it. But we’re past the Solstice now. Light is coming back. It’s so strange that at the darkest time of the year we can feel the most hopeful. When you hit the bottom there’s no where to go but up.
Seventeen dogs and I have been working for the past four months towards a goal that now seems impending. Iditarod becomes more solid and real with each bureaucratic step I take towards it. Rookie meeting, vet forms, required shots. Picking up drop bags. Cutting meat. My brain has spent the whole year not believing this goal would arrive, and suddenly not only does my brain believe, but my body has been recruited to help panic. Well– Just slightly. I’m nervous, there’s no doubt. Even just talking about the reality of the race makes me a little shaky.
But I’m also in such a better place than I was even a year ago. The right med routine, for me, and a therapist who fits really well have been game changing. I have some perspective. Or, when I don’t, I have the ability to see that I don’t, and hold off on reacting.
I know I’ll be nervous. That’s just a fact. I’ll probably be nervous from now until mid-March. I can accept that nervousness. It provides me some things: it keeps me on my toes, it makes me check over steps to make sure I haven’t missed something.
This Iditarod will be a strange one. There’s a major route alteration; and with measures in place to try to keep communities safe from exposure to Covid from us or race staff and volunteers. it’s likely that most of this race will be a long camping run.
Even mushing through some of the deepest wilderness, you start counting on two things: somewhere to dry your clothes, and electrical outlets.
The clothes part is obvious. Your gear gets wet from snow, ice, open water, and condensation around your face. Being able to dry your gear out is a big factor in staying warm. The outlet part is all about headlamps. It was such a big revolution to have rechargeable headlamps! Now maybe we’re all digging out our battery powered backup lamps. Heck, I still have some D-cell miner-style lights: headlamps with a legit lightbulb, a striped headband, and a massive battery pack that holds four D-cell batteries, that you carry in your coat and weighs a ton. I’d be the envy of every musher if I brought those down the trail. (When LED became The Light Source, I had a brief mourning. The D-cell lamps made a friendly, warm glow. LED is sharp and cold. Heck maybe I *will* dig out one of my old lights!)
Since so many people need electricity for their headlamps, I suspect there will be something provided by the race– generators, or battery banks– for mushers to charge their lights on. But, I bet there might be some innovation too. Electrical outlets are always at a premium for 300 mile races during regular times. I can’t imagine that’s less so for Iditarod during a pandemic.
I have some innovating up my sleeve. Many folks have sent us desicant packs from our Amazon Wish List. I’ve already been having some success with using these to dry gear off. My most exciting success was being able to tuck one into my collar against my neck. I could push my neck gator (perpetually freezing and icing over!) down beneath my jacket lapels, and next to the desicant pack. After only about half an hour the neck gator seemed completely dry. That’s huge!!! And if I can combine my body heat + an enclosed space (a zip loc, probably) and the desicant pouches, I can probably dry off a lot of random gear. Gloves, gators, wristies. I already am also using the pouches to help keep my phone dry in my pocket as I mush. Since it’s fairly close to my body, it tends to get to sit in my sweat. Lovely.
I have thoughts and schemes about electricity too, but I’ll share those later when I have completed something to share about.
You may have also seen the sled bag I designed, actualized by Highs Adventure Gear. I have a few minor tweaks to make, and then it’ll be ready to test at our next race: the Copper Basin 300.
Two years ago, when ATAO did our first official Copper Basin, it was a tough race– especially the end. I have some nervousness that. Even though we are definitely training harder than we ever have, the dogs haven’t had the chance to run a race on a “race schedule” vs a “puppy” or “training” schedule. My goal for the Copper Basin this year is to expose them to a “race” schedule. That doesn’t mean we’re going to try to win it. (Lol.) But it does mean my goal is to take the minimum rest (18 hrs; vs 31 hrs we took in 2019!).
I’ve run the Copper Basin a few times, and I’ve had teams that have varied in experience level from first-timers to old-timers. I don’t think the ATAO teammates are “old” timers, bu they aren’t first timers to this race, either! They accomplished the course once already. That is a big reason I want them to do the race schedule *here.* They should recognize the country, the trail, the smells. And they should, I hope, realize– Ah! We’ve done this before! We can totally do this!
I have no idea if they will feel that way, but I hope they will.
And then another race, and another, and then we’re at the start line in Willow. I’ve been to the ceremonial start and the restart more than two dozen times. It’s celebratory, a get together. I doubt that will be so this year (I hope it won’t– groups aren’t really a safe idea at the moment, you may have heard!). But what I don’t know is the thing after the musher pulls the hook. The quiet and the focus and excitement of the team. The what-next.
The time is inching closer when I’ll find out. And the closer we get, the faster that time seems to move.
We have a lot to do. A lot ahead of us before I get to feel that. Before the dogs get to journey across the state the way their wolf- brethren do. Before we all find out what we are capable of.
A lot of that is preparing drop bags. We will need between 1500 – 2500 lbs of gear for the trail. I have some of that– But most of it is still on the roster to buy. We have been able to use the meat that we bought las year for race season. But, that was calculated for one 300 mile race. We have that and then some ahead of us. I’d love to make another meat order. We have booties to buy. Thanks to an amazing individual, we should have that covered. We have kibble to purchase. We are feeding a LOT of kibble this year. It’s what the dogs seem to enjoy, it’s balanced, and it’s highly caloric. So, we’ll want a LOT of that down the trail
We will need to drive to the next three races, and drive the courses handling for them. And then drive to the Mat Su valley for the race starts. Everyone please pray for Todd the Truck. He seriously needs it. I’m excited for him to get us “there” in style but yeah. Good vibes for Todd!
There’s a lot ahead– There’s always a lot– but the most important things are the little moments. Rebel dancing while she gets a butt scratch. Emmy truly trusting me. Ophelia demanding full on hugs.
This life with dogs is such a strange and beautiful one. Dangerous at times, a lot of juggling at times. And rewarding, almost all of the time, because the dogs are here with me, right now.
I want to give a huge shoutout, again, to Sam, who has made this journey so much more doable. I wouldn’t be as capable of dealing with the nervousness without her.
And, to Shawn, who supports my wild dream, who loves the dogs unguardedly, and who always gives their all to everything, especially this relationship and especially these four-legged family members of ours.
And thank you to you. For reading. For supporting us with a few bucks, if you’ve been able to do so. And, either way, most of all, thank you for caring about these dogs. I swear all of those good vibes buoy us up. I don’t know if the dogs know what it is, but I truly feel they sense the enormous love and goodwill thought their way from all around the world. It’s an incredible thing. When we cross the finish line in Willow (??? So strange!), you’ll be crossing with us. I know all of your care and kindness, and the dogs are suffused with it. You’re part of our team. It’s a bigger (and more incredible) team than I ever imagined.
(If you want to throw a few bucks towards the meat and kibble and gear of it all, you can do so here:)