The Knik Goose Bay 120. What can I say? It was the hardest thing I've ever done in my life. I guess to more experienced mushers, the GB 120 is super easy, but to me, it was hard. But not impossible. It was also probably the most rewarding experience. I also had the most embarrassing moment of my life during the race. It was a real roller-coaster of musher emotions.
My gal pal Tami Rose and I drove down to Wasilla Friday night. It took about six hours and we stayed in a hotel. We got up early to feed and drop dogs, eat breakfast and then head down the Knik-Goose Bay Road to the race start. We were the first ones there. Eager much? Yeah.
I drew starting position 23 but had bib number 5 (don't ask why, no one knows). This year 30 teams started including a couple of the Redington boys, Vern Halter, Judy Currier and Karen Ramstead...all Iditarod veterans. There were also lots of newbies and hackers, rednecks and goofballs - a real mixed bag. My friend Julie came over from Talkeetna to handle for me at the start. We got the team harnessed and bootied in plenty of time and I had about six people help hold my team. The dogs looked good, all banging in their harnesses to get going. I, on the other hand, was having an internal freakout. Man, was I nervous.
They counted me down and the dogs took off. Now comes the embarrassing, no mortifying, part. The team crossed the road out of the chute, hit a snow berm and my sled tipped into the deep, deep snow in the ditch. It all happened so fast, I couldn't react. So there I was stuck in the snow, big arse in the air, holding onto my sled with the dogs screaming and lunging. I managed to get the sled upright when they lurched and the handle bar slipped out of my hand. Yes, I lost the team. I LOST THE TEAM. Worst thing that could happen...ever. Within two seconds a blur ran by me and caught the 10-dog team. It was Iditarod musher and our cabin builder-helper Cim Smyth. I was still standing in the deep snow, completely stunned. What the hell is going on? Now Cim was yelling at me (in a nice way) to move my ass and get back on the sled. I hoofed it (with all my gear on) down the trail jumped on the runners and we were off. Jesus Christ. Okay, I'll let you all have your chuckles. Done? Okay. I had eight hours on the runners to ponder what happened at the start. Eight hours. One of the Redington boys passed me and asked what was wrong. I yelled 'Didn't you see me lose my team at the start??!' He looked back and shrugged. 'It happens to everyone. Your team looks great so go out and have fun."
Huh. It hadn't occurred to me to simply get over it. But I did. I'm over it. Our race trail followed the Iditarod Trail, which is also used partially for the Klondike 300, the Knik 200, the Don Bowers 300 and the Susitna 100. The first 40 miles was riddled with very steep ups and downs, wind blown ponds and marshes. It was tough but manageable. The weather was very warm, so the dogs were slow.
I passed a bunch of snowmachiners who warned me about a groundstorm on Flathorn Lake. I looked back. "Where's that?" I asked. They all laughed. "Oh, you'll see."
By the time I got to the lake it was almost dark and the groundstorm had pretty much turned into a blizzard.
I managed to get across the lake but only because I have excellent leaders: Bully and Capiche. They would lose the trail in the deep snow and immediately started sniffing and looking for it. They felt around for more stable ground and when they found it, they pulled the whole team back on track. I was so amazed and proud, I almost cried. By the time we zigged and zagged across the lake, I thought the worst was over. I was wrong. We hit a little wooded area where I stopped to re-boot the dogs and catch my breath. There were a couple other teams there and one guy warned me about what was coming up. A large open slough where the wind would be much, much worse, he said. I have never been in conditions like this and the trail markers were confusing (they were a bunch of markers from other races). The musher, Wayne, said I could I follow him over the slough and then pass him if I wanted. We headed out in a two-team train, my leaders right on his butt. When we hit the slough I was almost blown off the sled. The wind of whipping and blowing snow like crazy. All the dogs immediately put their heads down and dug in to get us across. I crouched behind the sled and covered my already-covered face with my mitts. The blowing snow felt like needles in my eyes so I shut them. I couldn't see anything anyway, so it didn't matter. Slowly we made our way across. I passed Wayne once we hit the Big Su River, thanking him profusely and giving encouragement to his dogs as we hurried on-by. Once we hit the Big Su it was about 20 miles to the checkpoint at Yentna Station on the Yentna River. The wind was still blowing but not as bad and it was snowing heavily now. The trail in front of me disappeared under a blanket of new snow. Bully and Capiche took over, finding the path when we'd fall off the side. We got into Yentna just before 10 p.m. I quickly got to work laying out straw, taking off booties, massaging sore muscles, heating water, feeding and feeding some more. I covered my sled as it was snowing really hard and put coats on the dogs even though it was warm, the coats would at least keep them a little drier.
I went up to the lodge had some moose stew, coffee and water and found Tamara. She had passed me on the trail and gotten in about 90 minutes ahead of me. We had a debrief and then tried to find a place to sleep. We weren't allowed to sleep in the lodge (don't ask why, I don't know) but there was a heated tent outside. It was full of snoring mushers. I wandered around wondering what to do. I went back down the river and curled up in the straw with the dogs. I couldn't sleep. I walked around some more. I tried to sleep in my sled. Nope. I went back up the heated tent and sat on the floor chatting with others who were still awake. Pretty soon, the front runners were getting ready to leave. I snagged a lawn chair right beside the propane heater at about 4:15 am and promptly fell asleep. I woke up at about 5:15 with a start, looking at my watch. I had less than an hour before I had to leave. I got up, went to the team and gave them some broth, took off their coats, rubbed them down and re-bootied. I took off at 6:08 a.m. It had stopped snowing but the trail was soft from all that new snow. On the river, the wind had blown it in and so, once again, we broke trail with my leaders plowing through. The sun came up at about 9 as we made out way up off the river. I stopped to snack the dogs and take their booties off. There was slushy overflow on the trail out. I didn't re-boot because it was so warm out and the dogs sweat through their feet. Back over the lake, the trail was gone again. It was a tough slog back but we took it slow. I passed a guy about 15 miles from the finish and managed to stay ahead of him. We got in just before 2 p.m. in 23rd place out of 30 mushers. Three of those 30 scratched because of the tough conditions. The best part for me was the dogs were all wagging their tails at the end despite being very tired. A lot of other mushers injured their teams driving them too hard to the finish in that deep snow, so I felt good that my team was healthy. Sister had a sore wrist, but she's fine today after I iced and massaged it. I got to bed at 3:30 a.m. this morning after a long, long drive back from Wasilla. Tamara, who finished 16th, and I took turns driving. I have to work tonight but not before I take Roy into the vet. Parker beat him up while I was away. It's nothing serious, but he might need a stitch or two on his foot. I wonder when I'll get some sleep. Maybe in my next life when I come back as someone boring.
The team Friday before heading south.
A truck at the race.
Me and race marshal Bud Smyth (Cim's dad). He's an Iditarod veteran and has three wives...Bud, not Cim...but Cim is an Iditarod veteran too.
Tamara doing her best 'Jill's freaking out' impression.
Me and my dogs.
Me coming into the finish. I didn't bring my camera out on the trail with me, though I wish I had.
Julie was waiting at the finish for me. Thanks Jules!
Look at those leaders. Happy dogs. My next race is the Silver Sled 100-miler in a couple weeks in Haines Junction, Yukon.