"The Start-Nome, Here We Come!"-Our Rookie Iditarod Story, Part Three
The Alaskan morning dawned foggy. This was it. This was the day I took off into the unknown with sixteen dogs Jeremy and I raised and trained for this dream. As we took off towards Willow and the restart, the clouds and fog slowly lifted. By the time we were parked and getting gear ready, the day was clear as could be and Denali could be seen in the distance. A beautiful day to say goodbye to life as we knew it and begin our life changing adventure. The hours before we pulled up to the starting line were just as crazy as the months and weeks that brought us here. Willow Lake is the starting line of this Superbowl of dog mushing. Dog trucks pulled onto the frozen lake with a long chute lined by snow fence which would keep the fans from getting too close to the dog teams as they bolted from the start. I packed my sled (thankfully my sister, Krisha, is awesome at organizing and helped me cram all of my gear in such a small area) and chatted with fans, family, and friends while trying to sort through my mind what still needed to be done. Some of the dogs were drug tested (my drug test, yes, mushers are tested as well, would come almost 900 miles later) and before I knew it, it was time to harness, bootie, and hook up the team.
In a whirlwind of emotion and final goodbyes, the team and I were standing at the threshold of what would be the most incredible journey of our lives. Little did I know what lie before us, I was a rookie. Every dog on my team was a rookie. The mountains and wide open tundra and winds were about to swallow us up and spit us out a world away from what we had ever known. At the starting line, I walked up the team and thanked and hugged all the dear ones that had brought us here. Reaching the leaders, I knelt with Jeremy and Dad, hugged Paxson and Mocha, and prayed. I thanked the Lord for answering a nine-year-old girl's prayers. I asked for safety for all of the teams. And I asked that He be glorified in what we were about to undertake. Next thing I know, I'm being whisked down a snow-fence, fan-lined trail behind sixteen crazy, strong dogs. Here we go, it has begun!
Hundreds, if not thousands, of cheering fans with high-fives ready and waiting lined the trail for hours. It seemed that all of Alaska was out there celebrating their state sport and traditional roots that have run deep for hundreds of years. The sun was hot in the sky as we made our way up the frozen rivers. Large parties hosting bonfires and smiles soaked up the winter beauty. Groups of bush planes and even a helicopter were sitting on the rivers at the harder to reach areas further from the starting line. I smiled and said "thank-you" to the well-wishers for hours, I was soaking this in. Several teams passed me fairly quickly...I was in no hurry. Slow and steady, I believed, would keep the team from getting burned out too quickly. It was very hot for the dogs, so we were naturally moving more slowly and I figured it was better that way to keep them from overheating.
I was passed by one team who's musher I did not recognize and he was not very nice when he went by. I felt belittled and wondered if this was it was like to race with the "big dogs". Why do people have to be so impatient...aren't we all out here to enjoy life with our dogs? We still had our starting bibs on, so I remembered his number (I even wrote it down in my notes at our first camp), I wanted to find out later just who this was. Needless to say, I'm not much of a fan! Ha! Most mushers were friendly, though, or at least decent. One top contender even commented as he passed that I had a nice looking team, this made me feel good...I AM blessed with some beautiful kids! At one point, two-time Iditarod champ, Mitch Seavey, passed me. A couple of miles later, he stopped to do something with his team and we were still close enough, we re-passed him. Now I can say I passed an Iditarod champ (do I have to mention it didn't last for long?)! As the crowds of fans began to grow smaller in number and eventually fade in the distance, I felt a great loneliness creep in. The waning light of the first night of a race is always the hardest for me. I wondered what I was doing. One thousand miles is a long way, it was hitting me the immensity of the race. I longed to have Jeremy out there with me. I wished I had had more time with Mom and Dad before the start of the race. I was going to get so exhausted. Would we make it? The fears and worries flooded my mind. I tried to focus on the fact that this was the dream, it would be tough, but it's what I wanted. By evening, after traveling 40 miles, the team and I reached the first checkpoint of the race, Yentna Station. It was my plan to go through and camp a few miles outside of the craziness of the first checkpoint. The team would rest better without having a ton of not-so-tired teams crammed around them. I signed in and out (each musher must do this at every checkpoint to verify they have been there) and asked to grab a bale of straw-provided by the race-to carry down the trail for our camp. I was told they were short straw so I wouldn't be able to have a whole bale, which kind of angered me as there should always be a bale for a team, especially when you have sixteen dogs that it needs to be spread out among. I quickly grabbed what straw I could and hit the trail again. Yentna was one of two checkpoints where we were not able to send out drop bags (bags filled with all the food, gear, and supplies we may need out there). I had realized on our way to Yentna that in the rush before the start of the race, I hadn't thought things out and had actually forgotten to pack an extra set of booties and snacks...oops!! I knew I would be fine on the food end of things as I had packed enough anyway. Booties were another story. I would need two sets (one which was already on the dog's feet from the start) and the other for the run after our camp on the way to Skwentna. PLUS, I would need another set to keep as spares in the sled as rules state that a musher must always carry two sets of booties per dog. I only had two sets total on me instead of the three I needed. Technically, I had what I needed per race rules, but if I did indeed need to use a second set on the way to Skwentna, I wouldn't have any that hadn't already been used. I knew I hadn't sent out more booties than what I needed until further down the trail. So for several checkpoints going forward, I kept a bag of the driest, least beat-up booties that had already been used until I found a drop bag that had a whole extra set. This minor rookie oversight caused me much stress...and thankfully I never did need that extra set!
As the glorious first day of our rookie Iditarod slowly darkened into night, we found ourselves a nice camping spot just off the trail on the river between Yentna and Skwentna. After feeding the dogs and checking everyone over for any sign of injury, I grabbed a small bite to eat myself and wrote a few notes about our run in the notebook I was carrying. As darkness took over, team after team passed by us on their way upriver. The dogs barked at the first wave of teams that passed but slowly lost interest and got some rest. I curled up next to Sanford and Eiger in the straw and drifted in and out of sleep. It was fairly cold, probably one of the coldest nights we would see on the trail, although warm by Alaskan standards. First night on the trail and I was still questioning my sanity and trying to ward off the loneliness. Hopefully these thoughts would fade away as our adventure continued...we still had over nine hundred miles to go. *Special thanks goes out to our 2018 Yentna Checkpoint sponsors, Jan and Joe Lathrop, Keith and Jane Miller, and Joe Peluso...we greatly appreciate your donations towards the food and gear we needed at the very first stop on our Iditarod adventure, you helped us get started on the right paw!!