The black hole of the night, 3AM, and yet a few mushers are wondering about the community center in Takotna. I catch Jeff King by his dogs parked in the temporary parking area. Like Lance Mackey, who is parked nearby, he is planning on resting in Takotna for five or six hours and departing ‘Takotna in direction Iditarod, following in the tracks of Jake Berkowitz.
King walks up and down his team ladling the last of a large bucket of feed. The dogs are eating well and he comments that they are just now starting to really consume larege amounts of feed. Metabolism of the dogs is cranking up to accomodate the effort of traveling over a hundred miles a day.
As an afterthought, he shows me some extra wide plastic he has placed at the front of the sled to help him “bounce” over drifts with his narrow runners. “I got the idea from Lynwood Fiedler (another musher) and I havent seen a downside. i think I am actually traveling faster.” When asked why he decided not to stay in Takotna, his normal habit, “Good weather, good trail, and too many mushers think its a good idea to stay in Takotna,” seemed like a logical answer.
From the front of the team where four dogs should be resting peacefully, King see three mellow dogs, and immediately identifies one miscreant, a little female named Skeete with a disposition problem. He sighs, and knows what to do. Skeeter must be put in quiet time and therefore isolates her at the front of the team on her own small bed of straw. She is not a group player. “She’s trying to get more than her fair share.”
King takes another walk up the dogs, fluffs ups some straw beds, looks at a foot, pets one or two, and decides that he is done.
Wandering off into the darkness, I see that the Norwegian candle is still burning, then decide to walk into the community center. Here, in the darkest part of the morning when people wake up to worry about their taxes or whether they turned off the garden hose in the garden, three champion mushers collide in the empty center. King, Mackey, who is now just filling his thermos before departure, and John Baker, recently arrived and already parked in the long term area for 24 hour mushers.
Lance is very curious about who went through, who is staying, who is the fastest, etc and at the same time fills his coffee thermos, puts a packed lunch and some sodas in a cooler, and finishes changing socks and donning cold weather gear. He declares that he got a minimum amount of sleep.
King comments, “This the fastes race in my career.” Then he adds, “My experience is that warm weather allows teams to go faster, but its also easy to over run a team.” Then all three conclude generally that Michelle Phillips, Nicolas Petit, and the norwegian Bojar are running excellent teams.
A time sheet is on the table, King studies it, “I didnt realize so many people sneaked out Nikola while I was sleeping.”
“Would you have done anything different,” kids Baker. “No” King jokes back. They all kinow they are running their own race.
The conversation turns to the warm weasther and 50 mile an hour winds further up the trail on the Berring Sea Coast. John says, “When it warms up, it will always blow on the coast. ” A weather rumor has it that rain is falling at Shageluk, a checkpoint near the Yukon River about 160 miles distant from Takotna
When I walk outside to watch Lance leave the checkpoint, it is beginning to snow heavily, portending a change in the weather which has so far been absolutely tropical for bare handed mushers driving teams of arctic huskies.
Lance pets his dogs, rubs a few down as he lifts them off their straw beds, straightens the teams out, and gives a soft “ok” to the leaders. The team trots off without hesitation and seconds later disappears into the night. King has asked a girl in the checkpoint to wake him up in an hour. She puts his name on the chalkboard with names and times of other mushers. Before leaving, he pleads humorously, “Please dont forget to wake me up.”
Buser is smoking the trail. How much has he leveraged from the pack? We will know when he arrives Takotna and can time the difference between he and the lead pack.
Mackey and King and entourage are heading to Iditarod or beyond in falling snow.