Into the Wild

The First Man to Walk the Iditarod Trail

This is a great story by the man, who walked the Iditarod first. Oh, there are a few hardy souls these days that walk parts of the Iditarod  to McGrath, even fewer go on all the way to Nome. This year’s Invitational was especially challenging with temps around -40, Fahrenheit or Celsius, your pick.

Last Frontier Magazine

Denis between Iditarod mushers Joe Runyan and Doug Swingley.

Denis Douglas made it to the Yukon River (Ruby) two days before Iditarod front runners, Joe Runyan and Doug Swingley.

Booty Road – The First to Walk the Iditarod Trail

by Denis Douglas


The sun got hotter as I walked, and sweat rolled down my back soaking my shirt… No. I must be hallucinating again. Actually it’s about 40 below zero and I’m trudging down the Yukon River with a twenty-mile-an-hour wind blowing in my face. Such was my first walk from Knik to Nome.

Let me back up a little here. Two years earlier I was asked by a hunter to fly from Anchorage into the Farewell area just on the far side of Rainy Pass. The man was from Texas and had drawn a permit for a buffalo during the spring hunt. He shot a cow at about twenty yards and soon we had the animal field dressed…

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For the third time in its 45 year history the Iditarod race has been relocated to Fairbanks due to treacherous conditions in the Alaska range. What a pity.

The stretch from Finger Lake to Nicolai entails the most scenic and perilous landscape of the historic sled dog race. Unfortunately, the mushers don’t have much time to admire the beautiful scenery. Depending on weather conditions and time of the day they may not even get a glimpse of the scenery.

As a caretaker at Rainy Pass, one of the checkpoints on the trail, I witnessed one musher arriving just around sunrise on a beautiful winter morning. The first words from underneath his ice-caked fur hood were: “Whoaa, I never knew there were such beautiful mountains around”.

Arriving at Rainy Pass Lodge means the mushers and their dogs have mastered one of the first hurdles: the Steps. Steep, sometimes icy inclines in and out of the Happy River (what’s in a name). A few more nasty side hills and there you are at Puntilla Lake.

Straw, food, water, a dry cabin for the mushers to rest.

After Puntilla Lake comes the long climb to Rainy Pass, the highest point on the trail, and then the hair-raising descent into the Dalzell Gorge. It’s easy to tip your sled, crash into a tree, and in the worst case loose your team. Take a wild ride down that gorge with Jeff King. Past Rohn, a public forest service cabin, overflow, open water and the Farewell Burn are the last obstacles of the Alaska Range before the racers reach the open tundra.

All that drama will be missed this year and replaced by a long slog up the cold Yukon.

Iditarod is certainly a long hard race, but there are others that may be more challenging in terms of endurance, remoteness, and extreme conditions.

There is the Yukon Quest between Whitehorse and Fairbanks. 1000 miles. Long cold stretches between checkpoints. Four out of 21 competitors have scratched so far. Some participants of this race go on to race the Iditarod afterwards. This is prime season for long distance sled dog racing.

And then there is the, a Beringia, a 1,500-km sled dog marathon in Kamchatka, Russia. 19 mushers signed up this year. It will take about 24 days for the winner to cross the finish in Ust-Kamchatsk. In 1991 the event set the Guinness world record as the world’s longest sled dog race, with a route of 1980 kilometers.

There are great sled dog races all over the world. I hope they all will be held in the future, as it keeps a great tradition of alive.

One Man's Paradise

The Last Great Race

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Dogs and ponies

All is quiet…

Iditarod has moved through Rainy Pass. It’s been a very fast race this year. Some mushers have pushed for long runs and little rest, some camped out at the checkpoints, some went stealth camping in the wilderness to get rest and keep the competition guessing. A few more days and the winner will arrive in Nome. The race goes on, until the last musher reaches the finish, which may be weeks…

In 2014 I was a caretaker at Rainy Pass Lodge, a hunting lodge and Iditarod checkpoint in the Alaska Range. As the crow flies it is about 120 miles to Anchorage. There is no road access to this remote place. Food and supplies are brought in by bush plane, when needed, or when the weather allows.

In the off-season it becomes real quiet there. Less than a handful of staff take care of the horses and the property throughout winter. All that changes in March, when three races come through and bring droves of competitors and spectators, press and support staff to the site. First, it’s the high-octane Iron Dogs, then the human-powered runners, skiers and bikers, and finally the furry stars of the Iditarod sled dog race.

I did not know much about the the sport of dog sledding then. It was an amazing experience. First, I was so surprised how small these dogs were. How could they pull a sled, a musher, and supplies for more than 1000 miles across Alaska? Where did they and the mushers sleep?

The dogs are amazing, so are the mushers. A small community of resilient spirits from all walks of life. Tragedy struck this year, when some of them lost their homes in the Sockeye wildfire. Nevertheless, this could not stop them from participating in this year’s race.

Everybody in this field has a story…

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Dogs and ponies

First musher into Rainy Pass checkpoint

142 miles into the race in less than 24 hours, not much sleep.

Rainy Pass is ahead of the teams, the highest point on the Iditarod.

In fast race years the first teams arrive in the dark, before sunrise. This year they get to see the mountains surrounding Puntilla Lake in full splendor. Nic Petite was first this year into Rainy Pass Lodge. Good luck.

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Iditarod 2014 – Puntilla Lake

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Dogs and ponies

It’s on!

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Iditarod is on!

It’s pretty amazing to see how anxious and motivated these sled dogs are. Maybe they won’t jump as high a week into the race, but running is in their blood.

The mushers? Not so sure. Probably happy to be done with training and having left the circus in Anchorage behind. They also know, what to expect. Long days and nights, little sleep, trying to keep their team healthy, resting just enough, and making good decisions along the way.

Will it be a hat trick for Dallas Seavey, three in a row, or can another musher break his winning streak?

 

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Dogs and ponies

Cabernet

Hello. My name is Cabernet. I am a big dog! I mean BIG! I am wearing an XL harness, the only XL harness in my yard and I could drag my musher down the strip, if I weren’t such a nice boy.

I live next to Palenque, a nice lady, who is flirting with me all the time, well, who isn’t? My trail buddy is Spongebob. We get along alright. No reason to fight. We are wheel dogs, meaning we are the engine of the whole shebang. Our musher puts us usually on the second sled. With our other four buddies we pull 2 adults for 20 miles every day, no sweat.

I am not the youngest any more, so my eyesight is slowly fading, but I am not complaining. I do love to run in the morning, I have a good appetite and I am in pretty good shape for my age. True, those young folks like to run a bit too fast for my taste. I am more an endurance kind of guy. I could go at my pace all day.

I guess you figured out by now that I am a mellow guy. Don’t get me wrong, I am getting excited about work. You’ll see me with all 4 legs in the air, when we are stopped for too long. The other day we had this photographer Benjamin visiting us. He took a cool shot of me and my buddy Spongebob. I think, we look great.

Cabernet & Spongebob - ©2014 Ben Gately Williams, gatelywilliams.com

Cabernet & Spongebob – ©2014 Ben Gately Williams, gatelywilliams.com

That’s me in a nutshell.

Did I mention I ran the Iditarod in 2007? Quite a trip. We burned up the sled on the way… That’s a whole different story.

See you on the trail, Cabernet

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Dogs and ponies

Clumber

Clumber

Hello, my name is Clumber. As you can see I am not a Clumber Spaniel, no, I am true Alaskan Husky. I got my name from Jeff (Jeff King that is, who won the Iditarod four times). My mom’s name is Spaniel, so I guess Jeff thought it was a cute idea to name me Clumber. Clumber, Spaniel – get it?

You should see me lead. I love doing that! I could do that all winter. I am pulling like a wheel dog, and I don’t stop until my musher asks me to.

Most of the time I am running lead with my son Classic. He is still learning, but I show him the ropes. I also love to run with good looking girls, like Aphrodite or Hunter. Boys? Not so much, especially this Knox guy. I always give him the evil eye and a good bark and when he waltzes by my house.

What’s up with the food lately? They give me this chicken skin stuff. I can’t stand it! It’s cold outside they say and I should eat more. Hey, I have done this for 10 years, just give me my kibbles and beef and I’ll be fine.

Oh, and if you could fix my house when you get to it, that would be great. There are a couple holes that need to get patched up. Don’t even think about fixing it with those flimsy trail markers. I’ll have those for breakfast.

Let’s go already!

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Into the Wild

Before I forget

November 1, I arrived in Jackson, Wyoming with the prospect to become a musher.

What did I know about mushing? Not much…

Last year I saw 30 or so mushers with their dogs on the Iditarod, probably the toughest sled dog race on Earth. I saw them arrive early in the morning, before sunrise, during the day, and in the middle of the night. Calm, hurt, tired, elated, you name it.

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Aliy Zirkle arriving at Puntilla Lake.

 

I saw them cook breakfast, lunch, and dinner on a frozen lake for the dogs. The team always comes first. Then they dipped their frozen food into the same pot of boiling water to eat last.

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Mike Williams Jr. preparing breakfast for champions

I saw some beaten teams arrive hours and days later. Mushers with concussions, hurt dogs…

The long way home

Jim Lanier heading home

Never did it occur to me that I wanted to become a musher, although gliding through a winter wonderland propelled by a group of sled dogs looked appealing.

Sometime in October this year I contemplated what to do this winter. I thought about spending the winter on a warm island.

That did not happen, for whatever reason. Karma? Life is a strange sequence of events, leading us to places that we not even dream of.

I replied to an ad on Coolworks to spend the winter in Wyoming as a dog musher. I had visited Wyoming only a few times before, never enough time to climb in the Tetons, or to make it to Yellowstone. Then, I remember a beautiful climbing trip in the Wind River range. All the more reason to go. Although I had the worst cell connecction during my phone interview I landed a job offer to be a musher leading visitors on day trips into the backcountry of Teton County.

What an experience it has been so far. I was very intimidated in the beginning by the howling, barking, jumping and jerking of these sled dogs. They seem so fragile and small on one hand, but they are powerful and energetic on the other hand. And they have personalities you would not believe it. Pulling a sled is their life purpose. That’s what they are bred for, it’s in their blood. Once they see a sled and some dogs getting hooked up to the gang line they are going „ballistic“. „Take me! Take me!“ they seem to bark all at the same time.

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Leaving Puntilla Lake heading for Rainy Pass, the highest point on the Iditarod.

 

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One Man's Paradise

Eat like a musher

It has been 2 months that the Iditarod blazed through Rainy Pass. The trail markers are gone, the trail itself is fast melting away. Once in a while we find a dog booty, but sooner or later all signs of this wild dog sled race will fade.

Breakfast, lunch, and dinner for hungry souls.

Breakfast, lunch, and dinner for hungry souls.

The Iditarod is tough, but it is not a self-sufficient race any more. Rainy Pass is one of many checkpoint along the trail, where the formidable Iditarod Air Force drops food, fuel, and hay for mushers and dogs. Most mushers are pretty generous with the amounts of food that they send to the checkpoints. You want to keep dogs and the musher happy, when it comes to eating. Hence, there are leftovers. Fear not, nothing goes to waste. The hay goes to the horses, fish and meet stew are taken by the ravens, and the mushers dinner goes to … our freezer.


Now is the time to find out what the mushers are eating. All meals are vacuum sealed, some pouches are labeled, most of them are not. Since it is frozen food it is not always possible to identify what’s inside the bag. Mystery food!


Today we tested the first batch. Turns out, it was pretty tasty (3 out of 5 spoons). Chicken meat balls, with chicken chunks, rice, and carrots. Hearty. Now we know what mushers eat! The only question remains: Whose dinner was it?

How to cook a musher's meal

How to cook a mushers meal

By the way, mushers food is a snap to prepare. It’s precooked in a sealed pouch. All you need to do is toss it in hot water to heat it up. Bon appetit.

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Into the Wild

X marks the spot

It has been a crazy couple of days.

Nice to look at...

Into the Blue

First we ventured out into the back country to transport supplies, firewood, building materials, fuel, and other goodies to remote hunting camps. We would leave after breakfast and spent most of the day outside. April did present us with all facets of weather: Some days we had plenty of sunshine, some days the light was flat and you could barely see from one trail marker to the other. One day it was so windy we huddled behind the windshields of our snow machines to stay out of the wind. The tundra seemed alive as the strong wind pushed the snow  around.

The Iditarod Trail

The Iditarod Trail

Once in a while we would get stuck with our heavy loads. That meant unhooking the trailer, rolling around in the snow, shoving and pushing until the sled was on the hardened trail again. On a clear day that’s good fun. On a cold, windy day it is almost a matter of survival to stay dry and warm, and most importantly to stay together as a group. It would be so easy to get off the trail and disappear in the rolling hills. The wind covers all traces in a minute.

Field service

Field Service

Then again it seems like a miracle to see wildlife in this vast space. Two tiny mice crossed our path the other day. We stopped in order to get a better look at the critters. What did they do? They had nothing better to do than to crawl underneath our snow machines!  When we left they reappeared from underneath unharmed. First, a little flattened. Then, they hopped off into the white, looking for something to nibble on.

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