At 8:42 Monday, after 21 hours of rest, I pull the hook and go onto the river and into the wind. Everyone else was up, but nobody was getting ready to go. It is supposed to be a race and the storm was supposed to be easing, maybe I’ll get a jump on them. I have Platinum in lead – my best go into the wind leader last year.
That wind is cold! I tighten my ruff down against my face and thank God for my heavy beaver mitts. For two hours we go straight into a stiffening headwind, there is no sign of easing. The trail is alternating between being swept clean and being drifted over with 3 to 4 inches of soft snow. Pretty tough pulling. Platinum starts telling me he has had enough, dropping back with a slack tug. Move Blaze and Rosemary into lead and we continue into the storm. Blaze is either loosing the trail or getting tired and ducking off the trail seeking relief. I gee or haw her back and she responds. We are doing pretty well. I can see far enough ahead in the daylight to tell Blaze where the trail will come out. Thank heaven we didn’t try this at night. The wind is blowing loose snow several inches over the ground, quickly covering our tracks.
We turn a small corner and the wind becomes a steady 25 mph straight into our face. We go OK for a while. Then Blaze and Rosemary mutiny and come back into the team. “No!” “ Stop!” Now my 2nd set of team dogs are in lead and I have a tangle like I have not seen for years. Pull off the heavy beaver mitts, lay them on the sled so they don’t’ swing on the idiot strings and spook the dogs. Start on the tangle in my thin liner gloves. Cold Hands – stick them down my bibs to warm. Continue. Repeat. Fifteen minutes or so later we are straight.
Within 10 minutes they do it again. Dang! Same process. Same cold hands inside bibs. We are finally straight and I move Platinum up with Blaze, wipe the snow from their eyes and off we go again. Within 20 minutes they stop, but this time I stop the team before they come back. Move Rosemary up with Platinum. Off we go. They stop. Move Blaze up with Rosemary. At hike the team moves, but Rosemary and Blaze just sit there. Walk up and lead them to line out. At hike they still sit there, while the team moves. This is bad. Dee Dee scratched here in a storm just like this in 1999. Line out the dogs and talk to Blaze and Rosemary – they are not happy. Lie down in the snow to block the wind for them a little. Now what?
The blowing snow has stuck to my liner gloves and melted, now the liner gloves are starting to freeze on my hands. Pull them off and stick the gloves down my bibs to thaw. Put my bare hands back into my beaver mitts, but the storm has blown spindrift (fine loose snow) into the mitts. I pull out what I can, but the damage is done, the mitts are damp and starting to stiffen as they freeze. This is not good. Put three handwarmers in each mitt. My hands are ok, but the mitts are not drying out – I’m just staying even. It is 12:30 PM. We cannot stay here exposed to this vicious wind. Turn the team back and look for shelter against the bank. I think we have something and stop to check it out; it is just a lull in the wind, which soon picks up and drives us on. Try again, same result. At 1:30PM I stop to snack the team – I might have to go all the way back to Grayling to get out of the storm. There is a team coming. Tom Thurston passes, then Tim Osmar. Tim looks at me facing the wrong way “Are you going to chuck it in, or turn around and follow us?” It is just the kick in the pants I need. I finish snacking, turn the team and follow Jeff Holt, the 4th and last musher in line. I learned later that Mike Suprenaut left with them, but went back to Grayling to wait out the storm. Tom is faster and pulls away. I’m faster than Jeff and pass him to follow Rachael. Blaze and Rosemary do a good job of chasing, but I don’t trust them to try to take the lead again.
It is a tough run – if Tim gets too far ahead, Rachael’s leaders lose sight of him and start to leave the trail. Blaze and Rosemary are only too happy to follow Rachael. I try to run between Tim and Rachael, but Rachael’s leaders are used to following Tim, not me. I let her pass me and off we go again. If I am more than 30 seconds behind Rachael, all sign of her passage is obliterated in the drifting snow.
I talk to Tim – he is planning to stop at Blackburn (a fish camp about 22 miles out of Eagle Island) for 3 or 4 hours, then push into Eagle Island for a real rest. At 1010 PM after nearly 14 hours on the trail for me, Tim pulls off the trail onto a gentle slope and stops. This is where we will camp for the night. It is exposed, but no worse than anywhere else we have seen. We haven’t seen Blackburn yet, but we can’t find the trail in the dark and have to wait for daylight to continue. Jeff Holt catches up and pulls in beside me.
Fix a hot meal for the dogs. Jeff has dug a trench to sleep in. Great idea and I quickly do the same. The snow is packed so tight here I need the axe to break it up and then scoop it out with my 1 qt scoop. We all tip our sleds over to break the wind, which is quickly drifting snow over the dogs (which should protect them) and hunker down behind the sleds. I sit in my trench behind my sled eating a warm meal – not too bad. Climb into my bag and try to go to sleep. The wind is blowing snow into the trench, but I think it will be ok.
My feet are cold. My socks are damp so I pull them off (inside the mummy bag – no small feat) and stuff them down my drawers to dry for morning. The bottom of the bag feels damp and my feet won’t warm up. Curl up into a fetal position as much as the mummy bag will allow so I can conserve warmth. Still no good. There are dry socks in a ziplock bag in the sled. Open the bag – everything is scattered because it’s sideways. Find the socks. My hands are cold, stuff them down my drawers to warm against my groin. Close the sledbag and put on the socks. My feet are still cold. This is bad. Finally realize the wind is blowing spindrift through the zipper into the sleeping bag.
This is not working. If I don’t get warm soon, I’ll be in real trouble. Get up and get fully dressed (hard because I’m already chilled) and start walking to generate body warmth. Check on the dogs – all I see are muzzles sticking out of mounds of snow. After a couple of hours I’m finally warm. Check on the dogs again and I can’t see Throttle’s muzzle anymore. Is she still breathing!?! I call her name – then tap the snow and her head comes up. Whew. Get my tarp and lie down in the lee of the sled (the trench is half full of snow) with the tarp as a wind break.
I’ve got to relieve myself and the tarp blows away. Walk to warm up again. Finally about 6 AM I lie down fully dressed and wrap my sleeping bag around me in the lee of the sled and drift off to sleep. At 7:30 Tim calls “Get up, it’s time to get moving” daylight is here.
Tired and miserable, I fix the dogs a hot meal. As I rouse them from their beds they look as cold and miserable as I do. There are blocks of snow about 2 inches on a side sticking to their coats. The dogs eat poorly, many preferring to just sit there and feel bad. The snow over Thyme is crusted so hard she can’t get up – I have to kick it apart, then she stands and cries, moves over and pees enough to start a minor flood. Poor girl.
Jeff Holt has had it. He is dug in, his dogs are dug in. He decides to stay and asks us to send help (rescue) when we get to Eagle Island. Tim and Rachael get ready faster than I do. I dug out my spare liner gloves, but my hands are stiff from the cold and booting the dogs takes longer than I figured. Will Blaze and Rosemary still follow the trail after 20 minutes? They take off and we work it out together. When they drift off, I call them back and they correct. We pass Blackburn about 15 minutes after we leave camp. A native gentleman snowshoes out and asks me to ask Eagle Island to call Grayling and tell them he got his snowmachine stuck.
I’m starting to regain my confidence in my leaders. The dogs seem to be warming up and feeling better as we move down the trail. A couple hours out we catch Rachael and follow her again.
The wind finally starts to ease. The snow is no longer blowing across the trail and it is not as drifted over as before. Finally at 4:40 PM Tuesday afternoon, after almost 32 hours on the trail and the most miserable night I can remember, we pull into Eagle Island. Jim Galley has moved the dog lot into the slew and we are out of the wind at last. Whew!
I delivered my messages and the Iditarod Air Force flew out in the dying storm and rescued Jeff and his dogs and the native gentleman whose snowmachine had fallen through the ice (I guess that’s stuck).
What an education. I met the Frost Fiend up close and personal that night. And it was only 25 to 30 mph winds at -25. It could have been 50 to 70 mph winds at -35! I had one more layer to put on, but if it was like that I’d have gone back to Grayling and waited. I got a real appreciation for what the old timers went through 100 years ago – there was no rescue then. If you guessed wrong and underdressed or didn’t carry enough food, you froze. You could feel it coming – you got cold and could not get warm. Scary.
Keep ‘em Northbound
Keep 'em Northbound
Eric O. Rogers
R Northbound Dogs
Eagle River, AK
http://www.dogster.com/dogs/797003 (Bass on dogster)
http://www.dogster.com/dogs/797276 (Dijon on dogster)
http://www.cafepress.com/rnorthbounddogs (Cafe Press)