I’ve been doing a lot of thinking after the Iditarod Race, as usual. Every year I spend several months thinking about what happened this year and several more months getting ready for the next one. I’ve run 26 Iditarod races, and won just 3, so most have left me with plenty to think about.
I am a natural competitor and growing up as a wrestler instilled an attitude in me to defy the impossible. Dig deeper. There’s no such thing as “can’t.”
That carried over into dog racing. Prepare more, and train harder. Study everything. Be humble and learn from everyone. Store up the ammunition and keep all the tools in the tool box for any situation. Discipline myself, welcome pain and learn from every disappointment. Expect misery. And during the race, never take the easy way out or make excuses. Put it all on the line.
There’s a problem with all of that though. Mushing is not wrestling, where I’m just one competitor, alone against an opponent. In mushing, I’m the friend and caretaker of my partners, the dogs in my team. And frankly, they don’t care or even know if they are winning a race. What they do know is whether I’m happy or sad, upset or elated. They don’t care if they beat another team or not. If I’m satisfied the pack is satisfied — and happy.
This year I finished behind more teams than I’d like, but I found satisfaction in the fact my race ended in Nome at the finish line. Bug, my main leader this year, knew I was satisfied. The rest of the dogs knew it too. So, the important members of the team, my faithful dogs, counted it as a win. “Hey, if he’s good, we’re good.”
The run over the Norton Sound sea ice from Shaktoolik to Koyuk is always challenging. Out there nothing stops the north wind. The drifted granular snow is hard pulling regardless of one’s choice of runner plastic on the sled. Dogs realize they are not on land and might become uneasy. Even if the ice is safe, ice moves and makes noises humans don’t hear. Water moves underneath. It’s later in the race, so fatigue may be setting in. Sled dogs have got to trust you.
A lot of Iditarod teams have battled Norton Sound. It’s unlike anything most teams often see, and unlike anything most people ever see. The trail is almost always drifted over and tracks to follow in the snow are intermittent at best. The north wind sucks the breath out of your lungs and blowing snow obscures visibility and freezes the eyelids of dogs and people. Powerful ice movement pushes up pressure ridges higher than houses, and trail markers zig zag, suggesting a way through.
The varying extent of open ocean dictates the trail be put in differently every year, and dogs, accustomed to following either a well-defined trail or their instinctive memory, lose confidence as the musher asks them to go somewhere different than last year without a visible path. Ironically, it’s easier at night when a musher’s headlight illuminates reflective markers in the distance and the dogs can simply run to the next reflector. Dogs don’t see markers well, in blowing snow in daylight.
Sometimes Koyuk, the destination village on the northern shore, is tantalizingly visible for hours, but as the trail swerves first one way and then the other, often for miles at a swing, it seems to bypass the village altogether, only to eventually swerve back the other way again. Trail markers are usually adequate when first installed, but drifts piling up to the lee of pressure ridges easily bury the four-foot stakes, just where precise marking is needed to get through the jumble of ice. High winds can literally blow markers away, or force front-running sleds into the wooden stakes, breaking them off to the detriment of following teams. Sometimes the similar left-over markers from the Iron Dog snowmachine race parallel or crisscross the dog trail, creating confusion and frustration.
It was a slow, difficult crossing this year. The trail was longer and curved farther to the east than usual to avoid open ocean. Koyuk was north but the trail kept bending to the east. My dog Bug is a husky with instincts and a built-in canine GPS. In single lead, he wanted to head straight to where he remembered Koyuk to be. How could he know he’d have to swim? He kept veering north into the wind and off the trail, and I’d call him back. As the snowdrifts deepened, he would change course to skirt around them and I had to verbally steer him back in line with the markers. It was wearing on both of us.
Our speed kept dropping. We were moving along, but eventually, slower than I could bear. I realized that six hours of this would land us about half way to Koyuk. I wasn’t about to stand this team up for a 12-hour march in these conditions. I decided to break it into two runs, and we camped at a point I judged to be half way. There was no shelter or windbreak anywhere and it was blowing pretty good, so I put coats on the dogs, fed them well and we all took a long nap. The dogs and I were soon covered with drifted snow. Gone was my race schedule and gone were my competitive aspirations.
In many ways it was a relief. “Well boys, now all we have to do is mush to Nome.”
The wind was really blowing when I fed them again and headed for Koyuk. There was almost no trace of a trail and our own tracks were erased by drifting snow almost immediately behind us. “Just follow the markers, Bug.” He seemed reinvigorated after our rest, and I relaxed.
I woke up with a start, sitting on the seat of my sled. We were still traveling along nicely, but there was not a trail marker anywhere in sight. This was definitely not good.
I called the team around in a circle and began to retrace our quickly fading tracks, and to my relief we found the markers quickly. The dogs angled to the right and hit the trail again with renewed energy. Odd. Why the sudden eagerness and surge in speed? Are we back-tracking? Blowing snow and fading daylight reduced visibility. I hadn’t seen land for hours so visual confirmation was not possible, but the wind was still on my left so this had to be the right way, I reasoned.
But something wasn’t right. After the trail curves east to avoid the open ocean water it has to curve back west to get to Koyuk. Maybe we should be headed west by now and that means the north wind should be on my right side instead of my left. How long had I dozed on the sled? I didn’t remember the wind changing sides, but it had to at some point. Am I supposed to be going east or west? I get an odd taste in my mouth at times like this, like copper or a chemical and I don’t like it.
Bug dutifully executed another tight 180 on command and we headed back the other way. I fumbled with the GPS for confirmation, while trying to drive the sled. But the GPS, like Bug, could only tell the direction to the village, not whether we should be curving east or west at this point to get there. By the distance traveled though, I figured we should be heading more or less west at this point. This had to be right. The taste in my mouth began to fade.
My freezing left thumb still prodded the Garmin for answers as snow machines passed and confirmed I was indeed now heading the right direction.
I had lost a bunch of time, but I didn’t care. We were just mushing to Nome now. We stopped at every checkpoint after that. We took extra rest and more time for dog care along the way. And we made it to Nome, a satisfied musher and a team who think we won.