Overnight in Skwentna

I flew into Skwentna with Race Judge Jim Gallea.  He has been a race judge for about ten years and is an Iditarod finisher himself.  It was a beautiful day for a flight. The sky was so clear you could see forever. It was just amazing!  I got to sit in the front seat of the plane.  When you sit in the front seat there is a steering wheel right in front of you.  This steering wheel is attached to the pilot’s wheel, so when he moves his,  the one in front of the passenger moves too… which startled me at first!  I wasn’t sure if I had knocked it and was in danger of crashing the plane!  But it was just the pilot steering!

We arrived in Skwentna about three hours before the first team was expected.  This checkpoint runs like a well-oiled machine with the Darlings and the Skwentna Sweeties organizing everything!  It has to be well run, as all of the teams are in and out of here in about fifteen hours total.  The finish chute is on the east of the river.  The musher drop bags are in the middle of the lake arranged in alphabetical order.  Just past that is the area for the mushers to leave their return bags and then a trash heap.  There is a pile of HEET bottles for the mushers to pick up if they need them.  Just past that is a huge camp stove where volunteers melt snow to have hot water for the mushers all night.  The teams are parked in a herringbone pattern on each side of the river.  When they pull out, they will funnel back into the river channel and continue on their way.  Jim told me that we could expect that one-third to one- fourth of the teams would park and stay for a bit.  Those would be the first teams through, and then the later teams would go right through because they had camped earlier on the trail.  Then the later teams would be teams who stayed again.

Mike Williams, Jr. was the first musher to arrive at 8:31am.  It was so cool! You could see his headlight as he came down the river.  It was about three or four minutes from the time you saw the headlight until they actually arrived at the chute.  If the mushers didn’t have lights on, you would never have known they were coming.  They were so silent.  It wasn’t until they were nearly upon you that you could hear the patter of the dogs’ feet and the swoosh of the sled.  As they got close to the chute it was a mystical sight – the steam rose off the dogs and formed a haze in the musher’s headlight.

The hardest part of checking the teams in was getting them stopped on the river ice. There’s not enough snow to really plant a snowhook, so they needed to have several people hold the sled to keep the musher stopped long enough to go through the check-in process.

Once the first team came in it was a pretty steady influx of mushers.  Nathan Schroeder came in ninth.  He got his dogs parked very easily.  He pulled off their booties, spread out some straw for them, gave them some snacks, and then picked up his drop bags from the pile.  He got some hot water and made his dogs a hot meal.  He is disappointed because he lost his watch on the trail – he says it fell right off his wrist somewhere.  I later found out the Lev Shvarts lost his as well!  Maybe this section of the trail will be known as the “watch eating trail!”  Nathan said he was amazed at how many people have been around and that he hasn’t done a lot of river running, so that was a new experience for him.  He still seems calm and confident.  And the dogs passed their vet checks with flying colors!

Monica checked in a bit later – in her brightly colored parka she’s hard to miss!  She arrived a little later than she had planned.  She ended up spending more time at Yentna Station because she had a hard time getting her cooker working.  She wished she had treated herself to a new cooker for the race!  Monica was super glad to learn that the volunteers here at Skwentna had hot water for her!  Her first checkpoint chore was to grab a container of ointment and some leg wraps from her sled and to rub down and wrap a couple of dogs’ legs.  She also gave Moto a shoulder rub and a special jacket. She says that babying his shoulder is how he’s going to get to Nome!  As she gathered her dropbags she joked that she over packed. She said that Tim Osmar’s (her kennel partner) theory was for her to be able to take her twenty four anywhere just in case there was a storm and she got stuck somewhere.  She has realized she forgot her ski pole, but she says she won’t need it for a while, so she will try to pick one up in McGrath.  After her chores were finished she went up to the checkpoint cabin and had some food, got a warm lemon scented washcloth to wash up with, and got some rest.  She got some advice from Danny Seavey, and Iditarod veteran, about going through the Steps section of the trail.  She’s apparently still debating if it’s better to do it during the day or night!  Is it better to see what’s coming or just hold on for the ride?

Danny Seavey has an interesting story that led him to the start line the year.  He was in Florida with his family when he got the call from his dad Mitch that he needed him to come home and run his puppy team.  The musher who was due to run that team, Matt Gilbin, broke his ankle and wouldn’t be able to make the run. The family needed Danny, and so he flew home and went into full training mode, bought some new boots, and here he is!  Back in the race!  It’s been about eight years since his last race, but having the puppy team run this race is an important part of Mitch’s training regime.  The dogs couldn’t just sit this one out!

Things got really busy between 1:30 and 3:00am with teams coming in and out.  The mushers don’t have to sign out with a checker, so you have to keep on your toes to catch a team leaving so that you can accurately record the out times.  It’s actually pretty easy to do.  You just head toward the team that is jumping and screaming and slamming in their harnesses.  They are usually the ones preparing to head out!

The sun rose over the river.  It’s now about 9:00am. There are just four teams left on the river.  Nathan is long gone.  Danny and Monica are feeding their dogs and repacking their sleds.  I’m packed and ready to go.  Just waiting for a plane to take me to my next spot on the trail!