The light from the setting sun reflects from the snow and my heart beat quickens. Its a beautiful sunset on the Yenta River, but that's not what my focus is this time. I look ahead and see the trail markers set about 1/4 mile apart. W300.. W300... "Ok this is good, I'm still on the right trail". The sun sets quickly and I'm still on the river.
I bring the team to a stop, "GOOD DOGS! Take a break guys, its snack time!" I force this verbalization that things are fine. They are fine. The dogs are moving as a team, every one has happy tails and are enjoying the competitive nature of this race. They've done amazing by passing teams and not really having to stop much to be passed this time! They have been eating everything I offer them and with a happy attitude they start back in their harnesses every time I ask "Are you ready??"
The darkness was settling but it wasn't dark enough for my headlamp. Taking a deep breath, I opened the sled bag pulled out a back of cut-up salmon and ripped it open much to the dogs delight. 14 heads swung around and eagerly waited for their snacks. I walked to the front of the team and flipped chunks of the frozen meat to my leaders watching them snarf them down happily and looking for more. These 2 dogs are my lifeline right now. Solid and the most dependable dogs I have, always happy and always ready to go. I take a deep breath and hand them another chunk before heading down the line to the other 12 eager faces in the line. Handing out snacks is one of my favorite things, my dogs love to eat, its their second favorite thing to do, right after pulling the sled.
2 hours prior I had made the decision to by-pass my friend who was camped on the river, and keep going, she offered me to stop with her but I declined, saying I was going to camp when we pulled off the river. The dogs weren't ready for a rest and I was in a hurry to get off the river, in the back of my head I just wanted to be off the river. It wasn't too far if I remembered from the musher meeting. I checked my GPS, regretting not checking it closer to the start to make sure it was still on. Deep breath again. I tried to figure out (AGAIN) about how far out I was from the checkpoint. Our average speed was pretty competitive and I was more than happy with it! The dogs were doing amazing. Even at this point we were about 55 miles in, they would take advantage of the stops by resting and rolling in the snow, but were tight in their harnesses the second I stood on the runners, I didn't need to even say anything. But we were still on the river... Deep breath, put the GPS away and start digging out the booties for the dogs, the over flow was over and I wanted to protect their feet again. Plus I needed a break from the runners, I needed to stretch my back out.
Booting dogs is a chore that every musher has to do and the level of tolerance from your dogs makes the task either easy or a struggle bus. My dogs that I had were all race veterans except for 3, so this task is fairly enjoyable. They pick their feet up and let me wrap the nylon bootie on with the Velcro. After all 4 feet have their covering on, stand up stretch your back, grab the next bootie bundle and start on the next dog. Some dogs are more interactive with you, want you to pet them or lick your face. Most will wiggle, wanting to get their butts rubbed and their face scratched, all demands are met before moving on to the next teammate. Some stand there until you are done then want to have their scratches. Interaction with the dogs is very relaxing and enjoyable for me. I love the intimate interaction with each individual personality that each of my dogs gives me and only me. Taking this time helped relieve the anxiety that was creeping up the back of my skull and starting to mess with my logical thinking.
With the team bootied, another round of snacks were given out. I switched my gloves for dry ones, and put my parka back on. At this point I turned on my headlamp and closed my sled bag. The dogs were starting to get excited about moving again. Tofte my old lady, matriarch to most of the team, and certified nut case to all that know her, was doing her cheerleader thing...barking and screaming to go, I asked her out loud, "Do you ever get tired?? Your 9th birthday is in 2 days!" Her look when she turned around was priceless as always, "NO!! JESUS JUST PULL THE HOOKKKKK LETS GOOO!!". I giggled and asked the rest of the team if they were ready, almost instantly every dog stood up and strained forward, tails wagging and heads turned towards me for the command to start pulling. Deep breath, "All right guys lets do this." Every dog pulling forward in unison, made me realize that they were an actual team, I did this, I trained these dogs to perform, they are doing everything I ask them to do, and they are happy. I was the one that was having issues. Right at that moment, I realized I was the one not ready for this. In the dark, on the river with 18 miles or so left to go, another 3 hours on the trail and I was not ready for this. "Fuck." Was my only thought.
The team started moving in their nice trot pace, everyone moving together and taking the trail as it came. There were no other trails to choose from so the panic I felt every time I couldn't seen a reflective marker was not warranted. As soon as the panic would start to build a reflective spot would pop up. "I hope it says W300...." Every. Single. Time. Two markers together indicated a turn in that direction. I would prepare for that turn and panic if I didn't immediately see a confidence marker, even though there was one about 100 feet down the trail. I looked at every marker ensuring that it stated W300... Every. Single. Marker. At this point in the trail we were on land, then back on a creek or river, I honestly don't even know, the terrain on a river is not as you would expect it to be. I was scanning for markers. Markers up the trail. Ok, I can see that. Further up the trail, more markers. Looking for markers almost caused me to dump my sled more than once because I wasn't focusing on the terrain around me. I was so focused on the markers.
Another snack break, I needed to check a bootie on a dog, and pet my leaders, Cole in all honesty. I needed to feel the fur in my hands and tell him what an amazing dog he is. He follows a trail and trail markers like no other dog I've worked with. He had caught a quick right handed turn that I didn't even see, took the team around it and kept us on the right trail. I love this dog, he's my security blanket, at 7 years old I don't know what its like to race with out him. I checked his wrists and rubbed his butt, his bootie dance told me that he was happy as a clam, and was ready to go again. Couple of meat snacks later he was still ready to go. As I pulled the hook, the dogs started quicker, more energetically, like they do when they know we are getting close to a checkpoint. I thought I saw some sort of illumination but wasn't sure, we had never been on this trail before. I stepped on the drag to keep the team at their nice pace and pulled the GPS out. Not that could tell me where I was going, only where I had been. "I think we are close guys. Straw is waiting and a nice big meal. Naps for everyone." Pace quicken again but I kept them under control, more for my sake than anything. Trying to maintain my thoughts and rational thinking was becoming more of a struggle. Marker, W300, reflective a head. Marker, W300, reflective ahead. Oh shit I don't see a marker! Scan around, did I miss a turn? I don't remember seening another trail, Oh wait, Marker, W300 and the next reflective spot a head. 3 hours of this... 3 hours....
Then I saw the illumination! The possibility of something on the river bank. And we were heading straight for it. A huge sense of relief washed over my body in a bit of a shiver and the tears that had periodically uncontrollably falling down my face, fell even harder. I couldn't breath. I stopped for a moment to let the dogs wash their faces in the snow and for me to regain a little of my composure. I felt ridiculous and relief all at once. Started the team again following the markers, still one at a time. W300, reflective tape, W300, reflective tape... Wait we are going away from the checkpoint, wait what? Is this the trail going to the next checkpoint?? They said that they merged but it was well marked. Oh god, I missed it. Where are we going? I didn't even see a trail, Cole didn't take us down a different trail, he missed it. I don't know what to do right now? Where did it go? Oh god I'm lost again. My dogs are tired they need a nap, I need a nap, why don't I know where I am? Oh wait we are turning the dogs know exactly where we are going, right towards the lights. Stop crying, people are there you need to check in, STOP CRYING. Take a deep breath you made it. STOP CRYING.
"Time in 19:43, your team looks good! Initial here"
"Thank you. Michaela I need to get them parked! Just run ahead they will follow."