Monday, March 9. This is the real start in Fairbanks. The temperature is dropping under – 20 F.
I am as excited as the dogs are and I can’t wait to start. I try to stay on the drag mat, but it is difficult to slow down my team. They are very happy to run the 16 together for the first time this season. They like to run after the other teams too.
My team at the start is composed of : Mr. X and Morrison as leaders, Feist and Beaver as swing, Beige and Olive, Devil and Cheyenne, Baïkal and Emeraude, Carmack and Doulik, Eagle and Eole as team and Elim and Echo as wheel.
Mr. X and Morrison, leader from Fairbanks to Nome. Emeraude during the vet. check. Photos Jeff Schultz
Shortly after the start, nothing exists except our dogs. We live intensely in the present time. It is difficult to describe but it is the feeling to really exist. It is very agreeable and it is why mushers want to take part in these races year after year.
The first stage to Nenana, 60 miles, is on the Tanana River. It takes us about 6 hours. We take a few hours rest.
The second stage to Manley Hot spring, 90 miles is a night run. The temperature is still dropping for a few degrees. We leave the river to follow a narrow trap line. It is not easy for passing. We are still many teams on the same schedule. The northern lights dance in the sky. I take a rest and give a soup to the dogs.
We arrive near 9h30 in Manley Hot Spring.
The first 150 miles in less than 24 h! A little bit too fast for my team. I take care of the dogs. I decide to drop Feist. Since we left home, she is not at her best. She looks very tired and does not eat well. I go to take a rest and stay asleep too long. When I come back, Emeraude is limping. I don’t see any injury. The veterinary thinks that it is better to drop her. She has probably a cramp. It is better for her to have more rest and a good hydration.
The stage for Tanana, 66 miles is mainly a night run. It is very cold. We arrive near 2 am. After the veterinary checkup, I decide to drop Baïkal, his shoulders muscles are painful and Olive, she is exhausted and the next stage is long. It would be better to not carry a dog in the basket. I like Tanana as well as all the Natives villages. The people are so kind. For me, these villages are the soul of the race.
After a few hours rest, we are ready to start with 12 dogs for a long stage of 119 miles to Ruby on the Yukon River. The dogs take a slower pace. The first part is during daylight. I take a rest to give a soup. At the end of the day, the wind starts to blow up. We zigzag from one side of the river to the other. I look for a good place to make a long rest. Finally, I find a good spot, sheltered from the wind. The night falls. The northern lights are beautiful.
Several teams are passing us. This is the longest stage and I forgot to put on my GPS. At least, the check points are registered. I can realise than Ruby is still far away.
After a 6 hours rest, we start again. The wind is blowing. We pass near a cabin where many teams are resting. We keep going.
The late night and early morning hours are the coldest. Beige is tired. It looks like a mental problem but I take him in my sled. On the horizon, I see a big wind storm coming on the river. I reassure myself. I hope that the trail is not going that way. It should turn soon before going into this blizzard. No, we rush into it. I get worried and I have to protect myself from the wind who try to nip and bite me. If Mr. X stops or makes a half turn, I am screwed. The markers are missing due to the strong wind. Other mushers could pass nearby and I could not see them. Mr. X is still going with only one idea. It is to speed up, to go away of this area as soon as possible. The dogs have to get into snowdrifts. After one or two hours, the wind is going down. Thank you Mr. X, you are really formidable.
Finally, we arrive in Ruby, after more than 24 hours. I decide to take my 24 hours mandatory layover here. It is very cold but next days too. The veterinaries check Beige. They don’t find anything wrong. I hope to take him back in my team. Devil has a stiff shoulder and a beginning of frostbite on the penis. Massage and ointment. Every 6 hours, I take the dogs for a short walk to avoid numbing. I like Ruby. It is also a native village. The local people bring a very good moose soup and a delicious dessert.
It is fun to be a veteran because I know many friendly volunteers as Mark. He is in charge of Ruby and Kaltag check points.
Before leaving, I ask to the veterinaries for checking Beige and Devil.
Devil is still stiff. It is better for him to stay here.
The veterinary confirms that Beige is in good shape. Even more, he took a good rest and a lot of food.
I leave Ruby with 11 dogs. The start is slow until all dogs have to relieve themselves. After barely less than 2 miles, Beige decides to stop. I go back to Ruby and drop Beige.
I finally start from Ruby with 10 dogs. We are still on the Yukon River. It is wide and flat. The dogs are doing well. My main concern is the cold and the wind. Usually, I get used to be cold, but it is colder than usual.
Mr. X and Morrison are very happy to be in a known trail. The stage is not too long, 50 miles.
In Galena, this year, the check point is located at the old military base. It is very functional. Many mushers stop here for their 24 hours mandatory layover. Myself, I like better the native village.
I feel a little bit like my dogs. It seems that I were here not a long time ago.
Doulik has a swollen and painful wrist. I drop her here to give her enough time to recover.
I leave Galena near 3h30 am. The temperature is near – 40 F. I am freezing and I am not able to warm up. I am looking for my parka, thinking that I forgot it in Galena when I realize that I wear my parka, all zippers closed. I travel with other teams but I note that with only 9 dogs, I am slower than the 14 to 16 dog teams. I should travel to my own pace.
We still have a 590 miles to go to Nome. It is better to not think too much about that. I decide to go from one check point to the next one and I am going to fully appreciate this adventure.
Near 5 am, we are travelling on frozen ponds. When I snack the dogs, I am so cold that I take a look on my thermometer: - 58 F.. Well, I understand why I am so cold. No, I do not camp here. I speed up to the cabin. Several mushers are already there. It is a better place to take a break.
During the day, the temperature is rising to – 40 F.
Since we left Fairbanks, we are pleased to see beautiful sunsets, sunrises and northern lights. I have a camera but it is not working when it is so cold.
The stage of 82 miles is 92 on my GPS. Never mind, the sky is so beautiful with a colorful sunset.
We arrive in Huslia at 8h30 pm. It is really special and emotional for a musher to arrive in Huslia with a dog team. It is the native village of Georges Atla, the legendary champion. He passed away last February. In his village he has developed a centre for young Natives. They learn all about mushing and they have to take care of the dogs. It helps a lot the young to stay motivated and keep them away of alcohol or suicide. It is an excellent idea that we should copy in other northern communities. Huslia and the other villages of this area are the birthplace of mushing. The natives used the sled dogs for carrying things and they began to organize races between communities. Their sled dogs, that we call “Indian dogs” are the roots of the Alaskan husky.
The people are very nice and friendly. We feel that they are very proud to take part in the Iditarod race.
The volunteer in charge advises the mushers that the weather forecast for tonight and tomorrow morning is an intense cold, the temperature could drop to minus 60 F until 10 am.
Great! I am very tired and it’s a so nice place. It’s better to stay there. I already have one toe and three fingers that not answering anymore and it’s so cold that it could be bad for the dogs too.
I am very happy to be here. What it could happens, at least, I am in Huslia! It is half way.
Beaver get a diarrhea. It no serious but it is better to treat it as soon as possible to avoid dehydration.
I leave Huslia near 10h30 am. The temperature is going up and will reach minus 30, but the wind gets up.
The stage is long, the same than Galena-Huslia, about 90 miles. For my 9 dog team, the cabin located at 60 miles is too far. I stop after 6 hours near Brian Wilmhurst and Rob Cooke resting. It is less cold.
When I arrive in Koyukuk, it is snowing. I do not want to stop too long because the next check point, at 22 miles, is Nulato, my favorite.
I go inside, I stay on a chair, as a woman wakes me up! Hey, you are falling!!
Again, I have slept too much..
In Nulato, my 9 dogs are still in good shape.
All the way, I have time to observe my team: Eole, Elim, Eagle and Echo are the Mr. X’s litter. They will be 3 years old in May. They are really good as their father. After 6 hours, Eagle stops and says “It is brake time!’’ I stop a little bit, then I give him a little bit of encouragement and he starts again. His brother Elim pulls like crazy from Fairbanks to Nome. Eole and Echo, the sisters get the line tight all the way too. They also have a very good appetite. It is a very important quality for a long distance sled dog as they have to eat 10’000 calories every 24 hours.
In Nulato, I stop about 3h30. I know that it is a mistake because it is snowing and on the river, the trail is difficult to find. But Nualto is my favorite check point: A lady gives me a big bowl of moose soup.
The people here are thoughtful. They work hard to keep the check point clean. It is not easy after so many dirty and tired mushers! Sometimes, they have dog shit on their boots or they spill their food on the floor. Nulato is the cleanest check point. Thank you.
We leave near 4h30 pm. It’s snowing and windy. The trail is ok for the first half. After, it is dark, with the snow and the wind, I cannot see anything. Some markers are missing. It takes only a few seconds to go out of the trail and to not see the markers anymore. It is also possible to make a half turn without realising it. I check my heading often. The dogs have to go through snow drifts but they look well motivated. I am sure they remember where Kaltag is. We are still far away when we see a light. The dogs speed up. When we arrive in the village, I take a wrong marker. I don’t arrive at the check point but I remember from last year and the dogs too, we make a u turn to arrive at the right place with a warm welcome from Mark, who is in charge of the check point.
The stage to Unalakleet, first check point on the Bering Sea Coast, is long, 90 miles. There is a cabin, Old woman cabin at about 2/3 of the stage.
With my 9 dog team, I prefer to stop half way. I stop also at the cabin, but for a short time. The last 15 miles are very icy.
We are now on the coast and I am very happy. We are at only 261 miles from Nome. Only, if there are no blizzard, no injured dogs or other problems.
The dogs are in good shape. They eat well and no more diarrhea. A little bit of massage for the muscles.
Unalakleet is the best place to get a rest because there are real beds but I do not want to stay more than 6 hours when we learn that there is a storm on the Norton Sound (The 50 miles on the Bering Sea between Shaktoolik and Koyuk) and 20 racers are stopped in Shaktoolik waiting for a more clement weather. The check point is located in a very windy area. There are not many protected spots for the dog teams. Inside, it is also small with the outhouse inside, Arctic style, with an elevated big throne taking one third of the room and sending the smell to the entire building. It is easily understandable why I prefer Unalakleet. It sounds like a paradise to wait the end of the storm.
It is not the opinion of several mushers. They decide to go, anyway. Here in Unalakleet, the wind is calm.
In the afternoon, the volunteer in charge advises me that the wind is going down. I could leave.
Finally, I leave Unalakleet near 5h30 pm. Shaktoolik is located the other side of the bay, but first, we have to climb a hill. We arrive at the shelter. The wind is still calm. I decide to go on. We have a steep downhill. When I arrive on the ocean, it is terrible. The wind is still strong and face blowing. I do not see any marker! Mr. X perceives the trail. I am very worry. The gusts of wind are strong. It is very difficult for the dogs. I admire Mr. X. I can notice all the progress he made since the race last year where we taste the coastal blizzard near Safety. The trail is not visible anymore but we cannot stop here. Mr. X is very focused. Suddenly, I see a marker on the left. Mr. X does not want to go there. I insist, thinking that it is strange because usually when I put the light on a marker, he likes to run on it. He follows my order, but he was right. The marker is in middle of nowhere. Now, we are lost. I stop the team and go on foot, trying to find the trail again. I walk 5 minutes. I do not find the trail, but I also have lost my team. The dogs are sleeping somewhere on the ice but I cannot see them. My own foot tracks are disappeared already. They have their dog coats, hiding the harnesses reflectors. Fortunately, my friend Nicole bought collars with reflectors for all the team. It is how I find them again. I jump on my GPS, put a waypoint and go back to find the kind of trail. First, I realise that in going to this marker, we made a half turn because the wind is in my back instead in my face. Heading Shaktoolik, it is a headwind. Maybe it is why Mr. X want not go. It means that the check point is not so far. I look around during one hour. Finally, I find again the kind of trail. We go on. Sorry, Mr. X! You were right! After, one hour, stressed by the fear to not see any kind of trail, we can see a light. We are at about 15 miles of Shaktoolik.
At 3h20 am, we arrive at the check point. I receive a warm welcome. The staff and volunteers were very worry. They should have followed my track with the Spot tracker.
The wind shut down when I leave Shaktoolik, near 10h30 am. Despite the last storm, the markers are still on the trail. I am reassured. We are on the Norton Sound, a 50 miles on the sea. We can see the trail but there are a lot of snow drifts. As some are deep, the dogs try to turn around. With 9 dogs, my team is slow.
Mr. X is going with the nose near the ground following the track. Me, I have the face up admiring the vastness when I realize that we are following a dog trail but not the trail with the markers. I call Mr. X. This time, I am right. We go back to the markers.
I learn later than 2 mushers were lost.
Last year, I made this stage during the night. I am really happy to see. The view is spectacular.
After 6 hours, I stop to rest as Eagle asks me.
The ravens follow the race. They clean the trail. Many mushers do not have bowls for their dogs. They pitch the food in the snow in middle of the trail. Many dogs leave this food. Every mile, we run on these piles of food.
The big raven that I am watching since a long time is so big that when I come closer, I realize that it is a wolf. I am very happy to see this big wolf. When he sees us, he moves away.
It is dark when a team pass me. It is Isabelle Travadon with her beautiful siberian huskies team.
I have another luck: The northern lights get up and dance in front of us.
We arrive in Koyuk at 10h40 pm. Dogs are in good shape. They eat well. But me, I am not. I still have the flu with too high temperature and a strong diarrhea. I am also very worried about next stage because last year, it was hard.
After a few hours rest, I decide to go on. I took a pill that the veterinary gave for Beaver’s diarrhea. It is very effective for me too.
Last year, I was stuck in a blizzard but this year, I am lucky. The dogs know where they are going. It’s great. Even the uphill to the village is an easy going. The view on the sea is nice.
I like Elim because there is a nice forest around. We arrive near 4 pm. Last year, the staff here gave me encouragements to go on as my motivation was down. They are happy to see me in a better mood.
My 9 dogs are still in shape, not fast but steady. We leave Elim at 11 pm. We are on the sea from here to Golovin. I am lucky. Good trail, good weather. We take a break in Golovin.
We arrive at 7h30 in White Mountains. We have the 8 hours mandatory layover. It is good for my flu. Like last year, all the mushers should fill a glass with their urine for the anti-doping test.
We leave White Mountains near 4h30 pm. Last year, it was the worst stage. First the uphills were slow and difficult. I saw Lisbet and Monica pass me running near their sled. At this time I felt old. When I arrived on the coast, I was in a terrible blizzard. I was not able to see anything. Mr. X and Morrison were following Lisbet’s team. They were in love with one of Lisbet’s dog. Finally, we catched them up.
This year, it is different. The trail is very good because a snowmobile race packed the trail. The up hills are easy because Elim and Eagle, my strongest dogs are still pulling hard, motivated by Mr. X, Morrison, Carmack, Beaver and Cheyenne, my veterans who know the trail.
When we arrive on top, it is beautiful. The sunset is shining. The visibility is so good that I see the ocean. I do not see any white out. Even the downhill is easier than last year. I think that the snowmobilers have cut some willows in curves.
On the coast, the sunset colors are reflecting on the glare ice or on the overflow. It is splendid but the dogs walk in the water and I have to change the booties.
When it is dark, I admire the northern lights dancing in the sky. The coast shows itself under its best side. Last year it was the opposite.
We arrive in Safety at 1 am. I don’t stop. I have no idea which day we are. I took so many rests that I think we are Monday and I think that we are going to finish the race.
When we arrive in Nome, we arrive on the main street, without snow. A police car is waiting for us. Mr. X is not minded to follow this car. When we arrive near the bars that stay open all the night for the event, all the people are outside cheering us. That’s great but Mr. X is afraid and goes the other side in a parking lot. My team is tangled around a truck… The cops come to help me, then we cross the finish line! It is Sunday, 4h30 am. I am on time for the banquet.
What I like the most in this adventure, it is the intense sharing with my dog team in this incredible and merciless environment.
Thank you Mr. X, Morrison, Echo, Carmack, Cheyenne, Eole, Beaver, Eagle, Elim. Thank you also for the dogs that took part in the adventure: Feist, Olive, Baïkal, Beige, Devil, Doulik, and Emeraude.
All dogs are in good shape. 14 of them took part in our one week expedition first week of April. Now, like me, they are eager to go again.
Thank you to my team that help me for training or preparing: Gilles, Jade, Sophie, Sebastien, Thierry and Julien.
Thank you to my sponsors and my dogs’ sponsors.
Thank you to all the people that are involved in the race: the organisation staff, the volunteers, the veterinaries, the staff in the check points, the trail breakers.
Thank you to Mike Holland, Pam Aviza and the other people that help me in Anchorage or Fairbanks.
Thank you to Meredith Ahmasuk, where I stayed in Nome. His father Harold Ahmasuk is a musher, Iditarod veteran. He is now more than 80 years old.