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My Iditarod


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#1 Eileen Stein

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Posted 21 March 2012 - 07:26 PM

So I'm back and almost recovered from my somewhat grueling but totally wonderful adventure in the frozen north. Sorting through pictures, and if y'all would be interested I'll post a little about it. Many thanks to AK dog doc for her great commentary about the race here on the Boards, as well as for showing us a very good time in her home town and environs.

#2 WildFlower

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Posted 21 March 2012 - 07:47 PM

I'm definitely interested! :)

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#3 NCStarkey

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Posted 21 March 2012 - 08:27 PM

Welcome home, Eileen!!!

Please share a bit about your adventures when you can!!!

Regards,
nancy
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#4 ShoresDog

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Posted 22 March 2012 - 12:05 AM

I'd love to see pictures and hear all about your adventure!

Jan & Daisy & Juno & Star
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#5 Sue R

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Posted 22 March 2012 - 05:30 AM

Excuse me, Eileen, but we have all been eagerly waiting for your telling (and showing) of your grand adventure! Let the posting begin!
Sue Rayburn - Cleverly disguised as a responsible adult, but not the brightest firefly in the jar.

Celt, Megan, and Dan

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#6 juliepoudrier

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Posted 22 March 2012 - 10:26 AM

^^What they said. We've been eagerly awaiting your return and report!

J.

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#7 Journey

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Posted 22 March 2012 - 12:30 PM

Ditto....where are the stories and pictures!
Karen & the growing pack of spoiled mutts!
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#8 Eileen Stein

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Posted 22 March 2012 - 09:52 PM

Okay, I'm not being coy -- I just haven't gotten myself together yet, but I'm working on it. Hopefully, tomorrow . . . . . .

#9 Covelo Dogs

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Posted 22 March 2012 - 11:14 PM

Looking forward to your post. I was glued to my computer for days reading everything posted about race and missed sleep while Dan Seavey was lost on Norton Bay.
Thanks,
Suki

#10 AK dog doc

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Posted 24 March 2012 - 09:35 PM

Yeah, I can't wait to hear either! (Well, I CAN, technically, since there is no choice - and since I feel guilty that AK or someone visiting it gave you a cold.) Heal up, rest up, and fire at will.
It is illegal for me to diagnose your dog over the internet. I respectfully decline to answer e-mail or PM requests for medical advice or diagnosis. I will respond to questions posted in the public fora as I have time and at my own discretion. Thank you for your understanding.

Besides, I have to go make some wine now.

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#11 Eileen Stein

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Posted 26 March 2012 - 01:51 PM

Finally.

Let me start by saying it was a real treat to meet AK dog doc in person after many years of correspondence. I also got to meet lovely little Raven, who seems to be her constant companion. AK dog doc pointed out our first ever moose to us, which was very cool, but far away. However, our second moose, which we saw -- not 10 yards away! -- on the corner as we turned into her road to pick her up to go see Hobo Jim, was amazing, being about the size of a one-car garage. It was so overwhelming I forgot I had my iPhone with me and could easily have taken a picture of it. So I'll have to substitute a picture of our fourth moose, a more distant one that I did get a picture of the top half of:

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(The third moose was in the dark parking lot at the Hobo Jim concert, which was outstanding. Don't miss a chance to see this guy live if you can -- he's great, and quintessentially Alaska.) After the fourth moose we stopped counting. There are a lot of moose in Alaska.

The next day was the ceremonial start in Anchorage. It was overcast and snowing off and on. 4th Avenue and its side streets are lined with big dog trucks, parked with the highest bib numbers (late starters) closest to the starting line and the lowest bib numbers (earliest starters) farthest away (so that once their teams take off, the trucks can make an unimpeded getaway to travel to Campbell airstrip, where the day's 11 miles of mushing ends, to load up their teams again). With 66 trucks and 66 sleds and more than 1,000 dogs within a few square blocks, the potential for pandemonium is great, but minimized by good planning and execution.

Since teams leave the starting line at two-minute intervals beginning at 10:00 am, the mushers know pretty well what their starting time will be. Maybe half an hour before that time, they will hook up their team, load their IditaRider, and then funnel into the line of five or six ever-changing sleds moving down 4th Avenue toward the start. These sleds are in a stop-and-go pattern, moving forward a team's length every time a team goes out. Because the dogs are frantic to go, and feeding off the energy of all the other frantic dogs and cheering people, it can be a job to hold even the best-trained teams during this stop-and-go progression. Here we are moving along in the pre-start lineup, with two of Martin's strongest handlers holding ropes attached to the gangline and sled to help stop the dogs:

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For safety's sake, each of the mushers must have a handler accompanying them on the ceremonial ride, either on their sled or on a second trailing sled. Martin's terrific wife Kathy served in that capacity here. BTW, many of the Iditariders are pretty much sitting on the bottom of their sled, bumping along wishing they had thought to bring a pillow, and barely able to see over their wheel dogs' butts. I was lucky to have a musher who thinks of everything -- he had built a seat in the sled covered with thick padding so I was snug as a bug in a rug, with a great view. Also BTW, when those dogs take off, they really take off! I felt like there must be lines coming out of the back of my head, like a cartoon character, after the starter said "Go!"

The Start day ride is 11 miles long, first through city streets with a few exciting sharp turns, then through parkland which gives a feeling of being on the trail, except for the crowds of people that line most of the route, and the occasional bridge or tunnel which, as Martin pointed out to me, are all angled so that the dogs don't have to make sharp turns. We passed a few teams, and I was surprised at how close you can come to the other team while doing this -- some parts of the trail were too narrow to pass, but other parts that I thought would have been too narrow were not. It's a relaxed ride -- there was a place where muffins were being handed out as we passed by (I grabbed one) and another where hot dogs were being handed out (I didn't get one, but did notice that the dogs seemed to pick up the pace as they drew within scenting distance of the cooker). We must have been going about 10--12 mph, fast enough to create a cold wind that chilled your hands if, for example, you took off your glove to peel and eat a muffin. Well before the end of the totally exhilarating ride, I had secured my parka hood in its upright and locked position, put on the goggles that Martin provided and pulled up my neck gaiter over my nose.

Since we ("we" is my husband and me -- he has much less interest in the Iditarod than I do, but is a really good sport) were staying at Happy Trails Kennels, we were able to watch all the race preparations up close and personal. The most fascinating was probably the loading of the dogs into the trucks on the mornings of the ceremonial start (loading done in the dark) and the re-start (loading done in daylight). Three Happy Trails teams were racing -- Martin and his son Rohn were each running a team in competitive mode (i.e., racing to win), and Matt Failor, one of Martin's kennel helpers/apprentices, was running the "puppy team," a team of young dogs 1 1/2 to 2 years old who were making their first trip to Nome in easier stages with more rest time, to get them used to the trail and excited about what fun it is. When it came time to load, the trucks pulled up and Martin's handlers (a group of maybe 8-10 longtime friends who help with dog management and logistics before and after the races) fanned out through the dog yard to get the 48 dogs (3 x 16) who would be racing, bring them to the trucks and load them into the boxes. Their speed and efficiency were awesome.

I know a number of the dogs from previous time at Happy Trails, and one dog, Roy, who had run in Martin's team in the last three or four (at least) Iditarods, had not been chosen to run this time. And he knew it. When the loading starts, the dog yard goes crazy, with all the dogs barking and jumping on and off their houses hoping to be picked, although of course many of them won't be. To my surprise, Roy just stood there, watching a little and then turning away. How did he know? I had been told he had had a mild shoulder injury awhile back -- it was nothing that visibly affected him, and nothing that kept him from running in a team when we did a little mushing a few days later, but enough to make him not a good candidate for a 1,000 mile race. I can't believe he was conscious of that as a reason he wasn't racing. The only thing I can think of is that Martin had gone through the dog yard an hour or so earlier, on both days and for a couple of previous days, giving the dogs who were going to race their Prilosec. (Preventative antacids are given to pretty much all sled dogs in long-distance races now, thanks to extremely beneficial research showing its value in preventing GI lesions.) Could the fact that he didn't get a pill cause him to conclude that he wouldn't be racing? Seems very unlikely, but if not, then what? I don't know. Roy, who is a particularly lovable dog, was droopy and morose for a day or so, and I made a point of giving him a lot of attention until we left to move on up the trail. Here's a picture of him:

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Although the re-start day was sunny and beautiful (giving us a chance for a little flightseeing over Denali towards evening), we had bad weather luck for the next couple of days, with poor visibility limiting our flights to early checkpoints. We went on a little mushing expedition one of those days -- mushing 5 or 6 miles over varied but easy trail to a semi-permanent dog camp in the woods (used for training runs), snacking and resting the dogs while we cooked bratwurst over a campfire, then mushing back to the kennel -- and on another day we could fly over the Alaska Range again later in the day. One way or another, I got a lot of pictures of the stunning Alaska Range -- here are two, more or less picked at random:

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[to be continued]

#12 Eileen Stein

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Posted 26 March 2012 - 01:51 PM

[for mature audiences only]

Although we flew to Finger Lake checkpoint when the weather finally permitted -- because I'd been to the lodge there in the summer and wanted to see how it was set up as a checkpoint -- all the mushers had been through there by the time we arrived, and the only dogs we saw there were a few dropped dogs being loaded into a plane for their flight back to Anchorage. So the first "real" checkpoint we saw was Nikolai. There were lots of teams resting there, but probably the most newsworthy thing we saw was Lance Mackey's departure.

Lance's great lead dog Maple was in season, which had already caused some difficulties for him earlier on the trail, so he had her tied to the back of his sled while they were resting, and while he bootied the dogs up to leave. The very last thing he did before taking off was to lead Maple up to the head of the team and hook her up next to her co-leader Mayor:

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All dogs seemed to be raring to go as he ran back to the sled:

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He jumped on the runners for what he thought would be a quick takeoff:

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But wait -- not so fast! In just the amount of time it took him to pull his hook and get the team started, Maple and Mayor had developed a romantic attachment. The next picture was taken at some point during the 30+ minutes he had to stand around waiting until the tie was broken and he could get out of Nikolai for real. He was good-natured about it all, but you can kinda see how discouraged he must have been.

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[to be continued]

#13 Eileen Stein

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Posted 26 March 2012 - 01:52 PM

After the first few days, our weather luck took a big turn for the better. Most days were partly or totally sunny, and in most places (except Koyuk) there was little wind. I had been very worried about the cold, since I have no cold tolerance and have never deliberately gone anywhere cold in my life before. The Alaskan weather (which we followed closely all winter) was not at all reassuring in that respect this year, but in fact the cold was not a serious problem for me. My hands were the only issue, really. I had serious, hard-core overmitts, and I was fine with them on, but when I had to take them off things got painful pretty fast. We often had picnic lunches next to the plane in the snow (generally soup and cookies), and I never really learned to manage eating with the mitts. Taking pictures was always a trade-off too -- was that picture really worth taking my mitts off for, or leaving my mitts off a little longer for? -- and part of the low quality of these pix is due to minimizing time focusing and hands shaking (also due to minimal quality cameras, I have to say). But otherwise -- including feet (thank you, Steger mukluks!) -- I really didn't have a problem with the cold. You do get used to it, and good clothing does help.

We saw nearly all the checkpoints after Nikolai. We tended to coincide with many of the same mushers throughout the race -- the front of the pack. It became obvious fairly early that this would not be Martin's year, or Rohn's -- the heavy snow early on in the race made the trail more difficult for the teams with late starting positions, because the earlier teams chew up the deep, soft snow. We mainly found ourselves with Aliy Zirkle, the Seaveys, John Baker, DeeDee Jonrowe, Sigrid Ekran, Lance Mackey (early on), and Jeff King and Jake Berkowitz (up to Unalakleet), and a few others. For much of the race, I was thinking Aliy would win, which would have been fine with me -- she is unfailingly cheerful and friendly to everybody, even when it's cold and she's exhausted and things aren't going her way.

Here are a few pictures from a few different checkpoints:

John Baker, giving frozen snacks to his dogs in Takotna:

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Cripple (pop. 0), perhaps the most desolate checkpoint -- that's all there is to Cripple, but they've done their best to cheer it up:

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Mitch Seavey heading out of Ruby, the next checkpoint and one of my favorites (that's the Yukon down there):

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One of DeeDee Jonrowe's dogs, resting in Ruby:

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Aliy Zirkle leaving Kaltag:

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Unalakleet, also a very nice checkpoint, was the first really cold temps we encountered. It was -35 the two mornings we were there, and it didn't warm up that much later on in the day. Sunny and very little wind, but you could feel it if the breeze picked up the least bit. The air sparkled. I don't know how else to describe it, and I couldn't photograph it. I don't just mean the air was clean and clear -- I mean there were sparkles dancing around in the air. Maybe they were tiny ice crystals? Maybe this is a common phenomenon in certain conditions, and I've just never seen it before. Anyway, it was astonishing to me.

It may have accounted for the way everything picked up a coating of frost, even under sunny blue skies, like these dogs of Aaron Burmeister's:

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Or these (Dallas Seavey's dogs):

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Our lodging in Unalakleet:

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Our lodging in Galena:

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[to be continued]

#14 Eileen Stein

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Posted 26 March 2012 - 01:54 PM

And here we are at the end of the trail.

Dallas Seavey coming up off the ice onto Front Street in Nome:

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Dallas, the winner (his sled and team are under the burled arch):

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It was really a memorable, amazing experience, and I still don't feel I've fully digested it yet.

ETA: Forgot to say that we saw SPECTACULAR Northern Lights in McGrath and Galena -- another hope fulfilled. Unphotographable, though -- at least at my level of expertise.

#15 Laura L

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Posted 26 March 2012 - 02:57 PM

Thank you for the fun read and all of the pictures! That sounds like it was a really good time, although cold and a little scary with the moose. ;)
Laura
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#16 Journey

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Posted 26 March 2012 - 03:21 PM

Wow.
Karen & the growing pack of spoiled mutts!
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#17 juliepoudrier

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Posted 26 March 2012 - 04:18 PM

Great report Eileen, and the photos are fantastic, even they're not perfect! Sounds like an amazing trip.

J.

I know nothing with any certainty, but the sight of stars makes me dream.

~Vincent van Gogh



mydogs_small2.jpg

Julie Poudrier
New Kent, VA
Willow (6/1997-5/2014, run free, my heart), Boy (3/1995-10/2010, RIP), Jill (8/1996-5/2012, RIP), Farleigh (12/1998-7/2014, RIP), Kat, Twist, Lark, Phoebe, Pipit, and Birdie!
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#18 NCStarkey

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Posted 26 March 2012 - 05:55 PM

Oh, Eileen!!! What an incredible experience for you (and your husband)!!! Thank you so much for your truly enjoyable report and wonderful photos!!!

nancy
"He is your friend, your partner, your defender, your dog.
You are his life, his love, his leader.
He will be yours, faithful and true, to the last beat of his heart.
You owe it to him to be worthy of such devotion."
Author Unknown

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#19 Sue R

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Posted 26 March 2012 - 06:10 PM

Great photos, wonderful narrative (I have to finish it, didn't have time for all), a little gratuitous sex (obviously a working-bred litter in the making), and a wonderful time!

I loved all the dogs on straw in their coats/sleeping bags, huddled with their buddies.

It makes it so real to see and read about it from someone who got it first-hand. Thanks to you and AK Dog Doc for all the wonderful reading!
Sue Rayburn - Cleverly disguised as a responsible adult, but not the brightest firefly in the jar.

Celt, Megan, and Dan

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#20 Eileen Stein

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Posted 26 March 2012 - 07:03 PM

Thank you for the fun read and all of the pictures! That sounds like it was a really good time, although cold and a little scary with the moose. ;)
Laura


Well, the moose wasn't all that scary because we were in a car, and it was just standing there munching on a tree. It was impressive, though, and stopped us in our (tire)tracks. There had been a lot of moose attacks in Alaska this winter because of the record snowfall, and there was concern that moose might attack dog teams in the race because of hunger, aggravation/desperation, and not wanting to have to get off the trail and flounder in the deep snow. Luckily this didn't happen.

Then again, I'm sure moose are no novelty to you, Laura, or cold either! :)


ETA: Well, it seems I was wrong about this. Turns out there are few if any moose in Wisconsin. Who knew? Even the winter temps on the Wisconsin weather charts -- which I just looked up -- don't seem as scary as I expected. I guess my perception of cold must have changed somewhat. :)


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