by D Jordan Redhawk
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Lainey dragged herself from her sleeping bag, reluctance in every bone. While the heat and food from the lodge had made her drowsy, once back at her sled she had difficulty falling asleep. A couple of teams remained frisky after their foray through Happy Valley, and their constant barking whenever a musher arrived or left roused her between fits of slumber. Sleeping out in the wilderness definitely had its benefits and she now regretted not blowing through the checkpoint.
She put on fresh socks and boot liners, shivering in the night chill as she stomped into her mukluks. On her way to the privy, she entertained herself with thoughts of feather beds, thick quilts, and roaring fires. By the time she returned, the exercise had warmed and woke her enough to get immediately to work.
The moose stew was still with her, so she did not cook herself a meal. Instead, as the dog food heated, she doubled up on her snack items. The extra banana breads, trail mix, jerky and pemmican would keep her going until the other side of the Dalzell Gorge. The next fifty miles would not be easy. Some said that the trail to Rohn was as bad as Happy Valley - the rough path simply took longer to travel.
Lainey quietly went through her team with their late night supper, waking each of them in turn with soft words and pettings. She was pleased to see them all eating well, a sign of continued good health. The dreaded kennel cough had not been spoken of among the other mushers; perhaps this would be a sickness free race. After another watering, she began the heating process all over at the cooker, drinking freshly brewed instant coffee from her thermos.
Another voice spoke nearby, and she looked over to see Scotch mirroring her tasks. She watched as the woman worked through her team, seeing the love and devotion the dogs gave her, seeing Scotch reflect the same back to the animals. Scotch had been wrong in the lodge. It was not just her abilities that she relied upon to survive. The dogs had everything to do with it, too. Scotch might be the alpha dog in the pack, but it was still a team effort.
Lainey quickly grabbed her camera and snapped off a couple of photos, catching Scotch in the act of bestowing attention on one of her dogs. The flashes attracted Scotch who looked up at her. Lainey waggled her camera with a not-so-apologetic grin for the intrusion. Scotch merely smiled and returned to her chores.
The second round of dog stew was finished, and Lainey dumped it into the cooler. She shucked her heavy mittens for two layers of rubber gloves over silk liners, stuffing hand warmers into the palms, and started down the line with ointment and booties.
"You ready to go?" Scotch asked.
"Yeah, just about. You?"
"Yup." Scotch looked over Lainey's lively team. "You're doing a great job with them."
Lainey's skin reddened, and she felt a foolish grin plaster itself across her face. "Thanks."
Scotch looked out over the dog parking area, scanning the surrounding darkness. Lights from the lodge and around the checkpoint were visible, and stars sparkled overhead. "Remember, we're going to be crossing a few ice bridges this leg. Don't stop on one. It might not be able to hold the weight. The temperatures have stayed pretty low, but that doesn't mean a whole lot."
She nodded, not liking the idea of taking a midnight swim in the dead of an Alaskan winter. "What if someone else has already broken through one? How will we follow the trail?"
"We'll figure that out if we get there. It's only a creek, not a river, so that'll make things a bit easier."
Lainey's concern was not allayed, but she did not argue. Surely they would not be penalized for going off the trail in search of a different crossing. "Okay," she said, placing her confidence in Scotch's experience. "Let's do it."
They finished breaking camp and urged their dogs toward the checkpoint. A couple of mushers, seeing Scotch make her move, decided to get going as well. They began rousing their dogs, glancing over their shoulders at Scotch or at their watches. Were these the ones who would give Scotch a run for her money? Would they be able to keep up with her? Lainey scanned her memory, putting grizzled faces to press release names and realized that this pair were long time veterans. She felt a swell of pride that Scotch, with her admittedly limited experience was causing such a stir with men who had been racing almost as long as she had been alive.
"Midnight, straight up," the checker told her as she initialed his paperwork. "Good luck. There's some mean winds blowing, so visibility may be shoddy."
"Thanks. That's good to know."
Again Scotch led the way. The trail immediately climbed toward the top of Rainy Pass. Once they passed this ridge, they would be mushing through the interior of Alaska, bracketed by mountain ranges through frozen tundra. Lainey shivered in anticipation. Overhead, eerie wisps of greens and blues sheeted across the sky, a colorful backdrop behind grand Denali which rose above them. She had a fleeting wish to see the view in daylight, but her thoughts turned back to the trail as Scotch began the descent.
The path twisted and contorted as it went, solid and well packed. Lainey barely kept up with the commands, the trail switching back and forth with hairpin turns, then abruptly plunging into narrow ravines. Her head lamp picked up sheer walls of snow and ice, boulders rushing toward her from murky darkness, and the wagging tails of her dogs as they surged forward in pleasure. She barely had time to force her heart out of her throat before the next danger whizzed forward and past, her belated responses to duck useless when the peril was quickly put behind her.
They hit the bottom of the gorge, the trail leveling out though it did not become less convoluted. Lainey used the more mellow ride to unclench her fingers from her handlebars. That had definitely lasted longer than the Happy Valley run. Despite earlier trepidations, she was glad they had taken the run at night. The trail had been scary enough with just a head lamp; taking the descent in daylight would have caused her heart failure.
Before she could relax completely, the trail began a steep climb, slowing her team. She hopped off the sled and helped push the cumbersome thing up the hill, and they broke out of the gorge onto tundra.
Lainey stepped back onto the runners, feeling wind whipping about her lower legs and brushing her face. Powdered snow apparently covered the ground, though she could not see it for the wind swept blizzard. Lainey saw only the tails of her wheel dogs in the gloom, yet she easily located a six foot tripod trail marker coming up in the distance. Her visibility was obscured below her waist and she took in the sight of Scotch ahead, gliding through a cloud, pulled by unseen forces. She marveled at the eeriness, the sky illuminated by the Aurora Borealis, starlight flickering bright in the crisp cold sky, and shadowy lumps of hills bordering the shallow valley.
They continued to climb, moving from one valley into a more narrow one, the wind dying down to give Lainey better visibility. The trail crossed a river with standing water. As the team splashed through it, Lainey frowned. Heldig was bare pawed again, as well as a couple of other dogs. She would have to stop soon to take care of their feet before ice formed between their toes.
The climb steepened, the trail weaving between foliage and a frozen creek as it went. It opened up onto a frozen lake, and Lainey whistled to get Scotch's attention.
Calling the dogs to a halt, Lainey had a difficult moment stomping the snow hook into the icy surface. She grabbed a bag of frozen fish and snacked her team as she moved forward.
"We need to go over their paws," Scotch said, meeting Lainey halfway between their teams.
"That's what I was thinking. Heldig kicked off her booties miles ago."
"Let's get to it then. We don't have much farther to go in mileage, but we've got a potential rough road ahead."
Lainey returned to her team. The bitter cold nipped at her fingers when she removed her arctic mittens. She fumbled with the rubber gloves and stuffed her pockets with dog booties. Even those who still had them would need them replaced. She spent the next several minutes changing out booties, digging ice balls out from between canine toes, slathering ointment on pads, and recovering her dogs' feet with corduva booties. It took longer than she thought it would, because even those with booties had ice developing on their paws from the water they had run through.
Startled, she looked up to see a musher's head lamp coming toward her. She gave the musher a wave, noting he was one of the pair hastily attempting to follow Scotch when they had left Rainy Pass checkpoint. She grinned and returned to her task, wondering if the man felt smug at catching Scotch so soon in the race. Was the other musher on his way, as well?
Finishing with the dogs, she gathered the wet booties and put them in a bag with all the other used ones that had not been lost on the trail. There was a laundromat in McGrath, and she planned on running a couple of loads of things through a dryer.
"You ready?" she called to Scotch.
"Yeah." The musher zipped up her sled bag and climbed onto the runners. "Let's go!" she called to the dogs.
Lainey's team hastened forward, not wanting to be left behind.
The trail fell into a steep decline that leveled out after a couple hundred feet. From there it traversed a timberline, following a creek as it zigzagged along. The winding path was a hectic one, worse than the one leaving Rainy Pass checkpoint. Lainey fought to remain upright as she hit patches of bare rock, uneven ruts, and sharp turns, the path tipping left then right. She kept a lot of weight on her drag mat, not wanting to run over Scotch ahead of her, fighting as hard as she to not spill her sled. It was a cross between a roller coaster and a bucking bronco, and Lainey white knuckled her way along, praying not to lose control.
Eventually the trail evened out, became narrower, and climbed further. Huge trees flanked her, and though she could not see in the darkness, she had a sense that the ground opened up to her right. Lainey balanced on the left runner to compensate, not certain if the trail would remain level or tilt downhill. Her head lamp picked up an approaching sign and she narrowed her eyes to catch a glimpse.
'Watch Your Ass.'
Lainey blinked. She saw Scotch literally disappear in front of her, her only warning of the coming drop. Then she was on the descent, her stomach swooping in response.
After a moment, she frowned. The down slope was steep, yes, but why the sign? The trail was well-packed and smoother than what she had already passed over. Her sled seemed to be dragging on the left, but she could not see a cause, leading her to believe there was damage from the rough patches she had gone through rather than a problem here. Were things supposed to be more difficult here? Was there something at the end of this descent she was supposed to be preparing for? She racked her brains for anything she had heard at the mushers' meeting, but came up empty.
At the bottom of the drop the trail wound back and forth over a creek bed. By the time Lainey reached the first ice bridge, her adrenaline levels were at an all time high, perversely dulling her senses with the constant starts to her nervous systems. She caught sight of Scotch on the trail ahead, watching her sweep down and across the trail, water rushing beneath. Lainey held her breath and followed, crossing with ease despite her concerns.
On either side of her, the ground slanted upward again, huge trees creating vortexes as the trail twisted around them, onto the creek, across more ice bridges, and onto narrow spits of land. She began to tire of feeling scared all the time, and a bubble of laughter welled up in her chest. This was a far better ride than anything at Six Flags.
The gorge opened up onto river ice. Her joy increased as they broke away from the claustrophobic area. She heeded trail markers and ignored rough ice as she and her team bumped along. Water stood in some places, but she knew the next checkpoint was nearby. Her team skied through the wetness and kept on, the lure of food and rest drawing them on.
Markers guided them off the river and into spruce trees. Soon, lights flickered among the branches and they pulled into the checkpoint.
"Lainey Hughes," she said as she halted her dogs.
"Four thirty-eight AM, number thirty-one," the checker said, marking her time. "Welcome to Rohn Roadhouse."
Going through the routine had become second nature for both Lainey and the dogs. The team had settled into the six hour run / rest schedule and, as soon as they pulled the sled into the parking area, they dropped to the ground and curled up to get some rest. They were interrupted only by Lainey delivering straw and blankets. She disconnected the tug lines from their harnesses along the way to make them more comfortable.
The area she and Scotch parked in was sheltered from the returning wind by spruce trees. There appeared to be a landing strip adjacent to them, but no planes currently occupied the runway. Another team came in not long after them, the second of the veterans clinging to Scotch's tail. Lainey, still high on adrenaline and a touch of hysteria, chuckled to herself as she ladled out dog food to her hungry team, the dogs rousing themselves for a warm meal. She hoped Scotch would win this race, justifying the fears of the old timers who worried at her heels.
Once the entire team, both human and canine, had eaten, Lainey grabbed her child's sled and trudged off to the food drop area. She collected her bags and dragged them back, meeting Scotch in the process of doing the same. They grinned at one another, walking close enough to jostle each others' shoulders as they passed, and Lainey wondered if she looked as goofy as she felt. If she had been a cartoon, there would be little stars and hearts floating around her head. She blushed at the thought. Thank God she was flesh and blood instead.
Back at her sled, she tilted it onto its right side to have a good look at the left runner. As she had surmised, the trip from Rainy Pass had done some damage. The plastic was chewed and mangled, almost completely separated in some places. Lainey used her tool kit to remove the bolts holding the runner in place. She slid off the mutilated plastic and took a fresh runner from her bag to replace it. After the bolts were back in place, she pushed and pulled the rest of the fittings on that side of the sled, checking for loose joints, but all seemed well. To be thorough, she turned her sled onto its other side and replaced the right runner, as well. The damage was less, but better to have fresh runners than have it totally shred midway through the Farewell Burn.
By the time she finished, the dogs were deep asleep. Lainey checked her watch and winced. She had been working for almost two hours, which gave her maybe three hours of sleep before getting ready to go again. The reason for the mandatory eight and twenty-four hour breaks became clear to her. Dogs were not the ones to exhaust themselves on this race; it was the human contingent that needed the layovers in order to survive.
She glanced over at Scotch, who had also taken the time to go over her sled after the beating of the trail. She, too, was finished with her tasks. "Get your sleeping bag and some of the stuff you really need to dry," Scotch said. "There's usually room in the cabin to spread out a bit. Lots of lines near the stove to hang stuff on." Lainey looked over her gear. There was nothing she really needed dry except maybe her boot liners. With her food drop, she had plenty of booties to get her to Nikolai which boasted a municipal building with a boiler room for drying things. She grabbed up two spare boot liners and felt glove liners to take with her. On a lark, she stuffed her pockets with a handful of wet booties, as well.
Scotch joined her, carrying a similar pile of wet items, and they walked to the small cabin in silence. Lainey's eyes felt baggy from lack of sleep even in the bracing chill of early morning. They passed others who had elected to remain with their dogs or volunteers out and about for whatever reasons. Lainey experienced a moment's dread at the cabin door. Would her sinuses clog up again like they had at Rainy Pass Lodge? Staying with the dogs would be preferable. At least she would be able to breathe.
Regardless, she followed Scotch indoors. The cabin was a small one and crammed with mushers, volunteers and even a few intrepid reporters. A wood stove stood in the center of the room, giving off enough heat to make things comfortable, but not overly warm for the majority of mushers. Lainey felt her sinuses begin to throb, but they did not get as swollen as before, making the interior at least tolerable.
Scotch murmured greetings to those who were awake, seated around a table as they nursed hot coffee and breakfast. A dry erase board hung from one wall, listing the mushers and their times in and out of the checkpoint. Lainey snorted as she saw her name by her bib number, then scanned through to see how others were doing. It seemed that all the previous champions were either here now, or only just left. Which meant Scotch still had a good shot at winning. Lainey knew better than to put herself in that category; Scotch was holding her team back to get Lainey through the worst of the first part of the race. After that, Lainey would be on her own with some decent experience under her belt to help her get the rest of the way to Nome.
"Lainey." She turned away from the board, seeing Scotch waving her toward the stove. They found spare space on several cords draped across the room for their wet things. Lainey used the velcro straps on the dog booties as clothespins. Several bunks lined the room, but none were available. Even the floor was littered with mushers napping. Lainey discovered a bare corner and dropped her sleeping bag there. Scotch joined her. They used Lainey's bag to make a nest, and Scotch's to cover them. Soon they were snuggled together. Lainey's sleep-fogged mind wandered about as she drifted off. The floor was cooler, and her sinuses did not bother her as much. Would anybody notice she and Scotch sleeping together under the noses of the Iditarod committee and fellow mushers? Would anybody care?
She turned on her side, cuddling closer. Just her luck. She finally got to sleep with Scotch, but was too damned exhausted to do anything about it.
Lainey pulled out of the Rohn checkpoint at precisely twelve thirty-eight PM. She was third in a convoy of six mushers, a rather odd experience considering the solitary nature of running dogs. The next twenty miles of trail was considered reason enough to set aside competitive differences. As Scotch said, out here they could use all the help they could get to slog through the next stretch.
Drew Owens had delayed his departure to lead the procession with Scotch tailing him. Lainey came next, followed by one of the veterans that had been playing catch up with Scotch. Behind Georgio Spencer came his youngest son, Roman; Lainey had met the younger man at the mandatory rookie meeting in December. Bringing up the rear was the second veteran chasing after Scotch, Jon Waters, a three time champion of the race.
They left the checkpoint, mushing into a brisk wind. It had not seemed so rough in the protection of spruce trees where the dogs had slept. Despite the warmer temperatures of the afternoon, the gusts now chilled her face and caused her eyes to tear. Lainey fumbled for the goggles in her personal bag, relieved as the biting sting dissipated. She pulled her scarf up to cover the lower half of her face.
The wind had scrubbed the trail of snow, leaving patches of gravel and sand as they traveled along the bank of the Kuskokwim River. Driftwood piles haphazardly dotted the landscape, some coming perilously close to the trail. In other places the heat of the day, below thirty degrees but still rather warm for the animals, had resulted in over flow from the river. When they were not on dry land, they slipped over ice covered in a sheen of water. More than once the dogs lost their footing as they trotted, stumbling as their feet slipped out from under them. None of them fell, though, for which Lainey was greatly relieved.
Trail markers were few and far between. According to Lainey's notes, they were supposed to cross the river at some point, but for the life of her she could not see anything on the other side to indicate where the trail was. Owens, who was a good hundred yards ahead of her suddenly veered southwest across the wet ice. Lainey followed him and Scotch, squinting into the distance. It was not until she was halfway across the river before she saw the reflective markers. She wondered how Owens had seen them. Or did he simply know its location from previous races? If that were so, there would be some bewildered rookies getting lost out here. She certainly would have missed the signs.
Lainey was glad when they headed into a stand of trees. Her team picked up a little speed now that they had better purchase on the trail. She felt the belated tingle of blood warming her cheeks now that they were not being blasted by wind, though a breeze still teased the ruffles of her badger fur hood.
The trail remained smooth and relatively straight, clear of debris and far enough away from potential sweepers. It was sort of nice to just let the dogs run, not a care in the world. Lainey frowned. This placid little excursion would end soon. The Farewell Burn was somewhere out there, and she did not travel in a pack of mushers to enjoy the day. Still, the area was a pleasant one, sunlight sparkling off snow, crisp and clean. She fell to temptation and pulled out her camera for a few shots, even turning around to take photos of the mushers behind her. She smiled when Georgio waved and grinned at her.
She put the camera away just in time to follow an abrupt right turn. Her heart skittered in anticipation, but rather than the roller coaster of the Burn, the trail began a gradual curve to the left. Still mellow, still calm, she began to fidget. How far away was the Farewell Burn from Rohn? She dug out her notebook and flipped through the papers, keeping one eye on the trail, one elbow hooked over her sled to keep from losing her balance. Eventually she pieced together that they had a little while to go before all hell would break loose.
They broke from the trail onto another river. Here, too, the ice hid beneath a layer of water, making things slick for the dogs. The trail did not linger long here, taking a left and climbing up a steep bank. Before Lainey became complacent, they were back onto another creek. This section of trail was horrible, with irregular driftwood piles, slippery surfaces, and bared gravel. Surely when this creek was thawed, it boasted white water from the amount of rock sticking up to mar the ice. Her sled bucked and writhed under her as she fought just to stay on. Getting off the creek did little to ease the journey.
She saw Scotch crest the hill ahead and dip over the other side. That was Lainey's only warning before she arrived at the apex of a small hill. Beneath her, she saw a ravine, the path to it a short one. At least it was not as bad as switchbacks at Happy Valley. Her trip down was fast and smooth compared to the trail leading up. At the bottom, she called the command to the dogs for a sharp right turn. Lainey gaped at the upcoming hill. The climb was a nearly vertical one and she watched Owens urging his dogs up, pushing his sled behind. She swallowed, hoping the trail was good enough for the dogs to get some purchase. There was no way she was strong enough to push a five hundred pound sled up that incline. Then she had no time to worry about being crushed by a backsliding sled. Scotch was already halfway up the hill and Lainey at the bottom.
"Let's go! Let's go!" she called to her team, getting off the runners to help muscle the sled to the top.
The dogs put their backs into it, and though they slowed considerably, they slogged to the top of the hill with effort.
There was a short jog left through some trees and she came out onto an upper section of the ravine she had just climbed. Tracks on the trail here indicated that others had not been so lucky. Rather than remain on the marked trail, their dogs had continued the left turn, rushing them to the bottom of the ravine to climb that vertical hill all over again. Lainey was glad for the experienced leaders, both on her team and the mushers in front of her. Her dogs followed the scent of the dogs before them rather than that of those who had erred in the recent past.
Another ascent leveled out at a rock out cropping that she easily avoided. Rocks studded the trail ahead, bare of snow and easy to see. She gritted her teeth as she went, hoping not to hit anything that would damage her sled irreplaceably. This sled had to last her to McGrath, where she had another waiting for her. Until she arrived, this one had to remain in one piece.
The convoy sailed out of the ravine, bumping across frozen and bare tundra. As they reached another tree line, Owens came to a stop, the rest following his lead. He called up the line of mushers, each taking the message and passing it on like the Telephone game played in elementary school.
"We're taking a break here," Scotch yelled to Lainey.
Lainey gave a thumbs up and called to Georgio Spencer behind her. She blew out a breath, unkinking her shoulders as she reached for the bag of frozen white fish. So far, so good. They were about halfway through the worst of it. She went down the line, giving her team a much needed snack and extra attention.
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