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.

Advertisements
One Man's Paradise

The Last Great Race

Gallery
One Man's Paradise

Moonlight – № 2

I am ready. I am done with darkness. Let there be sunshine and frigging colors. I knew this time would come. Cabin fever, winter blues, seasonal affective disorder…


“The longest way must have its close –
the gloomiest night
will wear on to a morning.”

Harriet Beecher Stowe


I would not want to miss the experience of a silent night on the lake under a full moon. So bright you could read a book. Walking on the lake, with snow that would creak like Styrofoam. A curious red fox joining me on my midnight excursion. The strange whooping sound of ice cracking under pressure. That and backcountry skiing in pristine powder. Those are my favorite memories of winter in the north…

Wait a minute. There is more. The beautiful subtle colors of winter, the northern lights, cookies and hot chocolate, the holidays…

Not so bad after all. I think I can take another 6 weeks of winter…


Moonlight over Puntilla Lake, Alaska
Standard
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…

Standard
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.

iditarod

Iditarod 2014 – Puntilla Lake

Standard
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.

Iditarod-5

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.

Iditarod-3

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.

Iditarod-12

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

 

Standard